Tuesday, 6 June 2023

Berlie Doherty's Dear Nobody by Paul May

Dear Nobody is one of those Carnegie winners that has managed to remain in print since its original publication and which has had a life of its own. It has been extensively translated and much used in schools to prompt discussion about teenage pregnancy. Berlie Doherty says on her website: 'I knew that in Dear Nobody I was handling a difficult situation. It is about two young people who love each other, but it's also about the ways in which love can go wrong, and how sometimes it can make us do things that aren't sensible or that hurt people. In a broad sense, it's about family love and family relationships, how sometimes love turns to hate and drives people and families apart.'

Well, yes, it is all that. But what struck me most about Dear Nobody was that it was about choices and how we make them. When I wrote on this blog about Berlie Doherty's first Carnegie winner, Granny Was a Buffer Girl I said that any of the stories in it could have been expanded into a full-length novel.  Dear Nobody is an organic development from that earlier book. While the story of the two protagonists is front and centre as Helen and Chris struggle to deal with Helen's unexpected and accidental pregnancy, all of their decisions are set against the background of the stories of their parents' and relations' own histories, which they learn about as the book progresses. I was going to say that their choices were influenced by learning about these stories, but I'm not sure that's true. It's more that those histories are held out to the reader as indications of the different paths lives can take.

In order to provide a range of perspectives, the families of Chris and Helen have dramatic pasts, and some secrets, which cast light on the issues of illegitimacy, abortion and youthful marriage. Chris's mum abandoned Chris's dad and their two young children when she realised that she'd married the wrong person too young. She went off to lead an adventurous, mountain-climbing life with her new boyfriend, cutting off all contact with her children. Helen's mum, it turns out, was illegitimate herself, child of a night-club dancer. She was treated as a 'slut' and Helen's mum, her daughter, as a 'bastard'. Then there's Chris's Auntie Jill who tells Chris and Helen about her abortion when she was a young girl. She's very clear that she didn't want a baby at the time, yet her story ends with a definite sense of sadness and regret.

Nothing is more life-changing than giving birth and there are very few choices made in life that are as difficult and terrifying as those confronting an accidentally pregnant teenager. You have to decide how and when to tell your parents and friends. You have to decide where and how you are going to live with this new baby. And you have to decide whether you should have the baby at all. Different possible versions of your whole life are revealed to you in ways that have almost certainly never happened before. 

You are also under pressure. Certainly Helen is under pressure from her mum to have an abortion because she doesn't want Helen and her child to endure the stigma and abuse that she and her own mother experienced. Likewise, Helen's dad is obsessed with his ambition that Helen should go to music college because that's what he always wanted to do and couldn't. Chris's dad is more balanced, but Chris's dad is a man who married too young, and both he and Chris's mum (who Chris meets again for the first time in years) warn Chris about the implications involved when he says he won't just walk away from his responsibilities to Helen and the baby.

In the end, Helen takes control of her own destiny. She alone decides that she will have the baby; she alone decides that she's not ready to share her life with Chris. In that sense the book's message is an empowering one for teenage girls, and perhaps because of that I found Helen a more convincing - or perhaps I mean more interesting - character than Chris. Helen grows through the nine months of the story, and I can't help feeling that Chris is diminished. He wants to take responsibility, but is told that he can't/shouldn't/ is throwing away opportunities/is not ready, and it seems that he takes it all on board. Helen is told she's throwing her life away and refuses to accept that is true.

I think this is a very different kind of book to any that have previously won the Carnegie, one which is intended to put options before the reader, inviting them to consider what they might have done themselves. The way the book ends does encourage the reader to imagine what might have happened to Helen and Chris later in their lives. I find it hard as an adult reader not to be aware of the artifice in the book, the way it's constructed to put this range of points of view about the situation, but I suspect that younger readers see things differently, and become involved and identify with Helen or Chris or both. Indeed I noticed one young Amazon reviewer (how I love scanning Amazon reviews - a vice, I know) who just couldn't see the point of the story about Chris's mother - it was a distraction from the main story.

There are very few other teenage love stories in Carnegie history up to this point. The earliest of these few, The Lark on the Wing by Elfrida Vipont, won in 1950, forty years before Dear Nobody. That book was also about a young girl who wants to pursue a career in music (she's a singer), but there's no question of university - she has to earn a living - and the heroine spends the entire book totally unaware that her suitor is in love with her. It makes quite a dramatic contrast to Dear Nobody, and it was no place to look for other stories of teenage pregnancy or indeed sex. Then I remembered Lorna Sage's memoir, Bad Blood. 

