Thursday, 29 July 2010

Five Books That Went Under the Radar Catherine Johnson

I know a bit of a silly title. Come on though, you know what I mean, five books for children - of all ages - that came out and never made it onto anyone's bestseller lists. Brilliant wonderful books that deserved a fraction more of the publicity department's budget than it should have.

Every year so many brilliant books are published and usually it's only a tiny portion of those which get the fanfare and the reviews and ultimately the readers. It seems to me that publishers are like gamblers, sending out loads of books and crossing their fingers that one or two make it. This means of course that there are very many hidden gems, and I am hoping to point you in their direction.

Every one of these books, I believe, is rewarding. And I don't doubt there are very many more out there so please add yours.

1. Donald and the Singing Fish by Peter Lubach Macmillan 1992 Picture Book OOP
This is a gem. I don't know if Peter Lubach ever produced another book but this is perfection. It is a wordless picture book set on the Scottish coast concerning a young fisherman who one day, out in his boat, catches a fish that (obviously) sings. It is in almost comic strip style with some full page illustrations, but mostly up to six pictures a page. The drawings are marvellous, the story is both clear and deep and Donald and the fish are brilliant characters. The end is so touching that so long as you haven't just seen Toy Story 3 it will (maybe) make you cry.

2. Salmon Doubts by Adam Sacks Alternative Comics 2004
Another book with pictures and fish. This time a graphic novel which is a coming of age story about a salmon called Geoff and the meaning of life. Set in a large school (of fish hem hem) it's quite a bittersweet tale, the dialogue is sharp and the story is lovely and deeper than one might imagine, but hey, these aren't your farmed salmon. I wanted to put in Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, the last in the series is just out, but given that in a few weeks the major Hollywood film is released, Scott Pilgrim will be well known to everyone any second now. But if you've a teenage boy or girl who loves comics and computer games these are wonderful.

3. The Rules of Magic by Annie Dalton Egmont 2004 Teen
Annie Dalton is a fantastic writer who has had a good deal of commercial success with the Angels Unlimited series, but this book, which is a much meatier read, didn't have half the success it should have had. Have you read it? No, thought not. What I like about this is it's a book about teens, with magic, set in the inner city. It's not all Hogwarts, this concerns the 13th floor of a tower block where a boy went missing on Halloween. The characters, Dino and Bee are wonderful and it feels real, for all the supernature.

4. Accidental Friends by Helena Pielichaty OUP 2008 YA
I nearly didn't include this because it had five reviews on Amazon and so, is almost too well known. It was shortlisted for a prize, and it really is a very good read set at the start of sixth form college. It should have been stellar, it is funny, and thrilling and features a totally engaging, and very different, group of sixteen year olds whose lives collide. Why OUP didn't make more of this god only knows, and why oh why is the cover brown?
By the way I wanted to include Shadow Web by N.M. Browne but this also had five reviews and made the Carnegie Longlist but should have been mega too. Oh and Riding Icarus by Lily Hyde and anything by Catherine Fisher who is brilliant.

I have realised that I've chosen more than five books already. And of course I wanted to mention one of my own, one that I thought was really quite good - one of my best I think - and probably sold two copies which is why I have just heard this morning that it will be going out of print; The Dying Game, there I said it.

So there you go. I am sure we've all got books we think deserve more success and more readers, go on share....
Five Questions They Always Ask During School Visits - Ellen Renner

As this is my debut year, I'm a newcomer to school visits. To my relief, I've found I really enjoy them, especially the question and answer sessions. Sometimes the children throw up new and interesting questions that really make you think. However, there are the perennials. I'm sure those of you doing school visits will recognise all of the following.

1) Where do ideas come from?

The classic, the groaner, the one you get not just once during a Q & A session, but often 2, 3 or 4 times, until the teacher steps in with a sigh: ‘Katie, Alex, Josh and Elly have already asked that question, Sam. Can you think of something new please?’

And yet, much as writers may dread this one, there’s a reason why it’s the number one question kids ask. It goes to the heart of what we, as writers do, and what they, as readers want to know.

Where does the magic come from? I haven’t got an answer for them and I tell them so: I simply don’t know. I can – and do – tell them how to make it easier for ideas to arrive and how to capture them so they don’t escape. But as far as I’m concerned, ideas are magic. They pop into your head when you’re cleaning the fridge or driving to catch a train, and I’m not sure I want to look too closely into that particular Pandora’s box for fear it might snap shut and never open again.

2) Is writing a book hard?

I love this one. I have it at least once in every session and when it arrives I mentally rub my hands. Yes! Hooray! Writing is hard. It’s very hard. And so, I point out (in the least worthy and moralising way I can) is everything that’s worth doing. Real achievement requires work. But it's also the most fun, the most exciting thing of all. And that sort of aspiration is what kids should be fed. Not pop-star-idol-candy-floss dreams. Which leads me on to the next three questions ...

3) Are you famous?

They do so want you to say yes. And I never know how to answer this one. Obviously, I’m not. But I am known for doing something reasonably well, or I wouldn’t be visiting their school. So I tell them that most writers aren’t ‘famous’ in the way that they mean, like pop stars. But that we are in a different way or we wouldn’t be talking to them. And it never feels like I get this one quite right. I’d love to know how other children’s writers deal with this question.

4) How much money to you make?

The incredulity, the disbelief on their faces when I tell them the average annual wage for a published writer according to the Society of Author’s latest census. It’s ... priceless.

5) If you aren’t famous or rich, and it’s such hard work, why do you do it?

And that is the question, isn’t it. Why do we? Well, most of us are obsessional (and probably masochistic). But that aside, it's because we have a need to tell stories and stories need an audience to live. So we do it in order to have readers like these children. And I'm always aware, on visits, of how privileged I am to be invited into a school or library to talk to readers about my books.

And now I want to cheat a bit and move from the five most common questions to one I’ve only had once, but which is my favourite question of all. It was asked by one perceptive young man during my first library visit.

Do you ever tell the truth?

And I was really stumped for a moment or two. ‘No,’ I said in the end. ‘I don’t. Everything I write is made up; I don’t use real life in my books; I don’t base my characters on people I know. So in one sense it is all a lie. But it’s all true too. I’m always asking questions about ‘real’ life when I’m writing. I think that’s what stories do.’

What a great question. I’m sure there will be more of them.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

5 things to keep you writing (and writing fit)- Linda Strachan

We are rapidly approaching the end of this month's celebration of top fives. So here are my five top things to do to keep you writing when the muse is being difficult.

When you have a new idea you might be bursting with excitement and not able to wait until you can get time to write about it, but then sitting at the desk something terrible happens - NOTHING!  It's probably not 'writer's block', if that indeed exists,  it might just be a little hiccup in your writing.

Okay, it may never have happened to you - but if it does here are some of the things I do to get me back on form and they might help.
1. Clear your desk.

If your desk is clear you can concentrate on writing. I find it can help to clear my mind,leave space for ideas and free up my thoughts.

2. Don't worry about being word perfect - just write

Once you have something written you can go back and work on it, rework and edit it, so don't keep stopping and reworking it might be the thing that is holding you back.  Just start to write and keep on going.  Later you can go back and change things, hone the piece and make it beautiful, and exciting, but not until you have actually written something.

3. Stop your writing in the middle of a sentence or in the middle of action or argument.

This makes it easier to get started again. You will find that you don't have to wind yourself back into the story it is all happening on the page where you left it, and you can step right back in there.

4. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

Not sure if you have any time to write or any ideas?  Why not try this.  Write as much and as fast as you can and don’t go back to correct it or worry about what you are writing, just write anything. You will probably find you are engrossed and happy to continue- if you have the time - but if not stop and have a break and try it again a little later.

5. Recognise when you are too tired to write, or need a break. 

Writing takes energy and it could be you are too tired or that you just need a break from it for a while.

