Saturday, 30 May 2009

Yeah, write: N M Browne

I have spent the last week talking about work, but not actually doing any; I’ve been swanning around being ‘a writer.’ I quite like this as it makes me feel self important and wise and because I can temporarily forget the fact that I am currently stalled on the actual putting words on the page front..
Anyway, in all the thousands of ill judged words that have dribbled from my lips a very few actually made sense.

Someone asked me what I’d learned in my years as a writer. I quashed the reflexive ‘not a lot’. I battled not to pass on my top hints for the home worker ie ‘It is surprisingly easy to give yourself caffeine poisoning,' ‘ Don’t eat toast and then laugh while at your keyboard or you’ll be picking out crumbs for weeks,’ and the most helpful ‘Don’t work in your (grubby, pink fluffy) dressing gown as if you do someone you don’t wish to meet in a state of slovenly dishevelment will inevitably call.’ In the end I took a deep breath and said: ‘Don’t be a writer unless you love writing.’ This was quite sensible I thought ( though I did spoil it rather by suggesting that if they wished to be rich and famous they should maybe take up stripping or going on a reality TV show, neither of which seemed to be on the cards for that particular audience.)
I really do think that the only reason to be a writer is because you love writing, because the joys of being ‘ a writer’, even of swanning around pretending to be wise are limited and don’t pay the gas bill ( unless you use a really tiny amount of gas.) The hourly pay is rubbish, the career progression unpredictable and often in the wrong direction, and the brief moment of joy when your book is published is subsequently undermined by the frustration and despair, of no shops stocking it, no punters buying it and no critics reviewing it. You have to do it because you think it is worth doing in and of itself. I’ve also learned that it helps to be a thick skinned optimist, with either private wealth, a flexible second job, or a generous benefactor/other half but I didn’t want to depress my audience too much. I’ll stand by my one sensible comment in my flood of chat. ‘Don’t be a writer unless you love writing.’ Honestly. Why would you?

Friday, 29 May 2009

Book Launch Season by Marie-Louise Jensen

There has been a children’s book launch frenzy in Bath in the first half of this year. Bath has become quite a centre for children’s writers – partly, though not exclusively, because of the Writing for Young People MA at the Bath Spa University.
I kicked off the string of launches myself with my second teen novel The Lady in the Tower, which was published by OUP on the 1st of January. There was a party kindly hosted by the Oldfield Park Bookshop and later in the month, an event in Waterstone’s. Both were great fun and it was lovely to see so many friends as well as some people I hadn’t met before.
Rachel Ward then launched her debut teen novel Numbers at Bath Waterstone’s in January, drawing a big crowd of supporters. Then there was a bit of a break, before Steve Voake launched his new fantasy adventure Blood Hunters in April. Sadly, I didn’t make that one, due to a clash with my taxi duties for my sons, but we read the book, which my fourteen-year-old describes as ‘awesome’.
Julia Green followed with the launch of her Breathing Underwater at Mr B’s Emporium of Delights. A wonderful, crowded event, everyone crammed into both floors of the shop for a party, a reading and a signing. I’m half way through Breathing Underwater and urge everyone to read it. It’s a beautifully-written, haunting and mysterious tale of grieving and growing up.
Just this week, Lucy Christopher launched her debut teen novel Stolen, at Bath Waterstone’s. Again, a big, lively crowd, lots of excitement and a fun, sparkling event. The book looks great too, though I’ve not had chance to read more than a few pages yet.
In two weeks, Sarah Singleton is signing copies of her new book The Poison Garden in Bath, which I’m looking forward to as I’m a fan of her previous books.
Is that all for 2009, or are there more books to come? I wait with bated breath, because I’ve started to depend on a party a month. I love my own launches, but other people’s are so much more relaxing.
It seems to me that Bath is the place to be. It’s all happening here for kids’ books. Oh, and if I’ve missed anyone out it’s because they forgot to invite me – they’ll know better next year. :-)

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Lancashire Children's Book of the Year Award by Adèle Geras

Last year, I took over from Hazel Townson, who had been involved with this award for 21 years, as the (not sure what the word is!)enabler, I suppose, or chairperson, or something like that of the Award. My job is to help the young people who are the only judges to come to their conclusions.
The young people are pupils from 12 Lancashire schools. The schools start in September, reading what has been sent in by the publishers. Librarians distribute the books to the schools; teachers have various methods of getting the books read by as many people as possible and everyone votes on their favourites and we arrive at a shortlist.
That's when I first meet the young judges. The shortlist is announced at a meeting held in the Lancashire County Council offices (we're allowed to use their very impressive cabinet chamber!) and I discuss with the judges some of the things they ought to be bearing in mind as they read the shortlisted books. This meeting is in March. In May, we come together again to fight over the shortlist and a winner and two runners-up are chosen. This is decided by voting on a secret ballot, after much fast and furious debate.
This year's winner is Sophie McKenzie for Blood Ties. The runners-up are Just Henry by Michelle Magorian and The Trap by Sarah Wray.
In June, the shortlisted authors or as many of them as can make it, come and do an afternoon with the children from the local schools who've been part of the judging process. As many Year 9 children as possible from across the county come to this event. Then, in the evening, the University of Central Lancashire hosts a fabulous dinner and the next day, the prizes are given and this takes place in the Council Chamber with attendant dignitaries swelling the ranks of children, teachers, librarians, shortlisted authors and me.
It's the best-organized series of events I've ever been involved in, thanks largely to Jake Hope and Jean Wolstenholme and the best thing about it is: it lays to rest the view that reading is dying out among the young and that they'd rather be doing almost anything else. The twenty-four children I met last year and the ones I've met this year are passionate and devoted readers with their own ideas and opinions and a very forthright way of putting these across. As long as there are children like these around (and I'm sure you could find the same in every county in the land) the future of reading is in good hands and we need not fear for our books.
I've had a really good time being part of the fun and I hope I can continue to be involved, as Hazel was, for many years to come.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Bottom Syndrome - Joan Lennon

We are told confession is good for the soul, but I'd rather not look too closely at the ways in which confession, blogging and narcissism overlap ... so I won't. Instead I'm going to look at a Syndrome from which I suffer - and when I suffer, you can be sure those who have to deal with me suffer too! I've called it The Bottom Syndrome and its catchphrase is "I could do that!" It presents like this: tell me about any kind of book that is doing, has done or just might do well and I am immediately overwhelmed with the thought "I could do that!" I can imagine myself writing anything. This is not based on evidence, of course. It's just the way I feel!

Treatment for a syndrome of this sort would probably involve extensive periods of writing all the things I'd be no good at, and since I can't find enough time to write the things I can and I can't see me ever making the effort, I will doubtless never be cured. After all, it's a more or less harmless malady (thought irritating for onlookers). That said, if there are other sufferers out there, I'm willing to form a support group - Bottoms Anonymous. Yes, I could do that.

"Let me play the lion too ... I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any suckling dove; I will roar you an 'twere any nightingale." Dear Bottom.

