Beating the odds | Sally Gardner

Written off by her teachers, Sally Gardner is now a bestselling children’s author and outspoken campaigner on education.

Taking inspiration from her own childhood, her latest novel sends three troubled boys back through time to 19th century Clerkenwell. Andre Paine meets her to discuss Dickens, dyslexia and a magic door…

As winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal, Sally Gardner could afford to be content with a career that includes several bestselling books for older children and more for younger readers. The 2013 award for Maggot Moon, about a dyslexic schoolboy in a dystopian version of 1950s Britain, put her in the same league as previous winners CS Lewis, Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett.

As she discusses her latest novel, though, it becomes clear that Gardner is still angry about her own schooling as well as current failings in education – particularly among boys. The Door That Led to Where is set in Clerkenwell and features three teenagers who, she explains, are smart “but not clever in the educational sense of learning”. Her hero, AJ Flynn, is held back by a difficult home life and only manages one GCSE – yet he devours books at his local library.

“How many children are we wasting that are incredibly talented but don’t fit into this ridiculous school system?” asks Gardner. The premise for her mystery story is that a GCSE failure today might actually have fared better with the opportunities available in the 1830s – not such a strange idea when you consider the lack of formal education for Gardner’s literary hero, Charles Dickens. So she sends her characters back in time through a magic door in Phoenix Place car park at Mount Pleasant sorting office, an area she remembers from childhood as partly derelict.

“The door goes through to Mount Pleasant as it would have been in the 1830s, where the River Fleet ran, and beyond that was Coldbath Fields Prison,” says Gardner. “It was also where Dickens put Fagin and his gang – and if you wanted to lose a body the best place was the Fleet.”

The story was also inspired by her “very extraordinary childhood” living in Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn with her barrister parents. “It was incredibly haunted – spooky and scary,” she says of her attic bedroom. AJ goes to work in the same building, which was where Dickens was once employed as a clerk.

Like AJ, Gardner didn’t fit in formal education and was bullied at boarding school in the late Sixties. “I lived in my head, I just told myself stories,” she says.

Gardner struggled with dyslexia and was branded unteachable. Fortunately, she had a breakthrough with her reading at 14 and devoured Wuthering Heights. “I would love my tutors to see now me,” she says.

‘If you wanted to lose a body the best place was the River Fleet’

Gardner managed five O Levels, graduated from Central St Martins and forged a career in theatre design, including student work for Sadler’s Wells and employment on National Theatre productions. She began writing and illustrating picture books in the Nineties but now prefers to “paint with words”.

Her writing life was transformed when she got her first Apple laptop, which enabled her to overcome her dyslexia and “a mind that spins”. Her 2005 children’s historical novel, I, Coriander, was a hit and her books have now been translated into 22 languages.

When she won the Carnegie for Maggot Moon, Gardner made headlines with her acceptance speech criticising the national curriculum, which she believes excludes young people who struggled like she did. “I think the way the education department is looking at schools is incredibly oldfashioned,” she complains.

As well as bashing the then education secretary Michael Gove in her speech, it turns out Gardner once nearly broke the nose of a former prime minister. In the Eighties, John Major was an MP and lodger of fellow parliamentarian Sir Edward Gardner. When his daughter Sally returned to visit the Gray’s Inn flat, Major did not take heed of her warning that she was entering the tiny hallway and got smashed by the door.

“I opened the door to find this man holding his nose,” she says. “That was John Major.”

Gardner used to return to the area when she was an art student, particularly Bleeding Heart Yard, home to the long-established TN Lawrence art supplies (it moved from Clerkenwell to Sussex in 2001). Now based in Stoke Newington, she still regularly visits EC1 for research, to eat at St John and to call at her publisher, Hot Key Books.

She’s currently writing a novel for grownups about an 18th century courtesan. Once again, Gardner’s returning to historical Clerkenwell for inspiration for her story. “It’s an area I love and know very well,” she says.

“The Door That Led to Where” is published by Hot Key Books