"A couple of months ago, I received an email asking whether I would like to give a talk at the Children’s City of Literature Showcase. I thought: that sounds like fun. I then read on to find out that the event was to be a celebration of the launch of an anthology written by primary school students. And I thought that was pretty amazing. So I said yes. But it made me stop and think: what was I doing when I was your age.
Now, I thought about standing here before you all and trying to pretend that I was also very busy publishing short stories and attending book launches when I was eleven, but that’s not quite true. The truth is that I didn’t get anything published until I was in my mid-twenties, which means you guys are about fifteen years ahead of me, so just imagine what you will be achieving when you’re my age.
In reality, I have no idea what I was doing when I was in Year 5. I know that I played a lot of football and video games, and I fought with my brothers, and I probably picked my nose more often than is considered socially acceptable. And I remember being irrationally scared of being swallowed by a whale even though I lived in Northampton – pretty much the furthest place you can get in England from the sea. But to be perfectly honest with you, it’s all a bit of a blur now.
Except for one day.
It was the 25th June 2002. Remember that date: the 25th June 2002. It was a Tuesday – my least favourite day of the week. All of your weekend energy is gone, and Saturday feels like a lifetime away. However, this Tuesday was different. Because in my hand, I was holding a book that had just changed my life. This book was The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, and I was on my way to the library to return it.
For those of you who haven’t read The Phantom Tollbooth, it’s a bizarre adventure set in the Kingdom of Wisdom: a land of words and numbers. It’s full of outlandish characters and fantastical landscapes and baffling, nonsensical conundrums. It’s like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but weirder.
And I loved it! It instantly became my all-time favourite book. And so on that fateful day – the 25th June 2002 – I was both happy and sad. Happy because I had found a book that I truly loved, and sad because it belonged to the library, and I had to give it back.
So I shuffled up to the librarian’s desk and plopped the book down on the counter. The librarian looked at the book. And then she looked at me. She peered over her spectacles in the way librarians are taught to peer over their spectacles at librarian school.
And because all librarians secretly possess magical powers, she could read my mind.
‘You really enjoyed this book, didn’t you?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ I replied. (I wasn’t a very articulate child.)
The librarian nodded her head wisely. And then she said something I’d never heard a librarian say before. Or since.
She leant in close and said, ‘You can keep it.’
Well, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Librarians were supposed to hoard books in the same way that dragons hoard treasure. Library books MUST BE RETURNED ON TIME. There was even a sign on the wall that said so. I was gobsmacked. A free book? This kind of thing just did not happen to people like me. And never on a Tuesday.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Mitch, you’re making things up again. Stop it. It’s too good to be true! Nobody gets free books. And besides, no one knows what they were doing on a specific day almost 17 years ago.
And I agree. It does seem unlikely.
But I have the proof right here.
This is the very book I borrowed all those years ago. It smells – like all great books – like an old cardigan in a charity shop. The pages are golden and soft with age. And in the front, you can see the librarian’s final stamp: This book is to be returned on or before the last date stamped below: the 25th June 2002. So I have an exact record of when this book left the library and became mine.
You might be able to see the other loan stamps. I’ve counted them all and it turns out that this book was read by 75 people before I inherited it. Isn’t that incredible? 75 people read this book and were transported to the Kingdom of Wisdom. And each loan stamp contains its own mystery: Who was the reader? Did they enjoy the book as much as I did? Why did no one borrow this book between 1995 and the year 2000? Who was the person who borrowed it for one day in 1984? Were they a fast reader, or did they just really hate the first sentence? We’ll never know.
And as I was flicking through this book, in preparation for this talk, I happened to turn to the front matter, where I discovered another date had been stamped. It marks the day the book was catalogued and added to the library. And that date was the 25th June 1982 – exactly 20 years to the day before I got to take it home for good.
How amazing is that? A librarian – almost certainly the one I encountered when I was at school because librarians live for hundreds of years: it’s how they know so much – a librarian stamped a brand new book and placed in on a shelf amongst thousands of other books. Twenty years later, I came along, picking my nose, and took it down from the shelf. I fell in love with the story and the characters, and the librarian saw that, and she let me keep it. Almost twenty years after that, and here I am, someone who was inspired by this book to become an author.
What I am trying to communicate is how books take on lives of their own: how books can become stories themselves. And by writing your own stories and publishing them in this anthology, you are releasing them into the world – into the wild – to become whatever they will. Allowing others to read your writing is incredibly brave, but also incredibly generous. You have no control over who reads your work, which is quite a scary thought, but you will also never know exactly how your words have inspired people or the joy that they will bring, and that is a wonderful thought.
