Matt Haig is a number-one bestselling writer for adults as well as an accomplished Children’s book author who has won the Blue Peter Award, the Smarties Book Prize and been shortlisted three times for the Carnegie Medal. When his son asked him what Father Christmas was like as a boy, Matt hit upon a brilliant idea for a Christmas book, which he wrote and named A Boy Called Christmas. Since then, Haig has written two sequels to the extremely popular first title and all three are illustrated with wonderful energy and intricacy by Chris Mould, winner of the Nottingham Children’s Book Award.
We spoke to both of them about Father Christmas and Me, which is the last title in the trilogy, and the fun they had creating the entire festive series. We also quizzed them about their favourite Christmas memories, the pressures and joys of writing a Christmas book and that special feeling that this really is the most wonderful time of the year…
This is the third and last book in your festive series. How will it feel to say goodbye to those characters (including the iconic Father Christmas)?
MATT: I was crying as I wrote the last page. That’s how soft I am. But we may be back. Not with this precise story, but with something set in this world.
Did you know how the trilogy was going to finish when you started it?
MATT: No. Not really. But I knew that all three books were about the idea of belonging, so I knew the kind of FEELING the end would have, but not the exact circumstances.
How did the story of Father Christmas and Me develop?
MATT: I wanted to explore the idea of outsiders. Because Father Christmas, Mary and Amelia in a way are all outsiders, but together they make a family. It’s a book about an unconventional family really.
We love the Eflhelm wedding ceremony. Is it a lot of fun coming up with Elfhelm peculiarities and explanations for Christmas traditions?
MATT: Yes. Spickle-dancing gives me particular joy, for some reason.
Chris, how did you become an illustrator and how has your style evolved?
CHRIS: I went to art school for six years and left there wanting to illustrate children’s books so I started pestering publishers by knocking on their doors and asking them to give me work. Eventually, after many rejections, it worked. I had always followed the pen and ink tradition and wanted to keep it alive. So although I tried digital artwork I went back to traditional methods.
There’s wonderful humour in your illustrations for the Christmas trilogy. How do you create that in the artwork?
CHRIS: It’s always interesting to me that people find so much humour in my work. When it was first mentioned to me I wasn’t even aware of it so I think it must be a natural thing. Although that’s a bit like saying ‘I’m really funny and I don’t even realise it.’ I think I’m naturally not a very serious person and tend to see the silly side of things so it pops up a lot.
Of the whole series, what image was the most fun to draw?
CHRIS: Definitely any busy Elf scene. I love those. They take a long time but they’re tempting and too much fun to miss out on and the children love finding all the detail so it’s fun to hide things in there.
And now your wonderful Father Christmas is featuring on a special edition National Book Token! How excited are you to see it being used in bookstores this Christmas?
MATT: It’s quite surreal, actually. I used to get a book token every year.
CHRIS: The book token thing is a real special moment for us although I do tend to panic a bit with things like that and imagine people might hate it so I cringe if I see it. I hope I’m the only one that feels that way about it. But still, I’m very flattered that they used it.
What is the best thing about writing children’s books?
MATT: The freedom of it. A child’s imagination is wide, wide open. There is no better reader than a nine year old.
There’s a bit of a battle in the book between Easter and Christmas. What makes Christmas feel particularly special?
MATT: The sense of goodness. Of giving. Of magic. Of spending it with people you love.
Is there an added pressure to live up to the excitement and wonder of Christmas for children when you’re writing a festive book?
MATT: Yes, I suppose so. But that’s the fun bit. Trying to conjure up the magic you yourself used to feel so easily.
What are your favourite books about Christmas?
MATT: A Christmas Carol, and Raymond Briggs’ grumpy Father Christmas books.
CHRIS: Oh well that would be, in no particular order – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Father Christmas by Raymond Briggs and The Snowman even though it’s not an actual Christmas book but snow was always something I hoped for as a child at Christmas. And not forgetting ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ (Clement Clarke Moore) which of course is a poem and has been published a lot in many forms. It always evoked that Christmas tension and excitement so brilliantly. And it has had a lot of really lovely treatment from illustrators over the years.
Do you have a favourite Christmas memory?
MATT: So many. Choosing a tree with my dad. Highlighting films and TV shows in the Radio Times. Family parties on Christmas Eve. Getting a BMX. So many.
CHRIS: A favourite Christmas memory would probably be all the family moments. I miss my father not being around and I always loved being with him at Christmas because he worked long hours and at weekends so having him there at that time was always treasured.
Publicising your memoir, Reasons to Stay Alive, in some ways prompted your children’s Christmas trilogy. What do you feel like writing next?
MATT: Well I have just written another book about mental health. After that another novel for kids.
And what’s next for you, Chris?
CHRIS: I have two big projects next year that I can’t share at the moment and that’s always VERY frustrating because I am excited about the work. Matt hopes to revisit the Christmas books at some point so I’d be very pleased if we were able to do more of that in the future. We are immediately very busy with other projects but I hope it happens. I’ve loved having the excuse to be Christmassy the whole year round.
Matt’s photograph was taken by Kan Lailey and Chris’s was taken by Jonathan Ring.