Come to it fresh and it will all seem much better and easier. Try going for a walk or taking any kind of light exercise.  Even just going to the window and breathing in some fresh air can work.

Ideas and plot problems are often resolved by the sub conscious when walking, sleeping or doing other activities

So, what do you do to keep you writing?   Drop by and let us know.

Linda's latest book is Dead Boy Talking pub June 2010  

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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

5 Great Depictions of Childhood in Novels for Adults - John Dougherty

Some people do find children difficult, don’t they?

And just as there are those who find children hard to relate to in real life, there are those who find them hard to relate to in fiction, and who therefore assume that any book with a child protagonist must ipso facto have been written with a readership of children in mind. This attitude generally goes hand-in-hand with the sort of assumptions about the merits of children’s fiction that makes those of us who write it rather cross.

Thankfully, there are also authors on the other side of the Great Fictional Divide who understand that childhood (in which, for the purposes of this piece, I include teenagehood as well) isn’t just a period of waiting to turn into a real person. So, as my contribution to the Awfully Big Second Anniversary Celebrations, here - in no particular order - are five of my favourite depictions of children and childhood in novels written for proper grown-ups:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
When I was a small child, I was told by my classmates that the house at the school gates was The Witch’s House. I remember going fearfully but excitedly up to it, one day after school, with one of my friends; and seeing, just as we reached it, an old woman’s face at the window.

We screamed and ran. We were afraid; but it was a safe fear - a fear of something we had created in our minds and fixed to someone else’s home. I don’t know why children do this - perhaps in order to practice dealing with genuinely scary things when we’re older - but in the Radley house, Harper Lee captures this sort of childhood totem perfectly; and in Scout, Jem and Dill, she creates three very real children, who play and negotiate and slowly learn about justice and injustice and the complexities of the adult world entirely convincingly.

To Kill a Mockingbird is fifty this year, and hasn’t aged a bit.

2. About a Boy, by Nick Hornby
We all knew a Marcus at school, didn’t we? Except, of course, for those of us who were Marcuses - bright in some ways and yet so naive in others; misfits who desperately needed to be taken under someone else’s wing.

It’s Hornby’s masterstroke, of course, that the wing in this case belongs to someone who bridges the gap between the child and adult states - a grown-up who’s never actually had to grow up.

About a Boy is a wonderful comedy of embarrassment, with a lot of unsentimental warmth and down-to-earth wisdom about families and growing up; and with two very real boys of vastly different ages at its centre.

3. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Children’s novelists often find ingenious ways to get rid of the adults who might otherwise spoil their heroes’ adventures; but of course, thanks to Golding, we all know what might happen if you really did that; and it isn’t pretty.

Lord of the Flies genuinely deserves its classic status, not least because its characters are such real boys. Every playground has its Ralphs, and its Jacks, and its Piggys; and the events of the novel are, in many ways, merely exaggerations - or logical extensions - of the politics of the playground. And, perhaps, of the politics of the workplace, too.

4. A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil, by Christopher Brookmyre
A murder mystery with a difference: almost everyone involved in the case - the suspects, the investigating Detective Superintendent, the pub landlady with her ear to the ground, the possibly corrupt politician, the world-weary hero, and even one of the two mutilated corpses - went to school together; and it’s in their schooldays that the story is rooted.

Most of the narrative takes place in flashbacks, which start on the first day of infant school and end with the end-of-secondary-school leavers’ party. Through these flashbacks Brookmyre builds up a fantastically well-rounded picture of the entire cast, bringing a new dimension to the idea of character development, as we see how his perfectly-realised five-year-olds grow into the adults of the murder mystery.

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil is very dark, very funny, and a flawless depiction of a certain type of British childhood. And it shows, as JoJo the landlady says, how “bad weans don’t necessarily turn intae bad adults. And the same goes for the good yins.”

5. Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood
Not just my favourite of this list, but perhaps my favourite book for grown-ups ever, Cat’s Eye is another novel told largely in flashback. Artist Elaine Risley returns to her native Toronto for a retrospective, and finds herself... well, retrospecting. Where Brookmyre’s novel takes a whole range of characters through an entire childhood, Atwood focuses on just two children - Elaine and Cordelia - and on two shared periods of their childhood, to provide a gripping analysis of the relationship between bully and victim, and to show how childhood isn’t just a waiting period but a time which shapes our entire existence. As Elaine says, “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.

So, there’s my five. Anyone got any others?

John's website is at

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Five things a writer uses every day - Anne Rooney

1. a
2. e
3. i
4. o
5. u

(There is a sixth, which is the internet. This should have been up on Friday but I have been internet-deprived for six days and only managed to post it today by driving to Starbucks and paying for unnecessary food in order to use free wifi.)

Besides being extremely useful glue for sticking consonants together into words, AIEOU was used as a cryptic symbolic device by the Habsburg emperors. Frederick III introduced it in the fifteenth century and used it as a 'Frederick woz 'ere' signature on buildings and such like. Just before he died, he said it stood for Alles Erdreich ist Oesterreich untertan - All the world is subject to Austria.


A few years ago the Independent put out a call for lists and there were some nice examples from well-known people. So they decided to throw it open to anyone.This was my contribution.
Five things I cannot live without ;
my Polar library
twice-daily arthritis pills
tap water – yes, London vintage
Mum’s pre-war copy of Little Women
with a single colour plate
him indoors
This was my inspiration for my contribution to our Ten Year Anniversary Edition of ABBA this month.

1. Inspiration

Mine involves staring which is ok when you are on a deserted beach but can give rise to some tricky moments when you are staring at people in Costa cafe  (where I often work) and they start glaring back. Picasso said, "Inspiration is there but it has to find you working." So I write and I grumble and I do displacement stuff and then I find myself going into a stare and there I am - in the wonderful zone of inspiration.

2. Chocolate
I nearly  enlarged this picture and those of you who know me will understand why and probably everyone else as well. If inspiration starts with staring then it certainly can be fuelled by chocolate
Don't believe me?
Give it a go!

3. Paper
It has to be the right type. My husband has been perfecting the art of buying me the correct notebooks for over 30 years and trust me, he is the current world expert. Mainly because he can't think of anything else to buy me for birthday presents. I have notebooks to fill from Harrods, the Metropolitan museum of Art and Muji. I don't care if my notebooks are expensive, cheap, falling apart, hard cover, soft cover, BUT!  I hate rough paper with woodchip in it, I hate lined paper with huge gaps between the lines and I hate the squared paper that French schoolchildren seem to want to write on. I LOVE  yellow paper but absolutely no other colour except white of course and perhaps cream, but it has to be exactly the right shade of cream.
Difficult? Me? Never!

4. Somewhere to write
I wrote my first novel on the kitchen table while the kids were asleep. Later my husband divided our bedroom and built me a place for the computer my darling dad bought me. By then the kids were doing homework so they commandeered 'mum's space' regularly. Even later my husband built me a proper study on the end of the house. He calls it a shed, ( wooden walls mostly) but iits really quite integral to the house. I love it. But my favourite places to write? Coffee bars. I've been writing in coffee bars since I was sixteen and read about Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre and the coffee culture of 1930s Paris. I never got over it. Here I am in Starbucks at Camden Lock.

5. A writing implement.
I was inkwell monitor in Tudor Road Junior school when I was in 4A. We wrote with nibs dipped in ink. We learnt Marion Richardson handwriting style and I won prizes. I've written with quills, charcoal, tailor's chalk, Stephenson's ink, calligraphy pens, gouache and HB pencils sharpened by my father with the bread knife. My favourite pens today are Muji thin fibre tip pens, navy blue colour. What do you write with?

That's my top five things I can't live without as a writer. What would you put on the list? Look forward to reading your comments, folks.
HIDDEN, Meadowside books, March 2011

Saturday, 24 July 2010


Writing is a weird thing to do. It's not like having a proper job where you have to go to work every day, get paid at the end of the month, can go on holiday without feeling guilty and toting a laptop about with you everywhere, even though you only use it to check your e mails in the wifi cafe.

