‘Let them daw­dle and learn by ac­ci­dent’ – why lau­re­ate wants new deal for chil­dren

In her first in­ter­view since tak­ing on the role, Lauren Child tells Vanessa Thorpe young­sters should be left alone to de­velop their own cre­ativ­ity

The Observer - - NEWS -

Chil­dren are of­ten told what’s good for them, but the ad­vice of the new chil­dren’s lau­re­ate may take them by sur­prise. Lauren Child, speak­ing for the first time since her in­vesti­ture in Hull this sum­mer, has a sim­ple mes­sage: just stare into space.

In an age of pre­scrip­tive talk about tar­gets and as­pi­ra­tions, Child, the cre­ator of the Char­lie and Lola books, plans to make a stand against the­o­ris­ing and goal-set­ting dur­ing her two-year ten­ure.

“Lost time is so lovely,” she says. “We have be­come so goal- ori­ented, so it is no longer enough to learn to play the Bea­tles’ hits on the pi­ano, you have to be­come a great pi­anist. Why can’t chil­dren do some­thing just for the sake of it?”

It is vi­tal, the best­selling au­thor ar­gues, for the young to day­dream and daw­dle if they are ever to de­velop a sense of their own per­son­al­ity. It is a the­sis she will ex­plain on a new web­site and in an in­au­gu­ral lec­ture in London on 19 Septem­ber.

“This sum­mer, I have thought a lot about our need to be cre­ative and how you dis­cover it by ac­ci­dent,” she says. “It was such an ex­cit­ing moment for me when my English teacher asked me to do some im­pro­vi­sa­tion in front of the class and I made peo­ple laugh.

“So I would like to talk about mak­ing time for these ac­ci­dents. We need to be aware that just hav­ing a go has a value. Chance in­ter­ac­tions can lead to some­thing big­ger. And it is some­thing chil­dren can do with­out hav­ing to join some­thing, or start some­thing up.”

Child, 51, is the fourth il­lus­tra­tor to be­come chil­dren’s lau­re­ate, an hon­our be­stowed by BookTrust, a char­ity, and spon­sored chiefly by Water­stones. She fol­lows artists Sir Quentin Blake, An­thony Browne and the out­go­ing lau­re­ate, Ob­server car­toon­ist Chris Rid­dell.

Child also writes longer nov­els for young adults, in­clud­ing the se­ries about se­cret agent Ruby Red­fort, as well as il­lus­trat­ing her own pop­u­lar books for younger chil­dren, the Char­lie and Lola sto­ries, which were made into three Bafta-winning an­i­mated se­ries for CBee­bies, and the Clarice Bean nov­els, which have sold six mil­lion copies.

Child’s lit­er­ary ca­reer it­self is some­thing of an ac­ci­dent. Grow­ing up in Berk­shire, she stud­ied art and then tried win­dow dress­ing and lamp­shade de­sign, as well as work­ing as an as­sis­tant to Damien Hirst.

“Work­ing for Damien was great, pri­mar­ily be­cause I had a job, but also be­cause I was mix­ing colours and it re­minded you how they work to­gether. I painted a lot of perfect cir­cles for him and that al­lowed my thoughts to drift. It was a me­chan­i­cal, con­cen­trated job but my mind was free.”

Child’s new web­site, Star­ing into Space, will in­vite young visi­tors to post de­tails of odd things they have spot­ted. She plans to con­trib­ute with a daily blog about items she has no­ticed in the street. “There is al­ways some­thing amaz­ing. Whether it is a sin­gle sock, or some­thing you over­hear peo­ple say­ing.

“I once found two raw steaks ly­ing on the pave­ment. I write it down in a note­book, or on the back of en­ve­lope. Of­ten it is a de­scrip­tion of some­body I have seen, like a tiny woman in a vel­vet trouser suit walk­ing along in New York, pulling a shopping cart. I can use her in a story one day. Ideas are made from these things.”

Child is about to start work­ing in­side her first pur­pose-built stu­dio above a shop near her home in north London. It is partly a re­ac­tion to the in­creased ac­tiv­ity in her house since the ar­rival of her adopted daugh­ter, Tues­day, five years ago. “I loved work­ing from home, but now my daugh­ter’s so­cial life is quite some­thing. Yes­ter­day a whole team of girls came round, dress­ing up and pop­ping their heads around the door.”

Hear­ing Tues­day, now seven, and her friends talk has con­firmed the writer’s sense of the ex­treme vo­cab­u­lary chil­dren are drawn to use. Her daugh­ter, adopted af­ter a Unesco-funded artists’ trip to Mon­go­lia, now con­trib­utes to Child’s vis­ual pro­cesses too.

“I love it if she comes in while I am il­lus­trat­ing, as she can see what I am do­ing. With the new book, A Dog With Nice Ears , she drew the dogs we have used on the end­pa­pers be­cause they look like Lola’s draw­ings.”

The pet-re­lated theme of this, the sixth Char­lie and Lola picture book, will be fa­mil­iar to Child fans af­ter her 1999 book I Want A Pet and the pop­u­lar That Pesky Rat story, about an an­i­mal in search of an owner. “My daugh­ter and I of­ten de­sign in our heads the ideal dog we would have and think what we would do with it and where it would sleep.”

Child is ap­pre­hen­sive about tak­ing up a position in the pub­lic eye, and sees her lau­re­ate­ship as “a re­spon­si­ble job, rather than an achieve­ment award”.

Her forth­com­ing lec­ture, staged by BookTrust at Riba in London, will be on the sub­ject of con­fi­dence and cre­ativ­ity. “I want to talk about the fact that chil­dren’s writ­ers ap­proach their work just as se­ri­ously as any other writer ap­proaches work.

“I have a slight worry that we are seen as chil­dren’s en­ter­tain­ers, par­tic­u­larly with the num­ber of co­me­di­ans who are now also writ­ing books for chil­dren. Many are very good and there is noth­ing wrong with them writ­ing them.

“What can be dif­fi­cult, though, is if a writer has had a great deal of at­ten­tion as a comic first, it can be an easy way for a pub­lisher to sell the books. Then, when there is so much pro­mo­tional em­pha­sis on peo­ple who are al­ready suc­cess­ful, pub­lish­ers lose out on all the younger, tal­ented writ­ers and il­lus­tra­tors that might come along.

“I am not say­ing that purely funny books shouldn’t be done, of course, it is just that I don’t re­ally see life like that.”

‘We have be­come so goal-ori­ented. It’s not enough to play the Bea­tles on the pi­ano, you have to be­come a great pi­anist now’

Pho­to­graph by Graeme Robert­son for the Ob­server

Lauren Child wants to be more than just a chil­dren’s en­ter­tainer.

The il­lus­tra­tor found fame with her Clarice Bean and Char­lie and Lola books.

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