Saturday, 30 April 2011

Weekend writer – Michelle Lovric

How many writers have weekends? Or an off-switch, for that matter?

I have spent many weekends without writing a word of fiction. But if that happens, then I try to make sure that I am living it. (See my other blogs).

I’m in the lucky position of having deadlines, but in general who ever dares to stop writing?

You can’t just leave your characters alone for the weekend, any more than you can leave your dog in the car on a hot day. It’s just not responsible. It’s not kind. And frankly, it’s not really possible.

You’ll take your characters shopping with you, noticing that a certain green scarf is just the colour of the eyes of your latest character. In the stationers, you suddenly realize it’s time you decide exactly what kind of pencil-case pedantic Renzo would take to school, or the exact pink of the lining of the coffin in which Rosibund sleeps, in The Mourning Emporium.

The most banal day is full of snafflable incidents. Whatever good or bad befalls the writer is easily recycled into her characters’ lives.

This being the case, the writer’s most vital organ is the one of discrimination. With so much possible input, the skill of the author lies in weeding out the unwonderful.

A clever journalist friend of mine once offered advice on my chronic affliction of over-writing (always closely followed by painful, drastic cutting). She said, ‘Think of each piece of writing as a sculpture. The sculptor chooses his piece of stone to suit the figure he will create. He doesn’t buy a ten-metre-tall piece of stone for a one-metre-high sculpture. He wisely chooses a piece 1.2 metres tall. This means less work and less waste. Try to think of each story the same way.’

And so I would, if it wasn’t for the weekends. Those weekends spent stealthily gathering odds and ends of seemingly vital material. Those Saturday afternoons watching black-and-white movies in which the heroine turns her head just so, and you know you need that gesture for your next book. The Sunday morning egg yolk that spills out of its fretwork of white – just like one consumed by your hero at dawn on the day of the exam that will change his life. Or the gondolier who admits that, if tourists ask who lived in a certain palazzo, he always tells them that Casanova lived on the first floor, and Marco Polo on the second floor and Lord Byron on the third floor. This charming and fluent liar also urgently needs a guest-appearance in your book. As does the ‘preen gland’ of the flamingo, just written up by scientists. And …

So Monday morning finds the writer facing a ten-metre monolith of material, when all she wanted was a nice shiny little pebble she could roll neatly into her text.

Does anyone know where the off-switch is, for next Friday night?

Michelle Lovric’s website
See the video trailer for The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium, on YouTube

Friday, 29 April 2011

The Glass Slipper

On a day like today, there’s only one possible subject for a blog about children’s literature, and that’s the fairytale about the handsome prince who sweeps an ordinary girl off her feet and takes her to the palace . On the day of their marriage, he’s in a swashbuckling uniform, she’s in a long white dress, and they ride a carriage through the city’s street, cheered by the crowds.

It was a very well-managed fairytale, of course, with security guards and armed police and protocol and seating plans and a carefully choreographed procession carrying the happy couple and their guests through London, and full of thoroughly modern details too, with the Beckhams and Elton John in the congregation, but the basic elements of the fairytale could have been written centuries ago.

That, I think, must be the pleasure of it for all of us, the rapt audience, sitting at our TV sets, waiting for our first glimpse of the dress or watching the Queen nod off during the sermon. The details are fun, but the basic shape of the storyline is what grips us, the narrative of the handsome prince and the girl plucked from nothing to be turned into a princess.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Children of the Revolution; Leslie Wilson

I adored historical fiction when I was a kid - a fact that's hardly surprising to anyone who knows my work! Only I found quite a lot of what was on offer a bit depressing. Stories about Kings and Queens, or about ordinary people who were devoted to Kings and Queens and recognised their inferiority.

I loved The Children of the New Forest for the way in which it portrayed the life of the children, suddenly having to learn to hunt and cook and keep house in the country. But there was an uneasiness, for me, about the story about the Restoration and the way in which the Puritan Intendant (forgive me if I've got this wrong, but I don't think so) turns out to have been scheming for the return of the monarch all the way along. Because my family were on the side of the Parliament - my Grandad, a Methodist lay preacher and staunch Liberal, once wrote an essay about his admiration for Oliver Cromwell, which my brother still possesses.

Then - aged about eleven, maybe? I read Trumpets in the West, by Geoffrey Trease. It's about the Glorious Revolution, when William of Orange superseded the last Catholic monarch of Britain. It made me happy that Trease didn't endorse the persecution of Catholics; the issue, as he (I think correctly) portrays it, wasn't about resistance to James Stuart's Catholicism, but about the ongoing conflict between King and Parliament. The regime-change that happened then was about Parliament's key role in a nascent democracy, about resisting the Stuarts who would have loved to introduce French-style absolute monarchy. Trease's hero and heroine are a young musician, Jack Norwood, who finds himself standing up for his principles, risking his career and his life in the process, and Jane, a girl who flouts her aristocratic background to become a real, professional singer. It's an issue-novel, but a gripping adventure and I was thrilled by it.

I kept reading Trease; The Crown of Violet, set in Athens, the first democracy; Follow My Black Plume about Garibaldi's nineteenth-century uprising in Italy; Thunder of Valmy, a novel that showed all the idealism and joy that fuelled the beginning of the French Revolution. And Comrades for the Charter, which portrays the Chartist movement, not in terms of 'what a pity they were undisciplined and turned to violence', but as a movement that turned to violence reluctantly, only because the authorities wouldn't grant to the visionary Chartists liberties that we now take for granted. Liberties that they shed their blood for.

Trease had great heroines, too, who took risks, had adventures along with the boys, who had aspirations, not just to be the cleaners-up and admirers of heroes, but to achieve something themselves. The 'feisty' heroine is right there in Trease's novels, up to date and capable. Girls who had better things in mind than being WAGS - or marrying a Prince and entering on a life of expensive and boring public duties.

And yes, I am writing this blog, on this subject, because of the expensive wedding that's happening tomorrow. Because, like Geoffrey Trease, I don't define patriotism as slavish admiration of a particular group of people, of a monarch who rules by the accident of birth, in a patriarchal system of succession that actually contravenes the law of the land - and whose family can engage in all kinds of skulduggery and get away with it because Parliament isn't, for some reason, allowed to criticise them.

But I can also see, as I write, how much Trease has set his mark on my own writing; like him, I like to portray the lives of 'ordinary' people who're caught up in history and have to act, even if, like Jack Norwood, they really only want to get on with their lives. So thank you, Geoffrey Trease, for those stories. And for the example!!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Three Great Books with Disabled Characters - Emma Barnes

I have been thinking recently about how disability is portrayed in children's books. This is partly because of a fascinating project I was involved in at the Foundling Museum, where I was invited to write from the perspective of a disabled child - read more here. I also went on a course about working with hearing or vision-impaired children which was truly "eye-opening" - never more so than when I was attempting various tasks with tunnel vision spectacles. All of which made me think about how disabled characters were portrayed in the books I read as a child. That involved a certain amount of head-scratching - after all as a reader you don't tend to categorise books as "including disability" (unless perhaps you are a drawing up one of those educational lists for schools). Instead you think of "books I loved" or "books that made me laugh"or "magical books" or "adventure stories". So it was intriguing to search around on my mental bookshelf from a new perspective.

Three of them jumped out at me. All books I read over and over again growing up, and all books from very different genres.

Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff

Set in the Bronze Age, this is the story of Drem, a boy whose right arm is useless, and who therefore faces the challenge of how he can become a full member of his tribe, whose manhood initiation requires the slaying of a wolf. It is an exciting, but also very literary, densely descriptive read. The theme of "belonging" goes beyond disability to the issues of tribal identity and birthright.

What I never realised as a child was that Rosemary Sutcliff was herself severely disabled by a form of juvenile arthritis. She knew at first hand some of the struggles involved in being perceived as "different" and inevitably dependent on other people, and she writes insightfully and amusingly about some of her experiences here. Her childhood illnesses may well have contributed to the development of her rich imagination - which resulted in so many classic novels, the most famous of which, Eagle of the Ninth, is now a film.

Jill's Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson

This is the first of the "Jill" books - one of the best-loved series of girls' pony stories, narrated by the witty and independent-minded Jill Crewe. This is exactly the kind of "series fiction" that is usually looked down upon by critics, and always ignored when it comes to prizes. But the Jill books are truly wonderful, often subversive and non-stereotypical, and so it is no surprise that Jill's riding teacher should be a wheelchair user, Martin Lowell.

Jill can't afford riding lessons so it is her good luck that she bumps into Martin, formerly an expert rider who has been injured in a crash. At first she does not even notice he is in a wheelchair. Martin is chafing at the loss of his independence and career, and so delighted to take on a new project - teaching Jill to ride. And when Jill's mother expresses her discomfort at how much they "owe" him, he movingly explains that it is he who owes them - because he has met them since his accident they never hark back, but allow him to be himself.

It is this kind of supporting character that is perhaps most unusual, and most needed in children's fiction - not the central character struggling with their disability, and where the disability therefore feels like the whole story, but someone who happens to be part of the wider cast of characters, within the community.

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

A classic in the Little Women mould, it features one of those loveable, rebellious, trouble-prone heroines - Katy Carr. Rebellious that is, until she disobeys her aunt, falls from a swing, and injures her back so badly she may never walk again. Mentored by the saintly "Cousin Helen" - also bedridden - Katy learns to be sweetly gentle and beloved of the whole family, and is ultimately rewarded by learning to walk again.

I loved this as a child, although I think the escapades of the unreformed Katy were more fun to read than the story of her transformation in the "School of Pain". As an adult it makes me uneasy. Katy's physical problems are tied so closely to her moral state - really they are only an instrument for making her into a "better" person. I can't see why disability should lead one into being more or less angelic than anybody else. What Katy Did far predates the other two books, and the comparison makes me realise how much has changed in the way society views disability.

Nowadays there is a lot more sensitivity in the portrayal and treatment of disabled people - but there is a downside. Because authors are aware of the risk of being crass or stereotypical they can steer away from those issues and those characters altogether. It is this problem that the Foundling Project was trying to tackle.

Finally here is a link to a short film about the portrayal of disability in the visual arts - another stimulus when it came to writing this blog. Thanks to author Jane Stemp for the link.

Emma's web-site

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Noble Art of Laureateship - Lucy Coats

Last week it was announced that there would be a change of name for the role of children's book champion--the new incumbent (to be announced in June) will now be known as the Waterstone's Children's Laureate.  I'm not really sure how I feel about this.  We do live in a world of sponsored literary prizes--the Costa Book Awards spring to mind, as does the Man Booker.  But doesn't putting a commercial logo on a post such as that of a laureate diminish its effectiveness and raise doubts as to its future impartiality? 

The children's laureate should be, above all, an ambassador for children's books.  Each of the six holders of the post so far has highlighted different areas of concern--the latest, Anthony Browne, has concentrated his two years on showing the vital part illustrators and picture books in general play in the education of children.  But is a chain-bookstore branded ambassador going to be welcomed by, forinstance,  independent booksellers?  Kate Agnew, (of the indie Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill) has warned that the laureateship might be marginalised by such a move. "It could be seen as a trade thing rather than as an ambassadorial role," she said to The Bookseller last week. That, I feel, would be very a very unfortunate outcome indeed.

But we do live in a world of financial cuts.  The current government grant for the laureateship has been halved and compromises have had to be made. Waterstone's have been major supporters of the laureateship ever since its inception, and the new branding is 'payback' for their loyalty in a time when every penny spent by a company has to show a result.  They themselves say that they will be 'upweighting' (a word I have never seen used before, but still...) their activities around the role, and will promote heavily.  Indies will get a 'non-Waterstone's logo to use.  In principle it could all work out just fine. 

I do think though, that the new Children's Laureate (sorry, I mean WCL), will have to be very strong-minded--and be prepared to fight their corner and not be pushed around.  More than ever now, we need someone highly visible and vocal to stand up and speak for children's books, for libraries and school libraries, for reading in general--and against the cultural policies of the Government of the day if necessary.  I hope the Children's Laureate Steering Group will bear this in mind when they are making their choice--and I trust that Waterstone's will give our new champion--whoever he or she is--all the support they need and deserve, free of any strings or caveats.

Lucy's Website
Lucy's Blog
Lucy's Twitterings

Thursday, 21 April 2011

A Happy Catastrophe - John Dougherty

A couple of weeks ago, I did something stupid. Really stupid. Really, really, really, really stupid. So stupid that I’d always assumed I was nowhere near stupid enough to do it.

It appears I was wrong.

What I did was: I accidentally and permanently erased about half a novel-in-progress from my computer.

Reader, I cannot begin to describe to you the icy sweat that broke over my brow as I realised the sheer stupidness of the stupidity of the stupid thing I had just done. Well - I could, but you’d have to remove the family-safe filters from your browser to be able to read it. It was truly, truly horrible. Weeks of work down the pan. A good story fatally truncated, potentially forever.

I ran to the house and called my friend Marc, who knows considerably more than I do about Apple computers. He had some words of comfort. It was possible that the document was still on my hard drive somewhere. He gave me some software that might help.

I couldn’t load it.

At this point, I made the decision to write off the loss. It was still possible that I could have retrieved my lost work, but it was starting to look as if it would be quicker just to rewrite the thing. So I decided to do just that.

Now, those brave souls who have stuck with me this far will be saying: clearly this was the catastrophe, but where’s the happy bit?

Well, this was a happy catastrophe because it made me realise that I’d recently fallen into some very bad writing habits. I’d been letting other things get in the way of my writing much too much.

But losing so much of this first draft focused the old grey matter in a rather extraordinary way. It reminded me that, actually... I’m a writer. My job, my occupation, the thing that I do, is to write stories for children. All the other stuff that gets in the way is just, well, stuff that gets in the way.

So I put everything else aside. All those little distractions that’ll “only take a minute” instead took no time at all, because I didn’t do them. I got straight to work, and worked solidly. When that familiar little voice in the back of my head began to suggest that perhaps I was a bit stuck and should take a break, I ignored it and ploughed on. When I got that nagging feeling that there were other things I had to do, I reminded myself that I had to do this, and I kept writing. And in only two days, I’d rewritten the lost portion.

Better still, I was able to keep the momentum going. Another day and zooosh! - I’d completed the story. At the pre-catastrophe rate of progress, it should have taken another couple of weeks at least; but now, with my new awareness of my bad habits and the distractions that might have plagued me, I was once more writing at top speed.

So, that’s the story of my happy catastrophe - a reminder that every cloud really does have a silver lining.

