A surprising story
16th Apr 19

A surprising story

Like the 'Surprising Seeds' in this story, BLOOM will wind its way into your heart, take root in your imagination and encourage it to grow in quite unexpected ways. You have been warned!

Meet Sorrel, who loves rules, is never late for school, and always does what she is told. But when a packet of ordinary-looking seeds come into Sorrel's life, the rules no longer apply; surprising things happen when you see the world in a fresh light!

This is a generous and warm-hearted story about imagination, friendship and discovering who we really want to be.

We asked author and journalist NICOLA SKINNER to tell us more:

Q: What brought you into writing for children? When and where did you write this book?

A: I started off quite unpromisingly in sales, then moved into journalism and copywriting in my late 20s. My most recent permanent job was copywriting for the National Trust. While I was there, I wrote a lot of things for children and realised it was what I loved most about the whole job.

I left that job when my daughter started primary school. In between freelance journalism work I wrote Bloom across 2017 and 2018, mostly out of a cluttered spare room in Bristol but sometimes, fittingly, at a picnic table in the back garden, being watched over by my cat. Those were lovely days.

Q: Can you point to one thing as the inspiration for Bloom?

A: My daughter inspired me not just to start the book, but also finish it. Perhaps I was a bit more aware of my own mortality, too - nothing makes you age quite like parenthood - and one day I realised that if I was ever serious about writing a book then it was now, or never.

Q: Are there any children's authors who inspired you as a child or adult?

A: So many authors have inspired me; Sue Townsend for her sly humour and sense of social injustice, Louise Fitzhugh because she wasn't shy of writing in an adult, satirical way for children, and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden because of the wonderful way she wrote about nature, and the dense symbolism throughout her book.

I also loved a lot of comic books and comic strips, from Calvin and Hobbes to Garfield. When I was 21, I read the first Harry Potter book, and I remember, even then, something in my brain clicking into place.

I read a lot of Dahl as a child and read him quite passionately, and the seeds in the book owe a lot to the magic crystals from James and the Giant Peach.

Q: Bloom is narrated by Sorrel, how did you discover her voice and character?

A: It came very, very slowly - this was my first book, and I didn't have a clue what I was doing. As for her character - well, like any good aspiring author, I read a lot of tips on how to write a book, and one thing really stuck out - that in order to maintain a narrative tension, what the hero wants should be completely at odds with what the hero actually needs. I realised that Sorrel had to want to be obedient, while the Seeds would make that increasingly impossible.

Q: In many ways Sorrel is not heroic, she's not always a great friend and struggles to tell the truth. Is that what interested you in writing about her?

A: That wasn't premeditated, really; those bits of her emerged as I began to redraft. But I think those flaws - not always listening to her loved ones, being a bit blind to what is really going on around her - seem quite inevitable, given the pressure she puts herself under.

When children - not to mention adults - feel the demand to achieve and be perfect, something has to give. In Sorrel's case, her ambition to be perfect is suffocating her true potential and not letting her connect to reality.

Also, who wants to write a story where the main character is perfectly lovely? Not me.

Q: Why did you decide in this story to focus on Sorrel's relationship with her mum, particularly their struggle to talk to each other in a meaningful way?

A: I think that the dynamic between the two of them is quite common - a lot of children want their parent's approval, while their parents want to shield their children from the realities of their own lives - which means adult and child can co-exist in a very loving relationship without ever really talking.

True honesty can be hard, and takes time, and so many people have very little time. Plus, we're British. I've grown up in a culture where people don't talk honestly. You always have to read between the lines.

Also, when I was Sorrel's age, my father was away for work a lot, often travelling abroad for months at a time, while my brother was away from home at boarding school.

For a couple of years, a lot of the time, it was just me and mum, and we became very close. I think in a way, I revisited that, quite unconsciously. I remember thinking that my mum was the best cook in the entire world (she still is) and begging her to open a cafe. In Bloom, I finally got my wish!

Q: At the start of the story, Sorrel is very comfortable with rules; why do you make her a rule-breaker?

A: I thought it would be fun; there's something quite satisfying, I think, about a child flexing their independence, and questioning the rules around them. Children need to defy grown-ups, once in a while. Now more than ever; I mean, look at the supposed adults running the show.

Q: The reader learns a lot about plants during the story - are you a gardener, or did you need to research the plants in your book?

A: I do love gardening - I'm a massive fan of chucking things into pots and flowerbeds and seeing what happens, and if I'm stressed, a few hours in a garden always sorts me out.

Everything Sid Strangeways says came out of my head - but I'm just an amateur. Most proper gardeners would spot quite a few errors in my book. I also suspect that most willow trees have quite a short shelf life - a willow tree planted by Agatha probably would not have lasted into Sorrel's lifetime. But: my book, my rules.

Q: There's also a strong environmental message in Bloom about green spaces versus the concrete places in Sorrel's town of Little Sterilis. Why did you want to include this message?

A: Honestly, it took me completely by surprise. Sid and Agatha really did come stomping out of my keyboard, without much prompting from me.

But perhaps my time spent at the National Trust also had something to do with it - while I was there, I learnt that our current generation of children spend the least amount of time outside than any other, and that definitely worried me.

Q: If you had a packet of surprising seeds, what plants or flowers would they grow for you?

A: Everything. Wisteria, sweet peas, roses, delphiniums, soft moss, tiny little strawberries, rampant climbers - the whole works. I wouldn't mind a bird or two in there, either, singing away.

Q: And if you could meet any of the characters from Bloom, who would it be?

A: Without a doubt, it would be Agatha Strangeways - as she is now; part woman, part whirling dervish of flowers and leaves. She's so marvellous - slightly scary, inspirational, kind yet not averse to revenge. I think we would have a lot of fun together.

Q: Do you have any plans to return to Little Sterilis?

A: I don't have any plans to go back to Little Sterilis, much as I love it. At the moment I'm writing my second middle-grade book, which I can't say too much about because it's still being refined, but it does involve a ghost (or two) and a deliciously complicated friendship.

Q: What's your favourite way to spend time when you're not writing / working?

A: I love to read, in a quiet house, stretched out on the sofa, ideally listening to the rain outside, for hours and hours.

I also love wandering around my two nearest cities, Bristol and Bath, going to the cinema, and walking the dog while listening to obnoxiously loud dance music.

Hanging out with my family, gentle cycle rides through the countryside, shoe and book shopping, telling my cat how beautiful he is, and swimming. Oh and eating. And baking. And drinking coffee. Then back to reading.



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