For Lauren Child, being the newly appointed Children’s Laureate has brought her closer to one of her heroes.
“It’s wonderful because Quentin Blake was the first Children’s Laureate and he was a huge influence on me as a child and is one of the reasons why I’m an illustrator. He was the first illustrator I realised was a person because you saw him on TV actually drawing, so he made it all seem possible and that you could do something like this as a career.”
Child, who was unveiled as the new laureate in Hull this week, follows in the footsteps of some hugely popular figures, including Michael Morpurgo and Jacqueline Wilson, and the importance of the role is not lost on her.
“It’s an opportunity to discuss books, illustrations and the importance of children without it becoming political. I’m not an educator but this gives me a platform to talk about the importance of encouraging creativity among children,” she says.
Child, whose Charlie and Lola books made her a household name around the world and spawned a Bafta award-winning TV series, says her job gives her an insight into a child’s world. “I get the chance to listen to children because they tell me things. They react to things that I’ve written or drawn, they talk about their friends and what life’s like in their school. So I’m in this interesting position whereby I can discover what they’re interested in and I think sometimes there’s not enough time to hear that.”
As an illustrator and author she’s understandably passionate about encouraging children to read. “Books are wonderful because it’s a world they can enter safely and on their own – they can find solace in them, or emotional understanding. I remember a child writing to me. She was having a tough time at school and feeling really isolated and she wrote to me because I’d written a book about exactly that so she felt some connection and she wasn’t alone.
“That’s such a privilege, because how many jobs are there where you get these kind of letters, where someone writes to you about their life and says that what you’ve done has made a difference to them?”
If books are crucial during a child’s formative years then so, too, are libraries. “They do a lot more than just provide books, they act as community hubs and very often they are the first place where a child encounters a book and has the chance to choose a book. School libraries are incredibly important and yet some schools don’t even have one.”
Around 8,000 jobs in UK libraries have disappeared since 2010, about a quarter of the overall total, as councils have slashed spending on public libraries, hundreds of which have been closed, and it’s an issue that authors like Child have repeatedly voiced concerns about. “I can’t change things on my own, nobody can, but what I can do is talk about the importance of them and if enough people do that then it can make a difference.”
The dwindling number of libraries isn’t the only cause for concern. Much has been made about the growing influence of apps, social media and computer games which has seen the amount of time children spend reading shrink.
Child believes technology has a part to play in education but says it’s about finding the right balance. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with computers, it’s just about leading by example. Do we have time to read to our children and are we allowing them to discover the joy of books?”
It’s something she enjoyed when she was younger. Child grew up in Wiltshire, the middle of three sisters. Her father was an artist and her mother a teacher, which meant regular cultural day trips. “We were very lucky because my dad’s passion has always been art so we got to go to lots of galleries, and being exposed to that and seeing all the myriad ways you can make a picture meant I became passionate about art and that fed into my illustrations.”
It was the visual aspect of storytelling that stirred her interest in books. “I became a writer because of my love of comics. The first one I remember was something called Goody Gumdrops and it gave me the confidence to see how you could also use drawings as a story.
“Then when I was a teenager my friend and I would make these comics together and when I did my first book, Clarice Bean, I wrote it like a graphic novel,” she says.
“We’re all visually literate and it’s important we keep pictures in children’s books. There’s nothing wrong with having pictures in books. Adults enjoy them too. I mean what are coffee table books if they’re not visual books?”
Before she became known as an author and illustrator Child worked for a spell in the late 1990s as an artist’s assistant to Damien Hirst, who by this time had become a global star in the art world. “It was just me and this other girl drawing up his spot paintings in a studio and mixing maybe a thousand colours at a time and then painting the colours. They all had to be different and it was fascinating because I got to see how they reacted together.”
So how did she find working for such a famous artist as Hirst? “I didn’t see him very much, but he was very nice and very appreciative of other people who wanted to do something creative because he understood that it completely changed his life and changed the life of people around him, he was very gracious about that.”
The art and music from this period inspired her own work. “My first picture book was very much influenced by Britpop because there was such a joy and energy at that time. We’d come out of a hideous recession and along came this amazing music, there was something childlike about the attitudes of people and this fed into my book.”
Her Clarice Bean series has sold more than six million copies around the world, though they weren’t an instant hit. “I didn’t have that moment of being successful overnight. I got £4,500 for my first book and I was doing two other jobs at the same time. The next year it got a bit easier and then it reached a point where I had a career and could give up the other jobs.”
She hopes to use her time as Children’s Laureate to encourage more youngsters to reach for a book rather than their iPad or tablet. “We all know that books are a gateway. Understanding language gives you a better chance of getting a good job. So if you’re not exposed to books from an early age then you’re at a disadvantage.”
And for all the digital innovations books, she says, remain vital. “They’re multi-sensual. You pick them up, there’s the mechanics of turning the pages and smelling the ink, it’s pleasing for little children and you can see it in their faces.
“It’s a wonderful way to learn to read, it’s easier to learn to read with a paper book than it is digitally... it just makes sense.”