Thursday, 31 December 2009

Who Are You Writing For, Again? - Sally Nicholls

It's an commonly-held belief that 'the best children's books work for adults too'. Into this category are dumped either the children's books written with one eye on an adult audience (the picture books with rude jokes or the 9-12 year-old books which mention Plato), or the books aimed very firmly at children which are just SO DAMN GOOD that everyone loves them.

Astrid Lingren (of Pippi Longstocking fame) was very against the first sort of books. Why put in a joke that children won't find funny in a book AIMED AT CHILDREN? Why make a reference that your target audience won't get? She believed that children's writing should be aimed directly at the people it's for - the children - and that anything aimed at anyone else should be deleted.

(This doesn't mean she was against clever references, btw. Terry Pratchett includes just as many references in his children's Discworld books as he does in those aimed at adults. They're just references to the Famous Five and Hans Christian Anderson, rather than They Might Be Giants and Aristotle).

I'm on Astrid's side (I think), although I think kids are cleverer than adults give them credit for, and I'm not afraid of making them work a bit when reading my books. I also don't think its true that a good children's book will be loved by adults. Adults have singularly failed to get Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. Does this make them bad children's authors? Or are they better authors because they tap into something that cleverer authors have forgot?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Memories and Hopes - Karen Ball

Photo of dawn at Xepon Laos, courtesy of Chitrapa

We're at the end of an unusual year. Since those first TV clips of people queuing to withdraw their savings from branches of Northern Rock, a lot has happened to the world and to publishing. Summer parties were cancelled, staff made redundant. Some contracts were terminated and budgets cut. The recession left many of us feeling jittery and uncertain and as Christmas arrived, Borders shut its doors.
But there was more to 2009 than recession. Thanks to the Internet, authors and illustrators have been enabled to steer their own ships like never before. The Twilight phenomenon meant that the world's readers watched the publishing industry to see what would happen next. Books were still being written, long-listed and short-listed, writers organised launch parties and festivals such as the Bath Festival of Children's Literature gained momentum.
And now? There's a rumble in the distance as electronic publishing hoves into view and we all wonder - do we want to go along for the ride? Publishers are peering at the horizon and trying to decide, What should we be commissioning? The hunger for YA may peak and, if so, where will the next hot new book come from? Who knows? It's probably being written or redrafted right now by someone working alone at a desk in a bedroom or a shed. Because despite the trials and tribulations of this year, there's one constant in life: writers never stop writing. It doesn't cost money, there are no overheads - all you need are two hands and one brain. Easy, eh? I wish!
We should all give ourselves a big pat on the back. We've carried on doing what we always do, because words like 'recession' don't figure large in a child's world, but books do.
Knowing I was writing this blog very close to New Year's Eve, I decided to ask some friends in the industry: What's your favourite publishing memory of 2009 and hopes for 2010? I hope you enjoy the answers.
'My highlight of the year will be sitting in my car back in March and Sarah Davies telling me that we had a deal. So 2009 for me will always be the year that I was introduced to the publishing industry. A magical time! My hopes for 2010? I'm looking forward to holding a hardback copy of Mortlock and to selling a few too! And then there's The Demon Collectors...'
Jon Mayhew's debut novel, Mortlock, is being published by Bloomsbury April 2010.
'I've been really cheered by the stoic attitude I've seen from my colleagues this year. In months filled with redundancies, pay freezes, budget cuts and a very cautious market they've been truly committed to finding creative ways to shout about our books. In-house, everything starts with the passion from the people working on the books and permeates out from there, so I know we are going into 2010 banging the Puffin drum very loudly! We've always felt lucky to work in an industry that we are genuinely motivated by - filled with authors and illustrators who give us books to get excited about - but it has been even more obvious this year just how inspiring this is.'
Shannon Park
, Executive Editor, Puffin
'Highlights of 2009 have been getting my fabulous agent Caroline Walsh and starting my new job as senior commissioning editor for children's fiction at OUP. Both things were major achievements for me and although this year has been beyond hectic, what with writing and editing, I wouldn't have it any other way!

Things that have revolutionised my life in 2009:

My Sony e reader and Twitter. My e reader because without it I wouldn't be able to stay on top of my submissions pile. And Twitter because without it I wouldn't be able to stay on top of what is happening in the world of children's books both here and across the pond!

In 2010 I am looking forward to launching the
Witchfinder trilogy, which I acquired back in August and Gillian Cross's new novel Where I Belong which has the prettiest cover I have ever seen. Last but not least, I hope that my novel The Windrose will fare well on the torrid waters of the acquisitions process!'
Jasmine Richards, Senior Commissioning Editor, OUP
My own favourite publishing memories from 2009 have to be attending the Charney writers retreat with the Scattered Authors Society and receiving a netbook for Christmas, which has become not only a highly portable writing device but a much speedier hard drive for home. My hopes for 2010 are to enjoy more new friendships through the SAS and maybe, possibly ... a publishing contract? A girl can dream!
What are your favourite memories from 2009? And hopes?
Visit my website at

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Happy Holiday

The ABBA team would like to take this opportunity to thank all our readers and our guest bloggers through 2009.  We wish you all a very happy Christmas and look forward to plenty more blogging in the New Year.

Karen Ball
N M Browne
Charles Butler
Elen Caldecott
Anne Cassidy
Lucy Coats
Penny Dolan
John Dougherty
Nick Green
Adele Geras
Meg Harper
Damien Harvey
Lynn Huggins-Cooper
Diane Hofmeyr
Marie-Louise Jensen
Catherine Johnson
Katherine Langrish
Joan Lennon
Michelle Lovric
Nicola Morgan
Sally Nicholls
Gillian Philip
Susan Price
Katherine Roberts
Anne Rooney
Linda Strachan
Leslie Wilson

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Childhood Christmas - Lucy Coats

It's white outside this Christmastide, like it used to be years back.  When I was a child. 

As writers, we need the knack of remembering what it was like back then when we were closer to the ground.  How it felt.  How it smelt. How it sounded. How it looked. Whatever our growing up stories were, how else can we begin to write our stories with the true eye of a child of any age--even if we imagine every bit of the rest? So in this, our last ABBA blog before Christmas, I'd like to give you all a small gift of memories--my memories--of childhood Christmases long ago.

The tree came first.  It had been chosen and marked months ago, and on the day before Christmas Eve the saw came out, and off we trudged down the fields to the fir wood.   The pungent smell of sap rose around us, and usually the saw was blunt and wouldn't bite--but eventually, with a creak and a crack the tree fell, and we dragged it home, fingers and hands sticky with resin and scratched by needles, leaving behind the stump and a sad pile of white sawdust.  The baubles and decorations were hauled out of the white cupboard above the boiler, hot and stuffy and just very slightly oily.  Dad sat in the armchair, puffing on his pipe and directing operations in a blue cloud of Balkan Sobranie.  Men didn't decorate.  That was the women's job.  Each bauble was oohed and aahed over as it was unwrapped from its cocoon of white tissue,  and the story of its origins revealed.  The icicles from Woolies, the treetop angel from the Swedish aunt, the chocolate umbrellas which grew staler every year, the red and silver chains, so delicate and beautiful.  The orchestra of  gauze angels (playing a variety of instruments) went at the top, and then all the rest*.  Dad liked gaudy tinsel and lots of it.  Mum and I didn't.  Dad won.

Then there was the ritual of the kissing bunch.  Holly and ivy and mistletoe were poked (more pricked fingers) into a round ball of oasis foam, together with gold and green baubles and the finishing touch of a red ribbon, and hung in the hall.  Every visitor was caught and roundly kissed--whether they liked it or not (most did). 

