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caterpillars and exams

being a bit grown-up (ish)

being a proper grown-up

growing down again

last updated February 2024

People often ask 'how did you get to be a children's writer?' The real answer is 'by a circuitous and serendipitous path' — in short, by accident.

I started off quite small, as everyone does. This is good training for being a children's writer — spend some time as a child (and remember it). Both my parents were chemists. It was pretty unusual for a woman to be a chemist in the 1950s and 1960s, but my mum was a pretty unusual woman. My dad was unusual, too. Of course, when you are a child, you have no idea whether your life or family is unusual because you only have the one.

I had a brother, and a cat (a Burmese). The cat was the oldest of the three of us. For a long time, I preferred the cat to the brother. As a baby, the brother struck me as especially useless. I decided to become a cat and spent a while eating cat food and going around on all fours. But then instead of leaving the door open, my parents got a cat flap and I didn't fit through it so that put an end to my life as a cat. It's also quite useful for a children's writer to spend some time as another animal, so I'm grateful for my weeks as a cat. I regret that I never got to spend any time as a vegetable.

Caterpillar of the pocket-filling variety (photo: Quartl)

This cat did not like to be cuddled

My own copy of my thesis went AWOL for 20 years. I randomly found it advertised by a book warehouse and got it back

When I was big enough, I went to the local primary school in the nearby village. I remember getting into quite a lot of trouble, but we'll gloss over that. This is also when I started writing. Like almost every other writer in the world, I used to write and illustrate little books when I was small. The first I remember finishing was about a snail. I sent it to a publisher, but they had already gone bankrupt so I was spared the upset of a normal rejection letter.

On non-schooldays, I spent my time playing in the water meadows filling my pockets with caterpillars (not a good idea), crawling into fox holes (not a good idea), playing by the quicksand at the gravel pits (really not a good idea) and navigating the rainwater drain system which was just large enough for a child to crawl along with extra space for a torch and some rats (also not a good idea). Somehow, I survived long enough to go to big school.

When I was a bit bigger, I went to one of the very early comprehensive schools. That's better passed over quite quickly, too. I was instrumental in having croquet added to the sports curriculum. I did the usual bunch of O-levels (that’s Stone Age GCSEs) and 4 'A' levels (English, Biology, Maths, Chemistry) and some quaint thing called ‘Use of English’ which was an English grammar exam. Those 4 'A' levels caused a lot of arguments. "No decent university will take you with that mixture," the head teacher said. He was nearly right — I got rejections from almost everywhere I applied.​

But not quite everywhere. So then I went to Trinity College, Cambridge where my next door neighbour was an Arab prince who kept a deadly scorpion in the fridge. I did a BA in English, and then a PhD, which was published by Boydell and Brewer (Hunting in Middle English Literature, 1300-1500). Which, actually, is not featured anywhere else on this website as I'd forgotten it. It is (or was) the only PhD thesis in Cambridge University Library bound in fuchsia. Which gets us to ...

Where I took my degree. But without red mysterons

At the sign of the fat guy with a stick. Newton, Milton and Byron all got into trouble here, too

Some of the excellent illustrations in Computers in Early Years, Emerald Publishing, 1989

While finishing my PhD and for a while afterwards, I worked a few hours a week writing guides and training materials for architectural software. The rest of the time I taught freelance for Cambridge University (mostly medieval and early Renaissance English and French literature). The software place wasn't like a real job as I could do my 15 hours whenever I wanted. Sometimes I did them all on Sunday if I hadn't done any during the week.

I left when I was offered a short-term fellowship at York University where I taught much the same stuff as at Cambridge, and also taught on the MA Programme in Medieval Studies. I loved the students and hated the admin and marking exam scripts. I decided I would not be an academic. So by my late-20s I knew what I wasn't going to do — be a cat or an academic. I returned to Cambridge, carried on teaching (without admin) and did freelance journalism, technical writing and consultancy. For a while, I was the editor of a lifestyle magazine and drove around in a sports car setting up photoshoots. Then one day I looked at the spreadsheet and saw that the owner had not allocated any editorial budget — so I wasn't going to get paid. I left that morning. I'm not sure he ever worked out why. (He is now an MP and has had several ministerial posts.)

After that I didn't have a boss of any kind. Motivation is a problem for the self-employed, so I made my own boss: a balloon. Named Emerald, she lived in my office and went through several incarnations during which she managed our publishing company. We produced esoteric educational software and some books. We made the first UK-sourced hypertext system, the first character-based Chinese text editor and the first Egyptian hieroglyph editor.

It wasn't all being sensible. I was badly stung by a bif jellyfish in Albania. Twice - because after the first time, I kicked it

I fed kebabs to golden eagles in Mongolia. Safety tip: look out for falling skewers

Emerald was quite a slave driver, so I started working with the National Extension College (nec) as well. I wrote a large number of courses for them, many on aspects of computing and technology but also on literature and some business topics. I managed small and large publishing projects for them, both paper-based and electronic, including designing and managing most of their largest electronic publishing ventures during the 1990s. But I was freelance — I didn't do as I was told and get paid every month like real people do.

And I wasn't faithful to them — already a writing harlot. I also wrote learning materials for other colleges and publishers, and wrote a series of books for Dabs Press on various aspects of computer use, some of which won awards. I did a lot of consultancy on education and IT, and on information and interface design. I wrote the introductory computing courses used by more than 100,000 adult learners with learndirect, and produced a newsletter for teachers using technology with children who had special educational needs — children I now enjoy writing for. (Well, not actually the same ones, of course, as they are all grown up now.)

Computers, education and printing slowly clumped together like a sort of career-hairball. I trained teachers who needed to use and teach IT, and print production experts who were having to start using digital methods for the first time. I'd done a course in traditional and historical typesetting during my PhD, and am one of the few people who can use every printing and typesetting technology from sixteenth-century presses to InDesign.

But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.

This millennium I’ve been writing mostly for children, a mixture of truth and lies. (Publishers prefer the terms 'non-fiction' and 'fiction'.) 

It all started with this book:

​A friend was writing a book for Belitha and the editor asked if he knew anyone who could write a companion volume. I'd been writing educational materials and writing about technology, and this was the mid-90s when there were very few writers who knew anything about the web.


I wrote the book, the editor liked it, and asked what else I could write. Never one to limit my options I said, "Anything. What do you want?" And so I started writing anything and that's what I still do.

Do you want to find out about how I live now or the other things I do?

>> how I live now

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