By Alison Moore
Just as my love of writing is rooted in my childhood love of reading, so my wanting to write for children grew out of the pleasure of reading with my young son.
When my son was seven, the idea for Sunny and the Ghosts fell into my head. I was one month into writing my fourth novel, so alongside working on what would become Missing, I wrote the first draft of what would become the first book in a series for children.
Sunny and the Ghosts is set in the kind of antique and second-hand shop I’ve always liked poking about in. This one has ghosts living in the furniture, and the boy who lives in the flat upstairs discovers them. The book was published in the same year as Missing, which also features a character who thinks her house is haunted but it’s ambiguous; I liked having that exploration of a haunted life alongside Sunny’s very unambiguous ghosts who make friends and have adventures. I hadn’t particularly planned on writing a series, but when I wrote the run-down Hotel Splendid into the background of the first story, I knew I wanted to write a separate story set there.
One of my favourite things about having written a children’s story was that I could share it with my son. I printed out what I’d written and we read it at bedtime, and as well as drawing ghosts on the manuscript, he made some helpful comments and asked some good questions.
Despite needing to write with the age of my audience in mind, the process of writing for children felt much the same as when I write for adults. I liked my agent/editor’s comment that it was recognisably my writing but with a U certificate. I read a revised version to my nephew and niece, aged nine and six, who did impressive listening and showed a reassuring interest in the story; afterwards, my nephew was already thinking about how the sequel might work, and on publication my niece sent me her really careful copy of the cover. I was pleased to discover that parents with children who fell inside and outside the target age group – for example, an eight-year-old and a five-year-old – were able to enjoy reading it together, and to hear that children, whether they’d had the book read to them or had read it independently, were eager for the next one!
I’m sure a big part of this positive engagement was the fantastic artwork supplied by Ross Collins. It was at some point during the writing process that I had started looking at the illustrations in our bedtime books with my Sunny hat on. I remember we had a pile of chapter books from the library – the excellent children’s library in Loughborough – and my eye was drawn to Ross’s work. Liking his style and range and sense of humour, I got in touch to see if he’d be interested in the commission; he read the manuscript and got on board and I’m enormously glad he did as it’s been a thoroughly satisfying collaboration. He talked me through the process, including how to put together the brief he needed to work from. It was really exciting to see his realisation of the settings and characters, as well as his stunning covers. I also found that discussing the details with Ross enabled me to make further improvements to the text.
Like the background detail from the first book that became the focus of Sunny and the Hotel Splendid, an off-stage character from that second book has her story told in Sunny and the Wicked Lady. My other trusted reader is my husband Dan, who is also great at being up for research trips. The Wicked Lady is based on a real ghost story attached to a real historical figure and real historical sites. In the summer of 2019 (a pre-pandemic lifetime ago), on our way from Cornwall to Bath, we stopped off in Devon to explore the ruins of Okehampton Castle. As well as being a very enjoyable pit stop, the real-world research was hugely rewarding and made it much easier to get the details right in my story.
Arthur dabbing at Okehampton Castle
Although I had visited schools and sixth form colleges for readings, talks, Q&As and workshops, the Sunny books involved me in a whole new type of event for younger readers. For a children’s event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I spent some time devising games and activities and making props, and had fun doing a trial run with my son. I have a couple of very good friends in Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders who had been to my EIBF events before, and this time it was really nice that our children could be there too. I always gauge audience engagement by the questions I get at the end of a session, and the children’s questions were fantastic.
Throughout, I’ve been grateful for Salt’s flexibility: for their initial openness to publishing a very different sort of book from me, for trusting me to work with the illustrator (if that had not gone so smoothly it would have been a very different experience all round), for embracing the sequels and getting the third one through to publication despite the practical difficulties of one lockdown after another.
I’ve enjoyed accompanying Sunny and the ghosts on their adventures, and, just as much, have enjoyed my own adventures in the world of children’s fiction.
Alison Moore's first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. Her short fiction has been included in Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror anthologies, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra and collected in The Pre-War House and Other Stories. Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives near Nottingham with her husband Dan and son Arthur.