The Malamander, and How To Find It by Thomas Taylor
My earliest memory of becoming a reader is of finding books – finding them in cupboards, in boxes in attics, or on the shelves of other people’s bookcases. I was given books too, of course – picture books as a small child, and later on the giant tomes that adults feel are important – but it was in the stories I discovered for myself that I found my love of reading.
We don’t own the things we are given in quite the same way as we own the things we’ve gained for ourselves. I have no memory of my grandmother ever giving me books as such, but she was a librarian. For several years my school day ended with a walk to my local library to wait for the end of Granny’s working day and the lift home that came with it. I have no memory of my grandmother ever giving me books, therefore, except all the books in the library. And the time to lie on the library rug reading them. Thinking about it, the books snaffled from cupboards and attic boxes were often hers too.
It’s probably too much to expect every child to have a librarian in the family, but easy access to a school library is surely the next best thing. The ability to run your finger along the spines of books and pull one out that takes your fancy is worth any number of ‘here, read this!’ exhortations. But to do that you need well-stocked bookshelves in places where children are, and someone to curate them.
I started writing my book Malamander on my daily beach walks, near my home on the south coast of England. Not so much ‘running my finger along the spines’ as ‘sweeping my gaze across the pebbles and shells’, beachcombing seaglass, fossils, and other units of inspiration. No one told me there would be legends to find there too, even characters that came to eye whole and ready to be written, such as Erwin, the Book Dispensary cat. Beachcombing became an obsession for me, and while I enjoyed researching the names of the invertebrates that left their shelly litter, or the prehistoric creatures that left their stony bones, what I really loved was wondering what those things might be in a story.
Imagine, in your mind’s eye, a family pick-nicking on a pebble beach long ago. Because it’s long ago, the lemonade bottle they pour from is made of glass not plastic. Whether by accident or carelessness, that bottle is left on the beach when the family go home, and the rising tide claims it for the sea. Quickly the bottle is smashed, and the fragments lost into the shingle to be rolled and rolled and rolled again, tide after tide, year after year, until much later – maybe 70 years later – you or I walk along the foreshore, towards the rising sun, and the light catches in the heart of a pebble of glass, glowing aqua-blue and bright, and we have found treasure. It’s a piece of litter from long ago, turned now to gem by the forces of nature, and regarded – in some legends – as the frozen tears of mermaids. Into the jar it goes, adding its frosty light to the hundreds of others that are slowly turning my home into a realisation of Mrs Fossil’s Flotsamporium. Who were the people who pick-nicked on that beach long ago? And far more importantly, what made the mermaids weep?
When you live permanently in a seaside town, you get to see its secret life. That is, you get to discover the winter side that the tourists don’t see. When the ice cream kiosks are shut up for the off season, and the night arrives earlier and earlier, and the only people on the beach are huddled against the driving wind and spray, perhaps flashing the ultraviolet beam of a blacklight torch as they sweep the storm-churned tide-line for fluorescing amber, then you have arrived in Eerie-on-Sea. No one visits the town then without a good reason. Or a bad one. And those that do may find themselves the solitary guest in a vast hotel built for summer coachloads, eating their lonely breakfast beside a dark window tapped by something they hope is rain.
I started writing Malamander when the weight of ideas beachcombed into my brain became too much to handle in daydream alone. Though the book was far from easy to write, the theme of ‘Things Lost and Things Found’ permeated the story as thoroughly as sea mist around the legs of the pier, without much conscious impetus from me. And amongst all this winter strangeness and creeping shadow, the friendship between Herbert Lemon – Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel – and head-strong Violet Palma, became the warmth at the heart of the novel. In many ways, writing Malamander ended up being one long act of ‘Lost-and-Foundering’.
I’m a great believer in not just giving the reader a ‘4’ when you can give them ‘2 + 2’ and let them find that 4 for themselves. Reading is only a passive activity if the writer forgets to leave things for the reader to do. No one wants to be spoon-fed a story, not when they could ‘a-ha!’ their way through it instead, getting to know the characters less by what the writer says about them than by what can be deduced. I like sea glass and beach fossils, but I don’t want them to be handed to me, I want to beachcomb for them myself. Just as I wanted to discover my own books in my grandmother’s library, all those years ago. And while I’m grateful to the stranger who first pointed out the dinosaur tracks that can be found on my beach at low tide, it was the freedom to imagine what those footprints might mean in a story that first brought the malamander creeping out of the mist and into the pages of a book.
Thomas Taylor is an award-winning author-illustrator for children. He illustrated the cover for the very first British edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and has since gone on to write and illustrate several picture books and young novels, most recently the graphic novel Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter by Marcus Sedgwick. He lives on the south coast of England.