Tuesday, 1 December 2015


Today's post is by Hilary Robinson who, together with historical artist and illustrator Martin Impey, created a unique trio of titles for younger readers. Hilary explains how her series of picture books set during World War 1 are not only written to help children engage with remembrance, and peace but to encourage empathy and understanding.

Children could easily be influenced by the negative and distressing news coverage which focus so much on what divides our diverse communities rather than on the values we share.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 showed that although the soldiers might speak a different language, might live in a different part of the world and might be fighting against their will, in reality, they would much rather heed the appeal of the then Pope who asked that “the guns might fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” They did. The High Command chose to ignore it – but the German soldiers, freezing in their trenches, started singing “Stille Nacht” and, before long, soldiers on both sides put down their arms and offered hands in friendship.

The Christmas Truce followed on from ‘Where The Poppies Now Grow’, a story of the strength of friendship amidst the trauma of warfare. 

In the latest book in the series, ’Flo Of The Somme’, we have not only paid homage to the vital role of birds and animals during the First World War, but the text has also provided a canvas to help broaden children’s understanding that minority groups too played their vital role.

 Over 130,000 Sikh troops fought in Belgium and France during the First World War and more than one quarter of those soldiers died. Illustrator Martin Impey recently said:

"by including Sikh soldiers in some of the illustrations I was keen to highlight the contribution their community made to the war effort, encouraging children to be aware of the sacrifices that they and so many others from faraway lands made in WW1."

Our shared history, brought together by so many circumstances is part of our national identity today and while the media plays its part in highlighting what are often troubling world events, empathy, compassion and understanding can be encouraged by the arts. 

As authors and illustrators, and through our medium of picture books, poetry and prose, we are in a privileged position to make a difference by countering the terror and highlighting the common humanity.

Hilary Robinson

Monday, 30 November 2015

Meeting my ideal reader and creating my own slushometer - Lari Don

I think I just met the reader I write books for. It was Book Week Scotland last week, so I was doing events in schools, libraries and community centres every day. Which was lovely, but also a bit of a blur. However, I do remember one thing.

I met a reader, who might be the reader I’ve been writing for all this time.

I don’t just want ONE reader, obviously. The more, the merrier.

But I suspect most writers have a particular reader in mind when they’re writing, someone they hope will be excited at that bit, upset at that bit, and desperate to read on when you stop the chapter... just... there...

I’m probably my own ideal reader, to some extent: as I write, I try to recreate the joy I found in books when I was 10. I write for my own kids too. Even though they’re teenagers now, the weekend or holiday when I read an early draft of a novel to them, to get their first reactions, is still when the story comes to life. I write for all the classes I meet, and their gasps and silences when I read (if it goes well!) And I write for all the kids who send me detailed questions about character names and sequels.

But I met a reader last week, who is so exactly the person I have in mind when I write, especially when I write retellings of old myths and fairy-tales, that meeting her became the highlight of my whole Book Week Scotland...

I was testing out a new telling of a legend with the Primary 5s at a local school, with a class who’ve recently read Serpents & Werewolves, my most recent myth collection, and are about to start reading the first of my Fabled Beast novels.

As I got to the end of the legend, in which a female knight saves a young man who’d been kidnapped by an enchanter, then they fly off into the future on the back of a hippogriff, the teacher asked one of the girls sitting cross-legged on the carpet, “Was that ending too slushy for you?”

The girl thought for a moment, then shook her head. The teacher explained to me: “Julianne is not a fan of romance. She doesn’t like soppy endings.”

“I don’t either,” I said. And I said that I’d written a whole book of heroine stories, where as a point of principle not one story ended with a pretty princess marrying a heroic young man. Instead the happy endings were about escape, or freedom, or saving your family, or defeating your own monster, rather than romance or weddings.

It turned out that Julianne (which is not her real name. Her full name is so fantastic that it sounds like a pen-name of a writer trying a new genre, or the heroine of a really successful YA trilogy...) Julianne had read that collection, Girls Goddesses & Giants, and had thoroughly approved of its lack of slushy happy endings.

