Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Barrington Stoke and Keren David's The Disconnect

I felt like an idiot coming as late as I did to knowledge of Barrington Stoke, but I know now and I'm here to spread the word. I went to a seminar given by the publisher Barrington Stoke at the Children's Books Ireland conference a few years ago. They talked about children with dyslexia, reluctant readers, and other people who had trouble with reading books. Their novels are shorter than usual novels, they use a dyslexia-friendly font, and many young people report that they hadn't read a novel until they found their first Barrington Stoke.

One of the things I love best about their novels is that the stories are aimed at a particular age (eg 'teen') but the reading level is set below the average complexity of that age. Anyone who has taught children or adults who have trouble with literacy will know how difficult it is to find novels which aren't patronising for their age, and no teenager wants to sit and read the books they had in Primary school beside their peers who are reading the latest YA. Barrington Stoke choose only the best writers for their books (life goals: I'd love to be one of them some day) so you're getting top quality fiction which can be read by young people who might be reading their first book or just developing a love of fiction, but also won't bore readers who have a reading age on or above the average.

The last Barrington Stoke novel I read was Keren David's The Disconnect, aimed at teen readers whose reading level is the average for someone aged 8. It's coming out in April and it's brilliant. It's the story of a group of young people who are challenged by a mysterious business person to give up their phones for six weeks. There is a cash prize if they can manage it and Esther needs that money so she can visit her dad, sister and new baby nephew in New York. The challenge soon puts a strain on friendships, however, and Esther has to weigh up whether or not the sacrifice is worth it.

One of the things I enjoy most in good novels is a strong sense of place and I loved this in The Disconnect. It's set in London but it is strongly the London of Esther and so it feels local and cosy in a way that I could never experience the city as an outsider. Esther's mum and her partner run a cafe called Basabousa with Middle Eastern/British fusion food which sounds so wonderful that I'm hoping it's based on a real place. But the story is just great in general. It's full of friendship dilemmas, thoughts about identity and fitting-in, and a realistic look at youth culture's reliance on social media. It made me wish I could go back in time to the days when I was classroom teaching. I'd bring a class set and we'd all read it. It's that kind of book- I can't imagine a young person not enjoying it, whatever their reading age.

Many congratulations to Keren! Look out for The Disconnect when it lands in the middle of April, and check out the other Barrington Stoke titles too. If you have a favourite Barrington Stoke novel please leave a comment- I'd love to hear about them.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Why Libraries Matter by Emma Pass

Image licensed for reuse on Creative Commons

Forget Hogwarts. Never mind Narnia. When I was a kid, there was only one place where magic really happened. In this place, I could go anywhere. I could be anyone. I could fly; I could make myself invisible; I had superpowers.

That place was my local library.

As soon as I stepped inside, I entered another world. I never knew what I might find – what worlds waited for me between the covers of the books lining the shelves. Even better, I got to take that magic home, and it didn’t cost me a penny. For a child with a reading habit like mine, the library was a lifeline, feeding my book addiction and filling up my brain with stories and experiences and life.

Later, as an adult, I got a job in a library, and had the chance to see life from ‘the other side of the desk.’ I was also an aspiring author, writing stories of my own. I spent every day surrounded by books, by authors, by words. That familiar magic filled the air; I took it in with every breath. When I was supposed to be shelving books, I’d find a quiet corner in which to read. Between customers, I’d scribble ideas down on old receipts and tickets and request cards. I’d look at the books on the shelves and daydream about seeing my name on a book spine one day.

But there was more to it than that.

The stereotype of the library as an archaic, dusty institution, inhabited by stern, bespectacled librarians saying SHHH! every time you so much as breathe persists to this day. But that’s never been my experience, even as a child. The library I worked in was a cheerful, welcoming place. We had author events, storytimes, readings and more. And best of all was seeing children come in – some already keen readers like I had been, others just starting their first uncertain forays into the world of words.

I’ll never forget the fourteen year old boy who “didn’t read”, only, after we recommended a list of authors to his frustrated mother, he did. Or the kids devouring their favourite series who came running in every week to see if the next book had arrived.