Since my own book was published 18 months ago, I have met tens of thousands of readers at dozens of events in locations up and down the UK, and I sometimes wonder – with fingers crossed – whether my own book will inspire a love of reading in someone, a love of reading that then turns into a love of writing. I even went back to my old school for one of my events and guess what? The librarian who gave me this book was still there! Like I said, they live for hundreds of years.
At the beginning of this talk, I joked about struggling to remember what I was doing when I was your age, but I do remember – very clearly – all the books that swept me away on thrilling adventures to magical lands. I remember travelling back in time with the Horrible Histories series, and being terrified by the Goosebumps books, and casting spells with Harry Potter. I remember wishing I knew the BFG, and cackling at the pranks played by Mr and Mrs Twit, and cheering when Charlie inherited the Chocolate Factory. (Spoiler alert.) I remember visiting Middle Earth and Narnia and Redwall. I remember tasting Butterbeer and Frobscottle and honey from Hundred Acre Wood for the first time. I remember books so good I never wanted them to end.
When people ask me why I wanted to become an author, I often tell them it’s because I liked the idea of working in my pyjamas, in a shed at the bottom of the garden. And, although I do enjoy doing both of these things, the main reason I wanted to become a writer was to recreate for others that joy and fear and magic that I experience whenever I open a book. Even now, I come across new books that become favourites, and there are more stories out there than any one person can ever hope to read.
That might seem sad, or overwhelming, but it is far better than the alternative – a world with too few stories.
One of my favourite scenes in The Phantom Tollbooth is when the main character, Milo, finds a staircase that leads to infinity, and he discovers – after climbing for hours and getting no closer to the top – just how vast infinity really is. Storytelling is kind of similar. As well as being a writer, I also work in a bookshop, and I sometimes wonder how long it would take to read all the books on the shelves. But like Milo, setting off on that staircase to infinity, it would be an impossible task. Every year, thousands of new books are published. The shelves just keep getting longer, because there are an infinite amount of stories to be told. And I think that is one of the most exciting concepts of all.
As I’m sure you will have discovered while working on your stories for this anthology, writing is difficult, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. In my attempts to become a novelist, I wrote several books before Kick that were all rejected. That’s about half a million words over a ten-year period. I sometimes felt like giving up, but I found that I couldn’t. When you do something you really love, there is always the hope that the next day, or the next book, will be better. And so you keep going.
There is no secret to writing. All you have to do is sit down and write and keep writing until you are happy with what you have written. There are no shortcuts. It is a skill like any other – like learning an instrument or playing a sport – and the more you practise, the better you will become. Ideas and inspiration can come from anywhere – the important thing is to be on the lookout for them. My novel Kick was inspired by a piece of rubbish that I found in a box of football boots, which got me thinking about the person who had made them. That piece of rubbish became the seed of a story. Inspiration is everywhere.
And the best thing of all is that anyone can become a writer. You do not need a special qualification, or to attend a prestigious university, or come from a long line of famous writers. Authors take all sorts of different paths on their way to publication. The only thing they have in common is that they love to write.
And although writers are rarely rich, I think they lead rich lives. Their work can take them to places, and introduce them to people, that no other profession can. Writing is often solitary, and yet you are never truly alone when you are with your characters.
In making this anthology, you have created dozens of characters that didn’t exist until you invented them. They are purely the result of your imagination, but now they have a physical presence: they are in a book!
I know that we are going to hear some of the contributors read from the anthology following my talk, and I for one can’t wait to be introduced to the many twists and turns that are contained within those pages.
I would like to close by saying that you should all be extremely proud of what you have achieved. Because of your efforts, there is another book in the world, and who knows how many other people, and how many other books, it might inspire?
So keep reading, keep writing, and keep adding to that infinity.
The Children's City of Literature is a joint programme between Norwich Lower School and the National Centre for Writing. This year the project involved pupils from Avenue Junior School, Catton Grove Primary School, Norwich Lower School, Sprowston Junior School and St William's Primary School.
Hosted at Norwich Lower School, the Children's City of Literature programme saw pupils being put into groups and assigned a creative writing mentor; to guide and offer advice. Each mentor was given the same story opener and then it was up to the children to plan their characters, setting and plot. Over ten weeks the pupils worked collaboratively to create their story, which is no easy task - working in a group, listening to each other's ideas and deciding what to write! The children were also taught about editing and proofreading and were given the opportunity to read their story to a new audience, to gain vital feedback.
On the 24th April, a celebration evening took place in the Blake Studio. Author, Mitch Johnson, who has recently been awarded winner of the Branford Boase Award and Waterstones bookseller for his book Kick was the speaker for the evening.