Kids need surprises. Not always scary ones, like shouting at them from a dark hallway, although that has its place. I'm talking about the unexpected, something they never thought of – sort of like a WOW moment!
I've told kids stories for yonks, and many seem to remember them years later. Recently, a pair of eight-year-old twin girls reminded me of when I was telling them a bedtime story and became so involved in the action I fell off the bed and injured myself. Crash. It had happened years before, yet they had remembered...and even better, they remembered the story.
When two kids I met for the first time asked what I told stories about, I said, “Anything, really.” Bad move, when talking to kids to ever use absolutes. They will instantly want you to prove it.
"Me?" said the boy, whose name was Tom. "Can you tell a story about me?"
That's the trouble with kids – they can't be fooled.
"Well, yes, of course. But not just Tom. We need more than that."
The kids looked and waited. Eyes rolled. Yawns. I had to sip my gin and tonic to give me time. Now I'm on the spot. Saying how good my stories are, rah, rah... and then bang. Tom! What an ordinary name... now how do I make that interesting?
A new surname, quick. Can't be Smith, or Battenberg, or Key, or Wallace or Steele. A name. Tom who? Kids like names which are different, even better if their parents can't remember them, and best of all, just a little bit rude.
Thomas Erkel Erkel Farht-Ball Hassler seemed to do it. Don't know why it came, but it did. Perhaps a temporary mess up in my brain nerve links? The name was long enough to be hard to remember, if you're a father or mother. Yep. That'll do it. Gives the kids an edge and makes them look smarter – like showing parents how to navigate on the Internet or You Tube.
When I announced the name it seemed to be accepted. There was less eye-rolling and even a faint nod and a twinkle of a smile.
"But what does he do? I mean he doesn't sound ordinary. Is he? Like us?" The real Tom was getting anxious. If the new Tom was named after him, then he wanted him to be really different. A hero maybe. Yeah, different... but still a bit like him. You know.
"Well, ah, he's not a real boy, that is... not like you."
"Not like me," the real Tom squeaked. "I thought this was a story about me."
Now I'm trapped. "Well, ah, He can fly." I felt better. Giving the new Tom a real difference. After all, every kid would love to fly, if they could.
"Aargh no he can't! People can't fly!" Real Tom was getting bored. "And anyway, what's so special about flying – so can moths and bats."
Hmm. I need to stay ahead here. I know! Ecology is the rage, and rightly so. Add that in fast. "He's a Seaperson and can talk with seabirds and seals and the like. And he has to rescue things and fight terrible enemies. He doesn't have much time for TV or computer games. He's like a computer game himself."
That stumped the real Tom. So the new Tom is different then. Flying and talking with seagulls, yes, though what those birds might have to say could be a bit boring. A real live computer game. Hmm.
I could see him looking thoughtful. I quickly said, "And Orcas too. He can talk with them." Now I had him!
"Well, maybe. That might be a good story. When will you write it?"
I was stuck. At that stage I'd never written down any of my stories, but here I was with a deadline, a name and a flying boy who talked to sea creatures. Well. There's plenty there. Start him at home, like the real Tom ... then break out into terrifying battles and really horrible baddies. And don't forget to do some good for the environment at the same time. While there's no rule that says you have to have the good bit, it adds an extra dimension. Hey presto – I was on my way.
Of course, as the new Tom wandered onto the first page, it was all over. He was who he was and I had less and less control. After all, he had a job to do and would not be stopped. Tom Hassler, as he became known, took over and my role became nothing more than a glorified secretary, recording what happened. All the twists and turns, the learning and the struggles. Forget worrying about mathematics, or school, or stuff like that. Tom had to defeat Hortense, head of the rats. And stay alive. How bad was she? Yum, yum lovely tender children baked in a pie. I could never make up anyone so horrible. Tom told me about her.
Of course he had a grandmother. We all do. But because Tom was so different, she couldn't be ordinary. And besides, there was no time for knitting socks in front of the TV or making marmalade for this granny. There was too much to do and young Tom to train. So that was it. I was trapped.
Tom took over. "Come on," he would call as I rubbed my eyes in the morning. "There's work to do." He raced from one adventure to another, beginning with the Rats of Droolmoan Cave. Then one day my life was further disrupted by the Giant Razor-Clawed Granioptrix, the terrible Ghastmangle, killer Ice bats and Lydia, bow-fighter extraordinaire. Then saving the whales from the whale hunters, Xakarax, the huge undersea creature and the colossal squid. Castle Hassler, the Seapeople base, the giant sea eagles teaching Tom to fly attack-style and the Meno Sub...
He can't stop. He's met Donovan Bixley, the artist who drew his picture on the book covers. Donovan and I live in the same town. As you see in his amazing pictures, Tom feels so free when he's flying. But don't try it, whatever you do – you have to be a genuine seaperson. But enjoy the stories. There are more to come.