Vivian’s agents are Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross.


Vivian French

Vivian French: What I’m thinking about … why children don’t read

The Guardian

August 15, 2012

I’m thinking about Ruby, aged nearly eight. It’s her turn to read out loud.
“Duh … Orh … Guh … “

Teacher: “Come along, Ruby. Surely even you can read that?”

Ruby studies the page. There’s a picture. A clue. She smiles. “Squirrel!”

The teacher rolls her eyes at me. “You see? She just doesn’t try.”

I think Ruby IS trying. She’s made a reasonable guess at the badly drawn picture of a dog with a curly tail. It’s the letters she can’t fathom. And I have every sympathy for her. Reading is a strange, curious and indefinable skill – and for some children it can assume the proportions of a nightmare.

I’m not a reading expert in any way, shape or form, but I’ve spent many hours in schools creating participatory stories with groups of children (they give me the ideas; I act as scribe). And what I DO know is that often the brightest and most imaginative contributors are those who struggle with decoding letters on a page. They’re not stupid; far from it. But they’re often made to feel that they are. And that makes me angry, because I was made to feel that way too.

I wouldn’t describe myself as dyslexic, but I did muddle letters and misread words, especially when reading out loud, and in the 1950s/1960s, teachers weren’t slow to comment. There’s far more awareness these days, and some very impressive research – but I still hear that exasperated tone of voice. ‘Surely even YOU can read that?’ And it shocks me every time.

When I meet kids, I always ask, “What do talking, reading and writing have in common?” The answer, of course, is words. So then I ask, “So who’s good at talking?” And they all are. So we practise our words (because practice makes perfect, and some words are far more interesting and evocative than others), and we write a story, and edit it, and illustrate it – and then we read it to the rest of the school. And then we put it in the library, having made sure that all the authors’ names are on the cover. And guess what? My non-reading ducklings have suddenly become swans. They’ve achieved author status.

Obviously this is no quick fix, but I love these sessions because I can demonstrate the vivid imagination and sense of story that can go undiscovered in children who find reading problematic. It also, hopefully, gives them the confidence to go on trying. Confidence is a wonderful thing; believe you can do something, and eventually – it may not be easy – you might well get there. Believe you can’t do it, and you never will.

So – the events I have selected for this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival are for Ruby (and others like her) to enjoy. I’ve chosen events that offer story making in all kinds of different forms; ballads, storyboards, pictures, oral storytelling, plays. If it helps Ruby towards believing in herself – that’s wonderful. Job done.

Vivian French is curating a strand of events called “The Power of Words Through Play” at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She talks about The Gift of Dyslexia today (15 August) at 5pm

Dundee Rep’s ‘Baby Baby’ Visits Dundee Community Centres

January 17, 2012

Following on from the fantastic success of ‘Talking Heads’ (2010) Dundee Rep staged a production of Vivian French’s much loved story ‘Baby Baby’ and toured it to 7 community centres across Dundee.

As you will see, the audience reaction was fantastic and the show was a sell-out across all the community venues.

This is not a six word novel – Author Visit: Vivian French

Jen Campbell

May 3, 2011

Vivian French was best known in school for being extremely skinny and for talking a lot. At school she developed an attachment to words and later became an actor, then a storyteller, and finally a writer of children’s books. She is the author of more than two hundred books. Ms. French lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has four grown daughters.


Viv! Please select from our selection of sparkling drinks, grab a tiara and sit yourself down. Welcome!

Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here, and I apologise most sincerely for my late arrival. Got a bit held up by a couple of nasty nasty deadlines on the tracks. So dead were they that they glowed like a long dead salmon …

How long have you been writing for children? What is it about writing for that particular audience that you love so much?