Christmas Eve was when the carol singers came--red-nosed and crowding into the small kitchen to sip mulled wine, munch mincepies, ring the handbells and sing--always 'Good King Wenceslas' as that was what Dad demanded.  Mum sometimes got 'The Holly and the Ivy' if she was lucky.  I almost never got 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.  Bedtime brought Scrooge and Tiny Tim--read from the precious red and gold morocco leather copy with silken ends which lived in state on the inlaid table along with the best ornaments and the Chinese bowl.  And then it was time for the glass of sweet sherry and the mincepie and the carrot for Rudolf to be left by the fireplace, together with the heavy knitted seaman's stocking stolen from my naval godfather .  Father Christmas never had any trouble getting down our chimney--it was a huge ancient copper hood with room for the fattest gentleman to land with ease and leave his ashy footprints in the hearth (along with a plate of crumbs). And then it was bed--thinking I would never sleep, wondering whether I'd been good enough, trying to stay awake just long enough to see the fat man in the red coat and always failing.

The lumpy, heavy feel of a full stocking on top of wriggling, questing toes under the blankets was the absolute, unassailable proof that magic existed.  Five in the morning?  What did that matter? The short, shivering run up the narrow cottage passage (no time for dressing gown and slippers), admiring the ice flowers which Jack Frost had painted on the insides of the windows, and a long leap into the warm middle of the parental bed.  (The fat man had been to them too--grownups were always good enough in Father Christmas's eyes in our house.)  The opening was another ritual.  Turn and turn about--usefulness (soap and toothbrushes) mixed with silliness (fake eyeballs) and wonder (a miraculous and long-coveted kaleidoscope).  Breakfast was a hurried affair of toast and boiled eggs, and then, firmly buttoned into the best blue overcoat with the tweed collar, beret and best velvet and lace dress, it was off down the street to the small flint and stone church with its fascinating ceiling of celestial blue strung with golden stars, and the ancient black and white painted panels with details of charitable bequests. 'Oh ye Ice and Snow, Bless ye the Lord...', sang the choir as the bells rang out a Steadman peal.

Home again, and a small, shiny pile of presents under a slight dusting of needles. Then a heap of wishes granted (or sometimes not) and bright paper scrumpled and torn.  Lists of letters to be written on Boxing Day.  A magnificent turkey, borne in in triumph, commented on, eaten, and then a pudding, stuck with holly and aflame with blue and yellow fumes.  The Queen's Speech--and the amazement of that famous 'family' broadcast when we all had our first glimpse of the Royals as nearly (but not quite) normal.  Crackers and hats, and the steamwhistle snore of Granny Grin with its bass counterpart from Grandad Gumps in front of the 3.30 film.  Later, a morsel of leftovers with a chicory and orange salad, just to fill in the corners.  Bed, and the realisation that there were 364 whole days to go before the next time.  A year was forever and ever back then. 

Happy Christmas to all our lovely blog readers--we appreciate your company and your comments all year round, and hope you will join us again at ABBA in 2010.  A whole new decade for  us to fill with the joy of children's books--that's a good thought to end my blogging duties for this year on. 

* Those very same decorations were put up on our tree last night (all except the chocolate umbrellas, which were eaten by a long-ago dog)--and we still tell their stories each year.  These stories are important--to me at least--their annual retelling weaves the memory fabric of our family lives through and across the generations.  And in time to come, who knows--there may be new tales of my now-teenage children still fighting over who should have the honour of placing the Swedish angel on top of the tree. This year's kissing bunch--with the same green and gold baubles, but a different red ribbon is hanging in the hall.  I stand under it, lying in wait for the Boy and the Girl.  They groan, but oblige with hugs.  Christmas wouldn't be Christmas for us without these things.

You can read Lucy's blog HERE
Lucy's website is HERE
You can follow Lucy on TWITTER too!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Ghosts on the street

As writers almost everything that happens to us is often plundered to help create real emotion for our characters, and although fiction is created from our imagination it is often spurred on or generated by our own experiences.

Quite mundane places - street corners, houses, churches or halls, schools or parks where we recall meeting people or incidents, can remain like ghosts in our own, or our characters' heads.

With thoughts of A Christmas Carol on my mind I realised that we all have our ghosts of times past. Perhaps it is the festive season, so much a time for families, or the fact that another year is drawing to a close that makes us so inclined to remember both happy and sad times - and those who are no longer with us.
This year, sadly, I have two dear friends whose families will now see Christmas without them, and this reminded me of my own Ghost on the Street.

At the side of one particular road a stretch of about 50 yards of nondescript pavement and curb always haunts me as I drive past. To a passerby there is nothing to see, no astounding, astonishing difference between this and any other part of the street, but each time I pass it a scene plays out in my head – vivid and demanding attention.

I arrived at my place on the road one bright and sunny Sunday that was promising nothing particularly noteworthy other than a pleasant lunch out with my elderly aunt. She was looking forward to it and so was I, and although she suffered from some memory loss she was generally fit, and good company. The day was warm so when she said she was feeling uncomfortable I stopped the car at the side of the road to let her remove her jacket. She began to feel unwell, suddenly looking quite pale, but still assuming it was just the heat I wasn’t too concerned and was happy to wait until she felt well enough to continue our short journey.
But within 15 minutes I was calling an ambulance, unsure if I was overreacting but unwilling to take the chance - 24 hours later my aunt was dead.

Those 15 minutes stay in my head and haunt me each time I pass the place it happened. What exactly happened? Could I have foreseen it, or done anything differently? I realised later that it was just one of those times when you have to follow along from moment to moment and see what happens next. But I sometimes wonder what we would have said to each other, if we had realised it was to be her last day. At times like this I try to remember that she was so happy to be going out rather than sitting on her own at home, but those long minutes at the side of the road stay with me.

Life continues and this Christmas we have the joy of a new baby in the family. During the celebrations, especially when recalling family stories and happy times, we will raise a glass to my aunt and the others who are no longer with us, remembering them not with tears but with smiles and laughter.

So, to all the Awfully Big Blog Adventure readers and writers and your families -I wish you happy memories, a warm and joyful Christmas, and a wonderful and successful 2010.

Visit my website at

Monday, 21 December 2009

Bah! Humbug! - John Dougherty

I’m reading A Christmas Carol with my son.

He’s nine. I’m sure he’s not understanding half of it. Every now and then, when I read a bit that seems particularly difficult, I check with him to see if he’s got it; and usually he hasn’t, so I explain it to him.

And yet, he’s transfixed. He’s loving it. I’m reading half a chapter at a time - there are only five - and he’s with me all the way.

I think there are two reasons for this. Or, perhaps, three; but I’ll come to the third in a minute.

Reason number one: Scrooge. Was there ever a more disagreeable, yet more sympathetic, old sinner anywhere in all of fiction? From the start, we begin to know him even as we disapprove. And we laugh, too; my son’s first response, when I asked if he was enjoying it, was: “He’s funny.” Yet we understand him, and when - actually very quickly - he begins to feel again, we can believe in his reawakened feelings, and feel for him.

Reason number two: The language. Words can be like music, and you don’t always need to “understand” music to appreciate it. I’m convinced one of the reasons my boy isn’t getting bored and wandering off is that, quite simply, the words make a nice sound. To be honest, there are sentences I don’t entirely understand myself, but they’re great to read aloud.

So there you have it; in less than 150 words, my thoughts on why Dickens can be appreciated by a nine-year-old.

