Tell me about your first choice, The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde.
This was the first sad book I really loved. I’m sure most people know the story, but for those who don’t, it’s about the affection of a bird for this prince who is a statue, and the fact that the swallow doesn’t want to leave the prince. The swallow stays too long and dies of cold. It’s really, really heartbreaking. But for some reason you want to read it again and again. It’s a sort of an extraordinary love story. It really is exquisitely written.
What do you think it is about sad books that makes, us want to read them again and again?
I think the books that really make a difference are the ones that touch the deepest part of you. We like to laugh and we need to laugh. But I think we also know we can feel loss and we can feel pain. And we can empathise with other people’s loss and pain. Maybe this is the way we can feel we are not alone. If you read about feelings of loss and pain in a book you can relate to it.
My book War Horse is a case in point. It’s been made into this extraordinary play with the horses been played by giant puppets. If you go to the theatre you can see 1,000 people coming out of the performance and a large proportion of them have been crying their eyes out for the last two hours. They identify with the great sadness of the First World War. It’s a release for them to cry in the same way it’s a great release for us to read a book and feel both grief and joy.
Some would argue that children shouldn’t be reading books that make them cry and feel sad. What would you say?
I think it is deeply patronising to assume that children only like to have laughter. It’s a complete misunderstanding of the human condition to think understanding grief somehow suddenly begins when you are an adult and before that we must just be amused. The fact is that children have to face, and do face, joy and losses and that should be reflected in what they read. Otherwise what they read will simply be superficial. We need superficial from time to time but we also need what resonates deeply.
When some people talk to children it’s almost as if they are talking to kids in a pram. They put on a silly voice and want to make them gurgle and smile. We somehow don’t grow out of it. But there comes a point when the children grow out of it for you, because they start looking at the world around them and they know it’s a place which is complicated. Happy families are fine for when you are little but they don’t always exist in real life.
Children look around them and they can see growing difficulties in the world that they are going to have to come to terms with… whether it’s to do with war, or the environment, or whatever. All these things are on the television. Whether we like it or not children take it on board and a book has got to reflect that.
Your next choice is from The Just So Stories.
Yes, I’ve picked the story of ‘The Elephant’s Child’. It’s pure nostalgia. It was the first book I was ever read and the first book I ever wanted to hear again and again and again simply because I just love the language of it. I love the music and the words and the way he writes, things like, ‘the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees’. I haven’t got a clue what any of it meant, but it didn’t matter. It was just a wonderful way of dropping richness into his language and it makes you smile and feel joyful to be alive.
It’s also enormous fun. It’s one of those books that are so silly and every child knows it’s silly too. It’s so wonderfully contrived and it’s also the dream of every child to get their own back on the world of adults. Here you have a naughty elephant who asks far too many questions and is always being slapped and hit by every relation that he has got. The elephant goes off and asks the question which he absolutely shouldn’t ask of a crocodile and gets a long nose. Then he comes back with his long nose and slaps every relative who has ever ticked him off. It’s payback time for the elephant.
Your next book is A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear.
I don’t remember much about my grandfather except that he was an old man with a beard and he used to sit me on his lap. He had a great tweed suit and smoked a pipe, so his beard smelt of tobacco. I remember putting my fingers in his beard and he would read me these wonderful rhymes, and there were those extraordinary drawings as well which I can see as I am speaking to you. They were wonderful caricatures, someone with a long nose, or someone with a beard or someone with very long legs. But most of all I just loved to hear the jingles. I think it was the music in words that attracted me to words. So the beginning of my enjoyment and love of poetry started with Edward Lear.
This is the first book that I ever read on my own and I take great pleasure and pride in that. It was the first book where I really identified strongly with the boy Jim in it. He was about the same age as I was when I began reading it.
What’s really wonderful about the book is that everything is credible, so much so, that I think that it was the first book where I was really able to live inside the hero of the story. I was in that barrel of apples on the deck of the Hispaniola overhearing the plans for the mutiny Long John Silver was making.
Until that moment Jim thought Long John Silver was wonderful and very charismatic and all the rest of it and here he is revealed as this dastardly character. And then Jim joins the right side and they triumph. RL Stevenson is the writer that I would like to grow up to be!
What about your last book, The Red Badge of Courage?
It’s the story of a very young soldier, about 14 or 15 years old, in the American Civil War, and it’s about him fearing that he’s a coward. He runs away and finds himself and finds the courage to come back and take his place alongside his fellow soldiers. I think in the heart of almost every man and woman there is this fear that if you were put in that position where you had to show courage, your courage might fail you. Increasingly as I get older I know that to be the case. It’s a book that encourages you to believe that you can do it. It’s not about the violence of war but about how people manage to get through it.
You often choose to write about war as well.
Yes. I’ve just finished a book called The Kites are Flying, which I think is life affirming in the same way as my last book choice. It’s a book about a wall. And it’s very interesting because people have been talking a lot about the Berlin Wall coming down. The people who pulled it down were children in the sense that they had been children and saw this wall around them as they were growing up. And when they got older they decided to pull it down.
My story is about a reporter who goes to Palestine to find out about the wall that the Israelis have put up to protect themselves from the Palestinians. The Israelis naturally see it as some form of protection while the Palestinians resent it. There are two children in the book living on either side of the wall. One starts sending messages across the wall with a kite and eventually his faith is rewarded because the Israeli children get together and send all the kites back with their messages of goodwill. The book is all about the hope and the promise that in the end the children will put it right – which will happen.
It’s seems inconceivable at the moment, but that is what happened with East and West Germany. So it’s a book about peace and a book about hope. We are in the middle of a conflict which is touching the world in such a disastrous way in that people take sides, and the whole point of this book is to show that if you stop taking sides you can work it out.