by Jo Simmons
When I first started writing children’s books, back in about 2010, I used to ask my young kids for help with story ideas. One son suggested ‘the boy who can speak to fruit’, the other said ‘can someone hit someone else over the head with a plank’. No help there, then.
Fast forward to 2014, and I was kicking around ideas for books that would appeal to middle grade readers. I didn’t bother asking my kids – clearly not worth it – but I was struggling on my own to come up with something funny and catchy. Then a friend told me about an argument she had had with her eleven-year-old daughter. At the end of the row, her daughter said “I wish I could get a new mum on the internet”. Bingo! That was it – the idea for I Swapped My Brother on the Internet.
It’s not often that ideas arrive like this, out of the clear blue sky, but it’s really fantastic when they do. I took this nugget and twiddled it a bit, deciding that the protagonist would be a boy, who would swap a brother, not a parent. I thought the idea was strong and clear, and vaguely contemporary in that it featured the internet. So, a bit of technology, but not enough to lead me out of my depth or quickly date the book. The idea of a sibling swap online agency, that allowed kids to exchange their existing sibling for a new one, offered a taste of the kind of freedom and control that children lack in ordinary life. I also thought it could be really funny.
I love funny fiction for kids, and I’ll fight anyone who says it’s not as worthwhile as ‘serious’ fiction. Funny fiction almost always tackles serious issues, too, and it does so with the kind of light touch that children accept. Friendship problems, loss, absent or preoccupied parents, growing up – they’re all there, in amongst the gags and prat falls and crazy situations. I also think funny fiction can tempt in reluctant readers – look guys, reading is fun, honest! – and parents and kids can bond joyfully over a funny book. I remember reading Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books to my boys when they were tiddlers, and we’d all be falling about laughing together.
In I Swapped My Brother on the Internet, I wrote in lots of misfit siblings for the protagonist Jonny to attempt to get along with. I was thinking of all those classic audition scenes in films – The Commitments, The Full Monty – in which unsuitable people show up for the role. To make sure the siblings really fell short, I had Jonny make a simple error when filling out his online application – he forgets to tick the boxes marked ‘living’ and ‘human’.
As a result, Jonny gets sent a merboy, a boy raised by meerkats in the Kalahari, and the ghost of Henry VIII. Unsurprisingly, they all fail to adapt to life as his brother, but these quirky, fantastical details push the story from a domestic, present day, wish-fulfilment tale gone wrong, to something a bit weirder and more escapist.
The book went through multiple rewrites, as they do, and by the time it was published in 2018, I had slightly lost the love for it. So, it was a very pleasant surprise to see how much children enjoyed it, once it made it out into the world, and how much they embraced its impossible characters and unlikely premise.
On school visits, I’d ask the kids to design their perfect brother or sister swap. Some just wanted a sibling that didn’t tease them or steal their stuff, but others went way further. They didn’t even want a human sibling, preferring a robot that would do all their homework for them, or a terrifying chimera creature that would scare the neighbours. That’s the joy of fiction, right there. No child can swap their sibling online, and they know that, but isn’t it fun to explore what it would be like, through a book, if you could?
So, I’m really grateful to my friend and her daughter for having a fight, and for the neat little book idea that came out of it. I doubt whether The Boy Who Can Speak to Fruit would have hit the same spot.
A word from our friends at Bloomsbury about the guided reading website:
Here at Bloomsbury, we’re passionate about reading and so we’re proud to publish some of the best children’s books around: from award winning fiction and stunning picture books to diverse and engaging readers for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.To help you and your class get the most out of this wealth of brilliant books, we’ve partnered with the experts at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education to create teaching notes for over seventy of our favourites, including books by Sarah Crossan, Julia Donaldson, Neil Gaiman, Patrice Lawrence, Zanib Mian, Louis Sachar and many, many more. The teaching notes are packed with brilliant ideas for activities and engaging discussion material, helping you to put high quality books at the centre of your teaching.