Monday, July 11, 2011
When Home is... Boarding School. An Interview with Author Jacqueline Harvey
I think I have reached my favourite moment of motherhood so far... Lily and I reading the same book and both of us loving it. After reading at bedtime, Lily has started bringing the book downstairs so I can continue reading it while she’s asleep.
‘But don’t go past Chapter 29,’ Lily cautions, ‘because I don’t want you to find out what happens before me.’
Secretly I do read past Chapter 29, not out of competitiveness but because I really do want to know what happens next and I can’t wait until tomorrow night. I write her a note and paperclip it to the front of the book, returning it under her pillow where she will find it in the morning.
‘I can’t believe what Miss Grimm said!’ one note may exclaim. Our notes continue to shuffle back and forth over the nights until we come to the end. But it’s not really the end as today we plan to walk to the bookshop together and buy the next instalment.
The Alice-Miranda series written by Jacqueline Harvey has been a delightful surprise for me; finally, a well-written and crafted story for parents and children alike. A chance for Lily and I to talk about the magic of books and reading; of characters feeling like friends and talking about them as though they really are. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t get lost inside the pages of a book so it is extremely satisfying to see my daughter skipping off to bed because she can’t wait to keep reading.
But what is it about the first book in this series, Alice-Miranda at School, that has captured us both so?
Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones is seven-and-a-quarter years old; a determined and optimistic little girl she has decided she’s ready for boarding school. All is not as it seems at the Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale-Academy for Proper Young Ladies and so begins Alice-Miranda’s adventures at her new home.
Throughout the generations, boarding school adventures for children have always seemed popular favourites. But why?
‘I think that’s probably because most people don’t attend boarding school so it does hold a degree of mystique and perhaps even romanticism,’ says Jacqueline. ‘I know whenever we were naughty my mother and father would threaten to send us to boarding school – so there is also that idea that it could be a rather nasty and foreboding place. I never actually went!’
Instead Jacqueline became a teacher and has always worked at schools with boarders, some with children as young as nine living there.
‘I always admired the courage of the little girls who were away from their families often as a result of difficult circumstances like parents working overseas or a family breakdown. I thought that the concept of boarding school would allow a lot of freedom to set up the characters and really show Alice-Miranda’s independence, her courage and generous spirit.’
The idea for Alice-Miranda first began as a concept for a picture book.
‘I had at the time recently won Honour Book in the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards (2006) for my picture book, The Sound of the Sea and I remember thinking that maybe I was destined to be a writer of picture books. I’d also had another series of junior novels published earlier and was a little confused about my writing identity. So the idea of a little girl who takes herself off to boarding school was born.’
‘But the more I thought about it, the more obvious it became that this was longer than a picture book – and in fact had potential as a series. Initially I envisaged 4 books but now there will be at least 8 and possibly more.’
Setting the book inside a boarding school allowed Jacqueline more writing freedom.
‘I love the quirky characters. Writing about boarding school lets me invent a whole ‘family’ of people who look after the girls. There’s a certain freedom in not having the parents around all the time.’
Throughout Alice-Miranda at School, there is a strong feeling of home, belonging and family despite mean girls, a principal who hasn’t been seen in 10 years and a garden bereft of flowers. How did Jacqueline manage this?
‘I think the food is a big part of creating that feeling of home. The fact that poor long suffering Mrs Smith has now had a holiday and returned a new woman – and also become firm friends with the Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones’s cook, Dolly Oliver who has superb culinary skills, means that the children look forward to their delicious meals together.’
‘Howie, the Housemistress is a very firm but lovable character and after Miss Grimm’s personal epiphany she too becomes very important in creating the homeliness of the place. The children have animals at school too (Alice-Miranda gets to take her pony Bonaparte in the third book) which creates a feeling of home.’
Perhaps it’s also because Alice-Miranda feels so at home at school.
‘I think Alice-Miranda loves being with her friends and she certainly adores her clever teachers and all of the things she gets to do. Right from the beginning she said that boarding school would be helpful to her parents as well because they are both busy people and they didn’t need to be running around after her all the time.’
Ultimately, Alice Miranda’s strength of character is such that she would make a home for herself no matter where Jacqueline decides she has to go.
‘Alice-Miranda is such a joy to write because she takes everything in her stride. She looks for and usually finds the good in everyone. There is nothing that’s too much trouble for her and she delights in helping people,’ says Jacqueline. ‘Of course she comes from a family with vast resources but she is in many ways blissfully unaware of her privilege but at the same time realises that not everyone lives the same life.’
‘I guess she really challenges the stereotype of a spoilt little rich girl.’
And thankfully ignites the imagination of my very own seven-year-old without a fairy, princess or ballerina in sight.
To read more about Jacqueline Harvey and her books, click here.
To read more about the Alice-Miranda series, click here.
Author photo & book cover images © Random House Australia