5 Minutes With Patience Agbabi, Smriti Halls and Jess Kidd for World Book Day
What topics do your books cover and why are they important to you?
My books are about Leaplings, young people born on the 29th of February who have a rare gift: the ability to leap through time. Some of the Leaplings also have disabilities like autism and ADHD. The time travel theme enabled me to question whether we are doing enough now to save the planet in the future; the neurodiversity theme was to help young readers celebrate difference. I’m especially interested in autism in girls which is often overlooked in society, so my main protagonist is an autistic girl.
"Being a writer is like making magic. You conjure characters and scenes out of words that can be written down or spoken out loud into the air like spells."
What is your favourite children’s book?
That’s a difficult question, there are so many great books out there. When I was growing up, I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce because I was obsessed with portals to other worlds and times. My favourite book from 2020 was A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll which had a brilliant autistic main protagonist, who also had an autistic sister. All the characters in the book were so believable and the storyline was compelling.
What makes you passionate about being a writer?
Being a writer is like making magic. You conjure characters and scenes out of words that can be written down or spoken out loud into the air like spells. I write poems too so I love the musicality of language and the shapes that poems make on the page.
What do you hope children will learn from your books?
Empathy: what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. How the passing and shaping of time hugely affects our experience of the world. And that wordplay is a truly wonderful thing!
How do you get inspiration for your books?
People. I often draw inspiration from the things people say and do and the situations we find ourselves in.
What books had an impact on you growing up?
We didn’t have a lot of books growing up but I was surrounded by brilliant storytellers who inspired me to dream up my own attempts. Of the books I came across, I loved anything by Roald Dahl for the joy and anarchy.
"Curiosity, bravery and loyalty are traits I especially adore in children’s book characters."
What do you love most about writing books for children?
I love to create worlds, especially magical ones. Everyday Magic was drawn from my own wishes and dreams as a child (to run away with a circus) and the stories I told my daughter, Eva, when she was small. In a sense, I get to relive both our childhoods by writing books for children.
What makes a memorable children’s book character?
Flawed and filled with hopes and fears, they might not always succeed but they try – and that makes them loveable and relatable. Curiosity, bravery and loyalty are traits I especially value in children’s book characters.
What first inspired you to start writing stories?
From the beginning, stories and poems were the way I expressed the things that felt deepest and writing remains the way I explore my thoughts and feelings. I fell in love with writing picture books because they speak to both the adult and child reader at once and can be disarmingly simple while utterly profound. I fill my books with heart and humour so my readers can think and laugh and hope. I want my stories to be returned to time and again, full of words that are joyful and thoughts that spark wide and wonderful conversation.
"I fell in love with writing picture books because they speak to both the adult and child reader at once and can be disarmingly simple while utterly profound."
Where and when do you first discover your characters?
Sometimes the shape or theme of a story appears before the characters themselves. But, when they do arrive, I first discover my characters through their voice. Often, before I can see what they look like – or even decide whether they’re a human or an animal character – it’s their voice that I can hear. Once I have that, I know I have my story.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I need coffee, comfort and total quiet. That can be – and has been – almost anywhere from libraries, to trains and planes, to sitting in the car with one of my children asleep in the back seat, to propped up on pillows in bed! A lot of the writing happens in my head before I put pen to paper, other times I want to get it down as quickly as possible, but either way, I only let others see a story when I’m totally satisfied. Sometimes that takes a few days. Sometimes it takes years.
How do you go about collaborating on the illustrations for your books?
Once a text is acquired the publisher will seek out the perfect illustrator to bring that story to life. I’m likely to be involved in conversations about style and character development and I will get to see and comment on the rough drawings and other snippets along the way, but most collaboration and conversation will happen through our editor and often the author and illustrator don’t meet until the book is complete. It’s always a thrill to see the book take shape and come to life.