But what about reason three? Ah. Well. That one, I think, has less to do with Dickens, and more to do with me and my son.

You see, I’ve been building up to this for a couple of weeks: telling my boy that I want to read this book with him this year, and that I think he’s old enough for it. For both of us, I think, this particular story has become one of those special father-and-son events, imbued with a magic that neither of us wants to risk breaking. It’s attained something of the significance of a rite of passage; and so, it’s made us want to work at it. It may be difficult at times, but it’s worth the effort - both for what the story reveals, and for what it says about our relationship.

And, of course, it’s Christmas; and for many of us - me included - Christmas is a magical time; and the magic of this Christmas has become part of the magic of this shared story about a magical Christmas.

Time will tell - it’ll be interesting to see if he wants this story again next year - but I hope that when he’s grown, my son will remember the first time his dad read him A Christmas Carol, and will remember it with affection, as one of those many wonderful times when a story was more than just words.

Have a very merry Christmas, Awfully Big Readers, and - in the words of Tiny Tim - God bless us, every one!

John's website is at His latest book is Jack Slater and the Whisper of Doom.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Our Craft and Sullen Art - Katherine Langrish

'In My Craft or Sullen Art'  by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

There was a time when I read more poetry than I do now. I was younger, of course. I got drunk on words, I learned poems easily; I muttered them under my breath while waiting for buses; I repeated them at night – poem after poem - to send myself sliding away on a raft of poetry down a river of dreams. Actually I still do all these things, except that I don’t read so much new poetry anymore, and I find it harder to memorise.

Dylan Thomas’s poems lent themselves to being declaimed aloud. Incantatory. (I suppose being Welsh he knew all about being a bard.) Anyhow, I used to chant them to myself on walks, and even though some of them were pretty obscure – like unutterably amazing crossword puzzle clues – they filled the mouth and rolled out like thunder:

“Altarwise by owl-light in the halfway house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies.”

What did it mean? Who cared? It sounded bloody good. And to be fair, there was plenty of obscure poetry about in the 1970’s when I was reading these things. Almost every glam-rock album could do the mysteriously evocative stuff. Look at early Genesis! I kind of stopped bothering about the meaning: I was listening to the music. I suppose even then I preferred those poems I could also make sense of – the luminous ‘Fern Hill’ or ‘Poem in October’: but meaning was – for me, then – secondary to music.

Nowadays, though I still love the music, I’m looking for meaning too. So revisiting ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’ is a moving experience for me. Perhaps I couldn’t have understood it, back then – is it really so long ago? – when, although of course I wrote, I hadn’t even begun to understand the demands of writing as a discipline. Well, this poem shows that Dylan Thomas did - of course he did! - and maybe, just maybe, I’ve lived enough to begin genuinely to understand some of his poems.

"My craft, or sullen art.” How honest that adjective is: ‘sullen’: because writing can be so hard, so difficult – so damned uncooperative! You try and you try, and it’s not good enough, still not good enough, but you keep trying.  You keep on trying because what you’re really aiming for, what you want most – and he’s right, he’s right – is not money, not ‘ambition or bread’, not fame: ‘the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages’. No.

Don’t write for the special cases, don't write for the critics.  Don't write (as most of us don't dare, though Thomas might have dared) with an eye on posterity and the hope of joining the ranks of ‘the towering dead with their nightingales and psalms’. Don’t write for fame. Don’t write for money. You probably won’t get much of either. Write for the lovers, for living and breathing human beings getting on with life, who have no idea about the effort that goes into writing and who couldn’t care less.

Employ your difficult, sullen craft for the common wages of the secret heart.

Visit Katherine's website or her blog Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

And the Winner Is...? by Dianne Hofmeyr

Last week I was at an IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) event that celebrated the nomination of author, David Almond, and author/illustrator, Michael Foreman, for next year’s top prize in international children’s literature – the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Winners will be announced at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in March 2010 and the Awards will be presented at the IBBY World Congress in Santiago de Compostela.

It’s given biennially by IBBY to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. David Almond and Michael Foreman, nominated by the British Section of IBBY, are amongst nominees from more than 50 other national sections. So the competition is tough! Winners are the grandads and grandes dames of the industry. The only time since it’s inception in 1956, that it’s been won by the UK was when Anthony Browne won it for Illustration in 2000 and when Aiden Chambers and Quentin Blake won Author and Illustrator titles respectively in 2002.
The pictures above show Michael Foreman's son, Jack, who is the author of the book Say Hello which his dad illustrated, and David Almond standing with Jane Winterbotham, his editor from Walker.

It was compelling to listen to both David Almond and Michael Foreman. David spoke of how the idea of Skellig grew from his Mum feeling under the ridges of his shoulder blades and telling him these were the bumps from which his angel wings grew. That’s powerful stuff… a few words from a mother to a receptive child and years later a story of such magnitude. It made me wonder if I’d sprinkled enough stardust over my own sons.

David is a true author’s author. He loves pages, full stops, comma’s, shapes of paragraphs, shapes of sentence – and has been known to reduce his pages to a size where the print is merely a grey outline for the sheer pleasure of looking at the shape and physicality of the print on the page. All this is quite childish he says. ‘But that’s why we write for children because we retain the childishness in us.’ He believes… ‘writing is about having and communicating visions. Children are quite comfortable with this.’

Michael Foreman has written and illustrated more than 50 of his own books, in addition to illustrating more than 150 books by other writers. He grew up during the Second World War which had a lasting and creative influence on his work most notably in his autobiographical War Boy and After the War Was Over and his latest book A Child’s Garden. His illustrations reminded me that in the picture book, a child has access to entire galleries of art on their own bookshelves.

This resonated with me when I went to Cally Poplak’s brilliant talk at the Soc of Authors on ebooks. Cally was upbeat about how authors can encompass ebooks but I have a nagging doubt when it comes to e picture books. How on a handheld screen the size of an iPhone is a child going to ‘find’ that tiny, tiny spider lurking under that very small leaf, or ‘see’ the very gradual grades of shading or texture? What will the e picture book do for visual literacy? Will it do what the printing press did for oral story telling? In order to encompass the small screen will we come to accept that visual literacy will be different in years to come and picture book illustration will change? And the winner is…?

Getting people to do it!

