Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Cottage Bookshop.... Savita Kalhan

The Cottage Bookshop

To celebrate Independent Booksellers week (30th June to 7th July) I’m going to tell you about a little bookshop I used to go to when I was a teenager. It was a second-hand bookshop, which was perfect for me as I couldn’t afford to buy new books. The library was my second home, but this particular bookshop wasn’t far behind it. My dad used to take me there – I don’t know how he found it, because it was set off the beaten track, and if you drove too fast along the main road, you’d miss it. I spent hours in there – you would too if you’re lucky enough to come across it. It is packed from floor to rafters with books, fiction, non-fiction, old, ancient, contemporary, soft-backed, hard-backed, and so many gems it’ll take your breath away. It always did mine.

After I left home to go to Uni, I never went back. That was exactly thirty years ago. Recently I googled the bookshop, hoping against hope that it had survived the last thirty years, and imagine my sheer delight when I found it. Of course I had to go and visit it for old times' sake. I had no idea whether it was actually the same bookshop, but the location seemed to be right – I remembered it was near Penn, in Buckinghamshire, and very close to High Wycombe where I grew up.

I found it tucked away in the lovely village of Penn, tucked in amongst the cottages, off the beaten track, and it was the same bookshop. Not only was it still there, it was exactly the same. Books overflowing from floor to rafters, little nooks and niches full of books, up the old staircase to another floor of more books. 65,000 books are crammed in at any given time.

I spoke to Liz, who runs the bookshop for the family, and she told me a little bit about its history. It was opened in 1951 by Fred Baddeley, who owned the general store next door. He wanted to run a bookshop where people could come in and find books they could afford to buy. He wanted to stock as many different titles on as many different subjects as possible. When he died, his daughter Wendy took over and kept the shop in the same tradition. When Wendy passed away, her husband took it over. The bookshop still remains in the family, and it is with the same commitment to the customer.

Midsomer Murders was filmed there twice - A Tale of Two Hamlets, and more recently, A Rare Bird. It also featured on kids’ programme, Chucklevision, Bookshop Chuckles. Blue Peter featured the bookshop twice: once with Enid Blyton’s daughter, Gillian Baverstock, and once with Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett lived just up the road from the shop when he was growing up and often went there as a child. Apparently he said that The Cottage Bookshop was the “origin of L-Space”. He launched his Johnny and the Bomb in the shop.

But I think The Cottage Bookshop’s main claim to fame lies in the fact that it has been open for business as a bookshop for sixty-one years. It is still thriving and it is still full of book-lovers, adults and kids alike.

One of the best things I’ve heard all year came from Paula, the very helpful shop assistant, who said, “People keep saying kids don’t read. Well, they should come in here on a Saturday and during school holidays – it’s full of kids!” That was music to my ears!

I hope The Cottage Bookshop thrives for many more generations, so that booklovers of all ages continue to enjoy it. It is a treasure trove, one that I hope everyone gets to stumble across.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Unusual Uses for a Brick - Joan Lennon

Daydream equals Eureka

It's happened again - one of those satisfying moments of Hey! I knew that! But now it's official! which sometimes follow reading articles in New Scientist

Listen to this, from Richard Risher, about the Wandering Mind:

"The experiment took place in three stages.  First, the volunteers spent 2 minutes dreaming up unusual uses for a brick.  Next, some were given a mindless task to complete, such as watching for letters on a screen.  Others were given a much trickier test that required their full attention.  As you might expect, subsequent questionnaires revealed that people drifted off significantly more in the mindless task.  Finally, unexpectedly, all participants were asked to take another crack at the unusual uses task.  This time, those whose minds had been wandering came up with, on average, 40 per cent more answers than on their first go.  Those who'd had to concentrate on their task barely improved at all ...

... when questioned, the mind wanderers did not report that they had been thinking explicitly about the brick during their mindless task ... the message is that as you drift off into memories, thoughts of food or plans for your holiday, your brain is busily mulling over potential solutions for whatever problem you are trying to solve."  (June 16 2012)

Hey!  I knew that!  It's happened to all of us, and what a relief it is, when the answer to a problem drops into our heads, out of the blue, when we've stopped obviously thinking about it ...

Now all I have to do is remind myself, next time I'm banging on uselessly, elbows to the grindstone, determined to resolve that hole in the plot - or even find a new use for bricks - by sheer, raw, rugged, relentless, hard graft.  If I want my Eureka moment, I need to Daydream.

It's official.

Visit Joan's website.
Visit Joan's blog.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Daunt Books Chelsea – Dianne Hofmeyr

I play games whenever I pass my local bookshop… ‘Today I will not stop. I will not buy another book… Well perhaps… just a short browse.’ But a short browse in Daunt Books is impossible. Before you know it an hour has disappeared. Book lust takes over. I lose myself on dark rainy afternoons or on summer mornings with the sunshine streaming in and the smell of paper rising up thickly in the yellow air. The smell, the touch, the hush. 

The first Daunt Books I ever stepped into was the one in Marylebone Road. In that galleried space I lost myself to the travel books and between the new books, found old unexpected copies of books I didn’t even know I was looking for. The lapis lazuli cover of Sacred Luxuries – Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt inspired a teenage novel and The Collected Traveller in Central Italy left me with the taste of vin santo in my mouth. 

My local Daunt in Fulham Road, Chelsea, replaced the Pan Bookshop – a ramshackle dream-palace of a bookshop that I was sad to see disappear. Its disappearance seemed to sum up the demise of the Independent Bookshop – so what joy when Daunt Books rose up from its ashes. And with Independent Booksellers Week about to start (30th June – 7th July) it seems the right time to be talking about favourite bookshops. 

