Read Create Play Chat... with Lauren Ace!
Lauren Ace is writer, editor and publisher. Her books include the much celebrated picture book, The Girls, illustrated by Jenny Lovlie and its wonderful sequel, The Boys, that was published this month.
We have enjoyed diving into the pages of both books, pouring over the timeless messages and intricate details hidden in the illustrations.
In both of your charming stories, you create beautifully diverse characters and I love the way that each has their own interests and skills that are celebrated by the rest of the group.
You have spoken before about having had friends that inspired your creation of The Girls. Were there also friends or a particular group that inspired the creation of Rey, Nattie, Bobby and Tam?
Much like the characters in The Girls, The Boys are really each a tapestry of several different boys or men in my life. I’ve borrowed traits and characteristics from different people in order to help as many other boys and men as possible find something to relate to in at least one of the characters.
As a group, I was inspired by a few different groups of friends too. When we were promoting The Girls, Jenny and I had a few people comment on the fact that “you couldn’t write a book like this about boys, because boys don’t have these kind of deep friendships.” I absolutely have not found that to be the case. My brother has a group of friends which is very similar to mine. Some of them went to school together and they have collected others over the years. They might not express their love for each other as explicitly and freely as I do with my friends, but it’s no less evident. At my brother’s wedding a couple of years ago one of his best friends was overcome with emotion and shed a few tears. When I asked him if he was ok he said “no offence, but it’s not about the marriage, it’s just that all the boys are together and that doesn’t happen very often now.” There is also a group of male friends who I was in school with who are still as close as I am with my school friends. I meet up with one of them a few times a year and he always catches me up on what is happening with all the boys and I do the same for him with the girls.
The Boys is so beautifully relevant for today’s world. There is a lot of talk in the media about what it is to be a boy or be a man as well as expectations for both boys and their parents. Did you have a particular message that was at the forefront of your mind when writing The Boys or do you have a wish for children reading the book?
Whereas in The Girls it was really important to me to show that girls can be and do anything they like in the wider world, I don’t feel that this is a message which has been traditionally overlooked in the lives of boys. Where boys and men tend to be truly lacking in encouragement is in their internal and domestic lives. I wanted to show boys that they can be strong, smart and determined, but they can also be kind, gentle and nurturing. Consequently, I chose not to show what the boys grew up to do in their careers, but instead to focus on the role they played within their families and friendship groups. (I’m not saying there are not jobs which aren’t traditionally considered to be male roles, but you can’t cover everything in a 32 page picture book!) Something as simple as Bobby putting a wash on is just not something we see men doing.
I don’t believe that girls and boys are innately that different when it comes to how they approach relationships, I really do think it’s about social expectations and conditioning. When we were out and about promoting The Girls we would occasionally meet adults (only ever adults) who expressed a view that you couldn’t write a book like this about a group of boys because boys don’t have the same closeness and emotional connection as boys. Jenny and I absolutely don’t take that view, we are both surrounded by men and boys in our personal lives and in the media which counter that idea.
As The Girls has done for girls and women, I really hope The Boys will enable all little boys to see an element of themselves represented and reject toxic masculinity, and I hope it will make men reflect on the importance of their own friendships.
Both The Girls and The Boys have locations that take on a fifth character role. The apple tree with it’s ageing, growth and resilience; and the sea with it’s enticing playfulness but tempestuous stormy countenance. We see the children return to these special places for comfort throughout their lives. This makes me think of the phrase ‘home is where the heart is’. You grew up in Swansea, studied in Exeter and worked in London – where is home for you?
I really agree that ‘home is where the heart is’ and I certainly feel like my connection to places is tied up in the relationships I found there. I think home-home will always be Swansea. I spent my formative years there, collected many of ‘the girls who inspired The Girls’ and a lot of my family still live there. There is a Welsh expression, hiraeth, which basically means a longing and a nostalgia for a place and a time. This is certainly something I will always feel for my hometown and my time growing up there. I moved to London somewhat reluctantly because it seemed to be the only way to get into publishing, but having spent thirteen years there and again, having collected so many friends during my time there, I definitely feel like a part of me will forever be a Londoner.
