I first met Anne Booth at a conference run by Nosy Crow Books last year. We had a lot in common, including debut novels for young readers, and a publisher (O.U.P.). Anne’s first book of several out this year is Girl With A White Dog (Catnip Books, published 1st March) so I asked her about it, and about her writing process.
Here’s what the book is about: When Jessie’s gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, it’s the start of a downwards spiral of strange and worrying behaviour. But life at home is only half the problem. At school Jessie’s class is studying the Nazis’ rise to power and she’s learning some uncomfortable truths about the way people can treat those they see as different – and starts noticing worrying parallels around her. With one eye one the past and one on her ailing gran, Jessie starts to see a connection – something long-buried, troubling and somehow connected to another girl and another white dog…’
J: I didn’t know anything about the Nazi policy targeting the pets belonging to Jewish families. This is a good theme for connecting with modern-day young readers. How early in your work on the book did you find out about this – was it a gift along the way, or the spark that started the whole thing off?
A: Lots of things happened at the same time and I’m not entirely sure what came first. I think it started with a book someone tweeted about and which I bought, Amazing Dogs by Jan Bondeson. I have two dogs of my own and I thought it looked great, so I treated myself to it. In it I read about a college for dogs in Nazi Germany. I thought this might be an interesting idea for a book. To find out more I did some research and came across the wonderful ‘Animals in the Third Reich’ by Boria Sax, and from there I read about the law saying that Jewish people were not allowed to have pets and how that felt for them. I started reading more social history books about Germany and growing up in the 1930s. I remembered my ‘A’ level History and wanted to work out more about what would make people accept Nazism. What I read really affected me. I read lots of social history and accounts of children growing up as members of the Hitler Youth, and I began to realise that if I had been born an Aryan German I might not have wanted to see how bad Nazism was either. I might have just wanted to go camping and singing and see myself as good and be happy to blame others for the problems in my country.
At the same time I was concerned at all the negative comments about immigrants and asylum seekers and disabled and unemployed people in our media. I couldn’t put on the TV or the radio without someone blaming one of those groups for being ‘scroungers’ or for wasting money. I found that very worrying, as the books I was reading were telling me the same things happened in Germany in the 1930s, and prepared the way for Nazism. I couldn’t remember ever having read a book putting that across, and thought I might have an idea for a children’s book.
There was also a lot in the media about Grimms’ Fairy tales and a report that a new fairytale had been found. I’d read about how the Nazis loved using fairytales to show themselves as the ‘goodies’ and others, like the Jews, as the ‘baddies’. I thought I might write a new fairytale about a child growing up in Nazi Germany. My original book started with the first paragraph of the very last chapter of ‘Girl with a White Dog’.
I started to write from the point of view of a little Nazi girl, but it was difficult to convey how attractive Nazism was for many in the Hitler Youth without seeming to condone or even promote it.
At the same time something else was happening in my life: my elderly mother was diagnosed with dementia and had a bad fall, ending up in hospital. There she kept talking about people marching down the corridors and was very distressed. I am glad to say that she stopped thinking this, but her reaction was so strong that I realised that for those days in hospital she was in a horrible nightmare I could not free her from. I read more about dementia, and came across stories of elderly people whose distress was found to be linked not with nightmares but with long-buried memories. I read about a man whose family were shocked to find that he lost his ability to speak English and could only speak Polish, the language of his childhood. When I read about elderly dementia patients in Germany talking about Hitler then I had the last bit of my story.
During all this time I read and re-read as many children’s novels about Nazi Germany and the Second World War as I could, just to make sure nobody else had approached it in the same way.
J: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: As a child I wanted to save children and animals – I’m not sure how – but it seemed to be by either being a saintly nun or a saintly nun who was a doctor. You have to know that I was brought up in a very religious family. Then I realised I didn’t want to be a nun, and I wasn’t good enough at science to be a doctor or a vet. I went to university and studied English which was bliss. I got my first job in a bookshop, which was wonderful, and I’ve worked at loads of different jobs – including being a tour guide, an English language teacher, a lecturer, doing arts & crafts in an old people’s home, washing up in a café and being a project assistant for a charity. The one consistent thing is that I have always written – in diaries, letters, prayer journals and notebooks.
The first story I remember writing was an epic bible story I wrote at school when I was 5 about Jesus bringing Jairus’ daughter back to life. I remember not being able to miss out any details, and drawing lots of pictures, and feeling very tired using my pencil but unable to stop! I still have the same feelings now when I write!
I never stopped reading children’s books alongside adult books. Long before I was married and had my own children I was buying and reading and enthusing over Shirley Hughes, for example. I went on to do an MA in Children’s Literature and I still didn’t try to write any. I think it was because I was in awe of them. I loved being a bookseller and recommending them but I did not write any children’s books until quite recently, helped by going on two Arvon Writing for Children courses. Instead I did an MA in Creative Writing in the evenings and wrote short stories and a novel for adults, and I do want to take those out and dust them off. I also really really love illustrations in children’s books and my big desire is to have enough confidence to have a go at illustrating, but I’m a bit shy about that.
