I met up with the talented Alan MacDonald for a cup of tea and a chat about his wonderful work as an award-winning children’s author. Get ready to be inspired as he shares his love of reading, top tips for children’s story writing and even an exclusive insight into his up-and-coming book. Enjoy!
What was your earliest memory of enjoying stories as a child?
The earliest one I can remember was the Brer Rabbit stories, they’re very old American folk tales about a clever rabbit who was smarter than all the other animals. There was one about a tar baby and when the other animals touched it, they got stuck to it. I remember the illustrations just fascinating me so it was a combination of words and pictures.
In Beatrix Potter I can remember a kitten getting rolled up into suet pastry in the roof to be turned into a pie. Sometimes stories were a little bit scary and I think that’s a good thing for a child because you’re in a story book so you can listen to your own fears in a safe place.
Roald Dahl, who’s probably my personal favourite, had that fairy tale grotesque quality in his writing that pushed things so you think “oh my goodness, are they really going to do that? Yeah they are! A boy’s going to drive a car along a street at night when he’s only 10!”
Roald Dahl pushes the boundaries of what you’re allowed to do and children love that.
He breaks those lines, saying ‘what if this happened in a story? What does it feel like?’ Miss Trunchbull is the worst teacher imaginable but it’s ok because it’s all in a story.
How did you first become interested in writing? Was there a particular teacher who inspired you?
One time, I wrote something at secondary school and the teacher came to me and said ‘I would accept that from some children, but not from you. You can do better than that’ And he made me write it again from scratch, something better, and the second one was better.
There’s ok, there’s good, there’s better and there’s best. To be a writer you have to learn to reach the best version of the story.
You shouldn’t say ‘that was my first idea and that will be fine’. I’ve done second drafts with children in sch
1q`ools and that’s a hard thing to learn because it involves analysing what you’ve done and finding out how it can be better.
How do you think your books can help children who struggle with Literacy?
I’ve had quite a few letters from children that have said ‘this was the first book that I read from beginning to end and it was the first one that got me started’ If it does that, then that’s the best thing that a story I could write could do.
You can read Dirty Bertie in a night or two, it’s not too long, the words are not too difficult, and the character is deliberately someone that you would think ‘he could be my friend, he’d push the boundaries a bit more than I would!’
We’ve kept the titles simple that make children think ‘I’d like to read that!’ David Robert’s illustrations are so lovely, quirky and eccentric that it just lifts it into a little world that you can imagine.
When did you first come up with the idea of the Dirty Bertie character?
It all started with the David Roberts picture book, Dirty Bertie was a little toddler who had terrible, revolting habits. The publishers came to me and said ‘we’ve got this picture book done by David Roberts who’s an artist, but we think it could turn into a character for chapter books and make him a bit older’. And I thought to myself ‘I could do that!’
The closest character is Horrid Henry and I was conscious of not going to where he is, he’s a brilliant character and he’s very funny, but he’s a different character altogether. Bertie is more innocent.
How many Dirty Bertie books have you written altogether?
About 28. I never had any idea when I wrote the first one that there’d be that many. I just thought I’d do maybe 3 or 4! It’s such a simple set up about a boy who’s so mucky, messy and mischievous and adding new characters opened up new oppositions and enmities.
I can tell that you’ve got a real passion for writing, it sounds like the dream job for you. What do you love the most about being an author?
When a book is finished and it arrives with the artwork. The artwork takes it into a new dimension so it’s lovely to see the text with the illustrations. Then I enjoy reading stories to children live and performing them. I started off in a small theatre company doing acting so I really enjoy doing that.
If a book’s got something that they can join in with, that’s great. With Bertie, I’ll get them up beforehand and put a wig on them, it allows them to enter into that world. But I didn’t set out to be an author, it wasn’t my dream job because I didn’t think it was something you could do, but now I’m doing it, I think this is what I’m cut out for.
Which one of your books that you’ve written is your favourite?
The series that I really enjoyed writing is called Troll Trouble. I took a family of trolls based on the Three Billy Goats Gruff, and I said ‘what if the family had to leave their land because of the embarrassment of the Billy Goat Gruff incident?’ They come over and live in our country on a housing estate, they don’t really know how anything works, so they’re constantly blundering around being loud and noisy and smelly and trollish!
It was a lovely set up because you could throw them into any situation, like going on holiday in a caravan, and they’d make a terrible disaster! It was fun to do.