Normal people pretend to be interested in what you do, but really they think it is weird and can't quite comprehend it. This leads them to asking questions which you can see coming but you dread being asked.

Here are five of my favourites. Feel free to add your own.

1. Have you got a new book coming out?

If you have, then,

2. I can't find your new book in Waterstone's.

If they can find it in Waterstone's, then,

3. When is the next one coming out?

4(a)If you write for children, or teenagers - Have you ever thought of writing for adults?

4 (b)If you write for adults - How's the kids' book doing?

And finally...

5. Should I have heard of you?

Thursday, 22 July 2010


Crossover fiction is the name given to a novel on the YA lists that’s also enjoyed by adults. There’s A Gathering Light. There’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. There is even The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, though that was written for slightly younger children. What I’m interested in here, though, is fiction that travels the other way - originating on the adult lists and ending up appealing to teenagers. I’m going to do this from my own experience, and I’m not claiming that modern teenagers would share my loves, but they’re worth an anniversary blogpost, I reckon. As a kind of extra, let me mention that Kevin Brooks, on a recent panel discussion about books for teenagers, said that two Booker winners, Vernon God Little and Life of Pi were perfect YA books. I’ve not read either and can’t comment, but I offer you those two recommendations.

I’ve never gone back to these texts that were so important to me when I was about 14 or so because I fear that some of them at least may not stand up to scrutiny. I had a terrible shock recently when I revisited my beloved Malory Towers and I don’t wish to repeat the hideous disillusionment. I’m writing more about the memory of what they were like to read, and anyone who’s interested can rush to the internet and find out more about them or even try to buy them and read them. If anyone does this, I’d be fascinated to know how they seem to you and how you enjoyed them as adults.

The first of my crossovers is a long string of novels known as The Whiteoaks Saga. There were lots of novels in this series (Finch’s Fortune, Renny’s Daughter, The Whiteoaks of Jalna etc.) and series were just what we needed back in the olden days (I’m talking 1958-61 or so) because we didn’t have soap operas on telly. Actually, we hardly had telly at all where I was, which was at boarding-school. So these novels about a Canadian family of British origins living in a fine old house called Jalna were seized on and adored by lots and lots of us. I even refer to "Renny's Daughter” (which as I remember was my favourite of the whole lot) in my own novel The Tower Room. My heroine loses her copy and looks everywhere for it because she can’t bear to go to bed without it. These books were full of adultery, passion, children in conflict with their parents, handsome men, beautiful women, delicate poetic types, neurotic and beautiful women and so on. The staples of such fiction I suppose, but I loved the whole family. They had terrific names: Renny, Finch, Eden, Adelaide, and so on. There was even a girl called Pheasant and it says something about us and the books that we read about her without once cracking a smile at the ridiculousness of her name. That’s how besotted we were with the whole of the Whiteoaks crowd. There’s a website here
which tells you a lot more about Mazo de la Roche and the origins of the books. I’m still not going to go back and read them, but I do recommend them heartily for lovers of no-holds barred romantic fiction in a slightly exotic setting.

My second backwards-crossover is John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. If you Google the name, the whole of the first page brings up references to the television adaptation. And who am I to quarrel with that, when it brought together the gorgeous Damian Lewis, the delicious Ioan Gruffudd, and the lovely, lovely Gina McKee? There was also an earlier tv version with Eric Portman and Susan Hampshire and this was the one that had vicars changing the time of their Evensong services to fit in with the schedules because they found their congregations had all stayed home to watch it. Television is fine and dandy, of course, but long before it there were the books and these, I’m quite sure, WILL stand up to re-reading and scrutiny and I do intend one day to go back to them. Galsworthy may be an old-fashioned writer but he was a good one and his tales of an upper middle class family from the last years of the nineteenth century till after the Great War are enthralling, absorbing and totally gripping...or they were to me when I was about 15. I loved Irene, I loved Fleur. Old Jolyon, the aunts, the children, Soames – I was fascinated and intrigued by the whole lot of them. I adored the houses, the fixtures and fittings, the clothes and jewellery- the world that Galsworthy described appealed to me enormously. I’m sure that it’s from reading these books that I became interested in that period of history and went on to study Proust. I enjoy books which are panoramas of a whole epoch, summed up in the goings-on of a single family with a lot of off-shoots. Any family story is full of conflict, jealousy, betrayal, great love, problems with errant children, clashes with siblings etc and this is one of the great examples of the genre. I think some of my admiration for A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book stems from my devotion to The Forstye Saga. [Another of the best books of this kind and a true masterpiece is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann but I came to that as an adult so it doesn’t count. I also think it might defeat most teenagers, though I could be wrong about that.]

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake was a complete revelation. I never liked the Tolkien books nor the C.S.Lewis novels and so this was a most uncharacteristic choice for me. I started it under the impression that it was ‘difficult’ and felt chuffed with myself for being clever enough even to consider it. The first few hundred pages had me completely baffled but also totally knocked-out by the sheer bizarreness of everything: the setting, the characters, the world that Peake created was literally mind-blowing. I don’t think I fully understood it. I don’t think I fully understand it now, and in this case the television adaptation was a huge disappointment because I’d imagined this castle and its inhabitants so vividly that the ‘real’ thing was a pale shadow and not nearly as doomy and black as what I’d had in my head. These are truly fantastic books and I think ones that are still popular with a certain kind of teenager.
You may have noticed that I’m a fan of series. This is because if you can make characters you like last for lots of stories, the pleasure goes on and on. My last two choices are, however, single books: stand-alone novels, in today’s parlance. For present-day teenagers, finding books which tell them all they need/want to know about sex is easy. From Judy Blume’s Forever to William Nicholson’s Rich and Mad not to mention the availability of all kinds of information (and worse) on the internet, the subject is fully covered. Today’s kids can be well-informed about such matters at least on a theoretical level if not on an emotional (or a practical) one. We weren’t so lucky, back in the day. I’m talking of a time even before the Lady Chatterley fuss....after that book came out, we had a copy of it going round school and I have to confess that I found it boring then and I’ve never got to grips, so to speak, with D.H. Lawrence even now. My fault, probably, but he’s a writer I don’t like very much. All this is by the way...I’m writing about the wonderful and thoroughly naughty and therefore totally delicious Peyton Place by Grace Metalious which was published in 1958 and stayed on the best seller lists for an amazing 59 weeks. I remember what the book looked like: the name picked out in glossy red letters, the first example of a bonkbuster any of us had ever seen. Gosh, it taught us a lot, that book! It was a terrific story whose details have now disappeared into the mists of the past but from which I vaguely recall an illegitimate baby, a person loving someone from the wrong side of the tracks and the hell that ensued between parents and children over one thing and another. It’s recently been reissued and I could easily get hold of it, but I just want to preserve the memory of reading it after lights-out, by the light of a torch under the blankets.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault has to stand for all her books which I devoured. I’ve read The Bull from the Sea as an adult and still think it’s wonderful but I haven’t gone back to this fantastic story of the love between Alexias and Lycis which so thrilled me when I was a girl. I love historical fiction and Renault is the one who set the standard. She’s been a huge influence on my own writing, too, I think. So that’s my five....but I can’t resist, in these days of perfectly justified Wolf Hall mania, mentioning an outstanding novel set in the time of the Tudors and called Man on a Donkey by HMF Prescott. It’s about the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace and for anyone who likes Mantel and CJ Sansom, it makes fascinating reading. It’s in print from Loyola Classics and deserves a much wider readership. I urge you to try it.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


I'm missing picturebooks on this blog! Colour and playfullness! Which makes me wonder - are we endorsing the message: picturebook writers have still to ‘grow’ into YA writers? As an art teacher in another life, I see picturebooks as the foundation for developing an early aesthetic - line, tone, texture, colour, imagery, flights of fancy, hidden meaning, pattern and rhythm are all there to be unknowlingly absorbed by the child.

