How far would you be willing to go to make friends?That is the underlying question for today’s hilarious picture book.
Margaret Aitken is a Scottish writer for children. As a child, she could often be found outside hoping to stumble upon the characters of Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter. After studying medicine at the University of Glasgow, she worked as a doctor in the village of Doune, a filming location for Outlander and Game of Thrones. Along with her husband and three sons, Margaret is currently enjoying life in a New England-style farmhouse in Maine. When she isn’t writing she can mostly be found at the beach, in the garden, or baking something gluten-free. You can learn more about her at her website.
OLD FRIENDS has a ridiculously funny premise with a wonderfully sweet delivery. Marjorie is a little girl who is missing her Grandma. It’s hinted at (and not ever once explicitly told) that Grandma is gone, probably forever. Marjorie is a unique child as she loves to bake, knit, and garden. No one her age appreciates these things so Marjorie is also lonely. Until she hatches a plan to make friends at a nearby Senior Citizen Community Center. But her efforts are foiled and she must resort to … disguise! Here we see the evergreen topic of “looking for a friend” completely spun on its head. This is NOT your typical book about dealing with grief at all. Grief is touched on very lightly here, as humor is the strongest component of this book.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get from Scotland to Maine? When did your interest in picture books start?
Margaret: Absolutely! In 2017, we spent a year living in Calgary, Alberta. My husband was a fellow in orthopedic surgery at the time. He was due to do a second fellowship in Charlotte, N.C., the following year, but unfortunately, that position fell through at the last minute.
We decided that we weren’t quite ready to go back to the U.K. and wondered if there were other opportunities in the U.S. A quick Google search brought up a job listing in Augusta, Maine, and before we knew it, we were flying to the East coast of the states. Somehow that was six years ago, and we’re still here!
I fell back in love with children’s books after the birth of my eldest son. As a baby, he was a bookworm who demanded to be read a constant stream of stories. As I read more and more picture books, a voice inside me wondered if I could write one myself.
It wasn’t until several years later, in January 2019, that I listened to the voice, sat down, and did my research. I quickly realized that I had found my passion and my people!
Me: Your story is so wonderfully written. I fell deeply in love with Marjorie. Is she based on anyone you know? What inspired this story?
Margaret: Thank you—that means so much! Marjorie isn’t based on one person specifically, but she is inspired by elements of my own personality and by my mum, who loves crafting and knitting. I am a nostalgic person who loves vintage fashion, movies, and books, and I wondered what a picture book character who was an ‘old soul’ would be like. That idea brought me to Marjorie.
Although I wasn’t necessarily conscious of it at the time, thinking about it now, I can see where the inspiration for the story came from. When I first developed Marjorie’s character, it made sense to me that she would relate to people older than her. I thought back to my experiences of spending time with seniors in my family and in the community.
As a young Family Medicine doctor in the U.K., I interacted with many people of advanced age, and it always struck me how much the older generations have to share. Unfortunately, there is often little chance in our western society for different generations to interact outside of their own families. I thought it would be interesting for a young character to actively seek out that interaction, but I wanted the story to be uplifting and have a sense of humor.
As I pondered more, my mind thought back to my elder brother, David, who dressed up as an elderly lady for Halloween one year as a boy. That’s when it struck me—Marjorie may have to dress up in disguise to find the interaction with seniors she is looking for. Marjorie’s alter ego—Undercover Granny—was born!
Me: I suspect that Marjorie is mourning the loss of her Grandma, not just the distance created by land or sea (though it’s never stated at any point in the story). Her solution to solving her grief is both creative and humorous. What is it you hope young readers will take away from this story?
Margaret: Yes, the ‘loss’ of Granny is kept open-ended, but it is fair to assume that Marjorie’s Granny has passed away. My editor, Erin Siu, brought this element during the editing process. Initially, I was a bit hesitant because I wanted the book to be vibrant and fun, but I think the loss adds another element to the story and gives it depth—editors are VERY clever like that! In addition, Marjorie’s loss helps to explain her strong desire to fill the role that Granny played in her life.
I hope young readers will realize that grieving is part of life, and although a person can never be ‘replaced,’ there are ways to keep the memory of loved ones alive. For example, with her Granny gone, Marjorie could have stopped her favorite hobbies to fit in with other kids. But instead, she sought out ways to honor her beloved Granny and stayed true to who she is.
Me: I love that. What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Margaret: As a Brit in the U.S. I’m never totally sure if my sense of humor will translate. I remember thinking that my idea for the story would either be seen as an original idea or fail miserably. So, I was pleasantly surprised when my CPs liked the story and even more delighted when the story helped me sign with my agent.
Me: What does your writing process look like?
Margaret: I tend to get ideas for picture books as formed stories. I can write an entire first draft relatively quickly. The revision stage takes me much longer, as I find it challenging to look at my work with an editor’s eye. I appreciate my wonderful critique partners who help me make my stories stronger.
Currently, I am working on a middle-grade novel which is teaching me a lot about outlining, pacing, and the structure of scenes. I am definitely not a ‘pantser’ when it comes to longer works. Outlining is my friend!
Me: The illustrations by Lenny Wen are wonderful. I especially loved all of the little details included in each picture. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Margaret: I feel incredibly lucky to have been paired with Lenny. I believe she is one of the most talented illustrators around, and her career is going from strength to strength.
When I first saw the sketches, I was overjoyed. It felt like Lenny had brought to the paper what I had imagined in my head, but she also added so many layers of her own. The personalities she brought to the page are so varied and rich that I would love to join the Friends Club myself and meet all the members!
One specific surprise was the little ginger cat that becomes Marjorie’s friend. It wasn’t mentioned in the text and is entirely Lenny’s wonderful idea.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Margaret: One lesson I have learned through the process of writing picture books is to spend more time on the ‘big picture’ concept of the story before focusing on perfecting words and sentences. The picture book market is incredibly tough at the moment, and a sweet, well-written story isn’t enough on its own to be published.
One piece of advice I’d give to PB writers is to brainstorm five to ten alternative plot lines, characters, and themes, and see if you can make your concept more original and marketable. The more hooks, the better! Editors need strong hooks to get your story through acquisitions so that your book has a chance of standing out among the hundreds of other titles.
That is great advice Margaret. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, this book is released NEXT week and you can preorder it here. This is a story with heart and humor, two very difficult things to capture. Trust me when I say that this is a book you won’t want to miss.