Monday, 31 December 2012


A Happy New Year to you! Here’s to the hopeful days of early January, at least for those of you old enough to be over the angst of adolescent despair and weeping at Auld Lang Syne.

No matter how often I’ve seen one year moving through to the next, I can't help loving the few deliciously lazy days that run from Boxing Day to that itchy evening in January when we get ready to go back to the Real World. 

For now, the tree is still twinkling, there's enough food – though possibly in odd varieties - and any visitors can jolly well ignore the state of the house.

From a writing point of view, these quiet days are a gift, offering a space for clearer thinking, for hopeful decisions, for the construction of sturdy To Do lists and – maybe -  the gathering up and cosseting of projects abandoned during 2012 in case they can be coaxed into good humour once more.

I’ve tidied my desk and put the in-tray in order. I've glanced at the remaining paperwork heaps and book piles and planned how to sort them and stow them. I've pondered about re-arranging my working space, again, again. 

So now, for a very short while, there’s an illusion of positive order- but how that feeling  feeds the sou! And nearby I spy that other solace: the empty diary, ready to be filled but still mostly under my control.

I opt for the forward gaze of Janus, not that retrospective face. Far too many things not done last year, far too many distractions that distracted during 2012. The New Year will be better, I promise myself, and just for a few days I can almost believe that.

So, here are my Notes to Self, my resolutions, for me.

That lightweight Christmas laptop? Now’s the time to test it out in the library or in local cafes, where the nagging everyday stuff has no choice but to hush down and the brain has space enough to work.

Set the timer. Open the folder, or the notebook. Keep on doing the small bits of writing that add up to the bigger thing.

Do nice things. Fill the well. Make time to actually meet that “artist date”, not just mourn about its absence. (And do plan such activities and outings into the diary.)

Oh, and don’t be a hermit. Plan time for meeting people, positive people, those whose company you enjoy. Beware of those other Meetings with a capital M that mean come away with even more Things to Do – especially when they need not be Your Things to Do.

Go out for walks or more. Move. Don’t let Rigor Scribis set in over the WIP. How will you come over as bright and dynamic at any agent meeting/ networking event /publisher’s party/award ceremony if writing toil has petrified the body? Think of those inspiring writers who frequently go walking, or to the gym or to swim.

Don’t neglect the smaller ideas. Don’t let that troublesome Big Idea blind you in its headlights. Looking back – which I won’t, I won’t -  maybe I could have made time for smaller, more easily workable projects instead of being mesmerised? Let the good small ideas in, make them welcome. Build them a home.

On the other hand - and I'm not sure who said it: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. 

Let the writing, not the tweeting and networking, be the main task of the day.  Give the inspiration room to fly.

 Had enough of my resolutions? Just let me mention one last one, please.

Resolve to BE JOYFUL. The writing life can be grim and horrid and soul-sapping and lonesome and tricksy and financially unprofitable BUT there are far, far worse things to be doing than writing. Make the most of it. Yes, be sad and angry when there’s a need to, but don’t waste energy endlessly grouching. 

That’s my Final Note to Self. Try and make 2013 as Happy a Year as it can be. (And keep calling back to read the posts on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure and Awfully Big Reviews, of course.)

Now, how about your 2013 resolutions?

Penny Dolan 

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E (Bloomsbury) Shortlisted for the West Sussex Children's Book Award and the Stockton Children's Book of the Year.

Friday, 21 December 2012

The Darkest Day, by Rosalie Warren

I have always loved the winter solstice. There is that sense of being at the bottom of the curve - the sine curve representing the rate of change of day length. This day (and its summer partner) are the times at which the curve flattens, when the rate of change is at it slowest. When nature stops, or so it feels at this end of the year, and gives us time to contemplate.

