I Was Never Matilda by Louie Stowell
When you’re a writer, people expect you to love reading. For me, they’re partly right. I love stories and ideas. I love wandering in a made-up world that feels realer than reality, where you can meet impossible creatures and get to know them as people (or sort-of people).
The act of reading, though? That’s more complicated for me. As a child, I was always torn between indoor pursuits and wanting to be outside up a tree or making up complicated role playing games about elves and monsters, knee deep in forest mud. I lived near the river Thames and the wild land around it was somewhere I spent hours whenever I wasn’t at school. That love of nature stayed with me – and kept me sane through the pandemic. I have a local nature reserve-slash-disused-cemetery that’s truly magical (and features heavily in book 3 of The Dragon in the Library series.)
As a child, the stories I read fuelled my play but the play was essential too. Without the outside world and its breezes and leaves and hills and rivers, the world of books wasn’t enough.
Although I grew up hoping my telekinetic powers would kick in any day, I was never Matilda. I sometimes envy people who can sit there for hours reading. I get itchy feet within half an hour and have to be doing something. I spend less time up trees as an adult – for some reason park rangers frown upon it – but the wanderlust is still there.
Creating Kit, the main character of The Dragon in the Library, I thought about how many books have bookish main characters. But what about all those children like me who couldn’t sit still? Who didn’t have the patience or the attention span to sit motionless? Kit takes it further – she can’t stand reading. So, like all cruel authors, I thought about what would be the harshest thing to do to her: give her a destiny that involves a lot of reading. In the world of The Dragon in the Library, Kit is a wizard. Wizards are also librarians, who must care for a magical library and the dragon that slumbers beneath it. Reading to the dragon is a key part of the job. So, while Kit is perfectly comfortable throwing herself into physical danger, reading out loud is a source of horror.
In creating the library where Kit discovers magic, I found a way to combine two things I love: the wild outdoors and the world of the imagination that libraries offer. A library is a free ticket to a million worlds and experiences but it does lack mud and moss and sky and space to run around. So, beneath the library I put a Book Wood made up of trees that were once books. The books that grow there are portals that take you through the world of each book to other libraries all over the world. It was also convenient as a solution to the classic children’s author dilemma of “how do we get the adults not to call the police when the kids go on adventures in another world” – Kit and the gang have the plausible deniability of being at the library.
Speaking of the gang…. The image of the solitary reading child hero with their nose in a book never interested me when I was young. I wanted to know about their friends, too. The Dragon in the Library is as much about friendship as it is about libraries and books. Given everything that’s happening in the world more, there’s a lot of children out there missing their friends. Kit, Alita and Josh are a friendship group anyone can join by picking up a book.
I never had imaginary friends as a child in the sense of “Invisible Bob who lives in the cupboard and steals all the chocolate, not me, Daddy”. But book friends were very important to me. Frodo and Sam, Lyra and Will, Meg and Mog – no protagonist is interesting to me without a friend (whether they get on all the time or fight like cats in a sack). And sharing books with friends was a wonderful thing to me as a child. Playing at Frodo and Sam heading to Mordor or Asterix and Obelix fighting Romans meant I could enter a fantasy world with a real person, making it all the more real and wonderful as we explored it together.
I hope The Dragon in the Library can show reluctant readers and children with ants in their pants that it’s ok to read AND to run. You don’t have to be “bookish” to enjoy books. I hope it can offer an escape and company to children in a world where everyone is separated. But also a way for friends to access magical places together. Books aren’t private things. They belong to everyone. They belong in libraries.
Louie Stowell started her career writing carefully researched books about space, ancient Egypt, politics, and science, but eventually she lapsed into just making stuff up. She likes writing about dragons, wizards, vampires, fairies, monsters, and parallel worlds. Louie Stowell currently works as the publisher of Ladybird Books and lives in London with her wife, Karen; her dog, Buffy; and a creepy puppet that is probably cursed.