Life’s already complicated enough when you’re thirteen. Girls are becoming ‘interesting’, you’re a teenager walking along that bumpy path to adulthood and you’re parents still think they can tell you what to do all the time.
All quite normal so far. Except for Marcus, things are far from normal. Because on the night of his thirteenth birthday his parents ever so casually announce that they are half-vampires and that Marcus too will soon start transforming into one. OK, that’s definitely not normal. And if that’s not life-changing enough, Marcus now has to acquire a special power and what that special power is, he has no idea.
Marcus’ efforts to draw out his ‘special power’ – with the help of Tara from the two-day crash course for half-vampires and his parents who join him on the floor for relaxation exercises (more embarrassing than relaxing) – are hilarious. Also laugh-out-loud funny are Marcus’ attempts to win the heart of not one girl but two! They are also very endearing; I just think he needs to work on his technique a little. Here, for example, is how Marcus reacts when he thinks someone else might be making a big impression on the girl he likes.
“You’ve gone very quiet,” said Tallulah.
“It’s you, you’re giving me a headache.”
“How have I done that?” Tallulah actually sounded a bit shocked.
“Having to listen to your voice going on and on about vampires and Cyril…”
“Fine. I shan’t say another word.”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard all night”, I said.
And we walked in silence the rest of the way to Calf Lane.
……I’d calmed down a bit now and I said, “OK, let’s find the vampire’s teeth marks and take them inside for questioning.”
Tallulah’s lips didn’t so much as twitch.
“Don’t smile, will you?” I said. “You might frighten the traffic.”
Anyway, back to the story. Without giving too much away, scary things are about to happen in Great Walden. It’s that weird time of the year between Christmas and New Year and strange sightings are being reported of shadowy figures with skeletal, blood-soaked hands that transfix you to the spot. The Winter Fair is in town but not everything is as it seems. Step into the ventriloquist’s fortune tellers tent…if you dare.
Life isn’t just about to become complicated for Marcus. More like downright dangerous! Ghosts, deadly vampires, freaky girlfriends and creepy Cyril. Who can Marcus trust and when, exactly (and can it hurry up please) will his special power emerge?
Pete Johnson has written The Vampire Fighters in the form of a blog – a modern day version of a diary. Marcus keeps us updated day by day, even minute by minute, and I think this is a refreshing nod to the new forms of creative writing emerging (such as blogs). Stories don’t always have to follow a traditional format – starting at chapter 1 and finishing at, say, chapter 30 and I believe children should be allowed to experiment in the way they write creatively and be allowed to break the rules. For example, my eldest daughter is having enormous fun at the moment creating her own comic and writing stories for it.
This is a sentiment endorsed by Pete Johnson himself who is very active in providing new ways of teaching young people, particularly boys, to write creatively. Actually, Pete used to be a teacher so he knows a thing or two about what kids love and what gets them writing. I have been very lucky to catch up with Pete (via email) and to ask him about his new book and how he goes about inspiring young people to write.
Interview with Pete Johnson – author of The Vampire Blog, The Vampire Hunters and now The Vampire Fighters
Babbleabout: I am always interested to know what an author read as a child, what books inspired them. So, what were your favourite children’s books growing up, the real page turners that you couldn’t put down?
Pete Johnson: One of my greatest childhood memories is of the library lesson. For one double period you were left completely and gloriously alone with your chosen book. I can still remember sitting in the library with the sun streaming through the windows totally absorbed in my story and just feeling so happy.
Top favourites included Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ books. I love the farcical misunderstandings and William’s wonderful eloquence on a subject he felt passionately about like pensions for boys. I collected all thirty eight of those. Humour was a big favourite. I also loved Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, Roald Dahl, Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawn books, the Blyton Mystery books and a wonderful American writer called Edward Eager – ‘Half Magic’ was perhaps his best in which wishes only come half true.
Sometimes I read a book which was so good it would stay in my head for days afterwards (in fact, it’s never quite left it). Books like ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ by Philippa Pearce, ‘Marianne Dreams’ by Catherine Storr, ‘Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn,’ by Eve Garnett., ‘101 Dalmatians’ by Dodie Smith and later ‘I Capture The Castle, by the same author. This is a list which could just go on and on …!
Babbleabout: Do you read contemporary children’s fiction and if so, what are you reading at the moment?
Pete Johnson: Yes I do. Often I meet an author or read a piece they’ve written and get interested in their books. Most recently I’ve read and enjoyed ‘The Considine Curse’ by Gareth P Jones. ‘Moon Pie’ by Simon Mason and ‘M is for Magic’ a great collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman.
Babbleabout: I really like Marcus, the main character in The Vampire Fighters. He comes across as quietly confident and is very funny. Is Marcus based on anyone you know or is there a little bit of you in him?
Pete Johnson: At most school events I meet a Marcus. Someone who’s a bit of a character, not always an academic star but lively and quick-witted and who really helps my book events go with a swing. The character is also inspired by – would you believe – my Dad. My dad was very funny, wise-cracking in fact, especially on big family occasions, keeping everything light and cheerful. I have copied this and learnt from him. So some of Marcus’s lightness is now also me.