I was able to volunteer to help out at events like the Big Book Bash, an annual celebration of books and authors for young people in care. I was asked to join a team of writers for a website that recommended books to young people. Later on, I was lucky enough to set up two writing groups – one for adults, and one for children (which I still run after we were adopted by Writing East Midlands), passing on my love of words to other people and – I hope – encouraging them to find their own magic in writing. After I got a book deal – much to the surprise of my colleagues, who I’dkept my writing a secret from, never daring to dream I might actually get anywhere with it – I had two book launches at two different libraries on the same day.

But libraries aren't just about books. The one I worked at certainly wasn't. There were the people working their way through their family trees. People who came in to use the computers to do their work, type up CVs, look for jobs or simply keep in touch with far-flung friends. People who needed information, who needed help, and it was us they came to – I hope that most of the time, we were able to give them what they needed.

This is why libraries matter. They are important to me on a personal level, but it goes wider than that. I know the difference libraries make to people because I’ve seen it – and I know what a difference they made to me.

We must look after our libraries. They are truly democratic – a space for everyone – and in this age of increasing ever-cuts and austerity, they need to stay that way.

Emma Pass lives in the north east Midlands. Her YA novels ACID and The Fearless are published by Corgi Children’s Books/Penguin Random House. You can find more details about her writing and workshops on her website at www.emmapassauthor.wordpress.com.

Sunday, 24 March 2019


Book ideas are funny things. Some take ages, years even, to form. Others take shape in an instant, like genies rising out of a lamp.

My latest work for Bloomsbury, the Golden Horsemen of Baghdad, belongs firmly in the second category. I was doing a school visit at a Bradford Primary a few years ago. It was a gloriously sunny day and we had lunch out in the playground, sitting in the shade of gigantic industrial chimney which the children were convinced was haunted.  We talked about our ambitions and one boy declared in the softest of voices, ‘my biggest wish is to go truffle hunting with my father in the Afghan mountains.’

Cover by Freya Hartas

The boy’s father was Afghani. Trapped in the fraught and long-winded process of sorting out his immigration paperwork, he still lived in Afghanistan. The son and his English mother visited once a year but never during the truffle hunting season.  It was a Eureka moment for me. Like most children growing up in the west, my ideas of the middle east were of the Ray Harryhausen and Arabian nights kind.  You know the sort of thing: flying carpets, evil viziers and that omnipresent genie in the lamp. But here was another version of that world. Not one based on myth, but on a reality - and still as magical and fascinating.

In an instant the schoolboy infront of me became the hero of a story, an adventure set in the Muslim past but that did not involve my cliched ideas of spells of and sorcery. Earlier that day I'd been talking with teachers about the lack of books about the golden age of Islam, which was now a part of one of the National Curriculum. 

And so The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad was born. It tells the story of Jabir, a boy whose family are threatened with eviction for falling behind with the rent. Travelling to Baghdad in search of a job, he is caught stealing food and thrown into prison.  But someone there notices that Jabir is good at carving, and he is released to help with a vitally important mission. The caliph, Harun Al-Rashid (yes, him of the 1001 Nights) is sending Charlemagne a water clock decorated with twelve gold-encrusted horsemen.  Jabir is to carve them but it seems the evil landlord has other ideas, setting in motion an adventure story that sees the boy fighting for his life.

The book is getting some very good reviews and I'm hoping that my readers in Leeds and Bradford are pleased with it too. Incidentally, about my  cliched ideas of flying carpets and genies in lamps? Jabir's water clock is partly to blame for that. When it reached Charlemagne's court in 804AD, no one there could figure out how it worked. The emperor's court came to the decision that it was simply 'sorcery', so propagating the myth of the magical middle east.

The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is out now, as is Saviour's latest picture book The Unicorn Prince. Follow Saviour on twitter @spirotta.  

Want Saviour to visit your school and tell stories about the Islamic Golden Age? Visit his website at www.spirotta.com.

A 1910 lithograph showing Charlemagne receiving Jabir's water clock.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

A Ghost Writer's Quiz by Steve Gladwin

After the death of my wife Celia in 2006, I turned against horror and ghost stories in a big way. Maybe it was partly because reading one of them seemed to anticipate the circumstances of her death so much that it all felt a bit too close to home. However, if I told you what it was called and who it was by, it would ruin one of the answers to the quiz which follows.