Julianne also mentioned that she never leaves the house without a book. She takes them on buses and out shopping, in case she gets a moment to read. (This probably makes her quite a few writers’ ideal reader!)

So I decided then and there, that Julianne would become my slushometer. That when I was writing, I would imagine her sitting in front of me, with her high expectations of stories about more than whether two characters will get together, and I would imagine her disappointment if I let my own standards slip.

I asked her if it was ok for her to be my imaginary slushometer, and she agreed. Then I read out the ending of another story I was working on, because I had wondered if it was skating a bit close to the edge of my own no-slush principles. But Julianne smiled, and nodded. She approved. The ending passed the slushometer test!

Of course, Julianne will grow up. She won’t be a P5 forever, and who knows what she’ll be looking for in the endings of stories in a few years’ time. But in my head, she’ll still be my slushometer - I’ll still be writing for her sitting cross-legged on that carpet in that Edinburgh primary school, still hoping to satisfy her desire for endings that give girls (and boys) more to aim for in their lives than royal weddings. It’s nice to know who I’m writing for.

So, now that I know, I’d better get on and write for her, and for anyone else who wants a non-slushy adventure...

Lari Don is the award-winning author of more than 20 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers. 

Sunday, 29 November 2015

A view from the other side - John Dougherty

The lovely Jo Cotterill
Whoops! It's the 29th and I should have posted first thing this morning!!! Sorry. My life is chaotic at the best of times; at the moment I'm as scatty as anything.

It's at times like this I'm glad I have friends who are more organised and together than I am. And one of the very best of those is the lovely Jo Cotterill, whose powers of togetherness quite frankly astonish me at times.

One of the reasons I'm particularly glad of this right now is that some months ago Jo and I were invited to be guest programmers for the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, or ChipLitFest as it's affectionately known. It's been an interesting process, largely involving me going, "Er... where are we on things again?" and Jo sighing and opening her folder and telling me exactly where we are on things and what additional things we need to be doing.

But one of the most interesting aspects of the whole things has been seeing the publishing industry from a different angle. I'd always imagined the process of booking an author for a literary festival to be something like this:

LITERARY FESTIVAL BOOKING PERSON: Hello! We'd like to book some authors for our literary festival, please!
PUBLICITY PERSON AT PUBLISHING HOUSE: Certainly! Here is a long list of suitable authors, none of whom is John Dougherty!
LFBP: Thanks!

Instead of which, it's been more like this:
LFBP [in this case, me or Jo]: Hello! We'd like to book some authors for our literary festival, please!
Jo & I talk about specific authors we might like to book>
LFBP: Hello! Further to our last email, we've decided we'd like to invite the fabulous Author X to our festival. Are they free?

LFBP: Er... Hello! Did you get our email about Author X?
PPAPH: Oh - sorry. The person who deals with Author X was on holiday. They're back now. I'm sure they'll be in touch soon.
LFBP: Oh, good.

PPAPH: Sorry! Been busy. I'll ask Author X if she's free.

LFBP 1: You know, I do have Author X's email address...
LFBP 2: Do you want to just contact her? We have tried the proper channels...

LFBP: Hello! Has PPAPH asked you about  appearing at our festival?
AUTHOR X: Er... no.
LFBP: Well, would you like to?
AX: Yes! Yes, oh god, yes!!!

I'm not sure why this is, but I suspect in part it's got to do with publishing houses publishing more books with fewer staff. Anyway, if there's a lesson in here, it's probably that more than ever, professional writers need to take as much responsibility as they can for their own promotion. But also, perhaps, that writers and publicists both need to work together and keep channels of communication open. Oh, and that there may be established ways of doing things in the industry, but there are no 'right' ways.

Photo by Jemima Cotterill
 PS Jo and I were interviewed for the ChipLitFest website by the festival's own junior reporter, the fabulous Pheebs. You can read the interview here.