P.S. The picture is by Arthur Rackham.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Writing, the farming way - Anne Rooney

Medieval farmers knew a thing or two. They had to - their lives depended on it. They knew that it's easy to exhaust a patch of ground by trying to get the same things to grow in it, time after time - that the crops will become weedy and weak after a few years. And they knew that it takes more time to grown something than the time between planting the seed and reaping the harvest. So they rotated things (you must remember crop rotation from primary school history lessons): first rye or winter wheat, then beans or peas (putting nitrogen back into the soil), then leaving the land fallow - growing nothing particular, letting the soil have a rest.

Writing is not so very different from farming, I find. A third of the time creativity can flourish, producing a nice crop of useful words around a rich central idea. A third of the time, research and editing, admin and other writing, blogging, writing proposals, meeting publishers - preparing the ground. A third of the time, I need to let the soil of the imagination replenish itself. This is the time for noodling around. It looks to other (non-writing) people remarkably like being lazy. Writers know, though, that the hours spent sitting in the sun reading novels, dawdling through the papers, picking out random books in libraries and bookshops, watching worms in the garden, taking walks, baking cakes, growing beans.... are all necessary ways of preparing the ground for the next crop of ideas. Without the fallow times, the harvest will become poorer, year on year. So I'm not sitting on the balcony in the sun because I'm lazy, I'm doing it because I have to.

Poetry Alive! - Lucy Coats

Last August I wrote a blog entitled 'Poetry in Peril?' in which I bemoaned the fact that children no longer learn the best of our past poetry by heart. None of my doing, but this has, of course, now been remedied by the BBC's current excellent poetry season, most notably by their 'Off By Heart' competition, the final of which was screened last Friday. One of the judges of that competition was Benjamin (Obadiah Iqbal) Zephaniah, and I was lucky enough to see him 'in audience' at the The Little Theatre in Leicester last week.

I don't know about the rest of the country, but I am pleased to report that, in Leicester at least, poetry is alive, and not only alive, but kicking and buzzing. The theatre was packed--standing room only--with a rich mixture of all ages, and Benjamin entertained us, held us entranced, made us laugh, informed us. In fact he overran his one and a half allotted hours by 45 minutes, and no one minded a bit, not even when the signing queue took a further hour and a bit to get through.

I knew Benjamin's children's poetry well (most obviously his 'Talking Turkeys') but I had never heard him perform his poetry for adults. It was a revelation. Benjamin is unashamedly political--but it is a focussed and personal politicalness without dogma or blinkered narrow-mindedness. It is also laced with dark and unexpected humour. I particularly liked his poem 'The Men from Jamaica are Settling Down' about the first wave of Caribbean immigrants who arrived on the Windrush, and also 'What Stephen Lawrence has Taught Us'. 'Sadhu', his poem about the holy man he met in India with dreadlocks longer than his own, has a particularly magnificent line 'Sadhu sits on India like a lotus flower'....which, uttered in Benjamin's hypnotic tones, immediately conjures up the magic of that great continent.

The Q and A session was wide ranging--and Benjamin's answers were thoughtful, intelligent and funny. To one questioner who wanted to know what poet he would recommend to our beleagured, trough-swilling politicians, he thought for a minute and then came up with Pam Ayres. His reasoning was that she wrote about domestic things, and that the lot of them could learn much from her about the art of good housekeeping. To another, a boy from an approved school, who wanted to know how to survive, he gave measured and helpful advice from his own experience. I am certain that it will have been taken to heart and acted on.

That Monday night, Benjamin taught me a great deal about performance, about how to connect with an audience as a writer. He is brutally honest about his past, about his time in prison, about the abuse his mother suffered, about his days as a gangster in Birmingham. But what I found most impressive was his assertion that he had known he wanted to be a poet from the age of eight. Last August I was feeling very negative about what I felt was the somewhat parlous position of poetry in our society. Having met and listened to Benjamin, I am hopeful again.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

REVIEW by Adèle Geras

THE LAST ENGLISHMAN : the double life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers. Faber August 2009 £20.00

I have to confess to NOT loving the Swallows and Amazons novels by Arthur Ransome. I tried one once and didn't get further into it than about the fifth page. This was when I was a child. I tried one again as an adult and still the result was the same. I gave up. I did, however, love Old Peter's Russian Tales both as a child and as an adult and recently Marcus Sedgwick's novel about Ransome alerted me to the fact that there was a whole lot more to this man than what was generally known.

Now Roland Chambers has written a very detailed account of the many different Arthur Ransomes who seemed to coexist in the same body: writer, journalist, possible spy and all-round enigma. At the time when he was an apologist for the Bolsheviks, he was reviled in this country and only narrowly escaped being tried for treason. Later, as the author of the Swallows and Amazons series he became a national treasure. His second wife, Evgenia, was Trotsky's secretary. His relationships with his first wife, Ivy and his daughter by her, Tabitha, as well as with his mother, Edith, are carefully described here and remain mysterious in many ways. His dealings with his daughter in particular are most odd. He seemed to show no interest in her or her child for years together. The book is full of fascinating detail and extracts from Ransome's letters and diaries. It's a good deal shorter than lots of biographies and will interest anyone who loved or loves his children's books. For everyone else, his life is intricately woven into the fabric of all the important events of the early twentieth century and you finish reading it with the sense that you've learned an enormous amount,and not only about Ransome but about the history of the early years of the century and the Russian Revolution. Ransome remains a bit of a mystery, I think. As he said himself: "I seem to have led not one life but snatches of a dozen lives."
This biography reads well and is never boring. It will be invaluable for anyone studying the Swallows and Amazons books or even for anyone who is a devoted fan of the series. The fact that there are still so many of these is the best tribute to Ransome that there could possibly be.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Illustrations and Virtual friends - Linda Strachan

People are often not what we expect.

If you communicate with someone over the internet or perhaps only speak to them on the phone or correspond by letter you might find that they are not quite what you imagined.
A while ago I met, for the first time, a girl I had spoken to on the phone many times, in fact over more than a year. I had come to know that she was married and had two children, liked walking and cycling - the everyday kind of details that pass in conversation from time to time. I felt as though I knew her quite well. She had a warm voice and a great sense of humour.

Eventually an occasion arose where I was to meet her for the first time. I had no particular thoughts about it but when I was introduced I was taken completely by surprise.
I had created in my own head an image of the person I had been speaking to on the phone. The small amounts of information aligned with the sound of her voice had conjured up in my imagination someone who looked completely different. I struggled to hide my surprise when I met her but it was entirely my own fault.

It made me think about the relationship we have with our stories when we hand them over to an illustrator.
When I write I have a picture in my head of my characters or the scenes in my stories, but the images my words might create in an illustrator’s mind my not necessarily be the same.
I have had my books illustrated by a fair number of illustrators and most of them have produced, if not what I had imagined, at least something that was close to it, and often much better.
Unfortunately once or twice the illustrations turned out ‘wrong’ at least as far as I was concerned. In one the main character’s best friend was just not friendly looking (admittedly he was an alien - but that was no excuse!)

