Holly Hopkinson author Charlie Brooks has made school author visits irresistible by bringing a central character – Beanstalk – to meet her adoring young fans

Words: Libby Norman

There’s no more exciting way to bring a good read to life than an author visit, except perhaps an author visit that includes a miniature Shetland pony starring in the actual book. But, as author Charlie P Brooks has discovered, the author will be totally side-lined. “What happens is that I immediately get upstaged and have to try and get their attention. I can see them looking longingly out of the window at the pony.”

Beanstalk is, he says, “surprisingly good” and without that pony mean streak immortalised by Thelwell. She enjoys going out for a ride in her miniature pony box, accepting the attention of enthusiastic children with the graciousness of a natural-born star. Schools know they are on to a winner with pupils, although there is always the practical issue of live ponies being not even remotely housetrained. Ever resourceful, many get around this by putting down cardboard or, when the weather’s fine, finding a good outdoor spot for the pony fan club to assemble. Children, of course, see things from a refreshingly open-minded perspective. “She did an enormous poo the other day, which absolutely thrilled her audience,” says Brooks.

Charlie Brooks – pony express
Charlie Brooks says he is used to playing second fiddle to Beanstalk, who is far more enticing to young audiences than any author

The current flurry of pony visits is down to the launch of the third book in this successful series for the 8+ age group, The Super-Secret Diary of Holly Hopkinson: Just a Touch of Utter Chaos. Brooks and his four-legged muse Beanstalk have visited schools from Shrewsbury to Sherborne, spreading joy and lifelong pony obsessions in their wake.   

Holly is an old-school comic heroine with hilarious Mrs Malaprop tendencies. “She does take her writing quite seriously. I think she thinks she’s a modern-day Samuel Pepys. She chucks a few words in, just to underline the fact she’s a serious writer. And, as you know, she normally gets them wrong.” Originally this was intended as a means to get a belly laugh out of parents, but Brooks finds that children are much smarter than we give them credit for. “Actually, it turns out children are more than capable of getting the joke.”

Brooks and Beanstalk have visited schools from Shrewsbury to Sherborne, spreading joy and lifelong pony obsessions in their wake”   

Children are tough judges of books that they don’t relate to – anecdotally, boys can be more reluctant to warm to female central characters – but Brooks says boys and girls respond equally positively to Holly’s madcap mind. “I’m always at pains to say to the children: ‘do I look like someone who is going to write a book for girls?’ Holly is a really engaging character. Once you introduce them to the book, they can come through that.”

The cast around Holly does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to winning round all reading persuasions. There’s a pleasingly hapless family relocated from London to the sticks after dad loses his job, and a magic pocket watch that usually delivers unexpected results in the hands of well-intentioned Holly. And then there’s Beanstalk. The great joke here is that Holly’s grandpa (“the worst farmer in the county apart from Jeremy Clarkson”, says Brooks) had a carthorse in the original draft. “Then HarperCollins said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if you could take the carthorse round to schools’. I looked at them and said, ‘are you mad, that is going to be a nightmare?’.” And so it was that the Beanstalk character morphed into a carthorse foal who turns out to be a miniature Shetland pony – one of many epic farming fails by grandpa.

C Brooks Beanstalk Sherborne
Pupils at Sherborne School in Dorset were delighted to have the chance to meet a star character from the Holly Hopkinson books

There’s a double joke in all this for adults in the know because of Brooks’ successful career as a jockey and racehorse trainer, and his close associations with farming and the land. He still breeds a few horses and writes a racing column for The Telegraph.  “Stick with what you know is probably where I started,” he says. “And so, Holly’s mum having quite a high-powered job, doofus dad losing his job. That wasn’t a huge stretch for me to imagine. I’m both Holly’s dad and Holly’s grandpa I suppose – the worst aspects of both!” Even the magic pocket watch was inspired by a timepiece his own grandfather gave him, and which still sits on his desk today.

Brooks’ original motivation for writing The Super-Secret Diary of Holly Hopkinson – described in a delightful HarperCollins short film in 2021 to launch the series – was his desire to write books he could read out loud to his own daughter. She, as it turns out, is also an able helper when it comes to dreaming up literary ideas and has become a trusted critical reader. “Super critical,” says Brooks. She is also helping him with his next series, now well down the production line, about a sniffer dog that loses its sniff. This will feature another real Brooks family member – beloved setterpoo Mildred. Too early to start planning school visits yet but, should Mildred the setterpoo agree to go along to meet young fans of the book, the author will, once again, be completely upstaged. Charlie Brooks, it has to be said, is a man who doesn’t seem to mind that at all.

* The Super-Secret Diary of Holly Hopkinson: Just a Touch of Utter Chaos by Charlie P Brooks is published by HarperCollins, £12.99. The audiobook, read by Claudia Winkleman, is published in August, £8.49. Harper Collins Publishers

Further reading: Marvellous Matilda