New Children’s Laureate Frank Cottrell-Boyce: ‘You wouldn’t read Dahl if you valued his opinions’ (2024)

Frank Cottrell-Boyce spends a lot of his time reading to children in schools. Maybe you’re imagining a class of sweet little five-year-olds sitting cross-legged on the floor. It’s not like that. The kids are older, bigger, and they don’t always give him a warm welcome.

“I was at this school in Glasgow with these big, big, intimidating lads,” he recalls. He started to read from one of his books, Cosmic. “I ended on a cliffhanger, then moved to questions and answers. The first question was, ‘What happens next?’ I said, ‘Well, you know, the book’s in the library, maybe you could have a class reading.’ The next question was, ‘Can you read a bit more?’ and I said the same. Then this kid – huge, like a postcode with arms – put his hand up. I asked for his question and he just said,” – Cottrell-Boyce drops his voice an octave to adopt the tone of a Glaswegian heavy – “‘Will you just read, wee man.’” He is so busy laughing at this that I forget to ask him if he read another chapter, but I suspect he did.

The affable Cottrell-Boyce, 64, is the new Waterstones Children’s Laureate, following in the footsteps of Michael Morpurgo, Quentin Blake, Malorie Blackman and others. It is the latest entry on an eclectic CV – from scripting episodes of Brookside to co-creating the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics.

The sense of humour evident in the Olympic sketch he wrote for the Queen and Daniel Craig runs through his conversation and his children’s books, which include Millions, about two boys who stumble upon a fortune. Cottrell-Boyce was also approved by the estate of Ian Fleming, another author who wrote successfully for adults and children, to produce three sequels to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Aside from work, his personal life has given him a pretty good understanding of kids: he has seven of his own.

There is a vast difference, he says, in the way his two careers are regarded. “If I wrote the worst film of all time that was going to open on Thursday and close on Monday, I would still be guaranteed a substantial review in every single newspaper. If I wrote a towering work of comic genius for children, I would be very lucky to get two lines in a summer round-up, or to be invited on Front Row. There is no cultural conversation around children’s books.”

The BBC’s decision to kill off Jackanory in 1996 was part of this, he thinks (there is a bedtime story on CBeebies each night but it’s aimed at toddlers). “The nature of TV has changed, but I do think it shouldn’t have been pushed to the margin culturally,” he says of Jackanory. “The biggest TV show in the world at the moment is [YouTube and Netflix cartoon] CoComelon and I don’t know what that is – it’s got no cultural traction but 100 billion viewers a day or something. We’ve lost that national conversation.”

Should Jackanory be revived? “Definitely! One hundred per cent, oh my God, yes. Primetime Jackanory, that’s what we want. The stories on Jackanory I heard – if I read to kids or my grandkids now I can only do them in the voice of the person who read them on Jackanory. Though I struggle to do Kenneth Williams.”

The post-Jackanory generation was bound together by the Harry Potter phenomenon, and Cottrell-Boyce remains a huge fan of the books. He has no time for what he sees as confected culture wars, but nor does he think people should be boycotting JK Rowling’s writing just because they disagree with her opinions on gender. “You definitely wouldn’t read any Roald Dahl if you valued his opinions about stuff. I mean you definitely, definitely wouldn’t. You’ve got to be able to separate the dancer from the dance,” he says. “If not, Christ, what would you read? I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t agree with much that Homer thought about stuff. I lived by WB Yeats, he’s absolutely woven into my life, but he believes in fairies.”

His own childhood favourites were The Wind In The Willows, Just William and Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books. He was born and raised in a Catholic family in Liverpool, where his father went to night school and became a lecturer in continuing education. His mother completed an honours degree as a mature student. This commitment to learning rubbed off on young Frank, who read English at Keble College, Oxford, which is where he met his wife, Denise.

Cottrell-Boyce is passionate about reducing inequality – in a fiery inaugural speech, he noted that sales of superyachts have risen by 42 per cent in the same period that we’ve lost 1,000 libraries. He refers to the “invisible privilege” enjoyed by those who are read to when young and have access to books. “You can see it if you go into a classroom by the way a child picks up a book. You can see if they’re confident in how to open a book, how to flick through it.”

The pandemic caused the biggest disruption in children’s lives since the Second World War, he says, and the effects are ongoing. “You’ve only got to look around, go into any school, and we’re in the middle of an epidemic of unhappiness. There are a lot of very fragile, very nerve-wracked children, which is not surprising.

“The pandemic was a massive culture shock if you were a kid, because the things that were as fixed as the rotation of the Earth suddenly became negotiable – stuff like going to school, that should be a certainty in your life. And they’re being told about war, about the planet dying… there is a huge amount of anxiety now with our children that there probably wasn’t before.”

His books, aimed at 8-12-year-olds, are written for all children “but the person I want to reach is that boy who doesn’t read. That’s a huge thing to me.” Boys tend to like factual books, he says, which continues into adulthood: “Men are completely addicted to The Rest Is History, aren’t they? And all these podcasts where you just basically trot through stuff.”

The book Cottrell-Boyce considers to be most overrated is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, because it’s “a big fat lie about life”, he says. “It’s just rubbish! It’s not [Golding’s] fault; it’s a cracking read. But it’s sort of presented as a truth about human nature, and it’s completely and utterly wrong.” He cites the real-life story of six teenage boys from Tonga who were castaway on a desert island in 1965. “They looked after each other incredibly well. They made musical instruments out of bamboo; they built a gym; when one of them broke his leg, the others carried him around on a little throne. I don’t think there was a cross word.

“And I think that’s important, you know, because this idea that civilisation is a thin veneer: it’s not true. During the pandemic, some people behaved very badly but most people went shopping for each other. We were told that we were going to be in supermarkets clubbing each other to death with toilet rolls.”

In this spirit of optimism, does he think a Labour government will improve children’s lot? “It’s not a party political thing,” he insists. “Whoever gets in, there’ll be new energy. What I’m keen to point out is that this is very doable.” He says we just need to ensure that every single child has access to books. “There are people out there, from health visitors to nursery workers, who are doing this already. We just need to be doing more of it. It won’t fix everything, but it is one thing that will make a huge difference.”

New Children’s Laureate Frank Cottrell-Boyce: ‘You wouldn’t read Dahl if you valued his opinions’ (2024)

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