This Friday 21st December is a special day, too, on the Mayan calendar. I've just been reading about the Mayans and it seems they knew a fair bit about mathematics and made astronomical observations that were way ahead of their time. Not that we have any need to fear. Scientists assure us that there is no truth in the idea that some unusual planetary alignment or asteroid collision will bring the world to an end today - though I can't say I'm enormously relieved to hear this. Humankind is still more than capable of bringing civilisation to an end - and we have already caused the extinction of many species, with more, no doubt, to follow.

 We are also, in some sad cases, willing to bring an end to innocent young human lives. I heard children singing Away in a Manger at a carol service in Peasholm Park, Scarborough, last weekend, and could not hold back my tears, thinking of those poor murdered children and their families in Connecticut.

It's been, for some, a dark, dark year. Many families, even in the relatively prosperous UK, are feeling the pain of increased energy, food and petrol bills, with large numbers out of work or earning barely enough to get by. In many countries, the situation is far worse. It's difficult to feel the hope in the Christmas message of goodwill to all people. It's difficult to go on believing, sometimes, in anything good at all.

Yet new buds are already forming on the trees. Nature struggles on, in spite of pollution, disease and climate change. People struggle on, because they have to. They do it for the sake of their children, their spouses, their parents and their friends. 

Life has not been easy for many writers this year. I'm one of those who has had disappointing news from a publisher. I know that, on the overall scale of things, this is small beer. But it hurts, and I know many fellow writers who are hurting, too. School visits and other events have been severely cut back, because of lack of funding, and those writers who depend on these things to supplement their income are feeling the pinch. Advances have, by all accounts, almost disappeared for the bulk of writers. E-books are doing well in general and some authors are making a fortune, but many have failed to find the sales they hoped for.

It's difficult for readers, too. Libraries have closed or are threatened with closure. The big publishers seem mainly interested in blockbusters and celebrity memoirs and recipes. The supermarkets rule the sales and, where they go, the booksellers must follow. Lots of small, interesting, independent bookshops can no longer afford to carry on.

Meanwhile, small children like two-year-old Jacob, my partner's grandson, adore books. So does his one-year-old sister, Ava. They know nothing of the troubles in the world of writing, but they know what they like. There are wonderful new children's books, everywhere I look. And there are children's authors, slaving away, inspired, inspiring and inspirational - creating words (and objects) of wonder for the new generation to learn to love.

And while all that is happening, I have hope.

Please, fellow children's authors, don't stop. Jacob, Ava and all the others can't wait to get their chubby, sticky little hands on your latest work. Remember that... as you read the latest disappointing or infuriating email from your agent or publisher.

 Times are hard but our children need you, more than ever. They need voices of sanity, sense and sensibility in this crazy world. Whatever happens in the cold out there, please go on creating your warm, sunlit little places where life truly begins. Don't, whatever you do, even think of stopping. The world, which will almost certainly still be here on the 22nd December and for a while beyond that, needs you, your vision, your pictures and your words.

Happy writing, and may the sun shine on your efforts as, according to the Mayans, the new age begins.

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Thursday, 20 December 2012

A plot for Christmas - Lily Hyde

The e-mails are flying thick and fast. Initially gentle message headers like ‘Prezzie?’ Or ‘Anything you’d like?’ have now evolved into shouty ‘WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR XMAS?’, as we all leave it to the last minute as usual.

What I really want for Christmas is a plot.

I don’t mean the kind you can build a shed and grow cabbages on, although that would be nice too. I mean a plot for my story.

Or rather, not for my story, because if it hasn’t got a plot then it isn’t story yet, is it. It’s a… a situation. A potential. A seed. A torment. A promise.

This… situation (let’s go with that word) I’ve come up with is great. Everyone who knows about it loves it. It’s funny and sad, it’s gothic, it’s inventive, it’s original. I can tell you how marvellous it is without feeling like an arrogant smug git, because however funny and inventive and bla bla bla it may be, without a plot, it’s actually – nothing.

