Sunday, 9 August 2020

Crumbling pyramids - Anne Rooney

Pyramid of Userkaf, Egypt
Rubble of the crumbled pyramid of Userkaf, founder of the Fifth Dynasty, Egypt

I was going to write about eyes in picture book illustration today, but instead I'll respond to Keren's post yesterday about her struggles working from home. We are all experiencing the pandemic in different circumstances, but what seems consistent among writers is the inability to write. Concentration is, as Keren, says gone. 

Keren has described the difficulty of finding time and space to write when there are too many demands on her time and too many people expecting things of her. For me, there have been too few demands on my time and too few people expecting things of me. It's hard to be locked in with four people you can't escape, however much you love them, for months. It's also hard to be locked in alone for months. I would have expected to be good at lockdown: I already technically lived alone (as of October last year) and I already worked from home — though in fact most days I chose to work in Cambridge University Library, and had my grand-daughter, MB, here about three nights a week as her parents both work shifts. With the library closed and MB locked down 2 km away, I had plenty of time and space. Deserts of time and space. A chance, it seemed, to catch up and then catch my breath, and then work on projects I really wanted to work on. 

But no. Projects were cancelled or suspended, so there was little work that needed doing. And it turns out those demands on time and attention — other people, and even chores like shopping for food — provide the structure in which creativity and concentration flourish. Even if normal life is a struggle, it's a known struggle, with its own patterns of difficulty and paths to resolution. Novelty is exhausting. It didn't help that I was already in state of reduced concentration as my mother died at the end of last year and MB and family had only just moved out. I still hadn't adjusted to daily solitude when it became absolute. I'm not sure it would have made much difference if the pandemic had come a year later, though: it's the disruption of the systems we have come to operate within that is the problem. We can concentrate on writing when we don''t have to re-invent the mechanisms of everyday life on an ongoing basis. 

Concentration, I think, has been destroyed by doubt and by the emotional energy it now takes to get through the day. There is the constant, overwhelming worry — about the virus, about relatives and friends who might be suffering mentally or physically, about crashing businesses and future prospects, about the world  and all its other problems — then there is the effort taken to manage things that we had systems for. We have to concentrate on getting food, on parcelling out space in the house or negotiating its emptiness, on managing problems that would normally be minor, such as getting a washing machine fixed or replaced, or seeing the doctor about a worrying symptom. 

I am lucky that I have had some commissioned work over the last months, though far less than usual. I thought I would be able to start new things on spec but I have neither the focus nor the confidence to do it. I have frittered away lockdown doing the garden and reading too much stuff on news sites and Facebook. No grand opus. Of the books I'd hope to write, one needs physical access to a library, so that's out. One needs selling to a publisher before I go further with it, but publishers are not very active. The one I could be working up into a decent outline, I'm not happy with. There is no spark to it, no vitality because there is no spark or vitality in me at the moment. It would be a dead book, a pandemic-scarred book. I'd rather leave it untouched and unsullied until it can be written better.

All the writers I have spoken to have found focus has gone and it makes writing impossible, or almost so. We just have to accept that these are strange times and that the way daily life demands our concentration means there is none left for creativity. It's not even the same as the personal difficulties and trauma that can spark creativity, because our focus is not spent on a big challenge, such as dealing with heartbreak or surviving cancer; for most of us, it is eroded by concentrating on getting food into the house, cleaning everything that comes in, marshalling masks and gloves and sanitiser for trips to the shop,  managing dwindling money supplies or caring for distant but shielding relatives. These gnaw away at our energy and concentration even if we seem to have too little to do rather than too much. Renegotiating the fabric of life leaves no space or energy for creativity.

We could look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs and see where it all goes wrong. This, if you're not familiar with it, is a (partially discredited) psychological model of motivation devised by Abraham Maslow in 1943. He proposed that people need to have basic needs met before they can achieve 'self-actualization'. 


