Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Mick Manning and Brita Granström

Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom at a book signingCan information books be as exciting as stories? Yes – if they are written and illustrated by inspired authors and illustrators. Mick Manning and Brita Granström have an established reputation for creating quality non-fiction for the early and primary school years. This interview with Margaret Mallett concentrates on their biographies for children including What Mr Darwin Saw, Tail-end Charlie, Taff in the WAAF and their new book on Charles Dickens which is in press.

What do you think a biography of one person and their times can offer young readers that a mainstream history book on historical facts does not? I’m thinking of your biographies of famous people here.

Mick & Brita:  We find it fascinating to look at history through the lens of one individual life; history suddenly becomes more intimate. Darwin for example, grew up at a time when Biblical stories of creation were still considered historical fact. He even studied theology at Cambridge for a time. Yet he was the first scientist to prove biblical accounts such as creation to be fanciful. It was a shocking revelation 150 years ago – that the Old Testament’s symbolic stories are no more ‘real’ than Vikings explaining thunder as the reverberation of Thor’s hammer.

You explore the childhoods of famous folk as well as their later lives when their achievements became evident. Please comment on this.

Mick:  In our book about Dickens we wanted to get down to how such a great writer and engine of social change, was shaped by the events of his childhood – ‘The child is father of the man’.

As a middle class and rather fragile lad of only 12 he was suddenly made to work in a blacking factory where, without doubt, he was badly bullied by the urchins who already worked there.  Then his father was sent to debtor’s prison. All that bitterness, unforgettable loneliness and fear flavoured almost every book he wrote.

Would you consider writing an account of a life in the first person, as if the person was speaking? This would be an autobiography of course – what would the advantages and limitations of this be?

Brita:  We did use Darwin’s own words in What Mr Darwin Saw and have done the same with Dickens. We find it gives an authenticity and vibrancy to the language – and the facts. When the reader suddenly starts to enjoy the illusion that Mr Darwin or Mr Dickens is talking to them personally, it immediately creates a bond between reader and subject. We want the reader to feel they have spent time in the confidence of Mr Darwin or Mr Dickens.

Darwin examining fossil sea shells high up on a mountain © Mick Manning & Brita Granstrom/Frances Lincoln Ltd.Still thinking about the ‘Famous People’ biographies, I was fortunate enough to attend one of your workshops on What Mr Darwin Saw and you gave considerable help to the classroom teachers and children who attended. You were eager to encourage a personal response through their own writing and drawing. For those who have not yet been to one of your workshops would you comment on this?


Mick:  In our recent 'shows' ‘we use both word and image on stage: a Power Point show and an overhead camera. We don’t just read the book anymore. Drawing is a great way to embed something in the mind, everyone does it in some form; scribbling a shopping list for example is a form of drawing at an intuitive level. Audience participations, such as singing, or drawing along with Brita as she draws live on an overhead screen are rooted in the idea that children are receptive at all times and especially when they have fun. 

You present information in many different ways in all your books. What do you think children learn from the strong visual element in your books? It does more than complement the writing I think.

Mick:  From our early days working together – making the Wonderwise series for example, and later Fly on the Wall, we discovered the alchemy of binding word and image to layer information. In our books (and often in collaboration with editor and art director) we like to use many different sorts of images - main images, of course, but also explanatory illustrations, sequential 'strips', collage and sometimes ephemera (used to locate main text for example). In our books we use many different sorts of images – main images, of course but also explanatory illustrations, sequential ‘strips’, collage and sometimes ephemera (used to locate main text for example). We also use fact boxes, hand-lettering, speech and thought bubbles, perhaps a snatch of a musical hall song (Dickens) or a sing-along round the piano (Tail-End Charlie) . . . all in the space of a few page turns. These elements enrich the experience and act like different sorts of voices, whispering quietly or chattering loudly in the child’s ear; making the subject unforgettable by embedding different kinds of information and sparking off connections.

You never hide the harsher side of things. There is a gory operating theatre scene in your book about Darwin! I’m not saying you approach the ‘Horrible Histories’ level of revelation – but would it be fair to say you show everything – warts and all!

Mick:  Well yes, we have drawn Roman soldiers on the toilet and there is an amputation scene in What Mr. Darwin Saw but I like to think it is carefully thought through. That page is a key moment in Darwin’s life-story because it so shocked him that he stopped studying medicine. It was a good example of what Mr Darwin ‘saw’ – we were inspired by that brilliant title (which we borrowed from a children’s book published in 1875) We played around with the innuendo of all the things he ‘saw‘ in his life, from gruesome operations to Galapagos Iguanas. All of which led ultimately to making him the man who ‘saw’ clearly how evolution worked.

A young Charles Dickens dancing on a table © Mick Manning & Brita Granstrom / Frances Lincoln Ltd.Would you say a little about your new book on Dickens? This is timely as the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth is approaching in 2012.

Brita:  When we won an English Association Award for Greek Hero, two Dickens Society representatives were at the ceremony and asked us to think about doing a book. We both love Dickens – both in books and in TV adaptations, the BBC’s recent and episodic Little Dorrit for example.

Mick:  I studied Great Expectations and David Copperfield at school for O level and loved every minute. One of my best mates from school who later formed a band is still known as Trotwood. In fact if Dickens were around today he probably would be in a band, as well as having a blog and writing for TV.

Perhaps the more old fashioned biography for children tends to eulogise a life. You, on the other hand, cover set backs and the less appealing character traits of the famous. Does your new book (in press) mention such things?

