In Lauren St John’s new middle-grade adventure Kat Wolfe Investigates (Macmillan Children’s Books), her love of mystery stories collides with her childhood dream of being a vet. “I’m obsessed with mysteries and thrillers, spies and detectives,” she tells me when we meet at the office of her new publisher. “I would never be brave enough to be any of those things but I find it a joy puzzling over it and imagining it.” The idea of Kat working as a pet-sitter enables St John to indulge her love of animals while functioning as a nifty plot device. “Pet-sitting seemed such a great way of getting into people’s homes,” she says.
In the first of a four-part series, Kat’s veterinary surgeon mother, disillusioned by London life, takes a new job in fictional Bluebell Bay on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. The job comes with a cottage and one condition: Kat and her mum must adopt Tiny, a huge, near-wild Savannah cat. Before long they are part of the community and Kat establishes her own pet-sitting agency. When her first client, the owner of an Amazon parrot, disappears from his fortified, gadget-packed house, trouble quickly escalates. Kat and her new friend Harper Lamb are the only people to suspect foul play and the dynamic duo set out to solve the mystery—with some help from their unruly animal friends.
The idyllic country location may hint at Blytonesque adventure, but with St John there’s always a contemporary twist. A Bond-worthy lair, illegal spies and the US Secret Service all feature, and Kat and Harper have a very modern skill-set: Kat has an aptitude for detective work and is training in martial arts; Harper is a language and computer whizz. Towards the end of the book Kat tells the enemy: “The world is changing. Some day a girl who can code will be able to take on an army and win.”
“I actually think that’s true,” says St John. “There are some extraordinary young women growing up now.” St John’s books are full of tenacious, inquisitive children who face real dangers, and this is central to the ethos of her storytelling. “We’re in a world that is moving towards a very challenging future. The sixth extinction is under way. Global warming is a terrifying crisis that will take us who knows where. We need to bring children up who are equipped to deal with the challenges that they are going to face.”
Books, she believes, are key. “In the most loving way, we can introduce them to books like Abi Elphinstone’s, Katherine Rundell’s, Piers Torday’s, and show them there’s a beautiful life out there; that you can enjoy this world, but you are going to encounter difficult things and this is how you rise up and respond to it.” She understands the natural impulse of parents to protect their children, but fears that modern life seldom affords the freedom children need. “It’s to do with trusting our children to be independent and to think things through for themselves.”
St John’s own childhood was largely spent on a Zimbabwean farm called Rainbow’s End. She grew up during the country’s civil war but her home life was dominated by animals. “We had a big menagerie,” she laughs. “Horses, cats, dogs, a goat, two warthogs . . . Even two pythons, over the years.” It’s a passion that has defined her. “If you grow up so utterly immersed in nature, it literally imprints itself on your soul.” The relationship between children and animals is fundamental to her writing. “If a child is insecure, or very shy, or struggling, parents in particular underestimate that relationship. Having something that loves you unconditionally is amazing.” In Kat Wolfe Investigates, Tiny the Savannah cat is based on two of St John’s own beloved felines. Kat’s patient “cat whispering” gradually pays off, and the wonderfully fierce creature becomes a loyal ally.
Reading was the writer’s other passion while growing up. “I was obsessed with books. Because we lived on a farm, and because my parents didn’t have much money, books were hard to come by. I read each of them [I did get] over and over: Famous Five, Sherlock Holmes, James Herriott.” Sixteen-year-old Lauren left school and headed to London with dreams of pop stardom. The music career didn’t take off, but she spent an “amazing” year working in a veterinary surgery, followed by a journalism course. She became golf correspondent for the Sunday Times, then a music journalist, and later wrote a number of biographies, including a memoir of her childhood.
The idea of being a novelist had long been her dream, “but I didn’t think I had that kind of imagination.” Until, walking in London one day, she had something of an epiphany. “An image popped into my head of a girl on a giraffe. Right there on the street, that image, the way the book opened, and even the girl’s name, Martine, came into my head. The first chapter poured out of me like it already existed.”
Orion published The White Giraffe in 2006 and it was an instant success. Over the next 12 years, St John wrote a further four books about Martine and her animals, and other bestsellers followed: the Laura Marlin mystery series, which grew out of her realisation that nobody had written a Nancy Drew-type series for years, and several teenage novels, including The One Dollar Horse.
In 2017 came The Snow Angel, a launch title on her former Orion publisher Fiona Kennedy’s Zephyr imprint. Set in Nairobi and the Scottish Highlands, it follows a young girl who loses her parents to the Ebola virus. “That book meant so much to me, and touched so many things that are really important to me. There’s an image of refugees, of children in crisis, that is put out there, and I wanted to challenge that. People don’t choose their destinies.” It’s a celebration of the power of the human spirit, and will be out in paperback this October.
I ask St John how she feels children’s publishing has changed over the course of her career. “What’s particularly exciting is how children’s writers are dealing with things that actually a lot of adult writers are not. Whether it’s the refugee crisis, whether it’s gender issues, whether it’s the crisis with the environment. So many things that are really, really important, and people are standing up and talking about them in such brilliant and different ways.”
St John has long worked as an ambassador for the animal rights charity Born Free and is about to launch a new project which encapsulates this feeling of purpose and activism in children’s books. Authors 4 Oceans is a coalition of authors aiming to challenge the book industry to think about the way it uses plastic. Katherine Rundell, Robert MacFarlane, Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris are among 20 authors fronting the campaign, which will include a nationwide schools competition and festival events. And then it is back to Dorset to write the second Kat Wolfe novel. What mysteries— and creatures—Kat will uncover are yet to be revealed; St John confesses that she’s not a planner. “I like going on the adventure with my children and seeing where it takes me.”
- Catherine Doyle | 'The Middle-Grade community is very supportive... I hope they don’t mind me sneaking in'
- Rob Biddulph | 'I don’t consider myself a writer'
- Junot Díaz | 'If you tell a child you’re a writer and don’t have a story for them, no one can make you feel more fraudulent'
- 'You don’t need to be a superhero to change the world'
- Lauren St John moves to MCB in four-book deal