The Book That Made Me: Catherine Rayner

Published on: 16 June 2020

When the author Catherine Rayner was four, she was given a copy of Jill Barklem's The Secret Staircase - and it might just have changed everything! She tells us why in the latest edition of The Book That Made Me...

The front cover of The Secret Staircase and author Catherine Rayner

When I was four, I was given a book by one of my mother's closest friends. It was the first book that made me not only love the words and the pictures, but also a book as an object.

The book itself was a secret world. It had a hard cover and even a dust jacket with a hidden cover underneath. The pictures depicted a tiny world that could easily be in any country corner or hedge - you just had to look for it carefully.

My imagination went wild when I read that book and I took it everywhere. There was so much detail in every inch of every page - you couldn't get bored of an illustration as it felt like there was always something new to see. I didn't notice exactly how the characters were drawn at the time. I just knew there was something about every aspect of the new book that I loved - particularly the illustrations.

The Secret Staircase is still one of the books I mention when I'm asked by people what inspires me. I can still pore over those pages in the same way, and I still get a little bubble of excitement. The characters, who are mice, are so busy I feel like they don't even notice the reader is there. They bustle about in their huge tree trunk, where they have carved out dozens of tiny little rooms, and secret staircases(!), some of which have locked doors and their own secrets.

Wouldn't it be amazing if there were actually houses like this in tree trunks? I'd love that (surely this has to be true?!)

Being inspired by The Secret Staircase

While I don't think that my work is visually comparable to Jill Barklem's, her weight of line, love for nature and passion for making a good book have infected me.

Shortly after I received The Secret Staircase, I started to write little stories about the animals I knew: our dachshund called Wilfred, Hamish the rabbit, and various guinea pigs, hamsters and fish we had the pleasure of owning. They always had a 'lift the flap' element and they were carefully constructed with a sturdy cover and plenty of sellotape to make them look 'professional' (real books were made on shiny paper back then, so sellotape did the job).

Obviously they contained full colour felt tip pen illustrations, and all of the animals had plenty of whiskers (I still love to draw whiskers now). My mum has kept them all.

It's funny to think that I still make little books in exactly the same way now, when I'm planning a book for publication. They are roughly the same size as those first homemade books and still mainly held together with sellotape! My dummy books help me to make sure that every page turn works, the structure of the book is satisfying, and there is a surprise for the reader as they move through the book. It's all very well having it all on a screen, or on bits of paper, but it's the feel of the page turn and how your new illustration is revealed which needs to really work for me.

I wonder if my career would have taken a different turn if it hadn't been for the The Secret Staircase... needless to say, I'm very grateful to that book.

Arlo the Lion Who Wouldn't Sleep by Catherine Rayner is published by Macmillan Children's Books on 20 August.

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