Children’s author Helen Baugh explains why sharing picture books that inspire giggles is a great way to encourage children to read.
Helen, your books are full of mischief and fun but explore important ideas – how do you do that?
With The Witch with an Itch, the witch’s character IS fun and mischievous – she’s very feisty, quirky and charming – but like all of us she still has a lot to learn, which is where her itch comes in. In the first book the itch takes the role of her conscience and teacher, but it can also act as a guardian angel to protect her from harm.
Basically, if the witch is doing something wrong then it won’t be too long before the itch shows up to nudge things back in the right direction. So the combination of fun and mischief plus the more serious role of the itch is integral to the series. The books couldn’t have one without the other.
In the first book, for instance, children tend to find it funny that the little witch gets so stroppy because her spells aren’t going to plan (thanks to her annoying itch). But the itch is there to teach her the importance of thinking of others, as the little girl in the story points out: “Just think up new spells that don’t hurt anyone, then your magic will work and your itch will be gone.”
So many people think of Julia Donaldson when they think of rhyming books. Who are your influences?
Julia Donaldson is a firm favourite in our family, but I wasn’t aware of her books until I had children of my own. When I was a child I particularly loved Dr. Seuss and I still do. We repeatedly read his stories to our daughters when they were young, too, because his books are such a complete package: full of wonderful language, pictures, humour and – often – great wisdom.
I’ve also got a massive soft spot for all sorts of silly limericks and irreverent rhymes. Spike Milligan and Roal Dahl spring to mind.
We love the Witch and the way she has to struggle with her temper. She isn’t perfect at all – and reminds me of a real child! How did you have such insight?
The little witch is very real to me too – I think I just wanted to give her lots of traits you’d find in small children. She’s probably a mix of my favourite children at different ages, all jumbled together.
To me, she’s a very lovable character but she certainly has her faults. That temper of hers that you mentioned comes out very strongly in the first book, for example. But at the same time, she’s very endearing. If anything, her faults and foibles make us warm to her even more. And they certainly make her more amusing!
The illustrations are delightful and add so much to the tale. In fact they are integral to the story. How do you and Deborah work together to do this?
Deborah’s work is amazing, isn’t it? She’s really captured the spirit of the little witch herself, but there are so many other lovely details all the way through the books, from the stunning nature scenes in The Witch with an Itch to the wonderful costumes in Dragon v Dinosaur.
But as is so often the case with picture books, Deborah and I actually worked in isolation on both books, with our publisher (Random House Children’s Books) co-ordinating the projects. So when Deborah’s initial pencil illustrations were emailed through to me to see for the first time, it was very exciting!
Where do you like to write?
Ha! I like to write by the sea in the sun, which I’ve been lucky enough to do on a couple of occasions, but mostly I write from a desk in our spare room at home. Sometimes I take the computer down to the kitchen to shake things up a bit! But essentially I work the same way as an author as I did in my former life as an advertising copywriter: I like to jot my initial ideas down in notebooks, but when it comes to the actual writing I’m definitely more productive at the computer.
How many times do you have to change your story until you get it right?
It varies from book to book. I’ve only had three stories published so far – soon to be four – but in every case I’ve made many small and major changes to the texts myself before sending the first drafts to the publishers, who then invariably push me to develop the stories further in ways I hadn’t thought of.
I work closely with my editors (Joe Marriott at Random House Children’s Books and Judith Brinsford at HarperCollins Children’s Books) and, perhaps surprisingly, there were more drafts for the second books in both cases. But every single one added something important.
Do you have any other projects going on?
I’ve got a new book coming out at the end of the year with a different but equally wonderful illustrator called Ben Mantle. It’s called Giant Jelly Jaws and the Pirates from HarperCollins Children’s Books, and it’s full of lots of salty characters like Captain Fish-Breath Fred and Butt-Beard Bob, plus a shrimp-sized cabin boy called Jake. Our last book together, Rudey’s Windy Christmas, inspired lots of giggles in lots of children, so hopefully this one will raise a few laughs too.
What are your top tips to get younger children enjoying stories?
Visit your local library and let children choose some books themselves, as well as picking a few you think might grab their interest. It will soon be obvious which ones are a hit, and you can build from there.
For younger children, in particular, stories are very intertwined with the person reading the book and the environment they’re in. The whole experience should be positive for the child in question and their needs at the time, whether that means cuddles and calmness and a favourite book at bedtime, or an adventure story with lots of silly voices and exuberant actions earlier in the day.
When my friend Jane’s son was little, he had access to all sorts of stories but his favourite bedtime ‘book’ was a catalogue, because he was obsessed with vacuum cleaners. And that’s fine. Whatever works for the children you love!