As Clive James remarks on the cover, 'This is not a book for children, but neither was her childhood.' It does however demonstrate that teenage pregnancy need not be a bar to achievement, as Lorna takes her A levels and persuades Durham University to change their rules to admit a young married woman. Her husband Vic goes with her and during term-time Lorna's parents care for the baby. The story was remarkable enough to make the pages of the Daily Mail, and you can read more about Lorna Sage and Bad Blood here.

That was in 1960, so it could be done, even 30 years before Dear Nobody.

Lorna went on to become Professor of English at UEA, where she had the misfortune of trying to teach me about Jane Austen. I can picture her now, behind the crowded desk in her smoke-filled office, fag in her trembling hand, trying and failing to understand why I was incapable of handing my essay in on time. I felt bad about that, and maybe the experience helped me to become more attentive to deadlines later in life. 

Berlie Doherty's excellent and comprehensive website provides much more information about Dear Nobody.


Saturday, 3 June 2023


Since I was a kid I've seen this rhyme on tee-shirts, mugs, postcards and every kind of souvenir possible. I'm working on a series of Cornish myths - specifically ghost stories at the moment - so I thought I'd use it at the beginning of the book. I researched it to make sure there was no copyright issues and could find surprisingly little on its origins. 

Most say it comes from a 14th or 15th century Protestant chant but I couldn't find any actual records of that. A similar litany was found in print in the mid 19th century but the "things that go bump in the night" reference wasn't there.  Another litany appeared in 1850:

From witches and wizards

and long-tailed buzzards,

and creeping things that run in hedge-bottoms.

Good Lord, deliver us.

It's a bit short on the old scanning that one isn't it. Still, I might borrow it for my "witches" book. 

After 1905, the litany and the phrase "things that go bump in the night" appeared in other writings in both English and Scottish dialect so I wondered how it became known as specifically Cornish. It seems that it may have started in 1923 in a crafts community in Polperro, Cornwall. Some women were taught the craft of poke-work (burnt wood design) and the cottage industry that came of that sold many souvenirs inscribed with this rhyme to tourists. 

So maybe, after all, it's "Cornishness" stems from a creative plan by the Cornish Tourism bureau to sell more souvenirs. I'll still use it though because it's cute and suits the light-hearted tone of my book.



Friday, 2 June 2023

A thotoughly confusing new word? By Steve Way


I’m calling on your creativity again folks. (Let’s face it, if anyone, you’re the people to ask!)

I’ve moaned many a time about the language teaching agency that I work with based in Madrid. They are masters at the art of ‘spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar’. Time and again my colleagues and I have begged them to use a proof-reader but our pleas fall on deaf ears. At times I’ve been tempted to offer one of my grandchildren as a candidate since they would clearly do a better job of spotting errors than whoever is (or isn’t!) doing so.

I’m sure, like me, you’ve missed out glaring errors proofreading your own work. It’s amazing isn’t it how, since we very clearly know what the sentence is meant to say, we miss what we’d normally spot instantly? I found that reading the pieces with children helped me spot my mistakes as reading at a pace appropriate for them forced me to read in a different way. Annoyingly this sometimes wasn’t until after some of the pieces had been published!

Last week the work supplied to us was aimed at introducing the students to adjectives such as ‘shrewd’ and ‘courteous’. Slap bang in the middle of this list was an intriguing word, namely ‘thotough’. Clearly they hadn’t been thorough when compiling the list.

This is where you come in. I would be interested to know if you can think of a meaning for this new word that the agency have inadvertently invented. I have two suggestions but I’m sure you will have many more both in quantity and quality. I thought it could mean, ‘someone who is quite tough but afraid of spiders’ or ‘a person prone to toothache’.

In the same week another piece asked the students, ‘have you watched any good shoes recently?’, which possibly in some contexts might make sense but the work was based on TV shoes. Whenever we meet from now on, I’m sure my colleagues and I are going to ask each other if we’ve been watching any good shoes.

