Do you read-aloud to children and need some better books?

When you are an author, you are never alone!

Author Joy Wodhams with her character Cabbage Boy.

One tool everybody appreciates is a well-crafted children’s story, notably when reading aloud to children. Joy Wodhams’ adventure tales, The Mystery of Craven Manor and The Boy Who Could Fly, fit the bill. Author of books for youngsters as well as adults, Ms. Wodhams grew up in Liverpool, a sizeable port city built upon the River Mersey, on the west coast of Britain.

She began writing as a young girl, producing her first magazine at the age of seven. As an adult, she earned her living as a magazine editor, and sold short stories and feature articles to national magazines. In addition to her writing, she is an accomplished painter and art teacher.

Her lineage has noteworthy roots. As it says on her Amazon page, she comes from “five generations of theatre and circus gymnasts, trapeze artists, singers, musicians and songwriters.” Who wouldn’t want to be able to say that!

In an exchange of emails, Ms. Wodhams provided some insight into her writing life.

LC: Did you get encouragement for your writing when you were young:

JW: Not really. I remember lying on the floor, aged about 7, with pencil and an exercise book, and my mother complaining ‘You’ve always got your nose in a book or you’re scribbling. I’ve been calling you for ages!’

LC: What else interested you then, along with writing?

JW:Drawing. Particularly young ladies wearing the latest fashions. Painting came a little later, when I was 9 or 10, and I’ve always loved pencils, pens, paints, paper, inks and anything else connected with painting or writing. Even now I can’t go past a stationery store without diving in. The drawers of my desk bulge with multi-coloured folders and notebooks, waiting to be filled. As for books—they have been my main influence and my main obsession.

LC: Did these interests influence your writing subjects:

JW:Not particularly the drawing and painting—I’ve never created an artist as my main character, for example—but the books I read in childhood are still vivid in my memory and I think had a very profound effect on me. Now I write for children and adults, but my children’s books are the most successful. I’m told I’m very good at getting the ‘voice’ of a young child or young adult.

LC: How have these interests evolved, what interests you now, (or put another way: What pursuits do you follow when you are not writing):

JW:Over the years I’ve seesawed between writing and painting, both being major passions. I painted over 600 pictures in the l990s and sold most of them at my annual exhibitions. At the same time I was writing short stories for weekly and monthly magazines, but my market shrank when ‘800 word bites’ became popular (my stories usually ranged from 3000 to 5000 words).

Nowadays I usually have a part-finished painting on the easel, but I’m really focused on writing books. Once I get going, I write fairly quickly and I now have twelve novels, plus a manual on Creative Writing, in publication.

LC: Could you give some background of ‘800 work bites’:

JW: I think it started when everyone got involved with the internet, and life seemed to speed up.  Before then lots of the weekly and monthly magazines were publishing long short stories, often up to 5000 words, and I sold quite a few, but then they found that readers didn’t want to spend up to  an hour or more reading a long story, so the 800 bite story took its place. I wasn’t interested in writing those, and in any case it coincided with a new job as a magazine editor myself, so I stopped writing stories altogether.

LC: Have any of these stories been republished?

JW: I do have two short story collections. One is The Floater and the other is The Girl At Table Nine. Some are a bit dated now, I expect…short stories are supposed to be back in favour, mainly in specialist magazines.

The author’s work space.

LC: Was reading and writing encouraged and supported in your family:

JW: I don’t think anyone else took an interest really, until I married my second husband who was also an avid reader. We spent long hours with our noses buried deep in our books—which may sound anti-social but was actually quite lovely! He was very supportive when I started writing and even took over the cooking to give me more creative time. My two children, who live in the UK, also enjoy reading and often help to publicise my novels. Sadly, my stepchildren don’t read books at all!

LC: How do you suppose your unusually dynamic, creative family influenced you as a child, and now:

JW:I had two older brothers who were reasonably good at drawing, but I didn’t know about the earlier generations until I was around 11 years old! It was then that I first met my maternal grandmother—my father had caused a rift in the family when he eloped with my mother, and the rift wasn’t healed until after he (and the grandfather I never met) died.

My grandmother came to live with us, and brought with her the little brown case that later formed the basis for my novel The Boy Who Could Fly. The case, full of old faded photographs, in memoriam cards, and the poster which later triggered me to write that book, fascinated me. I used to visit it whenever my grandmother was away from the house, and those snapshots of the past still fascinate me.

As well as the family members who performed on stage and in the circus, I found a singer/composer (my great-great-great-grandfather) whose songs are still performed by well-known folk groups, several violinists (my two daughters both play violins and other instruments) and several artists. Genes! Aren’t they wonderful! I don’t think any of us can take sole credit for any creative successes we have!

LC: What are the songs still played that were written by your great-great-great-grandfather:

JW: Johnny, I hardly knew ye and Ten thousand miles from home were two of them that have been recorded in recent times. His name was Joseph Bryan Geoghegan and he was born in 1815.

