Hazel McHaffie

children’s fiction

Upstairs downstairs

Decades ago when I began to make the decision to try my hand at fiction, I had this rosy dream of writing for both adults and children – fun alongside the serious stuff; nurturing my mental health, etc etc etc. So, having published my debut medical ethics novel, I drafted my first children’s book and asked my colleague Alexander McCall Smith to give me feedback on it (that was before he was a household name, I hasten to add!).

So far so good. OK. Next find an agent. Ahhhh – what? A different one? As well as a different publisher? As well as a different marketing strategy? Hold on a wee minute.¬† Working full time in academia, already publishing non-fiction as part of my job, juggling that number of balls was beyond my pay grade. King Midas Sandy McC S could do it; but not I. It was the children’s books that had to go.

And I’ve never returned to them … with one notable exception: the annual story/play for my grandchildren (now aged from 15 to 10).

Children's stories

Sadly, my recent illness put paid to performing the 16th one at Christmas time as usual, so it was postponed … until this Saturday. Given that it’s a private family event, a complete secret to everyone else until the day, I am author, screenwriter, casting director, producer, director, wardrobe mistress, stage hand, general factotum … and master of none! But we always have a great time, and on the day, others become cameraman, music maestro, supporting cast. The youngsters enter into the spirit of this amateur production with enormous enthusiasm.

So today I’m going to give you a brief and lighthearted glimpse into the remnants of my career as a children’s author.

Three aristocratsThis year the story featured the three children of the 11th Duke and Duchess of Fountain-Linton who lead a restrictive life upstairs being taught to take their places in the upper echelons of a very formal society.The cook's granddaughter






That is, until their cook and her granddaughter introduce them to fun and laughter below stairs.



Cue lots of dressing up, activities, and games … Examining the brain

Tasting test

Chocolate making

… all concluding in a couple of hours of handcrafting de luxe chocolates – a sure fire winner! And destined to raise money for less-privileged children in Africa – yes, seriously!


Bags of chocolates for village children







And the moral of the tale? Happiness comes from kindness to and helping others, not from acquiring wealth and possessions.

Happiness is ...

The whole enterprise took place over eight hours (excluding the sale of the chocolates) and is both physically and mentally quite challenging, which all served as a tangible measure of how hugely indebted I am to a very skilled electrophysiologist, who managed to cure (through ablation) both my heart arrythmias in one fell swoop six weeks ago. I am back to my original energy levels.

Somewhere in the deep recesses of a back-burner the next Christmas story is already fermenting – only seven months to bring it to fruition this time! But for now I must return to the serious writing … missing teenagers, body image issues and locked-in fears. What was I saying about mental health? Ah yes, but we shall also be producing the 16th children’s story, Upstairs Downstairs, in book form.


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Changing spots

Some years ago when I was preparing to change careers from academic to novelist I had big ideas of writing both adult and children’s books simultaneously, one being light relief for the other. No 1 Detective AgencyI had a lovely encouraging discussion with Alexander McCall Smith (a University colleague at the time ) who had no qualms about combining the two – but then he’s a lovely encouraging man! And of course, he’s been hugely successful in both areas himself.

But sadly I do not have his Midas’ touch. Or sheer confidence and capacity. I started approaching publishers and agents … ahhhh … I changed my mind forthwith and tout suite. It wasn’t the writing of such different genres that was the problem, no, it was the sheer complexity and stress of dealing with the multitude of agencies involved in publication and marketing across the age ranges. So I chickened out and concentrated on adult fiction, reserving my children’s stories for the family.

Which is partly why JK Rowling’s transition last Thursday from acknowledged queen of children’s literature to a debut novelist in the adult world was of particular interest to me. In her former capacity she’s already a household name around the world. She has a … no, probably several, dedicated teams of publicists at her beck and call, publishers queuing for the veriest nibble at her synopses, and she’s so stupendously rich that sales figures matter not one whit to her standard of living. So how is she faring with the grown-ups so far?