Their material contains countless other spelling errors, answers printed alongside questions and they once claimed that, ‘the past participle of eat is ate’. However, their most embarrassing error appeared in a series of articles about clothing. Again, slap bang in the middle of the article (how do they manage it) they had misspelled ‘shirt’ by leaving out the r. Believing I’d noticed this blunder in good time I contacted the agency and they later assured me that the situation had been dealt with. Naively believing them, I introduced my students to the article and was horrified to see that the r was still absent. Fortunately, either because of politeness and sensibility or due to the context, the student read ‘shirt’ and I quickly moved on.

Funnily enough in my first year of teaching, with a class of eight-year-olds, I was initially astonished to see the same offending word slap bang (!) in the middle of a piece of one of the children’s pieces of writing. As she was such a quiet, inoffensive student I managed to restrain what would have been my automatic response to admonish her and had the presence of mind to ask her what she had written. The relevant section read something like this, ‘… and then I found a sheet of paper…’ Relieved that the girl had simply had a creative approach to phonics that just needed modifying, I made sure that she was fully conversant with the spelling of ‘sheet’.

So friends, the meaning of thotough… ?

Wednesday, 31 May 2023


 A quick post for the start of June.  

Ranunculus californicus - Wikipedia

 Last week, I was going through an old cardboard box in my room, and found an old and almost forgotten notebook. 

The pages are filled with my teenage poems, drssed in all the different handwriting styles that I adopted around that time. So often the mood is melancholy or unhappy, as adolescent poetry often is, and many echo the intense religious atmosphere of the convent school I was then attending.

I can sense hints of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Keats and even T.S. Eliot in the line patterns, and an embarassing overuse of flowery romantic 'poetic' language and phrases, but the poems in the notebook also remind me uncomfortably of the confusion, frets and sadness I was feeling back. They are uncomfortable to think about for too long.  

Ranunculus californicus - Wikipedia

Then I suddenly found the lines below and recognised the mood: this is the sense of hope and gratitude that I often feel on my birthday morning, even now, many many years beyond the sixteenth.

I had a lovely birthday, thank you.

 The Sixteenth Year

 This is the summer I have waited for

The ease, the warmth, the sunshine and the flowers,

Verily a blossoming of life in the heart of the soul

A blessing and a mellowing

The early years of waiting, the bitter anguish all gone

Distilled in warmth and sunny hours

And day-warm petals and watching flowers.

Relax and rest and let the sun caress

Those perfect limbs in idleness

The natural safety, the blessed rest

This one safe year of all the years I've known

The best. 

 Ranunculus californicus - Wikipedia

Penny Dolan.

Woops! from a delayed Nick Garlick

 Some rough news made me forget my blog day. Apologies for that. I'd like to make amends with these two. 

The first for a laugh. 

And the other, from Stephen King, that's the best description I've seen yet of the whole writing process.

Saturday, 27 May 2023

On Maintaining a Portfolio Career by Claire Fayers

 Hi all, I'm just over a nasty bout of flu and I haven't had the energy to write lately, so this will be a short post.

In his book, Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer, Michael J Straczynski, says that at any time, you should have at least three different income streams. That way, if one of the income streams folds you have the other two to fall back on whilst developing another one.

It's good advice, and I think it's good creatively too. For the past ten years I've been solely focussed on middle grade fiction. I love writing for that age group, but I'm thinking of branching out into something different. 

Maybe I can follow Tracy Darnton into the world of picture books. Another author friend of mine is starting to write screenplays, but I'm not sure I've got the right sort of mind for that. Maybe I'll completely go over to the dark side and write something for adults. Whatever happens, I can't imagine giving up writing for children. There are still so many more stories for that age group that I want to explore.

Those of you who juggle multiple projects for different audiences, how do you do it? Any tips?

To end with a hurrah: proof copies of my latest book are out in the world. I blogged about the process of writing this book last year  and it's so good to see the (almost) finished copies.

Claire Fayers


Tapper Watson and the Quest for the Nemo Machine coming September

Friday, 26 May 2023

Burnham Book Festival: Sue Purkiss

 Last weekend, I was invited to be part of a book festival at Burnham on Sea, which is in Somerset, just down the coast from Weston Super Mare. I was part of a panel of children's writers, with Alex Cotter and Lu Hersey (both, coincidentally, contributors to this magnificent blog). The session was moderated by Jonathan Pinnock, who writes seriously clever and very funny mathematical mysteries. (If you're like me, you'll be bewildered by them half the time, but you'll also be thoroughly entertained.)

Lu, myself, and Alex.

