With lifetime sales of over 7 million books, massively popular children’s author Jeremy Strong certainly knows how to keep his young fanbase laughing. s4k editor Nadia Duncan caught up with him to chat about encouraging kids to read, holidaying with children and just being silly…
Q) As the mum of two boys I am extremely grateful to you for creating books that boys really want to read. Do you think it is more difficult to engage young boys to read and was that your intention with My Brother’s Famous Bottom series?
Boys of any age between seven and 17 have always been more difficult when it comes to reading (I’m not sure about four to six-year-olds. I have a feeling they are rather more malleable and open!) As an ex-teacher particularly interested in getting all children into reading, I have always written for a mixed audience but some books are a little more geared to girls, and some to boys. I’ve also written very specifically for young teenage boys (12-15) with two titles, Stuff and Weird and found that comedy is a particularly good way of getting boys into reading. Fortunately all my books are funny! I didn’t create the Famous Bottom series with boys uppermost in my mind. Young girls also revel in that sort of humour. The difference is that girls move on, whereas boys carry that fascination into manhood! In fact, I only ever intended to write one Famous Bottom story, but it was rather successful so more had to follow.
Q) One statistic about your success is that you are in the top 20 of most borrowed children’s authors from UK Libraries. Libraries are very much under threat with many closures and reduced funding, staffing and opening hours. Do you worry about their future?
As the old song goes: ‘Do I worry? You bet I do… ’ There is far too much to be said about the iniquity of mass library closures, the short-sightedness, the sheer meanness of it all, and so on. So yes, I worry about the future of libraries and the reading lives of many children. My local library as a child helped to raise me and make me the person – certainly the reader – that I am today. Libraries are one of the pillars of any civilised society. It’s never a good idea to take pillars away from anything.
Q) Children laugh much more every day than us adults. Do we lose the ability to be silly as we grow older and how important is it to be silly with your children?
Well, let’s face it, being an adult is pretty serious. As you get older you acquire responsibilities (not necessarily out of desire for them!) Partners, children, employment, growing old, dealing with the real world – all of these things are a weight upon one’s shoulders. So perhaps it’s more that we lose the opportunity to laugh, rather than the ability. Most adults love to let off steam with a good belly laugh and, I have been given to understand that a man who can make a woman laugh is highly prized by the woman. As for being silly with your children? Always, always – for as long as they want you to be silly. It’s easy though to become dreadfully patronising or quite simply the child is not in the mood for silliness. So you have to ‘read’ the situation. Of course, a lot of arguments and awkward situations can be avoided with a good joke or some silly behaviour. But I do think it’s a good idea to try and be a ‘fun’ parent.
Q) In your new book, the protagonist Nicholas and his family are jetting off to Turkey on holiday. What’s the best, and worst thing, about travelling with kids?
The best thing is that the kids come with you. The worst thing is that the kids come with you. Actually, I do think that flying with young children can be embarrassing and frustrating. Babies, for example, often get upset by the changes in air pressure and so on and can make an awful lot of noise that is contained in a small space. As a parent you can only do your best, knowing that there will always be some grumpy adults who want to complain. It’s astonishing how quickly some adults forget that they were once children themselves and simply wanted love and warmth and understanding.
Q) Have you ever used an incident which happened to your own family in one of your books?
Oh quite a few times! I remember events from my own childhood – I am one of four children – and of course I put in things that happened to me and my children too. Real life is a great source for story ideas and characters, but the original event is usually passed through the prism of the imagination to bring out as many colours as possible and ends up being wildly untruthful to what really happened.
Q) Other than ‘bottom’ what are your favourite silliest words and why?
I love old-fashioned words like codswallop, balderdash, flibbertigibbet, and also we have so many wonderfully onomatopoeic words in our language. Only last night an adult friend referred to a recent storm as ‘lots of lunder and frightening’ – which I thought was a deliberate and marvellous misinterpretation of thunder and lightning and one that carried with it more meaning. One of the things I like most about writing is the way in which we can play with words. English is particularly open to that, I think. I like the word ‘flange’ because it sounds to me like some kind of pudding, as if it’s a flan crossed with a blancmange.
Jeremy’s latest hilarious adventure for kids aged 7 to 11, My Brother’s Famous Bottom Makes a Splash is out now. Published by Puffin RRP £5.99