Recently and for reasons I don't fully understand, (ie it coincides with another health crisis) I have come back to these stories in a massive way and have rather embraced them like some long-lost ghostly brother. Now I can't get enough of them. Maybe it's due to not being able to find my own answers that I end up seeking the help of those who have to deal with and often accept the impossible and allow such fictional darkness to fall over me like some psychological comfort blanket. 

Of course a far bigger reason is that I really enjoy reading them and thanks to kindle, which serves its own purpose in this respect, I can download vast collections and choose to wade through them in strict order - as I am doing with Algernon Blackwood - or cherry pick the spookiest in other writer's work. But I have a bit of a collection mania and just as hearing Christoper Maltman singing Schumann's Dichterliebe resulted in my simply having to have the complete Schumann songs, so I am finding with Blackwood and others. But, whereas you can easily collect all thirteen CD's of Schumann's songs, if you start looking into nineteenth and twentieth century ghost story writers, you can disappear into the vaults of horror and never reappear. There is so, so much wonderful stuff and, having decided in good faith to pick and explore the ghost stories of thirteen of these luminaries and maybe write about them in a two part blog, two things have happened in the last two weeks.

First the trouble with doing this is you go in with the intention of reading several writers and get so caught up with the work of one, you lose most of the time you started with.

Secondly and literally a few minutes ago, I discovered that in compiling my thirteen, I was about to miss out one of the greatest of all ghost story writers, Then I remembered another - and so on.

Of course people will read this blog and the one which follows next month and will ask where so and so is. No-one for example may forgive me missing out Dickens, and both A Christmas Carol and The Signalman etc etc, There are just too many to choose from.

So in the interim I have devised a quiz for this month, giving me hopefully plenty of time I read all the others, (which currently is most of them), before next month

There follow some pictures of famous writers of ghost stories, followed by a jumble of some of the most stories they wrote. What you have to do, without initially using wikipedia or some such aid, is to match them together, with either one or both of their stories. I've mixed up well-known stories with some lesser knows works and there is one author who doesn't appear at all but is represented by her cousin, who was also rather good at this sort of thing and probably should be there him self as he wrote one of the great horror stories of all time. If you spot the two of them and the connection, there may be a special prize for the first one.

OK then folks, exam conditions, off you go and I'll be back next month with some more detailed enthusiasm.

Here then are are a list of their works. I've included two for each writer. Seaton's Aunt, The Haunted and the Haunters, An Incident at Owl Creek, The Wood of the Dead, Lot No 249, The Room in the Tower, Man Sized in Marble, Long Tom and the Dead Hand, The Monkey's Paw, In the Eyes, The Tell-tale Heart, Schalken the Painter, The Star Trap, The Great God Pan and The Beckoning Fair One,

And also All Hallows, The Damned Thing, The Occupant of the Room, The Leather Funnel, The Horror Horn, John Charrington's  Wedding, Yallery Brown, Jerry Bundler, Afterwards, The Black Cat, Mr Justice Harbottle, The Squaw, The White People and The Painted Face.

NB I've just checked and I've only read ten of the thirty so far, so I have a lot of spooky homework to do before next month. Best of luck with the answers.

All images courtesy of wikipedia apart from the tenth, which I can't quote a source for, or I'd give away an answer. 

Friday, 22 March 2019

Digital Decluttering, by Dan Metcalf

Anyone here subscribe to fantasy author William King’s email newsletter? 
You should
A few weeks ago he posted a newsletter titled ‘Digital Hobo’
in which he discussed the concept of digital decluttering, 
and introduced me to the daddy of the movement, Cal Newport:

"Newport’s last opus, Deep Work, profoundly affected my thinking 
about work, writing and how to deal with technology. 

 His new book has had a similar effect.

I am convinced by his arguments that our attention is being fragmented
by our use of technology, 
particularly smartphones.

Newport’s thesis is that our attention is snared by companies like Facebook
using similar methods to those used in casinos. 
We become like Skinner’s pigeons, 
constantly tapping away at the screens of our smartphones
to the detriment of our concentration and our work."