It is sometimes very difficult to let go of a story, and characters you have given birth to, if you don’t like the way they are being illustrated. Even if you do like the style it can take quite a bit of a shift in your head when it looks very different to the original image conjured up when you wrote the story.

But a bit like the girl on the phone, once you get used to the difference you often forget your original thoughts and come to appreciate that the difference is just another way to see that the world is even richer and greater than your own imagination!

Thursday, 21 May 2009

All Shall Have Prizes Catherine Johnson

It is spring - actually it's probably nearly summer. The roses are out. The open air swimming pools are heaving. Parents everywhere are chivvying their children to revise.
In the pond the tadpoles are writhing. All is well in the world and the hat is high on the side of my head.
What, I hear you say, has prompted such joy? Well, apart from my own birthday yesterday, I had a fantastic present on Tuesday when I went up to the Leeds Book Awards where A Nest of Vipers was shortlisted along with some other lovely books for the 9-12 prize. It was a great day out; I watched various children do fantastic and funny presentations about the books they had read and had a delicious free lunch which included choux buns. What more could any writer ask for?

There is some debate about the worthy-ness of these small regional awards which are springing up like a rash. Some say what's the point. There are no big cash prizes and because there are so many of them publishers don't give two hoots if any of their authors are shortlisted or not.

I don't agree at all. It really is not about the writers or the books - these awards are all about the readers.

One of the Leeds librarians said that a major impetus for the award was the opportunity to promote shadowing schemes with a wider range of books than the Carnegie offers. Leeds for example, had three categories, 9+, 12+ and 14+.
I know, from the experience of my son's old school in Bethnal Green that even where a librarian is the best that money can buy she, or he, can find it very hard to interest their students in some of the Carnegie's list.

I am not against the Carnegie at all. I do think there needs to a be a blue ribbon prize for real quality books and whatever we think should, or should not be, on the list the Carnegie does the job.. But there is also room for something more accessible to ordinary young readers, readers who perhaps - like the nine year old at the Leeds Award - who said he didn't like books but did read Diary of a Wimpy Kid and was thinking he might try Shadow Forest.
The whole point of these little local awards is readers. And that's what all of us want. So few children (and adults) read any books at all, any initiative that encourages new readers has to be a very good thing.
Oh, and congratulations to Matt Haig, who not only won the category with Shadow Forest, but also became a new Dad.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Life in Wartime : Two Reviews - by Katherine Langrish

Having been involved in a discussion recently about what online reviews are for ( to recommend to others books we really love? – to punish authors we hate when they write stuff we don’t like? – to point out their dreadful mistakes? – to provide a penetrating critique so the author can do a better job next time? ) – I’ve come down firmly for the first option. So here’s a recommendation from me for two recently published and brilliant books, both set in the context of the Second World War. I hope you’ll read and enjoy them.
SAVING RAFAEL by Leslie Wilson, Andersen Press
This is an absolutely marvellous book, which had me gripped from the first page to the last. It’s first and foremost a love story between Jenny and Rafael, two young Germans whose families have always been friends – but because Rafael is Jewish and they are living in Nazi-ruled Berlin, their feelings for one another put them in terrible danger.
Jenny’s family is Quaker and pacifist, but in order to survive, first her father and then her brother are forced to join Hitler’s armies, leaving Jenny and her mother to struggle through the bombings and firestorms, trying desperately to protect their Jewish friends, and to retain some integrity in a world where simply refusing to say ‘Heil Hitler’ can bring the attention of the SS.
Jenny and Rafael are convincing teenagers: rash, passionate, sometimes even managing to have fun outwitting the ghastly system in which they live. I read the book with my heart in my mouth for them, dreading the outcome. Other characters too come to vivid life: families and communities torn apart by war.
Leslie Wilson, whose previous book LAST TRAIN FROM KUMMERSDORF was also set in Nazi Germany, brings us face to face with the dilemmas of ordinary Germans: the ugliness and moral cowardice which comes of living with fear, the cruelty of a perverted nationalism – but she also marks the heroism of small decencies and covert acts of kindness: the neighbours’ unspoken conspiracy to ignore the signs that Jenny and her mother are sheltering a Jew, when concealing that knowledge is in itself an act of extreme danger. This is a serious book, but not a depressing one. (Jenny’s little dog Muffi is a wonderful cameo character, and there are many touches of humour.) It upholds life and love, and I loved it.

ROWAN THE STRANGE by Julie Hearn, Oxford University Press
A wartime novel with a difference, this time set in England - the third in a wonderful series which might loosely be termed a family saga (the first two were IVY and HAZEL) – but each novel can be read independently of the others.
It’s 1939, and Rowan, the son of Hazel and grandson of Ivy, is about to be evacuated from London. But Rowan’s not like other children. He’s subject to odd compulsions and terrors, and after he injures his sister in one uncontrollable outburst, his parents decide he will be safer in an institution where he can be treated.
So off Rowan goes to an asylum. But what is madness? Where is the sanity in a countryside where Rowan sees such surreal sights as farmworkers wearing gas masks while they pick apples? And in the asylum itself, where the doctors are ‘cruel to be kind’, using literally shocking therapies in the name of sanity, how important is it to ‘cure’ madness? And if a delusion is an essential part of someone’s personality, what will happen if you if blast it away?
Rowan himself is an attractive hero: introspective, willing and anxious to please. His friend Dorothea (who sees people’s guardian angels) is a fascinating creation, ‘as bright and as bitter as a lemon’ – cynical yet innocent, vulnerable yet indomitable. And then there’s the well-meaning therapist himself, Dr von Metzer – tormented by the knowledge of what is happening to mentally ill children in Germany.
This is a subtle and compelling story – with just a touch of magical realism – in which Rowan’s schizophrenia and life at the asylum with its terrible ‘treatments’, uncertain cures, and small but important rewards (a slice of cake which you are allowed to cut for yourself; a part in the Christmas pantomime) stand for the wider madness of a world at war.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Poetry and Me - John Dougherty

We have a funny relationship, poetry and I. To be honest, I've never felt we get on as well as we should.

This is probably an odd - and perhaps slightly risky - statement, coming as it does from a man whose website and school visit promo material proclaim him to be 'Author, Poet, Songwriter', but it's true. Sometimes, in fact, I wonder if I should take Allan Ahlberg's line and describe myself as 'a writer of verse' rather than 'a poet'. But then, Ahlberg's wrong about that; anyone capable of writing The Boy Without A Name is certainly a poet. And 'Author, Writer of Verse, Songwriter' wouldn't be terribly snappy.

But I digress. Or do I? Because, I suppose, one of my problems with poetry is: what is it? No-one's ever actually explained that to me. In all my years at school, and then all my years back at school teaching children about poetry, no-one's ever given me a definition that really works for me and that covers every poem I have ever met.

My MacBook's onboard dictionary gives the following definition: "a piece of writing that partakes of the nature of both speech and song that is nearly always rhythmical, usually metaphorical, and often exhibits such formal elements as meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure." I'm not sure I entirely understand that but, as far as I do, it doesn't describe every poem I've ever met.