Self-actualization is essentially becoming the person you want to become, focusing on the things that are important to you. That can be creative endeavour, such as writing or music or painting, or sporting achievement or being a great parent or a successful CEO, or a committed activist. We each define it for ourselves.  Maslow argued that we can't do this if certain needs (eg for food and safety) are not met. Most people in the world are never in a position to achieve self-actualization. He divided the foundational needs into 'basic' (the bottom two layers) and 'psychological'. It's a bit dodgy, as many great artists and activists have achieved much while living in danger of starvation or persecution, but for many of us, it's fairly true. Another valid criticism is that Maslow derived his pyramid of needs working from the historical biographies of people he considered self-actualized and, unsurprisingly for a male Jewish American in 1943, they were mostly white and male. But criticisms aside, if we look at it now, it seems that for many of us the pyramid has collapsed.

Speaking personally, I'd say only the bottom layer is anywhere near intact, and for a lot of people even that isn't secure any more. For all of us it is shaky. The very air is a virus-laden threat; food can be hard to come by, especially if you can't get out and can't get a delivery slot; our sleep may be shot to bits; if you can't pay your rent, shelter is not secure. Reproduction is probably not a good option right now, either. 

The next layer, safety needs, has crumbled entirely for the whole population — indeed, for the population of the entire world. Love and belonging are hard to maintain if you are completely separated from some people and/or forced into too much proximity with others, not allowed the space to be different or heal disputes. Esteem slides away because we aren't achieving and because it rests heavily on reflection of other's approval which we aren't getting because we aren't interacting with others, and everyone else is also too busy struggling with their own collapsed pyramid. Of course, we are supporting each other remotely as well as we can. But not being able to meet up with a friend or neighbour to give or receive a hug, a cup of coffee, a reassuring pep-talk, leaves only the thinnest strand of support here.

Self-actualization is lost somewhere in the rubble of the other layers — unless you happen to be an ICU worker, and then you probably don't have time to read this blog. This is why we can't concentrate, why we aren't writing, so we should stop beating ourselves up about it.

Perhaps we need to build a new pyramid, as this pandemic is not going away any time soon, whatever jollying-along politicians might say. Building a pyramid, as any Ancient Egyptian could tell you, is long and arduous process.

Source unknown, sorry; if it's your copyright get in touch and I'll add a credit or remove it


Anne Rooney

Occasional blog: The Shipwrecked Rhino

Currently writing: You Wouldn't Want to be in a Pandemic! (Salariya, 2020)

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Working from Home by Keren David

 My post is a follow up to Dawn's yesterday, in a way, in that it's about lockdown and how children's authors earn a living, but it's from a different angle.

Many of us augment a writing life with a portfolio of different ways of making money -  school visits, teaching creative writing, mentoring.

I did all those things, and enjoyed them all, but never made enough money to live on. So when a job came up four years ago, I took it. It was four days a week, so I thought I'd cram writing and school visits into a three day weekend.

My income shot up. My writing life...suffered. 

And then came lockdown. At first I thought working from home would give me the chance to have a more balanced life. I could combine writing and worklife more easily. With no commuting I'd have more time on my hands. Writing would fit more easily into my schedule. I'd breeze through with less to distract me. 

No. It hasn't been like that at all. 

Commuting time turns out to be useful thinking time. Working from home takes longer  -  more writing  of messages and having meetings with colleagues, for conversations that would take place across a desk. a remote working system that crashes. And it has been more stressful all round, with many crises. I've gone up to working five days a week. Great news for my income (balanced by the catastrophic effect of lockdown on my self-employed husband's business). Terrible news for my writing. 

And then the distractions. Four adults sharing a house. No real workspace. Lunch to be made every day. Ditto supper. Cats in and out of the back door, crying for their suppers at 4.30 (just because I'm here). A constant flow of parcel deliveries. And food deliveries. And phone calls. 

My concentration is shot to pieces. I'm constantly exhausted. My creativity has drained away. And although  I usually love the editing stage of a book...this summer, it's been a struggle to remember what my characters are called, let alone what their story is.

