Saturday, 25 May 2019

The Books That Made Me Fall In Love With Words by Emma Pass

My mum and dad tell me that when I was very young, I used to come into their room into the small hours of the morning to announce I was bored. So they did what any self-respecting parents driven half-crazy by middle-of-the-night demands for entertainment would do: they taught me to read.

I don’t remember this; for me, reading’s something that’s always been there, like breathing. What I do remember is the books that were more than just books – the ones that made me fall in love with words. (Follow the links to find out more!)

Tim and the Hidden People (series) by Sheila K. McCullagh

I discovered these at school when I was about 5 or 6. While everyone else was listening to the teacher reading about Roger Red Hat (another series by Sheila McCullagh) I’d sneak these off the shelves to catch up with the adventures of Tim, a boy who finds a hidden kingdom and explores it with the help of a cat called Tobias. Often, I’d get so absorbed, I’d be completely unaware that the teacher had stopped reading and was giving me the Stare of Death™ until she came over and took the book out of my hands.

Black Harvest by Ann Pilling

By the time I got to middle school, I’d developed an appetite for ghost stories. One of my favourites was this dark and incredibly creepy book about Colin and Prill, who are dismayed to find out their dorky cousin Oliver is coming with them on a much-anticipated holiday to Ireland. When they get there, though, Oliver turns out to be the least of their worries. Strange things start to happen – a terrible smell hangs in the air, Prill is haunted by nightmares and their baby sister falls ill. In the end it’s Oliver, the only one who seems unaffected, who discovers a connection to the Great Famine and must fight to save them all. I remember this being the first book I ever read where, instead of seeing places I already knew in the real world, I saw places that were completely out of my own imagination, conjured up entirely by the words.

You’re Thinking About Doughnuts by Michael Rosen

I also loved funny books, and there’s few authors funnier than Michael Rosen. This book is about Frank, who has to wait at the museum one night while his mum, who’s the cleaner there, finishes her shift. The exhibits, which include a talking doughnut-obsessed skeleton, come to life and together, they have all sorts of adventures. I got it through a book club at school and read it until it dropped to pieces.

In honour of the great man himself, I’m going to leave you with a video of another of my all-time Rosen favourites – his poem Chocolate Cake. The only word for it is… genius.

What about you? Which books, stories and poems made you fall in love with words and reading?

Thursday, 23 May 2019

A Journey In Seven Books by Steve Gladwin

Reading this I can hear you thinking, 'Ah, it's another of those posts where people list their favourite books and talk about why they like them.' But there, gentle reader, you would be wrong, for this is something completely different - an opportunity for you, the reader, to take yourself back into your own favourite books in the form of a hopefully both therapeutic and relaxing journey. So gather round, draw closer and join me on the magic carpet in the middle of the old library and let's see what we can remember. Let's see what we can find. Let's see if we remember who you truly - ARE!

So if you're sitting in the requisite comfortable attitude, we're going to begin in this library itself and the first of our books.

To begin with take about three quiet gentle breaths in and out to settle yourself and calm your mind.

A single bell sounds. Once. Twice. Three times!

The Book of your Childhood

It's entirely up to you if you choose to shut your eyes and give your imagination full reign, or get up and try and flesh out the bones of the place you're in by filling the library with books and members of staff and old maps and prints - anything to conjure up the atmosphere that suits you best.

So let's find the first of our books. Of all books it should be the easiest to find, but you never know, because doing so involves the furthest search of memory. But it is on one of the shelves in the library and - as you'l find - is actually the gateway to the next place and the next location. When you've found the book however, you'll know and recognise it straight away because it will have the smell and feel of your childhood about it, the ability to take you back to that time, that place, that space and that sacred book memory. Maybe the book has remained a favourite, which you've read many times since, still precious and dog-eared on your shelf or even ever handy on your desk, or maybe you keep several copies so that every so often you can give one to friends.

