Lauren Child on being the new children’s laureate

Lauren Child on being the new children’s laureate

Award-winning author and illustrator Lauren Child has been named as the next Waterstones Children’s Laureate, an honour she says she “wasn’t expecting”.

She succeeds fellow author and illustrator Chris Riddell, who presented her with a specially commissioned solid silver medal and a £15,000 bursary cheque at an afternoon ceremony at City Hall in Hull, the UK City of Culture 2017, on Wednesday (7th June). The ceremony was hosted by “Blue Peter” presenter Radzi Chinyanganya, who was on the selection committee for the 2017–19 laureateship alongside poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Waterstones children’s buyer Florentyna Martin and the Waterstones Children’s Laureate Steering Group.

Of Riddell’s tenure, Child says: “He’s brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the role and I think that’s a great thing.” Meanwhile, the timing of her tenure is particularly significant: the laureateship will end in 2019, two decades after the UK children’s laureate position was inaugurated by Sir Quentin Blake, whom she describes as “a big influence” on her career—and 20 years after the publication of her first book.

“When I was little, it never occurred to me to think of authors and illustrators as actual human beings. Then I saw Quentin on television, live, drawing on ‘Jackanory’. He became a real-life illustrator to me, and that made it something it was possible to become,” she says.

Despite the early inspiration, Child says she came to her career in children’s books “in a very strange, roundabout way”. She explains: “I had a few attempts at writing children’s picture books over the course of several years and each one was rejected for perfectly good reasons, so I gave up trying. I did various other things and finally I wrote an idea for a film which I illustrated and wrote and that became my first book, Clarice Bean, That’s Me.”

Crossing boundaries

The “various other things” she mentions include designing lampshades and working as an assistant to artist Damien Hirst. This wide-ranging approach is something Child wants to bring to her stint as laureate; she is keen to build stronger links between the world of children’s literature and other artforms. As she says: “I feel excited about the idea of crossing boundaries to work with different creative areas, not just illustration and books.”

She is also keen to champion creativity and individuality in young people. “I really want to talk about the need for children to be allowed and encouraged to be creative. I wish we had a bit more time to explore. We all need that, because it’s how we discover things. So many ideas come out of not being too focused, allowing yourself to meander along and observe things. Let’s stop boxing everybody in. It would be wonderful if there was more of a chance to experiment,” she says.

Another area of interest is “elevating the artform of children’s books”, which she feels are “often seen as the poor relation to adult novels and fine art”. Child, who was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal in 2000 for I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato, says: “We can be very sniffy about it, but I think on so many levels, illustration is very important—it’s often the first time a child will have seen a piece of art up close.”

Like her predecessors, she is an advocate for libraries, particularly in schools. She says: “I think libraries are tremendously important, not just because it is perhaps a child’s first access to a book, but because of the  community aspect. I will continue to support them in any way I can.”

As laureate, she plans to work with organisations such as the House of Illustration, which she is a trustee of, and the National Literacy Trust, to promote “the importance of reading and writing and drawing for all children”.

Child also plans to keep writing during her term, with a particular focus on younger children’s books. “It’s just a practical thing, now that I have this extra role—and I’ve also got a young daughter… So I decided to write shorter books with less plot.” Having most recently worked on her Ruby Redfort series for readers aged nine and above—the last volume of which was published in May—Child says coming back to picture books has been “a real joy”, as she had missed illustrating.

She has just written another book in her Charlie and Lola series, A Dog with Nice Ears (Orchard Books), which will be published in paperback in September. She has “several more” in the pipeline, having written the stories before the “all-consuming” Charlie and Lola CBBC television series (for which she was associate producer) was broadcast. “Now it’s all a happy, distant memory, so I feel overjoyed to come back to them. They’re lovely characters to explore,” she jokes.

Child anticipates that her new position will be challenging. “In some ways, it’s a very difficult role because it’s not just being a figurehead for children’s books, you’re actually there to be in some respects a spokesperson for children’s books.” However, she is excited about having the chance to meet more readers. “It’s not something I was expecting to be part of being a writer. I was quite surprised when I did become a writer and people said, ‘You have to go on these tours and do events.’ But actually meeting the children is really worth it. They say things that are surprising, that you didn’t realise were going to make an impression,” she says.

She is also positive about the state of the children’s book market, though she is concerned about a lack of diversity in the industry. “It’s wonderful to hear that we’re selling more children’s books, so long as they’re not all the same type of children’s book. That’s in terms of [the] diversity of characters, the kind of art, the kind of subjects they’re talking about. Particularly as my [adopted] daughter comes from Mongolia, I’m thinking about it even more now. She’s often not seeing herself reflected on television or in books.”

Nearly two decades on from the creation of the Children’s Laureate role, during which time children have become digital natives, Child believes that the power of children’s books has endured. “Although there were all these terribly gloomy stories about the book disappearing, that hasn’t happened. I think it’s because, particularly for little children, holding a book is such a physical experience. I think the beauty of a world that’s contained in a few pages is quite amazing.”

Lauren Child will be speaking at The Bookseller's Children's Conference 2017 in conversation with the Times' arts editor Alex O’ Connell about her aspirations for her term as Laureate and her views on publishing and readers. For more information on the conference click here.