Writers read. Right now, for instance, Tony Bradman – writer of more than 200 children’s books, from reworkings of Norse sagas to board books for very young children – is half-way through a novel by Pat Barker.
‘And I’m bringing everything to it,’ he says. ‘Everything I know. First, because I have to, because she’s good. Also because I can. Because 30 years of writing fiction for children teaches you a very great deal about fiction. It’s the broadest training I can think of. You find yourself tipping into all kinds of writing, from plays and movies to poetry to fantasy to the most rigorous kinds of realism.’
Tony is teaching on our forthcoming course in children’s writing, sharing the workload with the Curtis Brown agency’s resident expert in children’s literature, the agent Stephanie Thwaites. The course is for people who have embarked on a novel for children over the age of eight.
Tony’s keen to point out that this was a practical decision, not philosophical one – and, as we talk on the phone about CBC’s upcoming course, we find ourselves sliding off into discussions about picture books, board books, school readers and all the other things children’s literature can be.
Movies, for example. ‘Picture books are extraordinary art forms in themselves,’ Tony says. ‘Frankly, they’re bloody difficult, and a lot of them are bad. You can say the same about movies, and for much the same reason: everything – every word, every line, every patch of colour – has to pull its weight.’
Economy is everything: perhaps that is why writers for children, like writers for the movies, incline towards myth. ‘Part of it is to do with picking the salient detail,’ Tony explains, ‘the thing that will make a world come alive. That’s hard to do in the contemporary world, and even if you’re a fan of the David Foster Wallace pile-up-everything approach – and I have to admit, I’m not – you have to remember that children aren’t going to have the patience for it. You have to bring your world alive with a touch, an off-hand remark, a fleeting image. Myths do that. Myths, and Jacobean tragedies.’
When I suggest that these are rather dark sources to draw on, Tony laughs. ‘No, no. These stories are reassuring! To be told that life is hard, that bad things will happen and that sometimes, people who love you will not like you very much – saying this takes a terrible burden off our shoulders. It gives us permission to make mistakes, to mess up, to take some knocks and still like ourselves at the end of the day. And, look, if you constantly say to a kid the world is a good place, they can only blame themselves when things go wrong.’
It’s an approach to children’s fiction that Tony finds echoed in the work of Anne Fine. ‘It impresses me greatly how well she conveys how bloody difficult family life can be; how we can love each other and hate in other in the same moment.’
Tony’s own approach is rather more masculine. ‘There is something ineffably cool about Vikings,’ he admits. ‘These are the guys who know they’re doomed. They believe in predestination, and so they figure: we may as well just go for it.’
Of his recent novel Viking Boy, Bradman says: ‘It was a vanity project, written purely for my own enjoyment. At the same time, it played to all the strengths I find in children’s fiction: it’s about vendetta, honour, status, property and having furious rows with your mates. That’s a very masculine way of putting things but, really, the ingredients are universal. They’re the stuff of life.’
Even with what he over-modestly dubs a ‘vanity project’, Tony cannot set aside what his readers need for a second. ‘I respect and enjoy writers who build works of art and wait for audiences to come upon them,’ he says. ‘But that’s not how I work, and I think there is a greatness in stories that connect with people. The point is to identify what’s essential about what it is you do, and stick to it. Forgetting who you are is the problem. In fact, forgetting who you are will kill you stone dead.’
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