Tuesday, 19 February 2019


Today the longlists for the 2019 Carnegie and Greenaway Awards are out - and what an interesting selection they are.

This post, however, is a cry, asking people to pause, and look at, and note down these longlist titles now, before the bigger, louder judging and shadowing gets underway in schools and elsewhere.

Briefly, as I understand things - and I may be wrong - the Carnegie Award goes to a book for the older, teen reader, where the quality of writing and the stretching of ideas and boundaries and - dare I suggest - final newsworthiness -  are important factors.

The Greenaway, however, delights in illustrated books, although these may well not be picture books for the youngest, "on the lap" reader. These miniature,paper galleries are often sophisticated, subtle and  intended for a wide range of ages. "Spot" they are not.

(Hmm. We'll keep quiet about the needs for the &-9 year old reader for today. )

Later in the year, when the 2019 shortlists and then Award Winners are announced will be god and great and all that. 

However, those few titles will be the results of a long, busy and competitive process where - necessarily - some good stuff gets lost on the way: probably books that are too long for many to read in time, books that aren't as of the moment as others, books that don't have exactly the right voice or cover or theme, books and authors that are not yet famous enough and books that are just plain quirky.

The Awards, when they come, will be wonderful and high profile and there will probably be a bit of title-tussling too.

But, NOW, RIGHT NOW, do reserve a bit of time for looking through these long-lists and admiring the range of books on offer for the young, teen and YA readers today: it's time to love the glory of the long lists!

Here - I hope - is the link :https://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/press.php?release=pres_2019_longlists_announced.html

 (And I'm sure some of those authors, writers and illustrators have been here, posting on Awfully Big Blog Adventure, before or even now. Come on, Team ABBA?)

Monday, 18 February 2019

Back to the Bronze Age - by Lu Hersey

Most writers do a lot of research of one kind or another – in fact we can be quite a nerdy bunch. Having just spent an intensive period in a future, post climate change world, looking into plant and animal species that survive desert conditions and working out how to keep people alive through periods of intense heat and drought, I’ve recently taken a quick break in the Bronze Age. 
My replica Bronze Age dagger after a bit of filing

Research can be fun. Sometimes more fun than writing. Writing Deep Water involved a lot of time snorkelling over Cornish seas, studying the sea-life, watching the way the light reflects underwater. Hours. Days. Probably way longer than I needed to. I also visited Fowey Aquarium frequently, communing with the conger eel, watching the pollock swim, and admiring the massive blue lobster. It felt like an essential part of the process… but was it actually just a form of procrastination?

My research for Broken Ground (hopefully out early next year) meant spending hot summer days and even late summer nights in crop circles, wondering at the immensity and complexity of design. Hours of watching water bubbling up in springs. Yes, of course I’ve heard of google – but give me an excuse to do some live research, and I’m there.

Entering a crop circle at twilight

Which is how I came to spend a day earlier this month making a replica Bronze Age dagger. Okay, none of the characters in my current work in progress are actually dagger makers, but after a lethargic, bleak January, I wanted to (literally) fire some energy back into my writing.

stylishly dressed ready for hot metal pouring

Creating something beautiful and potentially useful sounded just the thing to get me started. Not only that, the course was run by an archaeologist who brought finds of Neolithic polished axes and arrow heads with him, as well as a bronze age torc bracelet – AND WE WERE ALLOWED TO PICK THEM UP AND FEEL THEM! For someone like me, that’s close to being in heaven.

Making the mould for the dagger

The process of creating our moulds, using bellows to heat the furnace to an intense, copper-melting temperature, and pouring the liquid metal was almost magical. (In case you’re nerdy enough to be wondering, you add the tin when the copper has already melted – tin melts much faster)

Furnace hot enough to melt copper and tin to make bronze

And the work that goes in when the metal cools down is so much more than I expected – a good few hours of intensive filing, hammering the blade edge, and sanding with glass paper. The result? A rather imperfect, pitted specimen that still needs work – but an invaluable piece of research. Er, probably.

