I’m not sure if it quite counts as a genre, but I love children’s books that work with ideas you can wonder about all your life because of a sense that, without recourse to any clunky symbolism or a deliberately placed moral, something important has been said. One book that comes to mind straight away is Jenny Wagner’s John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat and another is Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. Both are books I had as a child and still have in my collection now and I expect I will still be mulling them over when I’m an old lady.
2. Which books did you love to read as a young child?
My family moved a lot when I was a child and there was another book I lost and never found another copy of, called Ellen Climbs a Mountain. I don’t even know who wrote it and I always hope someone might be able to tell me!
3. Which three attributes make for a great children’s book?
One of my favourite attributes of children’s literature is its capacity to show people how to enjoy things that might otherwise have seemed ordinary. It was Beverley Cleary’s Ramona Quimby who taught me that there was a special pleasure in having new flannelette pajamas and in being the first person to use a fresh tube of toothpaste and it could have been any one of Enid Blyton’s boarding school girls who introduced me to the fine practice of midnight feasting.
I also like the way children’s books can sometimes, without being preachy or moralistic, help readers of any age to understand certain sorts of kindness that are probably too complicated to explain directly.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I love the way Lucy intuits that Mr Beaver is shyly proud of his dam and that her praise would mean a great deal to him.
In Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, I like the way Rat comes to understand that Mole is being a pest only because he is terribly homesick and that compassion would be a much better response than impatience.
Finally, although it’s not right for every book, I think funny illustrations have a very important place in children’s stories. I can never read Roald Dahl’s Matilda without an indelicate snort at Quentin Blake’s first portrait of ‘the Trunchbull’.
The other day I was book shopping and had the same reaction to the dogs’ faces in Say Hello to Zorro, written and illustrated by Carter Goodrich. Hilarious.
4. What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?
In my opinion, lots of choice and not too much policing. The real joy of reading doesn’t properly begin until that amazing moment when you find that floating your eyes over a string of words can actually change the pictures you’re seeing in your mind. But you have to be a pretty accomplished reader to get to that point.
Once you’ve found that near-magical reading capacity, you can use it to explore all kinds of books, but I think children often get there via books that look a bit rubbishy to adults. So I think it’s important to be very tolerant of glitter, kittens, silly humour and anthropomorphic diggers and dinosaurs, and not risk dampening a delicate spark of interest by proffering Watership Down and David Copperfield (excellent though those books may be) too early.
5. Name three books you wish you’d written.
Anna Branford is a doll-maker, a sociologist, a collector of small things and the author of the Violet Mackerel books.