He was a precocious child and a cocky youth. That’s what got him through the hard times. He was certainly no saint as an adult; he had his skeletons in the closet. But it’s too easy to judge someone from the past (whether they be Victorians or Vikings) by modern social standards.

We have chosen not to go there in the case of Dickens – it’s a sideshow that doesn’t affect the achievements of the man as a writer. We do mention his genuine love for his sister in law Mary because that surfaces in so many of his books – the death scene of Little Nell or the saintliness of Little Dorrit for example. Dickens’ infidelity is none of our business and his inexcusable comments about the Inuit are balanced by his huge social conscience: campaigns against slavery and child cruelty, the refuge he designed for ‘fallen women’, his fund raising that doubled the size of Great Ormond St Children’s Hospital . . . the list goes on.

Do you think role play and drama might be helpful in enriching understanding of what children read and see in the books?


Illustration from Tail-end Charlie showing him peering out of the rear of an airplane "I was hanging out of our speeding bomber and it looked a long way down!" ©Mick Manning & Brita Granstrom / Frances Lincoln Ltd.You also write biographies about the lives of ordinary people in more recent history. Is your approach to this different to that in the ‘famous person’ biographies?

Mick: Yes, in the sense that they are much more personal. My father, mother and uncle’s involvement in the Second World War fascinated me as a child and still does. Although I was born 14 years after the war ended my dad would tell me vivid stories about his experiences as an air gunner in the RAF during WW2. This was, I’m sure, a kind of closure for him. My mum’s memories in Taff in the WAAF reveal her secret work for Bletchley Park as an Enigma message interceptor. My Uncle’s Dunkirk followed. That was a tough one. I was determined to write about it, having been given his army souvenirs when he died. Yet he had never told anyone about his traumatic experiences, not even his wife. So how do you write about that? We tackled it from a different angle… and the result was a surprise, even for us. 

Tail-End Charlie about Mick’s father’s personal experience of the Second World War has made a considerable impact and Taff in the WAAF about Mick’s mother is proving very successful too. Both take up a narrative approach, a sense of telling a powerful and moving story. Can you tell us something about your inspiration for these books and the years of research involved?

Mick: My father eventually became a head teacher after the war. He survived flak and German night fighters only to tragically die at 52 from a heart attack in his office … and I never got to say goodbye. I know he would have wanted to tell his grandchildren these stories, so I decided to write it for him. It took some years but using the information he had given me I traced his squadron history. I also found his Kiwi pilot Bill, the navigator Com and other 180-squadron veterans who corroborated my dad's tales as true via letters and email.

Although the stories have gone through our own creative writing filter, each story is true and faithful account of the tales I remember. I wanted my dad to be centre stage, speaking the words – and so my vocabulary in Tail-End Charlie deliberately revisits the word-hoard my father unlocked for me all those years ago.

Brita: When Mick’s mum said she was tickled how ‘like’ Charlie my drawings were. I replied ‘Well, I’ve known his son for twenty years!

Illustration from Taff in the WAAF showing the girls in their dormitory ©Mick Manning & Brita Granstrom / Frances Lincoln Ltd.If I may say so, your books always seem to present, quite naturally, the idea of gender equality (not least in Taff in the WAAF in which Taff comes across both as a very real human being and a female contributor to vital work at Bletchley Park). Is this something you both feel is important for your young readership?

Yes very much. In print, the story of women’s contribution to the allied Victory is a song sung well, but by a very small choir. Taff in the WAAF gave us the opportunity because she had friends in many other roles: one of her friends drove a fire engine in the blitz, one girl was a Wren, another girl was a flying nightingale. So in the context of Taff’s own war story we mention them, and others too such as the SOE heroines, many of whom initially trained as wireless ops like Taff. Mick and I found the book fascinating to illustrate, not only the main storyline but also the small facts and ‘asides’. One of my favourite spreads is a scene of WAAFs in their dorm. One girl is undressing and, via her speech bubble, tells us she is planning to go to the Friday night dance. Another is reading Wuthering Heights and a third is telling Taff the bad news about her fighter pilot boyfriend. On the same page we learn some WAAF slang: ‘Hush Hush’ meant ‘Top Secret’ and ‘Dim as a NAAFI candle’ meant stupid, while ‘Twilights’ was the nickname for WAAF summer issue knickers.

The teachers and student teachers who may be reading this are always interested in ways of using your books. For those who cannot get to your workshops (I know you are doing some at the Imperial War Museum- what a terrific setting!) how might we use your book in the classroom, perhaps as part of a project on World War Two?

Brita:  It might be exciting to read out the book and choose children to play various parts - Main text narrator for example and allocate bubbles to various children: Charlie, Bill and other characters. It would also be very interesting to ask them to think about the range of emotions in a book like TEC.

Mick:  Another aspect would be to encourage them to find out about their own ancestors and their wartime activities. We did an event at Bristol Grammar School a few weeks ago as part of Bath Book festival. We were amazed at the amount of unscripted questions from the 150 children which then, suddenly and quite naturally, evolved into anecdotes about their own grandparents and great grandparents: Ground crew, fighter pilots, factory workers, nurses and doctors . . . It stunned us and the teaching staff. We all shared something special that morning. Somehow it made me think of Paul Gauguin’s painting ‘Vision after the Sermon’ and I felt very happy.

We are indebted to Mick and Brita for granting permission to use illustrations from their work and above all for generously allowing us to bring you the rough work-in-progress images from their new book on Dickens.


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