The author of Gretel the Wonder Mammoth, Kim Hillyard, talks life, writing for children and tips for encouraging enthusiastic readers
How did you get the idea for Gretel the Wonder Mammoth?
I knew I wanted to write a story about anxiety, what it is, how it can make you feel and what you can do if you or someone you love experiences it. Anxiety is a lot more than just feeling sad or worried, it changes how you see yourself and the world around you. I wanted to convey the idea of feeling trapped. I drew a little frog stuck inside an ice cube in my sketchbook. I loved the image but felt it wasn’t strong enough for a whole book but it did lead me to the idea of a Woolly Mammoth trapped in ice. When Gretel breaks free she’s excited to be back but she soon finds out she’s the only mammoth left on earth!
It’s your third book, what can people expect from Ned and The Great Garden Hamster Race and Mabel and The Mountain?
I like writing stories that start conversations about how we feel. Ned and The Great Garden Hamster Race is a story about kindness. It stars a little hamster called Ned who is desperate to win The Great Garden Hamster Race. Along the way he runs past various creatures who need his help. Will he turn back or will he keep running and stay in first place?
Mabel and the Mountain is a story about self-belief and stars Mabel the fly. She dreams of climbing a mountain, despite what her friends might think. Along the way she meets climbers who are stronger than her and faster than her but she keeps going, taking one tiny step after another. Both stories also have lots of silliness! You’ll find hamsters wearing capes and flies with electric guitars. I hope you enjoy them!
What do you have to consider when writing for children?
I try and find a balance between lots of fun and silliness and an important message, like talking to someone if you feel upset or anxious.
Do you think you might explore writing for older kids?
I’d love to! I still have my teenage diary, which is one of my most prized possessions. Reading it takes me right back to the muddle of emotions I felt at that time, plus all the ridiculous mini dramas me and my friends found ourselves in. I’ve always wanted to use it as inspiration for a book.
How did you get into writing story books?
I’ve been writing stories and drawing since I was small. When I left Uni I worked as a music journalist for ten years. Towards the end I started to focus more seriously on my stories. It took me two years of writing and teaching myself how to illustrate before signing with Ladybird Books in 2018.
Which were your favourite books when you were little?
I loved The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. I remember waiting desperately for someone to return their copy to our Primary School library then racing to pick it up at break time! I also loved the strange, sticky illustrations for Fungus The Bogeyman by Raymond Briggs, a whole fantasy world created in green, incredible!
Which current children’s authors and/or illustrators do you most admire?
There’s so many! I love Beatrice Alemagna, her illustrations have so much texture and style, I adore her book On A Magical Do-Nothing Day. I also love Jarvis! His book Alan’s Big Scary Teeth is a favourite in our house.
Who are your greatest literary influences?
I’ve always loved Michael Rosen. Both as a child for his brilliant stories and poems – I can still remember the first time I heard his poem ‘Chocolate Cake’, the suspense! But also as an adult. I love the way he works with young people and encourages them to write by “talking with your pen.”
Can you explain how important reading is for children?
Reading helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. Once a child can read it’s our job to make sure they have access to as many books as possible. When you read you feel you are never alone.
How would you encourage less enthusiastic readers to read, particularly as they get older with more distractions?
I think we often get caught up with what we think children should be reading at a certain age or stage, but reading shouldn’t be an effort. There’s so much fun to be had! I think that’s the best starting point for any reluctant reader. Comics, graphic novels and magazines all count, of course. Picture books too, they aren’t just for smaller children! There’s a book out there for everyone. Ask your librarian or bookseller to guide you in the right direction if you’re not sure, they’re there to help!
What are you working on now? Any top secret intel?!
I’ve just finished illustrating my fourth picture book which will be out in 2023 – so quite a wait! Right now I’m in the very early planning stages for my fifth book, with lots of ideas whizzing around. I’ve also been writing lots of poems!