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Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author – John Connolly

Rebecca Davies

Samuel Johnson book 186x300 Children’s Book Blog: Ask the Author – John Connolly Irish author John Connolly is well-known for his best-selling adult thrillers about New York detective Charlie Parker. But he’s also written a series of nail-biting books for children, about a boy called Samuel Johnson who discovers that his next-door neighbours are trying to open the gates of Hell. The third instalment in the Samuel Johnson v The Devil series, ‘The Creeps’, was published at the start of this month. And since it’s Halloween week, I thought I’d ask him a bit about his book and why he thinks it’s such a good idea to scare children.

Do you find it easier to write books for adults or for children?

It’s probably more fun writing for children, in part because I can just let my imagination run riot. Children are probably harsher critics than adults, though. They don’t let you off with very much. On the other hand, if you entertain them, then their enthusiasm is unbridled. The most fun I’ve had has involved doing school events with kids, but when they’ve gone badly it’s taken me days to recover.

Where did the idea for the Samuel Johnson versus the Devil series come from?

Shortly after publishing my first book back in 1999, I thought it would be lovely to write a book about a small boy who discovers that his neighbours are trying to open the gates of Hell. I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work, though, until I became interested in the Large Hadron Collider experiment, which caused all sorts of sensible people to start fretting about the possibility that it might open black holes, or bring the world to an end. That was my way into the book, and out of that came all the little footnotes, which are nearly as much fun to research and write as the books themselves. I wanted the books to have twin narratives. A story is being told, but every so often a slightly peculiar author character pops up and comments on what’s happening. In the end, the books assume that the kids reading them are pretty smart. If nothing else, I didn’t want to be accused of talking down to my readers.

Do you think it’s healthy for children to be scared by what they read every now and then?

I think it’s wonderful. Obviously, we don’t want to traumatize young people, but to have a scare followed by a laugh is great fun. On a more serious note, though, we as adults sometimes forget that horror fiction is a very useful way for younger readers to begin to negotiate the darkness and complexity of the adult world. It allows them to put form – vampires, demons – to formless terrors, and give names – ghost, werewolf – to the unnameable.

It goes right back to old folk tales, in which kids overcome dreadful terrors – wolves, trolls, unpleasant stepmothers – by being smart and courageous. In that sense, horror fiction is kind of a carrier food – a bit like chicken! I think that’s why so many kids are drawn to it in adolescence. It’s not flirting with the occult, despite what the odd religious lunatic may think. Kids are much brighter and more sensitive than adults give them credit for when it comes to understanding fiction.

Do you worry that some parents might consider your books too scary for children?

No child has ever told me that the books are too scary. That’s the only thing that would concern me. Nevertheless, first of all the books are funny. Their primary purpose is to make you laugh, and so laughs outnumber scares by a considerable factor. Also, books aren’t like films. With a scary film, all of the choices of presentation have been made by someone else: how the monsters should look, how loud the screams are, how dark the basement appears. That’s actually very difficult for a younger viewer, because it doesn’t allow their natural filters to kick in. It’s why kids hide behind cushions, or cover their eyes, when something happens on screen that they don’t want to see. A book is different. Kids decide for themselves how to visualize the action and, in the end, if they don’t like what their imagination is doing, they’ll simply put the book down and come back to it again later, whether that’s an hour, a day or a year later. As adults – and I’m a parent too – we need to give our kids some credit, and trust them a little. The kind of opportunities for exploration offered to kids by fiction is really healthy. We do them a disservice by being overprotective when it comes to books.

Did you read scary books when you were young? If so, which was your favourite?

I loved them, but mainly in adolescence.  I still read them now, but their appeal is less immediate. I read the ghost stories of M.R. James, anthologies of ‘true’ supernatural encounters, novelisations of old Hammer films (my generation’s version of owning something on tape or DVD that we could return to again), and Stephen King. I was reading King long before I became a teenager, and I loved him. He writes so well about childhood and adolescence, and understands how kids view the adult world. That’s very important: good writers understand their readers, young and old. They may occasionally overstep the mark, but most of the time they’ll be bang on the money.

Do you remember what the first story you ever wrote was about?

When I was five or six, I wrote stories based on the Tarzan TV series starring Ron Ely. My teacher would pay me 5p for each one I wrote. I still owe her an enormous debt for that. In fact, I was so enthused I wrote an epic based on the Casey Jones TV series. He was a train driver in the Wild West, and the story must have run to 1,000 words or more. I think I got 10p for that one.

Do you have any top tips for aspiring children’s authors?

The kid that you once were is still in there somewhere, and never goes away. You have to remember what entertained and thrilled you when you were a child, and try to recover some of that in your writing. And never, ever patronize. You can get away with that when it comes to adults, but not kids. I just assume that I’m talking to adults who don’t swear as much, are a little more innocent, and are trying to understand how the world works. If I can help them with that while passing a pleasant hour or two for them, then I’ll have done my job.

THE CREEPS: Samuel Johnson vs The Devil Round lll by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardcover at £12.99. John’s new YA novel, CONQUEST: Chronicles of the Invaders, co-written with Jennifer Ridyard, is published by Headline in hardcover at £12.99.

Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author and completed her middle-grade novel, Shirley Smart and the Nix’s Curse earlier this year. You can read more of her children’s book blogs here

Follow Rebecca on Twitter @TheStoryMonster

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