Michael Rosen's attitude is, I think, quite healthy: when the accusation is levelled at him that he doesn't write proper poetry, rather than getting all defensive about it he says, fine, if you don't want to call it poetry call it something else. Call it 'bits' and 'stuff', if you like. As far as he's concerned, the important thing is writing it, not what you call it once it's been written.

I've been thinking about all this a bit lately, probably in the light of recent events - congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy, by the way, and if you should happen to read this, my daughter just borrowed The Tear Thief from the library and loved it - and it's occurred to me that perhaps one of the reasons poetry and I rub along together so uneasily is that when I was young I was taught to approach it in the wrong way. Poetry's often an emotional art form, yet so often the teaching surrounding poetry treats it as an intellectual exercise: What does the poet mean by...? What effect is the poet striving for when he...? What is the poem about? What does it mean?

If the poet wanted to "make a point", surely (s)he would write an essay or make a speech? And if a poem works, shouldn't we be able to enjoy it without necessarily getting all that deep analytical stuff? Shouldn't we, first and foremost, just enjoy the words? Shouldn't we spend years reading poetry to children in a way that enables them to enjoy it, before we ask them to pick it apart?

In some ways this is a new thought, and yet in many ways it's an old one for me. Thinking about this lately, I remembered a poem I wrote when I was eighteen and which, from memory, goes something like this:

Note to an English Teacher
A poem
Is like a hamster
(Unless it is a long poem
In which case
It is like a large hamster)
And lively
(Unless it is a dull poem
In which case
It is like a sleepy hamster)

A poem has no fur
But it has a life
A life given it by the poet
Who is to the poem
As God to the hamster

But perhaps
The most remarkable similarity is
That you can take a poem apart
Dissect it
And analyse it

On putting it back together, you find that
Like a hamster in the same situation
It does not work
Half as well as it used to

I submitted that for the school magazine, but the teacher in charge rejected it on the grounds, I was told by another pupil, that it had no literary merit.

I just don't think she understood it...

Note to an English Teacher © John Dougherty 1982 & 2009

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Taking My Snail for a Walk - Dianne Hofmeyr

Do any of you remember how you learnt to read your name? I learnt mine by seeing it written again and again… in print, in cursive and in capitals… on books, on scraps of paper, in the steam on our kitchen window at breakfast in winter. And I recognised my name without resorting to any form of phonics. In fact if I’d tried to sound it, I’d never have managed. Nor would I have managed to read Pinocchio because unless you’re Italian how would you know to say ‘kee’ instead of ‘chee’ as in church.

The point I’m trying to make is that we learn to read in spite of ourselves by recognising shapes of words and reading them as a whole word in the context of a story. The more a child is exposed to words by hearing the words repeated and seeing them in print, the more a child can absorb words. They become part of an embedded, dynamic, rhythmic pattern. Seeing pattern and shape and texture is inherent in all of us. Yet children are being taught the phonics method.

It was brought home to me yesterday during a visit to a reception class where I put up a cover of one of my picture books and listened to a boy trying with excruciating difficulty to sound Dianne Hofmeyr… impossible! There will be many views on this one. Some might argue that phonics give children the tool to break down words. But I think the eye of the child is intelligent enough to see pattern. Once the entire word is spoken and it's shape recognised again and again and again, it’ll be remembered – whether in a book, or on a cereal box, or in the steam on a kitchen window.

The eye of the child is frighteningly observant. The drawing to the left demonstrates this… a child’s drawing of a bird, flying with enormous energy and imagination and then the same child drawing a bird after having been exposed to a workbook.
Children of four should be playing, drawing, and enjoying books, not learning to spell their name and colouring in their workbooks. ‘Colouring in’ books were banished in our house. All that's needed to give freedom to the power of a child’s imagination, is a surface and something that makes a mark, because a child who is allowed to ‘story’ in his head by drawing, is a child who is opening up to the world of both oral and written stories.
I’m no longer sure what inspired my son at age three to do the drawing, ‘Taking my Snail for a Walk’, but it must have been some intense experience. If only we are able to keep those intense experiences alive for children… an intense experience of story. I can still almost smell the forest and hear the sound, as I recall the picture of Pookie the rabbit and the long line of his friends thumping their back legs to frighten off the wood-cutters.

Don’t let’s limit children and their imagination in any form… let’s banish phonics.

Friday, 15 May 2009

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

THE DROWNING GIRL by Margaret Leroy Mira pbk

This book is perfect for anyone wanting an intriguing story which is also well-written and moving. The best thing about it is the description of the relationship between a single mother, Grace, and her daughter Sylvie, told from the point of view of the mother. I've rarely read such an accurate and touching account of what it's like to be in charge of a child whom you love but cannot really understand.

The reason for this lack of understanding is spooky and Leroy does the spookiness brilliantly. Sylvie is constantly making all kinds of references to things she can't possibly know and her mother becomes increasingly concerned. The second part of the story becomes much more like a traditional thriller where both we and Grace try to discover what happened in the past and what crimes have been committed and who committed them, and so forth. Most importantly, we discover the truth about what seems to be some kind of otherworldly knowledge in the mind of a very young girl.

The story is told in the present tense and the first person and while normally I take a bit of time to get used to that, in this case it's handled well and you believe in both Grace and Sylvie and what happens to both of them. The incidental detail of life for them (playgroups, doctor's surgeries etc) is also cleverly done and the florist's shop where Grace works (based on an actual shop) is so real you feel you can step into it and buy some flowers. This is a really enjoyable book and perfect holiday reading.

PLAGUE OF MONDAYS by Sally Prue. OUP pbk.

Full disclosure. Sally Prue has dedicated this book to me and I am a friend of hers. If I had to restrict my reviews to children's writers whom I didn't know personally, I would be severely limited in what I could write about. As I've said before, I can't help it if my friends write good books. I still feel it's important in these days of shrinking review space in the papers to bring excellent novels to the notice of everyone who doesn't know them and I ask you to accept my word that I would never praise a book I didn't genuinely admire.

Sally Prue's novel Cold Tom won the Branford Boase award and a Smarties prize and since then she's written several interesting and unusual books. She's an original, by which I mean, her books are not like anyone else's I can think of, though of course they have some things in common with some other books. She is funny, and clever and she has her own unusual slant on most things.

Plague of Mondays is the third novel in the Truth Sayer sequence which started with The Truth Sayer and continued with March of the Owlmen. Nian is the eponymous Truth Sayer and the story concerns the doings of interlocking worlds which somehow mesh and overlap with one another in various strange ways. He has to overcome all kinds of difficulties in a neighbouring world, but his problem is that he's locked into a kind of Groundhog Day scenario where one Monday succeeds another. I've been chided for giving away too much in these reviews so I'll only say, read it and see what happens. It's very exciting and funny and one moreover for both boys and girls. The cover art is stunning and also relevant to the story, which doesn't always happen. If you enjoy this book, do go back and try the earlier novels in the sequence and Prue's other work, too.

