Katherine Rundell is a bestselling author whose novels for children include Rooftoppers, The Wolf Wilder, The Explorer and The Good Thieves. She has won the Costa Children’s Book Award, the Blue Peter Book Award and the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, amongst many others. Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide.
During a recent interview for Your Kid’s Next Read podcast to discuss her new novel Impossible Creatures, I was able to insert a few wily questions about her writing process, precise use of language and lyrical style to draw out some top tips for writers – and they’re well worth your attention.
1. Limitations drive story
“The limitations [you place on a character or in a setting] are the things that force your imagination to bend in new and exciting ways. For the same reason that sonnets are the best poems because the minute that you put a constriction on yourself, your imagination has to boil so that it becomes liquid so that it can fit into those new shapes,” says Katherine.
“So that’s what happened [when I was forced to confront the fact that my character can only fly when the wind blows] … but it is also true that there were days where I would sit there and think ‘for goodness sake Kate you could have just not put that in and this would have been a much easier scene for all of us’.”
2. Don’t shy away from big themes in middle-grade fiction
“Children can handle more than the adults in their lives are sometimes willing to allow,” Katherine says. “I remember very vividly as a child constantly coming up against the darkness of the world. Children are aware of climate change, they’re aware of war, I experienced a great deal of death when I was young…
“I wanted to give children the idea that this world we live in is miraculously beautiful and also it has pain and darkness in it. So [Impossible Creatures] is in some ways about the idea that if you could look at both, if you could see all of us in the round, in all our glory and all our horror, would you say yes, or would you say no to humanity?
“So [Impossible Creatures] asks that question and the thing that the book concludes is that the chaos is very great but far larger than the chaos is the miracles.”
3. Young readers deserve beautiful sentences
“I think often of Zadie Smith’s writing advice,” says Katherine. “When people ask her how to write beautifully, she answers, ‘well, you need to go back in time and become a child who read a lot’.
“So I think my writing is partly that, but it is also partly that I have another job as a fellow at Oxford University, teaching Shakespeare and [the Renaissance poet] John Donne. John Donne believed that it matters how you say a thing because if you say a thing clearly and freshly and beautifully enough it will put a fish hook through someone’s imagination and it will remain with them.
“If you say a thing beautifully enough you can carry it with you because the beauty makes it memorable, which makes it portable, which makes it part of you, part of your days.
“And so I always want to offer [my readers] beautiful sentences. I think they deserve beautiful sentences. I think that kids are often short-changed in the way of beautiful sentences and I think also, as children read, so will they write and so will they speak.
“I want to give kids this idea that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Because if you say it in a way that strikes someone as new, maybe you will cut through their inattention and leave them gasping and alive. That’s the thing that John Donne teaches us and that’s the thing that I’m trying to teach my students.”
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids – The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries – and a new contemporary middle-grade novel The First Summer of Callie McGee. A presenter at AWC, Al co-hosts the Your Kid’s Next Read podcast. Find out more about Allison at allisontait.com.