Andy Stanton: Why I wrote the heartfelt When I Was A Child

Published on: 28 March 2019 Author: Andy Stanton

Andy Stanton is known for his hilarious Mr Gum books. So what made him decide to write something a bit different – a beautiful picture book that brings the nostalgia of childhood alive?

In case, by some perfectly reasonable chance, you have never encountered my work, I’m the guy who writes the Mr Gum books, which have been variously described as: Monty Python meets Roald Dahl; utterly anarchic; James Joyce for children; and ‘a waste of paper.’ (Point of interest regarding this last: After a while you stop reading your Amazon reviews. It’s the only way to stay sane.)

I’ve also published picture books for younger children. The first one was called Here Comes the Poo Bus! and chronicles the adventures of Uncle Toad and his hapless insect passengers. To this day I maintain it is the only book for four-year-olds which features graphic decapitation of its supporting cast. (Point of interest: Here Comes the Poo Bus! rather divided opinion amongst its readers.)

Butterfly-and-daffodil ice cream

A few years ago, I wrote something a bit different. It was a half-finished poem, which began:

Back in the summer before you were born,
When the world was a rose’s dream
There was butterfly-and-daffodil ice cream

There was nothing grotesque, comical or outrageous about it. It was just a quiet conversation between a grandmother and her granddaughter, Emily. It was, I hoped, understated and reflective. I didn’t know exactly where it was going but I thought it was interesting.

To that end, I showed it to a couple of editors at different publishing houses. Both times I drew a blank. Thanks for showing us this. It’s nice but – well, it’s not really what you do, is it, Andy? You write funny books, Andy. Write something funny.

The thing is, though, I don’t always feel like writing something funny. Sometimes I feel like writing something sad, or serious, or gentle. Even in a world as surreal as the one in which the Mr Gum books are set, comedy is just one tool. Without characters your readers can care about, funny gets tiresome pretty quickly. Without emotional stakes, it’s just so much noise.

Maybe the word I’m looking for here is heart. I always try to write with heart, and I think that’s the secret of Mr Gum’s success. But it seemed that when I wrote something that was all heart, without the crazy, silly stuff to disguise it, no one was all that interested. So I forgot about my strange little poem for a while. It was just another file on my computer, in the folder called "Various Interesting Starts".

Kaleidoscopic and magical

Spread from When I Was a Child, illustrated by David Litchfield

And then, on a hunch, I showed it to Anne McNeil at Hachette Children’s Books. Anne’s a bit of a legend in the world of children’s publishing. She’s a force of nature, a sort of cross between Professor Dumbledore and a Sherman tank. She doesn’t really worry about what people "should" or "shouldn’t" be writing so I figured it would be worth showing her this thing. Anne took one look and said, ‘You have to finish this. We have to make it into a picture book.’

I don’t want to analyse what’s going on in the poem that eventually became When I Was a Child (illustrated by David Litchfield). I’ll just say that Anne saw I was trying to try something different, and I’m immensely grateful that she wanted to help me get it out there.  Despite it not being the sort of thing that I was "supposed" to write, it was definitely the thing that I needed to write. It’s a very personal book for me so… Yeah, I think I’ll just shut up about that and hide in the spaces between the lines.

Let’s talk about David Litchfield instead. Hopefully you’re reading this accompanied by one or two of his illustrations. (If you haven’t seen his other stuff, go and find that too. Judging from his books, he’s got a heart as big as a whale.)

I was wondering how anyone would even begin to approach illustrating my story but David ran with it and turned it into something kaleidoscopic, beautiful and magical. I’m a lucky kid.

Surprises still in the tank

Well, there you go, folks. That’s all I have to say about the book.

I hope you like it and that it makes you think about the things I want it to make you think about but don’t want to say outright. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work. I’ve got a bunch of funny stuff I have to write – and hopefully a few more surprises in the tank.

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