This summer both my girls discovered and devoured books by Lou Kuenzler. A specialist in funny books just right for 5-10 year olds, Kuenzler had a hard time writing and reading as a child; she has dyslexia, and is left handed, but was made to learn to write with her right hand. Stories, however, were always part of her life. On the sheep farm where she grew up, she often told stories to her pet ferret. Later on she developed a passion for telling tales in a theatrical setting: Lou was a theatre director, university drama lecturer and workshop leader in communities, schools and colleges before becoming a writer full-time.
Her Shrinking Violet series has been a huge hit with the Mrs Pepperpot lovers I’ve nurtured here at home; Violet is normal child sized who has the unfortunate habit of shrinking unexpectedly resulting in all sorts of problems… and clever solutions.
Lou’s latest series is based around a very clumsy princess’s adventures at a posh princess academy. Given that elegance doesn’t come naturally, Princess Disgrace has a hard time fitting in and has to learn that it’s worth persevering when things don’t work out the first time.
Given my girls’ love for these books I took the opportunity to ask Lou about the books she really loves, her ‘Desert Island Books’ and here’s what she had to say:
“Thank you so much for inviting me to share my “Desert Island” book choices with you, I am actually pretty excited imagining how lovely it would be to have enough peace and quiet to read all these wonderful books again with the waves lapping my toes and no interruptions except a couple of screeching gulls. It was a tough choice but, in the end, I settled on these eight partly for their their sheer story-telling power but, also, for the part each some have played in helping me to become a children’s writer myself.
The Borrowers by Mary Norton.
I often think it was my love of these tiny light-fingered folk living beneath the floorboards of an ordinary house that inspired me to invent my Shrinking Violet character. Suddenly becoming the size of a fish finger, she too is able to share that miniature view of the big wide world. I remember especially enjoying the second book in the series, The Borrowers Afield, madly searching under stones on my parents’ farm, desperately hoping I would find a borrower of my own now that they had left the house and come to live in the country. I never did find one … but I haven’t stopped looking.
The Far Distant Oxus by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock.
Written in 1937, this is a wild pony adventure set on Exmoor without an interfering adult in sight. The authors were young teenagers when they wrote it (penning alternate chapters and sending a copy of the finished manuscript to their hero, Arthur Ransome. He was so impressed, he took it to his publishers and they agreed to release the book with a glowing introduction by Ransome himself). When I first read the story as a child, I was thrilled by the idea that two young girls could get published. It gave me the confidence to keep going with the stories I was writing myself. In the end, it took me a lot longer than Hull and Whitlock to get published but they definitely gave me my first spark of hope.
How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban.
I love picture books and would definitely have to have at least one on my desert island. I have chosen this brilliantly defiant story, hilariously illustrated by Quentin Blake, as it was firm favourite with both my children. I have wonderful memories of us all nearly falling off the bed we were laughing so hard when I read it one night.
Skellig by David Almond.
When I first became really serious about writing for children, I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by David Almond. He offered firm criticism, fabulous advice and a few calm words of encouragement – enough to keep me going through many false starts, drafts and rewrites on my way to becoming a published author. Skellig is a book which makes the heart sing – not only for the wonderful writing but for its understanding of how subtle and sophisticated the child reader can be.
Room Full of Chocolate by Jane Elson.
Once I was published, I began to run writing workshops myself. Jane was a student of mine at City Lit in London where I teach an evening class in Writing Children’s Books. Like me, she is dyslexic and we instantly connected, understanding each other’s, often rather topsy-turvy, way of seeing the world. From the very first time I heard an early draft of this magical story, I knew it was something special. A funny and emotional page-turner about friendship and a child’s fear of loss … with a brilliant pot-bellied pig as well. What more could anyone want?
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter.
I love this story and have read it many times since I first discovered it as a teenager. It was the first adult book that made me realise the fascination with myth and fairy tale can last well beyond childhood.
Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear.
I have always loved the sheer side-slitting silliness of these verses. They would certainly bring a smile to my face on any desert island and be sure to spark off some rhyming attempts of my own too.
Up The Line To Death (War poets 1914 -1918), edited by Brian Gardner
I have and reread these poems throughout my life, finding them particularly poignant in this centenary of the outbreak of WW1. If I was allowed to save just one book from the waves, this might be the one – though it would make for strange and thoughtful reading all alone in the middle of sea.”
My thanks to Lou for sharing her selection of books today. I’m going to use this list to introduce some of these books to my two girls – I’m sure they will be keen to try books that mean so much to an author they’ve hugely enjoyed reading.