Award-winning children’s author Katherine Rundell says she fears young people in Britain “have less space in which to be a child”.
Speaking to Sky News after her fantasy book Impossible Creatures was named 2023 Waterstones Book of the Year, the writer – who’s been likened to literary titans such as JRR Tolkien and Philip Pullman – reflected on her own early years growing up overseas.
“I was so lucky in that I grew up partly in Zimbabwe and I was very close to wild creatures, there would be snakes in the garden and monkeys down by the shops…one of the things that I was very lucky to have was this stretch of childhood in which I was allowed to play outside and be without adult supervision,” she said.
“And I think in England that is harder and perhaps that makes children grow up a little swifter, that they have less space in which to be a child.”
The rise of the celebrity author has come to dominate children’s literature in the last decade, but Rundell has proven a famous name is not always an essential entry point for young readers.
She has been one of the most talked about authors of this year, drawing comparisons to the likes of CS Lewis.
“Narnia – it’s in my bones and skin and fingernails,” she said.
“When you read a children’s book, sometimes it can be like a kind of defibrillator for the imagination. It can galvanise you into a kind of curiosity, a kind of beauty that you have perhaps forgotten.”
An Oxford fellow, her grounding in academia is apparent.
Her latest work – Impossible Creatures – about a magical archipelago where all mythical beasts still reside, is packed full of historical research, telling the story of a race to “save that which is beautiful” with a nod to our own environment.
“I think I wanted to say to the children reading it, your bravery, your endurance, your courage, your action will be wonderfully worth the time and pain and effort it takes,” Rundell said.
“I also hope that adults might read the book too and tell them I want to say our hope must be more active, more political, more urgent, the time to fight is now.”
Rundell questions the wisdom of our modern propensity of celebrities writing children’s books.
She said: “Our current ecosystem does mean that there’s often, in some places, limited choice and the same names over and over. And I think what we need is to find ways to get the variety and scope into children’s hands.”
Expect Impossible Creatures to soon rank alongside some of the most memorable children’s series – from Harry Potter to His Dark Materials and the like – with a sequel already in the works and a third on the cards.
Rundell said: “You can’t please every kid, but just occasionally I have kids who come up to me and say, I’ve read it and I know it’s not real, obviously it’s not real…but is it real?”
It is already being hailed as a modern classic but Rundell says at its best, children’s fiction gives young people “a blueprint for what it might be to be happy”.