I spent fifteen minutes this morning chatting to a free-lance journalist writing an article called ‘So you want to be a writer?’ for ‘Cerys’, a magazine for 12-16 year old girls. Inevitably, I was asked for my top 3 tips for budding writers. ‘Read lots!’ is always my number one ‘Do it!’ is probably my second – I meet so many people, some of them in the creative writing class I teach who claim to want to write but don’t actually make the time. But my third – well, there are lots of things I could say. Today we were chewing the fat about what got me into writing in the first place and a big catalyst for me was doing very well in one of those ‘prize is getting your book published’ competitions run by Faber. That boosted my confidence and I went on from there. But I was also reminded that a big encouragement as a child was winning the story writing competitions in our local newspaper, ‘The Stockport Advertiser’. I have no idea how many people entered (probably very few – my brother-in-law is currently a dab hand at winning all sorts of goodies in newspaper competitions because he’s realised that so few people enter them) but I was highly delighted by the publication of my stories and the prize of a book that always followed. Once I even had tea with local author, Joyce Stranger, who generously gave me signed copies of two of her hardbacks. That was very thrilling. Her advice to budding writers was to live a broad and rich life – she didn’t seem too impressed with my plan to go to university to study English and maybe I should have taken heed!
I’m curious about the effect the competition winning had. I am not normally a person who enjoys competition (like Katherine, commenting on Sarah Molloy’s blog, I’d prefer to see us all as colleagues rather than rivals although, being realistic, I appreciate that it really is a competitive market out there and we can’t all be winners!) but it certainly gave me a spur as a young writer, partly, I suppose, because books of my own were scarce and I loved the prizes as well as the publication.
And so I have fallen to wondering about whether we could be encouraging young writers in this way? I’ve done some judging of school and bookshop competitions and it can be a deadly task, bringing back shades of the marking that killed a lot of the joy of being a schoolteacher. But I’m still wondering. Should we be setting competitions on our own web-sites? Occasionally from here? In collaboration with local bookshops? Or papers? Should we be nagging our publishers?
I’m pondering. What can we the writers of now, be doing to encourage the writers of the future? Or doesn’t it matter? Are they all so text happy with their Facebooking and mobiles and MSN that they don’t need any encouragement from us to write, even if the writing they do is not quite like ours?
Now I’m going to go away and consider whether I should be offering recreational creative writing to kids as well as to adults...hmm...about time I did some of own writing too, or I’ll be guilty of what I accuse others of and never actually ‘doing it’! (Though I might go and enter a competition in a local newspaper...hmm...a day at a luxury spa might be nice...and I could take a notebook and pretend I was writing.........!)

Monday, 14 December 2009

Trailer Trash - Elen Caldecott

Anyone with a Facebook account will know how clip-happy we have become. If it’s cats hitting gates, or angry chipmunks, or boys doing Star Wars, soon enough the clip will be twice around the world, forwarded and linked to thousands of times.

Publishers and authors have tried for a long time now to make use of this phenomenon with book trailers. There are expensive-looking ones, presumably funded by publishing companies:

and simple, lo-fi ones made by fans:

There is, of course, a whole spectrum in between.
I’ve become interested in the phenomenon of book trailers recently, mostly because I’ve been spending time with lots of short film makers (at a festival called Encounters) and the idea of doing something collaborative in another art form appeals to me. I like the idea that I could write a script and other people would get involved and make it happen (something our Sally knows all about, in case you missed her recent post). Not that I’ve come even close to doing anything about it yet.

One thing I have noticed is that most of the book trailers die a quick death. Why? I think it’s because their function is at odds with the way people actually work. What I mean is, they are produced to advertise books. But, people don’t want book adverts. They want to be entertained. Of course, they don’t mind being sold a product if they’re being entertained at the same time, but no-one is going to link to or forward a straight advert.

So what makes a good book trailer?
Well, from my limited research so far, they either have to be really clever, or really dumb. Here are a couple that have gone viral; you can decide for yourself which is which:

So can I write a script that’s really clever or really dumb and get people to want to film in it or act in it? I have no idea, but I am very tempted to give it a go.
And, for those who haven’t had quite enough cats hitting gates in their lives, here’s one for you:
Elen's Facebook Page

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Strategic Alliances - Guest Blog by Sarah Molloy, children's book agent

Christmas being a time of goodwill to all, it seemed the right time to think about alliances and what benefits they can bring.

Sometimes, from the author’s point of view, it seems that publishers are the enemy, rather than the ally. All the fine promises made when the editor is a-wooing – trade advertising, in-store publicity, author interviews, tours, the whole glittering array of baubles spread before the innocent writer – can so often seem to fizzle away to the point where you’re lucky to get a glass of lukewarm white paintstripper around the time of publication. Friends call in, saying worriedly, ‘I can’t find the book either in Waterstone’s or Smiths in Timbuctoo’; your mother-in-law is saddened that you don’t have the lead review in the Sunday Times. Your diary for publication day is one large blank space. And as the weeks after pass there are no insistent phone calls from the BBC asking for your immediate commitment to an appearance on Newsnight Review or indeed any kind of review appearing, no e-mails from Jenni Murray demanding your presence on Woman’s Hour and none from John Humphreys about Radio 4’s Book Club.

Six months reveals that the book has failed to appear on any of the shortlists that it once seemed a certainty to win; that first royalty statement is disappointingly bare of sales in three, let alone four figures: only the figure in the ‘unearned advance’ column appearing to have more than a single zero to its name. What has become of your golden child? Why has it failed to make even the briefest cameo on the bestseller list – indeed why has it barely made even the most fleeting of appearances on the front of store tables and, in some cases, failed to make it into the bookshop in the first place?

At this stage, the Number One suspect appears to be none other than that wicked seducer, the publisher. It probably wasn’t your editor’s fault – they seem to feel just as keenly as you do the disappointment at your baby’s sad performance. Ah - but sales and marketing, those evil twins whose glittering promises helped lure you into the publisher’s web - plainly they are paid to do nothing other than have convivial meetings with the book wholesalers, reviewers, literary editors and the book clubs, where darts are thrown at author photos and derisory comments made about the naivete of writers. It’s dismally clear that all their time and effort is spent in continuing to lavish attention and effort on those authors who are already multi-millionaires, whose books have automatic entry to the No. 1 spot in the charts. Those whose books are filmed, whose lives are charmed, who belong to the exclusive club from which ‘ordinary’ writers are banned for life. You have been weighed in the balance, plainly found wanting and cast aside in favour of more successful, more promising, more attractive fare. In short, you feel you’ve been dumped.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of an agent’s job and it can be enormously difficult to reconcile the savage disappointment we feel on our clients’ behalf with the need to keep our tongue between our teeth: nothing is to be gained by the diatribe you long to give vent to. No publisher schemes to see a book in which they’ve invested time and money fail, but because they deal in many titles each month, their affections are more thinly spread. There are times when the ball is undoubtedly dropped with disastrous results, and brilliant pieces of writing fail to sell more than a few hundred copies, just as there are times when truly awful books achieve undeserved success and sell in millions. But while every book bought by a publishing house signals a commitment, not just in financial terms, but in terms of dreams to both publisher and author alike, it’s the author who sometimes needs to take control of their own fortunes.

Like all good romances, the courtship period between publisher and author is a blissful one. With few exceptions, this happy state seldom lasts. And a key part of the agent’s job lies in managing an author’s expectations, while at the same time, chivvying the publisher to deliver on those promises. It’s a balancing act: we have to accept that some things will go wrong as well as right, and you simply have to accept that luck plays its part. Although an agent’s heart always lies with the individual author, sometimes the best strategy is to keep quiet for the sake of their future advantage.

Just as the proverb says, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’, so it takes more than an author and an editor to publish a book successfully. As with any military campaign, strategic alliances may be the way to achieving the goal. The SAS is a classic example of a successful strategic alliance: on the face of it you are all rivals, but by pooling your talents, you achieve so much more than any one individual author could, both in terms of attracting attention and in getting your voices heard.

So what follows are some basic points for forging good alliances

1. Make sure you meet as many people at your publishers as possible as soon as possible. If people can put a face and a personality to a title page, they’ll be more interested.

2. Talk extensively and as early as possible to your publicist: take their advice about making the best of your CV. Suck up to them: make cakes for them - in other words, think of a way you can make yourself nicely memorable.

3. Meet your local sales rep and, if possible spend some time with him. Write and thank your sales director for his and his reps’ hard work about two months after publication. It takes five minutes but you’d be amazed at how few people do so and what a positive effect it has.

4. Visit, and make friends with, all your local bookshops, especially the independent ones.

5. Make your local schools aware of you – write and let them know you exist, and give them some idea of the kind of age range you’re writing for. Let them know you’re a local author and keen to come and visit.