The Dead House Anne Cassidy

I have a new book coming out in July. It’s called THE DEAD HOUSE and in a way I owe something to Kate Atkinson for an aspect of this book.
Let me explain. Years ago I used to teach Creative Writing to adults and one of my sessions was about Writing for Children (naturally). In this session I tried to show the students the difference between writing FOR children and writing ABOUT children. I used an extract from Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. It is where the main character (a child) has to stay with her cousins for a while. Her cousins (twins) and their bedroom are described in minute detail and in a very scary way. There is a disturbing scene where the girl has to go up to bed on her own and is afraid that the wolves who live on the stairs will tear out her teddy bear’s throat. This is clearly writing ABOUT children and not for children.
There is a doll’s house in the bedroom and this is a source of fascination for the little girl. It was also a source of interest for many of my students. I asked them to imagine a story FOR children which centred on a doll’s house and many of them came up with terrific ideas.
I loved reading about this doll’s house in Kate Atkinson’s book. I always wanted to write a story about it but because my books are dark thrillers for teenagers I couldn’t see where I could fit it in.
THE DEAD HOUSE is about a girl called Lauren who revisits the house of her childhood. When she was seven a terrible thing happened there and ten years later she goes back. In her parent’s bedroom was an antique doll’s house. This doll’s house, where time has stood still, is just like Lauren’s old house. Time stood for her in it when she was seven years old.
As she says at the end of chapter one:

………her parent’s old bedroom. It was a room she knew well.
Ten years ago she had died and come back to life in that room.

My thanks to Kate Atkinson. I finally got to use that doll’s house.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A Word Marathon - Elen Caldecott

As I write this (on Wednesday night), my eyes are bleary, my head is filled with jam and my bed seems like the most beautiful place in the world.

But, I can’t go there yet.

Because, you see, writing this blog entry is a Nicola MorganTM Work Avoidance Strategy. I am hours away from the end of a word marathon – Nanowrimo style. A rough draft of a novel in 31 days, to be precise.

It seemed like a ridiculous idea when Ally Kennen suggested it to me; find a group of writers willing to write 50,000 words in a month and log their progress in public (it’s actually a yahoo group, but still, your word count is there for people you’ve never met to see!). But, a group was duly found. And, for the last just-under-a-month, we’ve been hard at it. Some have dropped out, some will carry on after the month is up, some will hopefully hit 50,000 and be able to watch Eurovision guilt-free.

It’s been a really interesting experience. There were some people who thought it was a bad idea – the quality will be so bad it will depress you; real writers have to let the story come in its own time; you won’t have time to think through your choices properly.
All valid points.
Especially, the point about the quality, boy oh boy, that one’s true alright.

But I have learned a lot about myself as a writer.
First of all, writing has to come top of my to-do list for the day. No nonsense. It’s my job. Full stop.
Second, if it can’t come top of the to-do list, it can still be fitted in. Even on a really busy day, a fifteen minute burst can produce 500 words. Three of those in a day will move the novel on by one scene.
And, finally, I really like working with other people around me – even if they’re virtual people. I like the support. It feels a bit more like ‘going to the office’. I think it would be lovely if there were writer’s studios, in the same way as there are artist’s studios. With a water cooler. And a photocopier. And dress-down Fridays. And Christmas parties...

Oh dear, I must be more tired than I thought.
But, I can’t stop, I’m on 47,690 words and my MC is stranded in the desert, a nomad army surrounds him and the water's run out...and I’ve only ‘til the end of Thursday to rescue him.
Elen's Facebook Page

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

When Swearing is Worse Than Violent Death - Nicola Morgan

As all writers for young people know, we not only have to get our books to our intended readers: we have to get past the gate-keepers - adults. Now, adults are some of my favourite people but let me have a little rant about certain members of that group, specifically certain parents. I am a parent myself, so I know how parenty brains work and I’m sympathetic, but sometimes … HONESTLY.

Yes, I know there’s some pretty tough stuff goes on in my teenage books. I’m up front about that and I would totally understand if a parent of a 10 year old (eg) got a bit cautious about some of it. (Though I still think they should worry less about reading choices and more about some other things - like whether their child is reading at all ...) But anyway, I just had a librarian say that she wouldn’t stock Mondays are Red “because of the swearing” and she’d had a parent complain when a book had a rude word in it. Well, I didn’t remember any swearing in Mondays are Red until it occurred to me that I did say “Piss off!” once, when a character was really really really really ANGRY. Frankly, I think piss off was pretty restrained in the circs. And it was a teenage book and a teenage character. And the character didn’t say it to an adult or anything really terrible like that …

OK, I respect people’s views and I hate bad language myself - only ever use it when I’m bloody furious - but let’s see things in context here. Tell me how it’s fine that my books contain a mastectomy without anaesthetic in front of an audience of men (Fleshmarket opening chapter), death by blood-poisoning, trepanning (when a drill is twisted through someone’s skull), drowning, stabbing, snake-bite and the subsequent cutting of the flesh above the bite, a throat being cut, drinks being spiked, a massacre, drug use (without condoning it, btw), a horse being shot … I could go on but I’m actually starting to feel quite bad about all this. Am I really a horrible and dangerous person? No, I write stories, stories that aim to challenge and grip and provide a safe environment for fictional danger and risk.

Anyway, my point is, I can do all that death and worse, but I can’t say piss off? When I’m really really really angry? And when children and teenagers hear far worse every day in the playground and on TV and the cinema? (Which is not to say it's right, but then nor are half the other horrible things about the real world.) So, I should perhaps have had my teenage character say, “O bother!” Yeah, right. That’s really going to work.

Parents need to understand about fiction and its ability to prepare kids in the best possible way for the real world. They need, frankly, to get a bit real and decide which things are really worth protecting them from. Either that, or wrap their offspring in cotton wool, don’t allow them to go to school / watch TV / travel /go to the cinema / go on the internet / phone their friends, or read anything other than Enid Blyton. Oh, except that if they read EB, they’ll learn that girls are pathetic and boys are just the greatest leaders and that taking boats on stormy water across a sea with no adults is an OK thing to do.

Compared with which, the odd piss off seems like a very small risk to take.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Pet Sounds

I need a soundtrack. I always have a soundtrack. I’ve got half a soundtrack, but it isn’t quite there yet. I need the song that will play over the movie trailer (in my dreams, that is). Past trailer-songs have included ‘Who Knew’ by Pink, ‘Run’ by Snow Patrol (everybody’s done that one! Sheesh!), and that theme tune from Gladiator (oh hang on, House of Flying Daggers used that one as well. As did, come to think of it, Gladiator). Oh yes, and for Crossing the Line there was something by Morcheeba. That worked well.

So my latest excuse for the dragging pace of my work in progress is ‘It doesn’t have a song’. Apparently George Lucas and Steven Spielberg always built a sandcastle for each one of their movies. They blamed the failure of ‘1941’ on the fact that they forgot to build a sandcastle for it (rather than, say, on the fact it wasn’t a very good movie, but I digress). I don’t need a sandcastle; I need a theme tune.

As I say, I have half a soundtrack. My protagonist is called Ruby, so that’s easy, then. Lots of people have been kind enough to write songs about Ruby. But none of those is the theme song. I realised out of the blue a few weeks ago that another character’s favourite song was ’24 Hours From Tulsa’ by Gene Pitney – a surprise to say the least, because this is a song that has never registered on my radar before. (But I do love it when that happens.)

