Saturday 9 December 2023

Made by humans (in a podcast) - Anne Rooney

 Just a very quick post today to link to this podcast about AI that I did with the Society of Authors and others: Theo Jones, Shoo Rayner, Hannah Berry, Keith Mansfield and Roland Glasser. (I asked artguru to make a picture for this post of me making a podcast. and it couldn't. It just offered Retry. And it still couldn't. Which is a bit odd as there are plenty of photos of me online, but maybe it's learned that I only use AI in order to make fun of its efforts. Still, now I'm making fun of its failure even to make an effort. Only effort here was #madebyhumans)

If you want something a little lighter, here's OUP's book advent calendar. My contribution was filmed by MB, who is nearly 10. Video #madebysmallhuman Not in the right spirit, but you can click ahead of the day's date — which is just as well, since our contribution is on Day 24!

Anne Rooney

Out now, from Oxford Children's Books; illustrated by humans Carlina Rabei and Qu Lan


Wednesday 6 December 2023

Lost for Words by Paul May

I've read more than 60 Carnegie Medal winning books now, and I've found none of them more difficult to write about than Beverley Naidoo's The Other Side of Truth. It belongs to a loose category of winners that appear to originate in an author's desire to educate their readers. Social realism I suppose. I'd include Berlie Doherty's books here, and probably Melvin Burgess's Junk. It's not surprising that adults writing for children should be interested in the effect their writing has on those readers. Here's Beverley Naidoo on why she writes:

"I am frequently asked, 'Have you a message in what you write?' My reply is that writing fiction is quite different from declaiming from a soapbox or through a microphone. I do not write to deliver a 'message'. Yet I believe passionately in the importance of literature that engages with life and our moral human universe."

The Other Side of Truth shines a light on the abuses of the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the late twentieth century and on the plight of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the UK. It does this through the experiences of two young children, Sade and Femi, whose mother is shot dead as they prepare for school in the morning, and who are then smuggled onto a flight to London, where they are abandoned and robbed before being helped by police, social workers and foster parents.

This book was written before the days of the 'hostile environment' or the government plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. And, by the way, I saw a survey the other day that indicated most Tory voters thought that the plan was for asylum seekers to be sent to Rwanda for processing before successful applicants were returned to this country. That is not the plan. Successful applicants for asylum would be resettled in Rwanda and unsuccessful ones returned to their country of origin.

Back in 2000, in this book, the police were kind, the social workers seemed to have time to be gentle and patient with the traumatised children, and an item on Channel 4 News was enough to save the family from deportation. Things have definitely not improved since then.

There's no doubt that books like this do a great job. They are incredibly useful in schools to provide a focus for discussion of the many issues they raise and the Internet is full of essays written by young people about this book. Most of those address the central dilemma of the book—should I tell the truth? Or, should I always tell the truth? Or, is telling the truth always the right thing to do? I have to admit that by the end I was suffering from dilemma fatigue.

I admire this book and I think it's very well written, pitched just right for the ages it's aimed at. It has a straightforward style and the characters are vivid. You can hear the 'but' coming, can't you? There are two buts. The first is the one I've just mentioned—a little too much hammering away at the truth dilemma. The second is that I would really have liked to have seen some exploration of the attitudes of the other children in Sade's class at school, and especially of the two bullies, Marcia and Donna. They are a bit too much like cartoon baddies. These are minor things, yet for me they reduced my engagement with the text and I suppose that's why I've found it so hard to think about and write about. And it's why, although I think it's a worthy Carnegie winner, it won't end up in my top ten. Unlike the 2001 winner, which leaps straight into my top five.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett is, quite simply, one of the best children's books I've ever read. I can't do better than to quote some of the reviews of the book :

Powerful, passionate, mordantly funny and, at one point, unbearably sad—Daily Telegraph

An astonishing novel . . . I marvelled at the ferociousness of the humour, and the willingness to go to dark places—Financial Times

Despite being mainly about talking cats and rats 'it engages with life and our moral human universe.' to use Beverley Naidoo's words. You might think it odd that I could be moved to tears by the plight of a talking, thinking cat and a bunch of talking, thinking rats when the plight of two vulnerable, grief-stricken children lost on the streets of London didn't affect me in the same way, but that's what truly great writing can do.

This book has everything—dark places indeed, and very smelly ones too; it has metafiction in Malicia, a girl who has read so many stories that she is sure that, for example, any locked room will have a secret passage to escape by; it has heroes and villains, all remarkably realised; and above all it has humour—humour with an edge to it. It also has one remarkable insight which should be noted by peace negotiators everywhere, even though it comes from a talking cat:

'That's it?' (says Maurice) 'That's your plan?'

'You don't think it'll work?' said Keith. 'Malicia says he'll be so embarrassed he'll leave.'

