This section of the website is devoted to chapters I am writing for Adventures in the Wriggly Pig Trade, a book about my 30+ years of experience as a children’s writer.
Daley B: birth of a best-seller
I can honestly say that it had never been my ambition to write books for babies. This was probably a good thing. Once you realise that you can make more money writing a work of five hundred words than one of fifty thousand, there is inevitably a strong urge to do the former, even for people like me whose primary motive for writing is not financial. By 1990, however, when the idea was first placed in my head, I had been a near full-time writer for five or six years, and had already produced three YA novels, a TV play and five junior stories. However, none had sold enough to earn royalties, and I’d wasted almost a year on three failed attempts to write another YA novel. So I was up for the new challenge. I set about it with my usual optimism and breezy confidence, blissfully ignorant of the likes, dislikes and general nature of young children, who at that time had not impinged upon my life in any way.
I’d had nine or ten of my efforts rejected by Walker Books when senior editor Wendy Boase penned a guideline for authors of picture books. Sadly I can find no trace of this missive today, but her examples of what not to write for children were uncannily reminiscent of the stories I’d been sending her, some no more than fragments of whimsy, others humorous diatribes against the profit motive. I took notice. There was no formula for writing a good picture book, but there was a need to capture a child’s imagination and then take him or her on a journey which had elements of both the familiar and the bizarre, predictability and surprise, to an emotionally and intellectually satisfying conclusion. A good picture book was a big experience, an Odyssey in the mind of a child. Every word counted, both sound and meaning, as in a great poem. A picture book could not be written lazily, any more than an adult novel could.
I did have one thing in my armoury, which was that I drew pictures myself. Unlike my writing, these involved little or no conscious thought, and for this reason my child-self was present in them. They often featured naïve and defenceless characters. One such picture involved a man in a helicopter hat with three fairly gormless rabbits on leads. I began to write a story based on this picture, which somehow evolved into a story with no man and only one rabbit. This was the germ of Daley B, which went on to sell a quarter of a million copies.
In her attempts to inspire me, Wendy had furnished me with a few Walker titles, and one of these involved a series of questions for the reader to solve, each accompanied by a picture: “Did the dog sit on the ball? Did the ball sit on the dog?” etc. This format, and the absurdism of the questions, inspired the idea of a rabbit struggling to understand what he was. “Daley B did not know what he was” was my first line, followed by “Am I a monkey? Am I a koala bear? Am I a porcupine?” (being Australian, Wendy soon had me removing the ‘bear’). I was away, conceiving a number of ridiculous questions Daley B cannot answer: it was a great way of characterising my main character, providing a pattern which the reader could anticipate, and at the same time empowering that reader, since he or she knows better than Daley B. But will Daley B find out the real answers? That’s the question which initially hooks the reader.
It’s not until the ninth page of the book that the action begins: the ‘inciting incident’ as screenwriters call it, is the arrival of the weasel Jazzy D, who causes all the rabbits to flee while Daley B stays in his tree and nibbles another acorn. Now the reader is faced with a more urgent question: will the lovable bunny get eaten?
Having established my suspenseful situation, it was now necessary to build that suspense. It wouldn’t have been much of a story if Jazzy D had gone straight up the tree and eaten Daley B.
This was when I got lucky. Having begun the story with Daley B’s questions to himself, it was only natural that my naïve hero would now ask a series of questions of Jazzy D. So I had a perfect way of holding up the action. What was more, the life-or-death situation made those innocent questions all the funnier (I’m not just judging this myself, by the way – I’ve read the story to many thousands of children). The pattern of questions, combined with the ever increasing danger, turned the story into a kind of modern Goldilocks.
There was a fair amount of paring away to be done before Daley B met Wendy’s exacting standards. As always the key question is, what information is necessary to tell the story? There is no point about talking about the weather unless, for example, the wetness of the tree is an issue. For an inexperienced writer it is probably better to err on the side of brevity, and this was what I did, rigorously editing out all verbiage which I thought was not strictly necessary – a process I enjoyed, much as I enjoyed teaching precis to A-level students.
Sadly I no longer have the original version to compare with the final one – Daley B was written on a typewriter, not a PC. What I do remember, however, was cutting the description of Jazzy D: “Her teeth were as sharp as broken glass and her eyes were as quick as fleas”. Wendy insisted I put it back in. I was making a mistake common to inexperienced writers: failure to adequately establish your characters. This is crucial to the story, and what was more, the line created memorable images for the reader.
But where was the story heading? Amazingly, it had been accepted by Walker before we had worked out the ending. Various suggestions were made, by Wendy, by art director Jim Bunker, and by me, but none seemed right. So I thought about Fred, the pet rabbit we’d kept when I was growing up. When threatened, he would kick out with his back legs. Couldn’t Daley B still have this rabbit instinct, despite not knowing he was a rabbit? I liked this idea, but was it really enough of a climax?
