1. Which genre of children’s books do you like most and why?
Surrealistic comedy adventures. One thing most of the best ones have in common is that they don’t patronise children. I’ve always believed in reading (and writing) ‘up’. If there’s something a reader doesn’t understand then that’s okay. I avoid whimsy, fantasy and ‘issue-based’ fiction like the plague. Also anything with cats. Apart from the The Cat in the Hat.
2. Which books did you love to read as a young child?
I don’t read any children’s books now so all my choices would be books I read as a child. I LOVED Dr Seuss and still do. Apart from comics (which I lived for), I devoured adventure books like The Famous Five and Secret Seven by Enid Blyton and the Biggles books by Capt WE Johns, without ever thinking they were ‘great books’.
The first works that I thought were both enjoyable and genius were the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle. Funny, original and fresh, they tell the story of Nigel Molesworth and his various schemes at St Custards. Wonderful.
I loved the Just William books by Richmal Crompton, the Professor Branestawm series by Norman Hunter. I loved these books and they were a big influence, as was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster (which I had the pleasure of illustrating a cover for a Harper Collins edition).
The Alice books I also loved (and still do). I suppose my taste ran to absurd comedy and adventure which is pretty much what my children’s stuff is now, Mort being a prime example.
3. Which three attributes make for a great children’s book?
Wow. OK, I’ll try.
Number one: It must be a page turner. As a child – and now – I have no patience with books that feel like eating muesli without milk. I don’t care about the angst, just give me smugglers and pirates and monsters and comedy and danger and cliff-hanger endings and miraculous escapes and weird powers. An example of a perfect page turner might be something like the Stormbreaker books by Antony Horowitz or Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl‘ stuff (I lied about never reading children’s books). I felt that Harry Potter should have been like this but, for me anyway, wasn’t.
Number two: Someone should die. All my favourite children’s writers killed characters off (often, as with Roald Dahl, before the narrative begins). Children need to find out early that life can be tough (even if they only read about it). If no-one dies, then bad things should be allowed to happen. If there’s no believable danger, there’s no thrill.
Number three: It shouldn’t be a picture book. This is a very selfish one. I know there are lots of great picture books. It’s just that I (and bear in mind I’m an illustrator) always feel that picture books are for the parents. Other than Dr Seuss, I think all picture books are really aimed at parents not children. Even Where The Wild Things Are, which is probably loved by millions is really for the adults. My kids enjoyed some great picture books as youngsters but the books they loved were ones they chose, or found. A case in point is Shaun Tan. As an artist I love his work. I’m not sure I’d find a single child who would enjoy his stuff. But I’m bitter so maybe my opinion doesn’t count.
4. What is your number one tip for encouraging children to read?
Don’t make them read boring books. My brother was forced to read Northanger Abbey at school at the age of (I think) about 11. He never recovered.
5. Name three books you wish you’d written.
I’m assuming these would be children’s books? If so then they’d be: Harry Potter, for obvious reasons (although mine would have been better). For anyone who has been living on Mars, that’s by JK Rowling. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Lastly, it would probably be Horton Hears a Who by Dr Seuss.
After time spent as Creative Director with the London design company he co-founded, Martin moved between the US and UK for five years before eventually emigrating to Australia where he has been based since 2004. In addition to his books for children, Random House will be publishing his debut crime fiction novel in 2012. He lives in Lennox Head in northern NSW and is married with two teenage children.
Stay tuned for my review of Mortal Combat: Time’s Running Out.