Um. Depends on what you mean by writing for children (Don’t quibble, Sybil!!) I wrote a number of plays for adults to perform for kids way WAY back in the day (a couple were performed at the young Vic, but mostly they were used by touring companies) but my first children’s books were published in 1990. (Eeek! Ancient history, or what?) Why do I love writing for that particular audience? I’m not sure that I know. Maybe because I have so much freedom to try different things; I range wildly from very early years to young secondary, fiction and nonfiction, and I enjoy it all. Usually the book I love best is the one I’m currently working on. Incidentally, I’m told it’s bad for your career to dilly about like I do. Apparently it means ‘Viv can’t be classified.’ Is that so very bad?

You’ll have to take that one up with Ms. Morgan wink What’s the best thing a child has said to you about one of your books?

That the words made pictures in their head so clearly that they didn’t need the story to be illustrated.

What would you like to say to those [ahem idiots ahem] out there who go ‘Oh, yes, writing for children. Well, it’s a lot easier that writing for adults, isn’t it?’? You can be as flowery as you like!

Usually I have a rictus grin that I apply when this kind of remark gets made, but what I’d LIKE to say is, “Ho! Yes! You’re absolutely right. It’s just like being a surgeon. Tricky when it comes to adults, but kids? No probs. An eight year old with appenditis? A five year old with a hernia? Give it to me. I’ll whip it out.”

Tell us about The Tales of the Five Kingdoms.

Lordie lordie. Where do I start? It’s a series that begins with The Robe of Skulls. Lady Lamorna, an evil (well, moderately evil) sorceress wants a long black velvet dress … but she hasn’t any cash, so she decides – with the somewhat dubious help of a troll, Gubble, to go in for blackmail … and it all kicks off from there. There are Ancient Crones who are wise, and kings and queens who are anything BUT wise, and a scruffy prince called Marcus who ends up as the hero. And there’s Gracie Gillypot, who’s a Trueheart – and a bat called Marlon who thinks he’s Marlon Brando … and that’s just in the first book. I’m on the edge of finishing the fifth, and that has giants (amiable, but it takes a remarkably long time for them to process information) and my nastiest villain yet – Fiddleduster Squint. He has a shadow that can slip away from him, and act as a spy … and I’ve thrown in a few zombies, and have brought back Queen Bluebell; she’s one of the very few royals who enjoys adventure.

Which series have you enjoyed writing the most, and why?

The Tales from the Five Kingdoms.. I get depressed when I get near the end, and I’m dying to start on the next one. I’ll really miss them when they’re done and dusted. Why do I enjoy writing them? I can have fun, and play with ridiculous names (Mercy Grinder, Saturday Mousewater, Foyce Undershaft) and situations. (A house where the doors move up and down, a path with a mind of its own, a fiddle playing zombie … ) Also I can write about feelings and emotions; will Gracie and Marcus end up together? What does it mean to be a Trueheart? And I guess I’m having a gentle investigation into the nature of good and evil.

Who is your favourite illustrator, and who [who you haven’t yet worked with] would you like to collaborate with?

I LOVE working with illustrators and, hand on heart, I don’t have a favourite because they’re all so different. I’m lucky enough to tutor from time to time at Edinburgh College of Art in the Illustration Department, so I get to meet up and coming illustrators – and they’re sensational. Who would I like to collaborate with? I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve already worked with Barbara Firth and Charlotte Voake, and so many of the greats … but I worship at the feet of Maurice Sendak. Not very likely, though. I’m a bit of a fan of Anthony Browne. That would be pretty amazing. Or Petr Horacek is a rising star …

Your play Baby Baby toured Scotland in 2009. That must have been really exciting. Are you working on any plays at the moment?

Oh and ho and hee hee hum. Yes, is the answer, but I’m WAY behind on a couple of scripts I should have finished last year. Such badness.

I loved that poem of yours which you read out in Edinburgh last year, the one that was published in Ambit. Could you perhaps share it with us? Do you write much poetry?