The answer was simple. I rewrote the story, adding in another question: what are Daley B’s big feet for? Through this simple alteration, the decisive moment of the story suddenly becomes a lot more satisfying. All Daley B’s questions, and the question of whether he will survive, are answered, while the response of the other rabbits to his triumph finds him accepted and applauded, for all his eccentricities.
The story ends with another joke: “You’re a hero Daley B!” cry the other rabbits. “That’s funny” says Daley B. “I thought I was a rabbit”. Again I was lucky: the punchline was not planned, but the hero comment just seemed to invite it. One reviewer called it “a real vaudeville style zinger”, and it always seems to get a laugh – except from its supposed audience. No pre-school child gets that joke; nor do children in the first years of primary. It’s not crucial, as they’ve had their satisfaction, and in any case, why not provide something for the adults? A few years after Daley B, Walker published Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You, the sales of which (much to Wendy’s amusement) peaked every Valentine’s Day. Definitely something for adults there.
There is one other important thing to note about Daley B. It has illustrations. By Axel Scheffler. It would be very remiss of me to ignore Axel’s contribution to the book’s success.
Remarkably, however, Axel was not first choice for the artwork. At the time he’d just done a couple of early-reader books and was pretty much unknown. I can’t remember the name of the first choice illustrator, but I do remember he did excellent woodland beasts. Unfortunately, however, he also did class A drugs and was apparently too incapacitated to take up the commission. So Axel got the gig – his preliminary illustrations are (at time of writing) still up on his website, and it was clear from early on that Walker had made the right choice. Covers sell books, and Axel’s simple portrayal of an endearingly puzzled bunny (with lurking weasel nearby) was the perfect advertisement for the story. Daley B was Axel’s first big hit, many years before The Gruffalo catapulted him to stardom, and I had a wry smile when this review of Daley B appeared on Amazon: “You cannot go wrong with a Donaldson/Scheffler book. The kids love them. The stories are funny, imaginative and unusual. They are craftily written and beautifully illustrated. But of all their books, I think this may be my personal favourite”.
I’m often asked why I called my character ‘Daley B’: I rarely think that hard about what to call my characters; names just occur to me. It was probably influenced by the then vogue amongst rap artists to use a single initial for a surname, but there is no significance to this! In any case I don’t think the name was that crucial to the book’s success: in Germany the rabbit was called ‘He Duda’, and the German version was one of the best sellers, leading to at least two stage adaptations.
It has to be said that sales of the first edition, a hardback, were less than we had hoped For this reason Wendy pressed for a change of title for the paperback: thus You’re A Hero Daley B was born. I have to admit I wasn’t that keen on the change of title: I like titles which are enigmatic and don’t explain everything. Then again, enigmatic titles aren’t a lot of use if no-one buys the book.
Sure enough, the paperback did sell in large quantities, until I had my first 100,000-seller. Sales were also helped by a number of foreign co-editions, but it was almost twenty years before a Chinese edition (not the first) really took off and I was able to watch Chinese schoolchildren acting out the story on Youtube as the sales rocketed up, first to 200,000, then to a quarter of a million. Even at a 5% royalty rate (normal for picture books, where illustrators often share royalties), I can thank Daley B for the fact I have a house to live in today.
Should I have written a follow-up, or maybe a series? I was asked to, and did half-heartedly try for a while, but I saw Daley B as a story complete in itself and could not see how or why I should continue with the character once he had solved his identity crisis. When I read The Gruffalo’s Child, a story which for me does not work at all, I feel I made the right decision. On the other hand, writers such as Michael Bond have become household names just through the exploitation of one popular character, and no writer should underestimate what an achievement it is to create a character that millions love.
Twenty-five years on, I thought again, and began conceiving further adventures for Daley B. Walker Books liked my ideas and were willing to run with one of them – but only with Axel Scheffler’s illustrations. I’d never met Axel back in the 90s (it’s not that uncommon for authors not to meet their illustrators) and only met him for the first time at the 2017 Lollies award ceremony. He has a great affection for Daley B but an enormous workload and after some consideration he declined.
I content myself with the fact that whenever I mention Daley B, someone in the audience seems to have read it, and their reaction is invariably a happy one. It’s just a little story, but I like to think that no-one else could have written it, and that unlike me, it will not age.
