Could you tell me why you chose to explore this idea of ‘the outsider’ in children’s books? It’s also a theme that is core to your own book, Shelter.
I grew up in the Forest of Dean and it’s somewhere that’s really dear to me. It is a strange little place. The inspiration for writing Shelter came to me in 2011 when the government tried to sell off the forest. I was outraged by the idea that a living landscape, something that belongs to the people who live in it and depend on it, could be sold by outsiders for profit.
I also thought about the Second World War and its impact and repercussions on a close-knit, long-established, traditional community. The make-up of the community of the Forest of Dean changed suddenly, rapidly and completely during this time because the population pretty much doubled with outsiders. These were evacuees from the inner cities, American GIs (storing D-Day munitions in the old mineshafts), “Lumber Jills”(to cut down the forest) and hundreds of Italian and German POWs held in a camp nearby.
When you approached me about this interview I thought it would be really interesting to consider what happens to people and places, when outsiders move in.
Top of your list is Danny Champion of the World (1975) by Roald Dahl. This choice intrigued me as, unlike your other book choices, the outsider is not the most sympathetic character, he’s the really evil one.
It’s Victor Hazell. He comes in to this community and he doesn’t understand how things are done and he tries to bring in abrupt changes, mostly to line his own pockets. Danny and his dad aren’t going to let him get away with this – and they do so in increasingly imaginative and hilarious ways. It’s glorious. It’s softer and gentler than the other Roald Dahl books.
I knew people who were like the characters in this book. I recognised them. It was such a good story. It felt like my world and it connected with me as a little kid because I grew up in a forest and it’s all about the woods and going into the woods—these things were just completely familiar to me. Danny seemed plausible to me. I was very much inclined not to be on the side of Mr Victor Hazell.
Honestly, I have never quite trusted people who say, “My favourite Roald Dahl is Matilda.” I tend to think, ‘you just don’t understand, you have to read Danny Champion of the World!‘ It’s one of those books that I’ll read and reread.
Tell me about your next choice, Goodnight Mr. Tom (1981), which is set during World War II.
The evacuees in this book are the obvious outsiders. This is the story of how the rescuer and the rescued bring salvation to each other. Although the evacuee boy, Will, is the obvious outsider, Tom, a reclusive and taciturn older man, is in many ways just as much of an outsider in his own village. The boy puts him back in touch with his feelings and makes life meaningful for him again.
It is a lovely story. Tom’s loyalty towards Will—once he has allowed this boy into his life—is amazing and I think that is a really strong message for a young person. As a kid I remember finding this very powerful.
“All I did as a child was read about people who didn’t fit in in one way or another–this was me making sense of my life.”
I grew up in the 70s and —my dad was 10 when the war ended—so the end of the war then was only where the 80s are today. It would be like reading a book about Bananarama now or LiveAid. It felt really close to me, it didn’t feel historical.
Is Goodnight Mr Tom a kind of crossover book? Do adults read it even though it’s aimed squarely at children? It does contain some distressing scenes – readers should be prepared for this.
It’s considered a children’s book. It is usually shelved in the upper end of 8 to 12. Although you’re right, it could sit in the normal fiction section quite easily.
Exactly. Everybody should read this.
Tell me about your next choice, Puddles in the Lane (1979).
I love reading about the Second World War. Goodnight Mr. Tom took me to Puddles in the Lane because I sought out more books on a similar theme. Like Michelle Magorian in Goodnight Mr Tom, Alan Parker was writing about things he knew. He has created a real detective story and it’s really visual. It does make me giggle, because it was only recently that I found out that it is written by Alan Parker, the film director.
The boys, who are evacuees from London, are staying in this dark, old house in the West Country with two old spinsters and their freaky servant. They and their sisters are all living with families who aren’t their own and this teaches them how to make sense of the grown-up world, of other ways of living and of good and evil. As outsiders in a new environment the boys find out that they can do things that they previously, as city kids, could not have dreamt of. They adopt and love this new landscape and do not want to leave.
Book no. 4 on your list is The Middle of the Sandwich (1983) by Tim Kennemore.
I feel sometimes like I’m the only person in the world who’s read this book. It’s tiny. I think it’s hundred pages. It’s about a girl from a single parent family. She is quite shy, used to keeping her own company and not doing much. Her mother has to convalesce after a major operation. Her mum needs to recover. So she, Helen, is sent to live with her aunt. The aunt is a practical, no-nonsense, beloved primary school teacher. She has her life all set up and now she must accommodate this child. But the girl is just miserable. The new school she must attend is tiny – only about 40 kids – so it is even harder to integrate than if it had been a larger school.
“You can’t really be an outsider in a city in the same way as you can where nothing has changed much in remembered history… As someone coming into a city, you are part of its change, its dynamism.”
It’s a weird no-man’s land to her and she is isolated. Her mum is sick and we learn that her father died some time ago. The aunt is both sympathetic and terrifying at the same time. She’s just sort of practical and bossy. She is doing her best. But she can’t quite reach the girl.
The story is about what Helen learns about herself as much as about everything else, which I think is important. I must have read this when I was quite new in secondary school when so much was changing for me. I think when you move somewhere new there are all the hidden codes that you don’t know or understand. All the way through, you really feel for her because she’s trying really hard and doesn’t quite know how to do it. It is an unexpectedly funny book and very positive in many ways.
Let’s talk about your last book.
Flambards (1967) starts with the fox, from the point of view of the landscape. Christina is an orphan from the city and very much the outsider. The family doesn’t understand her and she doesn’t understand them. Then there is Will, who is the outsider in his own family because he can’t bear the horse riding. There is a whole terrifying piece at the beginning of the book where he cripples himself by walking up and down on a broken leg until it won’t bend so that he won’t have to ride a horse.
The beautiful irony of that is that what he really wants to do is fly a plane—a thing which seems much more terrifying to everybody else at that time because it’s set in the early days of flight around the World War I. To his family, horses are the safe and known thing and not scary.
“I think kids, especially kids who read a lot, are probably more likely to not quite fit in—but you learn so much about life as a kid from books”
Christina is the obvious outsider but her impact and influence are beneficial. She cares for people and she wants to get on with them. In doing so, she normalises them and, simply by being in their midst, she literally changes their eco-system. In a way it’s a coming-of-age book because she is about sixteen.
I think kids, especially kids who read a lot, are probably more likely to not quite fit in—but you learn so much about life as a kid from books. I suspect that is the reason all my choices are thirty years old and relate to my own reading and circumstances. All I did as a child was read about people who didn’t fit in in one way or another—this was me making sense of my life.
My choices are also, by-and-large, set in the countryside. You can’t really be an outsider in a city in the same way as you can where nothing has changed much in remembered history. As someone coming into a city, you are part of its change, its dynamism. In a small community, a newcomer stands out and can be an agent of change. An outside observer can be an opportunity for seeing the things that are unquestioned and taken for granted a-fresh.
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