LUCK AND PLUCK is the name of an optimistic series of 19th?century children's books by Horatio Alger, but it could also be the title of a biography of Monica Hughes, one' of Canada's most successful writers of books for young people. She has earned an international reputation for her contemporary adventures and science fiction novels, notably the "Isis" series. She is published in both Britain and America and has been translated around the world. But success, came late and with difficulty, and her entry into the children's book market came about through a happy conjunction of perseverance and coincidence.
Hughes, who is now 63, has lived in Edmonton since 1964 and came to Canada in 1952. She was born in Liverpool, England, but spent her first five years in Cairo, Egypt, where her father, a mathematician, taught at the university. After the family returned to Britain she attended girls' schools in London and Edinburgh, where she discovered the Carnegie Library and its wonderful store of classic children's books.
A trim and rather elegant?looking woman with an open, pleasant manner and a deliberate and cultivated way of speaking, Hughes says that as a child she read voraciously but not indiscriminately. (Her father, "who had decided views on the matter," would not allow her to read anything that he considered worthless. A similar shudder runs through Hughes when she thinks of young girls today devouring things like "Sweet Valley High" and other "junior Harlequins.")
Hughes's favourite children's author was, and is, E. Nesbit, author of such adventures as The Railway Children, The Enchanted Castle, and The Magic City. Nesbit's sense of imagination is echoed in Hughes's writing and, ironically, Nesbit's belated success as a children's writer is echoed in her career.
Hughes also loved Jules Verne, whom she read in the original French out of "marvellously dusty large volumes with wonderful engravings." Her first published children's novel, Crisis on Conshelf Ten, is a Verne?like undersea adventure. Hughes consciously attempts to make her own books readable not only to a contemporary audience but also to posterity by avoiding slang and brand?name references.
"Some writers use all those things and their books are wonderfully direct and of the moment but in a few years the audience changes and they become dated," she says. "I once included a reference to a rock group in a book, Abba, I think it was. Today I don't think that name would mean anything to young kids reading it."
Hughes says she always wanted to be a writer, even as a child. As an adult she began to write short stories and articles for magazines but, she says, "the response was a flood of rejection slips." After living briefly in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) after the Second World War, she decided that Africa was not a place to raise a family and moved to Canada where her attempts to become a published author continued, with more short stories and novels, still to no avail.
It was not until 1971, when her youngest child was in school, that her luck began to change. She decided to try her hand at the children's book market and settled into an orderly routine. She sat at the kitchen table for four hours each day for the next three years, writing in longhand with a Bic pen on looseleaf paper.
The third manuscript she produced turned out to be a science fiction adventure inspired by a Jacques Cousteau television special on the undersea world. She sent the proposal off to as many Canadian publishers as possible. Most did not reply (even though she enclosed a self?addressed stamped envelope) and those who did replied negatively. One "major Canadian house" simply sent her letter back with a red line through it and the single word "NO," an act of rudeness Hughes is still bristling over 15 years later.
Finally, her proposal was accepted, conditionally, by a Canadian publisher. "They would only accept it if I found a British or American publisher, 'she explains. "That was very common in those days. Canadian publishers were willing to make money as distributors but didn't want to take the risk as original publishers."
The Canadian publisher sent the manuscript off to a British house whose books they distributed. "Me editor there decided that it was not something they could do but she loved the manuscript so much that she took it over on her own to a friend at Hamish Hamilton and they accepted it." Hughes did not find out the true story until several years later ("the Canadian publisher pretended they had 'done all this work for me finding a British publisher but it was all the purest accident") when the editor visited Canada and telephoned her in Edmonton.
"I still can't believe the luck of it," marvels Hughes. "Suppose she had been in a bad mood that day or snowed under with work or it had gone to someone who simply scrawled a red NO across the top. I really think then I would have been so discouraged I would have quit altogether."
But the story has a happy ending. This summer Hughes. published her 20th young adult novel, The Refuge (Doubleday). She has twice won the Canada Council Children's Literary Prize and in 1981 she won the Vicky Metcalf Award. Hughes simply believes that it took her all those years of experimenting before she "found, her natural voice" as a young adult author but her story also illustrates that luck does not just happen, it is earned by hard work.