Daunt’s success I think lies in their unique diversity. This is where you’ll find the book that no one else seems to stock… that copy of The Poetics of Space… or that definitive book on Paris… in fact I ended up with three definitive books on Paris thanks to a very helpful assistant… or that American edition of How to make a Book just when you’re doing a book-making course at the V&A.

When I ask Jonathan Ellen, the manager of the Chelsea branch, what makes Daunt Books successful, he answers it’s because they keep no stock, bar the single copy on the shelf that you see and when this is sold another single copy is ordered. No stock room filled with unsold books. If a book you want is not on the shelf, they’ll order it in by the next day. It’s this policy that keeps them making a profit.

In Chelsea they have a glorious children’s book section with plenty of space to sit and browse and read, and be read to, which Jonathan admits sometimes leaves books looking a bit tousled. He says the teenage section is devoted to the latest top sellers so agrees the mid-listers suffer, but in the picture book section, the shelves grown with all and every type of book… old favourites and new unknowns. And talking about unknowns, Jonathan recommended Archie, a picture book by Domenica More Gordon, published by Bloomsbury. It’s making its presence felt with few words and fresh illustrations that tell of a dog who acquires a sewing machine and discovers his forté for canine couture. There’s a creation for everyone including some important corgis.

Daunt Books also run an annual Children’s Short Story competition in three age categories. Winning entries from each age category and extracts from each age category come out annually in a book. This year, Lauren St John was the judge and said of the children’s writing; ‘When imaginations like yours combine with bookshops like Daunt, magic happen’.

I think magic happens everyday in a Daunt bookshop.

See Domenica More Gordon's promo video for Archie:

Daunt Books,
158-164 Fulham Road,
Opening hours:
Monday - Saturday 9.00 - 21.00
Sunday 11.00 - 19.00

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

This Is More Than A Page - Penny Dolan


Last weekend I was having an idle time, away for a joint family birthday. 

I took a moment to look around the room.

 In my bag was very new kindle with its covetable green leather cover.  

Nice, eh?

  Meanwhile, on my lap, was a just-opened present: a 3D real-world copy of “Just My Type” by Simon Garfield, a book about the design history of fonts. I have always loved the subject and heard the book being read on BBCR4 back in December.

 The two things seemed almost opposites, in their way.

One artefact – the kindle -  uses a fits-all-genres font, apart from variations in size. The standard page layout makes no attempt at beauty, beyond the words in the reader’s mind - and sometimes that can be or should be enough. The kindle doesn’t attract or distract me with presentation skills What it offers is portability and choice, no matter how far away I am from the book hills of home.

Meanwhile, the "Just My Type" book explains how fonts and layouts can be purposeful, sympathetic, arresting, calming, historic, modern, dominating, overwhelming and more. 

Fonts even give away too much about personal choice, or so he suggests, according to the blurb. 

The pages inside this partiular book offer b&w photographs and old engraved images and font samples and there are wide satisfying borders and headings and some stylish page numbering. 

This book's design has added pleasure to the content. The layout adds much to the words, makingthe whole the book more than just the text. And it's barely even trying!

Oh, they are such hidden heroes, all these clever book designers! I love and admire them for their many skills but also because as a writer, they can be my best friend. I want my words to look as good as possible on the page because it matters. The layout, size and choice of font, size and shape of pages, even the quality of paper all work together to enhance the words and help the reader.

Such things matter, especially to the young reader as well as to the writer. There is something soul-destroying about a story appearing on thin, poor-quality paper in a font so small and dense that it  repels any but the most keen and competent readers. 

Text needs a sense of space.  Although this classic picture book had Helen Oxenbury's wonderful illustrations and Michaele Rosen's rhythmic retelling, I am convinced that the generous, airy layout of "We're Going on A Bear Hunt" was also a reason for its success with grown-ups and children alike. 

I've got, somewhere, the earlier, traditional "Lion Hunt" version in a cheap and nasty anthology. Only the thought of the fun you could have reciting and acting the words with groups of kids made those pages useable.

Nearly forgot. Back to my weekend.   Close by, on the cupboard was a copy of "The Marlowe Papers", a historic novel by Ros Barber, written in poem form. It was graced by a beautiful hardback cover whose colour, texture and old-fashioned titling suggested both “this is an important work” and “timeless quality.” In more than a hint.

Beside that lay a copy of Philip Reeve’s highly noticeable “Goblins”

The publisher’s choice of bright emerald page-edging, completing the bright green covers, transformed the book into a block of noticeably brilliant green. “Pick me up. I’m an exciting container and I’ll fit right in your hand,” it screamed.

Both items demonstrated the entire “bookishness” of the object. “This is not an e-book,” they were clearly stating. “This is more than an e-book. Hold me. Read me.

Meanwhile, there’s another present: Leonard Cohen’s “book of longing”

Those pages are full of poems and motifs and drawings in various media along with handwritten lettering. It is a paperback for slow and occasional reading, an object that a man could stuff into his pocket and take to a bar.  

(Grrr! I won’t go into the uselessness of women’s clothing here.) 

But I can only skim through Leonard’s poems quickly. Nearby is a much younger person who wants to start reading a new book. I don’t recognise the new cover. 

Then I do. It is “The Magic Faraway Tree”.  Here we go.  
Hello, Enid.

The world of books feels like an ever-expanding galaxy just now, don't you think?

But now, decision time. 
Where's that Comic Sans???

