Mary Hoffman is the best-selling author of picture book Amazing Grace, which is currently celebrating its 25th Anniversary, as well as its six picture-book and chapter-book sequels and other acclaimed picture books such as The Colour of Home, An Angel Just Like Me and The Great Big Book Of… series. She has also garnered awards and a fiercely loyal readership for her YA historical and fantasy fiction, including David, which gives a persona to the unknown model for Michelangelo’s sculpture, and the highly popular Stravaganza series. In 2003 she co-edited Lines in the Sand with her daughter, author Rhiannon Lassiter as a fund-raiser for UNICEF: a an anthology of new writing and drawings about war and peace, Lines of Sand was created in response to the Iraq war and makes as powerful reading as ever today.
Mary’s first book White Magic was published in 1975 and she worked in education and the media before becoming a full-time writer in the mid-1990s. The Library Association in the UK (now CILIP) made her an Honorary Fellow in 1998 for her work with children and schools, and she has been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Mary has three grown-up daughters. After living in North London for many years, she moved to West Oxfordshire with her husband and three cats in 2001.
I am delighted to welcome Mary to MWD as part of her anniversary celebrations of Amazing Grace, which include a new edition of the book. It was first published in 1991, at a time when there was a notable lack of diversity in children’s books; and it was received with open arms. Since then, it has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Barbara Bush chose it as one of her favourite children’s books; it has been turned into a stage play in the US; and it was included in last year’s ‘Diverse Voices: The 50 Best Culturally Diverse Children’s Books’.
- Welcome, Mary,and many congratulations on this exciting anniversary. Can you believe that Amazing Grace is celebrating 25 years? You say in your introduction to the new edition that you had no idea just how ‘momentous’ the story would be. What makes the story resonate with young children and what is its enduring quality, do you think?
I think it’s a very simple but empowering message that tells children they can do and be what they want. And it’s about the power of stories!
- The story opens with the words, ‘Grace was a girl who loved stories’ – it’s a simple statement that I think many children immediately feel drawn to. What are some of the highlights for you of Amazing Grace‘s journey – in terms of both the book itself and Grace, its protagonist?
Well, I was a ‘girl who loved stories’ and I still am. (Though with three grandchildren I can no longer claim to be a girl). The turning point in the book is for Grace to see a black woman doing something usually associated with white people. That and the support of her Ma and Nana. The book has been a play, a stills video, an opera and is now under option for a TV series. It also got me a kiss and cuddle with LeVar Burton, who then kindly wrote an Afterword to the anniversary edition. That’s quite a journey!
- Although you were an established author when Amazing Grace was first published in 1991, you have indicated that ‘it is fair to say that it was Grace who changed my life’ – can you tell us in what way?
It was the success of the book in the US, where it appeared in the New York Times’ Bestseller list. It has run to over 50 hardback editions in 25 years. That’s immense exposure. I had had books published in America before, but with nothing like this success.
- I find it fascinating that before you wrote Grace & Family, the sequel to Amazing Grace (published as Boundless Grace in the US), you went to The Gambia with Caroline Binch to visit the family Caroline had used as models for Grace, her mother and her grandmother. (They had recently relocated there from London.) You described your trip in an article for Books for Keeps, and how you had to ensure that your story did not become a travelogue. In what way, though, did your trip influence your writing?
It was my first trip to Africa, which was mind-blowing in itself. And I met the models for Grace, Ma and Nana for the first time. I swam in the Atlantic Ocean with them, danced with a witch doctor and stroked a huge crocodile. I couldn’t have written that book without going there.
- Since then, you have written another two picture books about Grace, Princess Grace and Grace at Christmas, and three chapter books, Starring Grace, Encore Grace! and Bravo, Grace! Whilst the essence of the narratives remains distinctly Grace’s own, her stories reflect the realities of many children’s experiences and what they see in the lives of people around them. Can you share with us some of your young readers’ responses to Grace’s stories?
Not in detail about the storybooks. I have a massive archive of letters and emails about Grace stored in my garage and it would take ages to unearth them, as I have written many books since (And the Stravaganza series generated even more!). But I can tell you that reading the story about Mrs Myerson in Starring Grace has made adult audiences of teachers and librarians weep.
- Amazing Grace has also been adapted into a one-act play by Shay Youngblood. I believe you were at its première in Minneapolis. What was it like to see Grace come alive on stage? And have you seen any other productions?
It was one of the highlights of my writing life, second only to my first acceptance letter! At the Reception before the première, a band played the hymn Amazing Grace and, in the theatre, the company director made me stand up and take a bow. It was a very special evening. And it was miraculous how Shay turned a 32-page picture book into an hour-and-a-half musical play. The child actors were wonderful and well supported by the adult actors.
- The Grace books have been illustrated by different illustrators: Caroline Binch, husband-and-wife team Cornelius van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, and June Allan. Has this had any effect on your own perception of Grace? What, for you, has each artist brought to the stories?
