Martin Waddell - A Child for Forty Years

Rachel Wilson talks to the internationally recognised author of children's books

Winner of numerous awards and author of over 90 children’s books including Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?, Martin Waddell needs little introduction. The Co Down based author took time away from the typewriter to discuss reading, writing and illustrating.

What inspired you to write your latest book, Tiny’s Big Adventure?

I saw a rusty tractor in a field and that started me off. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing for kids to play on?’ but of course you can’t let real children play on a rusty tractor as they’d injure themselves. But you immediately transmute the kid into an animal and so came about Tiny the mouse who goes off to play in the tractor. This is a big adventure and gradually the adventure becomes more difficult: she gets frightened and she has to be rescued by her big sister.

This is often why animals are used in picture books because you can make them do things that you wouldn’t be able to let children do. Also illustrators of picture books find animals much easier to illustrate.  Where you look for inspiration is simply by looking and listening to the people around you. You never know where a story will come from but you’re always looking for them.

Is this going to be the start of a new series of books?

No I don’t usually do series. I’ve done more than two hundred books so my effort now is to make each book markedly different from the previous one.  I’m bringing out two new books at the minute. One is Tiny’s Big Adventure and the other is Room for a Little One, which is a nativity story, and so they are both quite different in setting. You have to reinvent yourself. You die as an artist if you simply do the same thing again and again.

What is your understanding of the importance of reading to young children?

The importance of reading to young children is absolutely crucial because stories are the way that all mankind explains the human condition, particularly for small children who really don’t know what the world’s about. By showing children patterns of the world you’re actually explaining what happens, how people interact with others... You literally open children up by reading to them; you’re telling them about the world as you read...

Can you explain the process of writing a picture book from idea to fruition?

Not really! I have one book of 300 words, which took seven years to complete, and another one called Owl Babies, which was written in about three hours.

My job as a writer is to have a beginning a middle and an end, recognisable characters, recognisable emotions, a chorus, which is a repetitive line that children will pick up on, rhyme, rhythm, alliteration and a big emotional hook in the middle. I’ve got 300 to 400 words to do that in, so it’s actually easier to write a novel!

With a picture book I’ve got to make every word count and then when I’ve written the book and we’ve picked the artist a terrible thing happens because the picture I’ve been building in my head disintegrates and becomes somebody else’s picture. I then have to take my text and re-work it so that the text works with the pictures. The background of the characters and their nature has to be portrayed by the artist, not the writer.

It’s a long, complicated and hugely frustrating process, but a very rewarding one. You’re seeing your dream taken to pieces, put together again and reshaped. The compatibility between words and pictures is absolutely crucial.

Your books have an emphasis on a range of emotions which children can easily identify with. What is it that makes you especially attuned to the young mind?

I don’t pretend to be a Peter Pan but I am alert to small children. I was injured in a bomb in Donaghadee some years ago and consequently couldn’t work, so I ended up looking after my own three sons at home.  I was therefore given a privilege which very few fathers have: the day to day business of looking after the kids. This didn’t feel very much like a privilege at the time but it actually led to the richest vein of my own work. I delve into my own childhood and the childhood of my children all which all took place within 200 yards of my home. I don’t know exactly why I’m alert to small children except to say that I had a very happy childhood and a wonderful period with my own small children.

How has your own childhood influenced your writing?

I come from a very theatrical background of actors and performers, so I was read lots of stories by lots of people. I was an only child; therefore I dreamt a lot. I was brought up surrounded by books, surrounded by story and by people who knew how to read story. I think the love of story just grew in me then and has remained with me ever since. Various things that happened in my childhood have now gone into my books...

What has been your greatest accomplishment as a writer?

My career as a whole has been my biggest accomplishment. All of my books have been written for a reason. Some books that have been critically ignored are terribly important to me. That is why winning the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2004 was such a big thing for me: it celebrated my lifetime of work as a whole. In their different ways, each and every book has been an achievement. I don’t write for literary merit. I write so that the reader will get enormous satisfaction from the book.

You’ve been writing for over forty years. Is writing something you will continue to do long into the future?

As long as it lets me. I hope to write on as I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t write. I’d probably better take a PC down with me in the box—just in case!