Not a great deal – I get a bit bashful about it as so many people are SO much better than I am. There was another poet reading on that occasion, you might remember, and she’s is amazingly good! And I don’t mean Susie, although I admire her very much. I do love rhyme, though. And I’m not being tricksy about your question; I’m just not quite sure which poem you mean as there were two from Ambit. (Two, and only two, it has to be said, although I think I had a few in another collection once. Long long ago. Before telephones were invented. Oh, and I DID have a poem read on the radio when I was six. Or seven?)

Shucks, Viv, stop it. I’ll get that poem out of you later.

You leave such a bloody hectic life [writing plays, novels [over 200 published!], doing writing workshops, working at ECA]. Do you have a band of fairies helping you out? How do you manage to get yourself organised and make sure that you’re able to write as well as doing everything else?

Organised???? Hollow laugh. If I wasn’t so ashamed of it I’d send you a photo of the hideous pit I work in. Tottering piles of books and papers and letters and junk and address books and old diaries – I’ve even got a second computer buried somewhere that I haven’t seen for quite a while. I do work very odd (and sometimes long) hours – luckily my long suffering daughters are all grown up, so they don’t need socks washing and so on (not that I was much good at that, actually, but it’s worked out well – they rebelled by being SUPER organised and efficient!!) and my amazing husband does most of the cooking. Just as well; left to my own devices I eat beans out of a tin while typing. (Or rice pudding. So nutritious. Not.) And I have no qualms about abandoning cleaning/ironing (what’s that?) /washing up if I need to do something important – like have lunch with a friend!

On our book forum we have The Book Tree, where members pick their favourite book and post it round to each other in a circle, writing the books they read as they go. In the end, everyone gets their own book back filled with comments from everyone else. If you could join in with out Book Tree, which book would you pick and why?

That’s such a great idea, but is it a favourite book in general or specific to the author? I’d probably choose Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall. I think it’s perfect. SO simple, so full of emotion, but never ever saccharine. For adults, I’d suggest Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. If it has to be one of mine, I guess it would be Singing to the Sun. It’s a collection of my own fairy tales, and I’m proud of at least one line. “Long long ago, before time was caught and kept in clocks … ” [ Love it! ]

You and I love indie bookshops, especially The Edinburgh Bookshop. Could you give a shout out to indie booksellers and why you think they’re important in the book world?

Oh wow. Where do I start? Indie bookshops are the Chelsea Flower Shows of the book world – so much on display that you never EVER see anywhere else. We need more more MORE!!

And, finally: what are your plans for the future?

I have to start a new series this month, called Cloudy Towers … then there are the corrections on The Quake of Giants … a picture book to write with the very VERY talented Catherine Rayner [yippee!]… at least two play scripts to finish (oh, the guilt!!) … a new project with ECA to discuss … and a knitted teacosy to finish. Oh, and a whole lot of early readers for Orion. I’d almost forgotten. And I have a sneaky suspicion I’ve forgotten something important, but I’m sure someone will remind me … at least, I hope they will. If they read this, could they please tell me?

That looks like a lot, but it isn’t really. My agent gave me a spreadsheet (!!!) so I tick things off as I finish them. Well, I would if I could find the spreadsheet …


All is not well in the crumbling castle high above the mountain village of Fracture. The sorceress Lady Lamorna has her heart set on a new robe. It is a very expensive new robe. To get the cash she will stop at nothing, including kidnapping, blackmail and more than a little black magic. But she reckons without the heroic Gracie Gillypot, not to mention a gallant if rather scruffy prince, two chatty bats, the wickedest stepsister ever, a troll with a grudge – and some very Ancient crones.

Vivian French Interview with

February 5, 2010

First off, thanks so much for joining us for an up-close and personal interview for! My name is Jen, and I’ll be your server toda…oh, wait, wrong job! Anyway, thanks so much for taking time out of your writing schedule – which I’m sure is busy! – and answering a few questions for your readers and fans. Let’s get some of the typical interview questions out of the way first. When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Erm … I didn’t really ever think Aha! I want to be a writer! I always thought I wanted to be an actor, and I was for quite a while – the writing sort of happened by accident.