Grace is a character in my head so she is not the girl who modelled for her in any of the books. But in my mind she looks like Caroline’s visualisation of her. I think Cornelius and Ying-Hwa did a great job of carrying her forward.
- You have written the hugely popular Great Big Book Of… non-fiction series with Ros Asquith: The Great Big Book of Families and its offshoot Welcome to the Family encompass the diversity inherent in families in today’s Britain; and along with The Great Big Book of Feelings and The Great Big Green Book, they empower children to observe and explore the world around them and their place in it. What for you is special about this series?
That’s easy: collaborating with Ros Asquith. When I had the idea for the first one, The Great Big Book of Families, I told my editor at Frances Lincoln that I wanted Ros to illustrate it so much that if she didn’t want to do it, I might not write the book! Luckily for me, she did want to and we have been working together on books ever since. We have finished The Great Big Body Book and the next one will be The Great Big Book of Friends.
- In 2003, as a response to the conflict in Iraq, you and your daughter Rhiannon Lassiter brought together a wealth of writers and illustrators in your anthology Lines in the Sand, published in aid of UNICEF. It’s a very powerful collection of prose, poetry, memoir and drawings: hard-hitting, at times almost unpalatable, but always compelling. It takes readers to the heart of what it means for civilians to be caught up in conflict and for me, until the final section that focuses on peace and hope, it resounded with an unremitting, unanswerable ‘Why?’ Now in 2015 there is another humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Middle East, as thousands upon thousands of refugees have been forced to flee their homes. Thinking back to 2003, what is different now, do you think, if anything, and how do you as a writer respond?
This is so hard. I was in despair at the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and I am in even worse despair now. Everything I feared has come to pass and worse. I don’t think my response as a writer is any different from my response as a human being either time. But I am not proposing another anthology. I think one can only send money for refugees and keep putting pressure on politicians to negotiate for peace.
- Looking back over the last 25 years, what changes have you seen as regards diversity in children’s publishing, and what are your hopes for the future?
Not as many as I would have hoped. Frances Lincoln are a beacon among publishers and the new imprint Otter-Barry Books started by my editor, Janetta Otter-Barry will be another. The work of Letterbox Library has been outstanding. And it surely must have helped to have had a black Children’s Laureate in Malorie Blackman.
- What are you working on at the moment? Do you have plans to write any more stories about Grace, and can I ask the question that all your Stravaganza fans really want to know: is there another novel in the pipeline?
Many, many things! As today is Sunday and we’ve had a big family party here this weekend, I have only just got on to work emails. Tomorrow I shall be preparing for the event that Caroline Binch and I are doing on Saturday 3rd October at the Cheltenham Festival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Amazing Grace. Then I shall return to working on a story based on my teenage novel David, that is going to be turned into an app – a first for me.
No, there will be no more Grace books – or Stravaganzas, even though I worked out the plots for six more.
My next YA novel will be Shakespeare’s Ghost, to be published by the Greystones Press next April. And if you haven’t heard of them, that’s because it is a new publishing company being set up by my husband and me.
Oh and I’m writing a picture book for two of my grandchildren, called Pirate Baby.
- Thank you, Mary: I’ve enjoyed ‘talking’ with you – and it’s exciting to hear about Greystones Press. I look forward to reading more about that. Just a few more questions in the MWD spotlight before you go…
The first book you remember reading as a mirror of you and/or your cultural background?
I didn’t think like that because I adopted the culture of whatever I was reading. I am like blotting paper, if anyone still knows what that is. I remember being a guard in the city of Minas Tirith when I was reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
Reading preference – paper or e-book?
Both. I recently went on holiday with five paper books and four on the Kindle. And read them all.
The last book you read that opened the window onto a new-to-you cultural landscape?
My kindle books were the Neapolitan Quartet of Elena Ferrante, charting the lives of two women who grew up together in a poor district of Naples last century. I know Tuscany reasonably well but have been to Naples only once so it was a real window into that world. [Read Mary’s recent post about these books here.]
On holiday, lie on a beach or hike up a mountain (you may include any conditions necessary to your choice!)?
Earlier this month I spent nine days on a sun-lounger on a beach in Italy, so you have your answer!
Initial ideas – notebook or computer?
Notes in a notebook but all actual writing on the laptop.
Most personally precious object on or within 1 metre of your desk?
Given that my three Burmese cats are not objects (and that I don’t work at a desk) it must be all the rams in my study. I’m an Aries and I have a metal ram’s head over the door, ram bookends, pictures etc. And a gold ram’s head ring on my right hand.
Something you have done or want to do because of reading a book?
I remember feeling I was becoming a whale while reading Moby Dick, but it’s not a realistic ambition!
Something about yourself that might surprise even your friends?
I have really bad vertigo and can’t step on to a steep escalator on the London underground unless there is someone in front of me.
A peep at what today’s work entails?
Checking proofs of The Great Big Body Book, checking the PowerPoint presentation for Cheltenham. Troubleshooting problems on my joint blog, The History Girls. Answering these questions! Otherwise see above.
Thanks for having me.