I keep vowing to wake at 6am, write before work officially starts. But then I  sleep through my alarm. This weekend I have a Zoom meeting about another creative project, and I need to edit at least ten I get no free time, no exercise, no time off.

How do other writers manage to combine working from home and a creative life? And don't say ask for more time, because I've already done that more than once. This is not so much a blog post as a cry for help -  how can I make more time in the week? 

Friday, 7 August 2020

Free Stuff – Creator choice or user expectation? By Dawn Finch

Copyright Gecko&Fly

As we move into the next phases of managing the pandemic, we can now take the opportunity to lick our wounds. It seems to be within the nature of children’s writers and illustrators to want to make the world a better place and I wasn’t surprised to see so many of you offering up your time and materials for free. I know that this made lockdown a lot easier for many parents and there’s even a chance you might have had a few sales from this.

But the grants for self-employed people are drying up, and so are the opportunities. It’s looking increasingly likely that schools will have neither money or time to book many digital visits and events for the next year or so, and this means that author’s already fragile incomes are about to take the worst hit of all. It’s time to think very hard about whether or not you want to leave all that free stuff out there.

You are going to hear me talk about this a lot over the coming year. As chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators committee, I know that this situation is going to require some very specific support. This has been something that the committee has been talking about right from the start. We know that there are concerns that are bigger than just the technical matters of a digital visit.

CWIG are working on a way of giving you advice for this, but when you are making and booking your digital visits, please don’t be afraid to be very specific about how that video you are making will be used, and what you are giving permission for. Have you given them a video that they are free to roll out to every school in the Academy chain? Have you given them permissions you are allowed to give? Have you given them rights to repeat-show that video in perpetuity? We work with words, but why are we so bad at getting things in writing? Why do we just assume we can trust people to respect our permissions if we don’t respect them ourselves?

These might seem like a thing that doesn’t really matter, but why would School B book (and pay for) a digital visit if they can just get a copy of your video for free from School A? If you talk about all of your books and do a generic-age workshop, your video won’t age for a few years so why would anyone pay you to come back when your next book comes out? How much are they going to pay you for different versions of your video? Live stream with chat and interaction is one thing, specially recorded video is another? Get it in writing! Don’t be afraid to pin down your conditions.

I meet and work with hundreds of authors and my main grumble with you all is that you’re too damn nice! It is absolutely essential that you feel empowered to ask for payment and conditions because you are entitled to it. It is also extremely important that you do not feel pressurised into giving your work away for free. Yes, I’ve said this before and it certainly won’t be the last time I talk about it.
CWIG are also examining creative income streams and looking at how we can support authors to find ways to pay the bills, and to carry on writing and illustrating and generally making the world a better place. We’d love to hear your creative methods of earning money related to your writing and illustrating. Drop me a line in these replies, or head over to twitter and send me a message.

I’m also hoping that we can encourage those authors who already have super-massive platforms to stop and think before they give so much stuff away for free. There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving your work and time away for free if you feel if will amplify your work and your career, but it should always be done because you choose to and not because of end-user expectation. I am hoping that some of the biggest names in children’s publishing will give up #EveryTenthTweet to amplify the work of some of the smallest. Imagine if those huge names started sharing work by lesser-known authors, and linking to their outlets. I know the power that they hold and that endorsement could relate to genuine sales. I’m not just talking about newbies and new books, I’m talking about bringing light to all authors currently languishing in the shadows. It’s time for the biggest names to take a step sideways and let the light flood in.

The future is certainly going to be a challenge for authors in every field, but as children’s authors used to be able to look to school visits and events as a significant part of their income, there are going to be particularly tough times ahead. This means we need to really pull this family together and support each other even more. Let’s amplify each other, support each other’s work, and most of all let’s all make sure that people remember to #PayCreators

Dawn Finch is a children’s author and librarian and the current chair of the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group committee (CWIG)

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse by Paul May

The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge won the Carnegie Medal in 1946, the year of its publication, and it is just as much of a wartime book as We Couldn’t Leave Dinah and Visitors from London. It was written in the heart of the Devon countryside that forms its setting and Elizabeth Goudge wrote that ‘those were the war years and it was good to escape sometimes from the fearful realities of that time into a world where a unicorn cantered behind the trees.’