6. Join the Society of Authors and other writers’ support groups such as SCBWI and, of course, the SAS: you’ll make friends and very probably get lots of good ideas from others seeking to achieve the same ends.

7. Think about whether the subject matter of the book might connect with any local groups or charities – for instance, pony books lend themselves well to Riding for the Disabled. Offer a couple of copies as prizes for fundraisers.

8. Make friends with your local paper: a lot of their content may be syndicated, but they have local press pages to fill every week – and at the start of school holidays and half terms you can get a lot of publicity in return for a few free copies perhaps as a competition prize. Timing is everything here – so get in touch at least two months before the event.

9. Engage your family and friends: my own children are brilliantly trained to put my clients’ titles on top of all rival authors in bookshops, and I am prepared to bet that some extra sales have been made this way. Get your friends to ask for the book if they can’t see it on display – quite often it’s simply sitting in boxes in the stockroom.

And finally (this is not about alliances, it’s about you) – overcome your reservations about being thought pushy. Resist the temptation to mutter, eyes modestly downcast, ‘Oh, this little book – it’s not really anything. Just a bit of fluff I cooked up.’ You have already achieved what 99% of aspirant authors never will – a publisher loved your work enough to make an offer and publish the book. Speak up for yourself enthusiastically – no one else can do the job as well as you. And be proud of what you’ve already done: hopefully the best is yet to come.

With best wishes for a very Happy Christmas and New Year.

Sarah Molloy is the children’s agent at A.M. Heath. Before becoming an agent, she worked as a fiction editor at HarperCollins, Hachette and Random House.
A.M. Heath's website

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Best Served So Incredibly Cold, Ice Crystals Form On Your Verbs: Gillian Philip

Oh go on, you've killed someone, haven't you? Maimed them? Slight dents on the left shinbone? Sent them out in public with spinach between their teeth? ANYTHING? Please don't tell me it's just me...

You can't make characters out of real people. I keep saying that in workshops. You know, you can take a little bit of him and a little bit of her and a pinch of, oh God, HIM?! and add it to the mix.

But try and squeeze someone you know into a fictional character - or more accurately, squeeze a fictional character into the straitjacket of a real person - and they just won't fit. The character has to have a mind of her own. Or she has to have reactions and instincts that don't belong to a real person, because she'll be facing situations that never happened in 'real life'. At least we hope they didn't, or you're going to get sued, OK?
(That's why Things Not To Say To A Writer no.34 is 'I'd better watch out, you'll be putting me in your book next!' No. Shan't.)

Revenge characters are subject to the same rules. I once read a manuscript for someone in which the protagonist's ex-husband was simply the vilest, most repugnant excuse for a human being I had ever encountered on the printed page (and so was his mother). And, you know, I've read quite a lot of serial killer fiction and stuff. I had to suggest, gently, that the writer should maybe make somebody up, rather than just (presumably) using her own ex. (Come to think of it, she never did speak to me again.)

I know this crime writer, though, who has a good strategy, not too in-your-face on the revenge front. If Mr McGinty and Mrs Craddock have offended him, the next (fictional) murder will take place at the Craddock McGinty Sewage Processing Corporation. In the immortal words of Pumbaa the Warthog, that's slimy yet satisfying.

That boy who once humiliated me in school, in front of the entire drama club? (Can you tell it rankled for a while?) I inflicted a terrible fate on him (in a book). He was even quite recognisable. But just to be on the safe side, I turned him into a girl first. After all (a) I didn't want to be sued and (b) for all I know, he's now a delightful, well-balanced, compassionate human being. People change. Snarl.

Fictional revenge. It's do-able. Of course one shouldn't. But one does. At least, this one does.

Oh go on, please tell me it's not just me.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Reflections on Tove Jansson, by Leslie Wilson

I’ve been reading Tove Jansson’s novel for adults, The True Deceiver. Worry not, this is not a spoiler, I shan’t reveal more of the plot than a review would. But I was interested to read, in Ali Smith’s introduction to the novel, that the Moomins are ‘a community of big-nosed, inventive, good-natured beings who survive the storms and existentialisms of a dark Scandinavian winter by simply being mild, kind, inclusive, and philosophical.’ This is undoubtedly true of darling matriarchal Moominmamma, whose response to the arrival at her house of yet another small lodger is just to put out another plate for them and ask if they eat pancakes – but reading The True Deceiver, it struck me that there was more than a passing resemblance between it and the children’s books.

The True Deceiver is about the relationship between Anna, an ageing, slightly childish children’s illustrator – not much of a self-portrait, by all accounts – and Katri, a cynical calculating young woman, an outsider-figure rejected by her community, whose sole aim is to get money out of Anna for her beloved brother. The action takes place over a Finnish winter in a small place and by the end of the winter, both Anna and Katri have changed radically.

The first thing that struck me about it was that the characters’ interactions reminded me of some of the darker Moomin stories – not Finn Family Moomintroll, but Tales from Moomin Valley, Moominpappa at Sea, or Moominvalley in November. In many ways, these books are like stories for adults, they pull no punches, and the characters often behave in a quite hysterical way – rather like Anna, when Katri’s influence starts to work on her. Take The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters. She invites a neighbouring creature – Gaffsie – to tea – and then starts splurging all her worries – to Gaffsie’s horror.

‘Dear Gaffsie, believe me, we are all so small and insignificant, and so are our tea-cakes and carpets and all those thing, you know, and still they’re so important, but always they’re threatened with mercilessness..’

‘Oh,’ said Gaffsie, feeling ill at ease.

‘Yes, by mercilessness,' the fillyjonk continued rather breathlessly. ‘By something one can’t ask anything of, nor argue with, nor understand..’ Gaffsie, of course, makes her excuses and leaves.

When I think about it, it’s usually fillyjonks who fall prey to such horrors. Like the one in Moominvalley in November, who almost kills herself cleaning her windows. They also have moments of blinding illumination about what really matters – not the belongings that have previously circumscribed their lives, and sometimes not the people they used to revere or the things they thought they liked. There’s a similar moment in The True Deceiver, when Katri makes Anna see that she’s never liked coffee, though she always drinks it. Anna is not exactly a fillyjonk, but there are resonances. Though Anna is less than ecstatic about this realisation.

The fillyjonk in Moominvalley in November, coming down from the perilous roof, goes to seek comfort from Moominmamma. Only Moominmamma isn’t there. The creatures who all go off to Moominvalley in this book all have to come to terms with the absence of the Moomins, in the same way in which Anna and Katri’s psychological journey takes them both into uncertainty and anguish. In the same way, in Moominpappa at Sea, Moominpappa gets the male menopause and drags his family off to an island with a lighthouse, but the island doesn’t hand him the new, exciting life he wanted. One of the things I like most about that book is Moomintroll’s relationship with the Groke, who has developed from being a dangerous monster into something like a Jungian shadow – but there is nothing didactic about the story.

I gave Moominsummer Madness to my young great-niece, hoping to enlist her into the ranks of Moomin-lovers, but the book frightened her. I was rather startled by that, remembering getting the books out, over and over again, from the library in Kendal and never being scared at all. But then I also liked The Hobbit, and later adored The Lord of the Rings, I was scared of Black Riders!

