Katie Cotton's gripping new novel The Secret of Splint Hall takes us back to the end of World War 2, and to a house with a stunning secret....
Katie studied English Literature at Oxford University before becoming an author and editor of children's books. Her books Counting Lions and The Road Home were both published internationally and received starred reviews in the US. When she's not writing, you'll find her hiking up a hill or eating cake.
The Secret of Splint Hall (Andersen Press)
When sisters Flora and Isobel go and stay with their aunt and his awful husband at Splint Hall, they discover a secret that the family has kept for hundreds of years...
Katie Cotton's The Secret of Splint Hall is a gripping and inspiring adventure story that also gives us a glimpse into what people's lives were like at the end of World War II. Katie Cotton tells us what inspired the story, shares some of her research and gives us a short reading from The Secret of Splint Hall in this video:
Q&A with Katie Cotton
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Sure - I love books and biscuits, I live in London and I'm expecting my first baby. In my day job, I work as a publisher of picture books for younger readers, which means I get to think about stories and look at beautiful artwork all day (lucky me).
2. Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes! When I was younger, I used to write (terrible) rhymes in my family's birthday cards. My stepfather found one the other day and read it out to his colleagues (I must find it and burn it when I next visit).
When I was a teenager I wanted to be a journalist and I wrote some articles for a student newspaper at university. Then I got the chance to do some picture-book writing as an editor in my 20s, but I didn't start writing for older readers until about six years ago.
3. What is your new book, The Secret of Splint Hall, about?
It's a fantasy adventure about two sisters, who have to move to a new home - Splint Hall - following the end of World War Two. They soon learn that Splint Hall is a house full of mystery, and eventually they uncover an ancient family secret that will lead them to go on the adventure of a lifetime…
4. Was there one thing or event that helped inspire the book?
Yes, I actually had an air-raid shelter in my garden when I grew up. It had an old corrugated roof and was full of rubbish, with a swing made out of rope that someone had made so you could get down to it (just like in my book). It was dark and full of spiders, so a bit scary for a shy child like me, but also tremendously exciting at the same time.
5. Did you know of a house like Splint Hall, where the children in your story move to?
I wish! Not personally, but I have visited some National Trust houses which I think inspired the book too.
6. The Secret of Splint Hall is set just after the Second World War - but families seem to have little to celebrate. How did you research the era?
I read a lot of wartime and post-war diaries, including those by Nella Last, and Austerity Britain by David Kynaston. I was struck by how difficult the years following the war seemed to be for a lot of people.
I think we have this perception that everyone snapped back into normality after VE Day, but that wasn't the case. People were still processing the trauma and it took a long time for cities and towns to be rebuilt. Plus, rationing continued for nine years after the war ended.
7. How are your main characters, sisters Flora and Isobel, affected by the end of the war?
They've lost their father and their home, so they've been affected quite a bit. This would have been unlucky, but sadly not very unusual. Isobel suffers from headaches and a fear of the dark, because of nights spent in the air-raid shelter during bombing raids. For Flora, living through something as serious as the war has made her feel like she has to be a grown-up before her time.
8. What would you find most difficult about living at this time?
This might sound flippant but I think it would be the rationing. You were only allowed about 50g of cheese a week! I can eat more than that, easily, in one sitting. I'd also hate the attitudes towards women, particularly the idea that women shouldn't work.
9. There is quite a bit of commentary on class and social status at that time, how did that emerge as a theme in your story?
Something else I discovered when researching was the decline of the class system following the War. The Downton-Abbey / upstairs-downstairs arrangement that had been so rigid before started to unravel, as a lot of servants went away to join the war effort and didn't want to come back.
It's a generalisation, and perhaps a naive one, but I like to think that people coming together during the War made everyone think twice about the belief that some people were superior to others, just because of which family they were born into. This was an idea that I felt I just had to put in the book.
10. A lot happens in caves beneath the house and village (and lots of surprises - which we won't give away here!) - did you need to make some trips underground to research it?
I probably shouldn't admit this but I have only visited one or two caves in my lifetime. I'm quite claustrophobic and the thought of going underground terrifies me, so it's mostly imagined. Flora and Isobel are very brave!
11. Other than a great adventure story, what would you like your readers to take from The Secret of Splint Hall ?
Thank you for calling it a great adventure story, that was definitely my aim. I'd like readers to take courage from Flora and Isobel's journey. Even though times might be hard, there's always something that's still worth fighting for.
12. Where and when do you prefer to write? What are you writing currently?
I prefer writing in the mornings, definitely, at my desk at home while eating my breakfast and drinking tea. Sometimes I realise it's nearly lunchtime and I've still got my pyjamas on! I also like writing in cafés but they've got to be exactly the right level of busy. Too quiet and I get nervous, too loud and I can't concentrate.
I'm currently redrafting my second book, which is another fantasy adventure but this time set in the present day.
13. What do you enjoy doing when you're away from your desk?
Books are one of the great loves of my life, so reading is usually what I'll be doing in my spare time. Other than that, I have embarrassingly few hobbies, but I like baking, watching films and going on walks in the countryside.