All this research activity may well be stopping me from becoming a Stephen King, who famously just keeps his bum on his seat and writes - and I have to admit he's considerably more productive and successful than me. But sometimes the joy of doing something different can be inspirational in itself.

As writers we spend so many hours, days, weeks, months and even years creating a story, I can really recommend doing something practical for a change. Making something physical, tangible – possibly even useful. Not just a world in your head.

Anyway, not everyone can be Stephen King.

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
Some photos courtesy of Laura Daligan and Esther Winckles
Bronze Age dagger making course held at Berrycroft Hub with archaeologist James Dilley

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Poetry Please Help Us! by Tracy Darnton

In a rather busy month, I thought I’d share some rambling thoughts on poetry. 

I’m judging a school poetry competition at the moment which has turned out to be a Herculean task due to the sheer brilliance and diversity of the entries, and it’s made me reflect on poetry and how I react to it - and how it helps me to find a moment of calm and insight.
I still know many of these by heart

I’m a life-long learner and every Wednesday morning I spend a couple of hours with like-minded folk looking at art, literature, film and social history. In recent months, we’ve studied and enjoyed the poetry of Byron, Keats, Shelley, Yeats, Hardy, Heaney, Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Rossetti, Blake, Carol Ann Duffy and – too many to mention – and thought about poems within their social context.

What will we make of today’s poetry looking back? According to The Guardian the other week, sales of poetry were at their highest ever level last year. The rise of poetry is one of the unintended consequences of all the current uncertainties in life, the upheaval of Brexit, the cheapening of language and the blurring of truth and lies. As language gets abbreviated into text speak, as words are tossed casually around, there’s something powerful in falling back on the English language and revelling in the rhythms. As we grapple to find some sense in what the heck’s going on in the world, well-chosen lines of poetry can fill that gap.

We can share poetry now so easily on social media, in competitions, poetry slams, open mic nights, YouTube, Instagram. Poets who struggled to reach an audience before can now have millions of followers.  

Advertisers have long recognised that poems have the power to move us and give us that elusive feeling. Who’d have thought a poem could be used effectively to sell something as dry as financial services, a savings account or a mortgage? But the Nationwide Building Society campaign didn’t focus on the endless form filling or being put on hold. Instead, they used poets speaking direct to camera, making us feel about family and milestones in our lives. Centreparcs adverts have used the William Henry Davies hundred-year-old Leisure poem (What is this life, if full of care etc...) and recently the modern musings of a Dad, Mum and teenager ‘This is Family’ campaign which I can’t help but find moving, despite myself.

At the Sassie retreat in December, June Crebbin ran a poetry workshop and it was startling how many of us poured deep-held feelings into such short pieces. June herself wrote a poem in another session which struck an emotional chord with many. It was circulated afterwards to those of us – myself included – who cheerily said we’d like it at our funerals! I marvel at how the arrangement of so few lines – ten beautifully crafted ones in June’s case – generates such a reaction.

So, as I deliberate between the poems on remembering and forgetting scattered across my desk, I have June’s poem pinned up too, as a reminder of the power of words to move us, to give us time out and a much-needed breath in a hectic and confusing world.

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies, currently shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Fictional Felines by Claire Fayers

Before I became a cat-owner, I had a fantasy. I would sit and write, and my cat would sleep in the cat bed nearby. Every so often I’d look up and say ‘All right, cat?’ My cat would reply ‘Mrowl,’ and we’d both go back to writing or sleeping.

The reality, of course, was somewhat different.

My first cat, Moosh, liked to sleep curled up behind me on my chair so I wrote with raging back ache. Then Penelope came along. Named after Penelope Pitstop and her constant cries of ‘Heyulp! Heyulp!’ she wouldn’t even come into my office but stood at the door and shouted at me. She grew in confidence as she got older, and would bring me gifts of dead flies which she deposited gently on my feet while I was writing.


...and Penelope

The least said about our third cat, Tallis, the better. He spends most of the day outside annoying the neighbours. He thinks my sole purpose in life is to open and shut the door for him.