Monday, 25 June 2012

Nawe Writers in Schools Skill Sharing Day: Sue Purkiss

Just over a week ago, I got up at 5am to trek north to Leicester for the day to go to the Nawe Writers in Schools Skill Sharing Day. I was hoping for new ideas about content, maybe some tips about how to get more work in schools, and just to network and chat with other writers - always a pleasure.

I was also quite interested to visit Leicester. I did my PGCE there years ago, and taught there for a couple of years: I wondered whether it had changed. As to that, it was a nasty day: old, wet, windy and grey. No town would have looked at its best. I think I'll leave it at that.

The De Montfort campus, new since my day, seemed curiously deserted, even given that it was out of term time. The wind howled round corners, the rain slashed across the squares and terraces, and I wished to goodness I had worn a coat instead of just a cardigan. But soon I found the conference venue and emerged from the lift to find SASsies Helena Pielichaty and Caroline Pitcher - oh joy! And later Paeony Lewis arrived, having valiantly taken on the Leicester Ring Road. (She lost.)

There was an introductory address, four workshop sessions (each with four options - so difficult to choose!), and a closing address. Sue Horner gave the introduction. Sue is 'a leader in education and the arts... the author of Magic Dust That Lasts, a national report on residencies in schools for Arts Council England.' She talked about how valuable it can be for schools to have writers in - but pointed out that only 10% do. She touched on the new curriculum for primary schools, which apparently contains such gems as a requirement to cover the use of the subjunctive in year six. Hm.

She suggested that it's important to get teachers writing, and that it's possible to do other things in schools apart from one-off sessions: 'mentoring, modelling (I think she meant demonstrating how to get children writing, rather then showing off the latest writerly  gear - the John Dougherty flowery shirt, the Caroline Lawrence toga/cowboy outfit, the fantabulous Harriet Castor Tudor outfit, for instance.) - and helping to evaluate.'

More controversially, she said she thought that one-day visits aren't that useful, but that residencies are. I would have liked to ask her to expand on this, but there was no time for questions. Since she has written a report about residencies, she will clearly know a lot about them and have gathered a good deal of evidence as to their usefulness: but I would be interested to see the evidence that one day visits are not valuable. More of this later.

The first session I went to was on curriculum and education policy, and was given by Robin Webber Jones, the Director of Learning at New College, Stamford. I'd hoped that this would give some clues about how to link what we offer to the curriculum: this was probably unrealistic - I suspect there's no avoiding trawling through the curriculum for oneself, or talking to a friendly teacher. But it was very interesting: he discussed creative writing in relation to various learning theories, and also explained the reality of what government policy is asking schools to do - and therefore the tension between what they might like to do, and what they are actually able to do. This was a great talk: stimulating and lively.

The next session I chose, led by Kate Sharp from Cheltenham and Panya Banjoko (above) from Nottingham, was about creative writing in museums, using objects. Both speakers had lots of useful and entertaining things to say about how to run workshops using objects: Panja had brought in an African mask, and she passed it round, asking each of us to make one observation about it. it was astonishing how much there was to say, and Panya said that a whole class full of children will each come out with something different. It was easy to see different ways to go forward from there; using the object in a story, linking the observations to make a poem.

The third session was run by poet from Wales Francesca Kay (left), who works with 4-7 year olds. This was hugely entertaining, and she gave us marvellous goodies to take away - frames for writing simple poems, and lots of ideas. Then finally, Michelle 'Mother' Hubbard talked about the work she does with hard-to-reach teenagers: she's a performance poet, story-teller and African drummer working in Nottingham, and clearly does heroically good things.

Paul Munden, the Director of Nawe, summed up and sent us home.

So was it worth that five o'clock start? Yes, definitely. It was very interesting to see the variety of writers who go into schools. There were relatively few published children's writers there: lots of poets, development workers, people who have done creative writing degrees and hope to visit schools as part of a portfolio of activities. There were lots of ideas, lots of enthusiasm.

I found it reassuring in a way. I've often had the feeling that somewhere there are writers who are doing exciting projects, performing pedagogical gymnastics and being generally astonishingly marvellous. Well, there are. But they include us - writers of books for children. We can do the workshops - but we also have the huge advantage that children can relate us to our books: we're 'real live authors'. And that does create a buzz, it does create enthusiasm. I don't know how it would be possible to formally evaluate what hundreds of us are doing off our own bat, outside the structure of an organised project: but just because an effect is difficult to evaluate, that doesn't mean to say it doesn't exist. I volunteer in my local primary, and a few weeks ago I noticed that they were 'doing' the Anglo-Saxons, so I offered to talk to a couple of classes, in the light of my book, Warrior King, about Alfred the Great and the wonderfully villainous Guthrum. Since then, I've had numerous parents and grandparents coming up to tell me how their child/grandchild had rushed home and talked about my visit - similarly with a session I did a couple of years ago, which linked their study of Brunel with my book set on the ss Great Britain, Emily's Surprising Voyage. Lots of them went on to read the book, and they assure me they enjoyed it...

So, I don't agree with Sue Horner that one-off visits are not useful - though I realise that the above is purely anecdotal - but if she has any evidence to the contrary, I'd be interested to know about it - and interested to know how to make what I do as good as I can.

Other thoughts? Well - it's probably a good idea to live in a city if you want to get work on organised projects. And the best bet of all is to move to either Scotland or Wales. I already knew about the Scottish scheme which pays half the fee for an author visit (jealous, me? Nah!) - but Francesca Kay told us that the Welsh Academi is incredibly supportive and helpful, too. Failing that, Writing West Midlands and Writing East Midlands seem to be wonderfully proactive. Perhaps I should move back to Derbyshire, the land of my fathers...

