Journey man

17th July 1998 at 01:00
Children's author Tim Bowler has sold ice cream and survived on only four hours sleep a night. Now his work has been rewarded. Geraldine Brennan talks to this year's Carnegie Medal winner

Tim Bowler is typical of many British children's writers who slog away for years writing quietly confident novels that are not widely reviewed or hyped. His reward for losing sleep to write for most of his 44 years (funded by day jobs including ice-cream-van driver and timber salesman as well as by teaching and translating) has, until now, been relative obscurity at home alongside a healthy reputation abroad.

His first novel, Midget, has slipped out of print in this country but in Belgium it is a set book and a cult title. "I've given lectures to 200 people in Belgium where everyone has read it. Here, I suppose I've got a small but devoted public."

It's no surprise that the winner of the Carnegie Medal, the Library Association award for last year's most outstanding children's book, grew up on Enid Blyton ("ripping good yarns") and Arthur Ransome ("I lived the world of his books and spent a lot of my childhood sailing"). His books have ostensibly wholesome settings such as farms, boatyards and country cottages and his characters face physical challenges. In his Carnegie winner, River Boy, the heroine Jess swims 43 miles from source to sea. But there are inevitably stronger forces at play in the elements, the landscape or the intense human relationships.

Children's writers have to learn endurance in this country and Bowler has applied survival skills to the act of writing itself. For seven years he managed on four hours' sleep a night, writing his novels between 3am and 7am in a chilly boxroom before doing a day's teaching (he spent two years at a Plymouth Community College and went on to Coombeshead Community College, Newton Abbott, where he became head of modern languages). The regime has been slightly less harsh since 1990, when he turned freelance as a writer and translator (he has a degree in Swedish from the University of East Anglia) but he is still known to get up at 5am.

"I am very focused," he admits. "And in my books, as in life, I am drawn to people of conviction, people with pluck and guts." The two key characters in River Boy - Pop, the irascible, passionate artist and Jess, his teenage granddaughter, who prepares herself for his death - come into this category. Watching over them is the mystery River Boy of the title. The result is an accomplished, crafted book with not a superfluous word, which uses the strong central image of the river as a life's path to reflect the tumultuous feelings of an adolescent facing up to loss.

"My own grandfather, whom I loved dearly, died when I was 14. It struck me that the loss of a grandparent is the first experience of bereavement for many people and it often happens in early adolescence when we are already going through upheaval and change, with one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood."

Besides this, he adds, "all my books are about journeys that the characters make - both inner and outer journeys, leading to someone becoming something that they weren't at the beginning".

River Boy is his third novel (Dragon's Rock followed Midget and a new one, Shadows, is coming in January). Its success highlights one benefit of the judging process for both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medal for illustrators. Because books are nominated by panels of local librarians, titles which do not attract widespread attention on publication but are popular with readers get a second chance.

Bowler is particularly drawn to exploring relative strengths and weaknesses between characters. In Dragon's Rock, the balance of power between Toby, the sturdy farm boy, and Benjamin, the townie whom he despises, is not as straightforward as it seems. It was watching how bullies operated in schools, he says, that drew him to conclude that "it's those who are perceived as weak who have to be the strongest". His fury "at hearing teachers continually attacked and rubbished" is another legacy of his teaching career.

Midget is a dark tale of a handicapped boy's struggle with the sadistic brother who is abusing him while inept adults fail to intervene. It grapples with tough themes - exclusion, powerlessness and revenge. Although the abuse scenes in the text are implicit, it was turned down by four publishers before it was accepted by Oxford University Press.

"I felt Midget to be a ground-breaking book. I would argue that children are much more robust than we are led to believe, and I go to a lot of trouble to prepare the ground."

Bowler is delighted that, thanks to this week's award, Midget will be back in print early next year. He spent 10 years of pre-dawn sessions writing it in nine drafts. "I'm a great redrafter and discarder. As Robert Graves said, my best friend is my wastepaper basket. I'm happy to lose 30,000 words if it doesn't work."

At the same time, he sees the written word as a precious resource which he believes can fight its corner alongside "snazzier, jazzier, visually-orientated entertainment media".

At the awards ceremony at the British Library this week, he said: "Words create an intimacy and an alchemy that no computer game will ever match. "

* Tim Bowler's books are published by Oxford University Press

* PJ Lynch has won the parallel award for illustrators, the Kate Greenaway Medal for the second time in four years forhis illustrations for 'When Jessie Came Across the Sea', Amy Hest's tale of a Jewish immigrant girl's journey to New York (Walker Books).

The Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals are sponsored by the Royal Mail.

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