Lots of writers have soundtracks. Maybe they all do. Are they all as embarrassing as mine? Oh, I have some cheesy songs on book soundtracks. One includes both Peter Cetera singing ‘The Glory of Love’ and that Phil Collins song from the Disney Tarzan movie, ‘You’ll Be In My Heart’. Really. I have very uncool taste, but what the characters demand the characters have to get. James Blunt! Take That! Celine Dion, for crying out loud! And when I listen to the chords swell, and picture hero/heroine running in slow motion through some urban landscape with beautiful cinematography, I get a wee tear in my eye. Sad.

I was reminded of all of this because last night I was watching Bill Bailey’s Amazing Guide to the Orchestra, which was – well – amazing. He was playing the Doctor Who theme in the style of Jacques Brel. And I thought: now that’s cool. I could listen to that indefinitely, I could. Now I just need to persuade my characters that that’s their song. I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Warriors of Richmond: N M Browne

It took me a while to work out that for most of us who are not best sellers – if you want something doing do it yourself.
I wanted to do something a bit special for my latest book: ‘Warriors of Ethandun’ because it was the final part of a trilogy the first volume of which was published in 2000. ‘Warriors of Alavna,’that first book was also my first novel and in many ways the one that spoke most directly to kids so I’ve always felt that as a whole the series had quite a lot of commercial potential. Bloomsbury have re-jacketed the earlier two volumes and produced some gorgeous covers so it made sense to re-launch the whole series.

The trilogy is a historical fantasy in which my two protagonists, popular sporty Dan, and tall and lumpy Ursula cross 'The Veil' to go back in time. They become warriors, become changed by magic and fight with Celts against Romans, with King Arthur’s Romano- Brits against Saxons, and, in the last volume, with King Alfred’s Saxons against Vikings. So, I thought, why not try to organise a launch at the Museum of London? Um ...because it costs a couple of grand to hire it perhaps?

Their publicist was great, slightly embarassed to be dealing with someone so obviously clueless – 'why don’t you have a picnic by the statue of King Alfred? Why don’t you use pictures ? Why don’t you....?' She was so positive she inspired me to think again. Why didn’t I use a local book shop and ship in some re- enactors?

I did a signing last year with my local Waterstones and they called me to arrange another just as I was wondering how to proceed ie just in time to wake me from my usual torpor. After a little to and fro ing we agreed that I would do a signing on my launch day while the shop was open followed by a launch party while the shop was closed. My publisher produced flyers, Waterstones did a window display and some in store publicity all I had to do was drag in some people.

Unfortunately all the re-enactors we knew were already doing gigs for the Bank Holiday, but for reasons too complex to mention I have an armoury of replica weapons in my basement. My husband, my chief supporter, armourer and collector of stuff kitted out two Celts, two Romans, an archer and a dark age warrior using spare children I had lying around the house. Because they had (blunted)weapons I took out re enactors insurance and informed the council, but there wasn’t a problem and on May 4th this rather anachronistic army marched through Richmond handing out flyers, while a friend took photos.

I was also lucky enough to have a great review in the Saturday Times, so I blew that up and flogged some books...

Waterstones were very happy because we created a general buzz around the store. I was happy partly because I drank plenty of rather nice Cava, but also because the whole day was huge fun. Yes, by the time I’d paid for drinks and gone out to dinner I was out of pocket, but at least I felt that I did my trilogy proud and maybe some kid walking through Richmond seeing a half naked Celt by the traffic lights might get inspired to find out more...

Big Books - Sally Nicholls

Last month, 'Ways to Live Forever' was involved in School Library Journal's Battle of the Books (hurrah!).

Sadly, it got knocked out in the first round by Octavian Nothing (alas).

The competition was a tournament, with judges deciding which of a pair of books would make it through into the next round. Cue lots of moaning about comparing apples and pears (trying to compare The Hunger Games and Octavian Nothing - the final two books - is a bit like trying to decide whether Jane Eyre or Winnie the Pooh is a better book). And, of course, cue lots of replies that actually this is what judging any literary award is like and that's why it's such a bloody difficult thing to do.

It also raised the question of what makes a good children's book. Should you pick the one you think is the better book (and let's not get into a discussion about whether that is even possible)? Or should you pick the one you think children would rather read?

Judges varied (giving a nicely random air to the competition). But what interested me was why this was seen as particularly important in a children's prize.

Surely it's just the old 'should The Da Vinci Code win the Booker' debate?

And yes, for reference I think a children's book which too advanced for most children isn't a children's book. And being a book which people want to read is most definitely a good thing, and should be considered when judging any competition - including the Booker.

But ... that's only one point out of many - plot, characters, style, beauty, emotional or intellectual truth, originality. And yes, there is space in children's bookshelves for the equivalent of The Da Vinci Code. But children are not a separate species - they are little human beings. And they deserve books as rich and complicated as Octavian Nothing (which won to a crowd-pleaser).

There are many, many children's prizes which are voted for by children and go to the books they want to read.

And there is room in children's literature for dark, powerful, complicated, intellectually challenging books.

And there are children who read them, too.

The Big Empty : Penny Dolan

So I’ve come to the end of the tome, probably titled A Boy Called Mouse. Today I will change a pair of blue eyes (ignored despite several earlier passes on-screen) into the intended brown, and decide just how many bottles topple to the floor in a certain scene. Then it’s off to the copywriter with the m/s, apparently. By this afternoon, I will be bereft. Facing the Big Empty.

Only will I? There’s several exciting settings whispering in my mind, longing for some interesting characters to inhabit them, but what’s the big, long story thread to be? There’s characters from Mouse that might lead into a new novel, but will they? I’m fluttery in the pit of my stomach, afraid of starting again, afraid of any new story fizzling out. Maybe this was it? Maybe I’m one tome woman?

I’ve got a few small ideas noted down, but they’re not waht I call deep writing. Do I go for those fun things instead? Or do I dust off earlier tomes and try to work out just what went wrong with them? Not sure I’ve got the heart forthat any more. It feels a bit too much like reading letters from long past loves.

So just patience, then. Time to fill the well. Time to walk and tidy and hope the story shelf on the mind starts filling with small scrabblings and murmurs. Possibly time to try out that post-it note plot-building idea I saw in a Writer’s Room picture. If only I had a big bare wall.

And time (during this merry, merry month of SATs) to sit at home and ask myself the question asked on each school visit: “So, where do you get your ideas from?” So, where do you?

