Sibling stories from Stephen & Anita Mangan

Brother-sister duo Stephen and Anita Mangan have always been close. It was Anita’s idea for them to work on a book together and their fourth is publishing this October. They are both appearing at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival on 1 October. Here they answer our questions about their books and their relationship…

Escape the Rooms, your first book together, has been described as “a cross between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Crystal Maze. Is this a fair description?
• Stephen: Yes, it’s a fair description. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of my favourite books as a child. I loved the upside-down world where the child is the sensible one and the adults are bonkers. I’ve always enjoyed puzzles and quizzes, so I added lots of these for my characters (and readers) to solve throughout Escape the Rooms. I like to make my books as surprising as possible.

Whose idea was the murderous polar bear in Escape the Rooms? Isn’t this giving polar bears a bad name? After all, they’ve got quite a bit to deal with already, what with the ice melting.
• Stephen: Haha! Mine! Gregory the polar bear takes on the role of bouncer in Escape the Rooms and actually there’s probably more danger coming from the frog, Maverick and the teeny tiny, yet ferocious, lions.
• Anita: Gregory is one of the many animals that appear in Escape the Rooms and because they are wearing clothes that takes the scary edge off them a bit. Gregory is super cool with dark sunglasses and a burgundy jumper. Oh, and one tooth!

How do you come up with the character names in your books? We’re liking Gloria Squat-Further, Huxley Beeline, Jonny Mould, Gossamer Fountain and Harry Sponge.
• Stephen: Making up outrageous character names is one of my favourite things about writing children’s books. Sometimes they relate to the person – Gloria Squat-Further is a champion athlete. But most of the time, they are completely random and just make me laugh – one of the goats in The Unlikely Rise of Harry Sponge is called Rodney Dangertubes.

We have always been close and have been making each other laugh since we were children

Why does the prime minister Farting Bernie (in The Unlikely Rise of Harry Sponge) have a problem with farting?
• Stephen: Farting Bernie’s real name is Winston Bernard Alfonso Charles Gordon Gideon Demerol Smitherington-Piffle, but he insists that everyone calls him Bernie. He’s mean and nasty but thinks Bernie makes him sound fun and cuddly. His farts come from a fart machine which he carries everywhere. Whenever anyone asks Farting Bernie a difficult question, he presses a button on his machine to distract everyone and make them laugh, rather than giving them an answer.
• Anita: Farting Bernie was one of my favourite characters to draw as he’s such a big character. I couldn’t resist drawing the fart machine and invented the fart noises too, like ‘Trumpet’, ‘Ferry Horn’, ‘Hissing Sid’ and ‘Squelchy Mud’.

Is Harry Sponge your favourite hero?
• Stephen: I always like having a character to root for in my books. The Unlikely Rise of Harry Sponge is about a very old king who needs to choose his heir from the best kids in the kingdom. He holds a wild contest called the Crown Duels to find the next king or queen. Harry Sponge is quiet and thoughtful – a classic underdog. All the other contenders are louder and more boastful. Never underestimate the underdog!

Whose idea was it initially for you both to work together on a book?
• Anita: Mine! I’ve been an illustrator and designer for years and have wanted to work with Stephen for a long time. Stephen is brilliant at writing but can’t draw (his words!), so it’s a great match! I convinced him to consider it. Initially he thought we’d be doing picture books, where I did most of the work … but no, I said ‘40,000 word chapter books please!’ I got my way, mwahahahaha.

Stephen, would you say you have always been a storyteller? And where did your first idea for a book come from?
• Stephen: I have always wanted to write stories, but it took Anita to get me to take the plunge. The idea for my first book, Escape the Rooms, began from a bungee jump incident experienced by our younger sister, Lisa… I’ll tell that story at our event in Bath.

Tell us about your relationship as brother and sister. Have you always been close?
• Anita: We have always been close and have been making each other laugh since we were children. Now we’re still making each other laugh – and our readers too (hopefully!). I always look forward to reading the first draft of Stephen’s books to see what drawing challenges there will be. I once told him that drawing horses is hard, so he put horses in The Fart that Changed the World, goats in The Unlikely Rise of Harry Sponge and The Great Reindeer Rescue is full of reindeer.
• Stephen: Well, I am the big brother – that’s what we do. I love working with Anita. It’s a treat to see how she illustrates my characters, and she always makes me laugh.

You have chosen different boy heroes in your first three children’s books together. Do you have plans for a female hero?
• Stephen: The heroes in my first three books are named after my sons – Jack, Frank and Harry. The hero of The Great Reindeer Rescue is a girl called Holly. She has to save Christmas with a reindeer called Dave.

How does the improbable play a part in making a good children’s story?
• Stephen: One of the best things about writing for children is that I can let my imagination run wild. Children will go anywhere with you and that means I can add improbable ideas. The Christmas light explosion at the start of The Great Reindeer Rescue gave me the chance for a round-the-world race against time to save Christmas with lots of comedy and adventure in the different locations.

Anita, why were you drawn to illustration and books in particular?
• Anita: I have always enjoyed drawing and did a lot of staring out the window as a child. I like to think that was ‘artistic observation’☺. I was working at Comic Relief doing more and more designs for them when I decided to train as a graphic designer and illustrator so I left to do a degree at Camberwell College of Arts. The first book I worked on was a cookbook for Leon restaurants … that really kicked off my book designing career – I’ve now designed or illustrated over 70 books.

Anita, what media do you use? And how do you develop an illustration for a character?
• Anita: I have a few different art styles, but all of them involve comedy in one way or another. For Stephen’s books, I draw in black and white, using a very fine black pen in a small sketchbook, then I scan the drawings and tidy them up in Photoshop. Some of Stephen’s characters are described in a lot of detail and others are more open to ideas, but I’ll always have an idea in my head of how they should look. Occasionally, I base characters on real people – including from our family and friends! But yes, characters definitely evolve once I start drawing them.

How are you both planning your event at the Children’s Lit Fest in Bath?
• Stephen: It’s one of the best parts of creating the books, when we get to meet our readers at events and signings. We can’t wait to come to Bath Children’s Literature Festival. Our show includes silly games, jokes, storytelling and chances to shout … very loudly. You’ll also get to see Anita draw live.
• Anita: I’ll be revealing some fun drawing tips and tricks. There will be chances to draw along with me too, and we always love seeing everyone’s drawings at our book signings.

Do you have young (or older) members of your family that give you feedback on your characters and ideas?
• Stephen: I occasionally run ideas past my kids. They generally either laugh or think I’m really weird.
• Anita: My husband is a graphic designer and illustrator too, so I often run my drawings past him for some feedback – it’s so helpful.

If you both had to choose a character from the books you’ve done together to identify with, which would you choose?
• Stephen: I think there’s a bit of me in ALL the kids in Harry Sponge. Each character is exaggerated though, so I’m not like one individual. At least I hope I’m not…
• Anita: I love Wanda Full from Escape the Rooms and can identify with her. Silly dances, a little bit bonkers and interesting outfits.

Stephen Mangan and Anita Mangan’s The Unlikely Rise of Harry Sponge is out now and The Great Reindeer Rescue is out in October(Scholastic). Book tickets to their Bath Children’s Literature Festival event on Sunday 1 October at 12am and join them for a book signing afterwards.