Steve Augarde was born in Birmingham, but spent most of his life in the West Country, working as an illustrator, paper-engineer, and semi-pro jazz musician. He has written and illustrated over 80 picture-books for younger children, and has produced the paper-engineering for many pop-up books, including those by other artists - as well as providing the artwork and music for two animated BBC television series. His first book for older children, The Various, won a Silver Smarties Award in 2003. Steve kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in October 2009, shortly after the release of X isle, a dystopian fantasy for young adults.
Do any of the children on X isle bear any resemblance to the young Steve Augarde?
I’ve never consciously tried to portray myself, but certain characteristics are bound to come through, I suppose. Gene’s interest in mechanics mirrors my own – as does Robbie’s instinct for avoiding trouble. But no, they’re not me.
The language that was used in X isle was arguably not a strong as it might have been in real life. This was obviously due to its being a book for older children and young adults, and this explains the use of the word ‘chuffin’ instead of the more commonly uttered profanities. Do you feel that X isle may have lost any potency because of this?
It’s very difficult to reflect modern speech and idiom without including a few cuss words. The language in X Isle was originally a lot stronger, particularly with the adult characters, but my editors felt that there would be objections from parents and teachers. I agreed, and we toned it down a notch or two. The situation was helped by the fact that Preacher John himself forbids bad language, and so the boys in the story have to learn to avoid it. Handy, that...
X isle deals with religious fanaticism, and the fear that it can induce. Was this an area in which you had to be especially careful?
Very much so. The combined elements of ‘religious fanaticism’ and ‘bomb manufacturing’ may well ring a few alarm bells, and any writer bringing such ingredients into a children’s book had better tread warily. But I’d like to go on early record as saying that X Isle is in no way a condemnation of religious belief, nor is it a handbook for would-be bombers! I’m a parent myself, and a qualified teacher. There’s no way I’d put something out onto the market that could be considered irresponsible or offensive. On the contrary, I think that X Isle has a deep sense of morality at its core, and opens up some interesting discussion points.
You are currently working on a new novel – is it a sequel to X isle?
No. A couple of reviewers have already wondered whether the ending of X Isle hints at a sequel. It’s a possibility I suppose, but I have no definite plans to revisit. My new book is an adventure story set in South Africa during the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of WW2.
As well as being an author and illustrator, you are also a paper engineer. Can you tell us more about what this intriguing sounding job involves?
Designing mechanisms for pop-up books is both art and science, I feel. What’s hidden between the pages can be just as beautiful as what appears on the surface. The possibilities are limitless, but of course cost is the prohibiting factor. Any paper-engineer worthy of the name can make wonderful things happen with bits of folded card - the trick is to do it within a stringently tight budget. Pop-up books are individually assembled by hand, every fold, every glue point, every scrap of card costing money, and so commercial viability depends upon being able to produce mechanisms that are both cheap and effective. An efficient and minimalist approach is necessary - as with any form of engineering - and it's this challenge that I find most satisfying; maximum effect at minimum cost.
The Various was an award winner in The Nestle Smarties Book Prize 2003. Both Celandine and Winter Wood have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Do you feel that awards and nominations are the final seal of approval on an authors work?
Well they certainly won’t do you any harm. But the awarding of prizes by a panel of judges is inevitably a bit of a lottery, and there are endless arguments after the event as to whether the right books have been recognised and honoured. If you win you shouldn’t believe that you’re necessarily a better writer than the next guy in line, and if you lose you shouldn’t feel that you’re inferior.
You have been a children’s author for over thirty years. Are you concerned that children today are reading less and less?
Yes, but not to the point of despair. There are certainly many other distractions competing for children’s time and attention, and I do worry as to the value of some of them. But the book hasn’t been replaced, and I don’t think it ever can be. There’s still no substitute in terms of depth of entertainment – nothing even comes close. Readers know why they read.
Are there any fantasy books from your own childhood that you still hold dear?
I was never really a fantasy fan! Seems heretical to say it, when I’m regarded nowadays as being a fantasy author. To be honest, I don’t remember there being that many fantasy novels around when I was a boy. It was all Malcolm Saville and Arthur Ransome – stories about posh kids with ponies and boats. That and Greyfriars annuals. Crikey! Yaroo! I did love Marvel comics, however, when I could get ‘em. And Dan Dare from the Eagle. Readers might be interested in a piece on comics that I wrote for my blog.
What does the remainder of 2009 hold for Steve Augarde?
Head down, tail up, and on with the next miracle.
Ever since the floods came and washed the world away, survivors have been desperate to win a place on X Isle, the island where life is rumoured to be easier than on what's left of the mainland. Only young boys are in with a chance, the smaller and lighter the better. Baz and Ray are two of the lucky few to be chosen, but they soon discover that X-Isle is a far cry from paradise. Ruled by Preacher John, a dangerous religious fanatic, it's a violent, unpredictable place where terrible things can happen at any moment. The boys hatch an extraordinary plan in order to protect themselves - the construction of a mighty weapon of defence. But can they complete this weapon in time, and are they really prepared to use it in order to secure their freedom?
"X-isle is a captivating and well written book of rare depth. Highly recommended for young adults, both male and female." Floresiensis, Fantasy Book Review