So here are my favourite 5 PICTUREBOOK BEASTIES. Classic beasts like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Antony Browne’s Gorilla and Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand are givens, (5 is an impossibly small number!) so I’ve tried for some really small beasties, one imaginary one and one jungle beast. You probably have plenty more favourites to add. No vampires or dinosaurs allowed!

1. THE FROGS AND THE CAT (see top of blog) by Kazanari Hino illustrated by Tokao Siato published by Fukuinkan Shoten won the IBBY Honours Book in 2004 for Japanese Illustration.

These wonderfully delicate and distinctive illustrations are so full of detail and incredible humour that you don’t have to understand Japanese to enjoy the story. The young frogs of Genji Pond gather on lily pads while an elder tells them an ancient tale. There’s a strange attack one night. A frog receives a bad slash on her back and claims it’s a monster with glistening eyes… a cat belonging to a rival clan. The young frogs decide to avenge, riding out on fierce-looking crickets, brandishing bamboo-shoot lances, wearing flower helmets and brave expressions with an almost calligraphic grace. Each time you look there’s more to discover. A picturebook at its VERY best. I love it! Please won't some UK publisher bring it out in English.

2. THE SEA-THING CHILD by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Patrick Benson, published by Walker Books won the V&A Illustration Award in 2000.

Benson’s faultless drawings with their infinite variety of tone and texture created by hatching and cross-hatching using a variety of pens and nibs are a perfect match to Hoban’s richly textured words. A bedraggled heap of fright, washed ashore in a storm, makes two friends… a crab filled with self-doubt and a wise albatross. Gradually the little puffin gathers enough confidence to return to the sea where he belongs. The poetry of the text is perfectly reflected in the depth of feeling and humour in the illustrations. Benson spent time sketching for this book on the south coast of Scotland and even built little stone igloos. Each reading brings fresh delights…. the hissing waves and the pebbles clicking in the wash of the tide. Yet powerful as the text is, for me it’s the illustrations that linger. It deserved more than just to be short-listed for the 1999 Kate Greenaway.

3. STELLALUNA by Janell Canon published by Harcourt in the USA in 1993 and David Bennett Books in the UK in 1995.
A baby fruit bat attacked by an owl is separated from her mother. She’s taken in by a mama bird and her nestlings and learns to fit in with bird rules… eating insects and sleeping right side up at night. When her mother finds her, Stellaluna’s new bird friends ponder,

‘How can we be so different and feel so much alike?’
‘And how can we feel so different and be so much alike?’

Cannon’s luminous acrylics and colour pencil illustrations are exquisite. The almost too brilliant sky and spare brown and green woodland background intensify the subtlety of the drawings. Stellaluna is drawn with scientific precision but also with real character that makes her endearingly batlike, but not blood-sucking shudder-inducing. She's a fruit bat after all!

4. DEXTER BEXTER AND THE BIG BLUE BEASTIE by Joel Stewart published by Double Day and Corgi in 2007 and 2008.The story of a small boy who scoots right into a Big Blue Beast and spends the entire story trying ingeniously to distract the Beast from eating him. There's something comforting about Joel Stewart's illustrations. The pen and ink drawings have a traditional feel but a quick freshness. The Beastie (an orthodontist's delight) is not too scary and might be someone’s warty grandpa except he’s blue and has rather long claws. Stewart somehow manages to imbue Dexter with that feeling of wariness I had when I contemplated my own remote and seemingly grumpy grandfathers… but who proved to be extraordinarily patient and kind when we did things together. Words and pictures weave perfectly and speech bubbles make it child friendly. The follow-up, Dexter Bexley and the Big Blue Beastie on the Road where Dexter and the Beast start hooting and are thrown out of town, is probably even more engaging with its concept of child and older person being naughty together across the age-gap.
5. AUGUSTUS AND HIS SMILE by Catherine Rayner published by Little Tiger Press 2006. Winner of the Best New Illustrator Award in the Booktrust Early Years Awards 2006 and shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway in 2007.

Augustus the tiger is sad. He has lost his smile. So he gives a tigery stretch, and sets off to find it, taking the reader through forests, deserts and even under the sea. A simple story of self-discovery but on a deeper level the story explores the concept of the ‘inner who’ and what we reflect to the outside world.
Rayner’s work is breathtaking in its simplicity and use of subtle colour, tone and wide open space. Augustus is brought to life using quick spontaneous and vigorous line that explores personality and a restless energy. Augustus manages to look curious and at the same time appears as if he has simply strayed onto the page and with a twitch of his tail might as easily leave. Rayner apparently spent hours and hours watching and sketching tigers at Edinburgh Zoo.
Her spare backdrops (almost Japaneselike in their simplicity but different to the Frog book) are an invitation to the imaginative reader to fill in what lies within and beyond the frame. Suspended leaves, a blade of grass, a line of footprints, an elongated shadow, all trick the eye into making more. Brilliant! Augustus and his Smile was Rayner’s debut work but what a debut!

And just for interest sake - the Booksellers Assoc held a very interesting Seminar on Monday in London on Picturebook Apps. Anthony Browne, amongst other on the panel, urged that digital books retain the quirkiness of conventional books and encourage 'slow' looking.

Five things I didn’t know until I got published - by Leila Rasheed

1) Writers are divided. Poets and community writers think novelists have it easy and set too much store by publication. Novelists don’t know that community writers exist. Horror, romance and fantasy writers scorn authors of literary novels for being pretentious and not selling any copies, and literary writers look down on horror, romance and fantasy writers for, well, not being literary. Happily, all are united by their mutual incomprehension of why any intelligent adult would choose to write ‘kids’ books’.

2) Not all children’s authors are nice (although everyone working in children’s publishing is nice, disturbingly so).

3) Commercial fiction means ‘fiction that sells a lot of copies’ – for example, The Catcher in the Rye. Genre fiction means ‘fiction with a murder weapon, cartoon heart or vampire on the cover’. Literary fiction means ‘fiction with a truncated soft-focus person, an unremarkable landscape or Soviet-style graphics, on the cover’. Move away from these definitions and you will swiftly sink in a quicksand of doubt.

4) You will be paid for just doing just about everything apart from writing – leading workshops, being a motivational speaker, teaching other people how to write. The one necessary qualification for these jobs is a publishing contract. For writing, you will receive a six-monthly statement which tells you how over-drawn at the publisher you are.

5) You will be welcomed into schools, although they don’t quite know why they want you. Children will consider you a celebrity and queue up for your autograph. They will assume you are rich, have a fast car, and personally know Jacqueline Wilson. Meanwhile you will be spending every night worrying either about how to feed your own children, or whether you can afford to have children in the first place.

Had I known these things before I was published, it would have made no difference whatsoever to my desire to get published, and be a writer.