I popped into the British Library this week to see their Cats on the Page exhibition. It’s on until the 17th March so there’s still time to catch it. I had an excellent time reacquainting myself with favourite fictional felines. Here are some of my own favourites.

Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat by Ursula Moray Williams

I came across this book as a child – or rather, my sister did. She came home from school in tears, sobbing ‘It’s over! It’s over!’ It turned out her class had just finished reading this book. It’s the only time I saw my non-reading sister affected by a book, proving that there is a story out there for everyone. It also underlines the importance of reading aloud to children, whether at home or in class. 

Gobbolino is a sweet tale of a witch's cat who wants a normal life. It comes with a big thank you to all teachers who read to their classes.

Plain Kate by Erin Bow

This book had me sobbing into the pages. Why do so many cat books make their readers cry? It’s the tale of an orphan girl and her cat Taggle, who, through a magician’s bargain, gains the power of speech. The dark and compelling story explores friendship, family, sacrifice and grief. If you haven’t read it, please do, but keep the tissues close by.

The Last Free Cat by Jon Blake

A happy cat book! Jon Blake imagines a future where a deadly cat flu has meant that cats are now registered and monitored, and only the super-rich can afford them. When Jade finds a cat without a collar, she’s determined to save it, and they go on the run together. An adventurous story, set in a dystopian Britain, it will appeal to teen readers.

Varjak Paw SF Said

I have to include the cat martial-artist Varjak Paw. I’m a big fan of the evil black cats. They are thoroughly creepy and yet I feel an odd pity for them.I do enjoy villains that gain the reader's sympathy. But the best part of the book, of course, is Varjak. He's a true hero – brave, tough and determined, he starts off as the underdog (undercat?) and proves himself over and over again.

To Be a Cat by Matt Haig

Who wouldn’t want to be a cat? Well, Barney Willow for a start, and so he’s not too happy when he swaps bodies with a cat. The fun story deals with some deeper themes of family break-up, friendship, and accepting yourself for who you are. And I love the villainous headmistress.

Storm Hound by Claire Fayers

It’s a bit of a cheek to sneak this one in, but Storm Hound is published next week and I'm a little bit excited. As a lifelong cat person, it was a surprise to find myself writing about a dog. Storm is a ferocious stormhound from the Wild Hunt. Crash-landed on Earth and transformed into a very cute little puppy he has to come to terms with life as a pet.

There is, of course, a cat. Nutmeg, Storm’s feline neighbour, is based on my Penelope. I made her a few years younger, but I kept her imperious tone, her unassailable belief in her own superiority, and her cautious attempts at assistance because she is the cat with the kindest heart.

Then of course, there are all TS Eliot’s cats; the Cat in the Hat; the Cheshire Cat; the Owl and the Pussycat; Puss in Boots; Dick Whittington’s cat, and all the other cats I don’t have space to mention. Which ones are your favourites?

This blog post was written in memory of Penelope who died last month, age 19 and a bit. She was the best cat.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound. Website www.clairefayers.com Twitter @clairefayers

Friday, 15 February 2019

Barmier & barmier: our Kafkaesque approach to fiction & teens - by Rowena House

Trawling through online teaching advice for the now-defunct A-level course in creative writing (with the intention of scavenging the best bits to help design my own fiction writing lessons) is a sad and salutary experience.
England’s last A-level creative writing students will re-sit their exams this summer and then that’s it. All over. 16-to-18 year olds who want to write their own original stories now have to be satisfied with a short module in another course.

Meanwhile, 16-18 year olds who fluffed their first English language GCSE still have to write an original story as part of their re-sit regardless of how difficult they find it.

My heart goes out to both groups of young people.

During its brief years of existence, the exam board which offered the creative writing A-level, AQA, said this about it: “Creative writing is a distinct discipline in higher education. It encourages the development of skills that are essential for further study and a range of professional careers. This A-level enables aspiring writers to start on the path to professional practice and is equally useful for anyone interested in improving their creative and critical thinking and communication skills.”