I’m in the process of trying to buy my first home in Bristol and I’m excited to put down roots and become part of a new community.
Can you tell us about the environment where you do your creative work? Are you a calm and clean lines kind of girl or do you like a cosy book nook?
I am INCREDIBLY messy, so I certainly don’t have a neat place where I sit down to work serenely. I think probably because I sit at a desk day-in-day-out for my day job, I prefer to sit somewhere different when I do my creative work. I also always write early drafts of picture books in an actual notebook. I only type them up on a computer when I am ready to share them with someone else. This gives me the freedom to write anywhere and my preference is to be outside in nature! I wrote a draft of The Girls sitting under a tree on Hampstead Heath and I started writing The Boys on a cliff top overlooking the sea in India.
What children’s books – from your own childhood or more recent times – inspire your writing?
When I was very young, my favourite books were always about ordinary children. I was particularly fond of The Baby’s Catalogue and Peepo by Janet & Alan Ahlberg, and a book called Maisie Middleton which is now out of print and no one else seems to have heard of! When I became a confident independent reader I absolutely devoured The Famous Five books. I completely related to George’s plight to be treated the way the boys were and her belief that she could do anything they could. Of course looking at these books as an adult I now find them incredibly problematic for a multitude of reasons, but I do think they inadvertently set me on a feminist path at an early age and certainly fed into me wanting to depict girls who could bust gender stereotypes. I also adored a book called The Girls Gang by Rose Impey, which was about a group of ordinary girls who had a very authentic friendship. They all had different characters and interests, meaning they could often clash, but ultimately they stayed true to their gang’s motto, “Girls oughta stick together.” Princess Smartypants was another feminist icon I have admired since I was quite young!
The Girls has received so much love and I have no doubt that The Boys will continue to do so too. They feel like modern classics that will be treasured and gifted to children for many years. Do you have plans or ideas to write more?
That is incredibly kind. I have my own favourite books from childhood which I love gifting to new babies and children, so the idea that my books might one day be the books that are passed down the generations is a real thrill.
I definitely plan to write more, but unfortunately I am proving to be incredibly slow about it – I blame having a full-time job + a global pandemic for holding me up. I have a picture book text which looks at sibling relationships that is very nearly there, but I am also keen to have a go at writing something a little longer for an older core audience. I have an idea which has been bouncing about in my head for about 18 months but I haven’t got very far with it…yet!
Many moons ago, we studied Drama together in Exeter; I always think of you when Alice is performing in The Girls. Do your theatre or performance skills influence the work you do today as a writer/editor/publisher?
Definitely! Above all else all those things are about characters, storytelling, communicating ideas and using story to move, inspire and inform. I really believe that as a writer everything you’ve experienced feeds into your first book. When I was little I wanted to be a world-famous actress (it was always ‘world-famous’, never simply an actress!), a musician, or an author and I think that was really just a way of saying that I wanted to make stories and share them with people, which is of course exactly what we spent three years doing at Exeter!
And finally, as we are celebrating the theme of Friendship and Empathy with your beautiful new publication this month, what are you most looking forward to doing with your friends when it’s safe to meet up?
I am so looking forward to cooking for my friends. I really enjoy cooking as an act in itself, I find it very relaxing and therapeutic, but even more than that I love to feed people. So I can’t wait until I can get all my favourite people crowded around a table, knees and elbows touching, eating from the same dish – it seems such an alien concept right now!
I also can’t wait to be able to travel abroad again because I have a few close friends who live in other countries and I am desperate to be able to visit them.
Thank you to Lauren for sharing her time and answers with us. It's always so fascinating to find out about the voice behind a story and the influences that go into the creation.
To order a copy of The Boys complete with activities in our April Box, check out the past boxes in the shop.