'You don't know anything about people, do you?' sighed Maurice.

'What? I'm a person!' said Malicia.

'So? Cats know about people. We have to. No one else can open cupboards. Look, even the rat king has a better plan than that. A good plan isn't one where someone wins, it's where nobody thinks they've lost. Understand?'

This, you will probably be surprised to learn, is the first Terry Pratchett book I have read. I did start another one once, a long time ago, and it didn't grab me. I regret that now, but on the other hand I now have more than forty of his books still to read. And I guess I'm predisposed to like stories about talking rats as Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien has long been a favourite of mine.

Both Beverley Naidoo and Sir Terry Pratchett have excellent websites.

Sunday 3 December 2023

SEEING RAINBOWS by Sharon Tregenza


Apparently a double rainbow is a rare sight. I've seen two this year. One outside my house...

And the second a couple of weeks ago at the Attenborough Nature Reserve near Nottingham.

They were certainly a thrill. I thought I pretty much knew the science-y bit: that they're formed when sunlight shines through water. That refraction happens when light travels from air into water and when the refracted light enters the water droplet, the light reflects inside the droplet, out into the air and splits into seven colours (I just looked that up to check I'd got it right 😆) 

But I didn't know about double rainbows (twinned rainbow is the proper name). They're formed when  the light gets reflected twice inside the droplet, creating a reflection of the reflection. 

Because I'm still writing about myths and traditions I looked up some of the symbolism of twinned rainbows and they feature in many cultures and religions. They're seen as a positive sign: good luck, a new beginning, spiritual awakening. Not sure if there are two pots of gold at the end of them though.

I'm hoping that as I've seen two - I'll get double the good luck next year. 🤞

Saturday 2 December 2023

Bored Games? By Steve Way


The pagan festival that was commandeered by the Christians and then M & S is nearly upon us again! Often the time of year when board games are retrieved from the back of dark cupboards, dusted off and played. Usually with enjoyment but sometimes the catalyst for a rollicking good quarrel.

As a stimulus for creative writing with children (and sometimes adults) I wrote the following ideas for some unusual board games. I hope you enjoy them and ideally are inspired to create, encourage your kith and kin to create some original games of your own.

The experience of writing the pieces helped me appreciate the genius of the creators of the games that have become so popular we’re all familiar with them and will likely play some of them over the coming weeks. I once had the idea of making a board game involving British and Spanish navy ships chasing and battling pirates and each other across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean. I soon realised how difficult it would be to make the whole concept fit onto a table-sized playing board plus I would have to learn a lot more about naval history. Appropriately the few designs I made went back to the drawing board – and stayed there!


I must get to school!

This board games simulates your biggest NIGHTMARE  - not being able to get to school!

Simple dangers can be your alarm clock not going off or the door of the bathroom being glued shut while you’re in it by your darling brother or sister.

More complex dangers could be that your cereal bowl and spoon become possessed by a poltergeist and chase you around the kitchen until you hide in the cupboard under the sink.

Even if you manage to get out of your house, your problems don’t end there. Now you have to make the tricky choice about transport. Should you walk, go by car, bike or catch the bus?

If you walk you could suddenly get swooped on by a winged shark or jumped on by an enormous man-eating yogurt.

If you go by road, it may suddenly become molten and you, your car (oh and your parent) could drive directly through the front gates of HELL!

If your choice is the bus, what are you going to do if you find it’s being driven by Mr Horrible Joke Bus Driver? You have to do your best to laugh instead of throwing up as he tells you his latest jokes from his Olde Booke of Jokees 1142 and then carry on laughing when he tells you the bus is full and you’ve got to get off?

Going to choose the bike then? But remember you could be followed around by The Huge Puddle of Nimm. No matter if the sun’s shining brightly, The Huge Puddle of Nimm will glide invisibly beside you until a huge lorry approaches. The puddle will then take on physical form and you’ll get covered in it as the lorry zooms by.

Once you get to the school building your troubles may be far from over. You may get blocked from crossing the road by The Alien Lollipop Lady, who just has to tell you all the interesting gossip, where she’s going on holiday next year, how sick her cats have been and the best place to buy a plastic box at the moment.

Even if you get past her there’s the Send You the Other Way Caretaker to get past. Whichever door you try and go in, he’ll be walking out of it shouting, “I’ve just cleaned the floor in here, I don’t want you coming this way! Use the other door!” Then when you get to the “other” door he’ll be coming out of that one again and so the whole cycle will go on and on and on until you climb in one of the toilet windows – which means you’ll really be for it if he finds you!

Just as you finally get into the school, ready to race to your classroom before registration, you’re bound to be collared by “I’ve Got a Little Job for you” Secretary Person. He or she will give you a “Little Job” which may entail tiling the gym roof, replanting the school trees, polishing all the bricks or catching aardvarks for the science teacher.