John's Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, illustrated by David Tazzyman, is published by OUP - who will also be publishing Jo Cotterill's & Cathy Brett's Electrigirl in the spring.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Publishing is not a charity - Clémentine Beauvais

On November 14th, at the IBBY UK conference which took place at Roehampton University (see reports there), Nicky Singer gave a fantastic, passionate, moving talk about her struggle to get a 'quiet book', as she called it, published in the UK - a struggle which eventually led her to crowdfund her work, which worked beyond all expectations, ending up with Island, a novel with a cover designed by Chris Riddell.
Lest you should think that this was a fairy-taleish sort of talk, Nicky sternly reminded the audience at the end: "Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. It worked this time but I won't be able to do it each time I want to publish a not-easily-marketable book. And it ate up nine months of my life. Nine months when I had to teach myself how to raise money, promote the book, reach out to people. I don't want to spend nine months of my life doing that; I'm a writer - if I don't write, I die."

She could barely finish her sentence as she was choking back tears - and then she actually started crying. Her emotion was extremely contagious, and I don't think I was the only one in the audience who welled up. It was extremely poignant, and indeed it should be extremely poignant, to hear about an enthusiastic, sensitive, committed writer having so much difficulty getting a good book out. The kind of book that many children will cherish and reread: the kind of book that was written with passion and talent. But the kind that isn't franchisable, and would not have sold in the tens of thousands.

The kind of book we're constantly told by the publishing industry is funded by the big bestsellers. You've heard this as much as I have. "We need the big bestsellers because they fund the quiet books". Thanks be to the big bestsellers! Glory be to thee, benevolent worldwide franchise! It's thanks to them that they exist, those authors whose books do not sell in the hundreds of thousands. They are constantly reminded that they're indebted to those big franchises.

But where are all these quiet/ politically committed/ socially aware/ aesthetically daring books that we are told get funded so generously by the big bestsellers? sure, there ARE some, but I'm not the only one who doesn't think there's enough of them. Julia Eccleshare, in an equally passionate talk at the International Research Society for Children's Literature conference in August, denounced the sameyness, indeed the copycattiness of much of children's literature production in the UK, and deplored the domination of a tiny number of authors, genres and types of books. And every single author I've talked to about this has had a similar experience: a manuscript or proposal rejected because it was too quiet, or too niche, or too different. Why is it so difficult for Nicky, in a world of publishing bountifully funded by bestsellers, to publish her book with a traditional publisher?

David Maybury, in his talk that same day, gave us a few clues: no book will be a bestseller if you don't invest at least £30,000 in its promotion. These days, he added (I think it was him, but I may be wrong), you can more or less buy your way into bestseller lists. And we authors all know, though we don't mention it very often in public, that publishers split books into two groups: those that will become bestsellers, and those that won't. Those that will are the ones for which there is fertile ground: they might be a bit like another recent bestseller, or very intense/ adventurous, or likely to be turned into a film, etc. They're 'hot' books. And they put their money and promotional push where the 'hot' book is. Some books, but very few, are surprise bestsellers. 

Well, in this context, it's not exactly shocking that bestsellers should 'fund' the quiet books. It's only fair, seeing as they'd had a head start the whole time.  No?

But perhaps that's not the right way to look at it. Perhaps those 'hot' books are just more funded and more pushed because that's what a majority of people want, so that's what brings in money. And UK/US publishers are very relaxed with the idea that publishing is mostly about the money. That's another oft-repeated mantra of publishing: 'Publishing isn't a charity'. We hear this over and over again. So quiet books which don't make money shouldn't actually expect to be funded, even by bestsellers. This is a business. Why would we make books that we know will not sell?

Because we will have made them. I think we really, really need to adopt a different attitude to failure and success. A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn't appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence. We need to be much more open to the possibility that a book might sell less than a thousand copies and still be a success, because that book exists.

