The Smile by Michelle Magorian, with illustrations by Sam Usher, is out now! Josh is fed up with his new baby brother, fed up with all the crying, and fed up with being ignored by his parents. Though it takes a little while, a brotherly bond soon develops between them. We spoke to Michelle about her own family and the role children’s books have played in their lives.
Q: The Smile is the story of a big brother coming to terms with the changes in his family occasioned by the arrival of a little brother. Do you have younger brothers or sisters and do you remember their arrival(s)?
I have two younger brothers. I was five when my first brother was born and nearly eleven when my second brother was born. I remember singing to him. Even when he was old enough for me to take him to the cinema he still liked me to sing to him before he went to sleep. His favourite song was Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins. When he was seven I played Ko-Ko in a school production of The Mikado and he played my tiny servant. My older brother was interested in antiques from a very early age. I remember him saving up to buy my mother an old cup and saucer from a second hand shop for one of her birthdays. My younger brother had puppets and gave puppet shows.
I was their big sister and felt as though I needed to look after them.
Q: The pictures in The Smile are by Sam Usher and you have said on your website that you are very happy to see Sam’s name on the cover of the book. Could you tell us a little more about why that’s important to you?
There are many different ways of telling and reading stories. I think many older children would like to read more illustrated books, I don’t think they should just be for young children. And I think it would encourage children to keep drawing. My two sons used to draw in bed after bedtime stories. They both wrote illustrated stories. Children who have a talent for drawing will come to realise, through reading a story with illustrations, that they can tell stories too through their drawings. Getting to know the different styles of illustrators will inspire them.
Q: The Smile – and all the Little Gems – are aimed at readers aged 5-8. Were you a keen reader at that age?
I won the school reading prize at age five. Before then, people thought I knew the books off by heart and tried to trick me. Sadly, we had few books in the house when I was that age. My father came from a very poor background and wouldn’t buy anything new, and there weren’t many second hand bookshops around. When I was nine and on a ship coming back from Australia where he had been posted, I was so unhappy in the children’s area that I ran away by climbing over a gate and went looking for my parents. Once I was returned, one of the women took me over to a cabinet of books, unlocked it and handed me a Famous Five book. I read it in one night, returned it the next morning and asked for another one. I read the series plus the Adventure and Mystery series and then, on my return when I was a little older, a librarian in Southsea persuaded me to try a book written by Arthur Ransome.
It was in my twenties that I decided to read the children’s books I had missed out on when I was younger. I read the Beatrix Potter books and the children’s classics for older readers and that drew me to the new children’s books being published, which led me to write one myself. Later, through my sons, I came across even more books for that younger age group.
Q: Do you have a top tip for parents who want to instil a love of reading in their children?
Enjoy the stories with them. It’s important too to realise that children, like adults, have different tastes. When my sons were very small, my older son didn’t want me to stop and talk about the pictures. He wanted me to get on with the story. ‘Read it!’ he would say if I paused for a second. He had a hunger for words. My younger son was the opposite. He liked books with flaps and pictures that moved. Even when they both liked the Thomas the Tank Engine books their favourite train was different.
Once you find out what they like, be prepared to read their favourite ones over and over and again. Many children also like being read to when they are older. They need to know that it’s not babyish and that adults are read stories everyday on the radio. One of my sons loved making models of aeroplanes and I would read books to him at the same time.
The wonderful thing about reading to your children is that you discover more about who they are through the particular stories that they like.
Q: Often when children struggle with reading, an audiobook, film or TV adaptation can help them get into a book.
This is true depending on the child. My older son did not want to see an adaptation until he had read the book, whereas my younger son was drawn to books after having seen an adaptation. After watching the BBC series of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, The Midnight Folk and the Narnia series he wanted me to read them to him. It was the same with the films Swallows and Amazons and The Railway Children and the series Swallows and Amazons Forever (which was about the Norfolk Broads series). Treasure Island was a challenge to read since it is told through Jim Hawkins’ eyes, so I had to be him for the entire book.
Both of my sons loved the Beatrix Potter books at entirely different ages and had different favourites. That is one of the reasons I don’t like age banding.
Q: Do you like audio books, and/or adaptations of books on screen?
It depends how they are done. If the heart of the story is there then that’s fine. Take Goodnight Mister Tom. The story is about two people who have been hurt by life in different ways. The circumstances of war throw them together and they heal one another. I felt that was there in the TV adaptation. When there is a book and a TV version, they can’t be the same. Story-telling on a screen is visual.
Q: Your own much-loved book Goodnight Mister Tom was made into a television film. Was it strange to see your characters on screen?
Not really as I had already seen actors on stage playing the characters in the musical version three times. The casting director for the TV version had a very good reputation and I thought she cast it brilliantly. I was also invited to meet the director and some of the crew and cast on locations, including John Thaw, so I felt very happy about the actors before it was broadcast.
Thanks for your lovely answers, Michelle! The Smile is available to buy now and you can find more information here. Download our activity sheet for The Smile and see how many differences you can spot!