This is a pastoral novel. The action takes place in the bucolic semi-paradise of Moonacre, a country estate hemmed in by hills and the sea, entirely separate from the rest of the world, in the year 1842. As I read it, I was reminded of many other stories. The unicorn theme suggested Alan Garner's Elidor, a book that didn't win the Carnegie, apparently because the judges, astonishingly, didn't like the Charles Keeping illustrations. Then that pastoral quality made me think both of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale and of the Ahlbergs' Each Peach Pear Plum.

The Winter's Tale element includes a shepherd for the heroine, Maria, to fall in love with and marry. Humbling her pride to marry a common shepherd is one of the things she has to do to redeem the sins of her ancestors. Except that this shepherd is not a prince in disguise like Florizel, but possibly a god or a hero from the past. He's called Robin, but he also has echoes of the god, Pan, as he makes his first physical appearance: 'Maria . . . was aware of a slim brown figure bounding towards her, of a curly head lowered like that of a butting goat, and then over went the Black Man flat on his back . . .'

The Black Men are not black-skinned, but like Tolkien's Black Riders or the Arthurian Black Knight are dressed in black and carry black cockerels on their shoulders. Their blackness is a symbolic absence of colour which is contrasted with the heightened colour of everything else in Moonacre—this really is a very colourful book. And it's not just the colours; all the senses are enhanced, and feelings too. People take one look in each others eyes and love each other instantly. There is magic in the air. 

At first, because everything in Moonacre seems so lovely and so perfect, I found myself thinking of Ursula LeGuin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. That story concerns a city where everyone lives in unimaginable happiness, but at a cost. In a windowless room somewhere in the city a small child is imprisoned in misery. ‘If the child were brought up out of that vile place . . .all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed.’ All the residents of Omelas know about the child. They are shown the child at a certain point in their adolescence and told of the bargain: the happiness of thousands depends upon the misery of one. And some of them, having been shown, walk away.


Illustration by C. Walter Hodges

Well, The Little White Horse isn’t that kind of a story, it turns out, but the darkness is there all the same. Moonacre is a genuine paradise, rather like the Garden of Eden, into which people have brought their own trouble. This trouble takes a variety of forms – greed, cruelty, deceit, envy, curiosity (strange one that) vanity, and being aggravating. The task of the heroine, Maria Merryweather, is to purge the evil from Moonacre through courage and self-sacrifice. I think that Elizabeth Goudge was probably influenced in her plotting by Shakespeare’s comedies, and it’s no coincidence that a lot of marrying goes on at the end.


This is, like LeGuin's, a moral story. It appears in places to be explicitly didactic, although it is the characters rather than the author who make such statements as this: ‘That’s our family motto, my dear . . .It is also, perhaps, a device for linking together those four qualities that go to make up perfection – courage, purity, love and joy.’ But the high moral tone is usually slightly undermined in some way, in this case thus: ‘Sir Benjamin paused a moment and then with intense relief suddenly bellowed, “Sausages!!!” For a moment Maria thought that Sausage was another thing that one must have to attain perfection . . .’

That mention of 'purity' is important. There are several references in the book to the Virgin Mary, and Maria's name is no coincidence. The myth is that only a virgin can tame the unicorn, and this must have been in the author's mind, but in the end, having sown all the seeds (and this is a very plotty book) she seems to have decided not to go down this route, the route which Alan Garner did take in his novel.


On another occasion, Loveday Minette warns Maria, 'Don’t make my mistakes, Maria, whatever you do.'

    'What were your mistakes?' asked Maria

    'Too many to tell you,' said Loveday, 'but they all grew out of being aggravating and losing my temper.' 


     'I’m like Lady Letitia, Loveday,' Maria says, a few pages later,  'I don’t like pink either.'

