Children’s Book Blog: Ask the author – Sophie Smiley
Sophie Smiley is the author of a heart-warming series of chapter books about a football-mad family. Packed with charming illustrations by the award-winning Michael Foreman, the books follow the adventures of big sister Charlie (short for Charlton) and her brother Bobby, who has Down’s syndrome. Books in the series include Bobby, Charlton and the Mountain, Man of the Match and Team Trouble.
Sophie recently took part in a cultural exchange between British and Turkish writers before speaking at the London Book Fair, where Turkey was this year’s Market Focus. When she’s not busy working on her novels, Sophie teaches English, Film Studies and Creative Writing. She lives in Cambridge.
Where did the inspiration for the Bobby and Charlton stories come from?
I have staffed for years with a charity called Forest School Camps, which takes all sorts of children camping. The camps that mix able children and children with learning difficulties always seem to have extra sparkle and heart.
Many of my best memories are of youngsters with Down’s syndrome: a little lad called David who would jump into my tent at 6am every morning when the cows were let into the field; an older boy, who would drive an imaginary bus down to breakfast each morning, bossing the 15 and 16 year-olds around in a way that would have made the grumpiest of bus conductors proud. Then there was the child who climbed into the back of a car parked on a hill and lifted the hand brake. He and the car then careered down, ploughing through the campsite. At the bottom, he got out unscathed and waved like the Queen.
I also remember one highly disturbed child who had been slashing tents and attacking other children. This boy then encountered Max, a guileless, mischievous person with Downs syndrome; the two went about together, and all the aggression slipped away.
I suppose other inspiration came from my own childhood – a family of four children, in a house with a granny with Alzheimer’s, and three lodgers who were students at a teacher training college. The house was always full of students, refugees and lost souls. I loved it, and it gave me a taste for the quirky.
I don’t like the idea of people with disabilities being in stories simply because they are disabled; they have to be interesting characters who play a real and equal part in a good narrative. In my books, Bobby and his sister Charlton have very different strengths, and on different occasions each of them solves problems or helps someone out of a scrape.
One of my stories was rejected partly because Bobby was being naughty and there was concern about a negative representation of a child with a disability. I felt strongly that Bobby was a child first, not a disabled child, and that he should be allowed to behave badly – especially since it was in response to an adult behaving unfairly. I trusted the reader to understand that.
Your books have recently been translated into Turkish – how have they gone down with Turkish children?
I had the honour of being the first foreign author to visit Turkish state schools. I felt like Chairman Mao as I addressed a whole school lined up in a playground. The children knew the stories really well, and they all wanted to hug me, while merrily boshing each other over the head with my books! The wonderful British Council has commissioned me and some other writers to write stories for Turkish teenagers learning English. They will give these anthologies to state schools across Turkey.
What was your favourite book when you were young?
I can’t isolate a solitary favourite book. I still have The Tall Book of Make Believe, which had poems, stories and wonderful pictures. My copy has ticks and little scribbles by my favourite lines from when I was about five.
Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree was the first book I remember illicitly staying up after lights-out to read, though when I read it to my boys I was very disappointed.
I was a slow reader; my mother, who left school at 13, read to all of us till we were at least 10, as she loved children’s books. I recall The Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe being read to me, with the background worry of the Cuban missile crisis and “will the bombs come?” when I was six.
I also loved A Wrinkle in Time, Cynthia Harnett’s historical novels, Flambards – and, of course, The Secret Garden.
What’s your top tip for aspiring children’s authors?
Don’t get it right, get it written. Also, start with the kettle boiling.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have recently finished two stories for the British Council. I’ve also been working very hard to save a row of Victorian buildings from demolition, which has got in the way of writing, and would like to get back to a yarn for adults which has been left unfinished.
Find out more about the Independent’s Children’s Book Blog here
Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonsterTagged in: Bobby, British Council, Charlton and the Mountain, Downs Syndrome, Forest School Camps, london book fair, Man of the Match and Team Trouble, Sophie Smiley, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Tall Book of Make Believe
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