At the height of the pandemic, Thursday evenings became an opportunity for the nation to express its gratitude for the NHS. But when it became apparent that her own children were not entirely sure what they were clapping for, Ellie Levenson (Journalism, 2001) decided a book was needed. Here she talks about life at City, how she became a children’s author and her new book for under 8s; “We Love the NHS”.
Can you tell me about your time at City?
I loved living in London – I shared a flat in Tottenham with a friend from my first degree at Manchester University – and we really made the most of it, going out most nights either with friends or to cultural events. The journalism department had loads of talks from big name journalists and I went to every single one, and at the time the postgraduate courses were small enough that you knew everyone and all socialised together after the talks. Also one of my good friends worked round the corner at Amnesty International which seemed hugely glamorous and we would meet for lunch on Exmouth Market or for after work drinks. Shorthand wasn’t compulsory for those of us on the periodicals course but I chose to do it anyway which meant getting to College for 9am every day so in many respects it was like having a job rather than being a student, and the City name opened doors so there was a steady stream of internships, or work experience placements as we called them then, all unpaid, so many of us worked bar jobs as well. We must have been exhausted but I don’t remember it as such.
What happened after you graduated?
I got a job immediately on a Business to Business publication called The Lawyer. I hated it and also had just split up with my boyfriend who I had met at City, so I applied for a competition in The Guardian called Netjetters. I won the competition and got to travel around the world business class for four months with a weekly column for The Guardian online. This was just at the beginning of interactive journalism, and readers sent in suggestions for what to do in each place and I was expected to engage with this and report back – this was pretty novel then as it was pre-social media.
When I got back, I got a job at the Fabian Society, a Labour Party affiliated think tank, working on their magazine and publications. I loved it – again, a bit like City, we worked hard and played hard, and spent every evening at political events networking and soaking up the atmosphere of the Westminster Bubble. But we were paid a pittance and after two years I left to become a press officer for a charity. This wasn’t me at all and after six months I left with the intention of going freelance, working in a bar if I had to, but I got lucky and applied for a part-time job teaching journalism at Goldsmiths College. I have been there for 15 years now, freelancing part-time for national newspapers and consumer magazines and teaching part-time. Since having children, I have reduced my teaching hours and also changed the focus of my freelancing. I no longer have time to write same day opinion pieces and fast turnaround features, so I have longer term deadlines instead and write books, for adults as Ellie Levenson and for children as Eleanor Levenson. I specialise in making political issues accessible for all audiences, including children, and my most successful children’s books have done just this, first with The Election in 2015, which explained voting and democracy to under 8s, and now with We Love the NHS which explains our health service to the same age group.
How did you become a children’s author?
I started writing children’s books when I had my own children and read some amazing ones and some less good ones, which made me think ‘I can do better than this’. As with journalism, success came with dogged persistence and following leads. I sent many pitches to many publishers and the moment one showed a bit of interest, I pursued them until it became a firm commission. I then set up my own publishers when no existing publisher wanted to publish The Election, which was a great decision as it went on to become a bestseller. My company, Fisherton Press, also publishes work by other authors – our tag line is ‘Books for children that adults like reading’.
We Love the NHS, my most recent book, specifically came about when after a few weeks of enthusiastically clapping for the NHS with my children, now aged 4, 7 and 9, I thought to ask them how much they knew about what it was we were clapping for and it quickly became apparent that a book was needed! It has the same amazing illustrator as The Election, Marek Jagucki, and is also aimed at under 8s.
What has been the most rewarding experience?
I love it when schools invite me in to speak to children about my books and being a writer and it is as if you see the lightbulbs go on above the kids’ heads when they realise a writer can be a normal person speaking to them in a normal way and that it is something they could also do.
What has been the biggest challenge with regards to setting up your own publishers?
Whether to publish each project through Fisherton Press, my company, or seek a bigger publisher with a bigger budget is always a quandary, although I am a control freak so often prefer the opportunity to be in charge that I get from Fisherton Press. Being so small also means no clunky meetings spread out over weeks and months which meant we could get We Love the NHS from conception to completion in ten weeks.
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
When I was at City, my flatmate gave me great advice when I was talking about the kind of career I wanted – which was writing half the time and working in education half the time. ‘Just because no one else does it, doesn’t mean you can’t,’ she said. In fact, other people do also do it, but I hadn’t met any at the time, and it is exactly what I have ended up doing. So I guess that translates to not being afraid to forge your own path. Also, my parents always gave me the age-old advice of be polite, meet deadlines and fulfil the brief and I think that is what nearly all successful people actually have in common.