J: Now, about your own writing methods – if you get stuck, is there any particular thing you do to get inspired again?
A: I go for a walk with my dogs, sometimes alone, sometimes with my family. I read some books I love. I watch a film I think might inspire me – I have a cup – many cups – of tea. I sit quietly and pray. I talk to my dogs!
This must have been a particularly boring idea!
I write – often in my prayer journal – about how I can’t write, and most times that does the trick as I find that there are still lots of feelings and ideas out there, so I draw diagrams and write lists and sometimes – when no one is there apart from the dogs – I walk around the house talking to myself!
I have very recently
found that in moments of despair sitting with my jumper over my head is surprisingly calming. There is one jumper that is particularly good – it is like having a little portable tent or yurt! I may mass produce it and sell it to writers!
J: I really like the idea of a portable, wearable yurt. Please put me down for one when you go into production!
Next question – have your own children helped in any way with your writing?
A: I do find talking to and listening to my children very helpful. They make me laugh and are such good storytellers about their days that they give me lots of inspiration. They have been brilliantly patient at listening to me reading out scenes set in school and telling me if they are realistic or not.
J: We are so used to sassy, smart-mouthed main characters in teen fiction. Jessie, your narrator, is relatively unsophisticated in both behaviour and vocabulary. Can you tell me about your decisions behind creating her as she is?
A: I think there is a lot of me in Jessie. I wasn’t a very sophisticated teenager and I worried a lot. I did want to write about a teenager like that because I feel the way teenagers are portrayed in the media or in some fiction only shows one way of being a teenager – and there are as many different types of teenager as there are adults. I don’t drive, and if I catch the bus with school children you can hear and see so many different types of students – some sophisticated, some funny, some more innocent than others. I think it is only fair that we write about the less sassy ones too!
J: Jessie is a real ‘worrier’ – so was I as a child (still am!) How do you balance happy and sad stuff in a book for young readers?
A: I do believe in Goodness. I do worry about the bad things that happen in the world, and my own responsibility for them as a shared citizen of the planet, but I do have a religious faith in a God of Love, and I do actually believe (though I have to remind myself that I do) what I say in my own book – that we should not despair, and that little acts of kindness can transform things. So I hope I have left children with that message, and that they will feel empowered and hopeful rather than overwhelmed by the story. I hope that putting a puppy in helped!
J: What age group is this book aimed at? I can see it revolves around Year 9s (13-14 year olds) but it feels easy enough for younger children to read.
A: I think it is for older Primary school upwards. I would like it to be read by children when they are studying Nazi Germany, and I know my children looked at Anne Frank’s Diary, for example, when they were still at Primary school, and again in Year 9.
J: Were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?
J : I won’t ask about ‘favourite books’, as I’m hopeless at deciding on favourites myself, but were there any particular books that had a deep effect on you as child?
A: Anne of Green Gables. Paddington Bear. Just William. Jennings. Black Beauty. Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. The Little Wooden Horse. Carbonel. A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (wonderful!) Lots of Enid Blyton – particularly Mr Galliano’s Circus as I really wanted to be Jimmy Brown and tame lots of animals. What Katy Did. The Secret Garden. Books by Noel Streatfield. All the Narnia Books. The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley… I’m going to have to stop now but that is just a tiny tiny list and I know I will be so sad to have missed anything off. They made me cry and they made me laugh. Some of them – like Paddington – made me cry with laughter.
J: I have certain authors who I can rely on to inspire me in terms of style and content and the way they organise the story they are telling. Are there any writers who work for you in this way?
A: I know that Girl with a White Dog is nothing like this – but I have to say P.G. Wodehouse. I just love his comic timing. I would love to write some straight comedy.
J: What are you reading at the moment?
A: I’m waiting impatiently for a delivery of a secondhand copy of The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield, one of my favourite childhood books. I am just about to start a book called Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson. I am reading non-fiction books for inspiration for some ideas I have – Playing at Home – The House in Contemporary Art by Gill Perry, Bonzo’s War – Animals under fire 1939-1945 and Imaginary Animals by Boria Sax. I am also dipping into lots of books about Lindisfarne or ‘Holy Island’ as I am very drawn to writing about it but am not sure what form the story will take yet.
J: You’ve got other books coming out this year. Can you tell us about them?
A: Lucy’s Secret Reindeer is for 5-8 year olds and is a magical Christmas story about a little girl who looks after a poorly reindeer for Santa. It’s being published by O.U.P. and has a beautiful cover and will have lots of lovely black and white illustrations inside by Sophy Williams. This will be out in October but is available for pre-order already!
I have two picture books coming out with Nosy Crow which will be gorgeous (I have seen the sketches for the first book’s illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw) but I am not sure when the first one will be out.
J: Tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing?
J: And, finally, your Writerly Snack of Choice?
A: Chocolate. But I really must cut down…
Thanks to Anne for taking the time to reveal the secrets of her writing process, and for such great pictures.