In the post Harry Potter age readers have become used to a dizzying number of new children’s books. It’s expected that your favourite author will produce a new title every year, as surely as the tide pushes the sea onto the shore. Most have their day in the sun and are washed away when the next wave hits. I’m somewhat awed by this unceasing work ethic, but am even more impressed by SF Said, a rare contemporary children’s writer who instead of drawing pictures in the sand chooses to carve them in stone, labouring over many years to create stories that will stand the test of time.
His first two books about Varjak Paw took the seemingly throwaway concept of a Kung Fu cat and treated it with the utmost seriousness. The philosophical weight of ‘the way’, Varjak Paw’s version of ‘the force’ is something that young readers can really believe in. The follow up, Phoenix was even more ambitious, a space opera of Valkyrian proportions that took him seven years to complete.
These are the sort of books that people will want to keep and pass on to their own children. But what were the books that SF has held on to since childhood?
The book that first got me excited about reading
The Cat In The Hat is the first book I can remember. I was three years old when my uncle read it to me, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I wanted the cat to come to my house and smash everything up!
The sheer anarchy of it was thrilling. It showed me that in books, things could be different: bigger and better and more exciting than real life. I think at that moment, I fell in love with reading, and I’ve never looked back.
The book I most wanted to write
I read Watership Down when I was 8, and thought that this was by far was the best book I’d ever read. And I remember thinking that one day, I wanted to try and write something that was even half as good as it.
I re-read Watership Down when I was 35, and I thought it was even better. At 8, I’d seen a thrilling adventure story about rabbits; now I saw politics, philosophy, mythology, all working together on different levels.
It was amazing to realise how deeply it had shaped my own imagination. I can see the roots of everything I want to do as a writer in that book, especially the way that Richard Adams integrates the myths of the rabbits with their real lives. I can’t imagine any of my books existing without Watership Down existing first.
The book I read so much it fell apart
I’ve always loved comics. My favourite childhood reading included Asterix, Tintin, Peanuts, Mad Magazine and Marvel Comics. I was forced to give most of these away in my teens, when my mum somehow managed to persuade me that I didn’t need them any more (she was wrong; I had to re-buy them in adulthood!)
But I could never quite let go of the Asterixes, and the physical evidence shows that these were the books I re-read so often they fell apart. I think they had everything: great stories, brilliant characters, endlessly entertaining humour, a fascinating world, and of course beautiful art that you could look at forever and never get bored. And this is probably the reason why I want my own books to be highly illustrated, and why I feel so lucky to work with the great Dave McKean.
The book I read as a teenager that blew my mind
At the end of my teens and in my early twenties, I finally discovered Ursula Le Guin, and her books completely blew my mind. I knew I wanted to be a writer of some sort, but adult literary fiction just wasn’t doing it for me. Then I read A Wizard Of Earthsea, and realised that children’s literature was the place for me.
It proved that this was a form capable of accommodating the stories I wanted to tell: great big mythic stories, full of thrilling action and resonant ideas. Earthsea is about wizards and dragons on one level, but it’s also about imagination and language, philosophy and spirituality; it’s about how to live, and what it means to be alive.
I went on to read the other Earthsea books, and then her adult science fiction books, and every single one of them blew my mind, too. So although I didn’t discover Le Guin in childhood, she remains one of my deepest influences, and Earthsea is something I look at again most years, to refresh that inspiration.
A book that I discovered late in life which had a profound effect
It wasn’t just the compulsive page-turning storytelling, or the richly imagined worlds and characters. It was the ideas, most of all; the sheer intellectual ambition of the thing. I remember the spine-tingling moment when I realised what Pullman was up to: that every single question about human existence was up for grabs here.
As I went on to read the whole His Dark Materials trilogy, and realised that these were children’s books with room for shamans, angels and dark matter physicists alike, I felt again what I’d felt with Earthsea and Watership Down: that children’s literature was capable of infinite richness and depth, and that this was exactly the kind of book I wanted to write myself one day.
One of my own books
My aim is to write great big epic myths, like Watership Down, Earthsea, or His Dark Materials. Varjak Paw means a lot to me, and always will. But I think of all my books so far, Phoenix comes closest to my aspirations.
The story spans an entire galaxy, and brings together ancient mythology with cutting-edge space science. The main characters are a human boy who has the power of a star inside him, and an alien girl who is the most brilliant warrior in the galaxy. Together, they have to save the galaxy, because the stars are falling from the sky and dying.
The books that inspired me have set the bar very high, and I know I may never achieve my ambitions. Writing is not easy for me. It’s something I’ve had to learn the hard way, through endless drafts, and I’m still learning all the time. But I hope to get even closer with my next book, TYGER, which I’m writing right now!