Now you've found your book, smelt its smell of dust and polish, sea and stair, earth and forest, castle keep and kitchen, enjoy for a brief while what it is and why you loved it so.

And when you're good and ready, find your favourite part - the very page you remember best and

enter into the time of your ancestors.

The Book of your Ancestors

Not everyone can recall the time of their ancestors, or even the time of their grandparents. It's usually either history books, or films, family diaries and journals, maps, stories or guesswork, or more often than not all at once.

But there are people who made us who we are and they of course go back a long, long way. So in order to find your ancestors I'd like you to pick an ancestor you'd like to meet, a time and place you'd like to see them. Right now you're standing on the brow of a hill and down there in the mist is the place where you will find your ancestor(s), experience what they experience, smell and hear what they smelt and heard, feel the cloth and sacking, the worsted and linen, the armour and chain mail they wore and felt. So go down to them now, to the place that you have chosen and into the world that is theirs.

When you've spent this precious time with your ancestor, you'll know instinctively and you'll want to remember it all as much as you can. So imagine that everything you can remember, all that is so precious, you have written, scrawled and scribbled, or painstakingly quilled in the form of an old book, stuffed with pages, with illustrations and maps, bound or loose in a bundle, or even carried in a satchel, rough and full of notes and crossings out, but loved and cherished above all else.

So loved and cherished is it that you are hardly ever aware that you are carrying it with you.
However, when you have seen enough of your ancestor and their life and recorded it all, you will find something waiting for you - an object to give you entrance through the next gateway. It may be a simple key with a door to go with it, but it might be anything; a ball of yarn, a banana, a magic carpet. As ever, you decide. But taking your object and finding your entrance you use one to fit the other, until you are ready to find the next book, which is --

The Book of your Heart

This book may be the smallest, perhaps not even visible, but the more you think about it and try to conjure it the more apparent and obvious it will become. It begins with you settling in your favourite chair, relaxed and warm in the sun, or snuggled up before a winter fire. Or maybe curl up by the fire, sit on a mat, lie down - anywhere you're most comfortable.

The book of your heart is the book that for you represents the most important thing or things in your life. It's quite literally your singing and beating heart, the place from where sheer joy springs and laughter echoes, the thing you want to embrace anew every time you see and feel it.

Of course, you may find it difficult to find it in the form of a book, so the best way is to find the book which most represents it and that particular feeling. You may have to dig deep in your memory, or it might just land on your chest with the light, soundless spring of a cat. Whether it happens that way or not, a cat or suitable furry animal is a good example, for when the book of your heart comes you will know it and snuggle it to you until it becomes part of you, filling all of the space you have left empty.

All good things have to come to an end however, and after a while the memory of the book leaves you and with its departure you decide it is time for you to rise. In the chair or mat or place you have just left, you see another book. This is -

The Book of your Wisdom

OK, you might never have even read a bible story, thumbed a myth or tried to internalise a koan, But sure as I cant say Upanishads when I've taken drink, there will have been something in your life which might have qualified as a 'wisdom' book. Quite possibly you'll have to dredge the memory a bit, or overcome a few prejudices, but trust me, there will be one there. It might not be the obvious thing either, no glowing lights or halos or visual speaking in tongues. It might take the form of a childhood autograph book, or an instruction man for Meccano or Scalextric or a copy of Smash Hits, but you will have that corner of religion somewhere, trust me!

So when you've found it in your memory, you can allow the wisdom of your particular take on life to fill the empty pages, just as it will refill your own consciousness, reminding yourself- just in case you've forgotten - of the something you may have lost or forgotten. Maybe the background fills in with song or music or a certain kind of silence.

When you have gazed on your forgotten wisdom for long enough, it is time to close the- now full - book, but you have a surprise in store.

The Book of your Life

And what a surprise, for you hardly have time to shut the book before you are lifted from the ground . As it falls from your fingers, you reach out and a single piece is ripped from the book with you hanging on to it in a terrifying plummet.

