Author interview: Matt Dickinson, Popcorn-Eating Squirrels

Award-winning writer and adventurer Matt Dickinson has been to the top of the highest volcano in the world, he's survived a beaver attack in Alaska and, as anyone who has read his Everest Files books would guess, he's climbed the world's tallest peak but, as a father, what's the best adventure he's been on with his five children? What devices does he use in his writing to try and hold the attention of young readers who are surrounded by so many other distractions? Which children's books has he enjoyed reading? We catch up with him ahead of the release of his new children's book, Popcorn-Eating Squirrels of the World Unite!

Your Mortal Chaos and Everest Files series have been big hits with older children and teenagers around the world, what inspired you to write a book for younger readers? 

Well, first I would say that I am now (and always have been) basically a big kid! But seriously. One of the nicest things about being a parent (I have five children) is that moment when they really get into reading. With my own kids they have switched onto it at different ages but I’ve always felt the six to ten years old phase of being a reader is particularly exciting and the Popcorn-Eating Squirrels series is written with that in mind.

Why is this age band an exciting one to write for? Well a combination of factors. Firstly, it’s a time when the imagination is firing up in all sorts of amazing ways. Secondly, kids this age really do have a crazy sense of humour. Thirdly, they are just starting to read independently and to engage with larger-scale stories. So Squirrels has been a chance to write with the ‘brakes off’. Let the slightly nuts side of my imagination go wild and have some real fun with the characters. I’m loving it and am intending to write more Squirrels books very soon.

How is the process different to writing for a young-adult audience? 

A young-adult audience is a very sophisticated readership. But it's also one that has a lot of distractions. Social media, gaming, Netflix are all competing for their attention and as a writer you are up against all of that. I have always sought to bring a ‘real world’ feel to my young-adult books which has come from my own experiences (for example on Everest with The Everest Files) and I think that is a key part of the process. It’s quite controlled, and based on real life.

When you write for younger readers the process is really different. With Popcorn-Eating Squirrels I most certainly haven’t based it on a ‘real world’ experience, it’s a pure flight of the imagination with no limits on craziness and bonkers stuff. A popcorn machine that magically turns squirrels into zombies? Bring it on! A team of honey badgers who set up a vermin control company? Why not?  So the process of writing for younger readers has more opportunities for fun. Plus they have far fewer distractions so once they get into a book they can really focus on it.

What was it like working with the book's illustrator, Calloway?

Working with Calloway Berkeley O’Reilly has been a great pleasure. It’s my first time to work with an illustrator and I think that our partnership will go from strength to strength. He’s a very young guy and this is his first book so it’s also a thrill to think that this is where his illustrator career starts! The most interesting thing has been to see how HIS imagination has given the pictures a special quality. I love it!

Can you give us five top things to love about squirrels? 

1. They are real survivors
2. They're sociable creatures that can adapt
3. They can solve problems to get food
4. They have feet which can swivel through 180 degrees
5. They plan ahead – e.g. storing food for winter ... that is really smart

For anyone who hasn't read one of your books before, how would you describe your style of writing?

I think of myself as a storyteller first and foremost. I like to write in a style that is direct, in which the characters themselves dictate the action through their decisions.

I am definitely in the ‘less is more’ mindset. I cut my own work down rigorously before I send it to anyone. Some of my chapters have fewer than fifty words! My stories do move along fast, for that reason!

As a father of five, what’s the best adventure you’ve been on with your children?

Gosh there have been so many! But I think the all time epic was flying on a float plane into the wilds of Alaska and being dumped at a cabin. On that journey we saw Grizzly bears fishing for salmon and otters playing just a few metres away. Raw nature. Awesome!

Can you recommend other children’s books that you like to read?

I love the books of Philip Reeve and Sarah Macintyre, they are absolutely brilliant. And The 13-Storey Treehouse series is also superbly funny. As a one off book Wed Wabbit is also really worth a read.

What’s next on your adventure and writing agenda? 

So far as writing is concerned it's full-on with the Popcorn-Eating Squirrels now. I want to build it into a series that kids will really enjoy. When it come to my own personal adventures I think I might be going back to Everest next year … watch this space!!

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