A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
If you’d asked me before I started writing for children, I’d have said my themes were no real surprise. Growing up in the 1970s, I was a product of second-wave feminism, so you might expect to find brave, complex females in all my books and (in the adult writing) a fair bit of gender politics.
But when I’d finished The Serpent House, I was taken by surprise by a theme that emerged, unbidden, in my debut novel for 9 to 12-year-olds.
The Jesuits are credited with that phrase about ‘give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’. Let me tell you how childhood influences crept into my writing without me even realising it – and the themes that emerged from this.
I was brought up in a strict Roman Catholic household but I no longer have a religious faith. So with The Serpent House, I planned to write a secular book. Annie’s very religious aunt is portrayed as pinched and resentful and the local minister is pompous. At church on Christmas Day, Annie ‘shivered [her] way joylessly through the carols,’ and the priest ‘droned like a fly woken up mid-winter’. When it comes to religion, my heroine Annie is a doubter.
But because I wrote the novel as part of a Creative Writing PhD, I had to do a lot of reflection on the work and put it in context with others of the historical time-fantasy genre. And as I re-read it with a more analytical eye, something took me by surprise.
The eventual fate of the ‘bad’ characters has something to do with burning in a fire. In an indirect way, Annie’s life is saved by the minister, who forces her to be called back from the past. And – uh-oh – what about all those snakes?
Without meaning to, I have written a book that is teeming with religious imagery and themes of redemption. As a quite determined atheist, when this became clear, I genuinely sat for a few moments with my mouth open. Those themes were not my writerly intention, but I can’t deny they are there.
In my defence, the early medieval world I chose to recreate was also obsessed with religion and some of its more frightening myths and images. So it would have been hard to avoid altogether. But the ways in which the themes emerged in my own writing were entirely unconscious.
I’m happy to report, though, that some of my favoured themes were also there. Like all time-travellers, Annie learns a life lesson – and it is to say no and to rebel. She emerges stronger for her experiences, as the women in my adult novels also do.
It’s certainly true that characters sometimes do their own thing, regardless of the author’s original intentions. I’d love to know if you have also found that unexpected themes emerge – whether you want them to or not?
Bea Davenport is the writing name of former newspaper and BBC journalist Barbara Henderson. The Serpent House, a historical time fantasy was published by Curious Fox in June 2014. Her next novel for adults, This Little Piggy, is published by Legend Press on October 1st. She lives in Berwick upon Tweed with her partner and children.