But the road of your life often becomes rockier the older you become and more often than not you need to steady it in order not to suffer from constant motion sickness. So much to your surprise, you discover that the moment you grab for the sheet, it slows and quickly steadies your descent, enabling you to come down gently until you are on an unlit path in a darkness which has suddenly descended. But just before the lights go out, you have chance to see the single thing that is written on the piece of paper - the words 'The Book of your Life.' 

As you worry about the darkness around you, you hold up the piece of paper. To your surprise it bursts into flame and you can see the path ahead of you. And as you do so you realise that there is one book which has always helped you to see ahead of you and put your life in perspective, something that reflects the uniqueness of you. 

As you walk the path now illuminated by the book, you see that book in front of you and you walk towards it until its pages seem to embrace the whole landscape. You stand facing it for a while and then watch as it reduces gradually to the size and familiar shape of the original book. You pick this up, thumb through its familiar pages, smile and - let it go. Perhaps you don't need it any more, but it's nice to be reminded of it.

Perhaps you're expecting another book to make itself known - but you're probably going to be surprised by the way it appears. You see, this book is on the ground, for this one is --

The Book of your Journey

The path of our life and journey is forever laid out in front of us. Of course it all may have already happened, or all be happening consecutively, as many religions preach. But one thing is certain and that's that marring fire, flood, illness or accident, it will go on. All lives however have at least one thing in common and that's how they start at the beginning.

So in front of you now, the book of your life is facing you, and you have the choice of how much of it to walk. You can do this now, or simply find a book you've read which reflects your life. But if you do this, rather than take the longer, more reflective road, then you must make a promise to go back to that book and read it again. It might be anything from 'Winnie the Pooh' or the Ladybird book of 'What to look for in Winter', 'The Lord of the Rings' or' Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' Just go back and read it again and you can guarantee you'll find something.

NB The books of Wisdom and the Journey may seem a bit similar, so here's the difference; the book of wisdom is about one or a few things you've learnt, whereas the book of the journey is about the entire path you've taken, not anything specific. But as in all the best things, everything is as you need it to be.

Which brings us to the final book, which brings us back full circle to the old library and  --

The Book of the Mind

This time we're in the library but sitting in one of the many comfortable chairs. We're sitting with our heads back. We can't remember how we made it back from the path of the journey, but it doesn't seem to matter. Because, having undertaken a journey both creative and spiritual, we've come back to the place we started, to the land of books.

Because there's just one book at the moment that we want to grab and read, one that always stimulates our minds, gets us asking and questioning, takes us deep into its narrative or wisdom. You might call it a favourite book, or just one you turn to regularly. But it's usually not just for entertainment. This book means something to you and when you read it there is some kind of meeting of minds.

And as you think about the book, the power of your mind forms its shape and gives it to you. You pick it up, intending to either begin again or resume. Much to your surprise there is a bookmark in there which you don't remember placing there.

But at that place in the book, on that page, paragraph and line you will find the sum total of all this journey's wisdom. You look at the place and the line. You only need to read it once.

You allow the book to dematerialise. You sit back in the comfortable chair, take some gentle deep breaths in and out.

A bell sounds. Once. Twice. Three times!

You're back!

But the journey will always continues.

Hope you enjoyed this. Would love to hear more about your book choices.

Mine were as follows:

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Gladwin family photo album, The Summer Tree, The Storyteller,my book 'The Seven', The Lord of the Rings, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I've also thrown in Mr Norrell's library for good measure!

Steve Gladwin
'Tales From The Realm' - Story and Screen Dream
Connecting Myth, Faerie and Magic
Author of 'The Seven' - Shortlisted for Welsh Books Prize, 2014

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Audio Drama Podcasts, by Dan Metcalf

I think I've spoken on this blog recently about my love of podcasts (wait a minute. Yep, here it is) and I thought I'd continue my thoughts here. There has recently been an explosion of content (ugh, hate that word) in the podcast arena, especially from the BBC. Recently Auntie Beeb launched the BBC Sounds App, which pulls together music, live radio, the 'listen again' feature previously on the BBC iPlayer, and now for the first time, podcasts. Before now the BBC only allowed downloads of programmes previously broadcast on regular radio but an update of their charter allows them to produce brand new content (ugh) for download only. One area they have now flexed their muscles in has been drama.

