I've been talking up Hilary McKay's Casson Family books for a while now, so when I got a chance to interview this author about her Lulu books, now being published in the U.S., I was fangirlishly thrilled. Join me in finding out just how witty and fun Hilary McKay is as a person and as a writer. Thanks, Hilary!
BA: I’ve read—and loved—your Exiles and Casson Family series, which are for middle grade readers. How did you come to write an early chapter book series?
HM: I've always written early chapter books along with the longer ones. It started with writing stories for anthologies and went on from there. So although there are only the LULU books in the US, here we also have the CHARLIE books (in which Lulu and Mellie sometimes appear) and the PARADISE HOUSE series (another multicultural series about a group of children who live and play together).
BA: Both the Exiles and the Casson books are about groups of siblings, clearly ensemble casts. Has it been different writing about an only child?
HM: No, not at all! Lulu always has Mellie who is as close to her as any sibling.
BA: You write, “Lulu and Mellie were not just ordinary friends—they were best friends.” Did you have a best friend as a child? If so, what was the friendship like? Did you sometimes “[grumble] about each other’s hobbies, which were not at all alike”?
HM: I did have a best friend, and we were not a bit alike—she was an only child, and I was one of four. And she never read books and I read hundreds. Despite that, for several years we were very close indeed.
BA: How did you create Lulu’s personality?
HM: Lulu first appeared in an earlier book—climbing over a fence to visit her friend Charlie. I believe, although it is hard to remember because it was so long ago and I haven't a copy of the story, I believe he cut her hair! And I think after that between them they cut the hair of most of the children in the neighborhood. Lulu has been at the back of my mind for a long time, brave and loving and cheeky and kind. I am very fond of her.
BA: I’ve really enjoyed the humor in your previous books. Now the humor in the Lulu books makes them stand out from the pack. Tell us about your sense of humor and the humor in your writing.
HM: That is so hard! Goodness! Oh well, here goes.
I like words. I think an unexpected word at (as Captain Jack Sparrow might remark) the opportune moment can jolt a person into smiling. And I like listening to people talk. It is often, I have noticed, ridiculous. Write it down, word for word, and you often have a joke. Or something. That is the hardest question I have been asked since Physics at University.
BA: I’m pleased to see that Lulu and Mellie are black, something that is shown in the illustrations but isn’t called out in the text. What prompted that choice?
HM: I have to say this. Here in the far from perfect UK that fact has never been remarked upon. Not once. I have been absolutely stunned at Lulu's reception in the US. And I have to say, why not? It's not the first time. There was a black child in the Paradise House series, years ago here (and a Chinese one). No one ever commented. Schools over here are filled with all sorts of children, naughty ones and good ones, plain ones and pretty ones, rich one and poor ones, able bodied sporty ones, wheel chair users, readers, non readers, nuisances and treasures. And white ones and black ones. Thank goodness.
BA: Who were you as a child? Could you tell us a story that would give us an idea?
HM: I remember when I was about Lulu's age and my tortoise died, I cried so long and loudly that our neighbours across the street could not stand it. They took me out and bought me a rabbit for the sake of peace and quiet (much to my mother's surprise). Those neighbours had a kangaroo skin on the wall of their hall. I thought that was the height of sophistication. (I was very young. I've grown out of longing for kangaroo skins now.)
BA: The dogs in Lulu and the Duck in the Park are the villains of the piece, while the titular dog in Lulu and the Dog from the Sea is the hero. What’s more, it seems like the character growth in Book 2 takes place mostly in the two dogs, not the people. What pets have you had in your life? Have they experienced any personal growth?
HM: What an observation! I am impressed! I don't usually bother with character growth in either humans or animals. It would take a long time to list all the pets in my life, and this keyboard would be awash with tears at the memories. I have been fortunate enough to know some very wonderful animals. Hamsters—a merry and noble hamster named Coffee. Dogs. Yes indeed. Kipling (I know, I know, well out of fashion) was right about giving your heart to a dog to tear. Sam, Roly, Keeper. Laddie (I didn't name him but I loved him). Laddie didn't believe in the existence of glass. I must say car journeys were a trial...
BA: What inspired the character of Mrs. Holiday? Who were the most memorable teachers from your own school days?
HM: Ah, yes, Mrs Holiday! But if you had known my own Mrs Rule! What a woman! She believed we could do anything, and we did. Well do I remember us calculating the diameter of the earth with the aid of shadows and a stopwatch, out in the playground in the sun. Every Friday afternoon (as a treat) every child in her class researched and continued the book they were currently working upon. There was no wishy washy remarking that we were only ten, too young for literature. We baked bread and churned butter, and learnt to play a well mannered game of chess. On my birthday (me being the class naturalist) we had a natural history day. A very large tortoise was allowed to roam freely between the desks. And Mrs Rule read to us every day, and often to please us she brought in her dog. (He was named The Black Panther.) She was the best teacher in the world and I would give a great deal to be allowed to go back in time to tell her so.
BA: How did a biochemist turn into a writer of children’s fiction?
HM: My friend Isabel suggested it because she said I wrote good letters. So I had a go and it worked.
BA: Your flap copy bio says you like getting letters from children. Could you give us a few quotes from the
HM: What? Okay. Wait till I dig the files out.
"I thought of you today because my life is starting to feel like a novel written by you."
"I own two trumpets and two guitars"
"I read it twice but I'm still confused."
"It wasn't my fault the shelf was shaky. It was an accident waiting to happen."
BA: What’s next for Lulu??
HM: Well, you have two of the series. There are six here and I have two more to write before summer. I think your next one involves a cat in a bag.
BA: As a postscript, I have to ask: Are you planning any more books about the Cassons?
HM: Not in the next few months!