Interview with Jacqueline Harvey the Mastermind behind Alice-Miranda
Jacqueline Harvey is the gifted author of the fabulous Alice-Miranda book series (Alice-Miranda at School was just released in the U.S. in April 2011), the Code Name series and an award-winning picture book called The Sound of the Sea. Her latest creation Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith Kennington Jones is a delightful little chatterbox sure to win the hearts of American children just as she has won over her devoted readers in Australia. When she’s not working as Director of Development at Abbotsleigh, a school for girls in Sydney, Jacqueline is writing about Alice-Miranda’s exciting adventures.
Nicki Richesin: You’ve created such a charming heroine in Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith Kennington Jones. She leads a sophisticated life- jet-setting with her parents to far-flung exotic places, has access to a personal chef and helicopter pilot and even her own pony named Bonaparte. Yet, she’s a generous girl always eager to help solve others’ problems. Her enthusiasm is infectious and I admired how she resourcefully handles every obstacle put before her, especially the masterful way she thwarts Miss Grimm and Alethea at every turn. What inspired you to create such a determined and winning character?
Jacqueline Harvey: Alice-Miranda has an extraordinary life and I think the fact that she comes from great wealth certainly makes her different from most of us. Although I had a horse as a child, there was certainly no helicopter or chef (although my mum’s a great cook). For her though, that’s the only life she’s ever known and I wanted to challenge the stereotype that because of her background she should be spoilt or nasty, or think that she was better than others. Alice-Miranda has an inherent kindness that I wanted to shine through. She may have been born to a life of privilege but it’s the only life she’s ever known and it doesn’t mean that she can’t be a wonderfully decent person along with it. Over my years as a teacher I have worked at some quite privileged schools with little girls who perhaps aren’t quite on the same economic stratosphere as Alice-Miranda but are very fortunate indeed. I think she’s the best characteristics of lots of children I’ve known.
I absolutely loved the unusually long names you bequeathed your characters and also the more fitting ones like Miss Grimm, Mr. Plumpton, Miss Reedy, and Mr. Grump. Did you encounter any of these funny people, who inspired you to create characters with such fanciful names, when you were growing up in Camden?
None of the characters are based on anyone I’ve known in real life, although I think as a writer you often hoard memories of characteristics of people, perhaps unwittingly a lot of the time. I did have one teacher in high school who was terribly tall and thin and I adored him – so perhaps he gave rise to Miss Reedy in some strange way. He taught me English and History. Generally for me, the names tend to inspire the characters. I trawl baby name websites and the telephone directory looking for weird and wonderful names. Alice-Miranda’s own name was inspired by the fact that one of my sisters had a good friend at high school called Miranda. She was a very sweet child and I always thought she was lovely and liked her name. I started by writing Miranda on a piece of paper and then I thought, it should be hyphenated. I tried Miranda this and Miranda that and after a couple of minutes put Alice in front of Miranda and I knew that was it. Her surname is the deliberate pairing of two fancier names with two more common names. I put her name up on the window outside my office at the start of a break and asked the girls to see how long it would take to remember by heart. Most of them could reel it off after only a few minutes. I think Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones has a lyrical quality to it – and it’s not hard to remember.
Could you tell our readers a bit about your teaching background? How much of your Alice-Miranda books did you draw from your own experience as a teacher and Deputy Head at boarding schools? Did you model any of the girls after your former students?
I’ve spent most of my career teaching in schools with boarding. My first school sometimes had students as young as Year 4 who lived in. There was one little girl I particularly remember whose mother had remarried and moved overseas and her father for whatever reason wasn’t about, so she boarded. Her resilience and positive attitude were amazing, particularly as she was one of the youngest at the boarding school and had to live with the older girls.
At the school where I currently work, I spend quite a bit of time with the boarders helping to run our Indigenous program. The girls in boarding generally get on very well and it’s a lot like having a huge extended family. At my current school there is a mixture of day girls and boarders but I wanted to make Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale all boarding so you have that feeling of camaraderie all the time.
When my sisters and I were growing up boarding school was used as a threat by our parents, ‘If you don’t stop fighting with your sisters we’ll send you to boarding school,’ so I was always somewhat apprehensive about the idea until I actually worked in one. Unfortunately, or fortunately at the time, my parents never followed through on their threat – and in reality they couldn’t have afforded it.
