London

Lyn Gardner: An Interview

 

Although my first thought when hearing the name Lyn Gardner is that of Lyn’s role as theatre critic of The Guardian, the children in my library (and home) all know of her as a writer of children’s books, who tells brilliantly dashing adventure/mystery stories linked to the theatre. Firstly, with the hugely popular Olivia series, and now with her Rose Campion Victorian era novels. So, after featuring Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone as my book of the week, I was delighted to be afforded the chance to ask Lyn some questions.

The Rose Campion series marries love for theatre with the Victorian era. Can you explain why you picked this historical period?

It was the golden age of music hall, a period that produced stars such as Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Dan Leno, Little Tich, people who at the height of their fame would be performing at a network of halls and theatres across the country. Every city, and even big town, had its music halls. London was stuffed with them. The stars were the celebrities of their day and the most successful among them were huge earners. At the height of her fame, Marie Lloyd could command almost £1,000 a week, which was a fortune.

The music hall was a way out of poverty for many. Vesta Tilly was just one who made her family’s fortune by performing as a child. In Rose Campion and the Stolen Secret, the first book in the series, when Campion’s is in desperate straits and failing to attract an audience, Thomas Campion employs Aurora, otherwise known as the Infant Phenomenon. Such child performers were hugely popular.

The story packs so much into one book: foundlings, thievery, Holloway prison, and of course magicians and the bullet trick. What research did you do in order to write the novel?

I’m not a historian, and this is a work of fiction not fact. I’ve taken some liberties, particularly around the justice system and the way it operated. But I did want to write a novel that genuinely gives a sense of the sights and smells of Victorian London, and what it would be like to live there. Also what it would be like to be a working child during that period.

Of course I did some research and read books about the period, but I reckon that it’s easy to get bogged down in research and forget that you are trying to write a really rollicking good mystery story. So I tend to write and then check afterwards. I was fascinated by the bullet trick as a child, and when I was writing Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone I was determined to incorporate it into the action.

A main theme running through the Curse of the Doomstone is what’s seen and unseen – trickery of magicians and thieves, and being observant. Is this something you’ve picked up from years of watching theatre productions as The Guardian’s theatre critic?

I don’t think I am a particularly observant person. What happens in theatre a lot of the time is exactly what happens in a magic show: the audience is directed to look at one thing that is happening so they don’t see something else that is also taking place.

It’s all part of the suspension of disbelief that makes us fall through theatre’s rabbit hole into a new world, even though we know that it is only actors on a stage playing a role. Of course if you go to the theatre as much as I do, you start noticing the way a show works, and its mechanics, but even when you do know, I’m interested in the way you still succumb to the magic.

The theme also allows for lots of exploration of identity and the way people present themselves to the world: how they appear and how they really are, those everyday deceptions that we all practise to some degree.

In Curse of the Doomstone these become magnified as people pretend to be something they are not or—like Rose—are trying to find out who they are. Or in the case of Aurora, trying to adjust to the fact that she is not the person she thought that she was, and if she is going to be happy she needs to learn how to straddle two very different worlds.

The book highlights the class divide that separates theatre goers into different theatres/areas of London. Do you think a class divide still exists in theatre?

Theatre certainly has a problem with diversity. It is easier to become a theatre-maker today if you come from a background where there was enough money for theatre trips, and if you have parents who help you get a good education and can support you in the early stages of your career. So yes, I do think that class is an issue in theatre not just in terms of theatre-goers, but also around who makes theatre.

One of the things that spurred me to set the story in a music hall was that while the late Victorian era was one of rigid class divides, the music hall was a place where rich and poor rubbed shoulders together. That was true for the performers as well as the audience, which lends itself to fluid social situations and some very vivid characters.

I was interested in writing a novel set in a music hall in the late Victorian period because I wanted to write a book that was full of the joy of performance, but which doesn’t shirk the realities of Victorian life. From the pea-soupers, to the fact that the streets were full of horse dung, that thousands of children lived on the streets, that landlords took advantage and charged high rents for appalling housing, and life could be short and brutal for those at the bottom of the pile. In fact very much like life is today in the UK (one of the richest nations in the world), if you are one of the 3.7 million children living in poverty.

But I hope that it’s also a book full of warmth and laughter that reminds us how much the Victorian music hall has influenced popular entertainment today. The annual pantomime in your local theatre, and TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, are the direct descendants of the music hall. So while the period I’m writing about may seem very long ago, there may be more connections and parallels than immediately meet the eye.

And more generally, is there a play that you would say is essential viewing for children?

There is so much brilliant work out there from big musicals such as The Lion King or Matilda, to small scale shows made for the very young, including babies. Reading fires the imagination and so does theatre.

What is your favourite children’s book?