Post script: this is all a bit depressing. So here are five WONDERFUL things about being published:

1) Nine year old girls will look upon you as a god.
2) Children will ask you for your autograph; you will be horrified to realise how much you enjoy giving it. Even though you know it will be lost forever at the bottom of their bag. In a school, you will be a celebrity.
3) Other writers will amaze you with their supportive generosity. Writers who work in prisons, writers who work with the mentally ill, writers who give their time and talent so that others can benefit from writing. Writers who let you use their best workshop exercise without a grumble. Writers who sit around and help you bitch about rejections.
4) Filling out official forms will acquire a new piquancy now that you are able to write with perfect honesty: OCCUPATION: WRITER.
5)Books are tax-deductible.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Five tips for Visiting Authors - Meg Harper

You won’t all want to be visiting authors – and I may not be for long, given the recession! But inadvertently I’ve done a lot of this sort of work in recent years, partly because I really enjoy it – so, if you’re interested yourself, these are my tips:
1. Be Nice. I’ve said this before and Penny Dolan famously says it too in her informative and amusing guide to school visiting. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being nice from start to finish – and when you first arrive, there will be few clues about who the key players are especially on a dressing up day. The Head might be the one in the toga with the laurel wreath but could equally well be one of the many snowmen. Expect absolutely anything and store it away to dine out off later. There is absolutely no point in getting uppity and every point in riding the storm – wild horses might not be able to drag you back to this particular school/library etc but you want them to recommend you to others! I’ve had the headteacher who asked if it was OK to have her piano lesson in the same room as I was holding my workshop, the recorder group playing in the next classroom divided from me with a vinyl screen, the tour of schools where they hadn’t factored in a lunch break, fire drills and a real fire...endless fun! However...I will not carry on with children or teachers talking over me and I make this very clear by waiting with a pointed smile (just watch it – these nice smiley teeth are still teeth...) or with teachers a very concerned, ‘Sorry – is there something wrong?’ Let’s face, it there may be! I’ve even gone as far as (isolating the particular child with a look), ‘Do you know, I’m really surprised! I usually find in schools that children are quiet for visitors!’ Still smiley, still nice! If you get left on your own and you’re not happy, follow Helena Pielichaty’s tip and follow the teacher out (nicely!). You shouldn’t be left on your own. If it’s a quick nip out to grab paper, fair enough – it shouldn’t happen but it will – but anything more than that and you should take nice action.

2. Travel by train where possible and practical. Advantages – you will be picked up and therefore won’t suffer the stress of finding the school lurking obscurely behind the giant yew hedge, struggling for a parking space and negotiating the security system. You’ll also have a golden opportunity to demonstrate your niceness to the person who collects you – even the taxi driver who probably has a child at the school or knows someone else who does! Disadvantages – you may have a heavy case to battle with and you may not make a quick getaway – combat the former by not taking too many books to sell. Unless you are Mark ‘I can sell sand to the Arabs’ Robson, you probably won’t sell very many anyway and this will only dishearten you if you’ve taken a hundred. Wherever possible suggest a 9.30 start rather than 9 – you’ll avoid the hectic rush of pupil arrival time and registration.

3. Get all arrangements confirmed in writing. I have a booking form I ask to be filled in. Very early on, I was asked by Ottakars to do a World Book Day visit and thought I had declined. Come the day, I was ill in bed – very unusual as I was home-educating my four kids at the time but had begged them to leave me in peace for a couple of hours. And then came the phone call – Ottakars had a class of schoolchildren waiting for me – where was I? I have never dressed, bundled my kids into the car or driven faster in my life but I don’t want to repeat the experience! Recently, I was reliant on an agency to book me into a B&B – and I hadn’t bothered to get that confirmed in writing. Oops a daisy......

4. Be flexible and creative but don’t agree to do anything beyond your capabilities. I now have workshops for every age group which I advertise on my web-site (you definitely need one!) and I have the confidence to know I can probably create something new to almost any spec – but I have very tentatively built up my work with pupils with special needs. Recently asked if I could cope with a school where every child had English as an additional language, I was honest about the fact that I didn’t know and suggested I visited as writer/drama practitioner rather than just the former! I’m still very careful about accepting jobs where I’m specifically asked for ‘boy appeal’.

5. Wear trousers! Then you don’t need to worry about ending up on stage with your lovely skirt tucked in your knickers – I had a very lucky escape with a teacher sprinting after me to unhook at the last minute or the sweet little year 1s clustered round your feet leaving snot trails. So make that machine washable trousers too, just in case.....
Last word – enjoy!

The photo was done for the particular schools web-site so I trust it’s OK here!

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Five Epiphanies in Children's Literature - Andrew Strong

Something magical happens when, years after finishing a book, a certain moment suddenly flashes into consciousness. These are rarely significant episodes, often trivial, but they have something miraculous about them. Some are delicious, others less so. Here I’m remembering some as I see them now, without going back to the books to check for accuracy.

Alan Garner’s Mountains

I love Alan Garner’s Wales, particularly his description of the mountains, and their daunting emptiness. In the ‘Owl Service’ the hero is up there, wandering the grey stones, lost. Unlike the slate coloured comedy of Frank Cotrell Boyce’s landscape in ‘Framed’, Garner’s summits are spiritual places, where silent epiphanies occur. Garner paints the sombre desolation of the Welsh mountains so accurately they appear more real than those I can see from my window.

Camp Green Lake

It isn’t a camp, it isn’t green and it isn’t a lake. It’s just Holes. Stanley Yelnats (is he the first palindromic hero of a children’s book?) has some digging to do. There are just holes, the heat, the lizards, and the stink of sweaty bodies. Mr Sir comes to fill Stanley’s canteen, but he lets the water pour into the dry ground. Never has a book made me quite so thirsty.

Susan Cooper’s Green Lanes

I spent many summers in Cornwall as a child. I never thought of looking for the Holy Grail, but my dad did get me hunting for Cornish Piskies. He told me they were on the headland, and I would have to go out there with a bucket and spade, the spade for hitting back the wheat, much taller than me then, and the bucket was collecting Piskies. He told me if I listened I could hear them chattering. “Over Sea, Under Stone” is soaked in the mood of Cornwall of my youth, the green lanes and suspicious locals. There is magical moment when one of the protagonists, seeking out a suspicious character, finds himself in the green lanes between those high Cornish hedgerows. I can’t remember what happens, but those lanes, their greenness, and the perfect quality of their Cornishness, is captured forever.

Geraldine McCaughrean’s Aerial View

In 'The Kite Rider' McCaughrean takes you up above the action. We get a bird’s eye view of a battle scene, with the boy on his kite, passing intelligence to the Great Miao. It’s a stunning sequence, a clever device for showing us the plan of things, but it is vertiginous and breathtaking.

William Nicholson’s Examination Room

Aramanth not only sounds like a dodgy liquer, it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth. Nicholson’s dystopia and its rabid testing culture is a savage satire of the idiotic educational policy of successive UK administrations. Aramanth is a hostile place, even if it is home to the dear family of our heroes. It’s a place you have to escape, and that’s what the protagonists do. But the white robes of the examiner, caught in a spangle of sunlight, somehow summon me back to the examination halls of my schooldays, and fill me with dread.

Arrietty’s Garden

Arrietty takes her first step into the garden. It is a sublime epiphany: it stirs up the rage of adolescence, of dreams of the future, of impossible hopes and utter fearlessness. It’s my favourite moment in children’s literature, and one I savour again and again and again. The reader’s knowledge that there are giants out there, and one is about to appear, makes the moment bitter-sweet, especially as Arrietty is about to find out she may be the very last of her race.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Five of the Best Apocalypses - Elen Caldecott

I often get asked what job would I do if I wasn’t a writer. I usually answer, “well, I’ve already done most of them.” And it’s true, I’ve had a whole Job Centre’s worth: I’ve been an archaeologist; a nurse; a theatre usher; a museum security guard – once I was even a cataloguer in a bone library (if you want details, ask in the comments. But be careful what you wish for – there was acid and small mammals involved).

If it seems like a random collection, well, that’s because it is.

And yet, I have come to realise that there is a common theme. In fact, in this case hindsight is a little galling, as I found that the pattern of my employment had way too much to do with my teen reading material and nothing whatsoever to do with ambition.

It was the horror novels, you see.
More particularly, the post-apocalypse novels.

I read books about what happens after the worst has happened – the nuclear winter; the siege; the building it all again from nothing.
All the history I studied (and hence the jobs in archaeology and museums) was about the fall of civilisation. At university, I specialised in the 5th century Roman Empire (you know, the bit with Visigoths and Vandals and Rome aflame every other week). And I only became a nurse because I wanted a useful skill come the end of the world (I wish I was joking). And all the film and theatre jobs were about imagining other, sometimes painful, worlds.