Can you tell us a little bit about your road to publishing?

Well, like I said, I was an actor. I used to tour schools and theatres with a company that put on shows for children; eventually I even had my own company. Gradually that changed, and I did more and more storytelling – and then I met someone who wrote children’s books. (Very good ones, too.) She asked me why I didn’t try to write my stories down, and after a total panic attack (what do I write about?) I wrote a story about my very annoying little brother. Diana sent it to her publisher, and WOW!!! I had a picture book published. In fact, two – because it turned out I had a LOT to say about my brother ….

What, or who, has been the greatest inspiration for your stories?

Diana Hendry – the friend who started me off on a writing career – once told me that feelings were the most important thing to write about. We all have them, and that’s what makes us behave in the different ways we do … so I guess the answer is just that. Feelings. Emotions …

Let’s hear about your family, who I’m sure are thrilled to have a published author among them!

I’d like to think they were thrilled, but I’m not convinced. I’ve got a lovely husband, Davy, and four grown up daughters (Alice, Jessica, Jemima and Nancy) – and three grandchildren. (Jack, Nathaniel and Dorothy.) Jack, who’s six, is quite certain that I write every book on every bookshelf, and wants to know why I don’t write about HIM more. My daughters think writing is just a way of earning a living, and I’d say that’s quite right – I think that way too. Jemima is a theatre director, so she directs plays (for children AND grown ups), and Jessica is a film producer, so in a way we’re all telling stories but in different ways.
(When my girls were little sometimes I had to rush off to an early performance. They say they’ve never got over the embarrassment of having a mother who dropped them off at school dressed as a bright green caterpillar … )

Now for some fun facts. What’s your greatest comfort food?

Now we’re talking. Chocolate (I’ve even written a book about it. The research was MAGIC!) I also love mashed potato. And parsnips. (Do you have parsnips in the US? If not, I’ll send some over … ) And I adore little tiny tomatoes straight off the vine ….

What are the first three things you do when you wake up in the morning?

  1. Knock my alarm clock over while I try to stop it ringing.
  2. Moan that it’s MUCH too early.
  3. Sneak another ten minutes in bed …

If I came to your house and looked in your closet/attic/basement, what’s the one thing that would surprise me the most?

I live in a top floor apartment, so we don’t have an attic or a basement. The closet? H’m …  the uni-cycle? (That’s my youngest daughter’s, but I’ve had a go. I’m USELESS!) Or the caterpillar costume? (Yes. I kept it. I might need it one day … )

Hey – wouldn’t it be cool if I could ride the uni-cycle while I was wearing the caterpillar costume?

Everyone asks the question about “if you could be a tree, which tree would you be?” so I want to know: If you could be a color, which color would it be, and why?

I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me what tree I’d be, actually. (A beech tree, I’ve decided. Copper beech. Look up through the leaves when the sky is blue and you’ll see exactly why.) Color? Hum. Maybe black, because then all the other colors of the world would be hidden inside. And I love very very dark nights … and black velvet gowns … (Just like Lady Lamorna in The Robe of Skulls.)??

Who is your favorite cartoon character?

Lisa Simpson.

Which cartoon character is most like you?

Road Runner

If you could beam yourself to anywhere in the world (“Beam me up, Scotty!”), during any time in history, where and when would it be—and why?

1000bc in Egypt. I’m writing a book about Horemkanesi (his mummy is in a museum in Bristol, England) and I’d love to ask him if he really did have terrible toothache. (His teeth are worn right down …)

So what’s your favorite type of music to listen to?  Favorite musical artists? Do you listen to music while you’re writing?

I LOVE listening to music, especially live music. I heard Neil Young play live this year, and I’m going to see Leonard Cohen this summer. (Ask your parents … or grandparents.) And I really like what the UK industry calls alternative country music – Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Mary Gautier, and especially The Willard Grant Conspiracy. (Doom, gloom and the end of the world …. ) I don’t listen while I’m writing, though, as it tends to distract me.