I’ve taught so many interesting children. Funny, smart, lovable and sometimes naughty – the whole gamut and while none of the characters in Alice-Miranda is based entirely on any one child, I’m sure that lots of them have snippets of those gorgeous kids I’ve worked with in them.
Could you tell us about the plays and poems you wrote for your students in your early days of teaching, like “Tootle-loo-Tootie” and “The Adventures of Texas Jack”? What, if anything, did you learn from your students you especially wanted to convey in your books? Also, could you tell us about how your beloved teacher Sally Hogan encouraged you when you were young?
I adore working with children and wanted to be a teacher from the time I was very young. When I was in fourth and fifth class I was fortunate to have the amazing Sally Hogan. She was funny and smart and she could play the piano and sing. She made Super 8 movies with our class – I remember doing The War of The Worlds long before Tom Cruise ever did! She brought out the best in her students and I wanted to be just like her. So after finishing school I went straight to University and studied for my teaching degree in primary education (that’s elementary school in the US). When I was at Uni I studied creative writing as an elective and always thought it would be wonderful to combine being a writer and a teacher.
My classes have always been a great source of inspiration and together over the years we did some amazing things, like recreating an Egyptian dig site in the back paddock when I was teaching Year 5. The kids couldn’t believe all of the artifacts they found – they didn’t realize for ages that one of the class mothers and I had spent all of a two week break creating little statuettes and other pieces from the period, getting a bobcat to dig a great big hole and then layering and filling it back in. It makes me tired just thinking about it but it was such an amazing experience. I wrote a story about being transported to Egypt so that when we went down to the dig site the kids imagined we were really there.
Ideas like the play Tootle-Loo Tootie came from the unit on Ancient Egypt. I wanted my class to perform a play for the school and their parents and so from this small idea about Tutankhamen I wrote the play, ensuring that every child had a role. It was a mixture of fact and fantasy and the costumes and props were amazing now that I think back. The Adventures of Texas Jack was inspired by a little boy in my Kindergarten class who came in one day and said to me, ‘I think you should write a play about Texas Jack.’ When I asked him who that was, he looked at me as if I was a little bit dim and said, ‘he’s a baddie in the wild west of course,’ and so I wrote the story which the children performed.
Working with children and sharing stories and ideas with them is a great privilege. I love their honesty and sense of fun. Over the years I have kept in touch with Sally and just this year visited the school where she is the Principal and spoke to her students about books and writing. It was fun sharing a photo of our fourth class and asking if they could work out who was who. I’m so glad that I’ve been able to tell her how much of an impact she has had on my life.
You’ve said your husband encouraged you to take a leave of absence from your career in education to focus on your writing life? Was that a difficult decision to leave teaching or had you always secretly wanted to be a writer?
I had long wanted to be a writer but in many ways didn’t know how to go about doing it. Of course I knew that I had to write but as for the publishing part, I had no idea for a long time how that side worked – and I was hugely naïve. I had worked for ten years as a teacher and so took my long service leave (three months) and then resigned from that position to take another year off from full time work. It was a terrifically creative period, but frustrating at the same time, as publishing is a slow business. My husband had asked me if I was ever going to write anything or was I just going to talk about it forever. It was a valid question to which he added, ‘Because you know, you don’t want to die wondering.’ That was it. I didn’t want to wake up in another ten years wishing that I’d given it a proper go.
That said, it’s taken almost ten years of hard work to get to the point that my career is at now. In Australia I have had seven junior novels published (four of them in the Alice-Miranda series with another four to come) and a picture book called The Sound of the Sea which to my great surprise was an Honour Book in the Australian Children’s Book Council Awards in 2006. I was fortunate to have four books come out in quick succession from 2003 to 2005 with modest success. I had naively thought that perhaps things would get a little easier at that point, but that wasn’t the case at all and I spent almost five years in the ‘writing wilderness’ where I was having great difficulty convincing the publisher I had been with (or any others) to take my work. So during that time, rather than give up, I put my head down and worked on various projects including picture book manuscripts, a young adult book which I still hope to finish one day and Alice-Miranda. She started as an idea for a picture book but I soon found myself thinking that she deserved at least a novel and now a huge series. My publisher at Random House Australia, Linsay Knight adored her from the start and we have had such fun over the past couple of years working on all her stories. I used to say that nothing ever happens quickly in publishing but with Alice-Miranda that is not true at all. It’s been a bit like a whirlwind and I’m still working full time too.