So, what exactly was I reading? (and should it banned from libraries??!)
Here, in no particular order, are my favourite post-apocalypse novels:

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham: Full of moral choices and man-eating plants. I loved it when I was 14 and while it has dated, it is still spine-chilling.

The Stand by Stephen King: NOT a children’s book, I know. But King’s work is a halfway house between YA and adult reading. I read all his work when I was about 14. And this great doorstopper of a book revels in the gruesomeness of a post-plague world.

Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells: Set after a nuclear attack, this book has an image of a radiation mutated butterfly that long haunted me. As did most of the rest of it.

Carbon Diaries 2017 by Saci Lloyd: This is mid-apocalypse, rather than post-, but there’s no sense that things will get better before they get worse, if you see what I mean. The brilliant thing about this book is that the main character is still just a teenager; even when she’s fighting for survival, cute boys are still interesting.

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Again, another adult book that I devoured as a young teen. This time the apocalypse comes in the shape of Vogons building a hyperspace bypass. Well, I never said all apocalypses were miserable.

You will notice that one of these is very recent. I have to admit, my post-apocalypse fascination didn’t stop in my teens. In fact, just this weekend, I taught my 15 year old sister-in-law how to put a car in gear so she’ll be able to drive come the zombie apocalypse. Well, you’ve got to be prepared, haven’t you?

Elen's latest novel was published this week: How Ali Ferguson Saved Houdini is not about the end of the world. You can find out more at

Thursday, 15 July 2010

5 Year Seven and Year Five Top Reads (not!) - Savita Kalhan

Originally, when I first thought of the subject matter for my blog for this July’s FIVE theme I was going to pick two children: a Year Seven and a Year Five, and ask them for their top five reads of the year, and then discuss the books on their list. Then I got to thinking. How much more interesting would it be to see what whole classes of kids were reading and recommending?

A teacher at a local school kindly asked fifty pupils in Year Seven their recommended read of the year. Another teacher did the same for me with classes of Year Five kids. The results are interesting to say the least. I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that there would be fewer books, hoping perhaps for five or so that would make this special July’s blog easier to write, or for five particular titles that would come to the fore as the most popular amongst the year groups.

As you can guess that was not quite the case, and I’m glad about that. The books the Year Sevens and Year Fives recommended were varied and wide-ranging. I ended up with a list of a hundred books, which did not easily fit into this month’s theme, but which I hope you will find to be far more interesting to look at.

With some thought, I could have made the titles fit into five distinct genres. However, I dislike classifying books in such a way for any reason, partly because my book was described as a ‘horror’ and for me horror meant Stephen King or Darran Shan, and that label doesn’t adequately describe my work, and partly because I would be doing it for the sole purpose of making it fit July’s FIVE theme.

Also, I’m not scientifically minded enough to make books fit into an all encompassing genre, or to slot the books into the type of list so loved by the publicity and marketing arms of publishing houses. Each of the books below are unique, as are the stories they tell, the vivid worlds they bring to life and the array of characters that inhabit them, and it’s not for me to play God. Kids know this and as you can see from their selections, they are not afraid to venture into them.

This is a list of all the books that were recommended by the kids and if anyone out there would like to have a go at organising the books into categories, then please feel free. I have very simply put them into the girls’ list and the boys’ list.

From the vast array and variety of stories here, I think one thing is clear – kids are reading, and that’s something to be celebrated. It’s good to see that the list is so wide-ranging - from Jacqueline Wilson to J D Salinger. It’s also wonderful to see how their tastes expand and mature within two years. On the other hand, and somewhat to my surprise, there is a marked absence of children’s classics on the list.

Here are the books recommended by Year Seven and Year Five kids. If the book is picked by more than one kid the number in the brackets indicates how many kids chose it.

Year Seven Girls
The Lovely Bones – Alice Seabold
Cookie – Jacqueline Wilson
Monsoon Summer – Mitali Perkins
My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
Mill on the Floss – George Elliot
Small Steps – Louis Sachar
Checkmate – Malorie Blackman
Goodnight Mr. Tom – Michelle Magorian
The Outsiders - S E Hinton
Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman (2)
Checkmate – Malorie Blackman
Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket (2)
Cherub – Robert Muchamore
Lovely Bones – Alice Seabold
Twilight series – Stephanie Meyer (3)
Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea – Michael Morpurgo
Born to Run – Michael Morpugo
Girl Missing – Sophie McKenzie

Year Seven Boys
Storm Runners – Barbara Mitchelhill
Striker Boy – Jonny Zucker
Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters
The Red Pyramid – Rick Riordan
Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger
Beast – Donna Jo Napoli and Rafal Olbinksi
Brisinger – Christopher Paolini
The Changeling series – Steve Feasey
Bobby Pendragon: The soldiers of Halla – D J McHale
To Kill a Mocking Bird – Harper Lee
Treasure Island – Robert Loius Stevenson
The Airman – Eoin Colfer
Time Riders – Eoin Colfer
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J K Rowling
The Thin Executioner – Darren Shan
Crocodile Tears – Antony Horowitz
The Knife of Never Letting Go – Patrick Ness
Shakespeare’s Stories – Usborne
Eldest – Christopher Paolini
Born to Run – Micheal Morpugo
Half Moon Investigations – Eoin Colfer
Dead Man Running – Ross Coulthart and Duncan McNab
The Enemy – Charlie Higson
Wolf Brother Series – Michel Paver (2)
I Coriander – Sally Gardiner
I’m Not Scared – Niccolo Ammaniti

Year 5 Girls
The 13 Curses – Michelle Harrison
Harry Potter series – J K Rowling(3)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Jeff Kinney(3)
Candyfloss – Jacqueline Wilson(2)
Famous Five on Fininston Farm – Enid Blyton
The 6th at St Clares – Enid Blyton
Dork Diaries - Rachel Renee Russel
Eclipse – Stephanie Meyer
Twilight – Stephanie Meyer
Captain Underpants – Dav Pilkey
The Monster Story Teller – Jacqueline Wilson
The Outlaw Varjak Paw – S F Said
Double Decker – Jacqueline Wilson
The Big Pig Book – Dick King-Smith
My Sister Jodie – Jacqueline Wilson
Cookie Fortune – Jacqueline Wilson
The Cat Mummy – Jacqueline Wilson
Bed and Breakfast Star – Jacqueline Wilson
Midnight- Jacqueline Wilson
The Suitcase Kid – Jacqueline Wilson
Clementine – Sara Pennypacker

Year 5 Boys
The Baker Street Boys – Anthony Read
Diary of a Wimpy Kid – Jeff Kinney(6)
Horrid Henry and the Mega Mean Time Machine – Francesca Simon
Harry Potter series – J K Rowling(3)
The Boy Who Lost His Face – Louis Sachar
Skullduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy(4)
The 39 Clues series – various
Little Dog and Big Dog Visit the Moon – Selina Young
Boy – Roald Dahl
A Hat Full of Sky – Terry Pratchett
Wee Free Men – Terry Pratchett
Wintersmith - Terry Pratchett
How to Train Your Dragon Cressida Cowell
Percy Jackson series – Rick Riordan

I would like to thank Mr. Russo at Belmont School for the Year Seven list, and Mr. Hyde and Mrs. Horseman at Moss Hall School for the Year Five list. I would also like to thank them for all they do in promoting a love of reading amongst children.

Savita Kalhan

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Five Barnstorming Books-to-Movies: Gillian Philip

I know I’m going to get myself in hot water with this one. Books are so personal, and movies are so personal (but in a different way). There are films of children’s books that I should have seen but haven’t – The Secret of Moonacre (The Little White Horse) for instance, or How To Train Your Dragon (which I am desperate to see, but I’m having to wait for the DVD).

I think it’s harder with children’s books than it is with adults’ to find a movie that’s better than the book. Is that an indication of the higher quality of children’s books? I like to think so. At any rate, I can think straightaway of many adult movies that are better than the book – The Godfather, Jaws – but that very rarely applies to children’s books-to-movies.

