Alice Hemming, children’s author

Alice Hemming, children’s author

Alice and Louise met five years ago through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and since then have been two thirds of a three-woman trans-Atlantic writing group (the third member lives in Canada). Alice has had over fifty books published – reading scheme texts, picture books, chapter books and a series of new fairytales for older readers.


Books and publishing


Louise: Bookshops are gradually reopening, but for smaller independent stores – many of whom were not set up for online orders – the lockdown will have been devastating. If we lose shops from the high street, does that matter, given that everyone orders online now?


Alice: I would be very sorry to wave goodbye to smaller independent bookshops, as they offer so much more than you can find online. Booksellers know the children’s book market inside out and can advise customers, which benefits lesser-known authors. Bookshops also provide all sorts of other exciting things, like events, author visits to schools, support at festivals and, very often, excellent coffee and cake.


A couple of years ago everyone was declaring ‘a golden age in children’s literature’. Sales of children’s books were on the rise (even if the bestseller lists were dominated by books by celebs). Are we still in a golden age and what impact does that have on this generation of children?


“I feel generally optimistic about the children’s book market because there is so much choice out there. Certainly more than when I was growing up.”


There is excellent children’s writing in every genre and so many ways to access the books. Yes, the same authors tend to dominate the top of the charts, but you don’t have to dig very deep to find a wealth of new talent.


There has been a trend, particularly with ‘young adult’ books but also in titles for younger readers, to create stories about gritty social issues – agents and publishers have been on the hunt for books with a hefty dose of reality, to enlighten and educate young readers. I wonder if, during lockdown, what readers really want is pure, old-fashioned entertainment instead?


Again, I think choice is key. I think it’s great that children’s books are tackling important issues and that is what some people will want right now, but given that I’m currently writing fairytales about unicorns, I’m going to say a big yes to old-fashioned entertainment! I received a lovely letter from an 11-year-old girl a couple of weeks ago which read, “The thing I love most about your books is the adventures people go on. It sometimes makes me want to be one of the characters and go on their brilliant adventure.”


What book have you most enjoyed reading during lockdown?


For pure escapism, I loved reading The Blue Castle, a book for adults but by LM Montgomery. I have always loved her Anne of Green Gables series but in recent years have discovered some of her other titles that weren’t published in the UK until recently.

Life as a writer


I was pretty horrified when I found out how little most authors earn through advances and royalties. Many children’s writers and illustrators supplement their income by doing events at festivals and in schools. I presume some events moved online during lockdown, but many will have been cancelled, affecting authors’ earnings. What can we as readers do to ensure talented writers – from all backgrounds – can continue to create books that we can all enjoy?


Yes, a lot has been cancelled and many of the online events are run on a voluntary basis. So I suppose the answer is to read books, buy books, and also visit libraries when they reopen. Many people aren’t aware that authors receive a small payment through the PLR system for every library book borrowed. It can work out more lucrative than royalties from high discount books.


I was guilty of not appreciating how very difficult it is to write a good book! That did not become even remotely apparent until I tried it myself. Do you feel undervalued or misunderstood as a writer?


Hahaha! Sometimes! When I say what I do for a living, reactions tend to be fairly positive, but people sometimes say things like, “How sweet!” or “That must be so much fun!”. And it is fun but, like many other jobs in the creative industries, it can also be hard work, frustrating and even soul-destroying at times. I’ve even struggled with people not understanding how I can call it a job at all when I’m at home all day and they bump into me in the supermarket. I think after lockdown, people will be more familiar with the highs and lows of working from home.


‘Everyone has a novel inside them…’ Do they though?


I’m not sure about that! Everyone certainly has a story to tell but I think people tend to know deep down if they’d actually want to embark on a novel. Saying that, as someone who only recently started writing longer books (I wrote mainly picture book texts to begin with), I can highly recommend it as a cathartic process.


“For anyone who’s been considering taking the plunge and penning a lockdown novel, it’s not too late to begin.”


What’s the best question a child has ever asked you at an event?


I’ve been asked some fantastic questions over the years, but the three funnies that stick in my mind are:


3. Do you have a tattoo? This raised a few eyebrows as it came from a child in Nursery, but it turned out they had seen the stickers I was giving out and was hoping for a free transfer.

2. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate yourself as a success?

1. (From a wide-eyed child in Reception around Christmas time) “Are you an elf?”

Writing from home


You have always written from home, specifically from your glamorous garden shed. With your partner also having to work from home – and share your shed – how have you coped?


“In some ways my working life has changed less dramatically than most people’s. I’m still working in the same place, and on the same projects; I just have less time!”


My husband and I have developed a timeshare arrangement to cope with shed sharing. It’s still my shed but he books in for the occasional conference call, which is quite funny when he has to explain the presence of a talking bear or crocheted squirrel behind him (I have some odd items in my shed, as you know). He’ll be moving in over the summer holidays while I take on the bulk of the childcare, which I’m a bit worried about. Will I ever get it back again?


You have two children at home with you too. Have they become more involved in your creative process? And have you learnt anything from helping them with their schoolwork that will find its way into one of your upcoming novels?


Yes. Now they’re always on hand to help. As well as the practical side of things (author videos and website updates), I have more opportunities than ever to quiz them on tricky plot points and character names. They can be quite specific with their requests. Two things which made it into my upcoming book (The Cursed Unicorn) are a character with a double ‘a’ in their name (Nyaal) and a magic staff.


I had to think hard about the second part of your question and can’t think of anything that found its way in from their schoolwork but now I’ll be on the lookout. If my next unicorn book contains a section on building a scale model of the Blackpool Tower, then you’ll know why.


Thanks for featuring me on Lockdown Lowdown!


Interview originally published in June 2020.