PUBLISHED: 00:17 21 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:02 20 February 2013
Author and illustrator Claire Barker tells Anna Turns why she loves to let her imagination run away with her
Author of Magical Mail, Claire Barker lives in her own magical dream world with her husband, Julien, daughters Daisy and Maya, and various farm animals at a farmhouse near South Molton. I cant stress how much I love it here in North Devon, says Claire. For me its living the dream. Claire says that she has always had an imagination which transports her to another place. I wanted my life to be like this. And somehow it has happened.
Claire, 41, grew up in Wembury on the south coast and always had a hankering to return to her home county. After living in London, Bath and Oxford, she returned to Dartmouth and then moved to North Devon seven years ago when she decided to study illustration at Petroc College. It was only when Claire realised schoolchildren really enjoyed her images that she thought she might be able to give illustration a go professionally.
As daughter Daisy hated eating her packed lunches, Claire began putting a watercolour picture in her lunchbox each day to encourage her to open it and hopefully eat her sandwiches. Daisy would get all her friends to look at my picture and still not eat her sandwiches! But it made me think its not just Daisy who likes the pictures.
If by reading my book someone somewhere starts believing that they are special and that anything is possible, that is wonderful
Since her studies, she has worked as an illustrator for other peoples books, but now she has published her first childrens story, Magical Mail, which she wrote on her laptop in That New Place, a lovely bustling caf in South Molton. I have always enjoyed reading books with my own children, so subconsciously I wanted to write a book adults and children could enjoy together. And I can illustrate my story so its the best job I have ever had by a country mile!
Magical Mail is the story of Faith Smyth, an ordinary school girl who becomes an unlikely heroine. She is surprised when she is chosen to embark on a mission to save the world from impending doom. As she travels into a world of magic, she discovers a bravery she never knew she had. Bus Bear is Faiths trusty toy companion who travels alongside her on each adventure. All little children tend to have a favourite toy like Bus Bear. His name comes from my daughters bear, which she took with her every day on the school bus!
My book started off as a series of adult letters from each of nine fairytale characters, but it soon became obvious it was going to become a childrens book. Each character overturns what wed expect them to be like. The Tooth Fairy is evading her huge tax bill, Blackbeard is a big softie, and Little Bo Beep is a murderous carnivore who kills her sheep with hunting knives! As I wrote, I would just be chuckling along to my own jokes.
My daughters were absolutely critical because I would write a chapter and give it to them. If they asked wheres the next bit? I knew I was on to something good. Their enthusiasm really drove me, and I think magic is marvellous, so my imagination just went wild.
Claire admits she is very much like the main character, Faith Smyth, who is a quiet girl, a slight outsider and far from sporty at school. Because I am an illustrator, I am very visual so I can see my characters to me they are real. I even imagine whether they would like fish fingers or what they would think of a particular film, for example!
School playgrounds can be a brutal environment. At every school you see children wandering alone around the edge of the playground it is just the dynamics of childhood, says Claire. So I wanted Faith to turn out to be really special and have loads of amazing friends. One of the great privileges of being a writer is that you can take wrongs, you can unpick them and re-stitch them into something good.
Claire believes that girls identify more strongly with Faith as the heroine of the story. Storybook heroes are often boys, but I say go girls! We need more girl heroes. She explains that boys tend to identify with the book in a different way. Boys love the dragon and Little Bo Beep with her murderous tendencies.
Talking of schools, Claire is busy touring schools in Devon talking to primary school pupils about the book. I have had some great feedback from pupils one e-mailed me to say thank you so much for coming into our school to talk to us yesterday. It was so exciting and I feel so expired! she chuckles. Claire loves working with children, and very nearly trained as a teacher just as the book took off. But now I get to write, paint, and go into schools it is the best job!
Perhaps she is keen to nurture young childrens raw talent because her own passion for writing stemmed from primary school. I wrote a poem and my teacher put it up on the classroom wall, so I was very excited, says Claire. I always explain to children that what I do now is just an extension of that. I write something, draw pictures to go with it, present it nicely and put my name on it it is the same sort of thing. She explains that children often dont associate books on the shelves with something they could achieve, so she encourages them, and many of them write to her with their own illustrated stories.
Magical Mail is all about belief, says Claire. I am not a religious person but I do think it is important to believe in something. It is a facet of our human nature to believe in another force that we might not really properly understand. This journey that Faith goes on (and that is why she is called Faith) is about her discovering who she really is in the big picture of things, and why she matters.
Faiths story has really hit home with some of Claires young readers. I have had a few children write to me saying I feel much better about myself after reading this. And thats terrific. If by reading my book someone somewhere starts believing that they are special and that anything is possible, that is wonderful.
Claires sequel will follow Faith as she starts her new job as saviour of the mythical world, calling all the mythical creatures together to a festival, so the magic will continue next year.
Claires Favourite Devon
North Devon reminds me of how Devon used to be when I was a child, and it retains that wildness that has gone from most of the rest of the country. South Devon seems fast-paced to me now!
Beaches: I really like Putsborough because it has got enough variation rocks to climb on, and nice walks. Sometimes when Julien goes surfing, we take the campervan and I make myself a nice cup of coffee and write in the van.
Walks: I love walking up near Hartland and around Stoke where there are some amazing gnarled trees. I also love walking along the estuary at Wembury. Exmoor is also very beautiful and wild. My walks always have to end with a pub lunch!
Pubs: There are some great pubs around here including Michelin-starred Masons Arms at Knowstone, which is lovely.
Devon Life has five copies of Magical Mail by Claire Barker to give away. To be in with a chance of winning, send us your name and address before 19 April 2011:"Devon Life/Magical Mail offer, Archant House, Babbage Road, Totnes TQ9 5JA.