Abie Longstaff is a children's author with a lifelong affinity to fairy tales and fantasy, whose highly popular picture books reinvent classical stories to teach children about cultural diversity, ethical approaches to life, and most importantly, to have fun. We caught up with her about what to expect from her upcoming appearance at Barnes Children's Literature Festival, what it means to reinvent the fairy tale, and what she has in store for the future.
You are heading to Barnes KidsLitFest this May, will it be your first time at the festival? And what do you have planned for the session?
It’s my second time at Barnes – I really enjoyed the festival last time, so I’m looking forward to coming back. I can’t wait to read the children the new Fairytale Hairdresser and Aladdin. I’m going to tell them all about how I make a book, and we’ll have a go at doing hairstyles on the different characters.
In my normal life I sit at my computer, tap, tap, tapping away on my own. Events are a treat – a way of meeting children and listening to what they like about the books.
What difference do you think it makes for children to be able to meet authors and get interactively engaged with reading?
I think it’s great for children to realise we are not magical beings who came up with our books with a stroke of a wand. Writing books is hard work but it’s achievable. I like to show children all the mistakes I’ve made along the way and tell them they could be an author or illustrator too. Going into more detail in the text or pictures also makes children really focus and engage with the story – and want to read on.
You seem to not only use your events to have fun and connect with your audience, but also to engage them in discussion. What have you learnt from the children when they approach you with questions about your stories?
I try to create a relaxed atmosphere so children have the confidence in interact. I love hearing their questions! Children seem to pay a lot more attention to the illustrations than the adults, and spot all kinds of things Lauren Beard and I have hidden in the background. Children will identify and engage with the characters quite strongly and often ask very insightful questions about how they are thinking or feeling. Having said that, a little boy did once put his hand up only to say ‘I had pineapple for breakfast’.
Does your background in law and your work as a barrister and for the police influence the stories you tell? Or is your writing kept separate from your work life?
I can’t stop influences from my legal background creeping in! All my baddies go to jail – none of them are dancing to death in red-hot shoes, or having their eyes pecked out (like in earlier, more gruesome fairy tales). Mine all receive fair, proportionate, legitimate punishment. And, once they’ve done their time in jail, they are let out again to appear in later books.
You mention that children in general, and more specifically your own (until they grew up) heavily influence your stories and ideas, how do you manage the balance between the childish, silly ideas and the serious themes of human rights?
The human rights and ethical points are just in the background – indeed some parents don’t spot them at all. At their heart, the books are simply stories, full of fun and adventure. I’d hate for the ‘messages’ to overtake that.
How did your children react when they saw your games with them had become fully developed picture books?
My sisters, in particular, love spotting the references to our childhood. I‘m the eldest of six girls and many games I played with my sisters have become stories. My kids think it’s funny too.
Adapting fairy tales is an increasingly popular genre, not only in children’s stories but also in adult fiction and cinema. Why do you think this is? Is it a cultural nostalgia trip, or is there a modern lesson to be learned from the fairy tale genre?
I think it’s because fairy tales are stories of struggle - they track the success of the underdog; the triumph of good over evil. Their pattern and structure is ingrained into storytelling and we see their motifs across different cultures and ages. They are the basis of ‘hero’ stories today, such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and others.
We read in your blog that you believe in bringing the world of fairy tales up to date to help children engage with the story better and also to tackle current issues such as class, gender and diversity, but that you steer away from the dark themes of the originals. How difficult is it to draw the line as to what young readers can deal with, or understand?
As an adult I like the darkness of the very old tales – although the themes (Little Mermaid’s suicide, Rapunzel’s pregnancy) aren’t always suitable for young children!
But, fairy tales can provide a vehicle for talking about difficult issues, so I do keep some of the darkness. You wouldn’t read a non-fiction book to a child about abuse, but you might read them Cinderella. Most modern books for small children avoid direct mention of death, cruelty, pain, hatred. Yet children do feel emotion very strongly. They get very angry or very upset, and they do not possess the control adults have learned. Fairy tales confront evil head on and, at their core, are about emotional problems such as jealousy, hatred, fear, separation or resentment. They help children realise that strong emotions are part of life and to understand and cope with them. They teach hope and patience and kindness, as well as the knowledge that, however bad things are, there is always a chance of something better ahead.
Do you target certain issues that you believe need addressing, or does the story take precedent and naturally involve specific topics?
I start by looking at the old tale – there are often lots of versions and I try to read as many as I can. Then, I think through which elements I want to change and which to keep. I tend to change the more old-fashioned elements, for example, I do like my royals and heroines to have jobs, and I like having the women make the marriage proposals sometimes.
What are you working on at the moment and what projects do you have for the future?
Lauren and I are working on more Fairytale Hairdresser stories, and finishing the last in our Magic Potions Shop chapter books, which have been a lot of fun to write, and a great follow-on from Fairytale Hairdresser for young readers. I also have more middle-grade books coming out this year – the second in my How to Catch a Witch series (Scholastic), as well as more in The Trapdoor Mystery series (Hachette).