We meet… Waterstones Children’s Laureate Lauren Child

She’s won the Nestle Book Prize for her writing, the Kate Greenaway Medal for her illustrations and been awarded an MBE for services to literature.

Now for the next two years, Lauren Child is the 10th Waterstones Children’s Laureate, quite rightly following in the illustrious footsteps of Quentin Blake, Julia Donaldson and Michael Rosen.

She’s already made waves, highlighting issues of sexism and lack of diversity in children’s stories, along with the impact of library closures on access to books.

It’s amazing to think that this picture book figurehead, who has created some of the most loved characters of modern times (Clarice Bean, Ruby Redfort and of course, siblings Charlie and Lola), only got into children’s books by accident.

The legend goes that Lauren – who had previously worked painting spots for Damien Hirst and designing lampshades – wrote her first Clarice Bean as a view to showing a director for a possible film. Instead it got snapped up as a book – and when Charlie and Lola followed in 2000, going on to become a hit TV show, she found she enjoyed the medium – and was pretty gifted at it, to boot.

Fast-forward 17 years since the duo’s first book, I Will Not Ever NEVER Eat A Tomato, was published and their latest story is out this week, the pixie-like pair still frozen in time aged seven and four.

A Dog With Nice Ears is a delight for fans new and old. The witty childlike dialogue between long-suffering, sensible big brother Charlie and kooky but loveable little sister Lola is as sharp as ever, while Lauren’s signature mixed media artwork is a joy to look at. We especially love Lola’s imaginary pet pooch quietly mooching alongside her throughout in an outline of neon pink.

We caught up with Lauren to find out if Charlie and Lola will ever grow up, why she doesn’t write books for girls and if being Waterstones Children’s Laureate is anything like being the American President…

We’ve been reading the new Charlie and Lola book and very much enjoying it. How does it feel to return to them and start writing about them again?

“It’s quite nice. I’d only published three Charlie and Lola books when the television show came along and that was all consuming. Although I’d actually written six stories, I hadn’t got round to illustrating all of them while the TV show was in production – it was too much Charlie and Lola to think about.

“So I did Clarice Bean and Ruby Redfort, and returned to Charlie and Lola when the TV show had finished. There are now six books, three illustrated before the show and three after. I still have three more stories to do.”

Was it always your intention when you set out to work with regular characters?

“It was with Clarice Bean. She was my first character and I did the three picture books about her fairly quickly and then I wrote the novels. I will come back to her because she is probably my main character. It was nice to come back to Charlie and Lola because they are quite different in my books to the television show. That’s not to say I didn’t love the programme – I really did. But they are not quite my Charlie and Lola, inevitably.

“Ruby Redfort is a series and it was decided at the start that it was going to be six interrelated plots. There are other characters that I’ve written as one-off picture books that I think about a lot and wouldn’t mind writing more about them, while there are others that are only ever a one-off story.”

What comes first for you? An illustration idea, a character or a theme?

“It varies. Sometimes characters come from seeing somebody. For example, Lola came out of observing a little girl on a train. But the first story was inspired by my own childhood – being a pernickety eater and having an older sibling who is very kind about those things and very helpful. So it came from two places. Sometimes I overhear an anecdote or a funny snippet of conversation and that’s the start of a story. Sometimes it is seeing a film that gets me thinking. I’m never quite sure where an idea will come from.”

You are known for your work with mixed media. Will you see a fabric or a texture and wonder how you can weave that into a book? Or do you look through everything you’ve got and pick the best bits?

“I have a huge collection of scraps of fabric, shelves of objects, magazine cuttings – all kinds of things which I am sort of aware of. It’s an organic process. I don’t have an idea for a book around a piece of pattern but I begin to feel I need that piece of pattern in the book. That’s how it usually works.”

You’re now the Waterstones Children’s Laureate. For people who aren’t familiar with the role, what does it involve?

“The good thing about it is, it’s not a set thing. You are there to represent and champion children’s writing and illustration. You are there to talk about ideas and things you think are important. So for me, I love to talk about how important it is for children to create for the sake of creating – and for adults to do that too, because we are creative beings. By nature we like inventing things.

“And I think it is important to do it for the pleasure of it. It is great for your confidence and self-esteem. Just to have a go because you want to, not because you want to be the world’s best guitarist or gardener or knitter. But it might lead you onto something else, onto an interest. I was talking to a friend about a little girl who wanted to do birdwatching but the group was for adults. They let her join anyway and now she is an expert in bats because she got so interested and someone gave her that opportunity. You find yourself through trying things.”

Is it like being the American President where the former laureates get in touch, ask you how it is going and give you support behind the scenes?

“[Laughs] American President is kind of elite! I think what’s nice is that you don’t have to be constrained by what’s gone before. So the previous laureate, Chris Riddell, did a lot of sketching and turning up at things to encourage people to draw. I would really like to encourage people to see the things they are interested in and their creativity and talent as one thing. It all interrelates.”

When you were appointed, you spoke about the challenges of getting young boys to read books with female lead characters. It struck a chord with me because I have a little boy. Why do you think there is this problem?

“I have been listening to a lot of this discussion – it’s in the air at the moment. I think the problem is across the media. For example, film – something like only 20 per cent of leads are female. So what you are saying with that is women and girls aren’t as important. It may not be intentional but that’s the message.

“All the time people say to me, when are you going to write a boys’ book? I tell them, I do. I have never written a girls’ book. They are for anyone who wants to read them. It’s people’s perceptions. They decide that. They think a boy can’t possibly read a book with a girl on the cover.”

What do you think about the picture book world at the moment? Sales are good and it seems an exciting time for illustration. Do you think we are getting more adventurous?

“No… You didn’t expect me to say that, did you?! When I go to New York or Paris and I look in children’s book shops, I get very excited. The books are different shapes and about tricky subjects. They are brilliant. I think we are very tame in this country and tend to be restrained about what we publish. I don’t think it is nearly as exciting as it should be.”

Charlie and Lola have been around for 17 years now. Have you ever been tempted to do a book about their future selves?

“No. They only work in that time. Clarice – you can take her out and imagine her as a woman. Ruby Redfort – I can imagine her older. Charlie and Lola only work because you are seeing them for 15 minutes in their day and it is about the interaction between them at that age. As soon as you make them older, that’s all changed.”

Charlie and Lola: A Dog With Nice Ears by Lauren Child is out now. £12.99 (hardback), Orchard Books. Find out more about Lauren’s work at milkmonitor.com

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