Do you have any favorite T.V. shows?  Movies you watch over and over again?  What was the last movie you saw at the theater?

I really like The Simpsons, House, and The Sopranos. My fave movie of all time is The Princess Bride – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it. And I’ve watched Toy Story loads as well – and Toy Story 2. The last movie I saw was Son of Rambow; that was great, although the story had a few gaping holes in it – but the boys were FANTASTIC!

You have the chance to give one piece of advice to your teen readers. What would it be?

Read read read read. And find a friend who doesn’t like the same books as you do, and try and convince them to try one of yours … argue it out! And try something you think you WON’T like. You don’t have to finish it … just give it a try.

One last question. What stories can we look forward to from you in the future?

I’ve just finished writing The Bag of Bones – it’s got a lot of the same characters as The Robe of Skulls. And a whole lot more beside … (TOO many. I got really muddled at one point, and had to go back and start again.) I’ve just begun the next one, which is called The Heart of Glass

Again, thanks so much for joining us at!

Thank YOU very much. It’s been a real pleasure. And if you’re asking, I’ll have a skinny latte, please …. And do you have any chocolate?

The Zone interview with Vivian French

August 1, 2009

This edition I was lucky enough to meet the amazing Vivian French! She’s the author of tonnes of great books like, the Tales of Five Kingdoms series. She even wrote all the Tiara Club adventures.

You’ve written so many cool stories. Have you always written books?

No. I was a very late developer – I was an actor and a storyteller for ages before I started writing stories.

Who’s your favourite character you’ve ever invented?

Easy! I love Gubble from The Robe of Skulls. And he also pops up in The Bag of Bones, and The Heart of Glass – I don’t think I could manage the plots without him, even though he’s slightly unreliable because his head sometimes falls off

If you weren’t a writer, what other job do you think you’d enjoy the most?

Mmmmm …. maybe telling stories? Or maybe a long distance lorry driver. I always wanted to do that when I was young.

Loads of my canine and human friends are trying to write books and stories of their own. Any good tips?

I’d suggest thinking of a feeling, then deciding who has the feeling and why. Then what feeling do you want them to have at the end of the story? And after that you work out the middle bit … how the feeling comes to be changed. So you do Beginning, End, Middle. Works for me …

What’s the latest book you’ve written?

The Heart of Glass (One of the Tales from the Five Kingdoms)

What’s your favourite bit in it?

‘When Princess Marigold and Prince Vincent are having a picnic in a coach, and fall down a deep crevasse. They’re caught by a very large (and not at all clever) troll called Clod …

Have you ever visited sunny Devon? That’s where my library is, and where I live!

Oh YES! I’ve been to the Appledore festival twice, and I used to have lots of holidays in Devon when was a child … and I’ve done a couple of book tours there as well. It’s very beautiful – you’re lucky to live there. (Although Edinburgh, where I live, is pretty cool too … )

Thanks so much for answering my questions. Just one thing I have to ask: Do you like dogs?!!

I most certainly do. Sadly I live in a top floor flat (66 steps up and 66 steps down) otherwise I’d have a dog. We always had dogs when I was growing up; my best was a rather grumpy Scotty dog called Janey. (She was grumpy with everyone else, especially my dad – but she loved me, and we had a lot of fun.)

Scottish Book Trust Interview with Vivian French

May 12, 2009

Vivian French is the author of over 200 books for children and young people including the Royal Mail Award nominated Robe of Skulls, the Tiara Club series, Singing to the Sun and the brand new Sparkle Street series. In our exclusive interview, Chris Newton asked Vivian about her inspirations for Sparkle Street, as well as getting a few hints of some of her forthcoming books. He also challenged her to the most important question of all: “how fast can you say Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper?” Listen now and find out…

Scotsman Theatre Review: Faithful execution

The Scotsman

February 12, 2009

by Joyce McMillan


IT’S often said, by shrewd observers of the cultural scene, that in Northern Ireland even the Catholics are Calvinists; and there’s something of that atmosphere – joyless, hypermasculine, forever estranged from the soft “female” principles of beauty, sensuality and love – about Stuart Carolan’s debut play Defender Of The Faith, first seen in Dublin in 2004, and now given its UK premiere at the Tron Theatre.

