Barry Hutchison is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and writer of comics. He lives in the Highlands of Scotland, where he grew up almost 100 miles from his nearest bookshop and cinema. As a result, he had to learn to make his own entertainment, and has been writing stories from the age of five. Most of them involve people dying in horrible ways, but occasionally he writes one which doesn't - mostly so his wife and children don't get concerned about his mental state. Barry is quick to tell people that he came second in the 2013 Scottish Outdoor Archery Championships. He usually leaves out the fact that only two people entered.
Q&A with Barry Hutchison
What inspired you to write for reluctant readers?
I never really set out to write books for reluctant readers, keen readers, or anyone else. I set out to write stories which scared me, made me laugh, or I otherwise found entertaining. I think writing a story that grabs you by the eyeballs and refuses to let go until the final page is the best way of encouraging anyone to read, no matter how reluctant they might be.
What challenges do struggling readers face when they open a book?
I think the bigger challenge is almost before they open the book. There are so many other demands on their time - school, sports, Instagram, Netflix, Xbox, YouTube and all that other stuff. When you're not used to exercising that reading muscle it can almost seem like a chore to pick up a book, which is why I think it's important my stories start with a bang, or something else that'll grab the reader right from the start.
What is your favourite type of character to create?
I like funny characters who are full of flaws. There's nothing more boring than a character who knows exactly what they're doing. I prefer my characters to stumble through the story just trying to do their best against difficult odds. I like us to be able to laugh at them, but still root for them, too.
What features and methods do you use to ensure that your books have that high-interest appeal that really engages young readers?
I think it's important to always have something happening. Whenever a character has solved one problem, I chuck them right into the next one without giving them time to catch their breath. My characters very rarely deal with 'real' problems that we might encounter in real life. They're usually being chased by monsters or fighting for their life in some way, but I try to write in a way that draws the reader in and makes them think about how they'd cope if faced by the same situations.
What difference do books like these make to children who are in need of literacy support?
I know for a fact they make an enormous amount of difference. I visit a lot of schools and while I meet lots of children and teenagers who've read some of my longer books, I also meet lots of less confident readers who've started on books like these and progressed onto longer reads. Books like the ones in this series, along with comics and magazines are, in my opinion, the absolute best way of turning a non-reader into a book lover.
Can you give us any teasers of what to expect in your upcoming Once Upon Another Time title?
Some scares. Some laughs. A surprise or two. Oh, and cake. Quite a lot of cake.
What are the major themes of your work?
There are lots of different themes in my books, but the overall theme is one which runs right through most fiction: "Yes, you can." Yes, you can face up to bullies, win races, fight monsters, save the world and generally do whatever else you set your mind you. Yes, you can overcome overwhelming odds to win the day, if you're prepared to try hard enough. I think we all underestimate what we're capable of, and fiction can be a great reminder that we're probably better than we might think we are.
What controls do you place on the vocabulary you use and how important is this?
I write my reluctant reader books in exactly the same way I write my longer, more in-depth titles - by keeping the language simple and letting the story do all the work. I think as soon as a reader thinks "Ooh, that's a clever bit of writing," then the author has failed in their job. The author is there to tell a good story, not show off with lots of big words. As soon as you start noticing how nicely the sentences are phrased, you're been pulled out of the story. So I use simple words and short sentences. Like that last one. And that one.
What is your favourite children's book?
Waaaaagh! There are so many to choose from. Children and teenagers are spoiled for choice at the moment, as there are tens of thousands of incredible books for them to choose from. One of my all-time favourites, though, is Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy by Jan Needle. I read it shortly after it first came out in 1987, and literally still laugh out loud when I think about it now. I think it's quite hard to find these days, but well worth tracking down.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers/authors?
I get asked this question a lot, particularly when I'm visiting schools. Because I never have time to offer much advice when asked, I've put together a completely free writing advice website at www.schoolofwriting.net, which is full of tips and guidance on writing everything from short stories to screenplays. If you're interested in writing stories, check it out!
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