Lauren Child, children's author, gets into character

As the final instalment of her Ruby Redfort series is released, Lauren Child reflects on the quirky kids and teen detectives that have made her so popular, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Lauren Child has sold millions of books.

Quentin Blake, Beatrix Potter, Dr Seuss: children’s book illustrators often develop a hallmark style all of their very own. Lauren Child, the author of series like Clarice Bean and Charlie and Lola, has certainly joined the pantheon with her distinctive and simple collage illustrations.

But she hit on the technique that made her one of children’s literature’s most celebrated living authors through a simple character trait of her own: indecision.

“I wasn’t very good at making decisions, and collage allows you to keep moving things around without destroying what you’ve already done,” the 52-year-old author says. “So I started drawing everything separately and cutting them all out.”

Lauren gave a demonstration of her collage techniques recently at the Towers and Tales story festival in Lismore. With her background in design — in her twenties, she designed lampshades and spent a stint as one of Damian Hirst’s infamous studio assistants, painting spots — illustration had always been on the cards for Lauren, but publishing success didn’t arrive until Clarice Bean, That’s Me was nominated for a Kate Greenaway prize when she was 34. The inaugural Charlie and Lola book, I Will Not Never Eat a Tomato, won the prize the following year, and cemented her distinctive style in the public’s minds.

“I’d had several attempts at writing picture books and none of them had gone anywhere; I think I was trying too hard to please,” Lauren says.

“I’d show my work to publishers who’d push me in the direction they thought I should be going in, and I’d try to do what they suggested. It’s good to listen to criticism, but it’s also important that your work comes from the heart. If it doesn’t, it’s boring or characterless, or a pale imitation of someone else’s work. You have to say something new that pleases you, that you feel strongly about.”

She’s sold more than eight million copies of 20 books worldwide, but Lauren isn’t content to rest on her laurels, and broke with her formula for her latest unillustrated series of thrillers for older children based on the life of a 13-year-old spy called Ruby Redfort.

Ruby first surfaced by accident in the Clarice Bean books, she explains: “I had invented this character called Ruby Redfort for a fictional series that Clarice was reading, but I started getting fan-mail from Clarice Bean readers asking me if the Ruby Redfort books were real. I had never intended to actually write them, but then I decided I should.”

The six-book deal saw the prolific author leave illustrating largely to one side to focus on writing. “I realised that I loved the writing as much as I loved the drawing, and so it wasn’t that big a leap just to write, but I did miss illustrating,” she says,

Lauren also adopted her daughter, Tuesday Child (“She’s full of grace”) from Mongolia while working on the Redfort series. Tuesday, who arrived at two-and-a-half, is now seven. The adoption process took an arduous five years, but Lauren fell in love with Mongolia and its people whilst visiting on a UNESCO programme.

“I spent many weeks there and I got to know many Mongolian friends, which is the real benefit of it taking so long,” she says. “I was very lucky to be able to adopt from there because it takes ages and ages and ages, and in that sense it probably wasn’t the most sensible thing to do, but I’m glad now.”

Finding her feet as a mum took some time. Unsurprisingly, Tuesday has taken on her mother’s love of drawing. “She’s very proud because she’s just drawn some dogs for the title page of a Charlie and Lola book on dogs that I’m doing,” Lauren says.

Lauren lives with Tuesday and long-term partner, barrister Adrian Darbishire, in north London.

The paperback edition of Blink and You Die, the sixth and final Ruby Redfort book, is just out, and with it, Lauren is back to her familiar terrain of picture books, working on her new character, whose improbable moniker is nearly as large as he: Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent.

“Hubert Horatio is a tiny, tiny boy genius; it’s really fun to write.” No doubt he’ll also be really fun to read.

  • The paperback edition of You Blink And You Die is out now

Question of taste

Favourite children’s books

  • The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide, illustrated by Edward Gorey, is a quirky picture book published in the early ‘70s. “She wrote a trilogy of Treehorn books, and they’re very funny but quite profound,” Lauren says. “They’re about how adults often miss the point: children are busy trying to convey important information, and adults don’t listen.”
  • The 18th Emergency by US author Betsy Byars dates from the same era. “I think it holds up as a completely contemporary book; it hasn’t dated at all. It taught me about comedy and tragedy. It’s about a boy who’s scared of being beaten up and it’s quite dark, but also very funny.”
  • Lauren’s third book is that perennial favourite, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. At eight, when she discovered Pippi, Lauren could identify with “a wonderfully strong central character, who also happened to be female; I think that was a good thing to see growing up.” Lauren paid homage to her childhood favourite by illustrating an edition of the book in 2011.

Favourite grown-up book

“I crave time to read books,” Lauren says. While writing the convoluted plots of the Ruby Redfort series, she found she was unable to read and turned to audiobooks as less immersive. Thrillers were especially welcome, and she enjoyed Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, as well as Michael Connelly’s detective novels.

Music

Lauren makes playlists that reflect the characters she’s working on, and listens to them as she works. “They’re quite eclectic playlists,” she says. So what fitted the mood for 13-year-old spy Ruby Redfort? LA Indie rockers Warpaint, apparently, “but I had quite a lot of ’70s music in the mix too”.

TV

With a seven-year-old who doesn’t always sleep well in the house, she’s a keen adopter of Netflix’ on-demand model and has been watching and enjoying Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things, when parenting duties permit.

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