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Fantasy land – Nick Green

I read an article some time ago about ‘Warcraft widows’, the partners of those who are addicted to online games, most notably ‘World of Warcraft’. One can only feel sorry for these individuals, for it made grim reading. The addicts themselves are not kids or adolescents – many are in their mid thirties, like me. Wives and girlfriends complain of up to forty hours a week lost to this obsession, as their partners retreat to an imaginary world full of make-believe people, surfacing only for food and the loo. Often the players only reluctantly engage with real life, forget to do basic chores, become uncommunicative, and generally act as if the people in the imaginary world are more real than their own friends and family.
Sound familiar?
I read it, and my ears were burning. Then I moved away from the fireplace and carried on reading, but uncomfortably. And this in spite of the fact that I haven’t played a computer game for ten years.
One might protest that writing novels is a job, not a silly game. It’s art, right? And you get paid for it, right? (Well, in theory.) But money or not (and sometimes it really is hard to tell) the fact is that, for much of the time, there is no visible external difference between the writer and the poor guy who lives most of his life as Bjorn Bloodaxe, 15th-level warrior berserker mage. Those around him simply have to trust that he is doing something more worthwhile than lopping the heads off a bevy of goblins. Even if he is, in fact, lopping the heads off a bevy of goblins, via the more capable hands of his fictional hero.
Because it’s a freelance profession, and often carried on as a second job (as in my case) it’s easy to stray outside ordinary working hours, writing until your brain is fried and you’re incapable of carrying on a conversation. We talk about how hard it is to sit down and write – it’s harder, sometimes, to call it a day. Stephen King said that writing should be a support system for life – not the reverse. It’s good advice. No matter how important the story is to you, no matter how urgent the need to get it down, it should never reach the point where it replaces your life. After all, if we didn’t have a life, what would we write about?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

On Hope - by Marie-Louise Jensen

I think hope is a necessary ingredient of a children’s book. It’s a personal opinion, not shared by everyone.
My own taste in reading runs to happy endings. There are enough miserable things going on in real life, as far as I’m concerned, for me to look for more between the covers of a book. I like to know that however bad things get during a story, and it’s fine if they are very bad in the middle, and you can’t see a way out, they are all going to turn out all right in the end. That’s why I love reading children’s books and why I love writing them. Because it can be seen as soft or unrealistic to have happy endings in adult books. But you can get away with it for kids. Everything can be wonderfully happily resolved without your readers muttering ‘unconvincing’.
But my feeling is that children’s books are getting darker and darker and I’m no longer feeling secure when I launch myself into a new book. The cover and the blurb certainly don't always warn you. It reminds me of why I stopped reading adult books – because you don’t quite know what sort of horrors lurk between the pages and how much it’s going to haunt you afterwards.
When I studied holocaust literature at university, many moons ago, I read a piece by Jean Amery describing the after-effects of torture. He says it takes away your trust in the world, utterly and completely, and it can never be restored. There is no security ever again.
I sometimes feel concerned that reading really bleak books where everything ends miserably is (on a very tiny scale, of course) a bit like torture. You’ve been shown and drawn into a vision of unbearable misery, you’ve been haunted by dark happenings. They can stay with you. I myself have a number of images from children’s books I’ve read over the past couple of years that haunt my conscious mind with things I would infinitely prefer not to have there.
And yet we expose our kids happily to such books. We give them prizes that never seem to go to happy books, funny books, and books for little children. They become best-sellers and get put on reading lists as a result.
I know I’m over-sensitive. But I can’t help wondering if we need to give our children more security in an increasingly violent world, and not expose them to some of the very worst of human nature in their reading. I'm sure many, many people will disagree with this. But rightly or wrongly, it's what I feel.

Guest Blog Michelle Lovric

A Plague on Both My Houses

I commute between London and Venice. My brain commutes between English and Italian. The only constants in my life are my husband, my computer and illy coffee.
And my research obsessions.
For years, I’ve belonged to an obscure and emotional organisation, the Disinfected Mail Study Circle. We are gripped by Plague, Smallpox, Yellow Fever and other epidemic diseases that were carried around the world by travellers and merchants.
From the fourteenth century onwards, port cities tried to restrict the commerce in infectious illness. Members of the Disinfected Mail Study Circle pore over wax ‘Sanità’ seals, health passports and antique letters discoloured by smoke and blistered with droplets of liquid. Our organ, Pratique, publishes new treasures discovered by our formidably well-informed chairman, V. Denis Vandervelde. Our excursions are to ruined lazzarretti where those suspected of dreaded diseases were subjected to 40-day quarantines – in echoing dormitories or elegant mansions, depending on their class. Meanwhile, their possessions and merchandise underwent picturesque treatments such as sprinkling with vinegar and smoking over fires fragrant with juniper and rosemary.
In my children’s novel, THE UNDROWNED CHILD, a vengeful enemy of Venice starts infecting the city’s children with ancient spores of the Plague. My next adult novel, The Book of Human Skin, is set in Napoleonic times, when Plague was still rampant in the Middle East, Yellow Fever bedevilled South America and Smallpox was a hideous commonplace. That novel deals with disinfected letters and the murderous mischief that could be achieved with just a pinch of dried, powdered Smallpox scabs.
But why did an ephemera dealer at the antique fair at San Maurizio in Venice beckon me over so urgently? And why did he keep me waiting at his trestle while he leafed through his folders of proclamations, declarations and ration cards? And why did he suddenly stop at one leaf, and gesture to it triumphantly, saying ‘Eccolaqua!’ – ‘Here it is!’?
All these years I’ve studied disinfected post, I have never actually seen a smoked and vinegared letter. But I knew one immediately when I saw it, and my toes curled up inside my sandals. The paper was stained a cloudy chestnut brown, and about a quarter of the words were distorted by splashes of liquid.
I eased the letter out of the folder and automatically held it up to the light to check the watermark. The weave and fleur-de-lys confirmed the date of the letter, 1789. I saw the whiter parts where the tongs had held the letter over the smoke. I ran my finger over the blisters made by the vinegar. The letter had been sent to Venice from Pera, a suburb of Constantinople. The date was significant – in that spring the old sultan Abdul-Hamid had been replaced by Selim III. At that time, Plague was rife in Constantinople. Between the splashes I could see the fascinating words … Dragome … sultano … piastre …
‘Why did you show me this?’ I asked the dealer, an elderly man from Padua. He just smiled. I explained what I do, and about my novel.
For 50 euro, the letter was mine. I took it to a dinner party that night. After my show-and-tell, none of the astonished guests were satisfied with my explanation of why the old man had called me over.
Neither, on reflection, was I.
The fair at San Maurizio happens four times a year. The next fair, I presented myself at the ephemera dealer’s stand. The old man and a friend of his gave me an enthusiastic welcome. But when I asked again, ‘Why me? Why that letter?’ the friend just laughed at me, and clapped an affectionate arm around the dealer’s frail shoulder.
‘E’ un mago’ – ‘He’s a wizard.’
And that was clearly all the explanation that I was going to get.
The Plague letter now commutes between our houses in London and Venice with me. My husband has never been sure about hosting it, and is strangely uncomforted by my explanations that it is only Smallpox that can be transmitted by paper. So it’s currently swaddled in plastic.
Even so, he gives it suspicious looks and a wide berth.

Monday, 4 May 2009

REVIEW by Adèle Geras

CREATURE OF THE NIGHT by Kate Thompson. Bodley Head pbk.

This novel is on the shortlist for the Carnegie Medal and also on the shortlist for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award, with which I am involved as a kind of 'enabler' for the young judges.