The BBC is of course the home of radio drama, having produced it since the corporations inception. The Archers is probably the most popular having racked up nearly 70 years of top notch farming action. The Afternoon Play is also a bastion of the airwaves, with many new writers finding their break on Radio 4.

The BBC Sounds App has experimented somewhat with different ways of doing drama on the internet and even hoped for crossover audiences by commissioning an Eastenders audio series.
A few other writers have found a way to tempt listeners into scripted drama however, and I can highly recommend the Case of Charles Dexter Ward, available to download and stream on BBC Sounds.
An updated version of the story by HP Lovecraft, the audio series takes inspiration from the success of true Crime Podcasts such as the wildly popular Serial. In it, a pair of journalists are investigatng the case of the titular Ward and recording their every move, speaking to witnesses of the wierd event and digging deep into the archive. It plays as a straight podcast, the actors even pretending to ask for money on their crowdfunding pages (a regular part of independent podcasts). It's a ballsy move, writing wise, especially when you consider that it rules out interior voice or other tricks often employed in radio plays.

Another podcast-within-a-podcast is the independant production Blackwood. In this spooky drama from Skylark media in the US, a group of bored teenagers are investigating a local legend, the Blackwood Bugman - it plays out as a sort of Slenderman or Blair Witch piece of recent folklore. The plotting and writing is fine, even if it relys on 'yoof speak' whcih sounds stilted in the actors voices.

Back at the BBC, experimentation continues with the rather excellent Forest 404. Voiced by Doctor Who alumnus Pearl Mackie, main character Pan is an audio archivist in the future who comes across a sound she has never heard before - the sound of the rainforest. When she begins to ask questions - what is a forest? where did they go? why has no one heard this before? - the authorities try to wipe her memories, and a search for the truth ensues.

The drama is neatly played by just three actors, each giving their own version of events, beautifully sound designed and with original music by British DJ Bonobo. The BBC have gone a step further by recording talks to complement each episode, with experts speaking about the themes and ideas raised in the drama. Another separate strand of the podcast has soundscapes of the world of Forest 404; rainforests, original music, ambient sounds.

One of the only audio dramas specifically aimed at children is the snappily titled Once Upon a Time in Zombieville, and I was lucky to hear the producers talk about the show at last year's Children's Media Conference in Sheffield. Made by Glasgow firm Bigmouth Audio who specialise in recording sounds and speech for animation, this is billed as an 'audio cartoon'.

The producers simply recorded a fun script and peppered it with brilliant sound effects, complete with high-class acting talents. Check it out.

But it's not just little old BBC who have cornered the market. Hollywood's coming too. The standout radio drama Homecoming, about a decompression programme for ex-soldiers, starred film actors David Schwimmer, Catherine Keener and Oscar Isaac. Even more impressively, it was very quickly turned into a TV drama for Amazon Prime and starred A-lister Julia Roberts.

Finally a project I binge-listened to just yesterday. Blockbuster is a dramatised documentary with a seriously impressive musical score and sound design which tells the story of the friendship between George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as the attempt to make their breakthrough hits Star Wars, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The acting is kind of cheesy-yet-fun, but worth a listen to hear what can be achieved by an independent production.

The best things about podcasting and radio drama is that the audinence is increasing - it's highly ocnvenient for listeners to stick on a podcast at home, at work or on a commute. And also the bar to entry is fairly low. You don't need a huge studio and a bank of sound effects - a microphone and PC will do.

What are you listening to? Let me know in the comments.


