Katherine Rundell | 'I will be writing children’s books until I am old'

Katherine Rundell | 'I will be writing children’s books until I am old'

Katherine Rundell is visiting the Bologna Children’s Book Fair this year for the first time and the celebrated children’s author, who is translated into 28 languages and counting, is excited at the prospect of meeting many of her foreign publishers for the first time, as well as exploring the wealth of books from other countries on show.

“I’ve been to the city but not to the book fair, so just being able to see what is out there will be wonderful,” she says. “I know what English writers are producing, but we don’t translate enough in the UK, so being able to see what is being produced further afield will be wonderful.”

Her first novel, The Girl Savage (or Capriole Sotto il Temporale in Italian), is in the running for the book fair’s Strega Ragazze e Ragazzi prize in the 11+ category (alongside two Italian novels, one from Norway and another from the Netherlands) and Rundell says the shortlisting is an “honour”.

“I wrote The Girl Savage when I was 21, I’m now 31, and readers have different reactions in different countries and childhood experience itself has changed in those 10 years. It’s interesting to see books come out in their second lives,” she says. “Those books are read differently because people are reading with a different set of cultural values but, ultimately, they are still kids reading about children’s adventures. I occasionally get letters from children that I can’t only not read, I also can’t identify the language. It’s immensely touching.”

The American Dream

Rundell’s next novel, The Good Thieves (Bloomsbury Children’s Books), will be released in the UK in June. It is a heist adventure about a girl who, after arriving in New York to stay with her grandfather, finds out that a notorious conman with Mafia connections has cheated the family out of their country home. Vita Marlowe, a typically Rundellian heroine, is clever and feisty and, with a new-found group of friends, plots to recapture the family seat from her adversary—a genuinely terrifying creation, who smuggles guns and alcohol and isn’t afraid to kill.

The book had a “long mutation” but the germ of the idea came from the author’s desire to create a heroine in the mould of Philip Marlowe (hence the name), the hard-boiled detective in Raymond Chandler’s novels. She was also inspired by Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, a series of real accounts of New York in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, which “makes the whole city feel so alive and grubby and funny and tough and bold. I was so in love with this book, and as a kid I was obsessed with the idea of New York being a city of possibilities you could go out and explore.”

Vita has polio and occasionally has trouble with her leg, but doesn’t let her disability get in her way. Rundell says that was partly a nod to detectives in 1920s and ’30s fiction, who often had some form of physical difference. She also, however, wanted to help dispel the “bullshit” messages in children’s literature from the past, when any kind of physical deviation from the norm used to portray evil.

“I wanted it to be one of the things that is part of her but not the defining feature. Cerrie Burnell [an author who was born with an arm that ends at the elbow] is also agented by Claire Wilson and very sweetly read it to give a view on whether the portrayal seemed honest. I also know someone who grew up with polio and that was very helpful as well, to think about how they made their way through the world.”

Rundell started plotting the book a year and a half ago: she wrote a chapter-by-chapter plan (because it is a heist, there were a lot of “moving bits” that had to happen, she says) but the final story is “unrecognisable” from her first outline. “I always think it’s going to be easier this time; it has never been easier ‘this time’... I was really interested in momentum and how you keep that going. I wanted to portray the idea that [the protagonists] are constantly on the edge of being caught.”

Wise children

She also has another publication out this year, an essay for adults about why they should read children’s books. Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Bloomsbury), which will be released in June as part of Independent Bookshop Week, is partly about why adults should read kids’ fiction but also an examination of how children’s fiction as it is now came to be.

“It’s about the history from way back, from about 1450, when the first manuscripts were produced for children, then I sweep through the somewhat moralistic books for children—there were a lot about not picking your nose—and then to the first age of golden children’s fiction, which did away with the idea that children were placid, innocent creatures and instead unleashed this sense of wildness and the child’s desire for autonomy and chaos and adventure,” she says.

The book is also intended to fight against the “outrageous and absurd” idea that adults who read children’s fiction should feel some kind of cultural shame. “I’m not arguing that adults should only read children’s fiction, but I’m arguing, very passionately, that adults who read children’s fiction are offered something which perhaps other fiction cannot provide: a kind of hope and hunger. Someone like Eva Ibbotson allows herself to be in awe at the experience of being alive. Adult fiction might be too full of the caveats that come with the reality of adult life to allow themselves that headlong plunge into wonder.”

As a child Rundell loved Diana Wynne Jones, whom she describes as “the best writer of magic for children, like Harry Potter, but more sardonic, wittier, sharper”, and has a lot of love for Michael Bond and Paddington Bear. In Paddington’s stories, ever-chaotic moments build up to a moment of triumph and what looks like disaster becomes glory, she says. “What is baked into Bond’s world view is that larger than the world’s tragedies are its miracles. If you find things disastrous you haven’t seen the end yet.” She mentions C S Lewis, Roald Dahl and Noel Streatfield, too.

The Good Thieves is Rundell’s fifth children’s novel (she has also published One Christmas Wish and Into the Jungle, stories based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book), and it is also the final book in a “very loose” quintet. There won’t be a sextet but she is working on a new children’s book project, even though she can’t give any details about what that is.

“I will be writing children’s books until I am old. Until literally the day I die, hopefully, still trying to not forgot what it was like to be a child.”

Katherine Rundell is the bestselling author of five children’s novels, for which she has won the Costa Children’s Book Award, the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize among many others.