In 1994 I was asked to write an early reader book by Wendy Boase, senior editor at Walker Books. I had won my first contract with them in 1986 as an author of cutting edge teen fiction which no-one bought, but it was my picture book You’re A Hero Daley B which had got the tills ringing, and Wendy was keen for me to repeat the trick for their new Sprinters series. Early readers are also known as read-alone books, which explains their purpose exactly: books with simple vocabulary and sentence structure which will not daunt a child reading without the help of an adult. Wendy also explained that Sprinters required short chapters, lots of action and dialogue which could be taken out and integrated with the illustrations to create a playful and varied story.
I duly turned out a story about a bumbling stunt man and his long-suffering wife, called The Great Nazir. In my creative frenzy I had somehow neglected to include anyone with whom a child could identify – a child, for example. So I went back to the drawing board and in a Road to Damascus moment realised that my stuntman could just as easily have a daughter! So Little Stupendo was born, to suffer the same fate as the Great Nazir’s wife, having to mend his frequently ripped trousers.
This was clearly going to be a Cinderella story: early reader books do not naturally lend themselves to Shakespearean tragedy. So Little Stupendo was to have her own ambition to become a stunt artist, an ambition which of course her dad discouraged, because otherwise there would be no problem to be solved, no creative tension, and no story.
But how was Little Stupendo to achieve her ambition? Well, she’d have to perform a stunt which her dad (now the Great Stupendo) would simply have to approve of, and how better to do this than to save her Dad’s life?
Quite clearly I could not write the book until I had envisaged this climactic scene. I had to choose a stunt which was visual, could be witnessed by many people and which would take time to perform – unlike leaping buses on a bike, for example. A high-wire act seemed the best option. But why would it go wrong for the Great Stupendo?
My solution to this was to have something on the wire which struck fear into him. Obviously something small, preferably something which the child reader would know about. A spider. But how did the spider get there? Could be an chance event of course, but then I’d lose an opportunity to add some intrigue to the story. So maybe someone put it there? A rival?
Having envisaged the final scene, therefore, I was having to work backwards through the sequence of events that led to it. If a rival placed the spider on the wire, how did he know about the Great Stupendo’s fear? Someone tipped him off. Why should they tip him off? Because they had cause to resent the Great Stupendo. What gave them this cause?
Clearly there had to be a third character in the story, close enough to the Stupendos to have witnessed Dad’s fear of spiders. So I created a neighbour, Mr Chinspot, who could both witness Little Stupendo’s efforts to train herself for stunts and be on hand when Dad cries out for help because there is a spider in the bath.
Now I had to give Mr Chinspot a reason for resentment. I hit upon the idea that Dad was to go over a huge waterfall in a barrel, possibly influenced by the urban myth that Houdini once did this. Fearing there may be a spider in the barrel, Dad asks Mr Chinspot to climb in and check it. Workmen arrive, nail on a lid and take it away. Mr Chinspot goes over the falls instead of Dad and vows to get his revenge, as Dad had surely intended it to happen (I had already established that Mr Chinspot was a suspicious man). He gets wind of the next stunt and goes to see Johnny Bravo, Dad’s greatest rival. (An interesting sidelight to this is that the book came out at almost exactly the same time as the TV cartoon character of the same name, an amazing coincidence).
Now I had the bare bones of the story. Necessity had been the mother of invention. When the story was complete it worked perfectly, especially when integrated with the artwork of Martin Chatterton. The presence of a feisty female lead was probably another reason for the book’s success, but I was still surprised when it was shortlisted for the Childrens Book Award. I lost out to Jacqueline Wilson who trumped me by having two feisty female leads in Double Act. Whatever became of her?