'Having animals as characters gives you freedom': The story of Armadillo and Hare
Published on: 20 December 2018 Author: Jeremy Strong
Jeremy Strong has always loved stories about animals... but it turns out the stars of his new book Armadillo and Hare might be more like him than he first realised...
We know that writing can be beneficial for one's mind and body, but creating Armadillo and Hare not only detoxified me spiritually and physically, it also made me feel nearly 50 years younger. Now, while you are still gasping at the thought that I must therefore be older than 50, I shall explain...
I set out to 'be a writer' when I was about 20 or so. The first stories I penned were about a badger and a weasel called Fumblegruddle and Gretchweed. Sadly, nobody was impressed with these efforts - not even me, if I'm honest. They needed work - a lot of work - and so they became history. It's possible that the manuscripts are still in the attic somewhere; I don't know. But I do know that writing about a group of animals was the first effort I made at getting into print.
Stories about animals were staples for me as a child. I realise I should have 'passed through' infancy into adulthood, but it seems only my body did that, not my mind... hence my profession! In fact, just recently a 6-year-old child asked me, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' Shameful, isn't it? She saw right through me.
Anyway, I loved reading about animals and much of this material came my way at Christmas. Books were always under the tree somewhere. Most of my favourites were animal stories: Winkie the Grey Squirrel, a fabulous picture story; The Long Grass Whispers, a collection of African animal and folk tales; Jock of the Bushveldt, about a brave dog; Just So Stories (which is still a big favourite - the language!); Tarka the Otter; My Family and Other Animals, and so on. And then came Fumblegruddle and Gretchweed.
But whilst the first story I managed to get published was about an animal - Smith's Tail, about a cat with a very long tail - I only began to make some kind of mark with stories about children and daft pirates and tales about school. Then I wrote The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog. It won the Children's Book Award the year before Harry Potter did the same - thank you, J.K., for not publishing your book a year earlier! The Hundred-Mile-An-Hour Dog put me on the map, so to speak, but still I was mostly writing about people and real life situations.
Why animals are such good characters to write about
Illustration: Rebecca Bagley
Time passed and I began to think once again about a small group of animals. Having animals as characters gives you more freedom as a writer - you don't have to worry about causing offence or being thought of as an -ist or a -phobe of some variety.
I began writing about a group, but for one reason or another the stories died. Then one day I realised that the stories didn't work because of the way I was writing them and because the material simply didn't grab me either.
I began again. I wanted to write about animals from different continents, animals that you would not normally find together. I needed two of them to star and hold the front of the stage. I also wanted the writing to be unlike my usual comic-strip sprawl of chaos and action. I wanted 'slow' stories which had some space to breathe.
Why I chose an armadillo and a hare...
I've always loved armadillos and hares. There is something comical and earthy about armadillos and something whimsical and semi-magical about hares. As soon as I began writing, they were there, my companions, and the stories quickly grew. Above all, I felt very comfortable with them. They indulge their own fancies, whether it's cheese or bicycle acrobatics, but they don't force themselves on each other or insist that they should all be the same. Lobster is quite happy to dance with Giraffe.
I was talking about the new book to a friend recently. I had read two or three of the stories to him, trying them out loud. Afterwards, I mentioned that it struck me that in some ways Armadillo and Hare were two aspects of myself. My friend stared at me wide-eyed and said, 'Seriously, has that really only just occurred to you?'
Writing these stories took me right back to when I penned Fumblegruddle and Gretchweed. You could say that those two were Armadillo's and Hare's grandparents.
So there we are. It's interesting to hear what other people read into your stories. It's often something different from what you thought you were saying, a bit like Armadillo and Hare's conversations. I just hope that children and adults will enjoy these stories. I have started on a second collection and once again I have plunged into the odd but hopefully warm, comforting and familiar world of Armadillo and Hare. I wonder if Armadillo will have cheese for Christmas?
Armadillo and Hare by Jeremy Strong and illustrated by Rebecca Bagley is out now from David Fickling Books.