It was a truly delightful experience. This was only the second year of the festival, but I'm sure it's going to grow. It had a very distinct feel to it: friendly, welcoming, relaxed, inclusive - and very well-organised. Local writers had been invited in to talk about, and hopefully sell their books, as well as the writers doing actual events. Alex led a workshop in the morning for local schoolchildren, who then crossed the road to be shown round the local library. When they came back, and bumped into Alex, they greeted her like an old friend. (The subject all of them were most interested in was how much chocolate she actually needs to fuel her writing.) Going by the programme, there were lots of writing workshops people could sign up for - so altogether, a really good variety of types of event.

We didn't have a huge audience for our particular session, but the people who were there were interesting and interested and had lots of good questions. The title was something about where the magic comes from - but it was generally about children's writing, with reference to our own work. Big shout-out to Nataliya, who took the photograph!

Definitely one to look out for

Wednesday, 24 May 2023

The Nile Adventures; writing about Ancient Egypt, by Saviour Pirotta

When this post drops on the 24th of May, it'll only be four days to the publication of the third instalment in The Nile Adventures series. Purely by coincidence, I have just finished the final draft of the last title in the saga: The Serpent's Eclipse. It's been a long journey with the three main characters - Renni, Mahu and Balaal, three children who live during the reign of Ramesses II, considered to be the most glorious period in Ancient Egyptian history. It's a journey that started over twenty five years ago on a trip to Egypt. 

Cruising along the Nile, with stops along the way to visit awe inspiring sites like Kom Ombo, Philae and Abu Simble, I was struck by the grandeur and majesty of it all: the remains of enormous temples, the walkways guarded by sphinxes, the hypostyle halls. I only had to close my eyes and I was back there at the time of the Renni, Mahu and Balaal, when the temples were still standing and the power of Pharaoh over his people was absolute.

But there was a simpler side to the grandeur, one that seems to have survived into present times. Sitting under a canopy on the deck of our vessel, you could see daily life on the banks of the Nile. Farmers tilling the land with hand tools, (the famous Nile inundation does not happen anymore, thanks to the building of the Aswan dam; mums singing as they scrubbed their infant children clean at the water's edge; boys standing still as statues on fishing boats, hoping to spear a tilapia for supper. I didn't need to close my eyes to imagine these people in Ancient Egypt. They were there in the flesh, doing what their ancestors have been doing since the first temples were built. And it was this aspect of Egypt that I wanted to capture in my stories.  Everyone can google facts about he high and mighty; the Pharaohs, the queens, the viziers, the chief priests of the temples. But what was life like for the children of the farmers, the artists, the simple craftsmen, the sailors on Iteru, the grand river?

I soon filled an entire notebook with scribbles and photos, with ideas for plots and set pieces. Doing my research afterwards, I was struck by the duality of Ancient Egyptian life. On the one hand, the Egyptians celebrated life with verve. Even their language was effusive. Celebrations had evocative names like Beautiful Festival of the Valley. A person might refer to the sunrise as 'the glorious coming forth of the light.' People, no matter their class, dressed up for parties - the rich in their mansions, the poor out on the streets or in the courtyards of the grand temples. They were entertained by musicians, jugglers, dancers and deft magicians.

And yet they were also obsessed with death and the afterlife. In a culture where life expectancy was short, where infant mortality was high and accidents in the workplace a daily occurrence, people lived in fear of death. Everything, no matter how beautiful or precious, had a darker side. The great river supplied the means of life itself but it also harboured death in the form of crocodiles, water snakes and storms.  This duality was mirrored in their beliefs. The crocodile was revered as an incarnation of the god Sobek but also feared as ruthless taker of life. 

This was another aspect of Ancient Egypt I wanted to capture in my series. So the stories have their own duality. One story arc deals with the earthly ambitions of the children. Renni wants to be an artist. His elder brother Mahu dreams of being a sailor. Balaal, a Phoenician princess in exile, wants to learn about the Egyptian way of life. The second arc deals with the afterlife as one foolish act by the brothers brings them up against gods, monsters (both human and immortal) and the ka, the spirit of a dead general. 

I hope the two sides of the narrative blend as seamlessly as life and belief did in the real Ancient Egypt. I have grown fond of the characters, especially Renni who is partly based on yours truly and shares my world point of view. It will be difficult, and sad, to let go of them but new eras and new characters beckon. 

Saviour's The Nile Adventures series is published by Maverick. It is illustrated by Jo Lindley.  Follow Saviour on twitetr @spirotta and on insta @spirotta2858.