However, if you get past all these dangers, well done! You’ll be able to slide gracefully onto your chair, slip smoothly up to your desk and enjoy another MIND-BOGGLINGLY EXCITING day at school!

What a wonderful thing to win!

National Lottery board game.

There are two parts to this game. In the first part of the game you have to actually buy a ticket. In the second part you have to see if you can win something with your selected numbers.

It isn’t as easy to get your ticket as you might think. For the players in this game, many potential problems or dangers face them on their way to the local post office.

Some of the problems can be as simple as the car suddenly breaking down, or the dog chewing all the shoes, so you’d have to walk to the post office in bare feet. However, some of the other dangers can be more extreme. You might get attacked by a dragon on holiday at his gran’s house or you might get abducted by aliens which look like washing machines, as they randomly pass by and select a human for their zoo or their pet carrot’s dinner.

Then when you finally get your ticket, you have to select seven numbers – or if you’re so hopeless you can’t even chose seven numbers for yourself get the trained hamster that comes with the game to chose them for you. Then see if the numbers come up on your very own home-sized lottery machine.

Of course, as with the usual lottery… you’ll lose. So what was the point in the first place. Still better luck next time… or the time after that… or the time after that… or the…

Break Down the Monopolies.

This game is the opposite of that famous board game Monopoly. In this game, instead of aiming to build up a huge all-powerful monopoly of property ownership that bleeds your opponents dry of money, you aim to break down your huge cumbersome and uninspiring monopolies. You must do this before they collapse of their own accord and sink into oblivion, like the last of the dinosaurs sinking into a swamp as they disappear from the Earth. Sounds difficult? It is.

You all begin with a randomly selected huge wealth of ‘inherited’ property. One player owns Mayfair and Pall Mall, covered in hotels, for example. Another player owns all the stations and power companies. Then as you begin playing one of you discovers that you are in fact Miss Universe and so you win huge amounts of money in beauty contests every time anyone has a go, whilst one of you has a birthday every five seconds and a special machine (batteries supplied!!!) spits out money at you every time it’s your “birthday”.  

But despite this, things could still go right for you by going wrong. If you own property, you could get a “No one pays their rent” card. To help add to the problem you want you still have to pay the bank half the value of your property every time a player lands on it.

If you’re lucky you could still go bankrupt in other ways! If you own the power companies, you could get a “Work Force go on Strike” card and have to buy power from abroad every time someone lands on you. Maybe you could ‘team up’ with another player to buy up the businesses owned by another and then see if you can double-cross them by dumping as many of the assets of your new acquisitions on your ‘partner’.

As an alternative tactic, you could give as much of what you own away to Charity, the government or your dog but if you do you’ll inherit an unexpected fortune every time you pass “Go” from then on.

The last player still owning a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice is the looser, the player with the least money or assets left is the winner. Don’t despair, as is normal in this country if you cause the total collapse of solid reliable businesses, you receive a HUGE directors pay off. You can then go off into happy pretend retirement and play happy pretend golf all day long (which is a FAR FAR better game than real golf.)

 Scrabble SCRABBLE!

This is a game played by those who hate spelling words, particularly in English as the spellings are often so unpredictable. The game is unconsciously initiated by someone in your family who likes Scrabble saying, ‘Hey, why don’t we have a game of Scrabble?’ The Scrabble SCRABBLE! players then have to scrabble to find a way to avoid being dragged into playing. Suddenly remembering that you have to run to the end of the street to look at a particular lamppost, deciding to groom the giraffe you don’t have or offering to peel sprouts for the whole neighbourhood count as acceptable Scrabble SCRABBLE moves. Hopefully if players stay out of the way long enough only the family members who actually like Scrabble (and those who daren’t admit that they don’t) will end up playing Scrabble. Meanwhile the Scrabble SCRABBLE! players can hopefully spend the afternoon doing what they want. The sprout move may backfire as you may be taken up on your offer.

Charade Charades.

This is related to the game Charades where someone acts out the name of a well-known book, play or film. Charade Charades is actually the game which usually is really played instead due to absolutely none remembering or agreeing on what hand signals are used to indicate, for example, the number of syllables in a particular word, or whether a book, play of film is being represented by each player’s pitiful performance. Also the film ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’ has to be performed at least five times and at least three people have to argue about who guessed the answer first.

Great fun!

Friday 1 December 2023


 Today - the First of December - ABBA is pleased to offer a Guest Post from the pen of Miss Winterbottom, renowned for the long-running 'Advice for Aspiring Authors' Column (Jolly Journalistic Jaunts Magazine, 1932) 

Do read on . . .