But in the meantime - thank you, Nawe, for reaching out and arranging such an interesting and thought provoking day. It was great! 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS: Born that way, Ornella Tarantola at The Italian Bookshop, London

The fourth in a new series of guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors in different ways. These Sunday guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller.

Booksellers are like writers. You can learn to be one, but in reality you’re born that way.

I was absolutely born a bookseller. Even now, I feel the joy of belonging as soon as I put my nose inside a bookshop. And my bookshop is like me. Like me, it is, well, a bit of a mess sometimes. Sometimes it seems that the books skip around the shelves of their own accord, because it’s also too much effort for them to stay in strict alphabetical order. I always find Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo among the cookbooks. If you ever read it (and you should, my friends) you will understand why. I take it and put it back among the ‘C’s where it should be.

I forgot to say that I sell Italian books …

You’d think it would be difficult to sell Italian books here; a losing bet, even. In fact, English people love Italian books! Those who read Italian books come to our shop to find them in translation and in the original language. Above all, the English love to learn our language. And we Italian booksellers are ready to help them with advice and encouragement.

What do you read when you first come up against Italian literature? My clients cover a big range. They don’t have any qualms about variety … moving from the classics to the latest ‘giallo’ (detective story) because now Italian writers know how to create a great thriller – by dint of being jealous of the Anglo-Saxon writers, we have become pretty good thriller-writers ourselves!

Among my most passionate clients I have many children. They are not discouraged by a foreign or a strange word. They open books, full of courage. They chant the nursery rhymes of Gianni Rodari, even when they don’t understand every word. But the beauty of poetry is that you don’t understand it all straightaway, is it not?

I always offer advice, whether to the grown-ups or to the smallest children. But I also like to leave them the total freedom to fall in love with a cover or an alluring beginning, or a fleeting phrase they find when they open the book somewhere in the middle.

Books should be touched, creased, caressed. I fear a time when they will all be contained inside little electronic devices. But by that time I shall be a lovely little old lady seated on a terrace surrounded by books. I shall reread for the umpteenth time about how Marcovaldo found mushrooms in the city.

My bookshop hasjust transferred to a new address. Now we are combined as The European Bookshop and Young Europeans Bookstore and The Italian Bookshop in Warwick Street W1. When I first heard this would happen, I was desperately sad, but now I have come to the conclusion that walls don’t matter much. What matters is the writers who are folded away inside the books and all the people who are curious enough to open them.

And now I am happy again …

Ornella Tarantola, The Italian Bookshop

The European Bookshop and Young Europeans Bookstore and The Italian Bookshops' website

Watch out for Independent Booksellers Week, a campaign celebrating independents on the high street, which this year takes place between 30th June and 7th July.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Drumming It In - Andrew Strong

How did you learn to read?  Can you remember?  My gut feeling is that most of us who contribute to this site will not remember struggling to translate text into sound, or to make sense of letters, words and sentences.

But for children who do, the dyslexics, learning to read will be such an achievement that the successes and failures, the praise, and perhaps the occasional thoughtless rebuke, will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

I’ve worked with dyslexics, and with teachers of dyslexia, for many years.  I’ve sought to understand why dyslexia happens, and how to overcome it.  Dyslexics often seem to be a personality type – they are restless, intelligent, curious but often very demoralised.  Despite schools having access to very sophisticated technology, most classroom teaching is still very largely text based.  Dyslexics have a mountain to climb.

Michael Morpurgo recently presented two excellent programmes about learning to read, “Between the Lines” on BBC Radio 4.  The first was dedicated to looking at the ‘real book’ movement, the second to synthetic phonics. Morpurgo’s gentle, avuncular tone scratched away at the reasoning behind both, and, despite his courtesy towards the phonic tribe I could hear a clear passion for putting a love of books, of stories before anything else.  I’m sure most of us share that with him.  I find it very hard to be passionate about synthetic phonics.  For some children, without doubt, phonics is the only way they will learn.  But to use this as the primary means of teaching children to read is something I can’t help but instinctively reject.

And yet governments in the UK, particularly the Welsh Government, are becoming so prescriptive about how teachers should teach there is a distinct danger something obvious will be overlooked.  In Wales, the education minister has made it quite clear that literacy and numeracy should be a school’s focus, and other areas of the curriculum are subservient to this. I’ve always had the sense that relegating, for example, creative subjects, to a second division of the curriculum was a fundamental mistake, but could never reason why.

However it’s thanks to Morpurgo’s programme that I think I’ve realised what it is.

During the second programme Morpurgo interviewed Usha Goswami, Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at Cambridge University.  What she said made so much sense to me that I wanted to stand up and applaud.  In essence she thinks that dyslexia is not a visual difficulty, but an aural one.  Children who are dyslexic, for example, often cannot hear stresses in words.  They don’t hear rhythm in speech as well as those of us who have never experienced reading as a challenge.  Neurons responsible for replicating rhythm, and for developing rhythm in speech, and therefore for following metre and syllable patterns in words, must be kick started at an early age otherwise they will not trigger at all.

It is very likely, she says, that there is a genetic disposition towards a child’s brain not being receptive to patterns such as these, but there is also a large element of nurture.

I wrote to Professor Goswami, and she very kindly sent me some of her research papers.  She suggests that young children who have difficulty keeping a steady rhythmic beat are more likely to be dyslexic, and that early intervention, with music, dance and rhythm in rhyme, could help the infant brain to prepare itself for reading.