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s so psychologically accurate. Whenever I read it, it takes me straight back to the feelings of rage and impotence I had as a small child when I was thwarted by my parents or had behaved badly, and I imagined ways of exerting power. Such a brilliant, brilliant book.

There have been some brilliant stories adapted recently for the London stage – Lord of the Flies, Running Wild, Treasure Island. Is there any children’s book in particular that you would like to see adapted for the stage?

There are so many great books out there. But what I would really be interested in seeing is more original plays for children and young people, rather than page to stage adaptations.

What is your favourite play? Or best production you’ve ever seen?

That changes all the time.

With huge thanks to Lyn Gardner for taking the time to answer my questions. You can buy the latest Rose Campion novel here

Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone by Lyn Gardner

This is one of those inherently pleasing children’s books, which, through carefully planted attention to historical detail, whisks the reader into another world. The series is set in the Victorian music halls and theatres of London, and is rather like a mashup of Noel Streatfield and Murder Most UnLadylike, with a lick of Dickens.

Rose Campion (named by the author rather wonderfully, after a hardy plant with magenta flowers) is a foundling – left romantically on the steps of Campion’s music hall. Her world is one of taking theatre trips, performing an act on the music hall stage herself, and consorting with her two steadfast friends, Effie and Aurora.

This second book in the series opens with the appearance of a new act at Campion’s Music Hall, the magician Gandini. He performs magical tricks with appearing doves and disappearing watches, and most magnificently attempts the bullet trick (for any of those who recently watched David Blaine, you’ll know all about it). However, as with any trickery and sleight of hand, all is not as it seems.

When Lydia, actress and new doyenne of society, comes to watch Gandini, wearing the famous blue doomstone diamond, and it is stolen from her neck in the middle of Gandini’s act, Rose and her friends must race to work out who is the culprit before more blood is spilled.

Gardner’s prose is dense but vivid, detailed and transportative. From incidental details such as the delight of penny ices or the murkiness of the Thames, she also describes the opulence of the West End theatres and juxtaposes it with the dinginess of backstreet Victorian London.

In fact, this is one of the highlights of the text – the acute differences between the classes in Victorian society – those thrown into Holloway prison and the arguments for reform – and those in high class society attending the theatre, to be seen rather than to see the play.

Much is made of the similarities between the sleight of hand used by magicians and theatrical performers, and that used by thieves and pickpockets, as well as how important it is to pay attention rather than be distracted. Throughout, the reader follows the clever, but sometimes misguided, observations of the protagonist, Rose, and like her, the reader will try to decipher the twists and turns, red herrings and clues. The reader is very much in thrall to the mystery up until the end.

Despite being a foundling, irrepressible Rose finds a substitute family in the theatre and her friends around her – this is a female-dominated tale with feisty, quick-witted women and girls, who aren’t all always on the side of good.

Mainly because of Gandini, this book reminded me of The Girl Who Walked on Air by Emma Carroll – another absolute winner for this age group. Fabulously, Rose Campion and the Curse of the Doomstone belongs to a whole series – so there’ll be more to come. Bravo!

For confident readers aged 9 and over. You can buy a copy here.

Rowan Oakwing and Children’s Literature in London: a guest post by EJ Clarke

Rowan Oakwing fluttered through my door during the summer. With the picture of the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament in the background, I knew this would be a book firmly rooted in a London setting. And I was not wrong. I always knew there was magic in London’s parks – those breaths of fresh air and greenery in the heart of a busy, bustling city, but EJ Clarke makes them come alive, as inside each park he has set the homes of tiny, winged creatures. When Rowan, an ordinary girl, cries herself to sleep in Hyde Park, she wakes up to find that she’s been transformed into a fairy. Her new size may be tiny, but Rowan is a fierce, feisty heroine and she takes on her quest to find her missing parent and rejoin the human world with strength and determination. This girl has grit! 

With a setting that’s tangible, a host of admirable characters facing the danger of roaming urban foxes and malicious fairies, as well as a dash of nature and magic, this is a tightly-plotted read. Reminiscent of the flying fairies of Peter Pan, and the ‘Wizard of Oz‘ feeling of wishing to go home, Rowan Oakwing brings fairies into contemporary London. EJ Clarke has kindly shared with us his own recommendations for a children’s literary London adventure.

rowan-oakwingrowan-oakwing-postcard-sep16

Every day I arrive at Kings Cross on my way to work and pass by ‘Platform 9¾’. No matter what time of day it is, there always seems to be a large queue of Harry Potter fans waiting to have their picture taken pushing their luggage trolley ‘through’ the wall.

This of course speaks to the enduring appeal of Potter, but also to one of the aspects of JK Rowling’s fabulous series that always grabbed me personally.

