Meet the Author: Helen Docherty

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January 2021 | Authors

It’s a great find when you stumble across a book that MUST be read aloud to young children. We were so happy when The Snatchabook crossed our desk. Written by Helen Docherty, and illustrated by her husband, Thomas Docherty, The Snatchabook‘s rhyming text and beautiful watercolor characters is a must for your home library.

It’s bedtime in Burrow Down and the woodland animals are ready for their bedtime story, but books are mysteriously disappearing.  Wide-eyed, little bunny, Eliza Brown, decides to stay awake and catch the book thief herself.  It turns out the books are being taken by a little creature called the Snatchabook, who has no one to read him a bedtime story.  There’s a happy ending to this sweet tale which is all about books and the joy of reading!

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You were a teacher and film producer before becoming a children’s book author. What made you decide to write your first book?

I’ve always loved books and my childhood ambition was to be an author; I spent many happy hours writing and illustrating stories which I made into little books. I also made a long series of monthly magazines for witches, called WHOOSH. So, I suppose you could say that I wrote my first book when I was six (although I wouldn’t actually see one published until I was much older!). I loved my work as a teacher and (briefly) in film, but when I met my husband (the author and illustrator Thomas Docherty) my desire to write children’s books was rekindled. We co-wrote a book called Ruby Nettleship and the Ice Lolly Adventure, which was published in 2010. Tom encouraged me to try writing stories of my own, and that’s how I came to write The Snatchabook.

The story is unique….books keep disappearing and a determined little rabbit named Eliza Brown figures out who (or should we say what?) has been taking them. What was the inspiration for The Snatchabook?

I remember very clearly the day that the idea for The Snatchabook came to me. I’d been trying – and failing – to come up with a good idea for a story all day, when suddenly the words ‘book thief’ popped into my head, followed by the image of a creature who steals all the bedtime stories. I knew immediately that I was onto something. At the time, our daughters were three and one, and reading to them was a very important part of my daily routine (it still is, all these years on!). On a subliminal level, I’m sure The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by the great Dr. Seuss was another inspiration.

We loved the rhyming text.  It’s a book that must be read aloud.  Was this always the plan or did it develop as you wrote the story?

I had never actually attempted to write a story in rhyme before, but somehow it felt like the right thing to do. At first, I toyed with calling the book thief the Booksnatcher, but that sounded quite menacing, and I’d quickly realised that he was a small, harmless creature who just needed someone to read to him. I switched the words around to create the Snatchabook, which conveniently rhymed with other words, like ‘look’. I quickly discovered that I loved the challenge of writing in rhyme, and I’ve never looked back.

It’s very clever how you wrote a story about catching a book thief that isn’t really scary at all. Suspenseful maybe, but not scary. Was this intentional?

Obviously when you’re writing for a very young audience you don’t want to scare them, but you need enough jeopardy and suspense to keep them hooked. When I work with school children, I get them to act out the parts of both Eliza Brown and the Snatchabook, and to talk about how they feel in key moments in the story. They always get very involved in the drama of the narrative! I think children love feeling a little bit scared, especially when they know there’s going to be a happy resolution. Picture books are a great way for young children to explore emotions, and they can also help to promote empathy.

The illustrations are amazing in the book. They build excitement right from the beginning, because we only get to see a glimpse of the Snatchabook’s silhouette. It surprised us (but we loved it) to learn your husband, Thomas Docherty, is the illustrator. How early in the process of writing the book did you bring him in? How much say did you have with the artwork?

Tom was the first person I read the draft version of the story to (luckily, he loved it!). He gives me excellent feedback on all my texts. We submitted the story to Alison Green, a publisher who Tom had already worked with (on The Snorgh and the Sailor, which was written by our very talented friend Will Buckingham), so she was delighted for him to illustrate it. It was wonderful to be part of the process of imagining what the Snatchabook (and Eliza) would look like; it’s the great privilege of being married to the illustrator! We work very closely on all our books together.

 

While The Snatchabook might appear to be a sweet, light-hearted story to read aloud with your youngster, there are bigger messages of forgiveness, compassion and the value of friendship throughout. We especially liked the idea of creating friends through reading. This theme dove-tails into the workshops you host. Can you tell us about them?  

I’m so glad you’ve picked up on these themes. I strongly believe in the power of books and stories to bring people together, to nurture empathy and compassion for others and to break down barriers. All of my workshops, whether in schools or elsewhere, are in some way about the joy of sharing stories and learning to walk in others’ shoes. Tom and I also deliver story-writing and illustration workshops, where we help groups of young people create their own books. We find this incredibly rewarding, and lots of fun too.

What is the best part about being a children’s author? Who were your favorite authors as a child?

Three things: the buzz of working on a story when you know the idea is a good one (and trust me, coming up with a really good idea is the hardest part of the job), seeing or hearing the reaction to your books from children or families, and working directly with the public. One of the absolute highlights for me was doing a workshop in a prison with a group of dads and their families, who had come in for a special session as a reward for the prisoners’ good behaviour. The book I used was You Can Never Run Out of Love (illustrated by Ali Pye), and it worked so well as a tool for the dads and children to express their love for one another. It was very moving.

I had so many favourite authors as a child! I loved Russell Hoban’s books for young children and all the classics, like Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia series. I also loved books by a Norwegian author, Anne Cath. Vestly, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, and British authors Philippa Pearce and Mary Stewart.

When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges for parents or opportunities to address?

One of the biggest challenges is how screens take up so much of our time and attention (and I’m not just talking about children!). Screens give an instant hit, whereas it takes a long time for children to get hooked into reading. The best thing any parent can do is to read aloud to their child every day, right from a very young age (starting with sturdy board books) and continuing for as long as the child still enjoys it (I still read to our 12 and 10 year old every night, and they are avid readers now!). A child who associates books with happy times and – crucially – with having their care-giver’s full attention – will grow to love them for life. Bedtime stories should be a part of every child’s routine. People worry about their children’s reading, but the best motivation to learn to read is a love of stories.

Do you or Thomas have anything coming out we can look forward to reading?

Funnily enough, our next book together is called The Screen Thief! It’s about a creature called the Snaffle who arrives in the city looking for someone to play with – but everyone is too busy looking at their screens. When she comes across a cell phone, she takes an experimental bite and discovers a taste for screens herself…

We also have another book together which came out in the US in September 2020, Pirate Nell’s Tale to Tell. Nell is looking forward to great adventures out at sea, but mean and greedy Captain Gnash has other ideas. Will Nell and her trusty Pirate’s Almanac help to save the day when they run into danger?

Tom has a book of his own coming out this spring, The Horse That Jumped, and I have four books with different illustrators on the way.

And, last but not least, Tom is currently illustrating our forthcoming book, Orange Moon, Blue Baboon, which is for very little book-lovers. It will be published in the US in about a year’s time.

We’re grateful to Helen Docherty for spending time with us and explaining more about her work. We look forward to seeing more of the upcoming titles on which both she and her husband are working. If you’d like to learn more, check out Helen’s website here.

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