Described as a “startlingly intense thriller”, the play is set in a bleak farmhouse on the Irish border in South Armagh, where middle-aged dairy farmer Joe – a lifelong IRA member – blusters and bullies his way through a fraught relationship with his two surviving sons, 20-year-old Thomas and fragile schoolboy Danny. The year is 1986, and all three are committed to the IRA cause, despite little Danny’s enthusiasm for playing Biggles on the kitchen floor. But someone in the area has been passing information to the British army, in a landscape dominated by looming observation posts and the menacing sound of army helicopters; and when a senior IRA man arrives from Belfast to find and execute the “tout”, the family’s history of secrets and lies – one son mysteriously dead, a mother consigned to a mental hospital – comes surging brutally to the surface.

In some ways, Carolan’s play is stronger in the idea than in the execution. His tone is ferociously loud and violent, caught between a screen-thriller style that values violence as pure action, and a theatre style that endows it with more meaning; this is no play for those who can’t tolerate dialogue made up largely of bludgeoning obscenities, and action that includes some serious physical thuggery. Nor does Andy Arnold’s strongly naturalistic production – with a vivid, literal farmhouse set by Jessica Brettle – do much to help the audience make nuanced sense of the play’s 90-minute torrent of dark energy and aggression, despite notably fine performances from Laurie Ventry as Barney – the farmhand who falls under suspicion – and young Callum Munro as Danny.

The play is interesting, though, for the nightmarish vividness with which it shows how a culture of violence and mistrust, once embraced, begins to seep into every corner of life, destroying the very ideals – family, nation, faith – that the men of violence claim to hold sacred. At the end of the play, two more men are dead, like the bag full of unwanted puppies Joe casually drowns at birth; and Thomas and Dannny are curled whimpering on the farmhouse floor, like a pair of motherless unborn children, trying to survive out in the cold.

If mothering is the absent force in the life of Stuart Carolan’s characters, though, the experience of it is the heart, soul and centre of the latest touring show from Stellar Quines, co-produced with new Edinburgh group Perissology, who specialise in theatre for young people. Based on the novel by Vivian French, Baby Baby is a beautifully structured double monologue delivered straight to the audience by two young teenage mothers, “good girl” April, who always wears perfect white trainers, and rebellious Pinkie, a young goth with black-painted fingernails, and wild clothes colour-coded in black and purple.

Both girls know that they’re supposed to tell their young audience that teenage motherhood is a bad, bad thing; they also know that the truth is much more complex. And out of that complexity, director Jemima Levick – with actors Hannah Donaldson and Ashley Smith, and a fine production team – bring to life an extraordinarily deep and moving short show, which comes as a sharp reminder of just how little we hear in our public culture about the intense and complicated reality of motherhood, rather than the idealised or demonised image of it.

Frankly, I’m not sure how far I would recommend this show as educational material for teenage audiences. It recognises the truth that motherhood is one of the most dangerous and thrilling journeys a human being can undertake, and often seems more likely to make the childless weep, than to put kids off casual sex. But it is a magnificent piece of theatre, for any audience, about pregnancy and early motherhood, with all its potential for dreams come true and terrifying nightmares, massive gains and tearing bereavements, pure joy and unimagined sorrow. Sometimes I wondered about the unhappy mothers of these teenage girls, and how their stories had come to such a bitter end; but that might be a play for another day, perhaps created by the same inspired team behind this one.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the season trundles on with screenwriter Kim Miller’s short comedy Fifteen Minutes, set backstage at an X-Factor audition, where seasoned talent-show campaigner Jacqueline meets new girl Lynsey, a shy civil servant who’s only there to please her Mum. In outline and structure, Wilson’s 50-minute play is frankly sentimental; two very different women meet, chat, and slightly change each other’s lives, with the help of some breathtakingly cheesy homespun wisdom.