Namely that the world of Harry Potter is not a remote fantasy universe that has no connection with our own, but rather it exists in parallel, accessible from one of London’s busiest train stations, if you only know the right way in.

As Platform 9¾ shows, there’s nothing more delicious for a mind in thrall to a book than to be able to physically stand in the place where your hero has stood and project yourself into their story.

When I was writing my first children’s novel, Rowan Oakwing – a story where an ordinary girl becomes a fairy in Hyde Park and has to make a perilous journey across London – I knew I wanted all the locations that my heroine visits to be places you could go to in real life. Because whilst fantasy can transport you to whole other universes, it’s all the more exciting to know that magic could exist right beneath your feet if only you know where to look.

London itself provided me with inspiration, but so too have many wonderful children’s books that all lend a sense of the magical to our capital city. Here’s my top ten pieces of London-set children’s literature:

peter-pan

  1. Peter Pan and Wendy by JM Barrie. In earlier incarnations, Peter Pan meets the fairies of Kensington Gardens (where a statue of him stands today), but this is the classic version of his story where Wendy Darling begins her adventure to Neverland from her family home in Bloomsbury.

mary-poppins

  1. Mary Poppins by PL Travers. Though 17 Cherry Tree Lane where Mr & Mrs Banks live is an entirely fictional address, the series of novels and iconic film that resulted again use London as a springboard into a magical imaginary world.

paddington

  1. A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond. Before Platform 9¾ was even a twinkle in JK Rowling’s eye, a homeless talking bear was made synonymous with another of London’s grand railway stations.

harry-potter-philosopher

  1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. Kings Cross provides the iconic portal into Rowling’s world of magic, but the Potter series effortlessly weave the extraordinary into the fabric of London. Not least my favourite, Diagon Alley, accessed through the ‘Leaky Cauldron’ pub on Charing Cross Road.

the-wombles

  1. The Wombles by Elizabeth Beresford. So named because the author’s daughter mispronounced Wimbledon Common, all the eco aware creatures living secretly in a London park were inspired by members of Beresford’s own family.

the-borribles

  1. The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti. A YA adventure that is the dark mirror to The Wombles, the elfin-eared Borribles live in Battersea Park and have to undertake a dangerous journey across London to defeat their enemies, the Rumbles.

bfg

  1. The BFG by Roald Dahl. In which Sophie’s imaginative plan to defeat the BFG’s tormentors is to enlist the help of the Queen herself, by bringing the giant BFG to meet her at Buckingham Palace.

ruby-in-the-smoke

  1. The Ruby in the Smoke by Phillip Pullman. Whilst the fabulous His Dark Materials trilogy contains scenes in London, it’s hard to claim the books for the capital when they are so steeped in all things Oxford. Not so The Ruby in the Smoke however, where another strong female protagonist goes on an adventure in Victorian London to search for clues to her father’s mysterious death.

phoenix

  1. The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit. Edwardian London this time, as five children living in Camden find a talking Phoenix in a magic carpet that takes them on many adventures, including one memorable scene where the Phoenix accidentally sets fire to the Garrick Theatre during a production of The Water Babies.

ballet-shoes

  1. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield. The three adopted heroines live on the Cromwell Road in the Kensington of the 1930s, from where they often venture out to look at the dolls houses at the V&A. But this is not a book to put little girls in their place. Instead it’s very much an inspirational story about finding your vocation, which is exactly what the girls do at the ‘Children’s Academy’ near Russell Square.

With thanks to EJ Clarke for his enlightening and inspiring London post. Perhaps during half term you might partake in your own literary tour. In the meantime, you can buy Rowan Oakwing here

Time for Jas by Natasha Farrant

time-for-jas

The fourth and last in the Bluebell Gadsby series, and for anyone who has lived and loved the cavorting adventures of Bluebell and her clan of siblings and hangers-on, this read will be tinged with sadness. Like a slightly older Pea from the Pea books by Susie Day, and a younger and more modern Cazelet clan, the Gadsbys are one of those storybook messy families, with an abundance of siblings and extra add-on quirky characters who interact with the main family and help them to learn and to grow.

Bluebell Gadsby burst onto the scene in 2013 in After Iris, a tale that joined the family a few years after Bluebell’s twin, Iris, had died in an accident. Despite the graveness of the subject matter, it was, and still remains, a light and easy read – a constant flow of emotion and busyness that is the modern family.

So now to 2016, and the arrival of Time for Jas. As with the others in the series, Bluebell tells the continuation of her family dramas partly through normal narrative and partly using video transcript – Bluebell having a penchant and flair for filming and documenting things around her. This dual style adds a great deal to the drama – at moments, allowing the reader to step back and see the setting from a wider viewpoint. But it also gives Bluebell (our protagonist) the unique opportunity to see things from a slightly distilled viewpoint, distancing herself from the action of the story, and perhaps editing things to a perspective she prefers, or zooming in and seeing a particular episode in close-up detail. It’s a powerful and clever way to tell a story in a book for young people.