The Casual VacancyWell, reviews have been mixed. Plenty of shock and outrage and dismay at the toxic mixture of cruelty, despair, pornographic descriptions, and foul language in The Casual Vacancy. But also admiration for her acute observations, her humour, her honesty, and her courage in stepping so far out from under her invisibility cloak.

I haven’t read the book, but I have seen and heard enough excerpts to have a very uncomfortable reaction. How could the soaring creative mind that conjured up The Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley and the Hippogriff and Platform nine and three quarters, also sink to such depths of murk and depravity? But of course, it’s exactly because she has such an awesome imagination that she can encompass both ends of the spectrum, conjuring up the objectionable as readily as the exceptional.

Nevertheless I confess to one¬†overwhelming concern: for today’s children. There are all sorts of avenues open to me, and adults like me, to make an informed decision about whether or not we will enter the bleak and sordid lives of the people of Pagford. (I come from the Westcountry so it might have been tempting.) But children? They’ve grown up knowing the name JK Rowling as synonymous with wholesome enjoyment. Indeed this one incredibly gifted woman has won over a generation of young people to the magic of the written word. How many of the million-plus customers who pre-ordered copies of A Casual Vacancy are innocents below the age of consent, avid followers of this unique Pied Piper? And how many when told, ‘No, you can’t read this one‘, will adopt Harry Potteresque tactics to circumvent the embargoes, convinced that the thrills will be even more spine tingling than Lord Voldemort’s exploits. I for one devoutly hope none of my own young relatives will do so. I’m not even sure I will read it myself.

In her own defence Rowling protests that there has been ample advance warning about the content of this book. She rolls her eyes at the lack of parental control which might allow the young to obtain a copy. And besides, she insists with something bordering on a flounce, she’s a writer, she must be allowed to write what she wants to write. As she told an interviewer from The New Yorker magazine, ‘There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teachers.‘ No? Maybe not deliberately, but everything about the promotion of the brand said, ‘Exciting, magical, fantastical, child-friendly-and-safe.‘ This reinvented JKR is for consenting adults only.

What’s more, she herself seems to have changed. This week’s publication interviews (click here for one of them) showed her not only as rich and glamorous but also as rather more assertive, aggressive, acerbic even, than hitherto – in her language, her demeanour, her reactions. Is this the real JKR? Or was the previous image more true to her inner self? I personally preferred the gentler, shyer Jo.

But whatever the public reaction to her new persona, wherever her muse takes her, I hope nothing eclipses the pre-2012 image. They say an author is only as good as her latest book, but in Rowling’s case I personally don’t think anything should be allowed to detract from her unparalleled position as the genius who captured the devotion of a generation of children, and took the magic of storytelling to new heights.


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Fantasy and fun

One of the things about being freelance is there’s nobody to give you official permission to take a holiday. But I’ve granted myself time out to celebrate this week.

Dominating the Christmas period for me was, of course, the grandchildren’s story. It duly went ahead on 27th and parts of our house became a magical emporium run by a delightfully benevolent professor …TThe Professor in his emporiumHis apprentices got into some amusing scrapes learning the trade …measuring customers in every directionbut eventually earned the opportunity to enter the sacred portals of the professor’s laboratory where they turned into serious scientists …Youngscientists observing the regulationsThe lab came complete with bottled voices and jars of virtues and abilities …bottled voices and virtues potions and lotionswhich they titrated into their own amazing prototypes …the prototypeBack in the emporium a shy but cuddly orangutan featured …

Ola the orangutanand a raucous toucan …Torquil the talking toucanA game of charades brought out imaginative traits and not even a spectral visitor could scare the professor out of his perpetual bonhomie …The spectre of deathInnocent fun.

It’s all over far too soon but there’s no time to pine. First, the prospect of a run of regular visitors is driving me to restore an orderly establishment. Then the provisional script of Professor Devine’s Emporium must be converted into a limited edition book (5 copies), which by tradition has to be finished by 12 January (the first family birthday of the year). Would that all publishers were as efficient and committed, eh?


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