Frank Cottrell Boyce on why reading for pleasure is the most important thing you can pass on to a child
The ever-affable and down right amazing Frank Cottrell Boyce spoke to us about his new book Runaway Robot, the joys of writing for children, and children's books vs film adaptations.
Tell us about your new book Runaway Robot?
It was inspired by a real robot called Eric that was built in the 1920s. It wasn't really a robot, it was more of an automaton, but it was incredibly famous. It could stand up and it even made a speech. It was made to replace the Duke of York when he couldn't turn up at a science fair. He was incredibly impressive, sparks came out of his eyes, he toured the world and everyone wanted to meet him. Then he vanished! So the book is to find our what happened to Eric, where did he disappear to?
Should people judge a book by its cover and do you?
Oscar Wilde said you should ALWAYs judge a book by its cover and you can certainly judge mine by its cover because Steve Lenton's covers are brilliant. I don't deserve them!
Tell us a bit about your World Book Day special book Great Rocket Robbery, a delightful tale told by Barker about (or Laika) the first dog in space!
So I was obsessed with Laika who was the first creature on this planet to go into space, the first to see the world from space, the first to see the curvature of the world. She sadly died and I've always found that quite hard that she died. I wanted to imagine a happier ending for Laika. What would happen if she'd met aliens? If aliens found a little dog in a spaceship, they'd assume the dog built the spaceship and they'd assume dogs were the dominant species on the planet. And it would be right! You know humans are just there to feed dogs and throw things for dogs and pick up their pooh. There's something really moving about those space dogs, there were lots of them and they tried lots of rockets out on them. They were all female, they were all stray dogs because the scientists thought stray dogs would have the endurance skills to deal with the extremity of space. So there's something sad and wistful and at the same time a bit funny about these raggamuffin dogs in these amazing rockets.
It seems like you often stimulated by things have happened or nuggets that you find in real life, how do your stories and ideas come to you?
I really like to base stories on the little gaps in history and reality. If you can imagine Diagon Alley in London, a magic street off a real street. So I love to look at gaps in the story. So what really happened to Laika? what really happened to Eric? and make up something that fits in there.
Do you have multiple stories flying around your head at the same time?
I definitely only work on one book at the same time. I find writing quite difficult and it's quite a slow process for me and what does happen if you're working on a book for a long time quite a few ideas come into it. And you start thinking, that could have been a separate book really, but it's good that it's just a gag or a chapter in a different book.
Do you have a favourite book of the ones you've written or a character you love above all others?
I kind of fall in love with quite a lot of my characters. I really love Minnie who was a character in Framed, the little sister who's an aficionado of crime. She's the one who encourages her brother to go and steal the world's most expensive painting. And he comes to rely on her, what do we do with it now? She's like: I don't know, I'm a little girl! I kind of love the cheek and the creativity of her.
Can you remember learning how to read?
I do. I learnt to read in school using the Wide Range Readers and I was really slow. I now know that's because I was very young in my year, but I found it a real struggle and I thirsted to read the books that were further up the tree because I could see other kids reading better books than me. So learning to read was quite a painful process to be honest with you.
What kind of books did you love to read when you were a child?
The first book I independently read was a big encyclopedia of animals published by Paul Hamlyn. I'd love to get another copy of it. What was magical about it was the paper was really thin, I guess it was quite a cheap book, but it had loads of pictures. Because the paper was so thin you were constantly turning over several pages at once without knowing it. So for months and months I'd be finding new pages I'd never seen before. Ooooh I didn't know about the Bandicoot, nobody mentioned that before! It was fantastic! That was enchanted and magical. From the point of view of story I guess the first book that possessed me was the Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. I loved everything about it.
How much do you think your own childhood reading influenced what you've done as an adult?
My childhood reading completely informed everything I did and do as an adult. Not just as an author as a human being. The thing I took from my childhood reading, which I would really like to think that I was giving on to other people, is an awareness of small pleasures that I think loads of children's books are really good at. I guess that's because they're pre-sex so for example food in the Narnia books or the Just William books, that awareness of the little joys of life that will get you through the worst times.
In particular that's true of the Moomin books. The Moomin books were about a big family who were all different species, they hibernated, they all ate different food, the hero is Moomin Mama. I've got a big family, when they were teenagers they all hibernated and they all ate different food. I was really aware at that table of the pleasure of being with those people. This thing that might seem like a hassle is actually a joy, and I think I might have got that from Tove Jansson above anyone else. And I'll never stop thanking her for that.
You're a screenwriter as well as an author of books, how do the two complement each other in children's lives?
I write films and books and I still love writing films, but it's very hard to balance and make that work together in my working life. As an audience, in children's lives... a really good film of a book can kill a book. I don't think anybody reads Mary Poppins any more because the film was good enough. If the film flops then the book can still live a little bit! It's such a lot to think about. I hate it when you go to a school that's using a film to accelerate kids through reading a book.