I can, though, think of lots that are just as good but different. I actually think the different is important. I'm not crazy about films that are true to the book, which is why you won’t find any Harry Potter movies on my list – for me they are too faithful to the books and (with the exception of the third) don’t really have their own identity as films.

I don’t mind one bit when films take reasonable liberties with a book, because they need to be good in their own right, not just exact translations of page to screen. I want to be transported by movies and books in entirely different ways. I’m swept away far more by Inkheart the novel than Inkheart the movie. But (if I’m allowed to count abridged versions as children’s favourites) I’m far more enchanted by Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Tarzan (1999) as movies than as books.

I seem to have gone for five very recent movies (sorry, Bambi, I did want you). And I wanted more than five. I wanted Stuart Little, too, and Shrek, and Stormbreaker, and The Black Stallion, and I desperately wanted The (supremely quotable) Princess Bride, and... oh, that’s cheating. Get on with it.

Each of the five had to pass a simple test: do my children – one girl one boy – ask to watch it over and over again?

Peter Pan (2003)

A Peter who is ‘the personification of cockiness’ and whose American accent only makes him more otherworldly. Lost Boys you don’t want to throttle. Terrifying mermaids and thoroughly sinister pirates. A scheming, naughty, funny Tink. Jason Isaacs as a deliciously wicked and handsome Captain Hook - but ‘not wholly evil’. A soaring soundtrack. Scenes that make my spine tingle no matter how many times I watch them – Mr and Mrs Darling running home in slow motion, only just too late! Bankers and strict aunts and sleeping children chanting that they DO believe in fairies, they DO, they DO! Ah, I love this movie.

Stardust (2007)

I know, I know, it’s allegedly the nadir of Robert De Niro’s career. But I like his turn as an effete, cross-dressing pirate captain. I like the seven fratricidal brothers, too, both alive and dead. Jokes, danger, thrills, romance, unicorns, views of Skye. If I was gay I’d want to marry Claire Danes, and if I was younger I’d want to marry Charlie Cox, especially after his ‘reverse haircut’. What’s more, I’m a soft touch for a cheesy Take That song. I adore this movie so much, I can even forgive a Ricky Gervais cameo.

Coraline (2009)

Another Neil Gaiman adaptation, this time a captivatingly beautiful animation. Coraline is a clever, likeable heroine whose terror and danger seem very real, and whose bravery is therefore all the more impressive. The houseful of eccentrics are beautifully balanced by their vicious alternates, and I am a huge fan of that scrawny, smart cat who moves so comfortably between the worlds. As for Coraline’s button-eyed Other Mother: she’s evil enough to send even a parent diving behind the sofa. And (shhh) she makes me feel better about my own maternal inadequacies and laptop time.

Nanny McPhee (2005)

‘Once upon a time there was a huge family of children; and they were terribly, terribly naughty.’ And then Nurse Matilda went Hollywood and became Nanny McPhee, and disciplined a whole new generation. I came late to this one, and I watched it reluctantly, not expecting to like it. I laughed out loud as much as my children did, and I (surreptitiously) cried at the end. I’m a little afraid to see Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, because I don’t trust sequels. But I might have to try.

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Oh, I had to sneak this one in. Not strictly a children’s book, but like many, many others, I first read the trilogy as a young teenager. The Two Towers and The Return of the King are grander, more threatening, more epic in scale, and you do get Gollum; but there’s something so watchable and entrancing about the first instalment. Aragorn’s rough and enigmatic and sexy, Boromir is still around (I always liked Boromir), the Black Riders are far more dreadful on horseback than on their flying mounts, and Arwen shows a bit of gumption, some blade and a nice way with a horse. And they dropped that ghastly old singing hippy Tom Bombadil. I could watch this one over and over, and I do.

Go on, I know your five will be different. Do tell...

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Five Children's Books I Wish I'd Written - Karen Ball

Spot any familiar books?

To celebrate ABBA's second birthday, each contributor to this blog has volunteered to use the month of July to add to a 'Top Five' list. I chose to write about the five children's books I wish I'd written. Oh dear. This is a bit like choosing a selection of songs for Desert Island Discs. (Being a no mark, I have never been invited onto Desert Island Discs, but am regularly interviewed by Kirsty Young in my fantasies.)

So. The books... What do I wish I had the talent to write?

I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
Oh Dodie, how you captured my heart. I was in my thirties the first time I read this novel, but it spoke volumes to me. Topaz ironing her silk tea gown, the faded chintz curtains, drinking creme-de-menthe when the sisters go to the pub with two young American men, Neil and Simon. (Characters in a children's novel going to a pub! Radical!) 'We have been poor for five years now.' This is the tale of a family coping after the mother dies. I remember being quite thrilled as a child when my poor mother went into hospital for appendicitis. How would the family cope? As eldest daughter, I was determined to step up to the mark, and take Mum's place in the running of the household. I quietly told Dad of my plans one evening as I sat on the side of my bed. He smiled and thanked me and informed me he'd be taking time off work, there was no need to worry. I was gutted! Is this what appeals to me in 'I Capture The Castle'? The adventure of a family cast to sea without the looming shadow of a matriarchal figure? Oh my goodness me, I could spend a fortune on a therapist's couch, unpicking that one.

Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, Louise Rennison
I love humour and I respect humour, but I don't understand humour. Is this why people can be such snobs about it? There aren't any rules to grapple with. We're cast at sea, even the experts. No one can point at a page and say with utter confidence, 'This is what makes it funny and I can tell you how it works.' Humour isn't like anything else on the page. You can learn the craft, memorise the beats, think up punch lines and jokes... But will all of that effort and energy make someone laugh? Not necessarily. Humour is deeply mysterious and that is why I love it so.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
'The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.' If I am a very good girl for the rest of my life, I might one day be able to compose a sentence half as beautiful and sinister as that. If. Might.

Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls
The jury is out on whether or not this is a children's book, but as a child I adored everything ever written by this woman. The books were read over and over again, until the spines turned brittle and the pages fell out. Our entire family was in love with these books. Why? I wanted Laura's life. I wanted the heroic father, the home-made ring doughnuts flipping over in the oil, the egg nog (I had no idea what egg nog was), the dolls made by her parents, the bed in the loft, the poverty. Yes, I wanted the poverty! What is it about hardship on the page? What makes it so romantic, even to a child? Is it because the domestic sphere is so important to a young reader, and a difficult home life is the first imaginable challenge life can throw at us? I don't know. I just wanted to twist handfuls of hay into tight sticks to burn on a fire when we'd run out of logs in the winter.

Who Knows What, Karen Ball
I'm sure I'm not the only writer whose best novel will always be the next one. The final book I nominate is the one I'm waiting to write. I don't know what it will be about at this stage, but it will be soooo brilliant, lots of fun, utterly lacking in pain and heartache and make my agent fall over in shock at its wondrosity. All I need to do now is come up with an idea...

I hope this list has inspired memories and thoughts of your own. Is there a book on your shelf that you wish had your name on the spine?

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Sunday, 11 July 2010

Five Things On My Desk : Penny Dolan

I’m thinking about the things that - apart from the untidy papers and computer and phone and all the other heaps – are almost always on my desk. Why are they there? What do they mean? What do they say to me?

One: The pots of pens. Erm . . . if I can only use one pen at a time, why do I need a pot of comfortably identical pens? The pessimist’s answer is “just in case you haven’t got one.” The optimist’s is “because I may write so much I’ll need to pick up one immediately”. Both are true.

The pot itself is a strawberry print mug without its handle. It is a relic from a job I once loved doing and a set of people who were interesting to be with until, one day, funding changed, and all was dismantled. At least my life is in my own hands now. Mostly. Give or take a few imminent budget cuts. Oh, may have ended up at the same place again but without so many leaving parties. . .