At least, I hope it does, because three days later the publisher I’d been aiming this story at rejected it without actually having read it. Humph. When I find the silver lining in that one, I’ll let you know.

John's website is at

I'll be offline for a few days, so won't be able to join in any discussion in the comments, but I'll look forward to reading them when normal broadband is restored. Oh, and I now have a shiny new external hard drive and am backing everything up regularly...

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Baghdad Book Collection : Miriam Halahmy

"Where they burn books they will also burn people." Heinrich Heine

In 2003 when the Allies invaded Iraq, Qasim Sabti, an artist and lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad, found to his dismay that the University Library had been looted. The library shelves had been ransacked and the books set on fire. "I felt like a fireman desperately in need of finding survivors," writes Sabti. Rummaging through the mess he found some books still intact but one of them collapsed when he picked it up and he was left just holding the cloth cover. Inside the cover were some Arabic verses scribbled in pencil and some notes from the librarian. "I was filled with a new sense of life and hope... Like the fireman realizing that some victims were still breathing, I began to gather together more covers..."

 Sabti took the covers back to his studio and created an amazing series of collages, "bringing back to life books whose texts had been completely destroyed."  Sabti's series of collages, Ashes to Art : The Iraqi Phoenix, can be seen in The Pomegranate Gallery in New York, owned by my brother-in-law, Oded Halahmy. The collages are a testament to the resilience of the Iraqi people and as Sabti writes, "They are also my attempt to gain victory over the destruction surrounding us in Baghdad."

One of the collages hangs on our living room wall in Golders Green, on loan from the gallery, a piece of Old Baghdad where my children's father was born.
As a child growing up in England reading books was the most important thing I did. My weekly visit to the library, through darkened streets, all by myself as a little girl, was almost a holy time. It would have been totally beyond my imagination to think that someone might burn a book.

So I wrote a poem about it.

Untitled, 2008
Qasim Sabti
Mixed Media Collage
8 by 12 inches

Eight years old I walk through softly lit
November streets, our little London suburb,
to the silence of the library and reading,

which came before everything
was the reason to be. Lost all day
with the Little Women, Dickon

at my side in our Secret Garden,
I sailed with Moonfleet to Treasure Island
lost in the fictional dream.

My mother and I sat reading
as coals burned red in the old living room.
Not even the tick of a clock

penetrated our reader silence.
I could not imagine burning,
stealing, destroying - books.


Qasim Sabti, artist, in agony as they looted
the Library, Baghdad, 2003.
books violated in the bewilderment of war,

collected broken spines,
shattered bodies, healed and repaired,
a book cover here, a torn page there,

made them into poems on canvas
painted  blue, red, white.
We have one hanging on our wall,

a piece of Old Baghdad in our London home.
It reaches a long blue finger all the way back
to your father's father's house beside the Tigris.

near the Shorja market and the pomegranates,
all the way to the room where you were born;
this broken book, this word, this blue.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Flaming stories: N M Browne

I love this
and it seems to me that it exposes the essential fearfulness of some of us writers. Don’t get me wrong I am right up there with the biggest cowards. It is my fear that fuels my fiction: fear of the dark and the weird things in it, fear of sharp objects, fire and flood, fear that I will fail to keep my children safe, fear of all the world might throw at them.

I am a primitive creature squatting by my fireside in the darkest of nights telling stories to hold back the shadows. I don’t believe in sympathetic magic: I know that battles won in fiction where courage, faith and honour are rewarded, do not mean that battles will be won in life. I know that keeping my heroes safe (ish) will not protect my loved ones. I know that I am not heroic because my characters are heroic. I know all this and yet somehow I still believe that in some small way the stories do hold back the dark.

Perhaps by acting out my fears on paper I am a little less neurotic in life, perhaps even a little bit braver? For how do we learn about courage except from stories about the courageous?
How do we come to believe that right can prevail except through those tales in which it does?

I absorbed a lot of my moral values from my own childhood reading, from Reepicheep and Biggles as much as from Jo Marsh and Anne of Green Gables. (This probably accounts for some of the more bizarre inconsistencies in my personality.)
In their various ways all the fictional characters that live in my head have shown me ways to be and not to be, given me choices. In my fiction even my most confused and uncertain characters choose, in the end, to hold back the shadows.

It would be nice to think that fearful as I am, readers see not the horrors but the victories in my fiction, that they see the courage of my characters not the cowardice of the writer. Maybe you have to fear the dark to evoke it with any conviction, dread it in order to overcome it with any sense of triumph?

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Nurse! The screens! Catherine Johnson

Do you have any dead books in a drawer? Ones you love but couldn't finish? Ones you finished but no one else loved?
Last month I put a would-be book to bed, on the equivalent of a long term life support system. It's not dead exactly, although I think it would need some huge electric jolt to make it work, and after eighteen months of hard work, involving plenty of thinking and not thinking, I'm calling it a day.
That brings my 'almost' collection of novels that never made it to three and a half. Let me talk you through some of them.
The first story I never finished was my difficult second book. I had written the first couple of chapters, 15k of lovely (I thought) words, it was set in a seaside town I think, but I can't for the
life of me remember the characters names. I had left the small film company I worked for they presented me with a computer, my first Apple. I typed in 15k words, pressed a button and put the whole thing into alphabetical order. It looked like this;

A A A A an an an an an and and and and and at at ( you get the idea).

I couldn't work out how to put it back. It remains, of course, my great lost masterpiece.

The second story featured my first ever male protagonist, I thought it was fab; Josh is gorgeous, just finished his GCSEs, when his Mum dies of MS. His estranged Dad turns to help him sort out the funeral and finds Josh in bed with his Mums' beautiful Slovakian carer (she is 22). Dad is a self centred film director with a new wife, who uproots Josh to London and then everything changes.
It was obviously not as fab as I thought....

The one I've just settled down in intensive care was historical and based on a true story. I think that was my mistake. The true story was so mad, whatever I made up around it couldn't compete. I finished it twice, thousands and thousands of poor, wasted, early nineteenth century, words. That's a lot of empire line frocks, believe.

I suppose I should be more mad or sad. How many people would do all that work for nothing? But the reason I'm not, is I have started on something new. I've got that new story, everything is right in the world, and even though you just made a creme caramel that didn't set, who cares feeling...

This one is the one. Oh yes.
Until it isn't. Or until the next one, whichever is sooner....

Friday, 15 April 2011

Diversification or How to survive as a writer - Linda Strachan

'We're all doomed! DOOMED!' as Private Fraser (played by actor John Laurie) used to say, in Dad's Army.

And if you listen to all the reports of the book trade (and elsewhere) these days, you might believe he is right.  But being of an optimistic nature, I just don't believe it.

Yes, there are no doubt hard times ahead and there will undoubtedly be casualties, there always are, and the best route to becoming one of them is to start thinking negatively.

Let's face it, no one in their right mind becomes a writer to make their fortune.  Or if they do they are soon abused of the notion as harsh reality forces them to look again.  Most of us realise that it is going to be a precarious living at best and if fortune smiles on us, and our books become best sellers - well, all to the good.

So how do we survive in these difficult times.  I think one way is to look around at different ways you can ply your craft, different avenues that will provide an income stream but still allow you to keep true to your inner muse.  There are various ways to do this and I believe that as writers for children we have a few more possibilities than our counterparts, who write solely for adults.

Diversification.  That's the trick.