I do think the Moomins were maybe one of the most important children’s books I read, I still adore them. I’ll read anything I can get hold of from Jansson. And if anyone wants to join me in demanding a reissue of her memoir Sculptor’s Daughter, please email Sort of Books as I’ve done and ask them to publish it!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Juggling Jobs and Dancing Dinosaurs

There's two very different sides to this business of writing for children and I seem to be constantly juggling time to make room for both. There's the solitary hours of sitting home alone, staring at the flashing cursor (interspersed with equal amounts of time making coffee and engaging in various displacement activities) until the book is written. Then there's getting out there visiting schools, libraries and festivals to promote the books once they're published... or that's what I imagined visiting schools and libraries was all about.

Don't get me wrong, when I'm out and about I do want to promote what I do - after all, I am a writer and am quite keen on the idea of having people buy my books or borrow them for a library. But there's more to it than that. I love books and stories and have done for as long as I can remember. My mum passed on this love of books by reading and sharing stories and poems when I was growing up. As an author going in to schools and libraries I now get the chance to share my love of stories with hundreds of children all round the country. I receive letters and emails from teachers, parents and children themselves telling me how much they have enjoyed the visits. Sometimes I receive letters saying that a child that has never shown interest in reading has bought or borrowed a book and hasn't put it down since. News like this is always a thrill.

My love of writing stories is something different. I can't honestly say I even enjoyed writing when I was younger. Unlike many writers I know this is something that I really started to enjoy when I was older, so trying to share my enthusiasm for writing with children has always felt more difficult. Many children do enjoy writing when they can take their time with it and they produce work that they are proud of, and rightly so.

I tell children that they are all writers and that any of them can write a book of their own... Now one little girl has taken this a step further by writing and illustrating her own book and having it published. When I heard the news I was overjoyed. You can read all about it here.

Not So Much - Karen Ball

Has anyone else had this? Someone meets you for the first time. You can see the excitement in their eyes when they hear what you do. They eagerly demand to know the title of the book you’re currently working on and you tell them. The smile wavers and the light goes out in their eyes. Nah, you hear them thinking. Not so much.
What is it about book titles? Take virtually any out of context and it immediately sounds dull and uninspiring. ‘Emma’? Nah, not so much. Titles can be too long, pretentious, misleading or obscure. They can also be fantastically intriguing: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, Tender is the Night, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. (Do I have a weakness for long book titles?)
If you want to peruse a laugh-out-loud collection of titles, I can heartily recommend ‘Bizarre Books’ by Russell Ash and Brian Lake. ‘Frog Raising For Pleasure And Profit’ anyone? No. ‘The Wit of Prince Philip’? What about ‘Shut Your Mouth And Save Your Life’ by N Trubner and Co, 1869. I could think of a few people to give that to...
No wonder we all agonise over the names of our books. Only for agents to suggest alternatives and publishers to email about a conversation they’ve been having with Marketing. I’ve learnt not to give a fig what any of my books are called; I know someone will suggest something different.
That conversation with a stranger can get worse. I can’t pitch to save my life. I dread the moment someone asks me what my book is about. I can feel the blush rising in my cheeks. ‘Erm, well...’ Silence. The other person isn’t going to fill it for me. ‘It’s about this girl and, like, she goes out one day and there’s this really big thing that happens and...’ Panic takes over. I can’t actually remember what happens. I start to question my plot (again!). If I can’t sum it up in a couple of sentences, it can’t be working, can it? I have to remind myself that other people are much better at the pitch. Agents, for example.
But I can’t tell all this to the person sitting opposite me. Not because they wouldn’t understand, but because they’ve already turned their back on me and are talking to someone much more interesting. My opportunity to impress has been and gone and I’m left in no doubt that I failed.
It doesn’t really bother me; I didn’t start writing in order to have something to talk about. My boyfriend recently supplied me with the best story summary in the world: ‘Once upon a time. Something happened. The end.’ That'll do me.
Which book titles do you love?
Visit my website at

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Cow on the Rails, Writers in the Recession - Michelle Lovric

A few miles outside Bruton, the train driver slams on the brakes. Once the train has jerked and shrieked to a standstill, there’s an eerie moment of silence. Then we feel an ominous vibration beneath our feet.

Some of us rush to the windows. We’re the first to hear the dinning hooves and then the violent mooing. Our train is marooned in a stampede of escaped cows.

Black, brindled and brown monsters thunder past on either side of us, juddering our metal walls and showing us the whites of their eyes. Compared with their rampant kinetic emotion, the train suddenly seems quite provisional and fragile. For a few moments we don’t know how this is going to end.

And yet the hindsighted brain knows that those cows were terrified of us. And even in the moment, I felt sorry for them. Those cows reminded me of writers faced with a speeding recession.

This ugly, dangerous thing, noisily bruited in the press, has appeared among us. Some of our number have been carelessly let out of their safe publishing contracts. We have wandered into the wilderness. We hope that the farmer-publisher will come and round us up, but the freedom is slightly heady too. If not penned in by a contract, who knows what we might write? What new fields we might graze in? What adventures we might have?

Mostly, we stick together and stampede, terrified. We believe all the doomsayers when they tell us that there is no future for historical fiction, thrillers, bite-lit, chick-lit, misery-lit, Aga-lit – whatever it is we write, that is the very genre heading for remainder hell in a handcart.

Someone shouts, ‘It’s okay to write Olympics stories now!’ and the writers stampede in that direction, no-one wanting to admit the latest fear: that the market is already saturated with such proposals. Not all of them can make it.

But we keep galloping. Because onwards seems like the only safe place to go.

Michelle Lovric’s website

International Society for Cow Protection website

Monday, 7 December 2009

Booky Television Anne Cassidy

Recent news that Amanda Ross is to launch a new Channel 4 book club fills me with sheer unadulterated pleasure. Is this because they are headlining with one of my titles? Sadly no. But because books on television give the act of ‘reading fiction’ a kind of mainstream appeal.

I read because I enjoy it. I think many more people would enjoy reading if they could find the right book. But for many people ‘reading fiction’ is linked in their minds to school, learning and essay questions like ‘Examine the themes of prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird’. Books are for studying and book shops are places for the learned few.

Many people read and enjoy what they read; the much criticised celeb autobiographies or the much sneered at Dan Brown or the blood suckers of the Twilight worlds. I have no problem with these. I think you should find your own route to becoming a ‘reader’. I read Ian Fleming and Denis Wheatley, Harold Robbins and Jean Plaidy when I was a young adult. Eventually I looked for other things.

For many people television is a huge part of their lives. I am one of those people. I was brought up in the TV boom of the 1950s and television is in my blood. For a lot of people seeing books talked about on television (on the sadly missed Richard and Judy book club) will be the first time they have ever watched people enthusing about the content of a book without having to write about it or be tested on it. It will also be the first time they have listened to people talking about books which are outside their comfort zone. Complex and literary; genre and unique. Celebrities they admire will sit on a sofa and show interest and enthusiasm for things they would never have considered reading. And you know what? They might be filled with enough confidence to give it a go themselves.

Would I like a celeb to sit on a sofa and talk about one of my books, THE DEAD HOUSE? Or LOOKING FOR JJ? Maybe Martine McCutcheon? Someone from Hollyoaks? Alan Titchmarsh? A weather girl (or boy)? Yes I would. Because then people on their sofas might be emboldened to think that they could enjoy this book. They might begin to see that book shops and the world of books are not just about reading to learn.

They are also about learning to enjoy reading.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

TRO reprise – Revolting writers and the reading revolution (Anne Rooney)

Two weeks ago I blogged here about starting a week-long Get Into Reading course run by The Reading Organisation in the wilds of Cheshire. I promised an update. The week was packed, and there was plenty of work to catch up with at home when I got back, so this account is very much ‘recollected in tranquillity’.