     ‘What?’ cried Loveday. ‘You ride there beside me, Maria, and dare to tell me that you don’t like pink?’ And Loveday drew herself up, and her eyes flashed cold fire and she seemed to be freezing all over.’


I think it’s this kind of thing that makes the moralising acceptable. Even the vicar, who delivers damning moral judgements on his parishioners, is not above reproach. All the characters, including our heroine, have their flaws and contradictions, and in this self-contained world the bad people are bad for understandable reasons and are willing, in the right circumstances, to be reformed. Marcus Crouch says ‘The Little White Horse is a ‘moral tale’, an allegory, in which an acceptable lesson is carried through the medium of an enchanting story. Children, who in any case are less averse to a moral than their elders, have shown no wish to complain that this story, with its excitement, its vividly realised setting and its many colourful characters, is concerned with the nature of good and evil and with the importance of self-discipline.’


I think that’s right. Reviews on Amazon and Good Reads are a real mixture of praise from modern children and from adults who loved the book when they were young and still reread it today. There's very little  'I bought this for my granddaughter and she seems to love it'. And a whole new audience has come to the book after J K Rowling said it was one of her favourites as a child, and acknowledged its influence on Harry Potter, chiefly through its extravagant descriptions of food.


Elizabeth Goudge

I have a feeling that this book might also have influenced Joan Aiken in her creation of the alternative England of James III, the setting for the Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. Can anyone suggest a sensible reason why Joan Aiken never won the Carnegie? She was shortlisted once in 1968 for The Whispering Mountain, but that's all.

And, come to think of it, Loveday Minette's bit of relationship counselling is really quite sound and I will try to take it to heart. 'Don't be aggravating and keep your temper.'

Paul May's website

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Publication Day: The Dampest of Squibs - Ciaran Murtagh

I'm not that bothered by publication days. There. I've said it. 

By the time a book is ready to come out I'm usually so sick of the sight of it that the thought of having a party to celebrate it's existence fills me with dread. I mean, I'm not a natural, centre of attention party person anyway - that's why I'm an author - but even without the party, publication day always feels like a bit of an anti-climax.

There are so many little triumphs that seem worthy of celebration, but usually they happen on a rainy Tuesday in the quiet of your shed.  I celebrate every time I have an idea that might lead to something else. I celebrate whenever I fill a plot hole with a nifty bit of thinking. I celebrate when I finish the damn thing - boy do I celebrate! I celebrate when I start to see roughs and sketches for art work. I celebrate when I get delivered an advance copy. But publication day? That doesn't feel like it's for me.  That feels like it's for my publishers and their Twitter handle.

That's not to say that the celebration is done. I celebrate when I get an email from a kid who's really enjoyed the book. I celebrate every time I do a workshop and feel like I've connected with a class. I celebrate quietly whenever I see my book in a library - remember them? But it's those moments that I value, not the grandeur of publication day. It's maybe why I prefer Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. 

Please don't think me churlish or ungrateful, I'm thrilled that my book is out there for all to see and I appreciate the hard work from a whole team of people who have struggled to get it there. But I'm a writer, I celebrate the victories I feel I've earned through doing my job, and by the time publication comes along they're long gone.  By the time publication day comes along a year or so after I've finished the thing, that book is history and I'm onto the next and the next and the next. 

So publication day always leaves me feeling a little low. My book is out there. Will anyone notice? Does it matter that I've added another to the pile?  Maybe, maybe not. But the real buzz, the real sparks happen before and after - it's those I celebrate.  

Monday, 3 August 2020


Suzanne Collins was born on August the 10th, 1962 in Hartford, Connecticut. Her parents - Jane and Lieutenant Colonel Michael  Collins had four children - Suzanne was the youngest.

As a US Airforce officer her father served in both the Korean War and the Viet Nam War. His career later became part of the inspiration for her best selling trilogy - The Hunger Games.

The family were constantly moving but she spent her childhood in the Eastern United States. She graduated from the Alabama School of Fine Arts and went on to earn a M.F.A. degree in Dramatic Writing from New York University.

