All hail the queen of the kids

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2003, 12:00am

THE CARNEGIE Medal-winning Scottish author and librarian Theresa Breslin never dreamed she would one day be published. When she went to the library as a child it never occurred to her that real people wrote the books. 'As far as I was concerned they might as well all have been dead,' she says. Years later, her own writing career, with its output standing at more than 20 books, began almost by accident.

'I was driving a mobile library around remote Scottish communities. One day I was in Gartcosh, just outside Glasgow, and everybody was talking about the closure of the local steel mill. They were all so upset and nobody seemed to be listening. I thought, 'I'll write a book about this for the young people of the school'. The result was Simon's Challenge which won the Young Book Trust Fidler Award for new writers sponsored by the Scottish Book Trust in 1987. One year later, the BBC filmed it.

Further accolades followed. Breslin, likes winning prizes (they raise your profile and make an enormous difference to sales, as do translations), but even more she relishes the praise of children and her peers. In 1996, for example, she won the inaugural Angus Award for Kezzie, her poignant tale of a depression-ravaged family struggling to survive in a Scottish mining community. Third-year pupils of all eight secondary schools in the area cast their votes. She got even more pleasure from being awarded the Carnegie Medal for Whispers In The Graveyard a year earlier. 'This is the one my fellow librarians decide,' she announces proudly in a rich Scottish brogue.

But success has not always come easily. Publishers, for example, were reluctant to print Remembrance, an epic tale of World War I. 'There were an awful lot of adult books out about the war at the time,' she says. 'And apart from that they thought the content was too horrific for children. But I did the research and you know there were 15-year-old soldiers sent to die in the trenches. Children can cope with this sort of thing better than most adults realise.'

Random House imprints Corgi and Doubleday eventually published Remembrance. Breslin's works also have appeared on the lists of such publishers as Macmillan, Harper Collins, Canongate and, within anthologies, Penguin and Hodder. Breslin spends a lot of time listening to children. It can pay huge dividends. 'I went to one school and met a boy who hated writing,' she says. 'He asked me if I had ever dreamt a story and then woken up and written it down. Well I have vivid nightmares and it gave me a great idea.'

This translated into the first book of her most lucrative project so far - The Dream Master series. She had difficulty persuading publishers of the merits of the piece, but its eventual success was due to fortuitous timing and creative marketing. 'I got enormous sales on the back of people waiting for Harry Potter books,' Breslin says. 'Bookshops chose a list of books they felt eager fans would also enjoy and ran a campaign 'If you're potty about Harry, then read these . . '.' She is working on a fourth volume.

As well as claiming that the popularity of J K Rowling has reincarnated interest in writers such as Ursula Le Guin and Dianne Wynne-Jones, she is further encouraged by the surge of interest generated by authors such as Phillip Pullman, whose work is regularly judged equal to the best writing in any category. A key element in this convergence, for her, is the increasing emphasis on research by children's authors. She loves to gather data on her travels and Asia is no exception. 'I'm a bit like a magpie,' she says.

In Hong Kong last month she visited several schools and gave a series of talks at the British Council. 'The children here [in Hong Kong] are very polite and have a refreshing attitude,' Breslin says. 'But they tell me they don't feel there is a good fiction story about their experience.'

Something in the look in her eye suggests she would like to have a crack at that herself. Breslin is a passionate believer in the power of books to affect young lives. 'Stories allow young readers to empathise with other people, and that is so important,' she says. 'They can open the door to let in the light. If more people read I don't think it's too much to say that there might be fewer wars, and less friction, bullying and anger.'

Breslin, who has four grown-up children, a son and three daughters, wrote Bullies At School after speaking to a boy who was being bullied at what many called a good school. The boy was so terrified of being identified that she made the subject of the tale a girl.

The role of literacy goes further, she believes. 'It is crucial to promote reading and writing. Studies by the charity Oxfam show that children living in developing countries have a seven-times better chance of survival if their parents are literate,' Breslin says. Closer to home the effect may be less dramatic but just as important. 'Books can give children increased confidence and can make them more aware of ideas, of concepts,' she adds.

'One of the reasons I wrote Whispers In The Graveyard was that the boy I met might have been struggling to read and write, but he felt and sensed things. It's just he found it difficult to articulate. He says at one point [in the book] I think 'beautiful', but I have to write 'nice' '.

But Breslin does not believe children should be preached to. 'The best books naturally bring up issues and have a point, but the story is the most important thing. Stories validate experience and give a powerful sense of self. They connect you to your past and to your future. Books should also be fun,' she enthuses. 'The very act of reading a book is a lesson in logic and philosophy. They fundamentally contribute to young lives.' And she is pleased that books are making a comeback and challenging films, television and the electronic media for young people's attention.

'I saw when one of my books was being filmed how the characters and emotions are manipulated by actors and directors,' she says. 'When children read a book, they bring themselves to the story; they have to make an effort. They can walk in the shoes of a character. Books are special.'

The number of initiatives the government and others in Britain have instigated to encourage the use of books and reading also heartens her.

Breslin's own involvement included participation in the Scottish Writers' Project in 1999. 'The Arts Council awarded GBP500,000 [HK$6.1 million] to promote Scottish fiction to teenagers in Scotland. Because of work load, youngsters' reading tends to fall away and it was an attempt to address the dominance of English fiction in schools,' she says. As well as books and attractive display units, schools received an interactive CD-Rom that was nominated for a Bafta award. Breslin also sits on the Public Lending Rights Committee that oversees the money authors receive when books are borrowed from libraries.

'Children's book issues are rising,' she says. 'Parents are realising the value of books and as they can be expensive are taking children to borrow books.'

Breslin, who won't divulge her own age, believes adults have always read good children's literature.

'Even when children's books were on separate floors of libraries, I saw adults furtively browsing. Adults can get so much from them, especially the classics. Adult books are adult books, but children's books are more,' she says.