Alice-Miranda is my first overseas publication and I’m thrilled that she’s in the US, Indonesia, Turkey, Singapore and New Zealand and next year the United Kingdom, too. I can’t wait to tour the US and the UK in 2012 and meet the readers!
Could you tell our readers about the work you’ve done with Aboriginal children with Yalari?
I’m a passionate advocate for improving educational outcomes for Indigenous students. My own great grandmother was an Aboriginal woman who was born in rural New South Wales and grew up in a camp on a river. She married a white man and sadly, shunned her Indigenous heritage. It wasn’t a good thing to be Aboriginal in Australia at the time. In fact Australian Aborigines were not even recognized as people until 1967. Prior to that time they were classified as fauna and there was a period in which children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to missions where they were educated in the ways of Anglo Australians. They were called the Stolen Generations. There is a long and complex history of Indigenous injustice and I guess my great grandmother decided that when people asked where she was from, it was much easier to be a Maori from New Zealand, which is what we had always believed. My great grandmother passed away when I was eleven and I think it’s awfully sad that she could never tell us who she really was. My aunt was researching our family history and discovered her true identity when I was in my twenties.
While things have changed markedly in my lifetime, the gap between educational outcomes for Indigenous and Non-Indigenous students is still unacceptable. I’ve been working for the past five years with a scholarship organisation which partners with independent boarding schools all over Australia to give full scholarships to Indigenous students from rural and remote areas. The difference today is that the children and their parents want this opportunity. The parents are committed to the partnership as much as the schools and Yalari are. I headed up a task force at Abbotsleigh to look at how we could set up a scholarship program. We explored a whole range of options but when I met Waverley Stanley, the Indigenous man who started Yalari I knew that we had to be involved. He’s an amazing man and a true inspiration. We now have nine girls on full boarding scholarships from Year 7-10 with another two students entering Year 7 in each subsequent year. I am so proud of the girls. Some come from really difficult circumstances but they are making the most of every opportunity and working hard. They are not held up as poster children for social justice – they are just girls at school like any other who add to the rich diversity of our community.
It’s wonderful to be able to give the girls opportunities – just the other weekend two of the girls and I were taken to the opera at the Sydney Opera House by one of our philanthropic past school parents. While The Merry Widow was a lovely production, by far the highlight for me was sitting beside Emma and Hannah and seeing them wide eyed and delighted by the show.
Yalari is like a great big extended family. The organisation has grown from three students in two schools just six years ago to 195 students in 32 schools around the country and another 50 starting next year. A highlight of my year is going to the Orientation Camp where all of the new students get together with the current first year students. The kids are nervous and excited and have such high hopes, as we have high hopes for them. There are other camp opportunities where the kids get together and support one another and also learn more about their Indigenous culture and heritage. I am particularly proud that at Abbotsleigh we have a 100% retention rate for our students. It’s a great pleasure to be the ‘school mum’ to the girls.
What adventures can we expect Alice-Miranda to pursue in your next books? Will she take Manhattan by climbing up the Empire State Building? Throw a rodeo in the Grand Canyon?
Alice-Miranda’s second adventure is being released in the US in April 2012. It’s called Alice-Miranda On Vacation and sees her heading home for the first school break of the year. She takes one of her friends with her and together they have some big mysteries to solve. A huge black car is roaring around the estate and her father brings home a handsome movie star for the weekend. There is a strange boy too, who seems to take an instant dislike to Alice-Miranda.
I am hoping that my US publisher (Random House Delacorte) will purchase the rights to more books in the series – it would be sad to stop at two. In Australia there are currently four books out with another four to come – at least. The fifth in the series is Alice-Miranda In New York which sees her attending school in Manhattan and again solving some delicious mysteries. She spends a lot of time exploring the city and her visits to The Met prove very interesting indeed.
Alice-Miranda is soon to become an author herself as I’m just about to write a new series for slightly younger students, called Clementine Rose. Alice-Miranda will be the writer, with some help from her best grown up friend Jacqueline Harvey and there will be lots of tips and ideas for young readers who want to write in the back of the books as well as a fun story.
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust, Salon, Daily Candy, and Babble.