Our group – eighteen fellows of the Royal Literary Fund, all professional writers – was the first group of writers the TRO had tackled, and it was always going to be like herding cats. There was a tension between their expectations of writers and the reality, especially the reality of writers starved of decent caffeine. (Jane Davis, who heads TRO, kindly brought me a coffee pot and coffee supply when things got really desperate.)

Did Sartre go on a residential course before he wrote Huis Clos (‘Hell is other people’)? It was far from Hell – it was lovely to be with other writers and readers – but writers are solitary workers. Most of us spend hours a day writing alone and are masters and mistresses of our time. Being forced to be with other people, even delightful ones, for up to ten hours a day, was very wearing. Any longer, and we’d have been appealing to PEN's prisoner support scheme.

So, given that TRO had to deal with a group of unherdable, stroppy, stir-crazy writers, it went pretty well. The highlight of the week was undoubtedly Wednesday, when we got to practise on some real, live readers from the local area. Each of us led a session with some seasoned participants in reading groups. They were lovely, courteous, generous people, and all extremely good at articulating and unpicking their emotional responses to the poetry we looked at. They had all been going at least once a week to read poetry and prose aloud and talk about it with other ordinary readers. Although we had been told that the groups did not want lit crit style sessions, they spoke confidently about alliteration and symbolism, bringing up the topics themselves. One man who had spotted that the poem we were reading was a sonnet went home and checked the rhyme scheme and the next day told me it was a Petrarchan sonnet.

There was another highlight, too. On Thursday evening, we – the writers – put on a Shakespeare-themed stage show for the readers. And the high point of the performance was children’s writer Joyce Dunbar, dressed in green motley once used as a dinosaur costume, playing Caliban (rehearsing in the picture, no costume)

We talked a lot about settings in which GIR (Get Into Reading) groups take place, about the choice of texts and about what people get out of it – and not only the readers, but the facilitators get a lot out of it. Many of us left on Friday fired with enthusiasm to set up groups of our own. Merseyside must be pretty much saturated with groups; elsewhere they are still sparse – though there is one in the Cabinet Office. How many of us will do it? It involves raising funds, and writers don’t usually like doing that. Or working for free, and writers certainly don’t like doing that. But there’s a lot of enthusiasm.

So what’s new about all this? Nothing. The Get Into Reading group activity is very closely modelled on the Oxbridge supervision/tutorial, which in turn is modelled on Socrates’ teaching methods. The critical approach adopted by TRO is simply reader-response (or reader-oriented) criticism, practical criticism in the I.A.Richards model. [New addition - thanks to Steve Cook for this link to a description of practical criticism as taught at Cambridge, where I learned and taught it many years ago.] But if TRO can manage to sell Socratic dialogue to the nation and so get more and more people reading, that will be a fine achievement. The very fact that the method has survived two and a half thousand years is a testament to its efficacy. Getting the country reading, and talking about good books, and reclaiming their literary heritage, has to be a good thing - with or without Socrates as poster boy.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Why Teachers Hate Us - Joan Lennon

School visits ... a strange, draining, exciting adjunct of writing for children. There are lots of things I find difficult about them - nervousness, getting lost trying to find the school, sweating (though, seeing I'm apparently a lady, I should say glowing), finding out that yet again nobody thought to tell the kids to bring money in to buy books, feeling like a wrung out dishrag afterwards. That sort of thing aside, I really love them. I love the high. I love having contact with kids in that intense, incredibly-focussed way. I hesitate to say I love being paid, even though I do - how about I like being paid? I love being called Joanlennon (all one word) and being told that some kid has read my book 5 times and another kid now wants to be a writer when they grow up and, even, that some kid has an Auntie in Canada. (The assumption tends to be that because I was born there, I'm sure to know her.)

Basically, I love feeling loved.

For the most part, children and adults alike are enormously generous about making visiting authors feel like that. More than the most part. But every visiting author will also be able to tell you stories about the exceptions. The teacher who sits at the front marking while you do your talk. The teacher who introduces you saying, "Pay attention, this lady's going to tell you how to pass your exam." The teachers who sit at the back chatting to each other in those whispery voices that carry so much better than ordinary talking. The teacher who just sits there, arms folded, glaring. My personal favourite was the time the teacher answered her mobile phone during my talk and started to discuss lunch plans with someone. When I looked at her, more than a little gobsmacked, she went out into the hall. Which left me alone with her class. Which we've all had drummed into us is illegal ...

Oh, how they get under our skin, these teachers! Why, oh why, we cry (well, at least, I cry) don't you love me?

I don't know. I'd really like to hear your theories. The floor is yours - tell me why you think some teachers hate us. Will it help to tell the world your worst ever school visit story? If so, here's your chance. Think of it as therapy.

Though I've found that chocolate also helps.

Joan Lennon's website

Thursday, 3 December 2009


As chosen by the bloggers of An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

All the posh newspapers go in for this: choosing your best books of the past year. It’s always fun reading the results. What you see here is our way of pointing people towards what to read in 2010, when the excesses of this winter’s wassailing are over. Some of the contributors to this blog have picked two books each (read this year!) and I hope everyone enjoys perusing these recommendations.
Adèle Geras

For adults: Blackmoor by Edward Hogan
Set in my home county of Derbyshire and during the era of the miners' strikes, I found this a fascinating reflection of the terror of a small-minded community and how it feels to be the brave odd one out. When I first started reading this I wondered if it was actually a YA novel, as it opens with a teenage boy in a scene dealing with an angry father. Edward could easily write wonderfully in the YA market but this is for adults. I wonder if I should get in touch with him and suggest this!

For children: Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
When I read the blurb for this novel, I groaned. Reality TV set in the future? Blurgh. But I could not put this down. Suzanne is unbelievably expert at ratcheting up the tension and making the reader want to see just how bad things can get. I also think this is a template for writing about extreme violence in a non-gratuitous way.

Frances Hardinge has produced only three novels, but for my money she has already established herself as one of the most exciting and versatile fantasy writers around. After the domestic fantasy, Verdigris Deep, this year she moved into new territory with Gullstruck Island. The eponymous island offers us a volcanic landscape, spirit travel, and many races – some native, some of more recent origin – as well as a highly appealing heroine. I won’t begin to attempt to indicate the book’s riches here, other than to say that as a piece of world-building, as a gripping story, as a meditation on intercultural conflict and the power of tradition, and as a showcase for some beautiful observational writing, it has few peers.
Victor Watson is well known among scholars of children’s literature, but Paradise Barn is his first book for children. I picked it up with a certain trepidation, and the old slander ‘Those that teach, can’t do’ ringing faintly in my ears, but I needn’t have worried. This is an old-fashioned story, both in the sense that it is set in the autumn of 1940 in a quiet East Anglian town, and in the sense that it involves three children stumbling upon, and solving, a mystery – a pattern long familiar from Enid Blyton among many others. But Paradise Barn, while not setting out to subvert the essential cosiness of the genre, invests it with a degree of psychological insight, observation, and stylistic economy, that sets it apart. Victor Watson has revealed himself to be a very good fiction writer indeed: I look forward to his next.

Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay
A sequel that seamlessly blends the old and new, bringing a new perspective on a much loved original. Highly recommended.

Gone by Michael Grant
Paranormal stories are everywhere just now, but for me, this was head and shoulders above the crowd. What would happen if all the adults were to disappear? Grant's answer to this question is both dark and gripping.

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd is a super story set in Northern Ireland in the eighties. A teenage boy finds an ancient body in the peat. The hunger strike is effortlessly woven into this so you never feel that the book is preaching. A moving story which justifiably won the Carnegie.

