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Tuesday, 02 March 2021
A HENLEY children’s author has written the first in a projected five-book series for younger readers.
Robin Bennett’s Monster Max and the Bobble Hat of Forgetting was published yesterday (Thursday) by Firefly Press.
With illustrations by Tom
Tinn-Disbury, the 176-page paperback tells the story of Max, a nine-year-old boy with a most unusual superpower.
Whenever he burps, he turns into a huge dustbin-eating monster who runs around Oxford city centre bending statues into different shapes.
Robin, who lives in Queen Street, first came up with the idea for the character three years ago and was encouraged by the reaction of his own children — then aged 13, 12 and nine.
He says: “Max turns into a monster when he burps, and when he sneezes he turns back into a small grubby boy again.
“They immediately kind of went, ‘Oh, I’m interested in this story, this story has potential for me.’ And it’s lovely when you see that in children.
“Also I think you know with your own children whether they’re just being nice about it because you’re their dad, or whether it genuinely has captured their imagination. Because if they’re just being polite, they’ll never mention it again.
“They’ll make all the right noises but if they actually talk about it again, and if they ask for things — if they ask to know more about the story — then you know you’re on to a winner.”
The author of more than 20 books for all ages, Robin founded Aktuel Translations in 1992, the year he graduated from Royal Holloway University, followed by independent publishers Monster Books in 1997.
Both firms now have offices in Hart Street, but Robin’s links with Henley go back much further.
He says: “We lived just down the road in Pangbourne when I was growing up, but my grandfather lived in Damer Gardens. He was a bank manager at Barclays in Hart Street.
“I went to the Oratory Prep and my parents disappeared off to live in France, so I spent most holidays in Henley and in the big summer holidays I’d go over to France.”
A formative influence on the young Robin was his great aunt, Hilda Harding, who lived in Lower Shiplake.
She famously became Britain’s first female bank manager, having previously worked at the same Barclays branch as Robin’s grandfather.
Robin says: “She got me by the scruff of the neck when I was at the Oratory Prep and then made sure I stayed on the straight and narrow. She got me through all my exams, basically.” Now 52, Robin says his interest in writing fiction for younger readers has grown over the years.
“I’m regressing,” he laughs. “I started off writing for adults and found myself going down the age groups. Monster Max is the first time I’ve really written for what I think is the holy grail of children’s fiction — ages six to eight.
“Because when you write fantasy for adults and you get a bead on that, and you understand how that sort of works, it’s then quite easy to dial it down and write for teens and even the 10-to- 12 age group.
“But it’s a completely different type of writing for ages six to eight. And I think it’s so special because it’s the first time that you get to choose and read something on your own.”
Robin says he has greatly enjoyed working with illustrator Tinn-Disbury, though he admits that creative collaborations are not always entirely straightforward.
He says: “My editor asked me how much involvement I wanted and the only thing I sort of said was that I wanted it to feel a bit like Paddington, like that kind of scratchy style. And then I left Tom to get on with it.
“You’ve got that awful moment when you see the roughs and nothing looks like it looked in your head when you’re sitting in the spare room at home.
“But it just needs processing and now, in my head, Max is exactly how Tom has drawn him.”
Together with The Wind in the Willows, the Paddington Bear books were some of Robin’s favourites as a child.
He says: “I loved the whole Thames thing because obviously living and growing up where I did we spent our life on the river. So that was a big thing.
“Paddington I liked because it’s fantasy but it’s very gentle fantasy. There’s only one big fib in Paddington, that bears can talk, and I really like that.
“Everything else is sort of recognisable to the child reading it. And they like that as well, the children. They want most things to be recognisable. It’s not always the case, but they don’t always want everything to be completely different to the real world.”
As for Monster Max, Robin has so far outlined the plots of five books and is currently busy writing the second in the series.
He says: “I’ll have the first 25,000-word draft by the end of this month. I’m guessing I’m about 5,000 words in at the moment. So I write it reasonably quickly — I tend to write in the afternoons after I walk the dog.
“Then what I’ll do is I’ll try to leave it as long as I possibly can before looking at it again. Then I’ll give it a once over before giving it to my editor.
“She will then go through and hopefully not rip it to shreds, but there will be quite a lot of discussion about where it’s going and what to do.”
There is one time-honoured rule of children’s fiction that Robin admits he has decided to ignore this time around.
He says: “I didn’t get rid of the parents. In fact, Max’s parents are both fantastic. Max is given the space to fight his own battles with his arch-nemesis, the genius inventor, Peregrine.
“But they are supportive enough to give him the confidence that he can win the day — and they never take parenting, nor Max, too seriously.”
To read the first chapter of Monster Max and the Bobble Hat of Forgetting, visit www.firefly
22 February 2021
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