This isn't just wishy-washy let-everyone-have-their-chance hippie dreaming. It's not like this initial openness to 'failure' would mean never making back that first investment. Because a thousand quiet books that sell a thousand copies each will be ten thousand quiet books spreading their quiet ideas and quiet tone, which gets readers, and, perhaps more importantly, the publishing industry itself, used to the idea that such books are not pointless luxuries or a waste of money, but an important slice of the market.

No one's asking publishing to be non-profit, but it's not true that it's simply enslaved to the market and condemned to producing 'what sells'. It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference. Children's publishing needs to stop hiding behind the claim that it's 'not a charity'. It needs to accept the fact that it has social and a literary responsibility beyond money-making.

At the peak of the refugee 'crisis', for want of a better word, Fred Lavabre at Sarbacane, my French children's publisher, issued a rallying cry to the whole of children's publishing in France. Being children's publishers, 'We have a social responsibility', he said, 'to talk about this to children'. This launched a never-before-seen collaboration of 57 publishers (!), who published in just two months a picturebook promoting empathy, respect and welcome for refugees, Eux, c'est nous (They are us), written by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Serge Bloch (two major figures in children's literature), with a lexicon by Jessie Magana and Carole Saturno. All proceeds to a refugee charity.

They were going to print 70,000 copies, they had to print 100, 000, by popular demand (especially from bookshops).

It's been top of the children's bestseller list since it came out.

EDIT: thank you to Pippa Goodhart for drawing my attention to Nosy Crow's similar initiative, with Refuge, written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher. I should add that my point was not necessarily that everything's better in France, but that it is possible to act in a way that reflects one's awareness of the social responsibility of being a children's publisher. I'm not surprised Nosy Crow did this, by the way. Amazing.


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Christmas Reading Rituals by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

For my sister and I, our festive annuals were one of the great highlights of a visit from Father Christmas. I remember hissed whispers of 'I think he's been!' as the deliciously heavy stocking was felt for in the darkness, at the foot of the bed. Satsuma in one hand, selection box open at the ready, the reading would commence. 

I grew up in a reading rich household. Our Saturdays were spent truffling through Mr. Lane's second hand bookshop, and buying american comic books in Brighton (preferably blood-curdling supernatural titles); the whole family always had at least a book apiece on the go and a stack of 'to-reads.' Christmas was no different. Everyone got books for Christmas, and for us children the annual was the crowning glory. 

Teddy Bear, Twinkle and Pussy Cat Willum, then later Beano, Dandy, Whizzer and Chips.  

My football mad sister also got football annuals - Shoot, I think - and I remember Roy of the Rovers.

As time passed, and we grew older, these made way for Bunty, Judy, Mandy and more - until we got to the closing act of Jackie Magazine's annual. Style bible; crush-fest (Marc Bolan, Bryan Ferry, since you ask) and more for the 1970s teen.

We read our own annuals, then swapped and read each other's. Those books were wise purchases on the part of my parents - over the years, they must have been worth their weight in gold in extra hours of sleep until we made them get up to look at our Christmas bounty. I cherish the memory of those companionable early Christmas morning reading-and-munching sessions. 

There were other Christmas reading rituals in the Huggins household though. The must-read Christmas Carol, which I continue to enjoy yearly and the message found inside still speaks to my heart. I still, at 51, have a childlike sense of anticipation about Christmas. I love the baking, the decorations, the singing and the get-togethers. As Dickens himself said, 

'It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.'

 A Christmas Carol

I have enjoyed boozy, student Christmases; those glorious years when the children were young and full of wonder and now, rather more grown-up celebrations once again as the wheel of life turns. Christmas Eve is still, and always will be my favourite, most magical night of the year - there's just something timeless about it. I look back and see all those fifty-odd Christmases, one inside another in a kaleidoscope of love and colour. I don't remember most of the toys I received as a child (although I remember the rather stunning picnic hamper with tiny girl-sized cups and saucers I received from Father Christmas one year - hard to forget, when Father Christmas arrives on a fire engine. To be fair, Dad was a fireman...) - but I do remember the books. I still have many of them, and have read them to my own children and grandchildren. My own children got a new 'Christmas book' apiece each year, so traditional continued. 