Without giving away too many secrets, is there a book that you’re in the middle of writing now?
I can’t say much about it but I’m working on a first book of a new series and it’s completely different from Dirty Bertie. All I can say is that the main character is a dog!
What appeals to me is to take real families and real people, and then throw in something that is absurd, fantastic and magical, and yet the character has to carry on in the real world and just get on with it.
It’s always about finding that little thing that changes everything or pushes the possibilities of reality a bit further.
How do you come up with all your brilliant ideas?
I have a couple of notebooks which are just idea books. If something comes to me in the early hours of the morning, I have to write it down. Sometimes they’re terrible ideas because I’m half awake!
But I feel safer if it’s written down, then often what happens is two years later I come back to it with the idea still washing around in my head. Sometimes they have to wait and percolate. I can’t start on another story if I’m in the middle of one already.
Do you ever draw storyboards to plan out what you’re going to write?
I will draw characters as little cartoons and write stuff around them that tells me a bit about their personality. I’ll try out different names too, names are very important. I can’t write the character until I’ve got the name, then I can visualise them and think about the sort of character they are.
I like characters that have names that tell you a little bit about them… Miss Book, Know All Nick. I did one that was set in the Stone Age about a cave boy and all the tribe had to have names that gave you an idea about them. The chief of the tribe was called Hammer Head and he was a big guy who blundered in and made mistakes.
I started writing my first book from the title, which was ‘The Great Spaghetti Suit’. I just thought ‘that would be interesting! Who’s going to wear it? Why are they wearing it? What happens to it?’
Titles are a great way for children to start a story. Give them a title that makes them think ‘wow, what could that be about?’
If you give someone a blank piece of paper and say ‘write something’, you can’t do it. You’ve got to have a starting point. Some authors would give you the first sentence of a story and say carry on from there. That’s exciting because your brain says ‘what happens next?’
Have you ever started a story and struggled with an ending? Or had a good ending and thought ‘how on earth am I going to start this?’
I like to know where it’s going. I’d say middles are more difficult than beginnings or endings. I like to start when something’s happening because I want the action to start at the beginning.
Then you’re going up a hill to see where this is going and if you’re not careful, you can sometimes find that it can sag in the middle and then pick up when you get to the ending. So you’ve got to have something else in the middle that takes it up another notch.
Some picture books are nice, but they’re predictable. I don’t like stories where you can tell from the first page if you know what’s going to happen. It’s nice if there are a few little surprises in it, even if it’s a surprise at the end.
What tips and advice could you give to children about writing their own stories?
Have a notebook. The key thing is to let yourself ‘play’. If you write the first 6 sentences and then think ‘oh, that’s not right, I don’t think I can do this’ then the story’s never going to happen. I almost trick myself into saying ‘this doesn’t matter, I’m just playing with the story and I’ll get the first version down’. And then you give your brain the freedom to write the story.
If you’re worrying about it and criticising it, then all the creative flow is lost. Which is why, for me, I write in notebooks. Computers make me look at the screen and fiddle, and I’d spend a whole day fiddling with a page! So I’d say to children, just play, have a go and don’t feel like it has to be perfect.
You can do some drawings and see what comes out of that. Children think in different ways, you might find it easier to do a spider diagram, or through words or pictures, whatever gets your ideas going. Sometimes we say to children ‘today you’re going to write about what you did in the holidays’ and you’ve shut down all the possibilities there. Whereas if we start from ‘the window was open and a strange sound reached my ears from the distance…’ that could go anywhere!
Having authors in schools is really important because they’re positive role models and help to raise their aspirations. Tell me a bit about the visits you do to inspire a love of reading.
It gives children the idea that a book is not a magic thing and somebody wrote it. They’re just an ordinary person who has ideas, writes them down in a notebook and it becomes a book… and you can do that. It’s not something beyond anyone.
I go to a school in Sheffield, where I’m gloriously called the Patron of Reading, which means I go in every term. With their children, they wanted to make them cross over from books being something that you did because you were told to, to books being fun and something you enjoyed.
That’s the light bulb moment for a child, when they find a book fun.
Do you have a particular favourite children’s author at the moment?
Kes Gray’s picture books, they’re really, really good. I met him once at the Nottingham Book Awards and his one won. They’re the sort of simple ideas done really well. It’s all about the clever playing around with language, like in Oi Frog and Oi Dog. I love that!