Veronica Cossanteli

From Water Babies to The Wimpy Kid
The evolution of children’s books and the perils of adaptation: writing with ghosts at your shoulder

Veronica Cossanteli report:  8th March 2022 by Sarah Noon

Veronica is talking to us this evening about the evolution of children’s books and the joy and the pitfalls of adaptations. 

Veronica began writing in her teens “… as a distraction from homesickness.” when she was in boarding school.  She grew up with classics, with lots of Victorian classics on her shelf at home. She was in her forties when she “…finally got her act together,” and enrolled at writing school, joining SCWBI at the same time. SCWBI accepted one of Veronica’s manuscripts for their “Undiscovered Voices” anthology. She later met with Barry Cunningham from Chicken House as part of the Winchester Writers Conference (something she says she was very nervous about).  She presented him with her latest work for feedback, the meeting was successful, and Chicken House published her book!

Veronica Cossanteli

For those of us who are yet to familiarise ourselves with The Marvellous Land of Snergs, it is a children’s book written by E.A. Wyke-Smith in 1927.  The book inspired Tolkien to write The Hobbit (The Snergs were “prototype Hobbits”)and J.K. Rowling famously has a copy of it.

Veronica was approached by Chicken House, asking if she would be prepared to rewrite and adapt it. As exciting as the story is, Veronica says it was very much a book “… of its time.”  When Veronica first read the book, she says, she liked Wyke-Smith’s “… quirky sense of humour,” but there were areas of the book that needed reworking in order to update it for today’s young audiences.   This, however, was harder than she thought!  She sent the first draft to Chicken House who Veronica says sent it back with a resounding “could do better.” She soon realised that very much more than a “tweak” was required – it needed completely deconstructing and rewriting.

Veronica explains that the original book had countless characters, but because they were not hers, it was hard to get inside their heads and understand their motivations and back stories. The two children in the book had quite a bleak backstory (although the other characters did not), but they came across as very unscathed in spite of this – demonstrating, she says, a big difference between “then and now” with children’s literature. Veronica clarifies that in the literature of the time, children were often controlled by the adults (Roald Dahl is the one credited with giving the child protagonist the independence and capability to fight their own adventures).  Children were written in a way described by Veronica as very two-dimensional. She explains that they were either very angelic, or incredibly naughty – often meeting a grisly end (she gives the example of Pinocchio who is hanged at the end of the original story). Modern children like a “protagonist with attitude.” 

Veronica talks about how she needed to update her characters (the original Flora would “bat her eyes at knights”).  A king became an ostrich-riding queen for balance (she says has no idea where ostrich comes from!). The Jester got turned into a frog because it annoyed her so much (she thinks that it was Wyke-Smith’s favourite character)! She considered making the narrative from the point of view of the Snergs, but Chicken House wanted to have the children at the centre of the story.  Chicken House were also set on keeping the title the same.

Many stories have been re-written over the years, so what were the specific challenges with this, relatively unknown story?  Veronica points out that if there are a lot of different versions of a story, then a writer has more freedom to adapt it – such as Grimms Fairy Tales. She talks about how many of these have been heavily sanitised – especially for an American market. This is very different than adapting the work of one author (and his relations!). 

On the subject of Wyke-Smith’s relations, Veronica says she received mostly positive feedback, although a few things she had to change (“beware of surviving relatives!” she says).   Chicken House contacted the family and investigated the legal position, but as the original book was out of copyright, this was a matter of courtesy rather than legality.

When asked if she would do something like this again, she reflects that it was a good creative exercise and has developed her as a writer. She says it has enabled her to identify mistakes she makes as a writer. She often asks herself what Wyke-Smith would have been critical of.  She considers it an honour to have been asked to do it but is aware of the huge responsibility that goes with it.

Veronica hopes that Mr Wyke-Smith and Tolkien would approve! 

Report by Sarah Noon

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