I’ve never had this problem before. All my books so far have started the same way, with a situation, but as it developed in my imagination the plot came too, as intrinsic as bones under the skin, as the trunk growing branches, sprouting leaves. I wouldn’t say that any of my books have tidy plots, because I like loose ends and suggestions of characters and events continuing beyond the book pages. I definitely wouldn’t say plot is one of my strong points as a writer. But I have always had a sense of a framework and a narrative moving things along, giving shape and purpose and sense. Making a story.

Not with this new situation. I can’t make anything happen. It won’t budge, it won’t grow, it won’t turn into a narrative that can be brought to resolution.

How do you kick-start a plot, people? I’ve been visiting vaguely relevant places, going for walks (when I get my best thinking done), collecting snippets of related information, pictures, articles from newspapers. I’ve been being distracted by all the other unrelated things in the newspapers and on my walks; I see the homeless people, the Christmas decorations, the payday loan ads, the sunsets; I read about dead children and how to make trifle and missile strikes. I can’t make sense of any of this. I can’t find a plot or a resolution.       

You see what I’m doing here, of course. I’m turning my situation into a metaphor. I can’t make a story out of life, with all its awfulness and beauty. So why on earth should I be able to force a plot onto a potential book idea, so that it makes sense?

Except that’s what books are for, isn’t it? We need stories to make sense of who we are and what we do and why we do it. We can use them to escape, and we can use them to engage. To justify appalling behaviour, but also to nudge us towards behaving better.  

Oh, here’s another e-mail in. ‘LAST CHANCE, OR YOU WON’T GET ANYTHING!!!’ People are getting desperate.

I’ll send this blog post in reply, I guess. Maybe I’ll get a flat-pack shed and a packet of cabbage seeds for Christmas. Maybe I’ll be able to make a plot out of them.   

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Truth, Lies and MRI Scans.

Anthony Burgess, on being told he had a brain tumour, and only a year to live, was jubilant. Great, he thought, a whole year in which I’m not going to get knocked over by a bus, or die in a car crash.  Worried that his premature death would leave his wife with nothing, he threw himself into writing.  The brain tumour disappeared, Anthony Burgess established himself as a major novelist.

This little story, which Burgess describes in his autobiography, may or may not be true.  I doubt that it is.  But regardless of its veracity, it’s been going round and round in my head for some time.

Like everyone else who writes and reads this blog, I am writing a book.  It’s a book I’ve been working on for five or six years.  It’s the one I’ve always wanted to write. I’m sure you all have one like it. But like plenty of novels writers write, I have struggled to finish it.

However, I had an Anthony Burgess moment.

In April this year I had an MRI scan that suggested the arteries in my head were unusually thickened, and I was at risk from a developing an aneurysm.  I’ve written about this in an earlier blog, so won’t go through all the gruesome details again. I’ll just mention that the specialist took five months to tell me, by which time, I thought, I’m lucky to still be here.

More recently I had a second ‘enhanced’ scan, using state of the art MRI that, if the first had something of the 1970s about it, this one was 2001.  I was sucked into the mouth of Hal.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

This second MRI machine was right next to a bank of monitors displaying my skull, brains and all that mazy Hampton Court stuff. How I longed to see a little homunculus sitting there in the middle, arms pulling the levers, sweat pouring down his little brow.

“Look!” I imagined yelling to the radiographer, “there, in the middle, a tiny man! And he’s gobbling chips!” The radiographer frowns.  “That’s very common,” she says.

Look, not all of this is true. The truth is not that exciting. I had the scan, I went home.  The radiographer didn’t say anything at all.  She smiled and nodded and I wondered, as I got my coat, whether she was looking at me that way because I had six months to live, or because she thinks I’m an idiot.

What if it was both?

But, when I got the report, it was reassuring.  Whatever was on the previous MRI scan, it was not on this one.  “No abnormalities in the brain, no lesions, the orbits, pituitary, corpus callosum, brain stem” and so on, all normal. Things are flowing as they should be.  The homunculus needs a new armchair, but otherwise, nothing.

