She hadn’t been to university, so Michelle Magorian thought she would never be able to write a novel.
And then an image popped into her mind of a little boy stood alone and terrified in a graveyard and wearing a label.
More than 30 years later, that wartime evacuee and the grumpy but kind graveyard tender who gives him shelter have become some of the best-loved characters in children’s literature.
This month marks the 30th anniversary of Goodnight Mister Tom – the story of lonely and ill-treated William Beech, who finds love and friendship when he is evacuated to the countryside. He in turn enriches the life of his reclusive but kind-hearted guardian, Tom Oakley.
As a special anniversary edition of the book is published, Michelle remembers how it all started.
‘I’d been writing all sorts of bits and pieces but I never thought I could write a novel, I hadn’t been to university, I didn’t think it was for me. Goodnight Mister Tom actually started as a short story, but I really wanted to carry on with those characters, I needed to know what happened to them.’
The anniversary coincides with World Book Day, which is being celebrated today in the UK. One of the aims of the event is to get more children reading and an early obsession with books could be one of the keys to Michelle’s success.
She may not have had a degree, but Michelle had loved reading since childhood. It was during a five-week voyage at sea that she was really bitten by the book bug. Michelle’s father was in the navy and the family were returning to the UK from Australia.
‘I was so bored and unhappy and then I was given a Famous Five book. I read it in one night, I didn’t go to sleep until I’d finished it. When I got home, I read just about everything by Enid Blyton.’
Michelle, who lived in Portsmouth for much of her childhood and teenage years, remembers spending large amounts of time in the library. She carried on devouring books, poetry and plays as a schoolgirl and later as a drama student.
For her, the messages of World Book Day are essential.
‘I hope Goodnight Mister Tom takes readers on a journey and they really feel they know those characters. That’s what I think is so great about reading. It’s escapism, you can lose yourself in another world. But you also see the world through someone else’s eyes. And sometimes you find people who think the same way as you.’
The Petersfield-based author believes strongly in encouraging children to read for pleasure as well as for qualifications.
‘I overheard a conversation between two mothers that I found really sad. One of them said her son loved reading, but he was off to secondary school and he probably wouldn’t have time because of all the homework. That’s such a shame.’
But Goodnight Mister Tom has been a massive success among teachers and generations of children and spawned a television series starring John Thaw and a play, which is currently touring the country.
The book has been a bit of a mixed blessing for Michelle. She tends to be known for that, even though she has written other well-loved titles, including Back Home, A Little Love Song and the Costa Children’s Book Award winning Just Henry.
But she’s in no doubt of Goodnight Mister Tom’s value for some of its readers. In the book William has been ill-treated by his mother and some difficult subjects are tackled in the story. The author once received a letter from a child who had been badly treated at home.
’The great thing from the letter was that they said it made them feel like they were okay. It was quite something to hear that’ she says.