Which suggests that music could have a vital, pragmatic role in children’s learning. Music, which has been shunting into a siding in the school curriculum for years, and which in most recent times, particularly in Wales, has been rusting and covered in weeds, should be given an overhaul, and dragged out into the light. 

To education ministers of the world: pay more attention to music.  

As well as insisting that all teachers have systematic training in phonics, are all literate and numerate, early years teachers particularly must have some significant musical training.  Too much insistence on good academic qualifications for teachers will deprive schools of the very individuals who can bring music into our schools.  We need fewer bureaucrats and box tickers, and more entertainers.  Music is fundamental to learning, and not a luxury.  

Friday, 22 June 2012

The Negro Coachboy; inspiration and indecision - Elen Caldecott

My newest novel was inspired by a painting. It is a painting that I was very familiar with as a child. It hangs in Erddig Hall, near Wrexham, which was our day-out of choice on rainy weekends, because of the amazing dollshouse in the nursery.

I remember being puzzled by the painting. The boy in it is black, definitely black. But I had seen Sunday night adaptations of Austen and Dickens et al and, in the 1980s, all the people in them were white. As far as I could tell, the 18th and 19th centuries were wall-to-wall Anglo-Saxons, unless there was a scene in an opium den.

So, who was this boy in the painting?

It took me a long time to decide to write about him. It was problematic in many ways.

First, there is the difficultly of writing about an ethnicity which is not your own. This is not something that held me back for long. I think it is more important that there is diversity in children's book than wondering where that diversity comes from. Research and imagination can fill the gaps of experience.

However, once I had begun my research, then I realised that there would be a bigger problem.

It has long been an accusation that the ghetto-ising of minority experience does more damage than simply ignoring those experiences. So, for example, there are people who feel that Black History Month is problematic because black history should be taught alongside other histories on a daily basis (though this criticism has been loudest in America). One heartfelt and regular cry is that so much black history is associated with the slave trade - as if no other history exists.

Well, I researched the boy and the conclusion was, if he existed, then he was a slave.


I absolutely did not want to write a book in which black experience is a slave's experience.

Which meant that the book had to take some interesting detours.
I decided that I would not simply tell the boy's story in a simple narrative - I decided to get metatextual (check me!). I have used careful devices to avoid presenting his life as a de facto stand-in for everyone who sailed the middle passage.

I moved the time-frame. Although the boy's story is told, it is done through the eyes of contemporary children (I nicked some ideas from Possession which sounds massively hubristic now I've said so out loud, but there you go).

Most importantly, I have diversified the ethnic stories that are told within the novel. Have you heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk on the subject? If not, I recommend it. Her lesson is worth bearing in mind, whoever you're write about. I followed her lesson and have three black boys in the novel, each with very different experiences. Here's the talk in full, if you have a bit of spare time:

The Negro Coachboy was a problematic inspiration, but I really hope that he finds readers. And, if I manage to sell film rights, maybe he will be in a Sunday night adaptation, after all.

What do you think? Am I worrying about nothing? Or am I trampling through history that I should leave well alone?

The Mystery of Wickworth Manor, a novel for children inspired by the painting 'A Negro Coachboy', is published on 5th July by Bloomsbury.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Y.A. at Hay - Celia Rees

I was recently at the Hay Festival, in conversation with Melvin Burgess and Daniel Hahn, talking about Young Adult fiction and our novels, This is Not Forgiveness and Kill All Enemies.

Daniel Hahn, Melvin Burgess, Celia Rees 
The discussion was interesting (I hope for the audience, too) and wide ranging. At one point, Daniel asked us if there was anything that we thought we could not write about, any taboo subjects, any darkness too impenetrable? I found myself giving the stock Y.A. writer's answer about leaving the reader with hope, etc., etc.. Melvin disagreed. This livened the discussion considerably, and his response gave me cause to pause and food for thought. He outlined a thesis which took me right back to where I began as a YA writer and also made me think about how far we have travelled since then but how little ground we had gained. 

It is an accepted shibboleth ( like the one about 'hope') that ‘at one time’ there ‘wasn’t much written for teenagers’, ‘nothing available for them’.Of course, this is not true. Teenagers have always found things to read, books and authors they felt comfortable with, even if those books were not written specifically with them in mind. Books like George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery. And then there are the sic-fi/dystopian fiction writers: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, John Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and Empire of the Sun, John Christopher’s The Trouble with Grass.

Quite a considerable canon. I read a lot of these books when I was a teenager, back in a time when novels for teens were not supposed to exist. I don’t remember feeling deprived, or thinking I’d have to stop reading because there was ‘nothing for me’. I thoroughly enjoyed the books I discovered on the adult shelves of the library, finding them myself, or being directed to them by friends who liked the same books I did. Reading these books was a rite of passage. I found my mind stretched, my understanding deepened, my assumptions questioned and challenged, my imagination
 fired. They weren’t writing for me particularly, but that didn’t matter, they were connecting with me on all sorts of different levels.

Melvin’s argument was that because these writers recognised no limits, there are no limits. I found myself agreeing with him and thinking that these books and these writers should be our benchmark. Perhaps we have compromised too far. In creating a specific Teen/Y.A. Lit. (although I still think that is important) we’ve wandered away from these writers who had the power to appeal to adults and teenagers alike. We have compromised, we’ve bowdlerised. We’ve listened to outside voices: gatekeepers telling us what is acceptable and unacceptable; Focus Groups and Target Readers; Publishers who tell us what the market wants, what it will tolerate.

