Children’s author reveals the secret code behind her success to KATHERINE MacALISTER.

Lauren Child is the face and brains behind Charlie and Lola, and Clarice Bean, some of the UK’s best loved children’s books.

But now there’s a new girl in town – Ruby Redfrot, a super-smart agent and code-cracker, who looks set for similar global supremacy. She’s the reason behind Lauren’s visit to Oxford, because the author will be hosting the final of a nationwide children’s code competition tomorrow, held in Ruby’s honour.

Lauren, 46, said: “My new character Ruby Redfrot may be a super-smart agent and code-cracker, but is also a 13 year-old girl. So when I wrote Ruby Redfrot, my publishers and I wanted to come up with an idea which schools might like to get involved with and we thought that it would be fun to find the best code creators out there.”

Competition aside, Lauren relishes any opportunity to get out there and meet her readers, saying it’s crucial to her work.

“I absolutely love meeting children at events, particularly the older readers of Clarice and Ruby, and getting letters from readers. It is wonderful to hear their feedback and it often gives me ideas for stories. I get lots of letters and emails from readers too, and I try to write back. They often tell me about the funny and moving things about their lives.”

So where did Lauren’s inspiration for Ruby Redfrot come from?

“It was really from the American films and TV series that I loved as a child,” Lauren says. “People often think that I was a great reader, but I wasn’t. I much preferred the film and TV series that I used to watch when I was growing up. There were the Nancy Drew Mysteries and the films of Jodie Foster and Tatum O’Neal such as Freaky Friday and Paper Moon, but also TV detective series such as Hart to Hart, which I loved.

“For other books, and illustration, a lot comes from artists that I love – Matisse, Braque, and from film and other illustrators that I admire such as Angela Barrett and her work from Snow White and Princess and the Pea, Ronald Searle – Molesworth or St Trinians illustrations.”

Lauren’s successes speak for themselves. She won the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award in 2000 for I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato, the first of her Charlie and Lola picture books. Her third Clarice Bean novel – Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now has sold more than 500,000 copies. Then in October 2005, the BBC launched a 52-part animated series of Charlie and Lola which has won three Baftas and aired in more than 34 countries.

And yet Lauren’s is such an inspiring story because it was only through sheer perseverance and pig-headedness that she managed to publish anything at all. Having hawked her wares around London’s publishing houses, she settled into a series of temporary jobs, painting for Damian Hirst, designing chandeliers and decorating china. But no-one wanted Clarice Bean, until Lauren wrote a book called I Want A Pet, which was published, and then everything else was bought too.

So does she still remember the despondency of those lost years?

“It does feel weird sometimes because I did struggle for so long to find a publisher before Clarice Bean That’s Me was published in 1989. But I also knew I didn’t want to compromise and I think I must have felt instinctively that it was worth waiting.

“I didn’t really start out planning to be a writer and illustrator – it was more by accident than design. So my advice would be to try to come up with your own unique style and voice, and just keep trying. It takes a huge amount of determination.”

So does the advent of Ruby mean the end of Charlie and Lola?

“I published Slightly Invisible last year, the fourth Charlie and Lola picture book,” she smiles. “But at the moment there are no plans for more Charlie and Lola picture books, although I have written lots of new stories which would be wonderful to illustrate at some point in the future.

“We are planning some board books of the original picture books and box sets for slightly younger readers,” she says.

“But I don’t really write or illustrate with a particular audience in mind. I suppose it’s something to do with remembering what it felt like to be a child.”

Lauren will also be at Oxford’s Waterstones tomorrow for a Ruby Redfort-tastic afternoon tea-time signing of Look into My Eyes at 4.30pm. Call 01865 790212.

* Lauren Child is coming to New College, Oxford, tomorrow with Marcus Du Sautoy to pit the four winning teams against one another in a dazzling final quiz event and present the runners up and winning teams their prizes