The Last Free Cat: the story that went wrong
Back in 2002 I was in Lloyd George’s living room reading an excerpt from a teen novel I’d written – or rather, started to write, as I couldn’t make it work and had abandoned it after a few chapters. Also in the room was the redoubtable playwright Liz Lochhead, who had been in the audience at BBC Scotland when my sitcom Degrees R Us won a BBC Talent award, and subsequently invited me to teach alongside her at the writing centre Ty Newydd (Lloyd George’s old home). Liz is a very authoritative woman and when she insisted I finish the aborted novel I felt obliged to comply. So I looked again at Feela.
Feela had begun life as a note in my diary: “Last Free Cat. Cats sold by large companies for huge prices, licensed – only rich have them. Kid has got one he found. Who can he trust? Shopped by friend? Police call” This idea had been prompted by the glut of privatisations from the eighties onward, where it seemed that anything people wanted could become a source of profit. If cats were not freely available, what would people pay for them?
Pretty soon I had sketched out the main characters: Jade, a naïve girl from the rich side of town who’d lost her dad and moved into a poor neighbourhood; Kris, an emotionally alienated feral youth who nevertheless understood how the powerful use and manipulate us; Jade’s mum, a sound, loving woman who generally toed the line but felt strongly that they had the right to keep the stray cat they found in their garden. The setting, though this is disguised in the novel, was to be the world I knew: the impoverished inner city neighbourhood of Adamsdown, Cardiff, where I lived.
I started the novel a week after I got the idea, setting a target of 500 words a day. I had not plotted the story beyond the first few chapters: not unusual for me. I usually think it best to get a good start down on paper, then see what’s working and base my decisions for the rest of the story on this. What I did know is that Jade would find a cat, fall for it and be faced with the need to hide it. Kris would get wind of it but, given his contempt for the authorities, be apparently happy to keep her secret. The problem, however, is that the control of cats has been legitimised by an outbreak of deadly cat flu, transmittable to humans – or so the authorities say. Does Feela carry the virus? Jade’s fear of this leads to her giving the game away. The armed officers of the state (Comprot) raid her house and seize Jade’s mum and Feela.
By July 2 I’d reached this point and written 10,000 words. But I was running into problems. One was the fact that the fact Jade’s mum was in prison, and could therefore be used by the authorities to control Jade’s actions. The other was the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not imagine how Jade and Kris could track down and rescue Feela. I made numerous abortive attempts to write the next chapter, but the story was just dying. It didn’t interest me any more. I went off camping to Chamonix, where I lay around feeling awful with a tooth abscess and a foundering relationship. I was grateful to come home to a commission from the OUP, who wanted me to write a version of Macbeth suitable for children (more on this in another chapter). After this I did have one more go at Feela, but it still wasn’t working. I began another book for Walker and pretty much forgot about privatised cats. . .until that evening, two years later, in Lloyd George’s living room.
The writing of any novel involves a multitude of decisions. Some novels come easily, everything works, and your story has that healthy sense of inevitability about it. Others do not. Decisions are as hard to make as in a game of chess, and one false move can lead to disaster. But the false move I’d made in Feela was so obvious a child could have seen it: I had taken the cat out of the story, when the compelling nature of that story came from Jade’s intense need to protect her pet, which also acted as a catalyst (no pun) in the awkward but burgeoning relationship between Jade and Kris.
The simple remedy was for the Comprot raid to have different results: Feela remains at large, while Jade’s mum dies as a result of it. Now it becomes Jade and Kris on the run from the authorities, trying to get Feela to a place of safety, thrown together in a situation where pressure in unending and emotion is raw. Their journey is an education for Jade about the nature of the society she lives in, and who is and who is not to be trusted. At the back of my mind I probably had the journey of Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn, an enormous influence on me. It’s also a journey across South Wales, although transformed into a fictional landscape.
I don’t want to give away all the little twists and turns that I introduced into the plot, or the ending, except to say that the story ended well before I intended it should. I just wrote a line and thought, “no, stop, that’s said enough”. Whenever I think of the story I remember being on trains, conceiving scenes while listening to the songs which I imagined as the soundtrack to a Feela film. I also remember the train I caught home from an author visit, after I’d finished the story and given it to Natalie to read. Natalie is an avid and very discerning reader whose opinion I value as much as any editor. So when I rang her from the train and she said I’d have to come home before she’d tell me what she thought of the book, I was worried. After all, she’d not refrained from criticisms of other books which other reviewers had stoutly praised.
I arrived home and walked nervously into the living room of 12 Comet Street, Adamsdown. Natalie threw her arms around me and told me what a great book I’d written. To this day it is the greatest moment of my writing career. I was totally confident that others would feel the same way about it, and that confidence has been justified.
But there’s more to say about the book which became The Last Free Cat: the years of activism which informed it, its road to publication and after. This will be the subject of my next chapter.
Little Stupendo: how to write backwards
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?