Yet what especially interested me was how this confidence and lightness is also a kind of mask. And in The Vampire Trilogy and ‘The Vampire Hunters’ Marcus has to dig deeper into himself and let that mask slip sometimes.
I’m really pleased you like Marcus. He is one of my favourite characters too. I’m not writing about him at the moment and I miss him.
Babbleabout: Again, Tallulah is a very interesting character. She is not afraid of standing up for herself and what she believes in, she courageous and outspoken. Do you think it is important to have strong female/girl characters in your books?
Pete Johnson: Tallulah was actually the first character I came up with in The Vampire Trilogy. I’ve met a number of girls like her: Goths who are quite aggressive on the surface, determinedly going their own way, yet also quirky and in their way dreamers. I had the idea of Tallulah liking monsters so much because she identifies with them – like her, they’re outsiders.
I’m read about equally by boys and girls and I think one of the reasons for my girl following have been the strong, determined characters like Miranda in ‘Trust Me I’m A Troublemaker,’ and Tallulah, here. In some ways Tallulah is the motor for much of the story. She really makes things happen and on more than one occasion, comes to Marcus’s rescue.
Babbleabout: The dialogue exchanges between your main characters – Marcus and Tallulah and Marcus and his parents – are extremely funny. Have you ever thought about doing stand-up comedy or script writing for comedy?
Pete Johnson: Thank you. I loved writing the dialogue scenes. Oddly enough, when a scene is going really well I don’t seem to be doing much at all. It’s rather as if the conversation is going on inside my head and I’m just transcribing it.
I’ve always had a special love for comedy and in ’How to Train Your Parents,’ (and the sequel which I’m writing at the moment, ’My Parents Are Out of Control’) the main character, Louis, wants to be a stand-up comedian. I also give Louis many of my comedy enthusiasms (Fawlty Towers, Alan Partridge, P.G.Wodehouse). And I’m certainly gaining a vicarious pleasure from Louis’s progress. But I just haven’t got the nerve (or courage) to be a stand-up comedian. I have written some plays and also for the radio.
Babbleabout: What frightens you more – a dark scary night with bats flying around your head OR a blank piece of paper in front of you and a pen in your hand?
Pete Johnson: Well, many things scare me and certainly a dark, scary night with bats flying around my head would be right up there. In fact, bats at any time would disturb me. But a blank piece of paper is much, much scarier.
The way I get round it is this: I sneak up on that blank piece of paper. So I don’t start writing straight away. No I loosen up by playing with ideas and writing little exchanges of dialogue, and imagining what a character’s feeling at a certain point. So then I’ve found I’ve begun without even realising it and so vanquished that terrifying blank page.
Babbleabout: There is a perception that boys sometimes find creative writing more difficult than girls. You’re a boy so do you have a view on this and can you offer some advice to boys (and girls) who find creative writing a little daunting sometimes?
Pete Johnson: I agree, boys are often viewed as finding creative writing more difficult than girls. Yet interestingly, at the end of an event a pupil will often come up to me and announce. ‘By the way, I’ve also written a book,’ and then hand me a story often running to thirty or forty pages (sometimes lovingly illustrated too) – and generally that pupil is a boy. Often too, the teacher will say, I had no idea he’d written that.’ Boys’ bursts of creativity usually goes on in secret.
Now just as I have to loosen up before I begin each day, I suspect other boys are the same, needing some stimulus and ways into a story. I am quite a restless person and easily distracted before I’ve got locked into my story. But once I’m in the ‘zone’ I hate being disturbed.
I’m giving a talk at a teachers’ conference in Leicester on June 30th about how my books have been used to stimulate boys’ reading. One of the points that I will make is that genre rules. Often it’s through a love of a particular genre that boys suddenly discover a love of writing. So it is my spooky books like, ‘The Ghost Dog’ and ‘The Creeper’ which have proved especially popular in stimulating creative writing in schools.
If I were giving advice to boys and girls I would say, read as much as you can, and if you start by copying another author it doesn’t matter (I did that myself) then as you grow in confidence you will start to add in your own ideas and insights. So have fun with a story, play with it, and try things. Don’t be too critical either. That horrible critical voice inside all our heads can inhibit and even destroy wonderful ideas.
Babbleabout: Along with other well-known writers – Roald Dahl springs to mind – you seem to come down on the side of the kids in the eternal parents/children struggle. (I’m thinking here of your book, How to Train your Parents, and Marcus’ little moments with his parents). What advice can you offer to parents who might be reading this over the shoulder of their loved ones?
Pete Johnson: I have taken part in a number of events inspired by ‘How to Train Your Parents,’ which were for both parents and children. I generally begin by reading aloud a few passages of ‘How to Train Your Parents,’ satirising what is know as hyper-parenting – and soon there is the best laughter of all – that laughter of recognition.
I think there are more pressures put on both parents and children than ever before. What I aim to do is explore some of those situations with a light touch. So in ‘Rescuing Dad,’ for instance. I take a serious subject – parents separating. The humour arises when children try and make sense of what’s going on in their parents’ world. It is the collision between these two worlds which stimulates me.
Now, if I have done my part well my books should amuse both parents and children, and if they also get parents and children laughing and talking together, then I’m extremely happy.
Thank you Pete for your time. Your books are lively, funny and inspiring.