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Wednesday 4 August 2021

Guest Post: Meg McKinlay on Writing About Special Grandparent-grandchild Relationships

Meg McKinlay’s favourite aspect of her chapter book Bella and the Wandering House is the relationship between Bella and her beloved grandad. And her greatest joy in writing the sequel, the recently published Bella and the Voyaging House, was the opportunity to develop that in new and more playful directions. Here, Meg talks about the role of grandparents within a child's life, her own family and the pages of her books.

Delightfully Different

Grandparents have a special status. They get to bend the rules, to go light on discipline and heavy on fun, dispensing treats and toys and trinkets with abandon. That’s how the jokes go, at least, but even if this version of things is a little exaggerated, it rests on a fundamental truth: that in their relationships with children, grandparents have the chance to be delightfully different. They're at a stage of life that generally holds fewer pressures, or in which their priorities and perspective on things are likely to have shifted.

When I started writing about Bella and her restless house, there were no grandparents in the story. It was just Bella, her parents and a house that seemed to not always be quite where it should be in the morning. The changes were minor at first, the sort of 'small strangeness' Bella noticed but which Mum and Dad, busy with work and mobile phones and the pressures of adult life, dismissed as a product of her 'wild imagination'.

The character of Grandad, which became central to both books, emerged as a direct counterpoint. Because a dreamy, strangeness-loving child with parents such as these must have someone to confide in, who will genuinely listen. Of course, there are many different characters I might have come up with to fill that role – a friend? A teacher? A neighbour? – and I suspect the reason it was Grandad who appeared lies somewhere in my own life.

Grandparents I Have Known

Although distance prevented me having regular contact with my grandparents, they definitely held a special place in my life. 'Jimmy' was a stirrer, a mischief-maker with a permanent twinkle in his eye and 'Janeymum' was a playful lover of children and music, a pioneer of the Kindergarten of the Air program. I have particularly fond memories of the time I got to fly across the country for a solo stay with them. Janeymum had a home studio where she taught piano and led musical playgroups, and it was full of instruments she had collected on travels all over the world. I remember basking in her undivided attention as she shared her great love of music.

In later years, seeing my own parents as grandparents, I was particularly struck by my father, who seemed to relish getting down – sometimes literally! – to a child's level and went out of his way to create moments of weirdness and whimsy for them. I realised then how much of this sort of thing he had done for us as children. To take just one example, when he built a large stone studio in our backyard, he went to the trouble of adding an extra room – a narrow space with a low, child-size entry he hid behind a hinged bookshelf. This was 'The Secret Room' and its sole purpose was to be a source of secret fun for kids.

Writing Grandad

Given my role models, it's probably no surprise that I came up with a character like Grandad, who has a tendency to say things like, 'A little strangeness can be a good thing' and 'What a girl needs here is a perfectly round window'. I've written other aspects of my experience into the Bella-Grandad relationship, too, such as the notion of shared activities and rituals. The way Grandad tinkers at his workbench owes something to Janeymum's musical tinkerings in her studio, and also to the way my father, an amateur potter, would work clay with his own grandchildren. Grandparents are so perfectly placed to share specific hobbies or areas of expertise and to make that something special, exclusive to that relationship. It's in these small, private spaces that cross-generational connections are built and strengthened.

Reviewers have described the character of Bella as resilient and imaginative, resourceful and brave, and these are all qualities which are developed and reinforced through her relationship with Grandad, who honours her dreaminess, while also encouraging her to be bold and self-reliant. Parents can do this, of course, but with their more immediate pressures and anxieties, are perhaps more likely than grandparents to be reminding them about things like library bags and bedtimes and urging them not to sit on windowsills, lest they fall out.

Modern Grandparenting

When I wrote Bella and the Voyaging House, Grandad was at the front of my mind. The book wouldn't exist without the image of him that dropped into my head at the beach one day. He was flying over the ocean on a self-made flying machine, grinning widely, and I built the whole story as an excuse to write that scene. With it came a new dimension to Grandad's character – he was suddenly more dynamic, stepping out of the wings and onto centrestage. And I think that's also reflective of contemporary society, of the way in which the landscape of ageing – and by extension of grandparenting – has changed over time. There's an emphasis now on active ageing, on staying mentally and physically fit, and socially engaged. I had so much fun writing the scenes where – spoiler alert! – Grandad zooms in on his contraption, contrasting his intrepid fearlessness with Mum and Dad's circumspection. And one of my favourite moments is when Bella asks Grandad how he found them and discovers to her surprise that he's quite the technophile!

After two books, I think I'm finished with Bella and Grandad now, and I hope I've done them justice. The grandparent–grandchild relationship can be so special, and if I've managed to capture some of its glorious possibilities in their story I'll be a very happy writer indeed.

Meg McKinlay is a children’s writer and poet whose work ranges from picture books through to young adult fiction. Her publications include the Prime Minister's Literary Award-winning A Single Stone, and CBCA-shortlisted No Bears and Duck for a Day, among many others. Meg grew up in central Victoria, and spent her childhood roaming through the bush, striking it rich at least once a week on a vein of fool’s gold. Raised in a TV-free household, she was a bookish kid, in love with words, excited by dictionaries and spelling bees. These days she lives near the ocean in Fremantle and spends her days writing, reading and rambling. She is always busy cooking up more books.

Connect with Meg via her: website, Facebook page, or Twitter