What Lies Beneath: Jennifer Bell on Her “Uncommoners” Series




IN THE SPACE of just a few months, London-born author Jennifer Bell has achieved something increasingly rare in the world of modern publishing. Not only was her debut children’s fantasy snapped up in a major book deal that would make many more established writers envious, but it also became a smash hit when it came out in the United Kingdom last year. Now she hopes to repeat that success in the United States, with the release of The Crooked Sixpence — the first in the “Uncommoners” trilogy set in the imaginary city of Lundinor, which lies somewhere beneath Britain’s ancient capital.

Having worked with Jennifer at Foyles, the famous London bookshop, I was aware to some extent how much her book and its story meant to her. However, it was only when we caught up recently to discuss her journey as a fledgling novelist that I began to realize the part her own background had played in the formation of the world she has brought so vividly to life.

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CLEAVER PATTERSON: For better or worse, we are now living in a post–Harry Potter world. Has this made it harder for new writers like yourself in the field of children’s fiction to find a fresh voice?

JENNIFER BELL: It’s definitely for the better! The success of the Harry Potter books made the children’s publishing industry more economically stable, and I’ve no doubt that, because of that, editors were given the power to make bolder choices, paving the way for new writers with fresh voices. If you write children’s fantasy books, they’re likely to be compared to Harry Potter in the same way that if you write dark dystopian novels, they’re likely to be compared to Nineteen Eighty-Four. It doesn’t mean your voice is any more or less fresh. J. K. Rowling set a benchmark — an amazing one. I’m sure there are many children’s authors who dream of having even a fraction of her success and positive influence.

It can take many writers years, and numerous rejections, before they’re “discovered,” yet you have achieved considerable success in a relatively short space of time. Has this been a help or a hindrance?

That’s a hard question to answer. I feel extremely fortunate that my road to publication was fairly straightforward and fast. I didn’t have lots of rejections. I found an agent whom I got on with really well, and we found a publishing home very quickly. All my challenges came after I had a book deal. My publisher merged with another; my original editor was made redundant and the entire editorial process was disrupted. I’ve never spoken to an author who hasn’t had their fair share of challenges, be that before or after publication. It’s a tough business and most of what happens is completely out of a writer’s control.

You didn’t study writing or go to writing classes. How important do you feel formal training is for a writer, or do you recommend just going for it?

I feel completely unqualified to give writing advice because, when I write, I just do what feels right. I don’t think it’s necessary to have formal training to write a book, but at the same time, studying the craft and honing your skills will undoubtedly make you a better writer. When I first started, I read lots of the type of books I wanted to write, and then made loads of mistakes drafting one out for myself. My first attempt was horrendous, but after a lot of revision, I eventually got there. I honestly believe that if you have the drive to succeed, you will. So yeah, just go for it.

Your first novel also marked the first major work for the artist, Karl James Mountford, who did the internal and cover illustrations. How much collaboration did you have with him, and what effect if any did the fact you were both first-timers have on the book in its final form?

When I first saw Karl’s portfolio, I couldn’t believe how I lucky I was that he’d agreed to illustrate my books. He has the most brilliant, quirky, detailed style and always uses color palettes that take your breath away. My editors made suggestions for points in the text where they thought an illustration would be effective — iconic moments or characters they felt would be fun for kids to see brought to life. Then these were passed along to Karl, who made sketches, on which I made notes. He sent me lots of different versions of the protagonist, Ivy, as she was the most important to get right. Karl was as excited as I was when the book was published because it was also his debut as a cover illustrator. 

We can’t talk about your writing career without touching on the fact that you worked for Foyles on London’s Charing Cross Road. What was it like to be part of what is surely one of the world’s most iconic bookshops?

It was amazing spending so many hours surrounded by books. The staff there came from all over the world, and they were all really interesting people. Many were academics, musicians, writers, or artists. Everyone had something to say. We’d have customers from all walks of life, cultures, and ages. It was a great melting pot of inspiration when I was coming up with characters for the book. I was fortunate to meet many children’s authors, who were visiting to sign their books. Those encounters really gave me the drive to persevere with my own writing. 

There seems to be something about working in the retail side of the book industry that inspires new writers.