Then we come to planning the feast. I love Christmas cookery books. I still swear by Delia (old, battered, covered in sauce and wine splashes - the book, not the lovely Ms. Smith) and love Nigella's Christmas - and bringing out those books heralds the start of the season. I love pondering over what to make this year. 


I even buy myself a 'Christmas book' each year - just one, as a special treat. I am a sucker for silly, romantic Christmas stories myself - the one time of the year when I read 'soppy' books. It's a guilty secret - but you won't tell anyone, I'm sure. It's between us...ahem.

So - what are your Christmas reading rituals? (and if you don't have any, perhaps this is the year to start.) I'd love to hear them. The next time I write a blog entry here, the turkey will be a memory and the crackers will have been pulled. I'll not be in a post-Boxing Day slump though. I'll be propped up in front of the fire with a port; my nose buried in a book (hopefully brought by Father Christmas). I hope all of your Christmas gifts are book-shaped and that you have a wonderful festive season. See you next month!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Why Short Story Competitions are More Important than Ever by Tamsyn Murray

On Monday, I was a judge for a children's short story competition. It's the second time this year I've done it - the first time was for my own Completely Cassidy story competition back in March and the second time was for the Fire and Fright contest run by Frightful Writers in association with Letchworth Heritage Foundation. And I'd almost forgotten, until I got the latest batch of stories in my hands this time round, what a joy reading stories by kids is. How unhampered their imaginations are, how unburdened they are with a need for everything to make sense, how free their writing is! Each story had at least one thing that made me smile and often I was blown away by the audacity of each writer. I couldn't help comparing them to my own writing, which is firmly governed by rules - writing rules and world-building rules and grammar rules. These stories bent the rules. Sometimes they ate them.

I'd forgotten, too, what an achievement it is to reach The End. Well, obviously I haven't totally forgotten - it's not that long since I last wrote it myself that I could legitimately claim not to remember how it feels - but I'd forgotten how it feels when you're young and it's perhaps the first time you've written those words. For some of the children who entered Fire and Fright, their story was the first piece of creative writing they had finished - I know that several of the stories came from schools where I'd run story planning workshops. I didn't write the stories with these children - all we did was plan what they might write. The onus was on the kids to turn the plan into a story and those that managed it did Frightful Writers proud. Judging was a hard, hard job because the stories were so great.

I often marvel at the process of creating a story - that you take a headful of nothing and weave it into a product that will make people laugh and cry and think. One of the nicest things about short story competitions is that it gives writers a goal - a reason to put your idea onto the page and then something to send it off to at the end. And since the National Curriculum does not encourage schools to teach creative writing, there are fewer and fewer reasons to write stories, something that makes me immeasurably sad. I have escaped into stories all my life; the thought that there might be no one who can write them in the future worries me. But judging from the competition entries I read for Frightful Writers, we don't have to fret just yet. As long as there are stories about Kev the Chicken that end with the words, Evil was dead. Long live poultry! then I think we'll be OK.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Second book syndrome: by Clare Furniss

I’m just emerging, weary and very relieved, from writing my second book, How Not to Disappear. I knew before I started that second books were notoriously tricky. In the world of music, ‘difficult second album’ syndrome is well-recognised - the Association of Independent Music rather brilliantly awards a Difficult Second Album prize - and many of the same difficulties apply to writing. (I should say at this point that I really don’t want this to sound like a whinge. I know how incredibly lucky I am to be paid to write. It’s just that it’s not always easy, and when I was finding it tough it was
unbelievably helpful to know that other authors found it hard too.)

