British writer Sally Gardner was diagnosed as dyslexic at age 11 and didn’t learn to read until she was nearly 14. Once classified as “unteachable,” she’s now the author of more than two dozen books. Her fifth novel, Maggot Moon, is a departure: it’s set in a tyrannical dictatorship called The Motherland, the sort of place Europe might have become had the Nazis won World War II. It’s already one of the most talked-about books of the year in England, where it recently won the Costa Children’s Prize.
Congratulations on winning the Costa Children’s Prize! Had you ever won a big, prestigious award like this before?
Thank you! I did win the Nestle Children’s Prize for I, Coriander, a few years back, but this is very special. I’m over the moon about it.
How does it feel to now be up against Hilary Mantel for the overall prize? [Five category winners compete for the Book of the Year prize, which will be announced Jan. 29. Mantel won in the adult novel category for Bring Up the Bodies.]
I’m really glad I’m not a judge. I mean, her book is just astonishing. My book is not in the same league or category. I don’t know how they could be compared.
Maggot Moon is quite astonishing, too. In reviewing your body of work, one thing that struck me is the wide variety of what you write – everything from picture books about fairies to weighty historical fiction for young adults. Where did the idea for a dystopian novel like Maggot Moon come from?
I had just finished writing The Double Shadow (Indigo, 2011), which is set between the first world war and the second, and I had become fascinated with the ‘what if?’ scenarios. The particular story I read that I couldn’t let go of was about Winston Churchill crossing Fifth Avenue in New York and being hit by a taxi. [Churchill was hit in December 1931 when he looked left for oncoming traffic instead of looking right.] If he’d been something like two centimeters further into the road, he’d have been struck straight on and probably would not have survived. What would’ve happened to the world if he’d died? So I started from there, not knowing where I was going, and what I wrote didn’t work. It was full of holes. But then the voice of Standish [Maggot Moon’s main character] came out and that saved me because it was his vision of the world that made the story work.
Standish, like you, is severely dyslexic. He collects words and has a great vocabulary, in part, because he has had so much trouble reading. Was this your experience, too?
It’s really funny but I wrote it all out, finished the story, and sent it off to Hot Key [Gardner’s British publisher] and they told me, ‘Oh. He’s dyslexic, isn’t he?’ I hadn’t even realized I had done that and that’s because he’s just me. His voice was me. Things I remember from when I was small that so riveted me, like trying to figure out why anybody would put carrots into gold, or the amazing sign in Piccadilly advertising Coca-Cola with its swirly-whirly writing which I thought said ‘Croca-Cola.’ We were never allowed to drink Coca-Cola, of course, and that made sense to me because I thought it came from crocodiles and it probably had teeth in it or something terrible like that.
Had you written a story with a dyslexic character before this one?
First time I’ve done it – first time I’ve written a story that’s honest about the way I see the world.
But you are quite passionate about your advocacy for people with dyslexia, correct?
Dyslexia is not a disease, as there is no cure. It’s not even a disability. It is just another way of looking at the world. Even the word is ridiculous because anyone with dyslexia can’t spell it. The problem with scooping a whole load of children into a group labeled ‘disabled’ is that their confidence becomes so damaged by the negativity of their teachers and their peers they can’t focus on anything but survival. There has to be another way. There have to be multi-sensory ways of educating children, visual ways of teaching, so children don’t get lost.
Was that your experience in grade school?
I was sent to a school for maladjusted children which doesn’t exist anymore. The equivalent would be something close to young offenders’ prison. They would close the village when we were let out for the day.
Wow. We’re back to talking about astonishing things. How did you survive that?
I remember at the end of the first semester I was there, the first time parents could possibly come and pick up their child, a group of us were looking out the window of the school building. It was an old Tudor house in Surrey and it was snowing. I’ll never forget it because no parent came. There was always a lot of teasing about how we’d been abandoned there. It was true. And then, finally, I saw my stepfather coming up the drive in his little old Mini, making the first track in the snow and I knew. I knew I was loved. I knew I was important to someone and that gave me hope. I saw things at that school that made me realize I was a very lucky person.
That is an amazing, and very visual, memory. I can actually see you in the window there in Surrey.
Well, that is what I do. Paint pictures with words.
Tell us about the enhancements to the e-book edition of Maggot Moon that were designed with dyslexic readers in mind.
I am so glad you asked about that because I am immensely proud of this. It is extraordinary and all credit goes to the people at Hot Key. There has never been a program that shows what writing looks like for a dyslexic person. Apple got behind it and created these pages where the text actually moves [see a sample [here] http://www.maggotmoon.com/ibook.php]. Every teacher who’s ever said to a dyslexic student, ‘You’re just not concentrating!’ needs to see it. It’s been incredibly eye-opening to show it to people who finally understand what I see when I look at words.
The e-book was also formatted in a “dyslexic-friendly font.” Can you explain what that is?
Take the letter ‘b.’ A ‘b’ flips to ‘d’ in my head all the time. So a dyslexic-friendly font puts the weight of b where it should sit on the page. It’s thicker in the round of the ‘b,’ so visually, it helps prevent me from twisting the b to the d. It looks a bit like comic sans but it’s fairly subtle. I work with it all the time because it stops the letters from bouncing.
What led you to writing? You were trained in art and theater design.
I worked in theater for 15 years but it’s a 24/7 job. You’re supposed to drop everything and be ready to work at any moment. I’d always wanted to be an illustrator so I thought I’d turn my portfolio around and try that. My lucky break was meeting an incredible editor at Orion, Judith Elliott, who told me, ‘You’re a writer. It’s not about spelling or grammar. It’s about voice and you’ve got the voice.’ I owe my career to her. I was writing these little magical children’s books [Gardner has a sub-specialty in fairies] and she simply announced one day, ‘Sally will write a novel,’ and that was it. I had to decide whether to continue to keep my head below the parapet or come storming out. Her confidence in me encouraged me to try.
The dedication you wrote for Maggot Moon says: "For you the dreamers/ Overlooked at school/ Never won prizes/ You who will own tomorrow." Can you expand on this idea?
I was asked to give a speech at a school’s prize day. That was a first. I never won any prizes at school. The more I thought about it, the firmer my conviction became to do a speech for the losers. So I did, and I got a standing ovation. There are thousands, millions, of people out there who never won anything at school and who had to sit through these ceremonies wishing it was over and [that] they’d not have to go through it again year after year. All those little kids, with their parents, down in the dumps, while the ones who’d won were all beaming smiles. I’ve seen the faces of the kids who didn’t win and it’s heartbreaking. It took everything I had not to shout at the administrators, ‘What the hell are you doing!?’ Why do we do this to children?
Uh-oh: In addition to being up for the overall Costa prize, The Double Shadow has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Are you going to have to stop identifying with the losers?
I don’t think I am. The message is still that all of us succeed at different times and at different things, so I don’t think I need to write a different speech. I think I’m all right.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner. Candlewick, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-7636-6553-1
See PW's review here.