First of all, as a published writer in one age group, have you thought about trying to write for a different age level, perhaps picture books, teenage or  7-9 yrs.  Or writing non fiction if you usually write fiction.

Have you thought about writing for book packagers - where they create a series, characters and plot lines and ask you to write within these guidelines?   It is not for everyone but worth trying- you may find you actually enjoy it.

Writing for the  primary school educational market is another option, books that are written to strict specifications for use in teaching children to read.  You don't have to be (or have been) a teacher to do this, the publishers will give you very detailed briefs to follow - but the time scales are often quite tight.  If you have training in a particular subject, writing for the secondary school market is more specialised, but also a possibility.

It is possibly the right time to look in other directions, too. Script or playwriting,  for theatre, TV or radio, there are always courses available and it will add another string to your bow.

Magazine articles. Do you have a hobby or company magazine that you might be able to write a fun or interesting article for.

If none of these work for you perhaps you might be interested in passing on your skills as a creative writing tutor - this can vary from local authority night classes, writing groups to tutoring residential courses.

Working in schools. School visits are a wonderful way to keep in touch with your audience as well as passing on your love and enthusiasm for books and reading to the next generation. Look at ways to increase your appeal to schools, have another look at the way you approach getting school visits, and don't undersell yourself. If you are a professional published writer you are due a reasonable fee.

In these harder times spending a bit of time promoting yourself and your books is never wasted, and could make you a more appealing candidate for a new publisher. Especially if you can show that you  can not only write well, but are willing to help give your books a push with social networking or blogging etc.

Networking, going to conferences and talks where you can meet people in the industry, can only help your understanding of what is going on and also help to put a face to the name - if you have to contact people at a later date- but remember to be NICE, so that any contact you make will recall your name with pleasure  and not horror!

These are only some ways of diversifying and with some thought you can probably think up others, or a new angle to one of the above that is particularly suited to you, your own personality and abilities.

The most successful entrepreneurs are not so very different from the rest of us, they have just taken time to think outside the box, and then had the courage to try something new.  So why not give it a go, you have nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain!

Linda Strachan is an award winning author of over 60 books for children of all ages from picture books to teenage novelsHer writing handbook  WRITING FOR CHILDREN  features many of the areas of writing described above.
blog  Bookwords

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Diana Wynne Jones: Best Loved Books - Ellen Renner

This post is a tribute to Diana Wynne Jones, who died last month. I discovered her books nearly fifteen years ago, just at the moment when I had realised I wanted to write for children, and promptly fell in love. She is my favourite of favourites; one of only half a dozen writers whose books I can re-read and enjoy as much each time. She could do it all: elegant prose, big themes, clever plotting. But a clever plot is mere problem solving. Magic rests in characters. That is a gift of imagination and ear. To write characters who live off the page, a writer has to become her characters as she writes, and no amount of intellect will make up for a deficit of empathy. Diana Wynne Jones understood pain. All her main characters are flawed or damaged, and that's what makes them interesting.

I knew it would be no simple task to pick only three books by Wynne Jones to write about here, and so it proved.

I have to start with Charmed Life, the first book of hers I read and still, probably, the one I love most. Charmed Life illustrates a repeated theme in DWJ: a young person in search of their identity, coming to terms with their unique gifts. The young Cat Chant, orphaned, bewildered and stubbornly gullible, must come to terms with who and what he is. Why is Cat such an attractive character? Wynne Jones revisited him twice more: in the deliciously dark novella, Stealer of Souls, and the long awaited sequel to Charmed Life, The Pinhoe Egg. In neither of these does she quite pull off the magic Cat has over the reader in his first outing. And that, I think, is because in the later stories he knows what and who and what he is. Cat's magic in his first adventure is that he is running from himself as fast as he can, and we wait with bated breath for his destiny to catch him up.

My second choice has to be Howl's Moving Castle. Here it is another orphan, Sophie Hatter, who in classic fairy tale mode sets out to seek her fortune. Like Cat Chant, Sophie seems almost wilfully blind to her magic ability, her identity, until forced to accept her powers. And again, it is this avoidance of the obvious, this refusal of talent, which drives both plot and characterisation. But the real star of the book is the slippery, vain wizard Howl (that ultimate slitherer-outer) who is, like Sophie, hiding from himself. In the turn-upon-twist denouement, a real tour-de-force of plotting, both hero and heroine are forced to accept their gifts and use them honestly.

It was difficult to choose a third title. So many vie for next loved: Dogsbody, Fire and Hemlock, The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Homeward Bounders, Deep Secret (and its sort-of sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy), Hexwood, Black Maria, The Ogre Downstairs and A Tale of Time City. I especially enjoy the fact that, although Wynne Jones revisits certain character types and themes, each book is different.

But in the end, I chose The Magicians of Caprona, partly because of one, perfectly realised scene. An enchantress known as the White Devil turns the two children, Tonino and Angelica, into a living Punch and Judy and they are forced to re-enact the puppet show, with all its violence, before an audience of adults, some knowing and some innocent of the children's true identities. This is sheer horror, a darkness of concept handled with perfection, not candy-coated but made acceptable to young readers because of the accuracy of her characterisation of her young hero Tonino. Throughout the book, his observations, reactions, emotions ring absolutely true for a boy of eight to ten, including a lovely messy cake-eating-in-front-of-adults scene (which I frankly stole and recreated in Castle of Shadows), girls-as-other, unthinking rivalry between clans. The Magicians of Caprona is a tour de force in point of view and voice from beginning to end.

Those are my three favourite books by Diana Wynne Jones. What are yours?

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Mighty Oaks From Little Acorns Grow - Karen Ball

Today marks the end of a week-long blog tour to celebrate the launch of Undiscovered Voices. For those of you who don't know, Undiscovered Voices is a joint innovation between SCBWI and Working Partners to platform unpublished and unagented writers. UK members of SCBWI are invited to submit a manuscript extract and 12 are selected by a panel of judges to be published in an anthology that is then circulated gratis around UK publishers and agents.

I've seen the anthology change lives and careers and I was lucky enough to enjoy a ringside seat from the first quiet inception of Undiscovered Voices. I've also been lucky enough this year to see several members of the Scattered Authors Society generously join in with the support and contribute to the blog tour. Published or unpublished, it's clear that our children's author community is one of the strongest going.

But how did this all start?

Two editor-writers had coffee and came up with an idea. The fact that Sara O'Connor and Sara Grant happen to be driven, energetic, optimistic go-getters helped. We can all have good ideas, but it takes chutzpah to put ideas into action.

Their first conversation was back in 2006. The following summer I was aware of meetings taking place, quiet discussions, a stack of submissions that began to grow on someone's desk. Working Partners had agreed to pay for the costs of the anthology, probably more as a goodwill gesture than anything else. SCBWI enthusiastically bought into the idea. Still, I don't think anyone expected that on the back of the first anthology, significant deals would be made and several careers successfully launched.

David Almond was the inaugural honorary chair person. Anyone who heard his speech back in 2008 will confirm how inspiring it was. Here was a successful author telling us all never to give up hope, sharing the joke that it took him 20 years to become an overnight success. In 2010, Melvyn Burgess brought his charismatic presence to the launch party and in 2012 Malorie Blackman will be the honorary chair.

