A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Dan Smith is someone to keep an eye on. To celebrate the publication of his latest book for children, My Brother’s Secret, I asked him a few questions:
Germany, 1941. Twelve-year-old Karl Friedman is looking forward to joining the Hitlet Youth, like all boys his age. But when his father is killed, his rebellious older brother Stefan shows him things that leave his faith in The Fuhrer shaken. What does it mean to be a good German? What does it mean to wear the mysterious flower sewn inside his brother’s jacket? Who is the real enemy?
Rachel Ward (RW): My Brother’s Secret is a terrific book set in World War Two Germany. Your first book for children, My Friend the Enemy, was set in World War Two England. What draws you to write about this period, and why did you want to write about children in wartime Germany for your second book?
Dan Smith (DS): A couple of years ago, a memorial was erected in a small village near Newcastle to commemorate the bombing of that village in 1942. It was the village where my great-grandparents lived, and one of the victims of the bombing was their nine year old adopted son, Clive. I suppose that’s what sparked the story for My Friend The Enemy; I started to wonder what life would have been like for Clive. While writing that book, and researching how people felt about ‘the enemy’ I started to wonder what it would have been like to grow up in Germany, and decided to write a second novel, set at exactly the same time about a child the same age, but seeing the war from a different perspective. There will be a third book, too, set at the same time in Ukraine.
RW: Were there any particular challenges in writing a historical thriller, set in another country?
DS: Perhaps the most difficult thing was finding out what it was really like to be a child in wartime Germany. Children were indoctrinated from a very young age, made to feel important and told that they were the future. Young people who rebelled against those ideals – groups like the Edelweiss Pirates – were very secretive because they were afraid of the regime. Their truth is still emerging history and very few remain to tell their stories, so it wasn’t easy finding out much about them.
RW: In your biography you say that growing up you lived three lives – in boarding school, travelling the world, finding adventure in the padi fields of Asia and the jungles of Brazil and in a world of your own, making up stories. Now it seems that you are living two lives as a writer for adults and for children. What do you enjoy about the different types of writing?
DS: The truth is I just love stories, whether they’re for adults or for children, and I don’t make too much of a distinction between the two when I’m writing. Books for adults give me the opportunity to explore more adult themes and relationships, I suppose, but books for younger readers also deal with major themes, and it’s important not to be patronising. One of the things I really love about writing for younger readers, though, is the passion they have for stories. It’s always such a pleasure to visit schools and see their excitement, and there’s nothing better than receiving a letter or email from young reader who’s taken the time to write to me.
RW: You have two books coming out this year – My Brother’s Secret for children/young adults and The Darkest Heart for adults. What’s the key to such productivity? (Can you bottle it? Can I buy some?)
DS: Ha ha! I wish I knew! Actually, this year has been super-busy, because I’ve also written Big Game, which will be published in January next year. I’m really not quite sure how I’ve managed to get it all done, but my head is still spinning and there were times when I could barely string a sentence together.
RW: What is a typical writing day for you?
DS: Well, on a typical day, I get up, take the children to school, come home and start writing. I sit cross-legged on a small sofa in the sitting room, with my macbook perched on my knees and that’s it – apart from regular coffee breaks and hair-tearing, of course. After lunch there’s usually more writing. When things get really busy, though, I fit in a few extra hours by getting up at 5am, and I’ve been known to go all the way through to 9pm without ever looking up . . . my wife and children call it Danworld.
RW: A little chicken told me that you’re working on an extremely exciting project at the moment, writing the novel to accompany a major feature film. Can you tell us more about ‘Big Game’?
DS: I had to keep this secret for quite a long time and I was dying to tell everyone. It’s so good to finally be able to talk about it! A while ago the Brilliant Barry Cunningham sent me a screenplay for a film that was in production, and asked if I’d be interested in turning it into a novel – not a novelisation, but a novel in its own right. Well, I read the script – about an ordinary Finnish boy on a rite of passage in the wilderness who ends up rescuing the president of the United States from terrorists – and loved it. No vampires, no werewolves, no prophecies, no superpowers, no futuristic game shows, just a great adventure and coming of age story. It’s exactly my kind of thing, an almost a perfect blend of my adult and children’s books . . . oh, and Samuel L Jackson is the president in the film, so of course, I jumped at the opportunity. Anyway, the book had to be written in record time, so I put in the hours and managed to get it done, and now rights have been selling like hotcakes – I think we’re on about 15 territories and counting. Needless to say, I have to keep pinching myself.
RW: Wow, thanks, Dan, and best of luck with My Brother’s Secret, The Darkest Heart and Big Game!
Growing up, Dan Smith led three lives. In one he survived the day-to-day humdrum of boarding school, while in another he travelled the world, finding adventure in the padi-fields of South East Asia and the jungles of Brazil. But the third life he lived in a world of his own, making up stories . . . which is where some people say he still lives most of the time!
Now settled in Newcastle with his wife and two children, Dan writes his stories to share with both adults and children.
BOOKS: MY FRIEND THE ENEMY | MY BROTHER’S SECRET
Rachel Ward grew up in Bookham, Surrey. After school she studied Geography at Durham University and combined working for a number of local authorities with raising a family. She began writing in her 30′s, starting out with short stories. One of these short stories formed the first chapter of NUMBERS, which has been published in 26 countries and was the winner of several awards including the Flemish Children and Youth Literature Prize 2011, Angus Book Awards 2010 and the Salisbury Schools Book Award 2012, as well as being shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2009, the Branford Boase Award 2010 and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturepreis 2011.
BOOKS: NUMBERS | THE CHAOS | INFINITY | THE DROWNING | WATER BORN