Born in Wellington, Shropshire, Catherine Cooper was a primary school teacher for 29 years before retiring and deciding she'd love to write for children. In 2010 Catherine won the Brit Writers' Award for her children's book The Golden Acorn. The award had attracted 21,000 entries across its 8 categories and offered the largest prize ever for unpublished writers, £10,000. Catherine kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in September 2010.
You were a primary school teacher for 29 years. Do you feel that this has given you a better understanding of what makes children tick and what exactly it is they are looking for in a story/book?
From my experience children love humour, a bit of magic and a good adventure. I tried to cater for everyone's tastes in my book… all the locations are real and there's lots of history in the book too. For those who love words, all the 'words of power' are either Latin or Welsh. There are also a lot of hidden Shropshire myths and legends incorporated into the book.
You have self-published your books in the past. Is this set to change after winning the award? Are you now attached to a publisher?
Yes, Infinite Ideas, the publishers, signed me for a one-book deal until they realized I had more books in the series, they've now signed me for the whole Jack Brenin series.
The Golden Acorn has a beautiful cover, with a hand-drawn feel and vibrant colours that really make it stand out. Is this your own work?
The cover was designed at the publishers but all the illustrations inside are my own and my husband draws the maps I'm using for the series.
Nutty Nora's house is a wonderful creation. Some of the most popular fantasy books have a special place of comfort, safety and security which its characters can return to after experiencing many adventures and times of great danger. Bilbo and Frodo had Bag-end, Harry and his friends had Hogwarts. Do you think it's important to have a familiar and safe location within a children's book, somewhere the reader would love to himself or herself live?
I think familiarity and safety are two very important factors but I also think quirkiness has an added attraction, something which makes the place unique. Nora's house is a combination of various places I've visited over the years and yes… I'd love to live there myself, especially if there was a resident grumpy, greedy raven living in the loft!
My favourite - and I'm sure many other readers – character was the grumpy, mischievous and food loving raven Camelin. Was writing him a great deal of fun?
So far, Camelin is the favourite character of everyone who's read the book. Writing about Camelin really was fun… he's actually based on someone I know! I've made a life sized papier mache model of him, which I take into schools, he's got quite a fan club locally.
The Romans take the role of the bad guys in The Golden Acorn. Are the crimes committed in the book based on genuine events in history?
The historical parts in the book were researched and yes, the Romans did try and slaughter all the Druids and they did burn the sacred groves. The Druids weren't just priests, they had their own centres of learning and were the keystone of Celtic society. The Romans realized if they could dispense with the Druids they could break the whole of the Celtic world. Druids wielded a lot of power, which is why they were not popular with Rome.
Do you feel that a book of this type, featuring lore, legend, mythology and history, is a perfect opportunity to both entertain and educate children?
Hopefully. The book can be read on two levels… for pure enjoyment or, for those who like finding out more, all the locations are real and the historical parts happened. I don't think I can divorce myself from being an educationalist; it's a part of who I am so it comes out in my writing.
What major differences has winning the Brit Writers' Award made to your life as an author?
It's reduced my writing time down quite considerably! I'm busy now with all kinds of events and book signings. I've been doing school visits now for a year but I've got more schools trying to book dates with me.
If a child has just finished reading The Golden Acorn and would like to read another book with the same spirit (while waiting for the second book in the series), what other children's fantasy book would you recommend?
Well… book two, Glasruhen Gate, is already out! It's going to be re-packaged by Infinite Ideas so there's only a limited amount of my edition left. However, one of my favourite authors is Eoin Colfer, not quite in the same vein but full of adventure and quirky characters. I love all Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell books too.
How many books are planned in The Adventures of Jack Brenin series and what does the remainder of 2010 hold for Catherine Cooper?
At the moment I've got four books planned. The Golden Acorn and Glasruhen Gate are already finished. The Dwindling Door is ready for it's final edit and Book 4 is half written in rough. For the rest of 2010 I'm trying to finished book 2 of my Hawke & Co series, which will be entitled The Pirate Ship. This is a three book series, I've already self-published book one “The New Neighbours'. I've also got another book I need to finish editing, Ariadne at Hanging Gate Hall. There's a website if anyone wants to find out more about what's happening to me or to send in their comments about the books at www.pengridion.co.uk.
Jack Brenin's life changes the moment he finds a golden acorn lying in the grass. He gets caught up in an extraordinary magical adventure and enters a world he believed only existed in legend. He's sure he has been mistaken for someone else. He's neither brave nor strong so how could he possible be 'The One' an ancient prophecy speaks about? He has no idea why he's expected to help and is unsure if he wants to, or even if he can.
"The Golden Acorn by Catherine Cooper was recipient of the Brit Writers' Award Unpublished 2010, an award that attracted 21,000 entries across its 8 categories and offered the largest prize ever for unpublished writers, £10,000. After reading it, we here at Fantasy Book Review found it to be a charming and magical book that fully deserves the accolades that it is currently receiving."