Meet the Author:
Ella Mae Does It Her Way is a fantastic children’s book about a little girl with her own ideas. We couldn’t wait to interview the author, Mick Jackson, to find out from where this character came.
After hearing from her mum that it’s good to try new things, Ella Mae decides “backwards” is the way to go. She walks, reads and even gets into bed backwards. This new way of doing things catches on and soon most of the town is following her lead. Unfortunately for Ella Mae, if everyone is walking backwards, she has to try something new. Please check out our interview below.
You studied drama and then became a singer in the band, The Screaming Abdabs, for nearly a decade before attending a Creative Writing MA course at the University of East Anglia. How did this move change your career path?
To be honest, the bands I was in had more or less run their course. I was looking for an excuse to leave London and I happened to read an article about the Creative Writing course in Norwich. There were only two or three such courses at the time and because Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro had graduated from UEA it was the best known. In the narrative I’ve since created is that I was writing the lyrics to songs for the bands and that these gradually grew into something more like very short stories. The Creative Writing MA was just a bridge or a doorway into a different sort of creativity with a different ‘product’ at the end of it.
You wrote several award-winning adult novels before writing your first children’s book, Ella May Does it Her Way. What made you decide to write for children?
I tried writing what I thought was a book for children some years ago, a collection of stories called Ten Sorry Tales, but a little while later I saw that they were stories about children rather than necessarily for them. But when I had kids of my own I encountered books by John Burningham and Janet and Allan Ahlberg and Quentin Blake and William Steig and I fell in love with them. And I also began to wonder if there might be a way of turning my hand to picture books myself. I should add that I don’t think you have to have kids in order to write or illustrate for children. It’s just that I probably wouldn’t have come across all these books without them.
Ella May likes to do things her way. Is this imaginative, strong-willed girl character based on anyone in real life?
Well, I happen to have a daughter who one day decided that she was going to walk to school backwards. This rather tickled me and I began speculating on what might happen if a character took it a little further. So Ella May shares a few qualities with my daughter (for example, they both love apples), but she’s probably no more strong-willed than any other child. In an earlier version the whole school copies her and all the children march backwards around the playground and the head teacher has to call up the authorities to help out. But like a lot of my stories it was really just a matter of taking quite a simple but odd little thing and amplifying it to ridiculous proportions, and seeing where it led.
The book addresses some very adult themes – being independent, trying new things and not giving up if something is difficult. How were you able to bring these ideas down to a child’s level?
I never really thought about the story in those terms, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s the same for other writers but once I have an idea I just try cultivating it, broadening it out and, as I say, seeing where it leads – what the possibilities are. In doing so, you start to define where the parameters are. What is too extreme … what doesn’t fit the reality you’re creating. In this version, once everyone likes what Ella’s doing and they all start marching backwards, Ella May gets bored and abandons it. So I’m not quite sure how much of a moral we can draw from the tale. Except that girls are great and should be allowed to be as weird and willful as boys are allowed to be.
The illustrations are fantastic! We absolutely love Ella Mae’s hair. Did you know the illustrator, Andrea Stegmaier, before working on the book together? How much input did you have into her drawings?
I still haven’t met Andrea. She lives in Stuttgart so unless one of us travels to the other’s country it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. But I really love her illustrations – particularly the bright, bold colours. The texture of the world in which Ella May lives. We chatted a little via social media, but this was my first picture book and I was just discovering that children’s publishers tend to have illustrators that they want to use or have used in the past and that when they get a story in that seems appropriate they’ll try and pair the two of you off. I didn’t know Andrea’s work before but I was very happy about the pairing and I’d be very pleased to work with her again. When an illustrator takes on a project they’re bound to bring their own style and preoccupations to the way it’s presented, so for instance it was Andrea’s idea to have Ella May and her mum live on a boat which I thought suited the book very well.
What is the best part about being a children’s author? Who were your favorite authors as a child?
I really do enjoy the collaboration with the illustrator. I can’t draw so being able to see an artist take my text and make something wonderful out of it is a real pleasure. Also, compared to writing a novel (which usually takes me about four years) a picture book is relatively speedy, even with all the to-ing and fro-ing that is bound to happen editorially.
Also, there are things you can do with children’s books that you can’t do in fiction – silly, wild stuff. Which is what first attracted me to the form. As a child I really wasn’t that much of a reader. I remember liking Enid Blyton’s Mr Galliano’s Circus and endlessly re-reading the Secret Seven series. But John Burningham’s books, for instance, weren’t part of the reading landscape when I was little. It was really the late sixties and early seventies when picture books and the Puffins under Kay Webb took off. Reading to my kids these last ten or twelve years I’d have to say that my writing heroes are Astrid Lindgren, Joan Aiken and Philippa Pearce. Also, Betsy Byars and Paula Fox from the United States. In picture books, anything by Alice and Martin Provensen I’d buy on the spot.
When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges for parents or opportunities to address?
As a parent, my primary concern is just getting my kids to love books. I don’t care how they get there, what they read (within reason) or how they read (for instance, are they methodical or do they dip into lots of different books?). My kids are ten and twelve but I still read to them most nights of the week. And that’s partly because I want to carry on exploring all these books that I missed out on when I was a child and the books that are being published today. They know their dad’s a writer so they accept that it’s a slightly unusual situation. We’re discovering all these books together and we talk about which bits work and what we think is going to happen, etc.
But every child is different. My son loves the Percy Jackson and Alex Rider books whereas my daughter much prefers history and ‘real-life’ stories. But they say the best way to encourage a child to read is for them to see you reading. That makes sense to me.
Any chance you are working on another children’s book we can look forward to reading?
I have some other books in the pipeline with two other publishers. I’ve done two books with an illustrator called John Broadley, one of which, While You’re Sleeping, just won a New York Times / New York Libraries Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award. The others books are due out next year so I’m really looking forward to that. But I’d also love to do another Ella May book with Andrea. Perhaps this could be the beginning of the ‘Bring Back Ella May’ campaign …
Well, we would certainly be fans of a ‘Bring Back Ella May’ campaign. We love the book and looks forward to sharing it with many of our subscribers this month! Many thanks to Mick Jackson for sending time with us and discussing his work. You can learn more about Mick Jackson, as well as his books for adults here.
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