A film is a completely different experience, they're both potentially brilliant pieces of storytelling, but they're very different pieces of storytelling. You relate to them in a very different way. A book is a very personal thing, especially if you love a book then you own it in a way that you'll never own a film. It will never be 'your' movie the way that a book can be 'your' book. We relate to them in a very different way and I'm painfully aware that the way a book tells a story is very different from the way a film tells a story.
At the moment I'm working on an adaptation of my book Sputnik's Guide to Life for Dreamworks and the level of work and skill in making the film is humbling, but it's very different. It's very much less personal, less lumpy and less amateurish than the book. Books can be a bit amateurish because you're doing it on your own. But there's something cherishable about that and it will be full of detail that a film won't be full of. Those are thing that make it treasurable on personal level. So I think film and books are both legitimate and fantastically full of potential.
Should you always read the book before you watch the film?
I don't really know whether that's true. For instance, and this might sound ridiculous, but in a lot of ways the movies of The Lord of the Rings are better than the books in some senses. The turgid description in Tolkien's books becomes design and that's brilliant. It amazes you that Tolkien had that in his head, that whole world making ability in his head, that can seem quite dry if you're reading it. If you watch the film you might be alerted to how brilliant that really is, whereas as a reader you might not be. Lots of films are improvements on books! The Wizard of Oz is in a different league from the books. So much better. But if you came to the book after seeing the film you'd have a kind of map of what is good about it!
What's the point of reading for pleasure?
Oh my god don't get me started! I think reading for pleasure is the most important thing you can pass on because it so fortifies you as an adult. Nothing to do with education, nothing to do with being creative but to do with being ALIVE! I think the ability to read for pleasure, to concentrate for long periods of time, the knowledge it gives you, being able to leave the world for a little bit and how to share that with other people. These are deep, deep joys. I think we get mixed up. I think the word pleasure is a problem, especially for British people with their protestant heritage.
Pleasure can have bad connotations, as though pleasure is distraction. But pleasure is a deep form of thinking. Pleasure is a profound form of concentration. Pleasure is putting something in your brain maybe for your entire life and you will bring over the course of your life different things to bear on it, nostalgia, love and all these different things and nobody knows where it will come out. You read a book for pleasure as a kid and it could come out when you're 50 as a bridge, or a new type of bread. You don't know what it's going to be. These things stay in your mind for a long time, and enrich the landscape of your mind. When you're grown up they could come out as an ability to get through a crisis, a way to get through when your child is sick or a way to solve a problem in engineering.
I'm going to go back to Eric the Robot! That's not a robot! That's a pretend robot, but nobody would ever have built a real robot if we hadn't been playing at making robots. He was driven by motors, he was worked by buttons and someone was speaking through him but the vision of being able to do something like that comes out of the potential of playing with it and I think that's what stories do. They give you the amazing potential ideas that you can make come true in later life.
How important is the role of children's books to explore fear, peril, loss and difficult emotions?
One of the reasons I love writing children's books is that children's books only deal with the important stuff. I read lots of adult books that I really enjoy, and they have a surface darkness and surface intellectualism but underneath there's nothing much going on. They can be about quite trivial things really but spoken in a very profound way. Children's books are the opposite. All children's books are about death. All about what is a human? What is life for? They all ask the big, big questions and that's the what's attractive to me about children's books and that is what's powerful about them when you're growing up.
You revert to them, they have the maps of what it is to be a person come from children's books. You barely meet a woman of a certain age who doesn't decide who she is by which one of the March sisters she identifies with or loads of people thinking about the anatomy of what they are by looking at the anatomy of the 100 Acre Wood. Are you a Hefferlump, are you a Tigger? Are you Pooh? Are you Piglet? For me the Wizard of Earthsea was definitely like that. It's about two different ways of knowing stuff and it felt when I was reading that book I was at some moral crossroads of my life.
Your own books always have a positive message, a feeling of ordinary kids thriving, overcoming adversity with heart and humour - how important is it for you that children feel good after reading your books?
The project for me is to notice things and work out that life is good. Partly that's my temperament and what I like reading and writing and partly because I worry that we've gone through this period of dystopia. I worry that's moved the definition of normal to quite a dark place. So when politicians do terrible things we go, well, that's what President Snow was like, so why wouldn't they? Not that The Hunger Games isn't a brilliant book but I kind of think there's also a place for someone saying life should be better than this! And you can do better than this.
I feel very hopeful about young people. We've just had this incident in London where our politicians were locked in parliament tearing lumps off each other about identity politics in order to basically renegotiate a trade treaty while outside young people were demonstrating about climate change. So the young people had a perspective on something HUGE and solvable and crucial and important; whereas the adults were were in meltdown about who's in who's gang.