In November 1997 (long story) I wrote this on a post-it note:
This morning, the postman delivered a copy of my first children’s book, Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off to our conservatory-less house. It’s only taken me 18 years. I still don’t have groovy hair.
I didn’t write Billy Bramble to meet some personally set milestone. I wrote it because I find the voices of young people like Billy incredibly strong and perceptive. Billy is 11 (nearly 12) years old and on the threshold of adolescence. Adolescents, particularly boys and particularly boys who struggle to engage with school for whatever reason are not amongst society’s most treasured groups. The ways in which they are depicted in popular media, if they are at all, are often negative. The terms ‘naughty boys’ or ‘naughty girls’ are openly used to describe children perhaps not unlike Billy.
We don’t know what has brought Billy to the point at which we meet him and his angry dog/sidekick Gobber but there are indications that like many children, his childhood might not have been straightforward. He describes himself as naughty and bad and picks up signals from the adults around him that his conclusions about himself are correct. Despite everything though, he wants to fit in, to do well and to be a success, he just needs some help to achieve it.
And that’s where Mrs Buttress comes in. Mrs Buttress is my fictional ‘thank you’ to teaching assistants and teachers across the land who value all children, who can see the best in them, who go that extra mile to enable them to grow their talents and who can at the same time find a way through rigid behaviour policies and league tables. My own family have benefitted greatly from the steady and patient hand of a number of Mrs Buttresses (some of whom carried out this great work on minimum wage) and the difference they have made is hard to put into words.
For all my theorising, Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off is of course a novel for children. I’ve designed it to be choppy and fun, with some drama and some comedy. It gives more than a nod to those for whom reading might not be their number one choice of activity and for that reason it had to be strongly illustrated by someone who ‘got’ Billy and his chicken and his cat and his sense of humour. I am so fortunate that the illustrator Kara McHale was able to more than amazingly fulfil what was in my head and which I couldn’t always describe. She took the text and ran with it and I am thrilled with the result.