The 'Queen of Teen' who had the last laugh

7th January 2011 at 00:00
Roald Dahl Funny Prize champion Louise Rennison left school at 15 without qualifications. But after a series of major life events she heeded education's call - and began a journey that would carry her to success

"Lunchtime: At awards ceremony for book I wrote, having complete nervy b. Michael Rosen is here. Vair, vair hilarious.

"Five minutes later: Yeeeeeessssss! I won! I won! I won! All so joyful and fun. Feel hiddly diddly diddle Irish dancing coming on.

"Two minutes later: Dance has traumatised two small children; others are overcome with mirthosity."

My effort just goes to show that writing in the style of a teenage diary is not as easy as one might think. And making your living, as Louise Rennison does, from prose so successful that it wins prizes and is made into films is a very special talent indeed.

Ms Rennison was awarded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in the seven-to-14 age category at the end of last year for Withering Tights. It is her first book about Tallulah Casey, the bonkers cousin of the bonkers Georgia Nicolson, star of the 'Confessions of...' series, which kicked off with Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, later turned into a film.

"The prize is one of those things that is really great," says Ms Rennison. "I can't find anything cynical or sarcastic about it at all. I slightly disgraced myself at the awards ceremony. I was so excited I did some Irish dancing - I've never seen so many staggered children."

After the ceremony, she and Louise Yates, who won the prize in the under-six category (see box), each received cheques for #163;2,500. Ms Rennison went for a celebratory lunch hosted by publisher HarperCollins for all its shortlisted authors, and then spoke about her success on breakfast TV the next day. The celebrations continued with the birth of her first grandchild that week.

Ms Rennison, who won the Queen of Teen award in 2009, has been writing comedy since leaving Brighton University with a degree in expressive arts in the 1980s. She went on to develop a one-woman show, Stevie Wonder Felt My Face, which won awards at the Edinburgh Festival and was made into a BBC2 special.

But getting to university was a story in itself for a woman who left school at 15 with no qualifications, after her family decided to move to Wairakei, New Zealand. Needless to say, the move wasn't her idea - she wanted to stay in Leeds.

"We lived on a council estate in Seacroft," Ms Rennison says. "I went to a brilliant primary school, Parklands.

"It was run by a really inspirational headmaster. He used to stand among the tables at lunchtime and tell us how to hold a knife and fork, how to set a table and use napkins, so that no pupil of his would ever feel out of place. It kind of made us feel we could all be anyone and go anywhere.

"I remember doing my 11-plus really vividly," she says, "and being completely baffled. For example, if a ship comes over the equator, what will be the last thing you see when it goes back?

"I came from an intelligent family, but nobody had been to university. Even when I was at grammar school, it was not considered."

But Parklands Grammar set Ms Rennison up for future success. "It gave me structure and, on reflection, I liked being at an all-girls school. Because there were no boys around, I didn't realise girls weren't supposed to be funny. We spent the whole day trying to find things to be amused by.

"All our teachers loved literature, just loved it. We just accepted that's what teachers were like - they loved their subject, that's what was tragic about them. The geography teacher loved geography - she was insane with rage when I made up jokes about the wheat belt."

Just as at primary, Ms Rennison's experience at grammar school offered hints of how glamorous adult life could be. "Our English teacher invited us round to her house and read poetry and made us coffee, which I don't think I'd ever had before. Her husband was a vicar and she had a sports car."

And then, when everything was so good, her parents took her and her sister to the other side of the world.

Ms Rennison says: "It was traumatic. For me, Leeds was perfect. All my school mates came down to see me off at the train station. I had 50 letters from people given to me there at the station. In New Zealand, I would get a letter a day from someone. I'd write back and it was a lifeline for me, writing and describing what was going on."

She returned to the UK at 20 and spent the early 1970s hanging out in Notting Hill, west London, in a shared flat rented from Roxy Music.

She worked with skiving teenagers on housing estates in Brixton, which presumably was inspiration for her later books. "One of them turned up in a stolen police car. I mean, how was he going to get away with that?

"I had a lovely life," she adds. "I loved being in London, but there came a time when I felt something was missing. I just didn't know about UCCA (the university application system) and I didn't have the right qualifications.

"I didn't want to go to night school and do O-levels; that was too hard for me. But I found this course and I got a discretionary grant. So the fees were paid, and bus fares, and I had a bit of maintenance money. I was terribly grateful."

She studied five subjects and then applied to Brighton University. "They turned me down," she says. "I couldn't believe it - I'd worked so hard and they wouldn't even see me. So I phoned up one of the lecturers to say, 'I don't understand'. The reason was because it was an art course and I had not done any art. 'But,' I said, 'why would I want to come to college to do something I can already do?'"

In the end she was accepted to read expressive arts. "It was a massive challenge," she says. "I'd left all my friends in London and come to live in a bedsit in Brighton. At first I was so lonely, but it was extremely life-changing. That's what education can be."

When she left four years later, not only had she gained a first, but she had also met lecturers and teachers who would prove to be inspirations for characters in her books. Education, it seems, proved to be much more than just gaining qualifications.

A happy tail

Big chuckles for the little ones

Author and illustrator Louise Yates won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in the under-six age category for her second book, Dog Loves Books.

But her success owes something to another shortlisted author, Quentin Blake, the first children's laureate and one of the country's most renowned illustrators.

Ms Yates, from Farnborough in Hampshire, studied English at Christ Church, Oxford. In her second year, Mr Blake spoke at the Oxford Union. Ms Yates knew by then that she wanted to be a writer and illustrator.. He agreed to met her after the talk and looked at her drawings, then invited her to bring her portfolio to his London studio.

Ms Yates says his support was helpful, not least in validating in her own mind her career plans.

After university, she worked in a succession of jobs, including designing T-shirts, manning a gym reception, making theatrical corsets and working in an antiquarian bookshop - an experience which inspired Dog Loves Books.

"I needed to look alert and ready for customers, so I couldn't read," she says. "But a lot of the time, it was just me. There was this frustration at being surrounded by books but not being able to read. And then when they did come in, a lot of people would ask for directions or a specific book - it seemed a comic situation."

In 2007, Ms Yates published her first book, A Small Surprise, about a rabbit who wants to join the circus.

A year later, she was one of 25 artists to attend free courses at the Prince's Drawing School for a year. She went to all-day classes two or three times a week, which is when she started working on Dog Loves Books.

"I didn't set out to be funny," she says. "My book has got quite a serious message, and one I feel very passionate about, but I didn't want it to be heavy-handed and so it works on several levels.

"I have quite a dry, wry sense of humour. I was quite surprised the judges had chosen it because there were more immediately funny books in terms of slapstick. But I am very grateful. There is nothing nicer than celebrating children laughing - it is a huge compliment."

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