I was unaware of the term but had already started to take steps towards
what I saw was an essential change in my life. 

Sometime last year, I got rid of my smartphone and instead
bought a tiny, distraction-free dumb phone. 
The AIEK device (I’d never heard of the company either) 
is smaller than a credit card and has minimal functionality. 
It can text and make calls… that’s about it. No internet, wifi, games or apps.
It’s like going back to the late nineties but you can't even play Snake

I made the change because even when I had finished a day at the laptop,
I was attached to my phone, looking at twitter, facebook, youtube etc.

I even started to get an ache in my thumb on my right hand from scrolling and swiping. 
So in the interest of sanity and being more connected to my family, I ditched it. 
Now my free time is exactly that - free. No pings of emails from the smartphone.
It also means that I only check social media in work hours which saves a lot of time.
I find I have become more streamlined, only checking notifications
(which I have silenced for all but my favourite FB groups) 
and not scrolling town the feed/timeline.

The theory behind this is considered and rings true. 

The aforementioned Cal Newport defines DEEP WORK 
as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task
and the thesis of the book is that 
“The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare 
at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. 
As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, 
and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task?
 Sounds like writing a book to me 
(other examples are coding software,
 extrapolating data from complex spreadsheets and databases
and getting to grips with difficult concepts in a small amount of time. 
But for our purposes, let’s stick to books). 

As a writer, the ability to concentrate on the task of telling a story is paramount,
and digital devices are fragmenting that attention
 to the point where the author would be better off going offline
and hiding in a hut far from civilisation to finish the work-in-progress.

So what to do? Newport suggests the digital declutter -
I’m reading Deep Work at the moment and have yet to come to that part
but William King suggests using FREEDOM,
a service which allows you to block certain websites or the entire internet
for periods of time (9-5, say). 

Remove games and other temptations from your work PC. 

Go to a workspace that doesn’t have wifi (increasingly tricky I find). 

Swap the tablet for an old-school amazon kindle, 
the kind with e-ink and no swizzy apps. 

Better still, swap the devices for good old books - they don’t run out of battery.

And if all this sounds a bit over-the-top ask yourself this: 
do you want to spend your time answering emails, reading tweets
and scrolling through pictures of your old school friend’s holidays, 
or do you want to get that book written?

Dan Metcalf is a children's writer from SW England. His book Paw Prints in the Somme, based on the life of a cat in the trenches of WW1 is available here.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

A 54 year old fairy.

Like many writers working alone, I can get a bit tired or lonely or discouraged, but meeting the children who read my books (and even if they don't read my books or can't read at all!) always cheers me up and inspires me.

On World Book Day this year I went, dressed as a fairy, to read 'The Fairiest Fairy', my picture book beautifully illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw, to Nursery, Reception and Year One classes in a local school.

The thing is, for me to be dressed as a fairy means that I put on a pair of wings over my own clothes and wear a flowery head dress. On World Book Day, I was wearing my own clothes, the clothes I wear often - a dress with lots of books on it, and (subtly!) sparkly tights and red Doc Marten boots. I am a 54 year old woman writer and I don't look like a stereotypical slender, young Disney fairy. And yet just having the wings and a head dress was enough for a little nursery child to ask me in wonder,: 'Are you a REAL fairy?'

And I love that so much. A little 3 year old is still open enough to see me as fairy material, and I wasn't wearing pink and didn't have a wand! And I think that says so much about how wonderful it is to write for small children. They are so open and non-judgemental and imaginative and gorgeous and not yet affected by pressure and stereotypes. Writing for them is really a wonderful creative opportunity because they think it is perfectly fine for all sorts of things to happen which the world says shouldn't. Being with and writing for them gives me permission to  live like that too - to see the world in a fresh way and take people - including myself - out of boxes.  Anything is possible if you think like a child!

I was so busy on World Book Day I didn't take any photos, and I am waiting for the school to send me them - but here is a photo from another time I have been a fairy.

I wonder if putting my wings and headdress on when I write, might free me to create a truly magical  story - what would a real, 54 year old fairy write? Perhaps I'll try it and see!

Here I am as a 50 year old fairy!