It is striking how much issue-based fiction is appearing nowadays within children’s literature, even for the youngest of readers. With so much to contend with in their daily lives children need resources that reference the issues affecting them and which will help them through important transitions and adverse situations. But what struck me when I spoke to Andy Stanton – author of the illustrious Mr Gum book series (now with 10 titles to its name) – is the importance of good old-fashioned humour. Escapism is as valuable a mechanism within children’s literature as anything else. It reminds us that childhood should be fun and imaginative – a place where we can break with rules and conventions, and be playful.
So how did it all begin? Andy Stanton is not shy about the fact that he was kicked out of Oxford University where he was studying English. I asked him why.
Well, it was kind of a blinkered way of looking at books. I always say it’s as if English literature is a really amazing meadow and there are lots of things that you want to look at. There’s an old oak tree in one corner and there’s a pond in another and there are bulrushes and swallows flying overhead... And they taped some blinkers on me and kind of made me plough one furrow over and over again. So I didn’t have a very good time there.
Perhaps Stanton’s desire to approach literature more broadly is what makes him such a good children’s writer. His books read with a certain pace, the language is colourful and inventive and the characters are… well, silly. It is as though he has thrown the rulebook out of the window. And it’s the breaking of expectation and convention that really pleases children. They are told – at least for the duration of a Mr Gum book – that it’s okay to break the rules. Part of what allows the Mr Gum books to run so fluidly is the conversational tone. They are written with a narrator’s voice that is chatty and playful, a real storytelling voice. Lots of asides, inserts, brackets, and interventions from the publishers to give that broken-down fourth wall feel allow the books to read in the style of an improvised story, such as an older sibling or parent might make up off the top of their head.
How does Stanton achieve this free and easy style? He revealed that the first Mr Gum book was in fact written in one night, as a concerted effort to complete something that he could read to his cousins on Christmas Day. While his cousins were too busy on Christmas Day to really appreciate what had been written for them, Stanton himself later realised he had something quite good on his hands. And what about maintaining this distinctive style?
Some of it comes out free and easy. Most of it doesn’t. That’s the voice that was established in the first book and that was kind of improvised, and it did sort of come out organically. The trick is then to keep the reader’s attention for a whole series of books. If that chatty style is overused, it just feels like a constant digression, so it’s keeping a balance. Yes, it’s an illusion; it looks like it’s been rattled off the top of my head. It’s actually been more carefully crafted as the series goes on. But if the illusion is that it’s written in that style, then I’ve done my job.
For me, there is something reminiscent of Roald Dahl in terms of the eccentricities of the characters and, equally, the eccentricity of the language. (Mr Gum’s exclamation ‘Shabba me whiskers’ immediately put me in mind of Dahl’s BFG.) Yes, Stanton conceded, ‘You can barely write a book for children aged 7+ without thinking about Dahl even subconsciously in the back of your mind.’ His other influences include Enid Blyton, The Adventures of Asterix and Roger Hargreaves’s Mr Men books. A range of elements from these books made an impression on him. In Enid Blyton, it was tunnels, and in the Mr Men books, absurd features such as a door in a tree. From Asterix, he ‘lifted wholesale’ the idea of the whole town having a feast at the end of the story because ‘I just think it’s a really pleasing way to end a story’.
With such a combination of influences, the Mr Gum books are in fact very rounded and certainly do follow some of the conventions of a good old-fashioned story, albeit in their own unique way. There is mystery (the appeal for children of everything that is ‘hidden and forbidden’), baddies and goodies, a journey that the characters follow, and resolution and happiness at the end – and the scary bits are never really very scary.
Does he ever feel any pressure to address ‘issues’ in his books, or to add elements of morality? Not really, he admits. To him, a 7-year-old can be a 7-year-old without having to think about issues every second of the day. In fact, he believes there are other books out there that will do that brilliantly. ‘Kids shouldn’t have to think grown-up thoughts most of the time,’ he remarks. ‘Childhood is a fun place to be.’ However, he does confess there is a kind of very broad tongue-in-cheek morality in his books. A girl once wrote to him and asked ‘Is there a message in your books?’, which he found interesting. He told her the message was that ‘life is pretty stupid most of the time and doesn’t make much sense, but let’s try and be nice to each other in the meantime’.
Now that there are 10 books to the Mr Gum series, I asked Stanton to reflect on how easy or difficult it has been to keep developing and producing new books.
Writing a series is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you always know where you are and you have a bunch of characters and you know them and it’s familiar. On the other hand, you sort of feel weighed down by it, by all the history that the characters accumulate. You have to be true to those characters and sometimes you want to break out of it and you can’t. So sometimes it’s a blessing and a curse.
Maintaining the humour of the books is also a challenge. How to keep the humour fresh and how to do the same but differently give him pause for reflection. Through all the Mr Gum books, he tries to find an idea to play around with and try new things so it will feel like Mr Gum, but it will have some freshness in it too. Certainly, in terms of remaining true to his characters, which he says is key, it seems he has nothing to worry about. If anything, the length of this book series has allowed the characters to become more deeply ingrained in the imaginations of its readers.
Kids love the characters primarily, which is how it should be and that’s the thing about writing funny stuff and keeping it chatty and conversational. You have to play true to the emotions that run under the story. If you just do funny, funny, funny all the way through, then there’s nothing to be invested in and it gets a bit tiresome. When kids send in photos to the website of themselves dressed as Mr Gum for World Book Day, it’s fantastic. All of the characters have their own visual features, which David Tazzyman helps with massively.
And how exactly, I wonder, does a collaboration between writer and illustrator work? When I asked Stanton about his working partnership with Tazzyman, he told me they work closely together to achieve a visualisation of what Stanton has written. ‘What’s brilliant,’ Stanton says, ‘is that David has adapted his style more and more as the series has gone on. It’s kid-friendly, but he never dumbs down. It never talks down to the kids.’ Stanton hopes his own writing does the same because they are both really conscious of that. In David’s case, he’ll always draw a building realistically and show air vents and fans and drainpipes in a really realistic manner so that all the details are there.
Indeed, the Mr Gum books are presented as a whole package, something that Stanton is very proud of. The layout and design of the books really complement the entire style that he and David have sought to achieve. He acknowledges the support of Egmont, his publishers, for having faith in his ‘idiosyncratic use of language, grammar and punctuation’. I asked him are there any repercussions, given there is so much emphasis on children’s literacy and numeracy these days. In reply, he says that kids are really sophisticated and know what a story is and what the rules of a story are. ‘If you break the rules of the story, they respond, if you do it well.’ However, he does think punctuation and grammatical rules are important, but it is important to break them for effect and not treat them as ‘too reverential or something intimidating’.
Perhaps this goes back to Stanton’s resistance of the rigid single-narrative view of literature that he fought against while at university. His approach provides a channel for children to be creative and imaginative and to be excited about reading. In terms of his role as a children’s writer, he says:
It’s a really privileged and noble undertaking to get kids to read. You don’t want to get worthy about it, you don’t want to be sort of messianic about it, but what a pleasure to do that and to have that as a side-effect of what you do. And to have parents come up to you and say ‘my boy never read a book until he picked up yours and now he’s going like the clappers and he’s read all of your books and moved on to this and that...’ That’s pretty special. That’s a nice part of the job.
What’s next? I ask the man who has made ‘the truth is a lemon meringue!’ his catchphrase. As yet, Stanton doesn’t know, but he will certainly continue to write for the same age group, with whom he feels a great connection. Whatever’s next, he says that it’ll be a surprise for us and for him too. JH