Holly Leaves Red Berries Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

Dear Fellow Scribes,

Alas! Winter, in my opinion, is the hardest season for Writers. One sits at one’s desk, oft-times without flames in one’s meagre hearth, attending to One’s Work (in Progress, Resting or at a Standstill) and finds One's Creative Spark chilled beyond Endurance.

Fear not! Today, I am suggesting Various Accoutrements that will make the sedentary life both bearable and productive, even as one’s Aspiring Thoughts cloud the inky page (or laptop screen. Ed.)

 The Winterbottom LIst of Author's Essentials: 

You will need:

1. A knitted snood: a most useful, soft, cylindrical garment for wearing round the neck, but without the encumbrance of lengthy scarfage.

2.  A warm woolly hat, if needed. Without, for obvious aesthetic reasons, any bobble, slogan or in any team colours.

3 A pair of fingerless mitts. Adaptable for use with pencil, pen, paintbrush or keyboard. Also of assistance when opening Biscuits Tins or Confectionary Containers.

4. One Essential Over-Garment to wear over one’s regular clothing. For example, a large flannel dressing gown; a Mariner’s oversized Guernsey; one’s Grandfather’s raglan Overcoat, or any other superior garment you have the bodily strength to wear. Nb. Garments with pockets only!

5. If at your Country Desk, wear thick Socks and Sturdy Tweed Slippers. However, for superior comfort at your Town Desk, fur-lined Ankle Bootees will look more stylish.

6. Several large cushions or pillows, strategically wedged in place to ward off draughts but, hopefully, not drafts.(Excuse my wee moment of wit!)

7. If available, a lazy, well-fed, friendly cat for close comfort on the lap or nearby. If no feline is available, use a wrapped hot water bottle, although this is a far lesser option in terms of literary companionship.

8. Warming cups of tea, coffee, or hot chocolate. Spirituous liquors occasionally, when necessary for inspiration. (Suitable flasks & vessels can be found in Superior Expedition Catalogues, especially useful on the maid's half-day off.)

9. If one wishes, an Amusing Sausage Dog door draught excluder, ha ha. Or large, real Dog, if handcrafted version unavailable.

10. And now, a Final Suggestion, if you are Comfortably Equipped but still unable to get on with your Vital Project:




No, Not you, Dear Writer!  

Holly Leaves Red Berries Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

 The Long Healthy Walk is for All the Others 

 so that now you can get on with Your Work, Peacefully, Cheerfully and Happily!

Farewell. I will end my December Advice with a newly-popular term, recently overheard on the Clapham Omnibus: 


Holly Leaves Red Berries Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

Wishing Happy Festivities to One and All during this Season of Merriment.

 (As told to Penny Dolan)


Wednesday 29 November 2023

Captain Najork

Or, to give the book its full title: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen.

Book is actually stretching it, since this is really a short story, and very short, short story at that. You can read it in less than ten minutes.

But it’s my favourite children’s story of all time and one I have read over and over. It’s witty, absurd, charming and endlessly inventive. Not to mention remarkably economical in its storytelling. And I will freely admit that when I was writing the first of my two Aunt Severe books, this story’s Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong was a great help. I’m not going to say I stole her, but she was a very definite influence.

Though I first read it in a standard paperback with black and white drawings, this newer edition is printed on glossy paper and has Quentin Blake’s marvellous illustrations in vivid colour.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Monday 27 November 2023

Events Vs Stories by Claire Fayers

 I was sorting through my old notebooks recently when I came across a question I'd scribbled down during a workshop:

When does a series of events become a story?

I hadn't written down an answer at the time so I've been trying to answer the question this week. I've read lots of stories - often written by children, but not always - where the main character wakes up, gets out of bed, goes out, talks to someone in the street, carries on to school or work, has lunch, fights a dragon, discovers a haunted mansion, comes home etc etc. The individual events may be exciting, but there's no sense of a story unfolding.

E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel wrote: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot."

I hate to disagree with E.M. Forster but I don't think his first example is a story. It's a pair of events. The second example feels far more like a story to me, although I'd really like to know who the main character is, given that both the characters mentioned so far are dead. Which makes me think I really need to reread Aspects of the Novel to find out exactly what Mr Forster was getting at.

For me, a story needs to have a main character I can identify with, a sense of causality from one event to the next, and a character arc where the main character becomes a different person through the events of the story. The king died in mysterious circumstances and then the furious and grief-stricken queen set out to discover the identity of the murderer. That sounds a bit more like a story.

But I'm already thinking of exceptions. What's the character arc in 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'? 

(A good friend of mine, by the way, regards this book as the most terrible example of negligent parenting.)

Come to think of it, sometimes the point of the story is that the character is unable to change, and that becomes their tragedy. So a revised definition is in order. 

A story requires a main character the audience can identify with, a sense of causality from one event to the next, and the events challenge the character to grow and change.

Is that closer, do you think? Is there anything else a story needs?

Claire Fayers