Emma Barnes Talks To Bookbag About Everyday Magic in Children's Books

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Emma Barnes Talks To Bookbag About Everyday Magic in Children's Books

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Summary: When Emma Barnes started writing children's books, she wanted to write about real, breathing, contemporary children from everyday families and neighbourhoods having adventures of the kind that might befall anyone.
Date: 28 August 2012

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External links: Author's website



Everyday Magic in Children's Books by Emma Barnes

When I started writing children's books, I wanted to write about real, breathing, contemporary children from everyday families and neighbourhoods having adventures of the kind that might befall anyone.

Oh, I didn't want the characters themselves to be ordinary. Jessica Haggerthwaite, who wants to be a famous scientist one day, and her mother, Mrs Haggerthwaite, who sets up business as a professional witch, are not ordinary. But you might find them in your school, or living on your street. (I have to point out here that Mrs Haggerthwaite's magic is of the lucky charms and herbal remedies kinds, and does not involve flying a broomstick or turning people into frogs.) They are real people, not magical or superhuman in any way.

Yet recently, I have been introducing a bit of magic, a touch of fantasy, into my children's novels. It began with “Guardian Agent” Fred – my updated, and hopelessly inept, Guardian Angel, who is given the job of reforming naughty Martha Bones in How (Not) to Make Bad Children Good. And in Wolfie, my most recent book, everything begins ordinarily enough for young Lucie Firkettle, but suddenly it is not a new pet dog but a WOLF sitting in the kitchen, and not any wolf either, but a talking wolf with magic powers.

Are you going to eat me? she asked. It was the first question that came into her head and she found she very much wanted to know the answer.

Why do you think I want to eat you?

It's what all the wolves do. In storybooks, I mean. And you didn't eat any of your dog food.

So why this change? I think one reason was that I was now reading with my own daughter, and she so much loved the stories in which magic is mingled with the everyday. Narnia – where four children stumble into a magical realm through a wardrobe. Sabine by Tim Kennemore – where a virtual dragon pet turns into the real thing. Princess Mirrorbelle by Julia Donaldson, where a girl comes to life from a mirror. Not to mention the Rainbow Fairies, and many more.

It reminded me of how much I had enjoyed those kinds of books. They don't have the grandeur and completeness of high fantasy, like the Hobbit or the Wizard of Earthsea, which are set in completely separate worlds. But they introduce something magical into our own experience, and with that magic, the possibility of adventure.

E Nesbit was the originator. Her children are firmly grounded in the everyday – flesh and blood children in families we can all recognise and relate to. But when five children go digging in a gravel pit one day they happen upon the Psammead...a grumpy, ugly, yet magical beast, who can grant wishes. And suddenly the children are falling into a series of adventures, always funny, sometimes perilous.

(Was the grumpy Psammead an unconscious inspiration for my own grumpy Angel, Fred? I wonder.)

Five Children and It has been a true classic, inspiring stories by authors such as Edward Eager, Helen Cresswell and most recently Jacqueline Wilson (whose new version I'm intrigued to read). And there are many other writers who have put some magic into a real-life situation, and shaken it up to see what would happen. Perhaps my all-time favourite is The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones, in which a new step-family, constantly at each other's throats, is thrown into a series of adventures by the gift of a magic chemistry set.

The same theme crops up in children's television – think of Grandpa In my Pocket on Cbeebies, and the escapades that follow when Granda becomes mini-sized.

I think children especially need those kinds of stories now. There is no doubt that modern childhood can be constraining. No longer do children roam the countryside, like the Famous Five, or even their own street, like Beverly Cleary's Ramona, or their own patch of Manhattan, like Harriet the Spy. Constantly supervised children crave freedom and adventure – but how can you offer that in a realistic story? Introduce a magic wolf, on the other hand, and all kinds of things become possible.

As a writer, the other thing I love about “everyday magic” is the potential for humour. How do you explain the wolf that is sitting at the school gate? Or having a chat with you in your back garden? Or making off with the neighbour's pet rabbit? It's awkward to say the least – and awkward often means funny.

Somehow, I don't think Wolfie will be the last of my books to contain a bit of everyday magic.

Some Favourite Books with Everyday Magic: 1. Five Children and It by E Nesbit
2. Mary Poppins by PL Travers
3. The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones
4. Princess Mirrorbelle by Julia Donaldson
5. Fairy Realm series by Emily Rodda