Compare some of the books and authors I’ve cited, especially in Gothic, Dystopian and Science Fiction, with what is on offer at the moment in these genre, and you will see exactly what I mean. Where is the depth and breadth of the vision, the resonance and relevance, the imaginative reach, the complexity of the realised worlds, the quality and power of the writing? It is a salutary lesson. Of course, teen readers can go and read these books, and they should, but that is not the point. It is not good enough to mine them, to take from them, we should be producing books that bear comparison.

Creativity is a strange thing. Those books that I read when I was a teenager challenged me to think, fired my imagination, introduced me to ideas, and opened me up to possibilities. Maybe that experience is what led me to want to write for teenagers. True, or not, I’m thinking about going back. At least I’ll be guaranteed a damn good read!

I’m taking a break from blogging for ABBA but I’ve been proud to be part of the blog and to have seen it go from strength to strength. I’ll certainly be visiting regularly in the future to read and to comment.

follow me on twitter @CeliaRees

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

In Praise of...The Most Important People in this Business - by Liz Kessler

Unless you have been living in a cellar and been so engrossed in your work that you haven’t looked up for the last five years, you will know that times are tough in our business. Publishers are making redundancies; contracts are being cancelled; bookshops are closing down; agents are far more wary of taking on new authors. And of course, writers are finding it harder than ever to make a living – or to get published in the first place.

Amongst all this doom and gloom, I decided that this month I wanted to focus on something that makes us smile. The side of our job which, as children’s authors, I consider to be a privilege and a delight. Our readers. So I am handing over my space this month to them. I want to share with you a few emails and pictures which have really made me smile over the last few months. Their words and their creativity have warmed my heart. I hope they will warm yours, too.

The things written here to me apply to all of us who write for children. Anyone who has had a child pick up their book and enjoy it has done something like this for someone out there. We just don’t always get to hear about it. So look at these pictures and read these words, and remember that if you’ve written a children’s book, someone, somewhere feels this way about you, too. And if you’re not published yet but would like to be, then forget the advances and the royalties and the dreams of film deals. These are the things to look forward to. And to the children (and parents) who wrote and drew these - THANK YOU! You are the best thing about our jobs.

(PS I’ve reproduced them exactly as they were sent to me, so please read these for the heart of their message, not for the grammar.)

'Flower Arrangement Inspired by Literature' for village show, from Katherine
Dear Liz Kessler,
      Hey. My name is Lucy. I dont know if you remember, but I wrote to you about 4 years ago, telling you how much I liked your Emily Windsnap books. I will never forget how you took the time to write me back, you have no idea how much that ment to me. Now, I have ovisly stopped reading your books because they are a low reading leval for me, but somethimes I stil do enjoy reading some of my all time favorite books, the Emily Windsnap series. When I was in second grade, I spent hours making a mermaid doll for a book report, and for my sixth grade application to my private middle school, wich has been one of the best things that has ever happend to me, I wrote my essay question on what character from a book would I want as my best friend. I wrote about Emily. I just wanted to tell you today, how much you have shapped my life. It might not have ment anything to you because I know you write back to all your emails, but you writing that letter to me showed me how much a little thing like a letter, can mean so much to someone. I acually still have your letter in one of my keep-sake boxes. I just wanted you to know today, how thankful I am that you and Emily were a big part of my childhood. And everyone knows your childhood shapes you into who you are, so I cant help but believe that you helped shape me into the person I am today. I also just wanted you to know how much you mean to me, and how I give you, your kindhearted soul, your writing, and your letters the greatest respect. I will never forget you, even if you forget me. Know that you mean so much to someone, that you might remember . Thanks always!

                                                                            - Lucy

Emily Windsnap comic strip as part of an Author Study, by Jasmine

Dear Ms. Kessler,

I am the mother of four wonderful daughters, my youngest daughter, Traci, is eight years old. My eleven year old daughter, Paige, recommended that Traci read your first Philippa Fisher book, The Fairy Godsister.

First. let me go back and give you some history. Traci was diagnosed with dyslexia last year. She was in first grade and couldn't make out any letters, sounds etc. Every time she was asked to read or be read to, an argument was eminent. Reading, for Traci, was the enemy. This year, Traci is now in second grade and is working with specialists both in and out of her school. She has begun to read. She is suppose to read to me every night and then I read to her. We have done this religiously, but, without any enthusiasm. Well, that all changed when Philippa Fisher came into her world. We are on the third and sadly, final book, The Fairy's Promise. Your books have CHANGED Traci's mindset about reading. She wakes up and wants me to read to her, as soon as I pick her up from school she BEGS me to read more chapters.

Thanks to you, she now has a complete passion for reading and has found the joy of a great book. We can't thank you enough for your wonderful imagination and gift that you gave us through your writing. 

One of a series of character drawings from my books, by Ariana 

Dear Mrs. Kessler,

I have a story to tell, that involves you. Hang on, you'll get it in a moment. When I was a younger kid, my mom would give my sister and I a list of priorities to get done before we went to bed. This included doing things like homework, taking a shower, and reading for a half an hour. I hated rerading. Absolutly abhored even the concept of it. I'd sit on my bed in my room for a half an hour before bed and just stare at the book, I hated reading so much. At my school, they always had around two book fairs a year, where my mom would tell me to buy two or three books to read before bed. When I was in third grade, I went to one of those book fairs and found your book, "The Tail of Emily Windsnap". I chose the first two books in the series, (the others hadn't come out yet) and bought them. Although I have to say that honestly I bought it more for the shell necklace that came in the package.
Those books sat on my nightstand for about two years, getting stared at when I was supposed to be reading. One day, however, I decided to actually read one of them. I picked up the first book in the series and immidiatly from the first page I was hooked. I thought it was amazing. I got lost in Emily's story and her adventures. Each time another book came out, I'd drag my mom to the store to buy it. I am now in 9th grade, and because of your books I am never found without a book in hand. My friends call me Book Worm, which I now suppose is completely true. I felt that I had to thank you because you opened up a whole new world of reading and writing to me. I now have the goal of becoming an author one day.

