How to be Prime Minister and Survive Grade Five by Carla Fitzgerald

How to be Prime Minister and Survive Grade Five by Carla Fitzgerald

An exciting and entertaining new voice, children’s author Carla Fitzgerald writes about her timely, funny and thoughtful debut novel How to be Prime Minister and Survive Grade Five (University of Queensland Press) for ‘Joy in Books’ at PaperbarkWords:

How to be Prime Minister and Survive Grade Five is the story of eleven-year-old, Harper and what happens when her Dad is thrust into the role of prime minister. Unfortunately, Harper’s dad is terrible in the role. Soon their family is a laughing stock, and Dad disappears to a ‘conference’, leaving his phone behind. With her little sister, Lottie, Harper must secretly take his place and decide on a new policy before it’s too late.

Harper finds herself torn between ideas – should she ban plastic bottles? Or make weekends longer? Can she prove a kid can lead the country better than a grown-up?

It’s a fun and humorous story about power, mischief and what you’d do if you could change the world. Because what kid doesn’t want to do that that sometimes?

Writers understand that ideas usually never come from one place. However, I remember the first spark of an idea for this book. It was nearing my children’s bedtime one evening, so I was looking forward to my peppermint tea, chocolate and much-anticipated ‘me time’. My eldest son starting telling me about his speech day. The topic was ‘If kids ruled the world’ and he’d never been so excited about any of his speeches to date. He was literally jumping up and down on the bed as we discussed his and some of his classmate’s ideas. Not exactly conducive to sleep but I was willing to make an exception. My brain had started ticking.  The kids’ ideas ranged from the outlandish (slippery slides at the entrance to every classroom, free lollies from the canteen) to the incredibly astute (including strategies to save the Great Barrier Reef!). As I listened, I thought about how these ideas encapsulated the joy, sincerity and wisdom of children generally.

The greatest gift though was subsequently seeing Ivanka Trump inexplicably appear at a meeting of world leaders on behalf of her dad. It was jaw-dropping for a number of reasons. And it gave me the ‘what if’ moment I needed. What if the prime minister’s daughter was younger than Ivanka and had all this responsibility? I had this image in my head of a tiny girl sitting at a table of world leaders. It was funny and ridiculous but also kind of inspiring. After that, the idea became whole.

There were other influences of course, including our own former prime minister’s ill-timed trip to Hawaii, his fondness for the ukulele and the government’s general lack of action on issues such as climate change (okay, so maybe some of writing this was therapy for me:).

The biggest challenge was grappling with all these big ideas and wondering if it was too ambitious to pin down in a first novel. It’s not the first novel I’ve written – there are a couple in the bottom draw – still, it was a lot to take on. I didn’t want it to be a heavy, serious tome, where the young people have the weight of the world on their shoulders. My focus was on capturing the excitement that kids feel when they’re the boss (the excited bouncing on the bed feeling!). My kids often fight about who will be the boss of a game and this was taking it one step further. Surely the thought of endless lollies and longer school holidays would be irresistible?

In with the laughs and the wish fulfilment, I didn’t want to ignore the reality that with power comes enormous responsibility and opportunity. I know a lot of young people who would love the power to do something about big issues like climate change. There are some fabulous books for kids about recycling and taking care of our planet. Individual responsibility is vitally important but our elected leaders have the power to make significant change and I wanted to reflect that. Now I’ve gone and made it sound all earnest, which it isn’t (I hope). I was always striving to strike the right balance between the fun and the serious.

Once I found the voice of Harper, the writing came more easily. On the one hand Harper could have been one of those kids who grabs the power and runs with it. But I thought it would be more interesting if Harper was reluctant to be in the spotlight and didn’t really want to take on her Dad’s role. We have to make life hard for our protagonist, don’t we? It would be too easy if she wanted to be prime minister.

I spent a lot of time reading about children of world leaders and watching footage of them during victory speeches. I became fascinated about how they felt in those big moments, when their lives were changing forever. Chelsea Clinton has a fair bit to say about her experience. In the end, Harper’s sister, Lottie, became the keen one and Harper the reluctant hero. I had to be careful that Lottie didn’t overshadow Harper. Harper may be quiet but she is brave and ultimately proves to be stronger than anyone thinks.

There were other challenges as well, like finding out details of the prime minister’s security, staff and living arrangements. They don’t exactly offer that up on a plate! And of course, I couldn’t knock on the door of Kirribilli House and ask for a tour. Certainly not in Covid times anyway. So I did the best I could cobbling together information from historical records and watching footage of events that had occurred on the grounds of Kirribilli House.

Carla Fitzgerald (photo: Polly Jane Photography)

The team at UQP nurtured this novel and helped it become exactly what I hoped it would be. Clair Hume’s enthusiasm and vision for the manuscript from the very beginning was invaluable. The editing process was quite long and coincided with periods of lockdown, during which my kids were home from school and kindy. I had to get creative about how and when I worked. But I’m grateful that the UQP crew gave me such a thorough edit with talented editors because it’s a better book because of it. I can say that now.

I’m hugely proud of Harper and the book and I hope that readers enjoy it. Maybe one of them will be our Prime Minister one day!

How to be Prime Minister and Survive Grade Five at UQP

Carla Fitzgerald’s website

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s