Perhaps the most obvious difference between a debut and a second book is the time issue. I wrote my first book, The Year of The Rat, over four years on and off. All my deadlines were self-imposed. Of course there were pressures - financial pressure, the pressure of not knowing whether all the time I was spending on it was ever going to result in anything, the pressure of self-motivation when I had many other calls on my time. But external deadlines, set by a publisher, are different. You’re being paid.  This is no longer a dream or an ambition: it’s a job. There’s an awareness that other people need you to get your job done in order to be able to do theirs. I knew that ideally publishers want authors to publish a book a year and to be honest this scared me. Not because I didn’t think I could write a book in that time, but I didn’t know whether I could write the book I wanted to write as well as I wanted to in that time. (As it turned out, I couldn’t, of which more later.)

Then there was the pressure of having an expectation to meet, not only in the sense of ‘Will this book be as good as the last one?’ but also in terms of the kind of book I would write. With a first book you can write whatever you feel like. With a second, especially if it’s a two-book deal as mine was, you know there’s a desire for it to appeal to the same readers as the first book did. And of course I wanted people who liked the first book to like the second book too... At the same time I felt strongly that I didn’t want to end up effectively writing the same book again. I wanted a new challenge, something a bit different. I’d lived with the last book for four years, and it had been pretty intense. I was very ready for something new. At the outset, this book felt like a balancing act in a way that the first book hadn’t.

Meanwhile, time, energy and head space were being taken up by the first book. The launch of the paperback, blog posts to write, talks to give... I was extremely grateful for all of this, but it was undoubtedly a distraction, as were the perennial ‘How are sales going? Is your publisher happy?’ questions.

Of course, I knew from the start that the only way through this was to put it all to one side and immerse myself in the writing, in the characters and their story. This was how I’d written the first book, I just had to do it again. But it was easier said than done.

It’s fair to say How Not to Disappear took a while to get going. There were certain things I knew before I started. I knew it would have two storylines, one contemporary, one set in the 1950s. I knew the contemporary storyline involved a teenager and her great-aunt who was suffering from dementia, and that the 1950s storyline was the great-aunt’s teenage story. There would be some kind of road trip as they visited places from her past and unravelled the secrets from her past. I had an image in my mind of the final scene. Beyond that I didn’t know much.

I felt strongly that this story shouldn’t be planned, that I had to let it take its course. The fact that the road trip storyline is driven by a character whose memory isn’t entirely reliable meant that I wanted it to feel unpredictable - it couldn’t be too neat, too planned. I wrote the 1950s storyline separately, as a series of vivid flashbacks, and then had to make the two plot lines into one coherent story. I have to be honest, weaving the two storylines together was a complete nightmare, but I still think this was the right way to do it. I do think some of the most interesting aspects of the story came out of the fact that it wasn’t planned. But it was all rather nerve-racking and it did mean that my editor, Jane Griffiths at Simon and Schuster, had to take a big leap of faith... I’m extremely grateful that she did.

This book also turned out to be much longer than I’d expected - almost twice as long as my first book - which meant it took a lot longer to write and edit than I’d intended. Deadlines were missed, which was stressful and inevitably I felt that I’d failed. Still, I believed that it in the end it had to be better to write a good book than to write it quickly, and I’m incredibly grateful to my editor for taking the same view. Her patience meant I had the chance to make this story into the book I knew it could be. And once I stopped worrying about all the other stuff and just immersed myself in the writing, guess what? I loved it! It was fun again. I’d forgotten how exciting it is, that feeling when the words are flowing and it’s all coming out just right.

Of course, I don’t know whether anyone else will think the book is any good - only about three people have read it so far and we are STILL doing the very final round of edits! - but I do know it’s a book I put everything into and can feel proud of. And I realised while I was writing it that this was what I had to focus on. Of course I want other people to love the book, but actually that’s one of the many things about being a writer that I can’t control. All I can do is try to write the best book I know how to.

So, will Book 3 be easier or is the terrible truth that, as with parenting, writing doesn’t ever get easier, it just carries on being difficult in different ways? I suspect I know the answer to that one...

How Not to Disappear will be published on 28 January 2016.