Welcome to part 2 of our interview with children’s author, Ross Montgomery.
Ross’s books have had a fantastic reception from children, adults and reviewers alike, and have already been nominated for numerous industry awards. We spoke to him about what children love to read, and what makes a great children’s book…
Ross Montgomery (children’s author) and Hugh Viney (Director of Minerva Tutors) – hanging out on the couch at the Temple of Minerva this week.
Hi again, Ross. So, your books have great plot and storytelling, and have had a fantastic response from older as well as younger readers. Would you say they’re conventional children’s books?
I suppose they’re probably more conventional than I’d like to admit. I really like writing books that have got – even from the word go – something that is atypical and unusual that is going to grab a reader’s attention. That has often caused me a little bit of trouble ‘cause at the same time you do always need to make sure you’re creating a book that’s exciting and well paced and well structured, but usually with each book I’ll try and throw in something that’s a bit challenging and a bit different.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!]
So to choose an example, with my most recent middle-grade (9-12 years) book, which is called Perijee and Me, the idea was that it starts off being one particular kind of book, so it sort of leads you to expect that you understand what’s going to happen, it’s about a girl who discovers an alien and secretly decides to raise it. Then about halfway through there’s this incident where suddenly the army turn up, and the alien who’s called Perijee grows to Godzilla size and takes over the world, and the entire book just sort of changes halfway through, so it suddenly becomes this sort of fight against time where the main character Caitlyn is trying to get to him, and I quite liked that as a sort of unusual surprise…but it’s not, I suppose a conventional kind of story in that respect
Your books are also very funny – how important would you say humour is for younger readers?
For me, it was everything when I was growing up, as long as something could make me laugh in any particular way then I would read it. I think the main things I was interested in were – I loved Beano annuals. Just collecting them from car boots, I loved Horrible Histories, and eventually, that’s what got me into more complex books like reading Terry Pratchett and being pulled in by the humour, and that whole idea of a massive, sprawling series of books dealing with a particular world. I think there are some children who maybe – there’s no such thing as a child who dislikes funny books – but there are some who, their main pull is going to be in other ways. They’ll really love historical books, that kind of thing. But I definitely find that’s my niche – kids who want to be entertained, and they want to laugh.
You said your books (Perijee and Me, The Tornado Chasers and Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door) are aimed at ages 9-12. Did you have that in mind when you’re writing it, or were you like ‘I want to write a really good book – a really good story that anyone can enjoy’ (ideally if they’re 9-12 though…)?
Not eight! No eights allowed!
Not exactly. It’s weird I think – I can’t remember, when I wrote the first book which is aimed at 9-12, if that was my avowed intention, and I think as I learnt more about writing books and more about the publishing industry, I understood that’s sort of how it works, and they can be quite prescriptive about it, which I suppose you have to be in some respects. I don’t know why it is that I write for that age group, I think the only explanation that anyone’s ever given that helped me understand it is that there’s this idea that you end up writing for the age group that was how old you were when books totally blew your mind. And I think for me, that’s something that makes sense.
That people who write books for teenagers do that because it was when they were teenagers that books changed EVERYTHING for them, and I think for me – I must have been around 10 or 11 when I started getting more into reading novels, longer form children’s books, and being totally blown away by what books could do, and they meant a huge amount to me. So that kind of makes sense, it’s almost like I’m trying to talk to myself when I’m 10 years old…and I don’t know if I could write for another age group. I don’t know if I’d do a very good job – if I tried to write a teenage book I’d probably just add some swearing…there’s already a bit of swearing, but you know – lower level
Older readers have been really enjoying your books, as great stories that touch on very accessible, universal themes, and are also full of humour and great ideas – so maybe you’re not writing for an age group, but just writing good books?
I do like the idea of an adult reader who’s maybe reading it with a child and getting jokes – or a level of a joke – that a child might still find funny, but there’s an extra element in there. But I also really like the idea of the children’s books that mean the most to me being the ones that I’ve revisited, and realised there’s layers in there that I didn’t necessarily… I think you notice them when you’re a child, but you can’t verbalise what it is that’s there. Like, you’ll feel a sense of ‘I know there’s something important going on, but I can’t actually…’
What you notice is that you’ve missed something, but you’re not sure what?
Yeah. It feels significant, like it feels moving – but I’m not necessarily going to be able to say ‘it’s because of this’ – those are my favourite kind of children’s books.
Presumably you’ve spoken to children about your books – what sort of stuff did they have to say?
I’m always amazed by the specific things they pick up on. It’s really interesting to see how children will always approach a book in a different way, and they remember moments and scenes that I’ve completely forgotten about, and didn’t think were important, and will have very, very specific questions about them. I’m also always amazed that I – for ages – didn’t particularly think it was interesting to children that I was an author. Obviously there are children who REALLY love books, but I think most other children – yeah, they like reading, and they’ll have favourite books and that kind of thing – I didn’t realise until I was doing a lot of events that actually, children are totally blown away by meeting authors, and they are genuinely excited by the prospect of meeting someone who writes books. And I think once I worked that out it became a little bit easier to understand why sometimes I’d go into schools and talk to children, and they’d almost be sort of quiet with adulation.
Yeah! They’re genuinely totally amazed that someone does it for a job, which is really touching, but also really inspiring I think
That’s amazing! It must be like the best feeling ever?
It’s so good – it’s like I’ve got them in the palm of my hand!
Finally, do you think most kids will just put a book down if they’re not enjoying it? If the beginning’s happened and they’re not into it will just say ‘no, I’m not reading this’?
It’s really interesting. I do find that there’s this balance between – I would say that most children, if they’re not immediately engaged and if there’s something in the beginning of a book that doesn’t speak to them, they are gonna put it down really quickly. And even when, in publishing, there’s this thing where if you’re not grabbed by the first paragraph then it’s not worth it and they won’t sign you up.
But at the same time there’s this strange thing that children do where they kind of self-censor and I suppose they’re so used to listening to adults talk where they won’t understand what they’re talking about half the time, that they seem to be happy to sort of skim over bits they don’t understand, and words that they don’t understand, and scenarios that don’t really interest them, if they then feel they can get back into it. Even with my first book, when I go back and re-read it I think you know those first couple of chapters – this drags. I really wouldn’t do this again, but it doesn’t seem to have put the children who are reading it off, and I’m surprised by that.
Thanks so much for your time and insight Ross – and good luck with the next book!
You can find out more about Ross and his work here, http://www.rossmontgomery.co.uk/about, and pick up his books in Waterstones, or any other bookseller worth its salt!
By David Bard
David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about creative writing and everything that’s trending in education.