I interviewed Chrissie Sains last year for the #236 Sept 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum. She talked about the character, setting and pace of her middle-grade novel, An Alien in the Jam Factory, published by Walker Books.
An Alien in the Jam Factory is the first book in a comedy adventure series starring Scooter the jam inventor and his top-secret alien sidekick for ages 6+. Chrissie told me the seed of the story began with the idea of an alien flying around in a jam tart. Her children suggested it looked like a little flying saucer and together they imagined an alien crash landing on earth and flying around in it.
As the has story developed, Fizzbee (the alien) became particularly important to the central theme of the book. Fizzbee never underestimates Scooter, who has cerebral palsy. She sees him for the incredible boy that he is. She also teaches Scooter not to underestimate her.
“The idea to write a character with cerebral palsy was inspired by my goddaughter, Abigail. She has an amazing sense of humour. She’s smart, inventive and I’ve never known anyone so determined – she doesn’t let anything stand in her way. I really wanted to include those qualities in the hero of my book, together with her cerebral palsy.”Chrissie Sains
Chrissie explained it was important to that cerebral palsy wasn’t the central focus of the book, nor did she want it to be tokenism.
“I don’t think there are enough books featuring a character who has a disability and goes on an adventure – I’d really like to see that change.”Chrissie Sains
A lot of the humour in the book comes from Daffy and Boris, the villains of the story. Chrissie revealed the aim was to create two lovable but highly inept robbers, who come up with an absolutely ridiculous plan to rob the (highly secure) jam factory. They have a great relationship too. Daffy absolutely adores her bad-tempered pet guinea pig Boris, even though he’s not so fond of her.
Chrissie divulged that she finds with humour your characters need to be completely unaware they’re funny. They’re simply using any means necessary to achieve what appears to be an impossible goal. Be it breaking into the world’s most secure factory by trying to post your cantankerous pet guinea pig through the letterbox, to persuading that same pet guinea pig to wear a pink sparkly friendship pendant.
She told me when she started planning An Alien in the Jam Factory – there was no jam factory. She had the characters and an idea for a plot but no setting. After a little brainstorming with her children, the answer came to us: The most inventive jam factory in the world.
She spent weeks chatting to her children about jam inventions. Throwing random ideas out and jotting them down in a notepad. They started by thinking about exciting flavours of jam, before moving onto what else jam could be used to make. She drew a map of the jam factory which was recreated by Jenny Taylor the illustrator for the inside cover.
Chrissie explained that one of the most important elements of writing children’s books for her is the pacing. She likes to ensure every chapter has a real purpose in driving the story forwards. To achieve this she includes an element of action and humour within each chapter and end them all on a cliff hanger. Her tip is to give yourself time to plan and ‘percolate‘.
“I find a story can start off full of promise, only to meander aimlessly and lose its way if I haven’t planned it properly. I start with the idea, then let things percolate a little. I draw, brainstorm, free write & walk until the plot evolves and I have a clear understanding of the character motivations. The thinking time is just as important as the writing time. Plus, it makes the writing process a LOT quicker and easier.”Chrissie Sains
She revealed once she starts writing the first draft, she just keeps writing without reading back at all. If there’s a particular part of the story that’s proving tricky to write, she adds a holding title in capitals, (e.g. FALLS IN A VAT OF JAM) then moves on to the next part. She elaborated writing is all about editing and it’s totally ok for the first draft to be a bit rubbish. Once you’ve got the first draft, you’ve got something to work on. Whatever stage you’re at, don’t give up.
The second book in the series was launched this month on the 7th April 2022. A treasure map is discovered , revealing there’s a hoard of treasure buried under the jam factory, but Scooter and Fizzbee are not the only ones after the treasure.
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You can buy copies of An Alien in the Jam Factory and The Treasure Under the Jam Factory by Chrissie Sains from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.