The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day is a lovely book. It’s the story of a family holiday in Blackpool in the late 1950s: a week when secrets are revealed and families find out about each other. I picked this at random to read not having read the writer before and enjoyed it.

For adults: Fire—Tales of Elemental Spirits by Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson. Collaborations often don’t work. This one does-beautifully. Five very different tales about fire: two by McKinley and three by Dickinson . The writing is, as always with these two, wonderfully imaginative and rich. I went straight back to the beginning and read it all over again as soon as I got to the last page, and I have no doubt I will return to it in the future. Dickinson’s ‘Phoenix’ tale in particular stuck in my brain for days, and McKinley’s two dog characters, Flame and Sippy, can have a place in my story pantheon of excellent hounds any day.

For children: Troubadour by Mary Hoffman. I am ashamed to say I knew very little about the Cathars before reading this book. But this moving and detailed tale of love, music, religious divides and the cruelty of war is not only one of the best children’s novels I’ve read this year, but also an historical education in the life of 13th century France and the minstrels who roamed its roads and played in its castles and towns. It’s a great story, weaving real history and fiction just perfectly. If you haven’t read it, you should put it on your list right now.

Brodeck’s Report by Philippe Claudel is my choice for adult readers, in a year which has seen so many good novels that it’s hard to name only one. This was well reviewed both in newspapers and online but no one hyped it, and it wasn’t in supermarkets and therefore I feel it may have disappeared before it acquired the readership it deserved. Perhaps when it comes out in paperback, things will change but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s an extraordinary tale, like Primo Levi crossed with the Brothers Grimm and I can’t praise it highly enough. Not only do you turn the pages as eagerly as you would with any thriller, but the story stays with you, makes you think and refuses to give up every one of its secrets in one reading. The writer is also a movie director. You may have seen the rather good film, I’ve loved you so long (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) .with Kristin Scott Thomas. That was both written and directed by him, and his previous novel, Grey Souls is also outstanding. Alas, it seems to have sunk without trace but it’s worth seeking out. He’s brilliant, so do give his books a try.

For children, I’m choosing Carol Ann Duffy’s New and Collected Poems for Children. There was great rejoicing when she became Poet Laureate, and in this part of the world (Manchester!) more than anywhere else because she lives here. She’s given readings in the local Oxfam shop and I’ve even had a chat to her in the aisles of our local Sainsbury’s so we feel a bit partisan about her. This book is wonderful and would make a super Christmas present. She’s a poet whose work for children is all of a piece with her other writing and these verses don’t insult kids by presuming that the only thing which will capture their imaginations is doggerel of one kind or another. There’s lyricism here and beauty and mystery and fairytale and also inspired silliness. Lovely stuff and in a beautifully produced edition.

Notes on a Exhibition by Patrick Gale had me gripped, intrigued and moved in a way I hadn't been for years. Promptly signed up to see the author at a festival and he was as interesting and engaging as his book - and he replied to my e-mail at once!

The Declaration by Gemma Malley is sci-fi exploring the Big Question of what would happen if we found a way to live for ever. It's thought provoking and challenging but cracks along at a great pace and has characters to warm to and root for.

For adults: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Never has a book kept me reading so avidly until so late at night, as this one, and left my head so full of dreams that in the morning I’ve felt I’ve spent the whole night in avid conversation. Mantel conjures up a world so real and underpinned by human psychology that I doubt I’ll easily be won over to any other novel set in this period.
For teenagers: The Kiss of Death by Marcus Sedgwick. A seductive setting in perfect Gothic style, Sedgwick truly understands pace and plot but it’s his flowing language – sometimes quite dark – that beguiles the reader. ‘The world is a vampire sent to drain us of our souls’. And who can resist the words of the opening letter… ‘I will go on squeezing until your lips have stopped twitching and you are no more.’ The reader is trapped from the very first page.

Solace of the Road by Siobhan Dowd is one of those books that sweeps you along with it so hard you can't put it down until the very end. Holly Hogan is newly fostered from a children's home, but is trying to find her mother. She reminded me of the kids I used to see hanging round the playgrounds all day when they should be at school, she needs attention, bucketloads of it, and on her risky journey from London to Fishguard we readers find out, step by step, alongside Holly, what happened.

The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman with illustrations by David Roberts, is a lovely picture books for older (top juniors? me?)readers. The Dunderheads are the class losers, beautifully and characterfully drawn, who always get the worst of teacher Miss Breakbones. In this book the kids, done horribly wrong by nasty Miss Breakbones, club together in heart warming and ingenious ways to put things right.

For adults, I just came across The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon. I loved it because it bewildered me, delighted me and made me feel ambitious about what writing can do.

For children, no-one told me that The Knife of Never Letting Go was part of a trilogy and I was utterly gutted by the non-ending. That’s a measure of how much I loved it, especially the dog and the sheep.

I pretty much guarantee that none of you will have read the adult book I'm going to recommend. It's a debut, very new, completely ignored (as far as I can see) by newspapers and published by the tiniest of publishers, The Linen Press. It's called The Device, The Devil and Me by Stephanie Taylor. It's not a perfect book, and the beginning and end both have faults, but I have no hesitation in recommending it because it's the first adult book for a very long time that has gripped me so strongly that I read it in two sittings. It's hugely emotional, raw, very fresh, rather unusual, and a fine debut. If you want to buy it, PLEASE do so from The Linen Press website ( - if you want to know why, read where I blogged about it here! (

My choice from books published for younger people is The Witching Hour by Elizabeth Laird. I wrote on the same gruesome and cruel historical topic in The Highwayman's Curse - the "Killing Times" in Scotland, a period of shameful religious warfare - but Liz has done it so much better. She manages to convey the power and horror with gentle paint strokes, whereas I have a nasty habit of piling on the grimness with abandon! The Witching Hour is a great example of controlled, strong story-telling, and it's my favourite of hers, or perhaps equally with The Garbage King.

I know, I've mentioned it before, but The Writer's Tale by Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook is the most engrossing and thrilling account of the creative process, and listening to Davies is like being with a vivid character in a novel. (Lots of pretty pictures of David Tennant have nothing to do with my choice, hem hem.)

From the very first line of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book I was wishing I'd written it (all right, racked with envy). I was completely wrapped up in Bod's life and its dangers and joys. The wise, brave, complex Silas knocks every other undead hero out of the ring (without so much as a single snicker). And of course it's beautifully written.

I've caught up with two teenage spy novels this year: Scorpia by Anthony Horowitz and The Dark Side of Midnight by Carol Hedges. Both are part of a series but read well alone. These books have fast moving plots and plenty of thrills as you would expect, but both are also well written with unexpected emotional depth. Boy spy Alex Rider journeys to Venice to infiltrate the shadowy Scorpia organization seeking the truth about his father, while spy girl Jazmin Dawson infiltrates the rogue Roztok Institute looking for her mother. Boy spies are obviously more popular - I only came across the Spy Girl books by accident (and almost walked past them because of the sparkly "chick-lit" covers), but they are equally brilliant.
Favourite bits? Scorpia: when Alex BASE jumps into Scorpia's headquarters (always wanted to try that). Midnight: when the evil scientist raises the angel Azazel from the dead (least of Jazmin's problems).

One of my books of the year is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It’s a wonderful fresh view of a much-visited era of history, truly great writing. The other is Alice in Love and War by Ann Turnbull. This is a sensitive, moving description of the Civil War from the point of view of one of history’s most despised women – the camp follower.