In 1991 Suzanne began a successful career as a writer for children's television. She was inspired to write children's literature after a meeting with author James Proimos. 

Her most famous contribution to the children's book world is the trilogy - The Hunger Games. The series, written for age 12 and above, became an instant best seller.

Five Facts about Suzanne Collins:

1. The film of The Hunger Games broke multiple box office records.

2. Stephen King called her trilogy "addictive". 

3. Her hobbies are reading and running.

4. She has two children - Charlie and Isabella.

5. The Hunger Games was partly inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

In May of this year Scholastic released "The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes" a prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy.



Sunday, 2 August 2020

Bittersweet moments - by Steve Way

This time round I’ve decided to write about a couple of bittersweet experiences I’ve had in relation to my writing. My decision was partly crystallised this week when I accidentally discovered that back in 2012 a series of twelve non-fiction books that I either authored or co-authored had been published in India. I’d worked on commission for a publisher who tries to license books to different countries, so in one sense – but purely a financial one - my interest in the books had ended. Whilst it was an exciting surprise to find out about the books – I may even (at a fair cost!) be able to order a copy of one of them from the USA via Amazon! – it seemed incredibly mean minded of the publishers not to inform me about this, let alone send me some copies!

I suppose I should have known. For that self-same publisher I and a friend I enlisted did some voluntary research for a children’s science book published under the name of a very famous American author. Neither of us got any recognition, or even the promised copies of the book!

Still, one day, a few years ago, I was delighted to see what confronted me when I arrived at the headquarters of the education authority based in Huddersfield’s council offices. The authority, along with the council, had decided to have a crack at the publishing lark, and commissioned six ‘big books’, one of which was a maths-based adventure written by me and illustrated by experienced teacher and artist June Norris-Green. The idea was that in Hillary’s Yorkshire Adventure Hillary would be set several mathematical challenges by the ‘Mathematical Maestro’ (boo!) for the children to solve. The designer and I carefully worked on the layout, incorporating June’s wonderful illustrations, seeing to it that each challenge was laid out on one double spread, followed by a double spread explaining the solution. This of course meant that when used as a teaching tool the double-page spread of the challenge could be presented to the children, without any clues being given away as to how to solve it. The following double spread would confirm whether their solutions were correct or not.

On the day in question the published books had all arrived at the council headquarters before I did and so stacked up on several pallets just inside the entrance were copies of my book! As I raced up the stairs to the designer’s work area I could look down on the tall stacks from above! How exciting! 

When I arrived at his desk, the designer was looking through one of the copies. It didn’t take long before I realised something was amiss. Instead of the challenge being laid out on a double spread, one half of it started on the right-hand page. To read the rest of the challenge it was necessary to turn the page, on the right had of which was the first page of the solution. The dispirited designer explained that just before being sent off for publication one of the Huddersfield Councilors had looked at the draft and declared that there should be a blank page on the first inner page of the book. The designer didn’t dare contradict her. You don’t question a councilor – not if your job ends up on the line for doing so. God bless politicians. This meant of course that the layout of the whole book was out of sync and in my mind largely ruined. As I walked down the stairs looking down on my books, I felt very differently about them as I had going up.

Further insult to injury was added about a year later, when the educational authority finally realised that it didn’t actually know how to successfully operate as a publisher. Every school in the authority had been presented with a copy of my book and the five others but after that they had several books that they had failed to sell. Rather than allowing me to have them – I managed to buy a few - with the aim of distributing them to other schools in Yorkshire* (and beyond!) they insisted on incinerating them instead. As I mentioned these were big books – what a waste! Still perhaps it warmed up Huddersfield for a while, a not uncommon necessity!

*Something they could also have done of course!


Recent book; Spy by Accident. ISBN 978-1676604969 Simon’s mum Mary is a spy though neither he nor his father know this. Simon and his father inadvertently become embroiled in Mary’s latest case, causing even more intense concern and problems for Mary and her colleagues.