The title, Time for Jas, suggests that the action has moved to focus upon little sister Jas, the only sibling still at primary school. Actually although it does pinpoint Jas’s struggle to find friends and her experience of bullying, the Gadsby family are featured in full; highlighting Flora’s escape to drama school, Twig’s new found hobby of violent team sports, and Bluebell’s own discovery of an immensely talented, yet mysteriously anonymous, chalk artist on her doorstop.

The whirl of the family continues around Bluebell, but it is her voice that pulls in the reader. She is all at once child, protector, friend, sibling, and as with all children of that age, struggling to find her place in the world and make things right, all with a touch of sadness, humour, and teen zest:

“I have tried to help. I have tried to be brave and ambitious and come up with the sort of solution you would get in a film, where whole communities are saved by pulling together and putting aside their differences, and audiences come out feeling that anything is possible, but now I have run out of ideas and it is very very sad.”

Farrant is astute at weaving the various characters’ dramas in with each other, meshing the family as a whole, whilst still retaining everyone’s own private happenings and giving an insight into what they might be feeling. The seamless flitting around characters explores both the busyness of life and situations in which people intersect.

But most particularly, I loved the friendship between Bluebell and her best friend, Dodi. They have a strong history, which gives them a strong friendship, but also a realistic relationship because it doesn’t always run smoothly. Bluebell’s observation that people don’t really change, even after you’ve pointed out to them what isn’t working (in this case, bossiness) is a robust admission; a clear view of Bluebell’s character as well as Dodi’s.

The book is set in an identifiable part of London, with a contemporary style that features the texts and emails and all the essentials of a modern teen life and the complications that technology brings, so it feels grounded, with tangible references. Yet the story also occupies the space of large middle-class families in storybooks who are slightly eccentric – the parents are nicely tucked away, and yet there is family time in the evenings of sitting en famille around the piano, rather than watching television.

Farrant’s gift for storytelling is evident in her ability to weave themes in the books too; here art, identity, ambition. And of course the ever-present death in a family that casts a long shadow of grief across the entire landscape.

A great series, rivalling McKay’s Casson family for a place on the bookshelves, this is a wonderful series for tweens and young teens. And it has to be mentioned, the new covers and the coloured edges look rather stunning.

after-irisflora-in-loveall-about-pumpkin

You can buy the last Bluebell Gadsby diary here.

The Great Fire of London by Emma Adams and James Weston Lewis

great fire

Today is the 350th anniversary of the start of the Great Fire of London. As well as some fabulous comic book stamps that have been released by the post office to commemorate the occasion, those children who are studying the event, or interested in history can now read about the fire in a wonderfully illuminating book published earlier this summer.

The Great Fire of London: 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of 1666 by Emma Adams and illustrated by James Weston Lewis is a beautiful retelling of the events that took place over the few days that London was lit up by a massive conflagration from a small smouldering coal from a baker’s oven.

The illustrations are striking, from the front cover onwards, as if the book itself has been set alight – the cover is rose-gold foiled – a gold orange glow that reflects the shop lighting, but it is the inside that really sets the reader alight.

From the endpapers – huge magnificent flames sweeping across the page, to the cleverly illustrated interior, where the orange and yellow colour lights up the dark night sky, this book truly brings the event to life. The illustrator has ingeniously limited his palette to blues for everything that isn’t consumed by fire – the boats, the buildings, the night sky, the river – all carefully shown in silhouette almost, so that the oranges, yellows and reds of the fire glare out from the page.

What’s more however, is that the fairly minimal text and huge illustrations give an enormous amount of information; telling the history of the fire as a story narrative, day by day – following in the tradition of Pepys, of course, but in simple language, explaining as the reader moves along why the houses were built so close together, why fire was used for warmth and light and so on.

The amount of detail in the illustrations is fabulous too – as the reader can see the people in their houses; the expression on their faces as they see what is taking hold. It fully imagines and explains the events. There are quotes from Pepys’ diary too, as well as a summation of what happened after the fire had been put out.

In William Grill style, Weston Lewis explores the changes to firefighting as a result of the fire, with a detailed drawing out of the number of firefighters, engines and fire stations that made up the first London Fire Brigade.

At the end not only does the author draw attention to the monument, designed as a memorial to the fire, but also explains key people of the time, key buildings of the time, and shows a delightful map of just how much of the city the fire of London engulfed.

This is the best representation and history of the Great Fire of London for children that I have seen. It makes the event dramatic and compelling, and contains all the relevant information. Buy a copy here.

Check out the Museum of London’s website about the Great Fire of London here.