A native of Northern Ireland, Sam McBratney was a teacher in his 30s when he started writing children's books. He wanted to help children with reading problems. Now, with the 57th book of his career, "Guess How Much I Love You" has been issued in a pop-up version by Candlewick Press. All told, the book has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 37 languages. McBratney says he got his inspiration by telling "my children stories when they were young. So when I write, I try to think of what they would have liked."
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge, especially when you are starting out, is the challenge of what used to be called “the rejection slip”: you can write something that you value - but there is no prospect of getting it published. No one seems interested, the submitted text returns, and the writer is in a lonely place. Keep on writing!
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
To follow on from the last answer - keep on writing. It’s important to emphasize that writing is like learning a craft. There are chess prodigies, musical prodigies, illustrator prodigies - but you don’t get writing prodigies. You have to acquire enough experience (do enough work) to know what’s good and what to leave out. Many of the themes and techniques you develop will be useful to you later in your career, so don’t throw anything out. It’s amazing how much good early stuff can be broken up for scrap when you get round to know what you’re doing. Keep putting a value on your writing. Don’t expect instant success. Remember, it’s a skill that develops.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
I used to teach in primary school. The story-writing session was always a highlight of the week. Two ideas worked particularly well, in that they stimulated the imagination of the children. (1) Bring in a bunch of keys, interesting keys, and spend some time talking about what they might open - what they are guarding, what you might see if only you could get through there, etc. (2) With the class, build an Adventure Machine out of cardboard boxes - at least eight foot high, with a slot big enough to post a person through. (Lights, too, if you want to connect with the science curriculum.) The Adventure Machine stands tall in the classroom. It has buttons. These are labeled real life/ghost/ sci-fi (etc). Before each child posts her/himself through the slot and writes a story, he or she must press a button and choose a category (real-life, ghost, sci-fi, historical fiction, horror, etc).
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I don’t have a list, although Rip Van Winkle would be on it. This story was my first introduction (early 1950s) to the idea that the imagination of a writer can distort the conventional progression of Time. I well remember that I found it thrilling. There are moments/incidents from my childhood reading, the memory of which has never left me. Here are some of them.
- Robin Hood shoots an arrow, and says Bury me where it lands.
- The Lame Boy can’t keep up with his friends, and fails to make it through the mountain with the Pied Piper.
- After his sleep, Rip Van Winkle stumbles into town to find that no one knows him.
- David plants a stone in the forehead of Goliath.
- Jim Hawkins meets Ben Gunn on Treasure Island.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I work on several themes at once. Mostly the themes are mine; but publishers can suggest a way to go. For example, I live near Lough Neagh, the largest area of fresh water in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales. A publisher said to me, why don’t you write a story about The Lough Neagh Monster. So I did. In my story the Lough Neagh Monster meets his more famous cousin, Nessie.
How important is research in the development of your books?
Sometimes research is not important in the writing process - you develop plot and character according to the knowledge you have already, all is self-contained. On the other hand I have written historical novels and have tried to check the details. (Did whin bushes exist in Iron Age Ireland, or was gorse a later implantation?) When writing science fiction, you sometimes have to think hard to make a futuristic invention or creature plausible.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Reading with young children at the quiet end of the day seems to me like one of the most worthwhile things you can do. The benefits may last - who knows? For all of a lifetime. Older children ...? By the time I was, say, 12, I had read at least six westerns by Zane Grey. My dad left his books lying about the house. (Riders of the Purple Sage!) Perhaps there’s a hint there. But that was circa 1955. It’s a different world nowadays, with television and electronic thumbsies.
Can you tell us about any new books you will be working on in the coming year?
I’m delighted to be evolving a new set of stories about the Nutbrown Hares. My aim is to catch and highlight those special moments between a Big One and a Wee One, to make them amusing and true, and to render them with a light touch. I’m also working on a picture book that has been years in the making, like a fine wine.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
I studied Modern History and Political Science at Trinity College Dublin. The fascination of History abides with me: as a historian you can use your imagination but you can’t put a foot beyond the discipline of the facts. I see now that if I weren’t “making things up”, I would gladly have spent forty-odd years trying to discover what actually happened.