But Undiscovered Voices isn't really about the Davids or Melvyns or Malories. It isn't about the two Saras who started all this. It definitely isn't about SCBWI, Working Partners, or the Scattered Authors Society, though their support will never be forgotten. It's about the people whose names we don't know yet, the writers who are honing their talent and sanding smooth the rough corners of their craft. We've all been there, working hard at our desks, swimming against the tide.

Undiscovered Voices will help some dreams come true. Not everyone who applies will make it into the final anthology and there will be disappointments. That's the writer's life. But every single person who submits an extract will have been given the opportunity to consider their work worth sharing and they'll have been given the chance to make something happen.

Two women made things happen in stupendous fashion with Undiscovered Voices. For anyone who says 'Oh, I'll never be published' or 'My manuscript landed on the wrong desk at the wrong time' or 'My type of writing just isn't in fashion' I'd advise them to think about the origins of Undiscovered Voices. It wasn't rocket science; it was good, old-fashioned hard work. People rolling their sleeves up, getting stuck in and not waiting for someone else to do it for them.

That's all it takes sometimes, the ability to get stuck in - and we can all do that.

Undiscovered Voices 2010

The very best of luck to any authors entering this year's Undiscovered Voices. And a huge thank you to the Scattered Authors Society for their support this year.

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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

London Book Fair - Anne Rooney

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week is London International Book Fair. It's not as important for children's books as Bologna a few weeks ago, and it's not as much fun to go to Earl's Court as Bologna, but we writers don't get very many things to go to so it's still a good day out.

I go every year to LBF, on a ticket provided by one of my publisher, and usually go two days of the three. (This year it will be only one for domestic reasons, so everything will be rather crammed in.) What's at LBF for writers? Well, it's no good going to LBF with the intention of selling your book ideas to editors on stands. Some publishers don't even let editors go as they consider them a liability. If you have publishers you already work with, it's nice to meet people face to face, but you'll need to set up a meeting with them in advance. That sounds very business-like, but it usually tends to be coffee or lunch and a natter. In fact, that's what I'll spend all day doing today - coffee, coffee, lunch, coffee, coffee, wine, wine, home. I'll meet writer friends and publisher friends (not my agent this year, as time's short), editors I have worked with and no longer work with but still like. I'll look around the stands quickly to see what other publishers are up to, and bump into people in the aisles who I haven't seen since last year.

Ah, last year. In 2010 the fair was depleted by the volcanic ash cloud that stopped publishers flying in. With a group of writer friends, I commandeered an empty stand and we squatted it with a display of our own books. We called it 'volcano squatting' - the photo above is by Sue Eves, one of our squatters, and you can see her book The Quiet Woman and the Noisy Dog on our stand. Also in the picture are Lucy Coats, Tabitha Susuma and me (from behind). It will be back to normal this year.

I'll either come away enthusiastic about the prospect of the year ahead or despondent about how many books there are already and how they are all the same.... I'll let you know later today!

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Next Big Thing by Keren David

Dystopia is the new paranormal. So says The Bookseller magazine, reporting on the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.  Publishers’ stands were still full of vampires, angels and ghosts, but agents and publishers were haggling over rights for Young Adult books about imagined worlds and deadly disasters. 
Publishers' Weekly quoted Random House UK’s Becky Stradwick: “I literally had six dystopian novels land on my desk a week before the fair. People are feeling the need to create a feeding frenzy, a ‘book of the fair.’
The trend started with the deserved success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, in which the government of Pan-em, an imagined America, makes teens fight to the death on television.  Big advances, film rights and a lot of hype followed for several other writers of high concept dystopian tales. Their books will be heading up publishers lists, getting the biggest share of marketing spend and prominent placement on bookshop shelves next year.
Woo! Exciting! Shelve that sexy vampire story and start dreaming up a world with no energy sources. A planet without water? A regime in which half the population is imprisoned by a tiny elite? Dystopia gives writers a great opportunity to take a premise wherever they want to, to tackle contemporary and universal issues in a futuristic setting.
But wait. Dystopia is already on the wane. According to The Bookseller article spring 2012 is already saturated with apocalyptic tales. Francesca Dow, managing director of Penguin Children's, said there had been a wave of dystopian trilogies from the US, ‘and we are being very selective.’
The glut of dystopia books coming next year won't start the next fashion. That’ll be reserved for some other book that slipped through the net and got published even though its chances were severely limited by not being on-trend. Publishers' Weekly runs through a few ideas for the next Next Big Thing. Books for younger readers! Time travel (the anti-dystopia, apparently) And I'm glad to say that there's even hope for the realistic novel. PW spoke to another Random House editor, Beverly Horowitz who said “Everyone’s asking if I think the realistic novel is coming back. ‘It’s never gone away,’ I tell them. These books are still selling, they’re just not getting the same attention.”
 My imagined world -  my utopia -  is one where the world of publishing isn’t so quick to follow  one best-seller with more of the same. Where story, characters, plot and writing matters more than genre. Where publishers say things such as ‘Readers need a wide range of books about all sorts of subjects.’ And ‘We value originality more than anything else.’ And ‘We judge every book on its own merits, not on its similarity to books by other authors.’  There are editors, sales and marketing people, booksellers who believe this and act accordingly. And those people start trends rather than follow them.
The London Book Fair starts today. Good luck to all those YA dystopian writers. And even better luck, this year, to everyone else. 

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Rambling in the Ramblas: Sue Purkiss

I was going to do reviews for today's post, but all of a sudden everyone's doing reviews. This is no surprise: someone else always seems to get there first. In the immortal words of ABBA (the supergroup, not the blog). 'If I tell a joke, you've probably heard it before.' So in the interests of variety, I won't do reviews this time. But in the interests of recycling, I'm going to use one of the books I had planned to write about as a rather convoluted springboard. Could you have a convoluted springboard? It would probably be lethal, or at the very least extremely painful. But I'm going to do it anyway. Yes, that's how incredibly daring I am. Here goes. The book in question is The Book of Human Skin, by Michelle Lovric. I got this after I'd read and by wowed by her two books for children, The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium. I have to be honest - the first time I tried it, I didn't get into it. It was in lots of different voices and I couldn't see where it was going. But don't do as I did, do as I say. Read it. It's brilliant, a dazzlingly colourful tapestry of mystery, humour, romance, strong characters, exotic settings - everything. (But you probably do need a fairly strong stomach. If the thought of a doctor scraping smallpox scabs off dead patients and storing them in a jam jar concerns you, then this book is possibly not for you.) Anyway, let's not get carried away - this isn't a review, it's a springboard. So - after I'd read it, i tried to think of anything else I'd read that was similarly gothic and gripping, and I thought of Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I read Shadow of the Wind soon after it came out and was entranced by it. If you haven't read it, it's a darkly funny tale of love and mysterious villainy - and books - set in mid 20th century Barcelona. Zafon's next book, The Angel's Game, turned out to be a prequel, and after I'd read it, I promised myself that some time, I'd re-read the two books in the correct order - which I've just done. Of central importance in both books is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If by any chance this place does not truly exist, then it should. It is a vast, labyrinthine space filled with 'passageways and crammed bookshelves... that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry.' It's a secret place, accessible only by personal introduction to people who love books. As the narrator Daniel's father tells him: 'When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands.' So - here is my question to you. What is the book you would place for safety in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? It doesn't actually have to be forgotten - Great Expecteations is there , and so is Tess of the D'Urbervilles. (But so also is The Castilian Hog, That Unknown Beast: In Search of the Roots of Iberian Pork, by Anselmo Torquemada.) My own selection would be The Amazing Mr Whisper, by Brenda Macrow. I borrowed this from the library when I was nine or ten - time, after time, after time. It was the first book I'd come across where a being from legend entered and interacted with the normal world, and I was fascinated by it. I managed to get hold of a copy recently, and I have to say, it didn't stand up well to the test of time. But even so, I want it kept safe. Then perhaps one day, it will come into the hands of a child who will read it just at the time s/he needs it, and who will love it as much as I did.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Magic Moments by Lynda Waterhouse