Thank you so much!


Part of a bundle of drawings (and a homemade bracelet!) from Dara

Thank you once again to all of you lovely, thoughtful, kind and creative people. People like you are the inspiration for people like me.

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Tuesday, 19 June 2012

That Delicate Thing Called Confidence by Ellen Renner

I knew I shouldn't do it, but I couldn't resist. 

I don't know if I'm unusual in this respect, but I tend to avoid reading fiction when writing a first draft. Partly, I don't want to be influenced by someone else's voice or ideas, swept away into someone else's world when I need to be thinking about mine. Building a story,  breathing life into a concept and creating characters, is a treacherous process, hemmed round with dangers and pitfalls. One mis-step and a shiny idea you've cherished for months or years can turn sullen and lifeless.

Also, I already have a problem with displacement activities. I don't need the seductiveness of story to provide me with yet another excuse to avoid bum on chair/fingers on keyboard/brain switched on. (The last being by far the hardest.) And because proper thinking - really digging deep - is hard work, I find that confidence (or the lack of it) makes all the difference.

So confronting someone else's utter brilliance while struggling through the thicket of angst that is my typical first draft isn't something I find helpful. But Oxford University Press had kindly arranged for me to appear at the 2012 Hay Festival earlier this month to promote CHARMED SUMMER, the first book in a series for 8-12 girls. I spent last year writing four books about friendship and mystery on a summer island. It's been a total delight working with the team at OUP and with Working Partners on the Flip Flop Club concept. I've enjoyed the collaboration, learned a great deal, and am very proud to have been involved. The books are lovingly produced by OUP and, as I'm sole author, I'm promoting them under the psuedonym Ellen Richardson, to keep them distinct from my own books.

So here I was at Hay for the first time in my life, rather in awe and very impressed. The festival was extremely well organised and they certainly look after the 'artists' beautifully. Even the porta-loos are posh! So impressive was the whole event that I found myself surprised the weather had the temerity to rain, although monsoon might be a better description. However, on the last Saturday the rain stopped and the sun almost shone. Better yet, directly following my session, I and my son were able to trundle off to hear Philip Reeve talk about his new book, GOBLINS. Which is, of course, brilliant. As was the session. I knew it would be. I shouldn't have gone but I couldn't resist.

All indulgences must be paid for in this life it seems, and I began paying the price at once. With each delightful, clever and elegantly written extract that Mr Reeve read out, a niggling little voice in the back of my head grew louder: 'You will NEVER be able to write anything half so good. Why try? Give up now.'

I think all writers, perhaps even Mr Reeve himself, have a similar goblin inhabiting the darkest recesses of their minds. One with a nasty, whining voice which takes considerable determination (or sheer stupidity?) to ignore. I tend to avoid circumstances likely to wake mine. I've been waiting ages to read FEVER CRUMB. I'm desperate to read it. I opened the book to the first page a year ago, devoured the words on it, snapped the book shut and put it carefully away. I won't open it again until my own current project has safely made the journey to that lovely, comfortable place known as editing.

My new thing is TRIBUTE, to be published by Hot Key Books in 2013. It's a young adult fantasy. It's ambitious and big and scary and I'm right in the sticky middle of the first draft. Still floundering; still finding my feet. And it's going well. I'm excited - when I let myself be - because I know it's the best thing I've yet written. But will it be good enough? Not if I listen to my own inner goblin. I couldn't write for nearly a week upon returning from Hay, but I'm not sorry I went to hear Philip Reeve. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk and will buy the book. But I won't read it. Not just yet.

So, a question to those writers brave enough to answer. Do you have your own little goblin? Do you read other writers when writing a first draft? Or like me, do you avoid?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Which Side of The Fence Do You Sit? - Lynne Garner

I've been teaching a course called 'Writing for Pleasure and Profit.' This week we discussed the many ways in which the writer can become published. We covered being traditionally published, being published by a packager, getting caught out by a vanity publisher, creating your own books in the form of eBooks and iBooks.

As we talked one of the students said she'd never dream of reading a book on an eReader. She was a book lover and would never change. Another student said they did all their reading on an eReader and didn't miss 'proper' books.

When asked my opinion I must admit I sat on that fence. I love the smell of an old book. I love the feel and sound of the pages as you turn them. When on holiday or out for the day I often pop into an old book shop to 'get my fix.' When you walk in the smell is just wonderful. So give me a good old fashioned paper based book any day.

However I own a Kindle. It was originally purchased to test the eBooks I was in the process of publishing. If you'd like to see my collection of eBooks click on this link.

Anyway I soon discovered I was converted to reading on an eReader. I know my eReader doesn't smell like a book.  It doesn't feel like a book. It doesn't sound like a book. However I can pop it into my bag and take it anywhere. I don't have to worry about the book mark falling out and I can take a library of books with me where ever I go. So if I want to read some fiction I can. If I want to do a little research and read a non-fiction title I can. So give me an eReader and I'm happy.  

So if you ask me which I prefer I'm sorry I simply can't decide. Which got me thinking. If I were to ask you which side of the fence do you sit when it comes to this subject what would your answer be?

A little note:
There is now a product that will make your eReader smell like a book - just click here if you don't believe me.

