Life & Culture

Yeehaw! Going west with a plate of iced buns

Angela Kiverstein asks children’s author Jodie Lancet-Grant about her latest picture book


Please could you tell us a little bit about The Legend of the Wild West Twins?

The Legend of the Wild West Twins is a high-octane adventure, where the underdogs have to work together to expose the town hero for the lowdown cheatin’ rattlesnake he turns out to be. It’s set in a Wild West populated entirely by children (think knickerbockerglories at the local saloon) and it’s packed with humour and twists you might not expect. I think it’s super-fun to read aloud too. But it’s also what I’m calling a feisty, feminist fable – touching on the ways girls are (and aren’t) allowed to be strong and bold. It’s about people-pleasing, siblings, celebrity, and heroes coming in all shapes and sizes.

Was it partly inspired by your own daughters?

Yes, the bond between main characters Buffalo Jill and Buffalo Lil is inspired by my girls’ special friendship, but also by my relationship with my younger sister, Lara. I liked the idea of a story where, despite the main characters’ differences, they adore each other, and that their teamwork saves the day.

Featuring twins also allowed me to explore the themes of feminism and people-pleasing that I wanted to put – with a very light touch – in the book. I wanted to look at how wider society – in this case, the folk of Lone Ridge – responds to girls in different ways, depending on whether or not they fit into our expectations of what girls “should” be like.

Are you a fan of Westerns?

I love this question. Honestly, not especially. But I love genres which use specific tropes, and then seeing those tropes played with, and delivered in different ways. It was so fun have a handsome hero – Yeehaw Jack – ride into town, but to make that hero not really who he seemed; and to have a mysterious stranger, dressed in black, crest the mountain ridge at sundown to help expose him; but for that stranger to end up being Jill in a frilly dress, armed with a platter of iced buns.

I’m 100 per cent there for how Western music and fashion are having a moment though, with the launch of Beyoncé’s brilliant country album and Wild-West style featured in Vogue via cowboy boots, fringed jackets and rodeo belts.

We also wondered if you’re a fan of iced buns as they feature so prominently (I’m a fan of iced buns myself)

I am absolutely a fan of iced buns, preferably sliced in half and slathered with butter.

The Western setting involves the use of interesting and inventive language, such as howdy and “corn-poppin” – this is quite different from the vocabulary seen in many picture books; was it important to you to include more daring vocabulary and constructions?

I’m very conscious that picture books are read aloud, and I wanted to ensure that the experience of doing so is as fun for the person reading as the one being read to. I love language – I’m the kind of person who buys obscure books on irregular verbs and what untranslatable words tell us about the culture that they’re from – so it was fun to be able to play with language in The Legend of the Wild West Twins. It’s wonderful for a writer to be able to plug into a sub-culture with its own idiolect. It was something I really enjoyed doing for my debut The Pirate Mums, so it was great to explore something similar in a new direction for this book.

We love the zany humour of your books. How important to your writing is humour?

Thank you! I know that the books my girls returned to time and again when they were little were the ones that they found funny, so I’m always aiming to recreate that. My books all have empowering messages about equality and celebrating difference at their hearts, and I think those messages are made more powerful when they’re wrapped in a great story, and great humour.

Reading is entertainment after all, so the more fun I can make my books, the better. And one of the great things about picture books is that it’s not only on the author to provide the humour. Katie Cottle’s incredible illustrations really help. I particularly love her little touches like having Yeehaw Jack’s horse swipe some of the iced buns and the angry expression on Buffalo Lil’s face when she storms out of the saloon, after disagreeing with her sister.

All this said, I am experimenting with a slightly different, more poetic, lyrical style for a book that might come along in a couple of years. Watch this space.

What do you want children to take away from this book?

I’d like them to be inspired to look more deeply at those who set themselves up as heroes (or celebrities). I’d like them to know how important teamwork and working together is. And I’d like them to take away that girls can do anything, and they don’t have to be sweet and smiling when they do, if they don’t want to be.

Your first picture book was designed to improve representation of families with two mums, without making this the main “issue” of the book. How do you think picture books are doing today, in this respect?