The story I am working on is called ‘Magic Moments and the Dull Bits in Between.’ I have no publishing contract as yet but this story has been lurking in my imagination for some time itching to make a break for it. In these difficult and uncertain times I have got nothing to lose. Instead of giving in to despair about the state of the publishing world I am recklessly writing from my heart and giving my publisher-pleasing- grateful-to- be- published- persona a rest in order to allow my rebel voice free rein. And what a feisty dame she is turning out to be. Yesterday she rewarded me with a Magic Moment. I was writing a scene where one of my characters is opening up an old suitcase from 1976. I thought I knew what was inside it but as the character opened the case something else happened. The case clicked open on cue and my character reacted as I'd planned but then I noticed something else. There was the faint smell of a perfume. My character breathed in and so did I and KAPOW a name was summoned up from the back catalogue of my life and that name was…..Aqua Manda.
Image from Amersham Museum website

I hadn’t consciously being trying to write about anything olfactory. I had been too taken up with the objects inside the case; the Phoom dress, the copy of Jonathon Livingston Seagull and the journal. But there was now the distinctive orange smell of Aqua Manda to deal with. A fragrance I had not thought of in decades but which had returned to my memory at exactly the right moment that it was needed. After the smell came the memory of the bright art nouveau style packaging and the small blue bottle. One Christmas I had received a bottle of Aqua Manda talc and felt that I was truly grown up. My character had glimpsed the past and it smelled of oranges and spices. The hopes and dreams of a sixteen year old girl, the smell of Aqua Manda, the sound of the Real Thing singing ‘You to Me are Everything’ and the long hot summer of 1976. Here’s wishing you all a magic moment in your writing today. Would love to hear all about it...

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Four Children’s Laureates Savita Kalhan

Early on Saturday morning we drove up to Oxford for the Children’s Laureates Event at the Sheldonian, which launched the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival children’s programme. Four children’s laureates were present; the current Laureate, the illustrator Anthony Browne, and three ex-Laureates: Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson, and Michael Rosen. They each shared the initiatives that they brought to the role and took into schools during their two year tenure. They also talked about their childhood love of books and reading, what had inspired them to become writers, and the books that had had an impact on them as they were growing up.

Anthony Browne talked about how kids these days were moving on from picture books to reading books far too quickly. He devised the very cool Shape Game and then discovered that the game had been around for a long time and played across the world. His aim has been to introduce it more widely into schools across the UK. His hope is to encourage more parents to read picture books with their children, appreciate together the art that exists within them and that magical gap between picture and text. He firmly believes it fosters a great bond between parents and children too.

Jacqueline Wilson, undeterred by her stinking cold and cough, talked about her council estate background, which she said her mother would want to describe as a ‘cut above the average council estate’, and allowing her imagination to escape into books. She once found a book that featured ‘real kids in ragged clothes’ and shared her excitement at the discovery that children’s literature didn’t have to be all about middle-class kids! She shared a fond memory of her dad, who had never read to her until then, reading Enid Blyton to her when she was ill. She wrote her first novel, all 22 pages of it, at the age of 9.

Anne Fine was so ahead in school at 7 that instead of being required to join a class two years ahead of her age, she was granted a year’s sabbatical, which she spent reading in a room full of glass-fronted bookcases! Whilst she was Laureate she encouraged children’s reading and raised the profile of libraries. (Why are libraries always under threat when it’s clear what an important role they play in everyone’s life?)

Michael Rosen was amazing – funny, witty, honest, and engaging, just like his poems and stories. He shared lots of snippets from his childhood: about how his older brother taught him to read using the unconventional method of making him memorise long lists of words, about how their dad used to read aloud from Great Expectations on every camping trip, about how his teacher used to read a chapter from a book every Friday and then, despite their pleas for him to read the next chapter and knowing the book was not yet in the library, making them wait a whole week before reading it, leaving them to champ at the bit.

The Laureates also talked about what made them readers and makers of books. What unified them was their appreciation of books from a very young age – whether it was through teachers and school, through their parents , or through school libraries or local libraries. They loved books, they loved being read to when they were young, and they loved reading. This is essentially what they spent their term as Laureates promoting in schools.

Their collective enthusiasm was inspiring for all the kids and adults present that morning. But they were speaking to the converted. The next Children’s Laureate will be announced in June, and if the last five Children’s Laureates are anything to go by, he or she promises to bring their own special touch to the role. But we increasingly live in a world where for children the simple pleasures of reading and being read to now compete with a whole host of obstacles ranging from modern technology to library cuts. While some kids are lucky enough to have had their parents reading to them throughout their early childhood, so many more are not so fortunate. In the end school is where children are required to spend the majority of their day, and it is there that the love of reading and of children’s literature can be championed best.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

I REMEMBER NOTHING by Nora Ephron. Doubleday hbk. £12.99

This is a bit of a pricey book. It’s also a very lovely object to handle, so anyone who can find it cheaply on Kindle or some such will be saving money but denying themselves the great pleasure of holding something that’s beautiful and satisfying. It’s a small, square-ish volume that fits most neatly into the hand. The typeface is lovely, the paper is thick. What, as a Nora Ephron character might say, is not to like?

Ephron is famous for having written the screenplays for When Harry met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. She also wrote a terrific novel called Heartburn * (better than the movie of the same name) about her divorce and what led to it. This novel has recipes in it and she’s a good cook. Anyone who’s familiar with any of the works I’ve mentioned will know what to expect: sharp, funny, clever and occasionally very moving short essays written by someone who knows how to grab your attention from the very first word. Ephron started her writing life as a journalist and it shows. This is prose with not an ounce of flab on it. Her general theme is ageing and the pleasures and indignities which accompany it. Every piece she writes is perfectly structured and whether it ends in a laugh or a tear or a mixture of both, the reading is nothing but unalloyed fun. She has very good instincts for the most part and you do (or I did!) find yourself shouting: YES! all through the book. But there are certain things she says with which I fervently disagree. For instance: never buy a red coat. I’ve bought lots from time to time since I was 18 and I’ve never regretted a single one of them.

She talks, amongst other things, about how she forgets everything, about the internet, about her family, about New York, about Lillian Hellman, about a meatloaf named for her in a restaurant and about white egg omelettes. She’s got interesting things to say about almost everything. This book would make the perfect present (and here I’m addressing the younger readers of this blog) for any mother who’s over 60. Together with its hilariously-named companion volume, I Feel Bad About My Neck and other thoughts on being a woman, it makes an exhilarating read for anyone who’s left their first youth behind them. Do try these books.

*Nora has three sisters. One of them, Delia Ephron, wrote a good novel about their father called Hanging Up. That, too, is worth reading.

