When she was a presenter on Blue Peter, Konnie Huq noticed a recurring theme.
“So many times I’d ask kids what they wanted to do, and they’d say ‘I want to be famous’, but they weren’t really sure what for,” she says, recalling how different the attitudes were to her own.
“My parents came over [to the UK] in the 1960s. And for them, the dream was to go into the maths or science profession, be an accountant, a doctor, an engineer, because that was the revered path.
“And over here, we have a crazy dearth of people going into STEM professions [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. But people revere going into the media, or having a reality TV show. And so it was kind of like the antithesis of my parents’ background and upbringing.”
The presenter’s own passion for such subjects is one of the reasons she has written a children’s book with a central character who embraces learning. Cookie Haque (whose name is notably similar to Huq’s, and who also has Bangladeshi parents) loves long words and her favourite subject is science.
Huq is the latest in a long list of celebrity names to enter the world of children’s literature. And if the sales figures of some of her peers are anything to go by, it could be a highly lucrative move.
Comedian and Britain’s Got Talent judge David Walliams is now one of the best-selling children’s authors in the UK. In the US, Whoopi Goldberg, Octavia Spencer and Julianne Moore have all had books published for children.
But although she’s well-known, Huq doesn’t seem to consider herself a celebrity by today’s standards.
Despite breaking the record as the longest-running female host of Blue Peter (where she remained from 1997 until 2008), she has taken a step back from TV presenting in recent years. Was that a deliberate decision, and for any particular reason?
“Yes. Children,” she laughs, recalling how difficult she found juggling parenting and presenting commitments in the past.
“I did this show for Sky called King of the Nerds, which was a reality show looking for the world’s biggest nerd, essentially, celebrating the geek, which is also what I’m about.
“But anyway, I remember I’d had a baby. And I thought I could do this all. But it was filming in Chelmsford. So I couldn’t [stay] overnight because I had a baby. And it meant I would be picked up from my house before the baby had woken, leave from London to get to Chelmsford at 05:30am, having expressed milk, get on the motorway, do the filming.
“And I’d present some challenges and I’d be willing us to wrap because I had this half-hour window where I would miss rush hour. And I’d sometimes be sitting there exploding with milk, because you have to keep feeding the baby all day.
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“I could get a nanny, but the time goes so fast, already both [my children] are in school and it feels like it was just yesterday they were born… these years, they don’t come back.
“So I think after [King of the Nerds] I consciously took a step back, because I just thought, ‘I’m doing everything badly’.”
Although she’s done bits and pieces since then, like guest presenting The One Show, Huq hasn’t taken on a major TV gig since King of The Nerds, which aired in 2015.
“It’s not going away, there’s loads of time left,” she points out. “I’m lucky in that the media is much more freelancey. So I didn’t have that pressure that lots of people have if you jump off the ladder, then you get left behind. And also I do think you can get too ambitious with it. And like, what, at the cost of sort of seeing your kids grow up?”
The TV industry has, of course, changed beyond all recognition since Huq was on Blue Peter.
“I used to watch TV in the days that I was on TV,” she says. “But in that time, streaming has come along. So I can honestly say, I have no idea what’s on real-time TV. It’s often box set viewing, or documentaries. And so the sorts of stuff that I would present isn’t stuff that I’d ever watch anyway.”
That attitude reflects many viewers’ habits today, and shows like Love Island are rare for still being appointment-to-view television for 16 to 34-year-olds.
“And you see, already I’m 10 years past the top end of that demographic,” Huq says. “I’ve gone past that thing of watching something a bit vacuous because the older you get, your time is more valuable, especially after having kids. So I could never invest in that. And also I’ve never been a big reality TV watcher.”
Working in the world of children’s entertainment is the main aspect of Huq’s Blue Peter days which she is carrying over into her new career as an author.
“Children’s has always been my bag really,” she says. “Ever since coming out of university, I’ve worked in children’s television, we had the Blue Peter Book Awards, I’ve done a lot of initiatives with children from deprived backgrounds and a lot of STEM learning initiatives, and so [writing a book] is sort of taking all that and putting it together.
“The book is essentially about a nine-year-old girl who feels like a bit of an outsider, but I think we all do at times,” she explains. “And so it’s kind of ‘stealth woke’ because it is a fun, laugh-out-loud romp, but there’s really good social values in there and issues of inclusivity and diversity.”
Stealth woke? “Yes, my friend actually coined that phrase!” Huq laughs. “But I’m always a big believer of education, but through entertaining, so that you don’t feel like it’s worthy or that you’re learning or it’s a chore.”
It’s a phrase you could see catching on in publishing. The term “woke” has been used in recent years as a way to describe someone who is progressive in their attitudes. It’s not always a compliment, with the urban dictionary describing it as “the act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue”.
The idea of teaching children in a fun and engaging way which doesn’t feel like learning is, of course, a technique that most children’s authors use. In Huq’s case, she has added her own illustrations, something which she feels strongly helps “bring the book to life”.
They represent “the main character’s thoughts”, Huq explains. “They’re her flights of fancy, and she sees the absurd in everyday life. The way her mind works, she’s quite similar to me, she jumps about a lot, or she’ll go off on tangents.
“And that can be quite all over the place, especially for children. So the the narrative is the story of what happens to her, the pictures are what she’s thinking.”
Like her character, Huq has found joy in words and writing. “I remember as a kid liking long, funny words. And often being into things like that can be perceived as square. But actually, as we know now that we’re adults, it’s really cool. The more knowledge you have, the better.”
Cookie and the Most Annoying Boy in the World by Konnie Huq is published on Thursday 8 August.
- Blue Peter
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