Martin Waddell interviewed by Nikki Gamble

Martin Waddell is widely regarded as one of the finest contemporary writers of books for young people. Twice winner of the Smarties Book Prize - for 'Farmer Duck' and 'Can't You Sleep, Little Bear?' - he also won the Kurt Maschler Award for 'The Park in the Dark 'and the Best Books for Babies Award for Rosie's Babies. Among his many other titles are the novels 'The Haunting of Ellen'  'Tango's Baby'  and his trilogy about the troubles in Northern Ireland: 'Starry Night', 'Frankie's Story' and 'The Beat of the Drum'. He was awarded the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition for children’s literature. 

 You have just given a consummate performance reading your book to about 50 pre-school children and they were all captivated (and so were their parents). How important is it for teachers to be able to read aloud well?

When it comes to reading to young children, you have to perform. Waving the book above your head to show the picture does not work, young children really can’t see it properly, so your body and your voice have to take over from the picture. I had trouble today though, because I had a number of very wee ones right up front. I was caught between trying to entertain the adults at the back of the hall which means I have got to project my voice, and the little ones, who will be upset if I do anything too drastic. With a same age group you can gauge how much they can take with the body language

It is a big, big, big problem that you write the book a  one-to one reading in mind. But when it’s performed by a teacher in a class, then they have to read it differently to that one-to-one reading. So – there’s the problem: the very strength of a picture book is that the pictures are there to be read. Adults know how to read, they go from that line to line. Children don’t, they read the picture, and so when a parent is reading one to one, they let the children read the picture. But in a class context you’re doing it largely without the assistance of the illustrations.Even reading from Big Books  they can't see the illustrations properly and I find it too static. The book makes you stand in one place and when you are telling the story you need the freedom to move around.  

Did storytelling precede writing for you, as a creator of stories?

No, I wasn’t a storyteller until after I had become a writer.However,  I was read to an awful lot as a child. My mother and aunt were actresses, my uncle was an actor, and there were various writers and poets about the place, So I was used to people who not only could read, but also loved the process of reading aloud. They would translate the stories into my own background which made the experience very personal

It seems to me that many of your books are really love stories, concerned with the love between adults and children. Is that how you see them?

'Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?' is the bell ringer, the one that changed everything. Because it worked well, I’ve been trying to recreate that feeling ever since. Initially it was intuitive, and when I realised what I was doing it became deliberate. But the bottom line is that the story should be of significance primarily to a four or five year old without it being necessary to explain it to them. What I am trying to do through my stories is write 'Gone With the Wind' for the pre-school age group. 'Owl Babies' can be summarised as ‘I don’t like the dark and I want my mummy’ and 'Farmer Duck' is essentially ‘it isn’t fair’. Those are four year old emotions. The best picture books are, like Hamlet, a great big drama. The only difference is that these are a four year old's drama. The trick is doing it in a way that both parent and child will find it authentic. That’s why when people read the voice of Big Bear in 'Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?' in very gentle, very understanding, totally loveable tone …it’s totally WRONG! He’s not!  If you read my text he’s grunting and irritable. Children recognise that and at the same time they recognise the overwhelming love of Big Bear for Little Bear. 

I don't think I always get it right but an example of where the emotion works for adult and child is 'Sleep Tight Little Bear'  The story is about a small child gaining independence and beginning to move away. The idea arose when I was literally walking away from my son’s house and I got this feeling, ‘he’s finally gone, my last child, he’s gone.’ It’s the first time in the bear sequence that Little Bear has taken some power without permission, he made his choice. He caves in two minutes later, and makes the excuse that Big Bear is missing him. Kids will recognise that. There’s a progression in the bear sequence so it fits perfectly. The five books as they stand are a complete story in the sense that Little Bear has finally moved away from Big Bear.

You have worked with some outstanding illustrators to create what have become regarded as modern classics: Helen Oxenbury, Patrick Benson, Barbara Frith, to name a few. What is the process of finding the perfect illustrator?


It’s free flowing conversation over the course of a few months. When I work on the initial text of the book with my editors we might say ‘this is a Barbara’. With Sleep Tight it was obviously going to be illustrated by Barbara but  it doesn’t always happen like that. It’s a process of evolution as we work out what the book is about. Even though I have written the book, I don’t necessarily know what the focus is until we have been through that process.

The other side of the coin is that the artist may have a completely different objective, or it may be two years before they can fit it in. It is as much the artist’s choice as my choice. I am the word person but pictures must come from the artist, otherwise there will be no strength or unit.  It is a marriage. For instance, take the line in Owl Babies, ‘and she came’- The original text was ‘and she came soft and silent…”  Once we saw what Patrick Benson did with the owl we could not fit ‘soft and silent’ on the page. I got cross because I did not want to lose ‘soft and silent…’ I was insistent about keeping those words, and they appear on the next double spread. That decision had a knock on effect because it meant we had to lose some text earlier on. In effect we rebuilt the story to accommodate that picture. In a picture book, the picture must rule and it’s up to the author to fight to get the words right in that context.

Can you tell us how 'Farmer Duck' came about?

I had been thinking about the child in the play ground stamping his foot saying, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.” I had been playing around with that theme but I didn’t have anything to pin it on. In 1987 when I wrote the book, Sky Football wasn’t showing in Northern Ireland. But I had a cottage that I shared with a cousin where you could get the football. So I would go up to the cottage on a winter’s day and huddle by the fire with three coats on and watch the football.

On one occasion we were watching a dreadful game and I got totally bored. I opened up a book, and there was a picture of a duck, which my cousin must have drawn. At  the time she was about 64…but she must have drawn the duck when she was four or five years old. The drawing had her address inscribed on it - Derry. That’s when I got a refrain  in my head: 'There once was a duck called Derry de rock’, and the next line, ‘had the bad luck’……And then I got to think well, what bad luck would a duck have …. “To live with a lazy old farmer.” So then I had a lazy farmer and a duck.

Then I started wondering why living with a lazy old farmer would be bad luck for the duck.That's when I thought the duck does all of the work. Hold on! I thought this is Animal Farm. So I wrote Animal Farm for 'teeny-weenies'! And that was the birth of the book!

Initially I tried to write sentences for the plotting animals, but they only needed ‘moo’‘baa’ ‘cluck. I have often talked to children about expressive reading, and the example I give them is the quacks in Farmer Duck. I explain that all my stories have music and that the music in Farmer Duck is ‘the poor duck was sleepy, weepy, tired…sleepy, weepy, tired.' And if it’s going to work, the sentences before that need to become sleepy, weepy and tired. So we practise the quacks getting softer. Then I’ll take them to the other quacks in the book, because there’s a question mark 'quack'and there are the three different levels of irritation at the beginning.

So I ask them how does the duck feel? How does the duck feel when he’s carrying a sheep? Or chasing hens? Then I take them through the ‘moo, baa, cluck’, which I do as a conspiracy. So we’re plotting, ‘moo, baa, cluck.’Then there’s the concerted action to get rid of the farmer which is quick and urgent ‘moo, baa, cluck’ then there’s the triumph at the end, ‘moo, baa, cluck.’. All this expression and musicality is achieved with few words, all spelt the same way but expressing so many different things.


Thank you Martin Waddell for talking to Just Imagine


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