MOON PIE by Simon Mason. David Fickling Books. hbk. £10.99

I read this book in proof and if that’s anything to go by, Simon Mason’s new novel will be much the same size and shape as Ephron’s essays, discussed above. I also think that if Nora E could read Simon M’s book, she’d love it. She may not share my taste in coats but I reckon we might like a lot of the same novels and this one in particular would strike a chord with her because her own mother became an alcoholic. Mason’s book is about the way two young children deal with the problem of a father who’s become alcoholic after the death of his wife.

The cover image, which I’ve only seen on the internet and not in real life, is attractive enough but I’m not sure it gives a very good idea of what sort of book this is. For one thing, Martha, the eleven-year-old heroine, is such an outstandingly-drawn character that you have a strong image of her in your head and an artist’s representation isn’t going to satisfy you. Also, the cartoon-ish style of the artwork somewhat belies the seriousness of the novel. Which is not to say that it’s gloomy or depressing. Trying to work out why a subject which should be so grim to read about is actually uplifting , I came to the conclusion that it succeeds in avoiding misery by emphasising throughout how very devoted the protagonists are to one another. The whole story is about different kinds of love, and that makes everything bearable and better in the end, even if it leads to heartache along the way. The Dad who’s drunk is not a baddie. Sister and brother are very close and brought even closer because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Even a pair of grandparents who could be seen as less than lovely are doing their best and love the children, albeit in ways that Martha and her little brother Tug don’t quite know how to deal with.

The characters make this book live. They positively spring off the page. Tug is one of the most loveable and believable five year olds I’ve encountered in a book. Martha’s friend Marcus is wonderful, both as a character and as a support to Martha. It’s through him that her theatrical ambitions develop and the ending...well, I shan’t say a word about that. Critics will use the word ‘heartwarming’ about this book and they’ll be right. I’ve seen one review which suggested that the way Martha behaves and thinks is too mature for her years but I don’t agree. The whole narrative rings true and the reason that it does is due in part to the story being beautifully told in the third person and the past tense (somewhat of a relief to me, I have to confess!) Because it is, the writer isn’t limited to a young girl’s language. In any case, there are eleven-year-olds and eleven-year-olds. Martha is one of the mature ones, taking her place most appropriately alongside Anne of Green Gables, another famous redhead, who’s important in this book as well. The blurb on my proof says: “ A funny tender novel about families, dreams, being yourself …and pies.” All of that is true and I’d only add: it’s heartwarming as well.

FAMILY VALUES by Wendy Cope. Faber hbk £12.99

I’m adding an extra book this time round. Wendy Cope and I were exact contemporaries at university and also at the same college, and I’ve been a fan of her work since the (in restrospect) revolutionary Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis. I say, ‘revolutionary’ because Cope is a believer in rhyme and scansion and words making sense: quite unfashionable in some circles when she first came on the scene and still today not every critic’s cup of tea. Because she often writes humorously, there are those who classify her work as Light Verse, but it’s much more than that and in this volume in particular, many of the poems strike a more serious note, though never a solemn or pompous one. You’ll want to come back to your favourites again and again. Mine (and it was hard to choose) was a poem about the reading of the Shipping Forecast at the BBC but there are gems throughout the book and many wise reflections on life and love and literature. Great stuff.

Monday, 4 April 2011

In Praise of Ruperts - Joan Lennon

I have just returned from a remarkable experience. I spent March as the Jessie Kesson Fellow at Moniack Mhor Writers' Centre. I lived in a cottage on a hill (1000 feet up), with its very own micro-climate - everything from thigh-high snow, to sitting out in the sun watching the daftness of lambs, to the foggiest fogs I have ever seen - and I wrote. When I wasn't writing, I thought about writing. When I went to sleep, I dreamed about writing. I did a day a week in the schools talking about writing and getting the kids to write. I worked with the Highland Literary Salon on their Writers' Retreat Weekend. I was obsessed. I was, in fact, a deleriously happy Rupert.

Let me explain.

Rupert is a crow. He also lives at Moniack Mhor. He sees life differently from other crows. I know this because Rupert throws himself at buildings. Now, many birds will occasionally be confused by the glass in a window and bump into it. Having done so, they will either a) drop down dead or b) give themselves an embarrassed shake and fly away. Not Rupert. Rupert seeks out windows with intent, and when he finds them he throws himself at them like a feathery grenade, bounces off, and does it again.

Bam. Bam. Bam.

If you interrupt Rupert in mid-attack by, say, opening the door and yelling, he'll only go a little way off and then squat on a fence post and swear at you. You just know he's going to be back. He is on a mission - his tiny demented mind is full of conquest ...

Bam. Bam.

At first he specialised in subduing the windows of my cottage. By the time my residency was over, he had transferred his attention to the big house and was attacking that. There are A LOT of windows in the main building, but Rupert is a bird obsessed. I'm convinced he's happy in his work. I like to think we have things in common.

So here's to Ruperts everywhere. Here's to slant vision, quixotic pursuits, perseverance and a hard head.

Here's to obsession.


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ENCHANTMENT - Dianne Hofmeyr

Frank Cottrell Boyce came rushing up the steps to the altar of St James the Last church like a choir boy late for a service… his boyish charm and enthusiasm infectious. He reminded us at the CWIG Conference this past Saturday that the business we writers are in, is the business of enchantment. And that real creativity should feel like a game, not a career.

A huge relief… as prior to this it was ‘gloom and doom’ mood and the need for bells, drums and whistles on school visits. So not only was his ebullience reaffirming but it was also reassuring to be reminded that ‘story’ itself is sufficiently mysterious to make the simple act of reading to children enough to feed their imagination. ‘I’ve got a story to tell…’ is all that’s needed.

One of the debts Frank Cottrell Boyce owes his favourite children's authors is the way they alerted him – at an impressionable age – to various small pleasures. He’s still able to give himself a sense of freedom and carelessness by setting out on a walk with a couple of hard-boiled eggs in his pocket, thanks to reading Milly Molly Mandy as a child.

Tove Jansson writing about the mystery of others in her Moomin family helped him choose his wife. Little My, small and determined with her energy and fiercely independent nature was the person he saw when his future wife rushed into the Library. (where else does a writer find a potential partner?) He said that Jansson showed him, how in a family it’s the small pleasures and idiosyncrasies that keep us together when we start to grow apart, and we can express love merely by sharing a meal, even if everyone's eating something quite different, or making sure the roof isn't leaking.

He finds it uplifting that Jansson could describe so precisely and positively the relationship between a family and one of its members who chooses to live a different life – how this difference somehow enriches the others, how they yearn to go off but know they can't, how they long for her return but need her to keep adventuring.

He urged us not to share writing skills… ‘there are already enough writers’… but to share reading. That true creativity comes from listening and from winnowing. (lovely word) He feels the world is so driven by immediate response that we’re already scanning the sentences as someone speaks to put our own view in place. And that teachers are bound by objectives and outcome... ‘Look out for the Wow words class!’ type of agendas. But that you can’t teach children to love reading, you have to share reading.

What he found reaffirming about working with film-maker and producer Danny Boyle, was that he had ‘a reading corner’ whenever he worked on a film, and everyone busy on the project was encouraged to browse and to leave books.

Books don’t have to be mainstream. They can be voices from the edge. We live by stories and we need all the voices.

Frank Cottrell Boyce had me wondering about the books we as writers must remember vividly from our own childhood, as being the first books that sparked our imagination. Are there stories that are common to us?

For my own part I remember reading Pookie the Rabbit as a child. Coming from an environment of the sea, I was enchanted by the idea of the deep, dark forest where rabbits had wings. The Pookie stories literally took me into the woods of enchantment.

