Hilary McKay

What books did you read when you were a child?
Enid Blyton started me off as a serious book-a-day reader, when I was about eight. My friend Wendy gave me her battered copy of Five on a Treasure Island. At that time Enid Blyton was not stocked in libraries and banned by my father on the grounds of ‘not-literary enough’. However, WHSmith stocked the lot and let me sit on the shop floor and read them for free.

A few months before I had been stuck for weeks on one word in a school reading book. Being terrified of the class teacher I had to wait until Parent’s Day to find out what it said. ‘Scamp’ read my mother, and at last I could turn the page.

Enid Blyton took me from that to complete fluency, so I went straight through Joan Aiken, Arthur Ransome, all the Andrew Lang fairy books and was well onto Gavin Maxwell, Tolkien, and George Orwell by 10.

If you could be a storybook character who would you be?
At the moment, I would be The Wart in T H White’s Once and Future King. For all the difficulties that followed, he had a wonderful time with Merlin in the ancient forest.

What is the best thing about reading?
The places you go, and the people you meet, and the broadening of knowledge and the comradeship.

What is your all time favourite book?
I can’t really narrow it down to one, but perhaps The Tailor of Gloucester/. Where the Wild Things Are has the most perfect ending I know.

Other than reading books what is the most important thing a parent can do to help develop their children’s communication skills?
I am no authority, but I do think playing with words is important. Just playing, like you do with colours to finger paint, or bricks to build. Making up stories about nothing much. Words that rhyme. Words are so beautiful and varied - even better than colours. Ask your child ‘What does thunder make you think of?’ and listen to their answers. ‘Tell me another word for green/snot/rabbit/anything…’ and be silly with them. Invent new words, and use them.

How big a part did your parents play in encouraging your writing skills?
They encouraged us to read, so that was a great thing, but I’m not sure about writing. I remember sending a poem to a Brownie magazine when I was about 10 and they were pleased when it was published. I’m sure they gave me the stamp. They weren’t writers though, they were readers and story tellers.

How do you encourage your children or grandchildren to read, what books do you enjoy reading with them?
We read to them until they were quite old, I think we stopped some time after The Hobbit or Harry Potter age. We enjoyed reading them poems and non-fiction as well as stories. We used put the lights out and light candles and have ‘candle time’ and that was mostly poems. I also remember in particular John Burningham (Where’s Julius? over and over!). A Necklace of Raindrops until it fell to pieces, Where, Oh Where is Kipper’s Bear? until the battery in the torch at the end went flat. Enid Blyton. Of course.

Hilary McKay won the Guardian Fiction Prize for her first novel, The Exiles. She then went on to win The Smarties and The Whitbread (now the Costa) Award for The Exiles and Saffy’s Angel. The Skylarks’ War published to great critical acclaim and won The Costa Children’s Book Award in 2018 and is now available in paperback. Straw into Gold: Fairytales Respun has just launched and is a collection of clever retellings of well-known fairy tales. Hilary’s new book The Time of Green Magic will publish in September 2019.

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