INTERVIEW: Simon James Green
Interview by Lily Tibbitts
Simon James Green is a children’s author who has published a variety of young adult novels, a middle-grade book about a boy with a lot of bad luck, and now a children’s picture book – which he has filmed a reading of for Durham Book Festival! I interviewed him about writing for different age groups and the themes he tries to include in his work, regardless of his target audience.
First of all, how has lockdown been for you? (It seems like you’ve had so many books out this year!)
Yeah… lockdown’s been pretty grim! Launching new books has certainly been tricky, especially when the bookshops were shut, but even worse has been not being able to attend all the fab book festivals (like this one!) in person. It’s great we can do things online, but you can’t beat actually meeting readers face to face, so that’s been a real shame.
A lot of people know your YA novels best, but with your picture book Llama Glamarama out earlier this year, and now your middle-grade novel Life of Riley, it’s clear you can write for any audience. How was it different writing for different age groups, and what did you try to keep the same?
The one thing running through all the books is comedy – I’m a big fan of funny. I think what changes is how I go about that. In Life of Riley I felt able to be a bit sillier and slapstick with a lot of the humour, because I felt that age group would probably go with me a bit more with that type of stuff. I really enjoy the challenge of writing for different age groups – for example, trying to tell a story in about 500 words with the picture book was really different from my usual word count of 80,000 in a YA book – and, of course, working with an illustrator was a wonderful thing, because they bring so much storytelling with the pictures too. It’s a real collaboration.
Do you have a favourite age group to write for?
I love them all, actually! The picture book was pure joy, as are kids that age; the middle-grade audience tends to share my sense of humour, so they’re fab too; and I will always love writing for teenagers because coming-of-age novels will always have a special place in my heart.
For Durham Book Festival this year, you’ve done a reading of Llama Glamarama, your brand-new picture book about Larry the llama. For anyone who hasn’t read it (which they definitely should), could you explain what it’s all about? What was the message that you wanted kids to get from this story?
Larry has a big secret – at night, when no-one is watching, he loves to dance. The trouble is, llamas don’t dance, so Larry is very ashamed about this and keeps his talents hidden from the other llamas. One day, he comes across a fabulous carnival called the Llama Glamarama where he discovers lots of other llamas who love dancing too. This gives Larry the courage to return to his barn and be honest with his friends – and not only are they very accepting, he finds out they all have secrets too!
Llama Glamarama is basically a story about being proud of who you are and not hiding the things that make you “you”. It’s about acceptance, and about kids realising that we’re not all the same, and that’s OK – our differences should be celebrated.
With the idea of Larry trying to hide a part of himself, were you trying to get across an aspect of pride and LGBTQ+ themes? If so, how was this different to including these themes in books for older readers?
Yes, that theme was always in my head, and anyone who has ever been to Pride will recognize the similarities with the Llama Glamarama. But I’ve never been a fan of “issue books”, by which I mean, books that tend to shove certain messages down the readers’ throats. I think subtle can be much more effective – which is why I tend towards comedy in my YA books – I think it’s an easier thing for people to get on board with, and laughter is a great way in to discussing more difficult topics for a lot of people. So while my YA books have clear LGBTQ+ references, I felt the picture book would be best if the central theme was “celebrating differences” and readers are left to interpret that in whatever way works for them. I think that’s a great message to take through life, whatever age you are.
I think a lot of LGBTQ+ young people really relate to your characters, especially in your YA novels. Why do you think it’s so important to include LGBTQ+ themes and characters in children’s books?
Everyone should have the chance to see themselves in a book. When I was growing up, there was a piece of legislation called Section 28 that basically banned LGBTQ+ books from the school library. There’s a generation of people who had a lot of harm done to them, who were made to feel wrong and worthless because of that legislation, and I don’t ever want to see that happen again. When queer teens see themselves in a book it validates their experiences and their lives, it shows them they’re not alone, and it can often give them hope of what life can look like, especially if they’re going through a hard time (and sadly, a lot of LGBTQ+ teens still do).
But other kids who aren’t LGBTQ+ can enjoy these books too, and hopefully gain a little more understanding and empathy towards some of their peers in the process. Also, these themes and characters are just THE BEST, aren’t they?! I’ve always been adamant that we need books that ultimately celebrate being LGBTQ+, and that show that LGBTQ+ lives can be full of ups and downs, but it’s ultimately joyful. And writing about characters I wish I could have read about at school certainly brings me a lot of joy.
Which book of yours has been your favourite to write?
So, this is very difficult because, you must understand, this is like asking a parent to choose a favourite child! Noah Can’t Even was a lot of fun to write because Noah is a hilarious character to write for. But Alex in Wonderland was also very enjoyable, and Heartbreak Boys allowed me to play around with dual POV, and two boys who were very different to one another. Noah would be very jealous if I didn’t say him, so let’s do that for the purposes of this interview!
Finally, do you have any more plans coming up? Are you planning on writing any more picture books?
Oh, yes! I have a new YA book out next summer, which we’ve yet to announce, another middle-grade next year too, and yes, another picture book as well! 2021 will be another full-on year, and I just hope this horrible virus is behind us by then and I can come and actually talk to everyone about them in person!
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.