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Hilary McKay - Best Selling Children's Author.

Posted Sunday, July 1, 2007

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Hilary McKay - Award Winning Children’s Author:

Once upon a time there was magic in the air around Matlock which attracted and inspired people to write wonderful children’s stories... or was it perhaps something in the water which generated the spirit of eternal youth - or perpetual childhood?

Whatever it was, or is, it remains a fact that Derbyshire and the Matlock area in particular, have been `home’ to a number of successfully published children’s authors over the years, but perhaps none of them as prolific or as commercially successful as Tansley’s Hilary McKay.

`have been translated into over thirty different languages'

Hilary, whose forty or so children’s books to date have a global readership and have been translated into over thirty different languages, including both simple and complex Chinese, won the Whitbread Childrens Award in 2002 with her novel `Saffy’s Angel’ which has just been published in paperback. She joins an esteemed company of Matlock-based wordsmiths who have compiled some of Britain’s best-loved and most popular children’s fiction, among them novelists, poets and even major newspaper proprietors and publishers such as Matlock-born George Newnes, founder of Tit-Bits, The Strand and Country Life Magazine.

Newnes became a baronet in 1895 and a Liberal M.P. in 1900, and between 1922 and 1970 went on to famously publish the series of thirty eight `Just William’ books written by Richmal Crompton – herself a former pupil of St. Elphin’s School at Darley Dale, near Matlock!

Newnes also published Enid Blyton’s first children’s books before she was signed to Macmillan in 1949, the Sexton Blake books for boys and `The Tales of Robin Hood’ (1930).

Newnes, although known as a publisher rather than a writer, was a contemporary of Cromford-born Alison Uttley, (1884-1976), arguably Derbyshire’s most famous children’s author, who produced around one hundred books in her lifetime, writing her splendidly evocative country tales of Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig for the younger generation in the 1920’s.

Remarkably, Newnes birthplace in Matlock, Alison Uttley’s birthplace and former home at Castle Top Farm, Cromford, and Hilary McKay’s home at Tansley can all be encompassed within a two-mile radius of the Derwent Valley - around the town of Matlock.

So, - is there some kind of magic in the air around Matlock? I went along to Tansley to meet the author - and discovered another remarkable coincidence. Both Alison Uttley and Hilary McKay went directly from school to University, both trained as scientists – and both gave up promising careers in chemistry and physics to become successful children’s authors….

Indeed, exactly sixty years after Uttley’s seminal work, `The Country Child’ (1931) was published, McKay’s first book, `The Exiles’ – also written in Derbyshire, (two miles away from Uttley’s birthplace as the crow flies) - was also published to great acclaim and went on to win the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award in 1991.

Since then, she has become a household name in the world of children’s fiction and every publisher’s dream, for apart from winning the Whitbread Award, Hilary has the enviable distinction of NEVER having had anything rejected - everything she’s written has been accepted for publication!

Her second book, `The Exiles at Home’ (1993) won the Nestle Smarties Gold Award for the 9 to 11 year old category, and was declared overall winner – and for fifteen years ever since children the world over have been avidly following the quirky exploits of the families Conroy, Robinson & Brogan, and latterly, the Casson family through a series of stories told in around forty successful children’s books.

Derbyshire is Hilary’s adopted county, for she was born in Boston, Lincolnshire. Her father was an engineer and her mother, a nurse, and Hilary was the eldest of four girls in a family completely devoted to books, indeed her uncle was also a writer – of war books! She read voraciously from a very early age, and of her childhood she says:

“I anaesthetised myself against the big bad world with large doses of literature, the local library was as familiar to me as my own home”.

Hilary’s favourite books as a child were numerous, and she says:

“The first I can remember loving was (of course) `Winnie the Pooh’, and others that spring to mind now are Joan Aiken’s `Black Hearts in Battersea’, Tolkien’s `Lord of the Rings’ (she has a full set of Tolkien!), Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s `Little Prince’, and Rosemary Sutcliffe’s `Eagle of the Ninth’. At about eleven I found out what a book could be. An alternate life.

I had three sisters by this time, and a secondary school I hated so much I prayed every night for it to burn to the ground, so how lucky I found that book! And all the others, like Aspley Cherry-Garrad’s `Worst Journey in the World’, that was a treasure, and Laurence Durrell, Thurber, Malory……”

Hilary’s reading continued as her childhood ended and after her schooldays she went on to read Botany and Zoology at St. Andrew’s University (Scotland) and then worked as a `public protection scientist’, becoming a biochemist in an analysis department.

“I enjoyed the work, but also had a burning desire to write, so after my two children were born (a boy & a girl) I gave up my job to concentrate on writing and bringing them up.”

Fifteen years and around forty successful books later, the secret of Hilary’s success is easy to discern as she says, “ I read a lot. I write for entertainment, and I do what I do because I like children and I like books. Simple as that.”

The author immerses herself in her subject and is surrounded by children in her everyday life, helping to run the local school library and helping out with the Brownies. She relates every day to the children, chatting with them to find out what they’re reading, what they like and dislike, and has developed an amazing capacity to empathise completely with children of all ages from four to fourteen, and beyond.

She told me: “You have to be capable of doing a sort of instant time switch in your brain, from adult thinking to relating to children, that’s the secret.”

Hilary says that one of the best things about being a children’s writer is the letters she gets from children, and she wishes that she had written to authors as a child, but says it never occurred to her.

“Feedback from readers is fantastic, I love it and answer every letter that arrives with an address, and I get lots of letters from children who identify with the characters in the books”.

Hilary’s latest characters are members of the Casson family, who first appear in `Saffy’s Angel’ and again in `Indigo’s Star’, `Permanent Rose’ and `Caddy Ever After’, and Sally Lodge, writing in Publisher’s Weekly (Feb.’06) states:

“Abundant humour and affection among (her) characters mark Hilary McKay’s novels chronicling the frequent ups and downs in the lives of four siblings, all named after colours of paint by their artist parents”.

Hilary points out that although both she and husband Kevin are painters, (she is a member of Matlock Artists Group), and she grew up the eldest of four sisters… that none of the characters are based on her own experiences. Rather her novels entertainingly eccentric family members come “entirely and utterly from my imagination, I’m sorry to say!”

Karen Wojtyla, Hilary’s executive editor at McElderry Books believes that the appeal of Hilary’s stories is largely due to their “incredible humour and humanity. The author is able to get to the emotional core of every situation, but with such a light touch. She has impeccable comedic timing. These novels speak to kids of a variety of ages, boys as well as girls”.

They also speak to dyslexic children in specially printed editions via publisher Barrington Stoke (Edinburgh) in the UK, and Simon & Schuster in the US. and Hilary also has a picture book with Hodder in the offing written especially for dyslexic children. She told me:

“I’ve been involved for ten years, and writing for dyslexia is a very specialised field in which you have to choose your words very carefully, for example, you can’t use words ending in ght, like blight, drought or brought, and the plots have to be very strong. Even colour has to be considered, and the text is printed on pale yellow paper, not white. I enjoy it, I like the strong plots, and I’m happy that these projects enable dyslexic children valuable access to literature”.

Hilary, who also incidentally, loves cats and enjoys gardening, works every day, “usually after the children go to bed”, and her prolific output is set to continue with her current novel, `December Rose’ which is scheduled for completion by the end of October.

Finally, I asked her advice for aspiring authors, and she said:

“Don’t take it too seriously. There are plenty of books out there people can be going on with until you get it together. And if you don’t, it’s not the end of the world. Readers are the ones that matter, not writers……”

It’s true. There is definitely magic in the air around Matlock that inspires certain people to write – and Hilary McKay is living proof!

 
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