Amen to that!

Thousands of teachers and students signed a petition to stop it being axed.

In the past few weeks I, too, have seen for myself how well-thought out the course was, and how different to English language and literature, despite the Department for Education insisting it overlapped both.

Back in my day, creative writing wasn’t an option at school or sixth-form. But then, nor were Netflix, YouTube, Snapchat, What’s App etc. Instead, by 16, I had devoured hundreds of books. The local public library had been my bolt-hole as a child - as for so many writers. Then, collectively, my teenage friends and I discovered Tolkien and Middle Earth became our escape, our go-to safe space when being a teen got too tough.

Today, with the Harry Potter generation grown up, I can’t find a contemporary book that is shared in that same, immerse way.

For films, there are the Marvel franchises. The Twilight series and The Hunger Games also still seem widely known among teens. But a novel? By a contemporary author? So far, whenever I’ve asked, all I’ve drawn are blanks.

Now, back at that defunct A-level, among the many excellent bits of advice I found in its study programme was a recommendation that students follow authors on Twitter, and discover through them the immense wealth of blogs about creative writing written by professional writers.

In recent weeks, any student who’d followed that advice might well have stumbled across a fascinating discussion initiated by journalist Charlotte Eyre, of The Bookseller, involving two top literary agents, Joanna Moult and the founder of the Skylark agency, Amber Caraveo, along with Waterstones, Piccadilly, and various published and pre-published writers. The subject: a 21.5% drop in Young Adult novel sales last year, and associated issues surrounding  the younger teen book market.

This exchange included one tweet from Waterstones complaining about the dearth of books for the early teen market (!?!). Amber, in reply, suggested that Waterstones could make these books more visible by having a dedicated space for teen readers, which (rather surprisingly, imho) drew a positive response from the Piccadilly branch.

This whole chicken-and-egg discussion (are there too few books written for early teens or not enough exposure to generate a viable market?) reminded me of a debate I heard years ago about motor bikes in the USA. (This is from memory so please take the details with a pinch of salt.) The USA had, apparently, banned imports of smaller Japanese bikes to protect sales of the bigger US models like their famous Harley Davidsons. The trouble was, younger riders couldn’t afford big Harleys, and without access to cheaper Japanese bikes, fewer people became bikers so demand for Harleys fell over time.

Something similar is, presumably, happening with young people’s fiction.

Parents and grandparents still buy middle-grade books for children, while primary schools also actively promote reading for pleasure to these age groups. But then keen readers, who want to make their own choices at 11-to-12 years old, can’t find books to suit them. By that age, too, secondary school is demanding more and more of their time, and the manifold digital lures of our age are increasingly tempting as well.

Little wonder, then, if many of them stop reading for pleasure entirely. Like the USA bikers who never bought a Harley, even when they were old and rich enough to afford one, so these once keen readers are lost to the world of fiction. They aren’t around to discover YA, except if it’s linked to a Hollywood film, profits for which seem to have peaked with Twilight and The Hunger Games, hence we haven’t seen a really big YA novel for years.

I know this isn’t a new or an original argument, not by a long way. But given the well-documented drop-off in reading among teens, plus recent evidence of weak YA sales, it does seem to me that trends in the publishing world have ramifications for young people’s education, and therefore their job prospects.

If, for example, decisions about the content of English language exams rest on outdated assumptions about teens’ reading habits, then GCSEs are in fact far harder than they might appear to adults who come from a reading-for-pleasure generation.

As adults, we might bemoan this lost art of reading; we might even be right to do so. But to demand that young people write 500-word stories under exam conditions (and condemn them to try again and again if they can’t) when we couldn’t dream of flying a drone via our smart phones, let alone how to make a YouTube video out of our drone footage, then rig our phones to relay that film to a PS4 while simultaneously playing music, smacks to me of a highly blinkered mind set.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Confessions of a Written-out Writer by Lynne Benton

Having finally got to the end of my ABC of children’s writers, I knew I was going to have to come up with some new ideas for this month’s blog, as well as for the next few months.  I’ve read and reread several of the last few blogs that other people have written and wonder how I can possibly write anything half as interesting and/or inspiring.  I loved Kelly’s excellent post about how not to inspire children to read, and Sheena’s post about the bright idea she had for using her beautiful new diary, and Mel’s about her much-loved grandmother and the robin, and wish I could come up with something as good.

