In the first of our behind-the-scenes interviews, Stephanie Clarkson talks to The Little Bookstall.
meet stephanie clarkson who wrote super milly and the super school day. find out how she brought our little super-hero to life and what her own super-powers are!
Thanks so much for coming to tell us more about yourself, your writing and your passion for books. We adored Super Milly and the Super School Day. Could you tell us a little bit about Super Milly?
Milly is a little girl with a big personality. She is bright, creative, inquisitive, outgoing, energetic and many other things. This story is about a superhero day at school where Milly creates the character of Super Milly using a lot of tin-foil, a tea-towel for a cape and a pair of her brother Joe’s underpants. The trouble is, as Milly heads off to school, she doesn’t feel particularly ‘Super’. She doesn’t have all the powers she thinks a superhero should have, such as climbing walls or fighting baddies. Throughout her day however, Milly discovers she has lots of real life super powers. You’ll have to read the book to find out what they are!
How did you dream up the Super Milly character?
Well, I was working up several different ideas including one about a group of tiny people who live inside a boy’s dad’s beard and nothing was really working and then I think my youngest daughter was struggling with homework and she said, ‘I’m rubbish at maths’ and it made me think I wanted to write something for kids that made them think about all the things they’re great at. I remembered a clip I’d seen on social media of a dad who put his daughter in front of the mirror every day and made her repeat all the great qualities she had: ‘I am kind,’ ‘I am strong,’ etc. I thought it was lovely at the time and it came back to me then and those things sparked the idea.
How long did it take to write Super Milly?
It’s the thinking that takes the time. I mull things over for quite a while before I put finger to keyboard. But once I start writing, the words flow out of my head quite freely. The first draft probably took me a week and I could tell I had something straight away. I just really liked it from the get-go. I write a lot of stuff that I like, but then I re-read and become less sure about because I can see it doesn’t really work in some way or another. This was different. I had faith in it. Then I worked on it a bit with my agent at Bell Lomax Moreton and then he sold the manuscript to Nosy Crow.
Did Nosy Crow have to take their red pen out much to make changes?!
There’s always some degree of to-ing and fro-ing at the editing stage and it’s something that, as an author, you have to come to terms with. You have to ‘kill your darlings’ as it’s termed, which means you have to sort of get over yourself and allow outside input, which is difficult when you’ve come up with a manuscript which you think is perfect. My editor, Alice at Nosy Crow worked with me to make changes and I have to say the final book is better – more punchy and better paced - for it.
What was it like working with illustrator Gwen Millward to bring the character to life?
Working with an illustrator for most picture book authors is a huge leap of faith. The publisher might run some suggestions past you, or they might – as in the case of Super Milly – simply present you with someone they have decided will do your text justice. They nailed it with Gwen. As soon as I saw the samples of her work I knew her sketchy, energetic style would work for the characters and the setting – which is important. It’s no good having someone who’s great at drawing children but can’t draw a classroom or a playground.
How did you feel when you first saw the picture of Milly come to life on the page?
That’s such an exciting and fascinating moment. I loved how expressive Gwen had made Milly. Actually, in some of the first images she was a little too fierce and so Gwen softened her hair a little and she became much more friendly-looking. It’s amazing what the smallest tweak of a facial feature can do and artists like Gwen are adept at working and re-working until it’s just right.
One of the lovely things about a Meet the Author is asking the BIG questions. So, Stephanie Clarkson, what are your super-powers?!
I have loads. I am a super hula-hooper. I can eat a whole packet of biscuits in one sitting (actually that’s not a power that’s just greedy). Seriously though, I think I am super friendly. I love meeting and chatting to people whether I know them or not. I drive my teenager mad because she says I make us late all the time because I insist on ‘saying hello’ to everyone. Also, I think I am super funny. Again, not sure my kids would agree. But that’s the thing with real life super powers, isn’t it, as long as you know you are super kind, or clever or funny, or friendly, it doesn’t matter what everyone else says.
What next for Super Milly?
I would love to write another Milly adventure. We’ll see. It’s up to my publisher. I’m working up another text, but the main character is a boy this time. I can’t tell you anymore as it’s classified (and also because I haven’t finished it.)
How and when did you first decide to become a writer?
I was always obsessed with books and I could read before I started school. I remember being inspired to try writing when in the late 1970s (I would have been about 8) a little girl called Jayne Fisher came up with a series called The Garden Gang about a group of fruit and vegetables who lived an almost human life. She was only a year older than me and was the youngest ever author to be published by Ladybird Books. I think I might have seen her on Blue Peter and I remember thinking ‘Wow!’ I dreamt up my own remarkably similar series called ‘Fruity Friends’ or something, but the drawings were rubbish – illustration has never been my forte. When I was young, I was obsessed with French and I used to spend my time translating words into French in a little notebook. I went on to do a French degree and lived and worked in France in my 20s though, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.
If not a writer, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an air stewardess and fly around the world – to places like France where I could use ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Cava?’ and other helpful words I’d written in my notebook. Then, when I first went on a plane at the age of 12, my ears hurt and I realised I didn’t fancy that at all, so I decided I wanted to read the news. By the time I arrived at university aged 18, I’d become interested in journalism and so that’s the way I went. It’s still writing – just in a different form.
When you’re starting a new book, how and where do you start?
Well, some of my ideas just pop into my head, usually when I’m walking the dog, or in the bath or somewhere quiet. Sometimes an idea might come from overhearing something someone says, or witnessing an interaction. It’s great to be around kids, because they’re an endless source of interest and amusement. They say and do such brilliant things all the time, so this can spark an idea. If nothing comes however, and it’s all just tumbleweed blowing through your brain, you have to work to create ideas and then I use things like mindmaps, or objects as a starting point. Oh and I keep a journal by my bed in case I have an idea in a dream – or a nightmare!
How did you discover your ‘voice’ as a writer?
Well, I’m not sure I have a cohesive voice yet as I’ve only had two of my own picture books published and they are very different – one’s rhyme, one’s prose for starters. I don’t know if you’d read one and instantly relate the voice to the other. However, I think I ‘do funny’ quite well and hopefully as my writing career extends, my voice will shine through.
What’s the most fun bit of being a writer?
Seeing something that has come out of your imagination form words on a page, slowly take shape and become something that someone else can read and hopefully enjoy. I would say being your own boss, but that’s actually trickier than it sounds. Ideas come to me at exactly the times I should be doing something else so I have to stop what I’m doing and start writing before I lose the thread.
How does it feel when you see the first copy of your new book?
It’s a wonderful feeling - on a par with the day you first hear the news that someone wants to publish it.
What advice would you give to a child today who wants to be a writer?
Read. As much as you can. Try different authors and genres. Without knowing it you’ll collect new vocabulary, interesting sentence structure and the kernels of ideas from which to create your own work. Secondly, write. Just write. On paper, in a notebook, on a computer. Whatever works for you. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar – I mean if you can do full stops and capitals and things, that’s great - but if you have an idea for a story, don’t let worries about where to put your commas slow you down. Just get your fantastic imaginings down on paper and the rest will follow. The more you write, the more you’ll grow in confidence and the better you’ll get at it. Finally, (and this is the hard part,) pluck up the courage to read your work to someone else – someone you trust. Sharing your work is, I think, the scariest part of being a writer, so it’s good to get used to it from an early age.
Thanks so much to Stephanie Clarkson, who wrote Super Milly and the Super School Day, for chatting to us at The Little Bookstall. If you'd like to buy her book and find out whether Milly does indeed find a superpower, click here!