Working at the retail end of the process allows you to place books into people’s hands. You get to see faces light up. You can discuss plot twists, argue about characters, or even hunt down long-lost favorites. You can feel the power of a good book by being face to face with readers; it’s something you don’t get as much in publishing.

London — or a variation of it — features prominently in the book. How important is London to you personally and as a writer?

I’ve lived all my whole life in London. I love its long, rich history and I think it’s very easy to imagine that there’s many a dark and magical secret hidden beneath its surface. I grew up in the same house that my mother grew up in. It was full of old photos and antiques. My grandfather was a proper Cockney who worked for a firm that printed newspapers on Fleet Street, and I remember him often using Cockney slang and telling me stories of shopping at famous London markets. My experiences listening to him and living in that house informed my writing in The Crooked Sixpence.

In a personal sense, what has been the most rewarding aspect of bringing the book to life?

Without a doubt, it has been hearing from children about what The Crooked Sixpence means to them. I’ve spoken to parents who wanted to thank me for reigniting a passion for reading in their children, or teachers who have finally gotten their classes excited about books after reading The Crooked Sixpence aloud. To think that something I wrote has encouraged those children to enjoy reading for the first time is astonishing. It’s something I never even thought about when I was writing, but it’s certainly been the best thing about being published. 

The book is actually quite dark in tone. Was this on purpose?

I wanted the protagonists, Ivy and Seb, to be brave, and that meant they had to be scared and then overcome their fears. I also wanted to scare my readers at points. It’s much more satisfying when the heroes make it through if they’ve had to face some really terrifying foes along the way.

So you feel it’s okay to introduce dark and dangerous characters to younger readers?

Absolutely. Some of my favorite children’s characters of all time are bad guys! Adventure stories are filled with light and shade. Plus, life is full of darker characters, and stories should represent life, no matter who your readers are.

You clearly feel a connection with younger audiences. What do you hope they’ll get from your books, and what do you get from writing for them?

I want children to have fun. There are no hidden messages in my stories or lessons to be learned; I only want my readers to be entertained. Sometimes that means making them feel scared or sad as well as excited or tickled, but as long as they’ve felt something, then I’ve done my job right. It’s a complete privilege to write for children and to know that the characters and scenarios I have dreamed up are living in children’s minds, spurred on by their own imaginations. It’s such a special profession.

So you enjoy meeting your readers?

Yes, it’s the best! Children are the most inspiring people. They’re so much fun — full of energy and amazing ideas. “The Uncommoners” books are all about finding magic in the everyday, and children do that naturally. During school visits, I get to meet both confident and reluctant readers and have a good old gossip about books. It’s so satisfying to encourage those students who claim they don’t like books to go explore their local library and find something exciting. I always tell them that I used to hate reading as a child, but now I’m a children’s author, and if I can change my mind, so can they.

Your book launched last year in the United Kingdom and has just come out in the United States. What have you sensed as the difference, if any, between these two markets?

The American market is huge, with its own unique challenges. The key to any publishing success is having a great book, no matter what side of the pond you’re on, but marketing strategies are so complex over there! I know from talking to my US publishers that libraries hold a lot more sway in the states than in the UK, which is fantastic. Librarians do such a great service to the public, it’s nice to know that they’re listened to in the United States.

Do you think children’s books have a more universal appeal, which crosses boundaries of culture and perhaps age groups as well?

I think any good story has that ability. Broadly speaking, children’s books tend to explore themes that resonate beyond their intended audience. Friendship, self-discovery, grief, injustice, and understanding, for example, are subjects that anyone, of any age and cultural background can identify with. As a bookseller, I’ve found there is often a beautiful simplicity to the way great children’s books are written, which can be the key to engaging reluctant adult readers and people learning English as a second language. Children are always learning. Stories can help them to discover the world, and I think that element of discovery and wonder is appealing no matter who you are or where you come from.

What aspect of bringing your book to the American public are you looking forward to the most? 

I’m excited to see what children in the United States will make of the eccentric characters in the story and whether they’ll enjoy Lundinor — the secret market hidden in caves under London, where the story is set. I can’t wait to hear readers’ ideas about what they think might happen in the rest of the series, especially because the third book takes place in New York.

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Cleaver Patterson is a journalist and critic based in London.


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