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Big interview: Clare Balding on becoming a children’s author

Clare Balding.
Clare Balding.
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Clare Balding has become a household name in recent years. Chris Bond spoke to the broadcaster and author as she returns to Yorkshire.

Clare Balding is no stranger to the charms of the Broad Acres, as she’s quick to point out to me. “I’ve done a lot of travelling in Yorkshire. I’ve walked the Dales Way, I’ve been to a lot of racing events and I’ve got a lot of friends there,” she says.

In September, the TV sports broadcaster and author returns when she’ll be among the star names at the inaugural Broughton Hall Children’s Literature Festival. More than 65 authors, poets, illustrators and animators, including Sir Chris Hoy, Children’s Laureate Lauren Child and GP Taylor, are taking part, while over 200 schools are also involved.

It’s billed as Yorkshire’s first major children’s literature festival and for Balding, whose first book, My Animals and Other Family, was a number one bestseller, it’s an opportunity to engage with youngsters face to face. “I’ve given a fair few talks at schools in Yorkshire and I think anything that encourages kids to feel that reading can be a shared experience and not just a solitary one has to be good,” she says. “I love talking to kids about books and I quite often get them to create their own characters and tell their own stories which can be amusing.”

Balding has become a popular children’s author in recent years (adding yet another string to her bow) and believes that for all the emphasis on social media use among young people, books still have a vital role to play in their education. “The internet has brought an awful lot to our lives but I still think to be able to lose yourself in a book is a very immersing experience and it allows a child’s imagination to flourish.”

She enjoys spending time with schoolchildren. “Although I don’t have children myself I’ve always had a good connection with kids. Sometimes it’s actually easier when you don’t have kids yourself because you’re able to give them your full attention as you’re not having to discipline them, so you can explore ideas with them and go off on a verbal adventure which I love doing.”

It’s often assumed that writing books for children is easier than writing for adults, but Balding disagrees. “I think when you’re writing for children you have to be very clear in the way you draw your characters, they have to be believable and the plot has to be fast moving. I see it as a challenge because if they don’t like it they’ll tell you.

“But if they do like it then they’re so involved,” she says.

“There are very few female heroines in modern children’s literature so I wanted a heroine who was independent and perhaps didn’t fit in. Putting yourself in a child’s head and to think like a child is both challenging and rewarding and that’s why I stepped into fiction.”

Balding says she was an avid reader from an early age. “I loved reading, and English was the one subject I was ever any good at. I read a lot of pony books and that kind of thing but I liked my adventure books and I read quite a lot of American literature as well.”

Given her success, some people might be surprised to know that she struggled at times at school. “I was suspended and de-housed and it was interesting writing about that because I don’t think it’s a bad thing to admit things like this and to be honest about why you had issues. No one has a perfect time at school and it’s important to tell people that it hasn’t all been plain sailing.”

Balding comes from a horse racing dynasty – her father, Ian Balding, trained the legendary Mill Reef, while her brother, Andrew, is a Classic-winning trainer and her late uncle, Toby, saddled the winners of the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Grand National, and also guided the early career of the peerless Sir AP McCoy.

She was a talented amateur jockey herself before she turned to broadcasting. Starting out as a trainee on BBC radio in 1994, she’s since become one of the best-known sports presenters in the country, earning countless plaudits and awards along the way. And she’s used her position to bang the drum for greater equality and diversity, particularly in sport.

“I do a lot of talks at financial institutions and I’m always making the point to them that if you’re investing in women’s sport, as a lot of them do, I say you’ve got to look at women’s sport because that’s where the value is. And I try and put pressure on the companies I work with, whether it’s the BBC or Channel 4 or BT Sport, to invest more in this coverage.”

The tide is finally turning and the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics were undoubtedly watershed moments – when female athletes like Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams and Hannah Cockroft established themselves as sporting superstars.

“It’s happened even more quickly than I thought it would,” says Balding. “I mean please, it’s taken a long time to happen – don’t forget women’s football was absolutely huge a hundred years ago – so this isn’t new. But the idea of allowing women to express themselves freely in a very visible and competitive way has taken a long time for people to come to terms with. I think it’s terribly important because it reflects our status in society and it’s particularly important in countries where women aren’t allowed to vote, or aren’t allowed to drive, or don’t have equal rights, because it’s such a visible and empowering image.”

She believes, too, the success of our women’s hockey, cricket and football teams has engendered a powerful team ethic. Perhaps the best example of this came earlier in the year when England’s netball team beat the seemingly indomitable Australians on home soil to win gold in the Commonwealth Games. “How good was that?” says Balding. “You couldn’t guarantee they would win and in such thrilling style but I was very much pushing netball all through the Commonwealth Games. It was important because it’s a great game to watch but also every girl at every school has played netball, so it’s more egalitarian and far-reaching than cricket and even football.

“That team had such a work ethic and they were so committed to one another and I think they learned from the success of women’s hockey. They all have a sense of responsibility and they want to make a difference. They spend a lot of time going to schools and believe they have a bigger message than winning medals or matches, and I think that’s something to be hugely admired.”

Balding is a role model herself for would-be female sports broadcasters. “There’s still a pressure to do it well. I used to always feel if I made a mistake, and I’ve made plenty, that it’s going to reflect badly on all women in broadcasting and now I don’t feel that pressure so much. Also now you can have two women presenting together, so Gabby Logan and I have presented together and Sue Barker and I have done Wimbledon together. It’s not an either/or situation, whereas it always used to feel like that.

“It’s a very different world to when I started 20 years ago and that’s a pretty short time for things to have changed as much as they have,” she says. “I think they will continue to change and I’ll never stop supporting women’s sport. The nice thing now is there are so many voices doing it.”

Broughton Hall Children’s Literature Festival, September 29-30. For ticket details go to www.childrensliteraturefestival.org or call the festival organiser on 01535 656015.