Two: Small notes on clippy sticks. One stick has an urgent reminder with a hastily scribbled thing to remember about the current tome. One has a writing quote I heard recently: “turn a phrase until it catches the light”. Clive James but I bet he pinched it from elsewhere. One is my library card number and code for the marvel of online renewals. And there’s one important note in capitals shouting “BACK EXERCISES!” Writing is hard on the body, which was not designed for too much sitting. This clippy stick reminds me of the fact. Take note of the note, you, and unlock that spine now and then.

Three. Kitchen Timer. Like mythical adventurers, writers seem to enter a mystical time zone where everything takes longer than they imagined. An idea that flashed swiftly into the mind takes to a day to write down. An urgent one-word correction absorbs a morning or more. So when I think “I’ll just do that,” and go to my desk, I try to set the handy timer. Then the pan doesn’t burn dry, the cake is edible, I leave on time for the appointment, or I do go and do whatever I’ve promised. A great de-stressing device - assuming I don’t ignore the pings, of course.

Four: The paper tray. This is not the working stack of over-filled trays over on desk two, but a single empty paper tray, which takes up so much space that every so often I get fed up and remove it. Then into my room comes Cat. She jumps, rather creakily, up on to the desk and looks at me with cool disgust. “Where exactly am I supposed to sleep now?” So I huddle my own things together and replace her sleeping tray. Why? Because it is good to have something that can be both strokably living and contentedly silent in the room beside me while I work. Writing is a lonely occupation.

Five: The Stones. Laid in an old green dish, these three stones have been smoothed by the sea, They are a pleasure to hold and touch, and come from Aughris Head, a one-pub beach in Sligo we sometimes visit. The beach is good for sand and trails of seaweed when the tide is out, for rolling waves once the tide has turned. It also has a soul-singing view across Sligo Bay, to where Queen Maeve’s Tomb rests atop Knocknarea, and on to the shoulder of Ben Bulben and the mountains of Donegal in the distance. A desk should be a good place for travelling from.

So what do you have on your desk then?

Saturday, 10 July 2010

My Five Favourite Teen Romances by Marie-Louise Jensen

I've always loved a good romance - or at least I have since I was about twelve or thirteen years old. The best romances, I've always thought, are the ones where you just long for the couple to be able to get together, to be together, despite all the odds stacked against them, despite misunderstandings and barriers.
The other thing that's important in a really good love story is that it's not just about the relationship- I feel more drawn in and engaged if there's a full and satisfying storyline beside the romance.
I mainly read historical fiction, so the following selection will be biased in that direction, but I'll read a romance in any genre. Firstly three recent stories I've loved:
Ann Turnbull's No Shame No Fear and the sequel Forged in the Fire. These two novels follow the fortunes of Quaker teenager Susanna in a time when her people were harshly persecuted in the 1600s. These two are an engaging and captivating read, with just the right mix of adventure, action, heartbreak and young love. Wonderful! I also found the Quaker world fascinating.
Another beautifully written love story is Sally Gardner's I, Coriander. This was another teen novel that swept me off my feet and kept me reading until the early hours. Here is a handsome prince in a fairy-tale world that runs alongside the real historical setting of Oliver Cromwell's drab and Puritan England. Coriander falls in love with him, but they don't inhabit the same world - until he makes the transition in the most unexpected way, sending a shiver of sheer delight through the reader. This is a exquisitely constructed love story.
Thirdly (to turn contemporary) is Sarah Dessen's The Truth about Forever. An American high school romance, this is far out of my usual field of interest, but I was captivated by this slow-moving, almost sensual love story. I thought it was beauifully structured and the device of the truth game that brings the two characters together was genius. By far my favourite Sarah Dessen novel.
For my last two choices, I shall turn to the stories that beguiled my own teen years. Firstly Pride and Prejudice. I know, I know, everyone quotes this one, but I discovered it at fourteen and simply adored it. Though it should really not have much to say to modern teenagers, who no longer have love and marriage at the centre of their lives and ambitions, Jane Austen nevertheless taps into such timeless truths and creates such lovable and memorable characters, that the books continue to captivate readers.
Having read my way through Jane Austen, and hungry for more, at fourteen fifteen years old, I discovered Georgette Heyer. I feel her books have dated far more than Austen's, although they are written much more recently, but if you can see past the changed meanings of many words, they are still bubbly, witty and delighful love stories. Don't expect any serious issues or deep meaningful engagement here. Think light, frothy but beautifully crafted entertainment. Try These Old Shades, my enduring favourite of Heyer's novels.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Five Forms of Howler - Michelle Lovric

Oh dear. How did this happen?

Here’s my theory.

In Italian, you’d translate the cat’s whiskers as her ‘baffi’.

But, in Italian, the same word ‘baffi’ is also used to signify human whiskers: a moustache.

The internet’s an anthropomorphizing entity. So if you used an internet tool like Babel Fish to translate ‘baffi’ from Italian back to English, then you’d probably get ‘moustache’.

And I bet that the creative ponytails at this Italian cat-food company did just that, trying to come up with a brand that might profit from association with the world’s best-known cat food – without actually using the copyrighted logotype.

I know translation howlers are hardly a novelty. As the Arab proverb goes, a fool’s soul is always dancing on the tip of his tongue. My excuse for trotting them out on ABBA is that I’m going to offer a writing tip based on howler humour.

To give a character a funny foreign flavour, I sometimes go the Babel Fish route to create the kind of near-misses that are inherently amusing. I jiggle a phrase (not just a word) backwards and forwards between English and Italian with Babel Fish until I come up with a mistake that is clearly just that, but which bears a detectable resemblance to what is right.

Try it. It works with any two languages. Another way to create a howler is to delete all the punctuation in a paragraph and see what happens. Faux-naïve juxtaposition can work well, too.

‘Moustache’ is a recent serendipitous find. I nurture a long-term collection of howlers, originally researched for a book that I did for Past Times a zillion years ago. They seem to fall into five main categories, starting with over-ambitious marketing, like Moustache.

1. Marketing Howlers

This packet of ready-made pastry will make enough for four persons or twelve tarts.

WANTED: woman to wash iron and milk two cows.

FOR SALE: A bulldog. Will eat anything. Very fond of children.

Chinese Tailor. Ladies given fits upstairs.

2. Travel Howlers

A guide to Mostar:Mostar has a Mediterranean climate with long warm summers and mild
winters. Due to these ideal climatic conditions Mostar has practically no
dead tourist season.

In the lobby of a Moscow hotel, with a Russian Orthodox monastery across the street:You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian and Soviet composers, artists and writers are buried daily except Thursday.

In a flyer from a Polish hotel:As for the trout served you at the hotel Monopol, you will be singing its praise to your grandchildren as you lie on your deathbed.

3. Menu Howlers

On the menu of a Polish hotel:
Limpid red beet soup with cheesy dumplings in the form of a finger; roasted duck let loose; beef rashers beaten up in the country people’s fashion.

One the menu of a German restaurant:Pig in the family way.

On an Italian menu:
tartufo nero
hypocrite with chocolate

Menu posted outside a Venetian restaurant:
Pig in Green Granny Gravy

4. Officialese and Instructional Howlers

In a Belgrade hotel elevator:To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press a number of wishing floor. Driving then is going alphabetically by national order.

In a Budapest zoo:
Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.

On a Japanese road sign:
Give big space to festive dog that makes sport in the highway. Avoid entanglement of dog with your spoke wheel. Go soothingly on the grease mud as there lurk the skid demon.

A childcare manual:If the baby does not thrive on fresh milk, it should be boiled.

5. Schoolboy Howlers
The emblem of Dionysus was a huge callus.

The gorgons looked like women only more horrible.

The King wore a scarlet coat trimmed with vermin.

Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 300 wives and 700 porcupines.

Salome did the Dance of the Seven Veils in front of Harrods.

Michelle Lovric’s website
Babel Fish site