Jeanne Willis

What books did you read as a child?
Winnie-the-Pooh and Paddington at first, then Enid Blyton. My favourite title was ‘Come to the Circus’ which made me want to run away and join one and be called Fenella. My other favourites were Charlotte’s Web, Stig of the Dump, Alice in Wonderland and the Just-So Stories.

If you could be a storybook character who would you be?
Christopher Robin.

What is the best thing about reading?
Escapism and not having to look at people on the train.

What is your all-time favourite book?
Peter Pan, which makes me cry every time I read it, closely followed by The Land Of Green Ginger which makes me hoot with laughter every time instead!

Other than reading books, what is the most important thing a parent can do to help develop their children’s communication skills?
Turn the TV off, put your mobile away and go for walks together just the two of you. As you are rambling along, instead of asking if they’ve done their homework or washed behind their ears, ask them interesting questions, such as “Where were you before you were born?” or “Do you think the trees know we’re here?" or “Do you think cows ever wish they were horses?"  Their answers may surprise you. Children are very wise.

How big a part did your parents play in encouraging your writing skills?
My mother read to me a great deal when I was small - not just children’s books, but also poems from The Oxford Book of English Poetry. Although I didn't understand them entirely, I was mesmerised by their rhythm. I also shuddered with equal horror and delight at Tales From The Brothers Grimm and the Ladybird versions of the cruellest children’s classics featuring granny-eating wolves, cannibalistic witches and foul, foot-stamping dwarfs; stories a more sensitive mother might shy away from.  Maybe I’ve written since I was five because I was marinaded nightly in literature unsuitable for my tender years but I’m glad mum didn’t feed me on saccharine. I liked a dark twist as much as the next kid.

But did my mum encourage me to be an author? Let’s just say that my earliest works - my pompous, plagiarised versions of Kipling and Robert Louis Stephenson - were never mocked. They weren’t praised either, but confident that a lack of criticism was the highest compliment in mum’s book, I went on to publish over 400 titles.

How do you encourage your children or grandchildren to read, what books do you enjoy reading them?
I read to both my children every night until they went to secondary school, mostly because I needed to lie down but also because I wanted an excuse to re-read the books of my youth. So, I read them all my old favourites and some new ones; Philip Pullman, David Almond, Anne Fine’s Flour Babies and many more. We laughed and cried over books together, cuddled up under a duvet. I miss that.  Reading to my kids was the best thing about being a mum and they tell me it was the best thing about being children.  

They didn’t seem to need encouragement to read when they were young - they just liked reading. I’m not even sure when my daughter learnt, I just caught her engrossed in a chapter book in her tiny bed, moving her lips silently  and when I asked what she was doing, she rolled her eyes and said, “Reading. I been doing it for ages.”

Neither of my grown-up children read much fiction these days. Too many modern distractions perhaps. But when I AM old enough to be a Grandma, I know they will read to their children and fall in love with books again.

Jeanne Willis has written over 400 books including picture books, novelty books, poems and novels and has won glittering prizes but still hasn’t been honoured by the Queen. She got married at London Zoo, has two grown-up children and writes in her attic with a rabbit on her lap, a cat on her chair and a jar of caterpillars on her desk for inspiration. Her new book The Diary of the Naughtiest Girl is out now.

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