Lynne Garner

My blog - Fuelled By Hot Chocolate
A group blog I contribute to: The Picture Book Den
Another group blog I contribute to: Do Authors Dream of Electric Books 

Sunday, 17 June 2012

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS: Scent of a (book) Woman, Kate Agnew at the Children’s Bookshop, Muswell Hill

The third in our new series of Sunday guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors. These guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller. These days, such relationships are more intense and more important, as increasing numbers of authors go on the road to promote children’s books – a goal shared by the booksellers who will contribute to this series.

The Children’s Bookshop first opened its doors nearly 38 years ago. To this day I still vividly remember my own first visit. Encouraged by a brilliant infant school teacher, I went with my mum, ostensibly in search of the latest additions to the series I was enjoying, but really, I suspect, just for a good browse. The then owner, Helen Paiba, took the time to talk to us about what I was reading, what I enjoyed, and to think about what else I might like. It was a revelatory experience for us both, and, having received some wonderful, personally tailored advice, we left clutching not just the pirate book I knew I wanted, but also an armful of books to enjoy. My mother Lesley took over the shop in 1994 while I was running Heffers Children's Bookshop. Now I work there myself, along with my sister Emily.

There are days when, if I shut my eyes and don’t stop to think too hard, some things don’t seem to have changed all that much in the intervening decades. As I open up on a Monday morning, the shop still smells of that heady new book aroma (which Karl Lagerfeld is trying to bottle!) and at least some of the books I enjoyed then are still selling today; the outside loo has grown no warmer over the years and the pillar that holds up the ceiling is still as inconvenient as it ever was. On the plus side, even in these days of ebooks and cut-price offers in other high street stores, in the specialist independent bookshop our in-depth knowledge and passion for what we do are what reign supreme. We still spend a great deal of each day enthusing about the books we love and talking to customers about just which books will be right to meet their child’s particular needs.

Meanwhile the role of authors – as readers of this blog need little reminding – has experienced one of the biggest changes in bookselling since the Children’s Bookshop first opened its doors. Our active relationship with authors is almost as obvious to customers coming into the shop today as that distinctive scent. Piles of signed stock jostle cheerfully for space with Carnegie short-listed titles, and passers-by might be forgiven for thinking that we are suffering from something of a split personality at the moment. One of our windows is draped in dark fabric, covered in gore, blood and spiders ahead of a signing with Darren Shan. The other features bright-yellow flowery trims, pastel eggs and little fluffy chicks to mark the launch of Helen Peters’ delightful first novel, The Secret Hen House Theatre.

That kind of variety, and the chance to do different and exciting things in support of the books we love and the authors who’ve supported us, are among the delights of an independent bookshop. Last month alone featured a typically vibrant blend of events involving authors and children from a wide range of backgrounds. With so many good things going on, it seems invidious to single out particular events from the mix, but perhaps readers will get a flavour if I say that they included shop signings with Nick Sharratt and Lauren St John; an extraordinary succession of scintillating talks, readings and drawing sessions with a rich range of authors in schools; an inspirational residency with Kevin Crossley-Holland and some delightful workshops with Polly Dunbar creating Dream Boat hats; as well as a family author event with the local literary and scientific institution. And among all that, we enjoyed being involved in a wonderfully individual local launch, for Sita Bramachuri’s Jasmine Skies; it took place at a deli and involved barefoot Indian dancing on the streets of Muswell Hill!

As a child, although I visited the bookshop almost every week, I don’t remember ever seeing an author there, or one coming into school. It just didn’t happen, and we didn’t know to miss it. But a few years on from that first visit to the bookshop, it seemed an extraordinary treat to meet – at a Puffin book fair in Kensington – their editor Kaye Webb. It felt such a privilege to come face to face with the woman who’d worked on so many of the books I loved, I can only imagine what it would have been like to meet a real-life author!

Except, of course, I am lucky enough not to have to imagine it: as a young bookseller in the early 90s it was an unbelievable treat to come face to face with many of my childhood idols, among them Philippa Pearce and Jill Paton Walsh, whom I met in the gardens at Hemingford Grey, home of The Children Of Green Knowe, which our book club is enjoying this month. That delight is something I often think of as I see the pleasure in young fans’ faces when they meet a favourite author. The teenage girls who baked a cake for Derek Landy; the family who brought a huge bouquet of flowers for Jacqueline Wilson; the eight-year-old who quietly handed Michael Morpurgo the story he’d written; the class who made a big biscuit bear for Mini Grey: these are some of many moments to treasure.

Now barely a week passes in which we are not involved in several different author events, and long hours are spent behind the scenes in matching the right author to the right venue at the right time. All the events we do come on top of the assorted days spent in schools with children and evenings in the bookshop with teachers talking through the variety of new books available, which in turn come on top of the ordinary days spent hand-selling in the shop. If there were only more hours in the day, more days in the week and – most of all I sometimes think – more square yards in the shop, we’d love to do even more. In a world where independent retailers are under constant threat we know it’s our relationship with authors – and their supportive publishers – alongside our in-depth knowledge and love of the books that keep customers coming back for more. We’ve recently been shortlisted for the Bookseller Children’s Independent Bookseller of the Year Award. Let’s hope the award, the specialist independent bookshops, and the smell of new, printed books are still here to be enjoyed in another four decades.

Team photo with Jacqui Wilson: Kate Agnew, Ellen Ellis, Sanchita Basu De Sarkar, Emily Agnew and Jenna Harrington.

The Children’s Bookshop website

Watch out for Independent Booksellers Week, a campaign celebrating independents on the high street, which this year takes place between 30th June and 7th July.