Dan Metcalf is a writer of things. See more at

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

'What big teeth you have, grandma' by Anne Booth

I have recently been thinking about writing about grandmothers. I have written quite  a few grandmothers in my books - Lucy's grandmother in my Lucy books runs an animal  rescue centre, Jessie's grandmother in 'Girl with a White Dog' is elderly, with dementia, Anna in 'Dog Ears' has a rather bossy grandmother who doesn't notice her granddaughter is worn out with caring, whilst in my latest middle grade book, 'Across The Divide,' Olivia's Gran is a vicar's wife, fun and caring and sensitive.

None of them are very young grandmothers, and I think I would like to write one. I am 54, with four children and I am not a grandmother, but I could be. If I had married earlier and not at 30, and if my daughter or son had also married young, I could even be a great grandmother.  I've realised, in terms of writing books where children can see their own experience reflected in them, that more young grandmothers might be a good idea.

How many books are there with young grandmothers and young grandfathers? I'd love to read more and hear recommendations.

But what about the really very elderly grandmothers, great grandmothers etc. How do we write about them?

When I was a teenager I used to visit an elderly lady, and because she lived on her own and was bed bound and didn't have much help, she did smell, unfortunately, of urine. I noticed that smell when I visited, and if I were writing from the perspective of that teenager,  to describe my visits accurately, I would have to include that in the description. It was really unpleasant, but she was lovely - interested and fiercely independent and a pleasure and an honour to know.

In our society the odds are weighted against the elderly, and in particular older women, and it is sadly not unusual in our media to come across the stereotype of the smelly elderly person who is, not lovely, or interesting, like the lady I knew, but funny in a worthy- to- be-sneered- at way or unpleasant or easily dismissed. Being frail, or unsteady, or having memory problems, or getting confused, are also real states which can be described with respect, but  which have become negative stereotypes associated with old age, and which I have been a bit shocked to recently see not handled well in our media. Children are affected by this, just as they are affected by negative depictions of race or sexuality or gender or disability, but I think negative or lazy or unsympathetic depictions of the elderly in particular  seem to be less challenged than they should be, and maybe, as an industry, we have a part to play in raising awareness and making this better.

So could editors and writers of children's books also be aware about our depiction of the elderly and how they are being presented to children at the moment? This is our opportunity as editors and writers of books  for children to quietly challenge stereotypes - let's have younger grandparents in our stories, but also, let's present any physical problems of old age with empathy and respect.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Ditch the Words - Joan Lennon

Writers' heads are full of words - of course they are.  Words are our tools and our delight and what grounds us and what drives us round the twist.  We see in words.  We understand in words.  But sometimes, living constantly with/through/by words becomes a tyranny.  You just have to take a break.  You just have to ditch them.   

I find my escapes from words in photography, art galleries and music.  Where do you find yours?  Please share in the comments, but first, why not spend a couple of minutes with the Vivaldi Guys.  Not a word in sight ...  

P.S.  When you are reading this, I'll be in Indonesia, trying to respond to that amazing country in words and most likely failing utterly.  Thank goodness for cameras! 

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Sunday, 19 May 2019


Penguin might have made a good profit from their Ladybird Books For Grown Ups series, but from where I sit in the bookshop cafe, chewing my pencil, the requirements surrounding real writing for young readers look quite daunting.  

The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness

"Wait a moment, you grumbling grump!" calls a voice. (Is it Peter? Is it Jane?) "Surely it is a simple enough task? Just dream up any old idea. Besides, you'll only need three hundred words or so, which means it will be delightfully easy for anyone calling themselves a writer." 

Let's go . . .  and as the dreamy face of Inspiration wakes from its sleep, Commonsense - its rather brisker sister - starts to determine which tales are possible and which way the story can be told, we can begin . . .

For, yes, dear writer, it is time to come up with an idea that:

- Reflects the complexity of modern family life yet retains the charm of simple family relationships.

- Uses a setting that modern children can recognise and an activity that modern children can understand.

- Does not show children in physically risky situations or doing or using anything dangerous.