In detail, though, it often achieves a wild, off-the-wall theatricality that is hugely enjoyable, not least when Jacqueline – played with tremendous robust-yet-fragile bravado by River City’s Joyce Falconer – begins to unpack the astonishing contents of her all-purpose auditioner’s suitcase, and to give us a backstage glimpse of her act. Sarah McCardie provides eloquent support as Lynsey, gradually discovering her own star quality. And somewhere behind all this, there lies the beginning of a real investigation into the emptiness that drives the talent-show business; the hunger of the motherless, the childless, and the otherwise unfulfilled for the excitement and the love that life away from the studio lights has somehow failed to provide.

Defender of the Faith is at the Tron, Glasgow, until 28 February. Baby Baby is at Stirling, North Edinburgh and East Kilbride next week, and on tour until 13 March. Fifteen Minutes is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow

Vivian French Scotsman interview

The Scotsman

January 9, 2009

by Lee Randall

WIMPISH AND WEEDY, YOUNG Vivian French wasn’t a “fitter inner”, as she puts it. “I had rather small feet and a rather large head and I would fall down a lot. The way my father would keep me walking was that we’d make up rhymes together. He’d make up a line and I had to do the next one.”

Her talent for invention endured, and after careers as an actor and a storyteller, French published her first children’s book in 1990. She has since published roughly 200 bestselling books for children of all ages, with sales of well over a million (figures aren’t her strong suit), including the wildly popular Tiara Club series, and Tales from the Five Kingdoms, featuring Trueheart Grace Gillypot, a cheeky bat named Marlon and the loveable troll Gubble, whose head has an inconvenient way of bouncing off his neck now and then.

French, born on the border of Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, is that rare adult who shows excitement by yelping “Yay!”, without sounding annoying or childish. Her enthusiasm for life is infectious, and the same warmth pervades her books – even her villains reveal their humanity, while her good guys are not so angelic as to induce nausea.

Despite being the daughter of a headmaster, she hated school and was even asked to leave Cheltenham Ladies College. With considerable scorn, she explains: “It was founded on the basis of sarcasm and excellence in education. They called my dad in – this was a long time ago – and said they were worried about me. I floated around in a world of my own. And I hated games. I was always the one picking daisies around the outskirts.”

Does she write to comfort the lonely child that she was? “I think I write for the child I would have liked to have been, a confident child who has lots of friends and is quite practical. If anything happened, I just stood and flapped my arms. It was a long time before anyone realised I was very short-sighted, and I did live in a kind of a mist.”

French credits her dad with firing her love of stories and storytelling. In addition to their walking poetry slams, he read to his brood nightly – French had an older brother, now deceased, and has another brother, five years her junior, upon whom she bases some of her characters. “My father particularly read us fairy tales. I read those, and a lot of SPCK books. They were terribly virtuous.”

What appealed most, she says, was the acting side of storytelling, though she’s quick to point out that the listener is as integral to the tale as the person – or theatrical troupe – doing the telling.

After toying with the lure of the open road and becoming a long-distance lorry driver, she went to university to study English, but spent more time off campus acting than in the library swotting. And she got married.

“I got married because another student asked me and he was a really good director and I was too polite to say no. The way I was brought up, if somebody asked if you’d like a piece of cake you said, ‘Yes, that’d be lovely,’ even if you hated it. I got a pretty lousy degree, and moved to London and got a job at what was then the National Book League, now the Book Trust, working for the information centre.”

