John Dougherty’s books involve everything from evil badgers to Greek gods, monster sleuths to talking head lice. Victoria Bentley catches up with him at the recent Emirates Festival of Literature.
How did you start writing?
‘Before I became an author, I trained as a teacher. On my first day, the deputy head, said to me, “if you are going to teach children, you have to read children’s books. That means, when a child comes to you and says, I don’t know what to read now, you can say, try this. Or if you like that, you’ll like this”. He sent me home with a pile of children’s books to read, and I thought they were great – I had forgotten what children’s literature was like and just how good it could be. So often you don’t appreciate the depth and complexity of children’s books.
‘It took me about three years of teaching before I first started writing. I started writing stories for the children in my class. There was a little boy who would come in and just stare into space. I then wrote a story about a boy whose brain is too big to fit inside his head. When he goes to school he leaves his brain at home. When he’s in the classroom, staring into space, his brain is out, riding his bike, playing games and having fun. The little boy in my class particularly liked the story, and it was like a light went on in his head. After that, he was just more present in class. And I thought, wow, that’s the power of the story.
‘I wrote a few more stories and then sent them off to some agents. One wrote back and said, they aren’t quite right, but I think if you rewrote them in this way, they’d be suitable for the current market. She also gave me a list of publishers I could send them to, as to my bad luck, she was just off on maternity leave! Most publishers said no thanks, but Sue Cook at Random House gave me some constructive feedback. Eventually I came up with my first book, Zeus on the Loose and Sue said yes, we’ll publish it.’
Did you then become a full time author?
‘It took about eight to nine years. I carried on teaching and writing, but mostly as a supply teacher. This gave me a bit more free time, as I didn’t have to do all the long term planning and paperwork. I am now a full time author!’
You also played in a band. Did this help you with your writing?
‘The band overlapped with the teaching. It was great fun. We nearly got a record deal, and then we didn’t. We reached a point, a few years into my teaching career, where we realised we weren’t going to get a deal and the band folded. When I write, there is a part of me thinking how will this sound when it is spoken. Sometimes when a sentence isn’t coming together, I will say the options out loud.’
What do children say about your books?
‘I think the best feedback is from children who enjoy one of my books, but think they don’t enjoy reading. I was doing a school visit once, and this little boy came up to me and said, “that’s the best book I have ever read”. After he’d gone, one of his teachers told me that’s actually the only book he’s ever read! But the boy was so excited when he heard that I was coming to his school that he took the book home.
‘Similarly, parents have said, you know, my son doesn’t read, but he brought one of your books home after your visit. The mum said, shall I read it too you, and he said, “no, I am going to read it myself!”
‘Writing for children is so rewarding and so important. I write to introduce kids to the idea that reading is fun. If a child reads my book and says that was great, what can I read now, then I’ve done my job.’
How do we as parents avoid the temptation of technology?
‘More than anything else, read with your children. My children are 12 and 14 and it is immensely difficult to find time to read with them because of homework, or football matches or many other things, but when I can, I still read with them.
‘If you read with them, then the kids associate books with love. Then, when they read, they’ll associate those feelings of warmth and security with books.’
Did you read a lot of books when you were a child?
‘I was a reader from aged three. As soon as I learnt to read, I had my nose stuck in a book the whole time. In many ways, reading was my salvation. I wasn’t a “boysy” boy, I wasn’t a very popular kid and I was bullied quite a lot. Reading made me feel safe. It showed me that things could be different. A lot of stories are about people who are troubled, whose life is not great. It made the possibility of a happy ending real for me, even when I was miserable.’
What books really stood out for you in your childhood?
‘The Greek myths really stood out for me - hence Zeus on the Loose! I also loved The Odyssey. When I was small, I heard a story on the radio about a man who was trapped in a cave by a monster. He had to try and get out. I had no idea that it was Homer and The Odyssey, I just thought it was a great story. I also loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Watership Down.’
The badgers in your books are not very nice. What have you got against badgers?
‘Since I have been living in Stroud in Gloucestershire, badgers have been raiding my dustbin. Badgers in children’s literature are always wise, kind characters. I just say, if you are so wise and kind, why are you scattering my rubbish everywhere?’
Lastly, what do you think of Dubai?
‘I haven’t seen too much as have been pretty busy, but we did go out into the desert and listen to poetry under the stars in the dunes, which was great. I also went to Aquaventure, and it gave me the idea that I should do a story with an aquatic theme. Then I could do readings for the kids as I went down the slide!’
John’s book series include Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face, Zeus on the Loose, Jack Slater, Bansi O’Hara and Finn MacCool. To be found in all good bookshops. Find out more about him at www.visitingauthor.com.