Your Riding High series is described on your website with the following: “Annie Boyd’s world is turned upside down when her family moves to Ridgeview. The only shining light in her new life is the local pony club. But will she ever truly belong?” A number of children’s stories begin with a major change of location or circumstances beyond their control and go on to tell how they made the new situation work for them. What do you think makes this such an appealing kind of story for children?
I think children like to read about characters and situations they can relate to in their lives. The very nature of childhood means that adults are making decisions for them all the time. While good decisions made by adults on children’s behalf are necessary, the children themselves want to feel some power over their own destiny. I hope that when children read about other children using initiative and making decisions for themselves, it helps to make them feel more positive and confident about their own abilities.
You have mentioned that your fond reading of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with your two children are as much about the wonderful time the three of you had as they are about the world of wizards and magic in the book. For your books, do you give much consideration to parents or teachers who might read your books with children, or are you much more focused on writing primarily for the children?
When I am writing, my focus is the story itself. I am not really thinking about who is going to read it. If I am absorbed in the story and enjoying the way it is unfolding as I write it, that’s my indicator that the readers might enjoy it too, children, parents, and teachers alike.
A lot of your books feature horses and are written for children. What attracts you to writing this kind of fiction?
My first book for children came about almost by accident when I was asked to submit a story for an educational series called ‘Just Kids’. The more I wrote books for children, the more I found I enjoyed that style of writing. With both of my horsey series I was asked by my publisher to submit a proposal. The eight books in the Riding High series and the four books in the Pony Patch series are all based on my own experiences with horses, from when I was a horse obsessed child myself and then later, as a parent of children involved with a Pony Club. With so much background to draw on, the stories came easily.
Your Pony Patch series is described on your website with the following: “Norton is a naughty pony that loves to eat. His owner, Molly, thinks he is the most perfect pony in the whole world…” There s a lot of potential in this premise for ‘odd-couple’ situations in which Norton frustrates Molly’s attempts to show everyone how perfect he is. What do you think makes a good premise for a book series?
Norton and Molly are exaggerated versions of many pets and their owners. Most of us who love our pets tend to think of them as perfect, and forgive or overlook any faults in their behaviour. We often place our human expectations on the animals but, like so many things in life, what we want to happen and what actually happens are rarely the same thing.
With the Pony Patch series, Norton’s actions don’t live up to Molly’s expectations. But the truth is that Norton is merely behaving like a horse. I like to think that both Molly and Norton are strong characters. Liz Alger’s wonderful illustrations, combined with Molly’s misplaced but unfailing faith in Norton, adds a humorous element to the series.
Whatever the genre, and whether it be a stand alone or a series, I think any book needs a solid hook and strong characters to engage readers and leave them with a sense of wanting more. When I wrote the Pony Patch books, I wasn’t really conscious of the premise as such, I began with the characters and the premise just seemed to evolve as the storylines were developed.
You have mentioned that when reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Piccoult you considered the ethical dilemmas of the characters and wondered what you might do in similar circumstances. How do you think Jodi Piccoult sets up ethical dilemmas, and characters who explore them, so well in her novels?
Writing is such a personal and individual journey. I can only guess at how Jodi Picoult might set up her premise and her characters. What I do know is that she has developed a unique approach that works very well for her, both in a literary and a commercial sense. A book such as My Sister’s Keeper brings all number of emotions to the surface and then leaves me thinking about it long after I have closed the back cover. For me as a reader, that is the mark of a good storyteller.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
There are so many, and as I think of one, another and then another pops into my head. Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit is one. By his own admission, Bilbo is just a comfort loving, ordinary Hobbit. But during the course of Bilbo’s perilous adventures he learns that he is resourceful and brave, and loyal and strong.
I read The Hobbit when I was quite young, and was not only lost in the wonder of Tolkien’s dark and wonderful world, but Bilbo himself has stayed with me. Bilbo’s journey is like a metaphor for life, and I would like to think that all of us have the capacity to grow from within, and to learn about and utilise our strengths, hopefully without having to fight too many armies or outwit any dragons along the way.
Do you read much Australian fiction, and do you have some favourites?
Yes, too many to name them all. The Australian fiction I read is often young adult and children’s, but there are some stand out adult novels too of course.
A couple of long standing favourites are Elynne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby series and Ruth Park’s Poor Man’s Orange. More recently, I loved Matthew Condon’s The Trout Opera, Glenda Millard’s A Small Free Kiss In the Dark, Gabrielle William’s Beatle Meets Destiny, Karen Tayleur’s Chasing Boys, and Dee White’s Letters To Leonardo.
What is next for your fiction writing?
As I write this, in just a few days I am about to embark on a month long writer’s fellowship, courtesy of the May Gibb’s Children’s Literature Trust. This is a dreamed of opportunity to leave behind the demands of everyday life and really focus on my next book, a young adult novel. I can’t tell you what it’s about, but I can tell you there are no horses in it. It will be my first book for teenage readers and I hope the writing of it will add a new dimension to my work.
More on Bernadette Kelly and her fiction can be found at www.bernadettekelly.com.au.
The Australian Literature Review