She was more likely to chat with the public about their favourite books than research their queries, and was soon out of work. By this time she’d had the first of her four daughters, Alice, and reconnected with an old school friend who suggested she start acting.

She joined a theatrical troupe and began touring universities, coming to the Edinburgh Fringe in around 1968. “My generation was the changeover generation. We were into the Sixties big time and really did believe love would conquer all and anything was possible, and here’s a flower. I can actually remember giving people sunflowers – with a straight face – and people taking them with a straight face! Incredible.”

Her marriage foundered and she secured a job with the Robert Cooper Theatre company, which came with an Equity card, so the idea of applying to drama school seemed redundant. Instead, enlisting her mum as a babysitter, French spent weekdays touring schools, rushing home on weekends and holidays to be with Alice.

It sounds a mad existence. “Talk about usage and abusage of actors! We had to do one play for infants and one for juniors. The latter being a version of Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast of four! We doubled up on the roles and had to go behind screens to change and small children would come up and go, ‘I can see your knickers!’

“Bits had been rewritten. So it was, ‘Hello, my name is Puck and I’ve come to give you all good luck,’ and you had to go very fast on the good luck bit because older kids would improvise in the front row. It taught me an awful lot about crowd control. Once you’ve had a whole lot of kids launching themselves onstage, you learn that you have to fix them with a basilisk eye, a cross between Joyce Grenfell and Hitler.”

Together with a bloke who’d once been a “flinglet”, she started Blackbird Productions and, along the way, met her second husband, Derek.

“I met Jessica and Jemima’s dad through a lonely hearts ad I placed in Time Out. I didn’t actually meet him, I met his friend and he introduced me to this very nice man. So I married him. It was difficult touring with kids, so I joined a co-operative in London, based in Finchley. I was the drama worker. It was Thatcher territory and we were seen as dangerous because we were a co-operative, so if they had any events in the building we had to be vacated, in case we flew red knickers from the roof. It was very Seventies.”

Sadly, her marriage to Derek was ill-fated, but having learned her lesson with Alice’s dad, she took a calm look at her options. “Derek and I broke up in about 1982. We were going to a Christmas carol service and he said he’d met somebody else and she was having a baby. So we went and had to sing Away in a Manger…

“Now Derek and I are almost best friends – we have holidays together, our two families. I remember making a decision: either I can make a huge fuss about this or I can remain friends. I thought it would be really good for Jess and Jemima to have a father around. He’s a really nice guy and he and his wife Nina have such nice daughters. When the girls were little we’d go out all together, me and (my husband] Davy, Derek and Nina and Alice and Jess and Jemima and Cathleen and Edie and Nancy, and you’d see people looking at all these girls, trying to figure it out.”

For the record, Nancy is her daughter with Davy, her partner of the past 25 years. They met, French reveals with a giggle, because “he was left over from a party. We used to have great parties in London. After one party there was this guy lying on the sofa with his feet up, wearing white boots, and I remember thinking, those are quite cool. He looked a bit like Neil Young. That turned out to be Davy, and he never really went away again. “

The pair moved to Bristol on a whim, having heard you could get great big houses there for not a lot of money. And it was there that she befriended the poet Diana Hendry – who, like French, has since relocated to Edinburgh. Hendry inspired her to do more than just dabble in poetry and storytelling, and introduced her to an editor and illustrator. The rest, as they say, is publishing history.

Does she have any tips for aspiring children’s book authors? Don’t talk down to kids, is her first warning. “They’re people. My grandfather told me to treat everyone the same way and never be rude to anyone. Kids are really interesting. You never know what they’re going to say. It’s that unexpected quality and the way they respond to things. Once a child asked, ‘how many similes are there in your books?’” She hadn’t a clue, of course – numbers aren’t really her thing. Luckily for us, stories are.

The Tales from the Five Kingdoms series by Vivian French, illustrated by Ross Collins, are published by Walker Book. Bag of Bones is the second in the series that began with The Robe of Skulls.