Author: Caryl Lewis
The Branford Boase Award judges said of Seed that it’s a book that casts a spell on readers. Where did the idea for the book come from and what was your starting point?
I wanted to write a book that was uplifting, a book that said to children, ‘this is your world, yes, there are problems, but it is also a magical wonderous place full of exciting things, and you are capable!’ Children have to deal with so much doom and gloom these days with seemingly insurmountable obstacles being put in their way. The starting point was my grandfather who had absolutely nothing as a young boy but who managed, by thinking outside of the box, to make a success of himself. Imagination is a powerful tool to young people; it is both practical (a place to escape to) and transformative. I wanted to empower young people and give them some agency in a world which seemed so topsy turvy. I wasn’t sure where to start until I was in the garden one day planting an Atlantic Giant pumpkin, and I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder?!’
You’ve written for adults and for the screen, how did you approach writing for children and what do you enjoy most about it?
My approach to writing for children is largely the same as when writing for adults, the only caveat being that I make sure any themes are being handled age appropriately. Children are wise, funny and complex and capable of more nuance than we give them credit for. They enjoy subtlety and irony and grey areas and are in this delicious phase in which they are learning what they think about the world. Their minds are plastic and elastic and I feel that as a writer, your duty to them is to stretch them in a safe and exciting way. I also don’t believe that wisdom is necessarily acquired with age, I think children have an innate wisdom and an ability to think incredibly deeply. My favourite thing about writing for children is that they tend to be ‘on board’ with things really quickly. For example, my husband had moved the car from in front of the house the other day so that when we opened the door- it wasn’t there. I pretended it was right in front of us and without batting an eyelid, the kids all started to ‘open’ the doors and to ‘plug’ in their seatbelts. We ‘drove’ up the lane in a square formation of four all laughing! That is how they read too- they are with you one hundred percent!
What did you enjoy most about working with Sarah on the book? Can you share any suggestions she made?
Sarah’s superpower as an editor is her ability to hold the whole world of a book in her head. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to know that someone is standing beside you inside the world you created. That there’s someone there who knows everything about your book but who also knows what your book could potentially be. She can take on a world and expand it, stretch it without betraying the heart of it. Her ability to work simultaneously in the micro and the macro is incredible, to balance nurturing the writer and satisfying the reader. She made some brilliant suggestions around the reader feeling the absence of Marty’s dad a little more, which speaks again to subtlety- that absences can be as strong as presences and some wonderful notes re the timing of the end of the story – so we feel Marty’s need to get home to his mother. Keeping narrative pace is so important for this age group. The whole experience was a complete joy!
What is your favourite scene in your book and why?
My favourite scene in the book is not a noisy or a dramatic one, it is the scene where Mr Garraway asks Marty what he wants to do with his life. He asks him if he wants to be a doctor or a lawyer and tells him that a good brain can take you anywhere. This is one of the few scenes in the book that came from my childhood. A teacher asked me the same and I was astounded. My world suddenly opened up. It was utterly transformative. No-one from my family had been to University, I would not have thought of going. What that teacher did was open a door in me that I did not know was closed.
What advice would you give to debut writers?
I think a lot of young writers spend too much time thinking about their story and not enough time feeling it? It sounds strange, but a story comes from more than your mind. It should come from your heart, your senses, your gut instincts. If you don’t cry or laugh when you’re writing, then you can’t expect a reader to when reading. I tend to ‘feel’ myself through a story rather than ‘think’ myself through.
Editor: Sarah Hughes
What was your reaction when you first read Seed? What appealed to you most about the story?
Seed was submitted during Lockdown and I was longing to read something uplifting. I immediately felt that tingle all editors hope for when they read something new and shared the novel with the team the same day that I received it. I often read beautiful writing, but it doesn’t often also make me laugh out loud. It’s much more difficult to combine the two.
I found Seed funny, sad, uplifting and full of hope, with gorgeous relationships between Marty and Grandad, and Marty and Gracie. Most of all, I felt that the inspirational central theme was especially important: that, with the right encouragement and support, anyone can achieve things that previously seemed impossible, whether that be growing an enormous pumpkin and sailing to France, becoming a dancer, or believing you can fulfill your potential.
What do you admire most about Caryl’s writing?
She has that rare ability to combine vivid nuanced prose, humour and a warm emotional intelligence in a way that is entirely child-focused. She can make you laugh while in no way diminishing the serious themes of the novel.
What do you think marks out the most successful writers for young people?
They keep a laser-like focus on the children they’re writing for, they don’t underestimate them and they remember that reading is most of all – or should be – delicious entertainment.
What do you find most satisfying about being an editor?
It’s always a privilege to read and champion a wonderful novel at a very early stage of its development, and to be able to support and encourage a writer to make their novel the very best it can be. I also love being part of a team who work closely together to publish the best books that will reach as many readers as possible.
What advice would you give anyone wanting to write for children?
Don’t chase the market. Write the book you passionately want to write while keeping the interests, needs and desires of your readers at the heart of everything. Read a lot; write a lot.
Seed is published by Macmillan Children’s Books, 978-1529077667, £7.99 pbk.
Thank you to Caryl Lewis and to Sarah Hughes for answering our questions.