Many children’s books garner attention before publication, but few have gathered praise as exalted as that bestowed on the third children’s book from Lissa Evans. Wed Wabbit (David Fickling Books, January) has been called “a future classic” by author Nina Stibbe and “dark and sharp and beautiful and un-guessable” by children’s writer Katherine Rundell. Nick Lake, children’s fiction publishing director at HarperCollins, has said: “In 50 years’ time, people may say: ‘It’s a bit like Wed Wabbit’ in the way they now say: ‘It’s a bit like Narnia’.”
Wed Wabbit follows the adventures of Fidge, who lives with her slightly dippy mother and her little sister Minnie, who is obsessed with her toys Red Rabbit (although Minnie calls it “Wed Wabbit”) and Ella the Elephant, and a book about the Wimbly Woos, a bizarre group of multicoloured, dustbin-like creatures who speak only in verse. When Minnie has an accident, Fidge, along with her cosseted cousin Graham, falls down a set of stairs and into the land of the Wimbly Woos, where they have to solve a series of clues to find their way home, aided by a life-size Ella, Dr Carrot and a grey Wimbly Woo (the greys are the most intelligent, although somewhat irritating).
Evans says the book is full of “comedy, silly verse and verbal trickery”, and that she was initially inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden’s idea of a relationship between a no-nonsense girl and a boy who is a “complete pain in the arse”. Graham is, at the start, incredibly spoilt by his hilariously fretful parents, who say things such as: “Graham’s only just over a severe sore throat and he’s developed a fear of eating anything except organic ice-cream”; Fidge, on the other hand, is entirely sensible. “She’s the one holding things together,” says Evans. “Fidge is never going to be the most effusive character in the world but she’s practical, not silly, and I really admire her.”
The plot itself is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, as it throws the central characters into an alternative world they must learn how to escape. Evans is a huge fan of magical children’s books and what she describes as “magic in real life”—magical incidents intruding on the life of ordinary protagonists.
When I was young, I read everything in the library and what I loved stumbling across was magic. When I was little we moved from Surrey to the Midlands and I was very miserable because I lost my friends
“When I was young, I read everything in the library and what I loved stumbling across was magic. When I was little we moved from Surrey to the Midlands and I was very miserable because I lost my friends. I spent a lot of time hoping something magical would happen,” she says.
Many readers will also enjoy the gentle mocking of certain types of children’s books in Evans’ depiction of the Wimbly Woos, the characters in Minnie’s picture book that later come to life and act “with a sort of idiotic jollity”, according to the book. “I suppose I imagined the sort of children’s book I dislike, those rather silly ones where everyone is friends and dances round in circles. There’s no plot,” she explains. “You get to the end and you want to burn it but you can’t because your children love it. I imagine the Wimbly Woos would be a franchise...there would definitely be TV spin-offs!”
The Wimbly Woos act according to type: yellow-coloured ones are timid and pink-hued ones are cuddly, for example. But a dramatic denouement reveals Wimbly Woos are happier when they are all mixed up. “I found it a rather satisfactory ending, breaking up the narrow and ridiculous Wimbly categories and forming a richer mix. And it fits in with Graham and Fidge widening their own range of emotions and abilities. No one wants to be known for being perpetually timid or irritating or loud, we all want our better qualities recognised,” the author says.
The rat race
Wed Wabbit is Evans’ third children’s novel (she has also published four adult novels). She began writing after a successful career as a BBC radio and TV producer, including creating the chat show “Room 101”. She says she “always” felt she should be writing and, when she was approaching 40, took six months off to write what turned out to be Spencer’s List (Penguin). It was only after her third adult book that her agent, Georgia Garrett at Rogers, Coleridge & White, suggested she should turn her hand to children’s stories. “[Georgia] suggested I read some Edward Eager, who was a sort of American Edith Nesbit, and I read and loved them. I understood that kind of writing and from then I knew it would be OK.”
Her first kids’ book, Small Change for Stuart (Doubleday), was tremendously well received by the industry and “shortlisted for everything”, including the Carnegie Medal, the Branford Boase and the Costa Book Award, and led to a sequel, Big Change for Stuart.
Evans now alternates between writing children’s novels and adult books, explaining: “I can write adult books in the morning and children’s books in the afternoon without mixing the two. It does seem to come from a different place. I’m never going to be a fast writer but I can write children’s books at two or three times the speed [I can write] an adult book. I think it’s about children’s motivations. Children tend to get on with things. They don’t brood to the same degree, therefore children’s books are more plot-driven, and once you’ve got the narrative you tend to move in the right direction faster.”
David Fickling Books hired Sarah McIntyre, author, illustrator and founder of the Pictures Mean Business campaign, to create the front cover for Wed Wabbit, but Evans decided not to have illustrations throughout the book. “I thought it would spoil it really,” she says. “I write quite carefully and my intent is always for my reader to see what I’m seeing in my head.”
There will be no Wed Wabbit sequel, but Evans is already “fiddling around” in the afternoons with a new idea for a “magic in real life” children’s book. In the mornings, she is working on a prequel to Crooked Heart (Transworld), set in the 1920s. She also has a cameo in “Their Finest”, the forthcoming film adaptation of her 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half (Transworld), as a make-up lady.
Rights to Wed Wabbit have already sold to Scholastic in the US but Evans is reluctant to predict that Wed Wabbit will hit the big time, despite the early rave reviews. She says she has “never troubled” the bestseller list. “My friends sometimes say I’m down on myself but I’m not. I’m realistic. You never know what is going to take off and if you start down that road you could get very bitter.
“I have zero expectations, but if I could make people laugh and weave the story into someone’s psyche, that would make me very happy.”