It's a remarkable book in many ways. For one thing, it's a masterclass in how to write in the first person. Thompson's young narrator, Bobby, is fourteen years old. He finds himself in the depths of the country with his mother and four-year-old brother and he bitterly resents every moment away from the gang of tearaway friends he left behind in Dublin. To say that this family is dysfunctional is an understatement. Bobby's mother makes Jacqueline Wilson's eponymous Illustrated Mum look like Penelope Leach. We find out later on in the book one of the reasons for her being the way she is, but meanwhile, her behaviour in every regard is a template for fecklessness. Fathers don't figure. Bobby and Dennis have different dads but the only information we get about either of them comes from Bobby and he's not saying much.

The family from whom Bobby's mother rents the cottage is totally different in every possible way. When Bobby wrecks a car he's stolen, he has to pay back the damage by working for PJ Dooley, the farmer and paterfamilias. PJ's son Colman and Bobby slowly develop a friendship. There are setbacks and problems of every kind throughout the story and I'm not going to spoil it by detailing the plot.

But so far, so ordinary, however well done. What's amazing about this novel (which could give Roddy Doyle a run for his money, I think) is the vein of 'fairy' running through it. Not in an obtrusive, magic-bursting-into-real-life way but in a subtle, creepy, getting-seriously-under-your-skin way which worries Bobby and worries the reader even more. It turns out that the cottage has a history. It's haunted but only little Dennis actually sees the hideous visitant and when an dismembered body from some while back is discovered in a badger hole (which may or may not be part of the fairy kingdom) we begin to believe that perhaps the murderer wasn't entirely human. It's truly scary and extremely well done and you end up not really knowing for sure. Generally speaking, I dislike open endings but this one is wonderful. It's kept me on edge for days, wondering whether what I think the author means is indeed what I think....and one could debate it. But the effect is to keep you turning the pages long into the night.

Bobby's voice, though, is the real triumph: his telling of his own story. You believe every word he says, even the swear words and there are plenty of those. He behaves very badly indeed and yet we're on his side and we like him and sympathize with him. He's had a lot to contend with in his life. The ending gives room for hope but it's sad in several ways.

This is an outstanding book. I hope (without having read any of the others!) that it wins the Carnegie. And though I can't influence the young judges in Lancashire, they'll get soome notion of my opinion when we come to discuss the book on May 22nd. Watch this space...and buy this book.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Research? Granted! - Joan Lennon

I have trouble with guilt.* For example, did I really need to go down to London to tie up the final details for the first book in my Victorian detective series, "The Slightly Foxed Mysteries"? This one's called "Slightly Foxed and the Case of the London Dragonfish" in which a priceless fossil is stolen from the Natural History Museum in London, and it is up to the eponymous heroine (aided by her trusty sidekick, Granny Tonic) to recover the goods and pretty much save the day. And, yes, I got most of the historical stuff I needed from books and the internet. Did I really really NEED to go to the actual places in the actual city for the final touches?

YES (I think). If I hadn't, I wouldn't have known exactly which Slightly's favourite terracotta decorations at the NHM were (the kangaroo over the door and the bat-eared foxes by the main stairs, if you were wondering) - or whether or not All Souls' Church was really the ugliest church in London or just the strangest - or just what the bell of St Paul's Cathedral sounds like. I CERTAINLY wouldn't have got to see what the original architect's plans for the Old Spirit Building looked like, or just how gorgeous the handwriting in the Museum Trustees' minutes was. (Courtesy of the Archives at the NHM - what a great morning I had there!) Even though I had SO MUCH FUN, maybe it's okay and still counts as serious, arduous research. It wouldn't have been just the same book without the trip - so doesn't that mean it was worth it?

YES. Sigh. I think.

(*One of the troubles I have with guilt is that I ALWAYS try to spell it with a Q, which suggests I don't take it all that seriously. Not that quilts aren't serious ... oh, there, now I feel guilty because I've insulted quiltmakers ...)

Friday, 1 May 2009

The Ascent of Story - Lucy Coats

"Imagine, if you will, a handful of families in Africa at the very beginning of the Human Race," said the BBC trailer. So I did. Inconceivable, really that that small group should have engendered the billions who live on the earth today. But it set me to wondering (as I occasionally do) about another thing entirely. Who told the first story? And when? We know that our early ancestors were certainly artists--the evidence is there in the caves of Lascaux and elsewhere. We know that the 'dreaming tracks' of the Aboriginal Australians go far far back in the history of mankind, mapping the land and territory in song lines--the rhythms of which correspond exactly to the walking pace of a human being. But story. Formal story. How did that happen? I am no anthropologist, and don't pretend to be. I have only my (fertile) imagination and my knowledge of a fair few world myths to go on. But one thing I am utterly sure of is this: that the first stories were told to make sense of the frightening world in which our ancestors lived, and the cataclysmic events around them. How to encompass the fear of an African storm with its terrifying dark sky full of fire and noise? How to tame the power of an all-destroying flood? Why, make it manageable by setting it within the bounds of story. We started telling stories to come to terms with the world around us. And if all story started in the heart of Africa with that same handful of families, then it is hardly surprising that we find the same mythical story themes in every culture. They are, most possibly, hard-wired into our DNA at the deepest level.

The most ancient stories not only make sense of the world, they also give us clues to pre-historical events, set out taboos and ways to behave (or not behave) and much more. They give us all the potential to share what Joseph Campbell called 'those fixed stars, that known horizon'. Myths--whenever they started--are one of the most important repositories of knowledge we possess, and every child, in every culture, should have access to a wide spread of them as part of their education. Most British schools teach Greek myths as part of KS2, and this is very good. Certainly my book Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths has been a perennial favourite since its first publication in 2002, and the recent popularity of the Percy Jackson novels mean that Greek myth is thriving as never before. But what I find incomprehensible is that the majority of our schools are not encouraged within the curriculum to explore the myths of this land. Most children know about King Arthur from one source or another--and nothing wrong with that, except that he and his knights of the Round Table are the creation of a 12th century historian and a 15th century jailbird, stemming from the romance tradition of the medieval minstrels. But of the orally handed down pre-Christian epics of Cuchulain and Finn MacCool, Pwyll and Llew and Mabon, almost nothing is known by the average schoolchild in the UK, because there isn't the time for teaching it. This is, in my opinion a disgrace, and I do my best to counter it with every visit I make to a school, hoping to make a difference, and the children always respond with huge interest. This is a drop in the ocean, but I do not despair. There is always room for hope. The rise of fantasy novels since JRR Tolkien has meant that both modern children's and adult literature is full of clues to these things. The myths of this land of ours are there for the finding--and in my case, there for the retelling. Writers will go on plundering the mythical treasure chest, and reshaping its contents to suit the conditions of the modern world. Even if we no longer need to make sense of the thunder by telling fantastical tales about it, the parallel evolution of story and humankind is not finished yet, and it never will be as long as there are ears to listen to all the infinite number of tales there still are in our future lives. Do you think that our small handful of ancestors in Africa could ever have imagined such a thing?