The world turned upside down

20th September 1996 at 01:00
As Toots explores the world under the floorboards, writer Carol Hughes (above) talks to Geraldine Brennan. The young Carol Hughes began to ponder on the underbelly of home life when her father, then a joiner, sent her exploring under his customers' floorboards. Later, when the family kept a hotel in Lytham St Annes, Carol spent many hours staring at the ceiling and wondering what it would be like to live upside down.

At the same time, she wanted to be a writer, but did not settle down to her first novel until she was in her thirties. By then the secret crevices of dwellings and the creatures that live there were firmly lodged in her imagination. A lonely young girl's home is an emotional and physical battleground in the recently published Toots and the Upside Down House.

"Every house has other things going on around the humans living there, " says Hughes, now 35 and busy tuning into the rhythms of a new home in San Francisco. "That secret life fascinates me - the life you can see if you look hard, like mould and silverfish, and the life you can't see at all."

In this truly scary story, Toots shrinks to two inches high and finds that the ceiling has become the floor and the forces of good and evil are staking territorial claims in the wall cavities.

Her journey into the inner depths of the building coincides with personal crisis - her mother has died and her grief-stricken father ignores her. She is befriended by the fairies (goodies) at loggerheads with the sprites (clever baddies) who have encouraged the goblins (stupid baddies) to start rotting the house by spreading mould. Goblins thrive amid the grease, crumbs and hairballs shed by humans (this book has a very high grunge factor.

"All houses get goblins sooner or later," Hughes promises, grimly. But in the book Toots's father is to blame for the speedy all-round deterioration of his home. He is too busy licking his wounds and fiddling with his stamp collection to talk to his daughter or lag his pipes, and he will be sorry.

Toots has been compared to Lewis Carroll's Alice, but she is a very contemporary heroine, confronting the kind of moral dilemmas (loyalty to friends v. self-interest, for example) that did not enter Alice's universe.None the less, Toots's story, with its themes of eroding evil and redemption, has an eternal ring. "There's a lot of demons to confront in it," Hughes admits. "Fairies and goblins do belong to a long tradition of tales - I felt cheeky taking them on."

Her fairies are a long way from Arthur Rackham. Olive, who becomes Toots's substitute older sister, is a sturdy, jolly trainee fairy doing a sort of GNVQ in house rehabilitation. Generally, they operate with gung-ho team spirit. "I used to read Bunty a lot as a child," admits Hughes.

The film potential of Toots has been spotted and an animated version is expected at the end of next year. Hughes worked as a colourist in an animation studio after her fine art degree. All along, she kept diaries and notebooks and is now developing many long-standing story ideas - and starting work on a Toots sequel.

Toots and the Upside Down House by Carol Hughes, illustrated by J Garrett Sheldrew, Bloomsbury Pounds 3.99

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