Lauren Child is such a rock-star, that there are whoops as her name is announced at her session for Intermediate students at Schools Fest for the Auckland Writers Festival. Her series include Ruby Redfort, Clarice Bean, and Charlie and Lola, and each of them are for different ages and audiences.
Child is here to talk mostly about a character called Ruby Redfort, the star of her just-completed teen fiction series. Ruby is a brainy 13-year-old American school kid. She is a code-cracker who gets recruited as a secret agent by spy agency Spectrum – but, of course, she has to keep this completely secret. She has a double-life. Ruby Redfort is set in 1973: before technology, to stop the roadblocks that happen in current-time thrillers (cellphones, google) having an impact.
To tell us about Ruby, as it happens, is to take us through all of her other characters, pulling out elements of their character and the story structure that led to Ruby’s character. You get the sense with Child that she needs to take in a spectrum of things for her writing to occur. The dialogue and banter in the Ruby Redfort series, for instance, was inspired by the books of Raymond Chandler and the movies of Alfred Hitchcock.
The character and books about Ruby Redfort came from the Clarice Bean books, because Child wanted Clarice to be excited by getting into a series of books, as she grew up. She thought Clarice would be getting hooked on books in this way, and invented Ruby Redfort as the heroine from these – which led to her writing the books.
When describing Clarice, Child says she is intended to be an ‘every-child’ kind of character, with an annoying younger sister who mirrors Child’s own. One of Clarice’s personality features is the tendency to float off – and Child says, ‘That’s where ideas come from. I do an awful lot of staring out of the window. Letting yourself go, and absorbing what is happening, helps you to come up with really good ideas.’
Child’s love of writing and drawing began through her love of comics – and, like Bixley, she often draws first, then adds the words around the images, drawing her writing into shapes. Also like Bixley, Child suggested several things to get the keen illustrators in the audience engaged: copy what you love, to better understand how the images work. For Charlie Brown, for instance, the characters are clean lines – Charlie and Lola is similarly, simply drawn.
Child’s usual process is that she draws everything in pencil, then colours and cuts the images out. Then she collages her images together. Charlie and Lolawas created using spotty paper, and a wood-look piece of paper, with photos of real food to fill the bowls.
One of the most notable characteristics of the Charlie and Lola books is the way in which they use words to illustrate – using words in patterns, to give the pages more energy and to keep kids on their toes while reading them.
Ruby Redfort’s life with her family is rich, and her parents are rather silly with it. Child likes to create a moneyed background for her books, because it widens the possibilities of the settings. She is inspired by architecture books for settings: a house built on a waterfall, a house on stilts. Child used an all-American ‘everyplace’ as a setting for the Redfort books because of the sense of space that is available to you in the USA. You can be in a bustling city then a desert in a matter of minutes – while in the UK, you don’t drive for long without a building, or a town, or village interrupting you.
A key aspect of the Ruby Redfort books is their use of code. Child doesn’t write the codes – she has a genius mathematician friend who does. There’s a touch code, a braille code, a smell code, a sound code. Codes allow Redfort to lead her double-life. Redfort also gets plenty of gadgets – inspired by Bond.
To write Ruby Redfort, Child spent a lot of time thinking, “What would I do if I were in her shoes?”. This meant fleshing out her world with friends, and an essential for Redfort is a loyal group of contemporaries. And because Redfort is tough, she knew parkour (Child got to meet parkour’s creator!) and what to do in the sea with a shark.
Child’s fascination with tricky situations arises from having seen the JAWS poster when she was nine: it made her never want to go swimming in the sea, ever. She learned from this that an image can be extraordinarily powerful.
The session with Lauren Child was well-received by the audience, despite its twists and turns and angles. Child is a bit of a genius, I suspect, and her presentation was quite idiosyncratic. But it was a pleasure to be there, and it’s with pleasure that I’ll be picking up a few of her books for the kids (they are already obsessed with Charlie and Lola). Go along on Sunday morning at 10am and you won’t be disappointed.
Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster on behalf of Booksellers NZ
Her most recent book:
Ruby Redfort: Blink and you Die
by Lauren Child
Published by HarperCollins