These words spoken by Badger’s in Barry Lopez’s children’s book Crow and Weasel, take on new meaning after listening to Frank Cottrell Boyce:

I would ask you to remember only this one thing. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Book review: Stones for My Father by Trilby Kent (review by Leila Rasheed)

For a change, I thought I’d post a book review today. Stones For My Father, by Trilby Kent, is a historical children’s novel published in Canada and the U.S. by Tundra Books. Set during the Boer war, it’s the story of an Afrikaans girl, Corlie Roux, whose life is changed forever when her farm is burned by the British army and she has to escape into the bush. From the days hiding out with the laager, to her final imprisonment in a concentration camp, Corlie’s struggle to survive in the beautiful but harsh African landscape is richly and evocatively described. Animals, in particular, are so well-painted that they leap off the page. This is one of those books that leaves you feeling as if you have really been there.
“We continued in silence, stopping only to watch a goshawk slice between the treetops on its afternoon death-cruise. When we reached the river-bank, I tore off a thread from the hem of my dress and showed Gert how to tie it onto a fishhook. We gathered sticks for rods, and used bright protea leaves for bait. Then we slipped our dry-soled feet into the sparkling water and waited, trying to ignore our growling stomachs.”
Corlie’s mother – who hates her, for reasons that are revealed at the end of the book – is one of the adult characters who are so well-described that they seem to have physical weight in the mind.
“’Get out of here,’ she snapped. ‘Take your brother to Oom Flip’s. He owes us a box of tobacco.’ Despite her godly airs, my mother was a prodigious smoker. Pa had never approved of her pipe habit, but Pa wasn’t around anymore to tell her so. My mother’s face had turned quite red, the veins in her temples bulging where her hair had been scraped back into a severe bun. ‘Are you deaf, girl? Do you want me to get the sjambok?’”
There was a discussion recently about hope in children’s books on the Balaclava mailing list, and I thought this was an interesting book in relation to that discussion. Corlie’s life is tough and unredeemed by love. No-one comes out of this well, not the British who burn farms and herd children like Corlie into concentration camps to die, nor the Boers who consider Africa given to them by God and casually beat the African servants by whose knowledge and skills they have been kept alive in the bush. There is a sense of people made hard by their hard lives, and all – from soldiers to children - caught up in the chaotic whirlwind of war.
The most obvious source of hope is in the figure of Corporal Byrne, the Canadian soldier fighting on the British side, who finally gives Corlie a future. But I think there is another one, which pervades the whole book – the physicality of Africa itself; the animals, the vegetation, the land. This is a harsh and dangerous place where Corlie is at risk, but it is always described with love and a sense of joy in its immense beauty. The land itself is the hope.
There is another interesting issue, which may or may not be obvious from the excerpts above: it’s difficult to determine the reading age for this book. This is certainly not The White Giraffe, for example! Corlie herself is twelve, but narrates the book from some future point of adulthood, and very much as a literate and educated adult – for example, on the first page she describes a baby as a ‘putto’. There’s plenty of exciting plot, but I did feel that the final chapters, particularly around the dream sequence, might drag for the child reader. The novel would probably be best suited to a thoughtful teenage reader or an adult. If younger children who like a challenge try it, though, I’m sure they will find much to enjoy, for Corlie’s Africa is a world which will entrance you and convince you. When I put it down I could still hear the lourie birds calling and see the bright wildflowers trembling in the breeze.
Stones For My Father is Trilby Kent’s second novel for children. Her first is Medina Hill, and her first novel for adult readers: Smoke Portrait, has just been published by Alma Books. She lives in London.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Benefits of Collaboration? Meg Harper

I have three professional lives:
1. As an author
2. As a creative practitioner, engaged in a whole range of free-lance projects, from one day author visits, to term long residencies, to drama/literacy workshops in museums and other locations.
3. As the director of a youth theatre.
Today, I write from life 3, with about 20 minutes left before the arts centre foyer starts filling up with 75 young people, aged 5 – 16, about to perform their second and final night of the Mill Youth Theatre Showcase. Last night went very well, with only one glitch when I suddenly got a message from the technician – one of my most senior members had managed to get himself hand-cuffed in the Green Room! My mind instantly flew to that ghastly scene with the cuffs, the axe, the water and a desperate Leonardo ‘Titanic’ but as I was stage managing as well as directing there was nothing I could do. ‘But there are no handcuffs in this show!’ I protested ‘There are now,’ said the teccie, sardonically. It was left to the house manager, the bar staff and the jewellery teacher (rudely plucked with file from her class) to attempt to get the demented boy out of the things and to stop insisting that if they didn’t Meg would kill him! Fortunately, he’d locked himself in by only one wrist so in the end they gave up, strapped it out of the way with elastic bands and told him to put on his sweatshirt to cover it. Let’s hope he really has learned not to play with the props now! We’ll move the footlights too – that way we might avoid the heart-stopping moment when one character kicked over a chair and nearly smashed one! Oof. My hair is greyer today.
So what’s all this go to do with life number 1? Collaboration, that’s what. Long ago, when I took this job on with just 3 members of an ailing youth theatre, I decided that the only way forward was to become a devising company. We would make up our own plays. That way we’d avoid the painful problem of children learning scripts and then ‘delivering’ them, rather than speaking in a normal, (if loud!) manner. We’d also be able to avoid ‘main parts’ and kids hanging around getting bored. My aim would be to keep everyone on task for as much time as was humanly possible and for every child to be involved as much as they possibly could be. In any case – how many plays suitable for children to perform, do you find with casts of between 8 and 16 characters, with all the parts reasonably equally weighted?
That was the thinking – the result has surpassed my wildest dreams. Ten years later, we have 6 mini companies within The Mill Youth Theatre, all producing their own devised performances twice a year. At first I hunted desperately for stories suitable for adaptation – but even that was difficult. Now, however, we start with a stimulus – music, a picture, some impro, a story – and we take it from there. It can be very scary. At about week 3, I am always panicking that this story isn’t going to come together and we won’t have a play. I certainly thought that this term, especially with the story about the ghostly lighthouse that appears and disappears at random and traps people inside it! It sounds perfectly reasonable now but it didn’t at the time!
But my point is that the stories the children devise with my help are far more imaginative and unusual than anything I could come up with on my own. They amaze me. And so I have begun to revise my view of such companies as Working Partners and their method of creation. We know that they are very successful – and I can see why. A group will come up with far more ideas than an individual will – and with far more creative solutions to plot problems. On occasions we vote for the next step in the story – we did for the end of our creepy play about ‘The Blue Hands’, inspired by a photograph 'Hand of Betty', by local artist Steve Gold, and ended with the ‘good’ Blue Hand turning out to be a trickster with her own agenda for overthrowing the Blue Handed regime – and succeeding! Now that was a surprise!
I admit I have been sneery about the work of book packagers – I personally find such examples as the endless Rainbow Fairies depressing! But there is no doubt that such series are a hit and for good reasons. Many minds have many advantages. I’m not sure why so many of us continue to work in such splendid isolation – or maybe we don’t? What’s really going on out there? Do tell.
PS. Last night’s show went very well – but I’m shattered today – so apologies for the tardy post.
PPS. I've just realised that my latest book 'Elizabeth 1st - The Story of the Last Tudor Queen' is published today by A&C Black