Sandi Toksvig, comedian, children's writer and broadcaster, is one of this year's Story of the Year judges. She talks to Louise Levene about the books she reads with her children Jessie (eight), Megan (six) and Theo (two).

My father read to me a lot, both in Danish and in English. Hans Christian Andersen is a lot better in Danish: the imagery, the style, the feeling of it. You get to the heart of them a bit better. I think all stories are better in their original language - I once tried to learn Russian for that reason. In all languages there are words that simply don't translate: ``The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak'' can be translated into Danish as "The vodka's OK but the meat's gone off".

My father always told lots of stories he'd made up, wonderful, long, rambling stories about the Wild West. He was very politically correct so Indians were not bad guys. It was about the excitement of pioneers, the whole notion of trying new things. He also had names for traditional elves in the house. We had one called Gomulka. I only discovered years later that he was Wladyslaw Gomulka, a ghastly Polish dictator. With my kids, we now have Benazir Bear.

Most of my education was in the States so, frankly, I'm lucky I can read at all. I read from the age of four. We had a house full of books and my brother and I were allowed to buy a book a month from the Scholastic Book Club. My favourite book was Harriet the Spy. It's about a little girl who wants to be a writer and writes the truth down in a notebook, and her friends find it and she gets into all sorts of trouble. I just took the kids to see the film, and they haven't done a bad job of it.

I used to read to my brother, but it wasn't until I came to school in England that I came across reading out loud in class. I'd never done that before. I remember I had to read out from Richard II, and I read the line number as the part of the text: "and he beat his 200 breasts".

My eight-year-old is reading me Little House on the Prairie. It's wonderful; we're really enjoying it. They are splendid books, full of the most extraordinary amount of detail. I read them as a child along with Little Women, which I enjoyed very much.

With my own kids I do an awful lot of making up stories. We play a game where I start the story: "A little girl went down the road and she met something beginning with R" - and they say "Rabbit!" and we go on. They love that because they're part of the story, and it's up to me to pull it together. We play a lot of word games; a lot of I Spy, or trying to make up sentences with a particular word in them. To be honest, I think they like it best if I make stories up, especially stories with them in it or with people that they recognise.

Am I trying out my children's book ideas on them? To be honest, what happens is that I do a story, they like it, and then they ask me to write it down. There's no money in kids' books unless you come up with a marketable series, but that's not my interest. I'm after something that's interesting to both adult and child. We haven't done any Roald Dahl yet; I suppose I veer towards books that I enjoyed as a child.

I'm much more concerned that they have a really wide range of material. There's this notion now that there's a list of what children ought to read. There'll be a kind of homogenisation: everyone will have read Far From the Madding Crowd and Bleak House and you'll all have read the same thing - very boring.

If I had a campaign in life as far as current children's literature is concerned, it would be to get rid of the Letterland books. It's a reading scheme, and it's so boring: "Q is for queen. The queen is not happy." Children are bright, even if they can't read yet. Why can't we push them, and make it a bit more exciting? When I write children's books they have to go off to this centre in Reading and be checked for "language content". I get long, detailed letters back: "This has been language checked."

We listen endlessly to story tapes in the car. The absolute favourite is Bernard Cribbins reading the Sophie stories. I'd only use tapes in the car, though. If it's bedtime and I'm there I'll read to them; you can't beat a proper bookn

Walsh in the hot seat: We are delighted to announce that John Walsh will join the panel of judges for this year's competition. One of our leading feature writers, and the artistic director of this year's Cheltenham Literary Festival, John is former literary editor of The Independent. And he has three children under nine. Phew. As well as Sandi Toksvig, his fellow judges on 23 May will include Colin Hughes, deputy editor of The Independent, and David Fickling, editorial director of Scholastic Children's Booksn

How to enter: You are invited to submit stories of 1,500-2,500 words, which must arrive on or before 8 March 1997 at: PO Box 13047, London WC1A 1NR. You may enter only once, and entries must be made by the writer, not on his/her behalf. Entries must be typewritten, double-spaced and on one side of the paper only. We will not accept stories with illustrations. Manuscripts will not be returned, so please keep a copy. All entries must be unpublished, but published writers may enter with new material. Each entry must be submitted with both a cover page and title page. The cover page must feature the story title, and the entrant's name, address and telephone number. The title page must feature only the title of the story. The story should start on a new page, and the author's name must not feature on any page, so that all entries can be judged anonymously. The winning story will be published in The Independent Magazine subsequent to the final judging of the competition, which concludes on 23 May 1997. The top three stories and up to 10 others will be published in the autumn, in the anthology Story of the Year 5, by Scholastic Children's Books.

This competition is not open to employees of, or relatives of employees of, Scholastic Ltd or Newspaper Publishing plc or anyone connected with the competition. Proof of posting cannot be accepted as proof of delivery. No responsibility can be accepted for entries which are delayed, damaged, mislaid or wrongly delivered. The judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. Entry grants to Scholastic Ltd the exclusive right to publish an entrant's story in all formats throughout the world for the full legal term of copyright. A copy of the form of the contract may be obtained on application to Scholastic Ltd. By submitting an entry, an entrant agrees to be bound by the terms of, and to sign, this agreement if called upon to do so. Any story chosen for publication in the anthology that does not win one of the top three cash prizes will receive a fee of pounds 200. Any entry not submitted in the form specified will be deemed invalid. If your story is not published in the anthology or in the newspaper by the end of December 1997, these rights revert to you. Entry into this competition implies acceptance of these rules.

Comments