An interview with Sophie Wills about The Orphans of St Halibut's and her favourite funny books for kids

The Orphans of St Halibut's by Sophie Wills. Book cover and author photograph


This month our Cockatoo subscribers have been reading The Orphans of St Halibuts by Sophie Wills. We love the book’s quirky humour, David Tazzyman’s amazing illustrations, and especially the brilliant and brave cast of characters. Here Sophie tells us what inspired the book and which other funny books for kids she would recommend you read next.

What inspired you to write The Orphans of St Halibut’s?

The Mending House was inspired by a Victorian workhouse I visited. Pamela the goat is based on a real goat I once knew, who terrified me as a teenager. I wasn’t thinking about her when I started the book, but she barged her way into it. And the movie Home Alone, where a boy fights off burglars who try to break in to his house, was at the back of my mind, too.

Who do you think is the hero of the story and why?

Herc’s determination and positivity is pretty impressive. But, for me, Stef is the most heroic, because he spends much of the time scared and sick with nerves but, despite that, he does what needs to be done, and is driven by compassion.

Why did you decide to set it in a world where sugar is banned?

Living in a cake-free world is one of my worst nightmares, and I figured if I wrote it in a book, it would never happen in real life. I hope that’s true. My son was once told he wasn’t allowed to have a chocolate bar in his otherwise healthy lunchbox because it was too sugary - that made me think about why those sorts of rules are made, and what it would be like if they were applied more widely.

Do you have a favourite place to write?

I have a nice big desk and a swivelly office chair, and I sit next to a window that looks out onto the garden. There’s a bird feeder next to the window, and sometimes robins and even parakeets come to peck right next to me. While the schools are closed, I have been banished to the kitchen table. That’s OK, though, because it’s near the biscuits and the tea.

Why did you choose to write books for children?

I think the books we read as children can sometimes stay with us in a way that seeps into our very bones and helps make us who we are as adults. So it’s a privilege to be able to write for them. Besides that, I don’t really want to write about the sort of subjects that adults are interested in, such as mortgages and furniture and wallpaper and which is the best motorway to take. Children know how to have fun.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Winne the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner were my favourites as a child and I think they still are, actually. I used to read them over and over again because they are so funny, and warm, and wise. Winnie the Pooh, Rabbit, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo… I wanted to be in that group of friends so much - to go hunting for heffalumps, and to visit Rabbit’s burrow so I could eat all his honey and then get stuck on the way out.

Which other funny books for kids would you recommend to our subscribers?

The Mr Gum books by Andy Stanton, illustrated by David Tazzyman (who also illustrates the St Halibut’s books) always make me laugh so hard I worry I’ll burst something important inside my belly. The language in them is so playful and they are brilliantly absurd. I also love Little Badman, written by Humza Arshad and illustrated by Henry White – great slapstick humour and killer one-liners. Serena Patel’s Anisha: Accidental Detective books (illustrated by Emma McCann) are an absolute howl, and wonderfully puzzling mysteries, too. And finally, The Thornthwaite Inheritance by Gareth P. Jones is just my cup of tea: dark and very witty.

Will there be a sequel and what do you think will happen to the orphans next?

The next book is called Pamela’s Revenge, and it’s due out in August. Crumplepatch Railways arrives to connect Sad Sack to the rest of the world – or at least to Little Wazzock down the road. The orphans must survive an onslaught of shockingly bad behaviour from the adults around them. There are plenty of sweet treats (some of them not used as intended), bad knitting, posh hotels, extraordinary DIY, and very dodgy goings on in the pharmacy. Oh, also some custard in unusual places, and a goat stew.

Like the sound of The Orphans of St Halibut's? Grab a copy, along with our fun-filled activity pack, here.


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