What, I asked the specialist, has happened?  Why has thickening, or arteritis, or aneurysm, or infection disappeared?  I thought these things were either irreversible, or cured only by colossal amounts of steroids.

No answer.  A shrug. “An over enthusiastic radiographer,” he muttered.

“What?” I yelled, picking him up by the collar and holding him against the wall.  “Are you saying my illness was the product of someone’s imagination?”

“Please,” he said, “it’s not my fault!”

He reached out and pressed an alarm button, two orderlies charged in, and in seconds I was strapped up, restrained, and couldn’t move.

“I just want the truth, doc,” I said, struggling to free myself.

“Put it this way,” he said.  “Perhaps we in the NHS love to create fictions, too.  Why should all the imaginative stuff be left to writers?” 

For whether I was ill, and after a long rest, am cured, or whether there was nothing there in the first place, the fear that I had something eating away at my brains was the spur I needed.  It wasn’t that I was afraid I wouldn’t finish my book before I died, it was that writing kept the worry away.  As long as I wrote, I didn’t dwell.

I have nearly finished my book.  I’m proud of what I’ve written, but know that finding a publisher for it will not be easy.  It is, to say the least, very idiosyncratic.

But does that matter? I’m going to live. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Writing Friends, Old and New - Elen Caldecott

This blog came about because a group of children's writers who were feeling isolated and remote (in the days before t'internets) formed a society. Members of that society later went on to invent An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. Later still (if this were a film, I'd do a montage), other members (including me!) established the Winter Warmer.
This is an annual retreat in which relaxation and creativity are the main focus. It takes place in the Somerset countryside amid hills and sheep and such. You have to be very careful on the drive in not to hit something cute and furry. And even more careful on the night-time drive out, on a desperate booze-run after the group has - literally - drunk the bar dry, (naming-no-names, but you-know-who-you-are!).

I set off to Somerset this year with a little trepidation. I was one of the organisers and heavy rain was threatening to make the event a wash-out. In the end, one dramatic night of gales brought out something of the Blitz spirit. And the muddy trousers after tramps in the hills were more of a badge of honour.

The studios we stayed in
The weekend is made up of optional talks and workshops; lots of good food, and quiet spaces to work. Though, if you'd like to spend the whole time in bed, re-reading all of Harry Potter, then no-one will mind.
Equally, you can attend all the talks. This year, I found them to be hugely entertaining, and even moving.
The focus on creativity means that no business talks are planned. There's nothing on the schedule about working with agents, or honing your pitch, or managing self-publishing. (By the way, I have nothing against such talks, they can be incredibly helpful and other Scattered Authors' conferences do include them). Instead, people shared tricky writing experiences; suggested ways to inject a bit more fun; shared tips on things that had worked for them. They were open, honest and frank in a way that felt like a stiff broom brushing out brain-webs.

I particularly enjoyed Liz Kessler's poi workshop. At the end of which, I was battered, bruised in some odd places, but with the new-found ability to twirl a ball on a string. Proper playtime.

Proper playtime

There appeared to be a bottomless vat of cake, which is terrible for the diet, but certainly made me feel snuggly and wintery.

In between workshops, there was enough free-time for me to work on a proposal I have for a play script. I wrote the lyrics to six songs, I wrote one long monologue and also collaged the main character's living room (is that actually work? It didn't feel like it, but it was ace).

I met up with what feel like old friends, made lots of new ones and came away enthused and refreshed.

I felt like a part of an extended family of very generous writers - thank you, all!
Elen's Facebook Page
Twitter: @elencaldecott 

Monday, 17 December 2012

To Charge Or Not To Charge

I've undertaken a little experiment. On November, I wrote a festive novella in the Afterlife series - My So-Called Christmas Carol - thinking it might lead new readers to the other Afterlife books. It's available as an ebook exclusively on Kindle, for 77p and the rest of the Afterlife ebooks are reduced to £2.56. The gamble is whether giving my work away for free will mean increased sales in the others.