There have been a few more representations of diverse families – Grandad’s Camper and Grandad’s Pride by Harry Woodgate and My Magic Family by Lotte Jeffs spring to mind. But it is still rare, especially when it comes to kids’ immediate families, and when the fact it’s a two-mum or two-dad family isn’t the point of the book. One great exception is The Girl Who Loved Bugs by Lily Murray and Jenny Lovlie. The fact that the girl in the story has two mums isn’t mentioned in the text at all – but it is in the illustrations, and it’s gorgeous.

Are middle-grade and YA better at representing diverse families in this way than picture books?

YA, along with fantasy, is streets ahead of all other genres when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation. But it’s mainly the characters themselves rather than their families. There are some great examples in middle-grade – The Accidental Diary of B. U. G series by Jen Carney and Firefox by Lee Newbery are two brilliant ones with two-mum and two-dad families.

We don’t see many Jewish characters in mainstream UK children’s books. Do you think perhaps we need a Pirate Mums-style book about a Jewish family?

This is a very interesting question. In picture books, how would you tell? All of my characters could be Jewish, in fact, to my mind they probably are, because I am, but I’m not sure what would explicitly make them Jewish, if the book isn’t about Jewish themes or about religion. In middle-grade and YA books, we hear much more about the characters’ families, so you might be right there. Nothing is coming instantly to mind.

I definitely think we are in a period where it’s really important people look beyond religious and racial stereotypes, and try to come together to find common ground, and books can be a powerful tool to help with that.

I have been thinking about an idea for a picture book based around Seders through the years and around the world, but it definitely needs some more development.

Is there anything Jewish happening in your life at the moment that you could mention?

Nothing specific! I am not religious but I do feel very connected to the cultural side of Judaism, and it’s important to me. We had a wonderful 14-person Seder at my parents’ house. We possibly do the shortest Seder service in London, and we still all use the children’s Haggadahs we were bought when we were young, even those of us who are 43, like me, or 67, like my mum. I’ll be lighting the candles for Shabbat this evening, but I am planning to cook a spag bol, rather than the traditional chicken soup and chopped liver. (Although I do adore chicken soup and chopped liver.)

We last interviewed you when you’d written Pirate Mums, but there has been another book in between this and The Legend of the Wild West Twins – please could you tell us briefly about The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures?

The Marvellous Doctors for Magical Creatures is about a little girl called Ada and her two dads, the doctors of the title. They live in a town populated by mermaids, dragons, fairies, elves and witches, and when Glitterbug the unicorn comes to see them with mysterious tummy aches, Ada decides to do what she can to help. It’s a book about friendship, acceptance and being true to yourself. And it features an emo unicorn who loves David Bowie, so what’s not to love?

Could you tell us a little about your work in non-fiction?

Non-fiction is my day job. I’m Associate Publisher at Bluebird, a non-fiction imprint and division of Pan Macmillan, the UK’s fourth largest publishing house. I commission and publish books in the areas of self-help, personal development, health, food and drink, parenting and memoir, and I love it. I’ve worked with authors including Joe Wicks, Melinda Gates, actor David Harewood and Bake Off winner Nancy Birtwhistle.

What did you enjoy reading when you were young?

I read everything. I used to borrow the maximum number of books allowed from the library, as often as I could, and I really didn’t discriminate in my reading. I particularly loved series fiction, as I always wanted to know what I was reading next. Particular favourites were The Worst Witch, Malory Towers, Trebizon and St. Clare’s (I realise I seem to have been a total sucker for boarding school stories), and American books like Sweet Valley Twins and The Baby-Sitters Club books.

What are your hopes for children’s publishing in the future?

It has to be more representation of different viewpoints and cultures; I want to see more LGBTQ+ inclusion in all sorts of different ways, without that being the point of the story, but it’s crucial that none of this feels worthy or laboured.

But I also want more children to have access to books. The National Literacy Trust reports that one in 12 kids don’t have a single book of their own at home and that book ownership is at its lowest level for five years.

Books are portals to other worlds, they’re the gateway to the imagination, so anything we can do to improve that access is important and meaningful.

What else would you like to tell our readers?

I love to do events around my books and am available to visit schools and literary festivals. Do check out my website for more info.

The Legend of the Wild West Twins is out on 2 May (Oxford University Press)

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