Norwich Waterstones employee signs two-book deal with major publisher
- Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021
Whether it's the fantasy universe of Harry Potter or the weird characters of Roald Dahl's books, children love to escape into an alternate world.
But how do you write a children's book that combines fiction with some very real world current issues?
The answer could be a new book by Norwich author Mitch Johnson, Pop! which touches on subjects like plastic consumption and waste in a world where powerful corporations rule.
For Mitch, 30, who works full time at Waterstones in Norwich, the book sounds like a labour of love.
He said: "Pop! was actually written a couple of years ago, but due to the pandemic the publication has been delayed. When I wrote it I had a very young daughter and the only time I could find to actually write was 5am before I had other commitments.
"I've now got two young daughters so it does seem strange to be now talking about a book that was finished at the start of 2019, especially as I'm currently finishing my third book.
"I feel excited that it's finally out. Normally a launch would involve a school tour but because of the restrictions in place, that hasn't been possible.
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"While virtual events can be possible, I prefer to wait until I can actually get into classrooms as I find children are far more engaged if I am there in person.
"Online events are very much an interim fix as I like to do games and interact in the classroom rather than just appear on a computer screen."
That third release, Spark, is due to come out next year as part of a two-book deal with Hachette Children's Group, but for now Mitch is revelling in the launch of Pop! which was released this week.
"Pop! is an action-packed story with an environmental message," he said.
"It challenges our ideas on consumption and the fact that often it's not waste and things that are the problem but corporations, which makes for some surreal and ridiculous boardroom scenes.
"I think children are on the frontline of eco-activism and they are aware of environmental issues but they perhaps need heroes in stories to stand up to corporations and governments and to break systems.
"I hope that the main character in the book, Queenie, will help to challenge the status quo.
"If you look back 15 months before the coronavirus pandemic, the big issue was plastic consumption and climate change. We went from trying to fix a very long term issue into focussing on the short term issue of coronavirus. I think that now we've been freed up a bit to look at other issues rather than just the pandemic.
"It does seem like it's back on the agenda, even if you just look at something as simple as how quiet the roads were during the first lockdown - it does seem like a glimpse of the changes we all need to make."
Mitch studied English literature with creative writing at UEA while working at Pilch in Norwich and has been employed at Waterstones in the city for six years.
His first book, Kick! was endorsed by Amnesty International for its portrayal of children's rights and won the Branford Boase Award in 2018, an honour that is dedicated to debut works aimed at youngsters.
Mitch said: "My work at Waterstones helps. I get to talk about books to people for a living, which is lovely.
"My colleagues have been very supportive and have even done a superb window display and I have a dedicated display table in the children's section."
As far as other children's writers go, Mitch is inspired by Katherine Rundell.
He said: "She's an author who writes so well. She places a lot of trust in the child to work things out in her books and has strong, relatable heroes.
"Environmental issues are topical, but I find it hard to write to a trend. If something's popular now, by the time a book is finished it probably won't be, so you need to stay aware of what is published and to see what others are doing."
But how does a 30-year-old adult write for a child. Does he or she have to adopt a certain style in order to be relatable to a mind at least 20 years younger?
Mitch said: "I have a very clear memory of being aged nine to 11, which is the target age range of this book - and maybe the years when I was five to eight are a bit more blurry.
"There's no ritual or anything like that, I just try and inhabit the same mental space as when I was that age.
"I think it's a very special age as children are passionate and have a wide variety of interests and curiosities at that age before they become teenagers. I try and not be patronising and tell a relevant story.
"Children can be very brutal critics, so I've been very fortunate to escape bad reviews so far!
"I've had some very positive reviews, and that includes reviews from children. I think children want to have stories where bad guys are challenged and there is an unlikely hero, so the early feedback had been good.
"I try to write books with new and different themes with an issue that children can grapple with. My first book, Kick,! was about the world of sweatshops and was picked up by schools and backed by libraries, which is a great feeling.
"To get your book into schools and libraries helps spread the word about you as an author, and even though children are reading it in schools, I've found that they still want to have their own copy as they like to re-read books."