However, all I have to offer this month is to tell you that I have finally come to the end of a six-week marathon of writing a children’s story for an online forum, tailoring each chapter according to how the children voted at the end of the previous one (at the end of each chapter I had to give them three options to choose from).  Then I’ve had to read and respond to some of their online comments.  I thought this would be the easiest part of the stint, but I hadn’t bargained for the number of children who were thrilled to be able to write to the person who had written this book for them.  The publisher expects me to reply to as many of their comments as I can, but if I tell you that to date I’ve had over 3000 comments, you will begin to see how time-consuming this has been!  It was a great idea, and has been a most interesting experience – and it was lovely to have instant feedback from my readers (most of whom have been delightful and complimentary) – but it has taken up far more of my time then I had anticipated.   Even now the book is finished, the comments are still pouring in, which I suppose proves that it really is encouraging them to read!    

In addition to all this I had, of course, to do the dreaded Tax Return (I know, I know, I should have done it last April, but inevitably I didn’t get round to it till January!)  Thankfully I managed to get it finished before the deadline, but it was another Thing that Had to be Done.  As well as dealing with nasty post-Christmas colds (self and husband), regular classes and meetings and other Things to Remember To Do as Soon as Possible.

So it’s all been a bit busy lately, and I haven’t had a chance, or, indeed, the headspace, to write any more of my current Work In Progress.  I’m really looking forward to getting back to it now, though. 

I'm sorry there are no pictures this month to leaven the text, and I do hope that by next month I’ll have come up with something rather more interesting to write about here!  Meanwhile, apologies from this written-out writer!  

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

What Do I Do All Day? or The Third Diary by Sheena Wilkinson

My friend Alison is great at presents and this was no exception: thoughtful, beautiful and so ME. But I felt a kind of guilty dismay. It was the 2nd January. Normally I love getting a present late, but this was a DIARY. A very special suffragette diary. I adore diaries and very year I keep two – one, my proper appointment diary with everything in it, and then a daily journal, the latter usually a Christmas present from Auntie Iris. 

un embarras de journaux
The big diary is always well under way from October as that’s when bookings start to come in, and I had started Auntie Iris's the day before. It would feel like bad luck to start the year again in a different diary. What could I do? Whatever I did, I ran the risk of upsetting one diary (I’m a ridiculous anthropomorphosiser of inanimate objects), and besides that, how wasteful!

the beautiful diary 

The beautiful suffragette diary sat rebuking me on my desk for a few days.  As it happens, I had a really busy January, creatively: day after day of just writing and editing, with very few other commitments. My ‘real’ diary was empty and yet I was spending hours every day at my desk.

That’s when I had my brainwave – my suffragette diary could be a record of my work – not the workshops, the events, the school visits, the train times and the flight references and the mileage, but what I think of as my ‘real’ work – writing. I’ve always kept a word count when I’m writing, but this is a bit different. As well as word count, I note down (very briefly) when I’ve spent the morning in admin or preparation. I’ve found this invaluable – it shows me very clearly what I actually do all day and helps me not feel guilty when writing progress isn’t what I’d like it to be. It's also a good excuse to bring out the highlighters! 

As freelancers, we often struggle with boundaries. I know I have written before about the danger of overworking. This new way of keeping a third diary (and it takes seconds every day) is, for me, a valuable record of what I do all day. Sometimes every day. It encourages a sense of achievement. And when I come to count up my days worked at home for my accountant next year, there it all is in one easy place. 

Not for everyone, but I love it. And I wouldn’t have started it if I hadn’t felt guilty about receiving a third diary, and such a lovely one! And now I can confess to Alison…