LC: What are some of the books you enjoyed as a young reader, and which ones still hold up:

JW: Henrietta’s House (written by Elizabeth Goudge) was my favourite of all time. I read it when I was seven and obsessed with everything connected with painting and writing. When I read about Henrietta, who was given a whole house, a wardrobe full of beautiful dresses  and best of all, a desk whose drawers overflowed with paper, crayons, paints, inks, pens and pencils, that was me—incommunicado for the next two or three years! It’s out of print now, but still available through some of the secondhand book dealers. If you can find it, give it to any 7 to 10 year old you know (there’s a great adventure in it for boys, too).

I don’t remember the authors of others so well, but those I bought for my own children, and would 100% recommend, include Tom’s Midnight Garden [ed.: by Philippa Pearce], The Mouse and his Child [ed.: by Russell Hoban and Tamsin Oglesby], The Wolves of Willoughby Chase [ed.: by Joan Aiken] and Goodnight Mr. Tom [ed.: by Michelle Magorian].

LC: Those all look lovely! What books are you reading now, or have you read recently:

JW: I’ve just finished Big Sky, Kate Atkinson’s latest Jackson Brodie novel. I love Neil Gaiman and have just started The Graveyard Book. I often reread favourite books such as Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, anything by Anne Tyler or Margaret Atwood—and  am planning to reread Melvin Burgess’s teenage book Doing It—very rude but hilarious! I thought I might also reread Anyone Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald, a biographical very funny novel set in the USA during the economic Depression of the late Twenties. Thought it might come in useful!

LC: Did you go to the library when you were growing up, do you still:

JW: From a very young age I used to visit the library twice a week, staggering home with as many books as they would allow me. Sadly, many of the public libraries in the UK have closed, or are being run part time by volunteers.

LC: There are similar problems in the US. What do you like about being a writer:

JW: Everything! My husband died three years ago. (Coincidentally my first husband died a few months previously. Oscar Wilde might have considered it carelessness to lose two in the same year!) So now I live alone, and of course I have also self-isolated.

But the greatest thing about living alone as a writer is that, in fact, you’re never alone! My head is permanently buzzing with the latest characters I’ve invented, who grow there and become a second family.  And I am never, never bored! Planning and plotting may be hard work but it’s so absorbing and so enjoyable.

I have to discipline myself to take time off to cook meals, clean the house and try to control the garden.

LC: Do you have any pets?

JW:Not now, but we used to keep chickens. I loved them, such individual characters. I’ve actually written a short book (from the first person chicken viewpoint) but I don’t know what to do with it.

LC: You mention a garden. Are you a gardener?

JW: I have a very large garden and love it but it’s too much work for one. I was always the garden designer and my husband did most of the hard slog.

LC: What interests you enough in an idea, character or setting to write a book:

JW: I don’t think any of my books started with a setting. It’s usually a particular character or a situation. The discovery of my amazing great-great-uncle, ‘Una The Human Fly’, triggered my circus book, The Boy Who Could Fly.

The idea for Cabbage Boy came when tractor drivers deposited a new kind of manure, processed from human waste, on the large field behind my house. It started me thinking about DNA and the next day I had my two main characters, a mutant cabbage and the nervous OCD teenage boy who protects him.

The Girl In the Attic started with the idea of a desperately lonely ghost, murdered 75 years ago but still too scared to leave the attic in which she was captive, even while the house falls to pieces around her.

LC: How have you adapted or changed as “writing implements” have evolved (paper and pencil, typewriter, desktop, laptop):

JW: Ah! Scraps of paper, pencils and pens, later progressing to a typewriter, which speeded things up. I’d been trained to type at 80 wpm! I left school long before the advent of computers, but later, much later, I bought a desktop computer and taught myself how to use it. Later still, I bought my first laptop.

By then I was writing full length novels, and I decided from the start to self-publish, so I downloaded a free graphics programme and had a go at designing my own covers. Some steep learning curves, but satisfying.

LC: Do you have anything to say for writers who don’t get encouragement, or are actively discouraged:

JW:Writing is a solitary activity, even for those who have supportive family and friends. In the end, we all write alone. And writing—the structure of writing—is a craft, something we all have to learn. Even when we’re skilled, writing a best seller is pie in the sky for most of us. Some of my books have done well, others languish unnoticed (including some I’m particularly proud of).

Write because you love it, because it absorbs and fulfills you. If it gets noticed, that’s a bonus. When you type THE END, ask yourself what those non-supportive friends have done that has given them as much satisfaction?

Self-portrait of the author

Thank you, Ms. Wodhams. This has been a pleasure. I have downloaded There’s A Lion In My Bed, and look forward to reading it soon. Maybe one day we’ll see that chicken story!