- Nor show a child obviously alone meanwhile excluding all (possibly strange) solitary adults.

- And is yet a story that is a rich, surprisingly exciting and compelling experience. 

Got that?

The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness

Moreover a story that:

- Represents male and female characters equally, unless anthropomorphic.

- Is best told through fantasy and/or anthropomorphic animal characters, as these are saleable world wide.

- Places animal characters within a vegetarian world; if polar animals are used, avoid mention of climate-change.

- Makes sure that crocodiles, wolves, alligators, lions, tigers, bad bears and other carnivores can never ever win, unless created by illustrator Emily Gravett. 

Or fairly similar.
The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness

And all this while remembering: 

- If drawing from the World-Wide Sea of Stories, be wary of cultures not your own and also any purely religious festivals. Christmas may be permissible.

- To avoid bathrooms, loos, bodily functions and vocabulary, although these will be exuberantly permissible and profitable within chapter books aimed at boys a couple of years older.

- To never use cakes and sweet treats or unhealthy food as "rewards" in the plot, nor suggest anyone is fat except - perhaps - grandmothers, hippos and elephants.

- To use generic rather than particular words to describe the natural world: flowers and plants rather than buttercups and daisies, trees rather than willows, birds rather than blackbirds. Too rich a vocabulary might be confusing. 

- And a few additional "suggestions" which I may well have misremembered. Or not.

Great! And Is your imagination racing by now? 
Are you all tuned up now and ready to write?

And don't forget to set your now-dramatic and enticing storyline out across a set number of spreads, with suggestions for art-work too.

 Simple. Just put your mind to it, all right? A little child could do it. :-)

The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness
  Happy writing, everyone!

 Penny Dolan


Saturday, 18 May 2019

Making wine from sour grapes - by Lu Hersey

If you watch the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards, you notice an interesting thing about actors. They can convey any emotion, from deep sorrow to ecstatic joy, and make us totally believe in their on-screen characters – but they just can’t quite get it right when they don’t win an award. Their fixed smiles at the success of their fellow actors really doesn’t quite cover the gritted teeth and barely suppressed anguish at not grabbing the Oscar for themselves.

The thing is (I’m not up for any book awards right now, so I’m allowed to say this), WRITERS FEEL EXACTLY THE SAME! 

Of course we do. We can recognise the brilliance of another writer and be glad they’ve been acknowledged – but at the same time, we wish we'd won instead. We just want to run away and sulk BIG TIME. What we really DON’T want is to be all over social media telling everyone how delighted we are for the winner and how amazing and deserving they are…but obviously we do it anyway, because usually it's true. We just can't feel it at the time.

In any kind of writing competition, whether you’re looking for an agent, or a publisher, or hoping for an award for your published book, not succeeding doesn’t mean you’re no good – just that someone else won. I’ve read manuscripts by excellent writers, telling fantastic, original stories, who somehow haven’t yet found a publisher - and plenty of published books by amazing writers that weren’t even nominated for any awards. There must be an entire library’s worth of books out there that deserved all the accolades, but didn’t get them. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t mean they’re not great books by brilliant writers.

Years ago (more than I’d like to admit to) the person I believed I was going to marry, married someone else. There was one song that kept going around in my head - Yvonne Fair’s It should Have Been Me. (Turn up the volume - it’s amazing and packed with raw emotion. Forget Celine Dion.) The quantity of sour grapes I swallowed congratulating the happy couple was enough to pack a crate and the champagne toast practically choked me – but years later, I’m glad it worked out the way it did. My life just took a different direction, and truth is, sour grapes can mature into fine wine.

The same goes for writing awards and competitions. Don’t waste your energy wondering if you should give up and if you’re no good – just congratulate the winners. You might win next time…and you’re going to really appreciate others wishing you well.
Meanwhile, maybe we should start a virtual library for all the brilliant books that weren’t best sellers or award winners, but really deserve some love…

Lu Hersey