'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Guest Post - Finding Alice-Miranda

Jacqueline Harvey, author of the gorgeous Alice-Miranda series (beginning with Alice-Miranda at School and followed up with the new Alice-Miranda on Holiday) joins us today with a very special guest post. Jacqueline talks to us about the creation of Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones (is there anything better for a book buff than having a peek behind the scenes at their favourite character's beginnings?!).

Recently I met a group of children who were very familiar with my friend Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones. It was great hearing their thoughts about this little character with whom I spend so much of my time. At this particular school, some Year 4 students, having had the first few chapters of Alice-Miranda at School read aloud to them brainstormed ideas about her. They said things like, ‘she’s very happy, she’s smart, she’s clever, she’s a good friend, she’s brave and she’s determined’.

There was one response though that got me thinking – ‘she’s not quite normal’. When asked to expand on this, the young boy replied that ‘she’s always happy and she always sees the good in everything and that’s just not normal’. I would have to agree with him that these particular traits do tend to set her apart from other characters. Her ability to see the good in everyone no matter how flawed their character or abhorrent their behaviour is definitely unusual. So I asked the boy, ‘Would you like to be friends with her?’

The resounding response was yes, not just from that boy but from the whole class. I suppose that’s how I have come to think of her too – as someone I would definitely want to have as my friend – and in many ways that’s exactly what she has become.

Alice-Miranda bubbled around in my head for a very long time before I knew exactly what to do with her. I was working as the Deputy Head of a girls’ school when the idea of her first appeared, so I spent quite a lot of time talking with the students about the types of characters they liked – and what made them likable. I knew in Alice-Miranda I wanted to create a character who was original, interesting and hopefully timeless.

The first thing that came to me was her name. I deliberately wanted her to have a hyphenated Christian name and for some reason Miranda was always high on my list of preferences. But ‘Miranda – something’, didn’t seem to work. So I decided to go the other way around and began putting names in front of Miranda. I think Alice was pretty much the first one I tried and from the moment I wrote it down, I knew, that was it. Alice-Miranda had a great ring to it.

As for her four surnames I thought she needed something that would immediately set her apart from other children. What if her parents both came from families where they already had hyphenated surnames? This might add to the intrigue and make readers wonder why on earth she had such a long name. Who were her parents and what did they do? And so, Highton-Smith merged with Kennington-Jones to become Alice-Miranda’s long, but mellifluous family name. Initially I asked a number of girls at school if they could remember it. Having plain names like Smith and Jones alongside Highton and Kennington seemed to give it a ‘roll off the tongue’ like quality and it didn’t take more than a few attempts before the girls would happily ask me how Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones’s story was coming along.

When I was developing her character there were certain things I knew I wanted. She was going to be very young, well-travelled, wise beyond her years, incredibly positive, resourceful (in the way that children who come from families of vast wealth might be, if they set their mind to it), courageous and extremely talkative. I wanted her to be likable in spite of her privilege and wealth, which I worried that some readers might resent or see as spoilt. I think she’s quite na├»ve in many ways about her life – it’s just her life. But she has a compassionate understanding that not everyone lives the way she and her family do. Her best friend Millie, with whom she shares an equal number of names, is a wonderful counterbalance to Alice-Miranda. She’s a far more realistic child in many ways. But the two of them really bring out the best in each other – and I’ve come to love Millie and her cinnamon freckles almost as much as Alice-Miranda.

Once I started writing her first adventure – with the very unlikely plot that she takes herself off to boarding school aged seven and a quarter only to find that the Headmistress hasn’t been out of her study in over ten years, Alice-Miranda very quickly took on a life of her own.

I adore Alice-Miranda – I love writing her and I love sharing her with children. Although the covers of the books are clearly aimed at the girls’ market it has been extremely gratifying to find that a lot of boys have taken her to their hearts. A librarian was recently telling me that one of her real ‘blokey boys’ had read Alice-Miranda and came by stealth, on his own to the Library one lunchtime to report that he ‘loved the book – she’s such a great character and I wish she was my friend.’

After hearing that comment I felt ten feet tall.

When I wrote the second book, I was concerned that the setting being at home would make it harder to bring out her quirky characteristics. After all, home for most children is a very comfortable place. So I added new characters, tricky personalities, nasty snooping strangers and some conflict with Jasper and Granny Bert, both of whom Alice-Miranda clearly adore. In one sense the plot became even more important to allow Alice-Miranda to shine – and use all her positivity, compassion and courage to overcome the bad guys.

I’ve just finished the draft for the third book – where she is back at school with some interesting new challenges – and a particularly nasty mother and daughter combination. I’m about to start number four – set on a ship and I can’t wait to get going on it. I’m not exactly sure how many adventures await Alice-Miranda and her increasing group of friends – maybe ten – maybe more. I think I’ll just have to wait and see where she wants to go next!

Read our review of Alice-Miranda at School

Read our review of Alice-Miranda on Holiday

Check out our interview with Jacqueline Harvey