Scott Pack, of The Friday Project, thinks it will. He's undertaken a similar experiment with the ebook of his 21st Century Dodos and you can read his conclusions here. Scott gave his book away free for an entire month, whereas I enrolled in Kindle Select with mine, which ties you in exclusively to Kindle for three months and allows you five free promotional days. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a mistake for me as I would have preferred to make my novella free for more than just five days. The first of my promotional days was at the start of December, when I made the ebook free and tweeted about it. Between the US and the UK, it was downloaded roughly 350 times and led to a small spike in sales of its three sister books. I've since learned that I didn't really do enough; apparently, there are whole websites dedicated to matching the e-reading public to free ebooks and I should register with some of those.

My next free days are over Christmas and New Year, when I plan to be better armed for the experiment. Although I wouldn't make a habit of giving my work away for free, I do think it's interesting to see whether it's a worthwhile way of finding new readers. Watch this space...

Saturday, 15 December 2012

In Praise of Children - Liz Kessler

I spent the last couple of days writing a post for this blog. It was jolly and fun and hopefully entertaining. But after yesterday's news about a horrific and heartbreaking shooting in an American school, I couldn't help feeling that a blog written today should have a different focus.

I write books for children. I write about mermaids and fairies and time travel and pirate dogs. Mostly, though, I write about family and friendship and love and loyalty. These are the things that are important to me. I believe that these are the things that are important to most of us. In one afternoon, in an elementary school in America, at least twenty families have had all of these things taken away from them, by a young man with a gun.

At the time of writing this, there aren't many facts available about the background to any of this, so I can't comment on that. I'm not going to get into the politics of it either – although, if I wanted to, it would be just one simple sentence: America – do something about your gun laws now.

So what do I want to say? I suppose I want to reflect on what kind of a world we live in – what kind of a world we have created. And I want to ask whether it's possible for us to do something about this.

The night before last, I watched a Panorama programme about homelessness in the UK. I thought the same thing then. Innocent children who haven't had a chance yet to make any mark on this world are in situations where they're losing something that so many of us take for granted. Their homes. Yesterday, twenty children had their entire lives taken away from them.  And in recent months, we have all heard the appalling stories that have come to light about Jimmy Savile and others who stole hundreds of children's innocence and blighted their lives forever.

We live in a world where space travel is taken for granted, where lives are saved with incredible medicines or operations, where with the touch of a few buttons we can talk to and even see someone on the other side of the planet. We live in - we have created - a world where unbelievable things are possible.

With all this intelligence, how have we not managed to create a world in which our children are safe?

As a children's author, I am quite often asked if I would ever think about writing books for adults. Right now, I can't help thinking – why would I want to do that? Adults are the ones who harm. Adults are the ones who damage. Adults are the ones who should know better.

Children are the ones who see things as they are. Who see the beauty and simplicity and excitement and innocence and incredible potential of this world.

At this moment, I am proud of my job. It is about celebrating childhood – and right now I can't think of anything more worthy of celebration and protection than childhood.

I'm not a parent, but if I was, tonight I would hug my children that little bit tighter. I'm not religious, but tonight I will take my chances and ask God to look after the twenty innocent children who were ripped from this world when their lives had barely begun. 

And I will ask us as a society to grieve for their families, to be thankful for our own and to do everything we can each do in our own way to create a world that is worthy of all of the gifts, riches and knowledge that we have.

Friday, 14 December 2012

A Christmas Give-away: Lynne Garner

I wanted to celebrate the release of two new picture eBooks: The Perfect Christmas Tree (UK downloadUS download) and Where It's Always Winter (UK downloadUS download) earlier this month. So on the 2nd I decided to give some of my other picture eBooks away for free. 

Sadly you've missed the first two but you can download Clever Rabbit (part of the Burdock the Rabbit series) which will be FREE from tomorrow (15th December) to the 19th December. To enjoy this book download from the UK Amazon site HERE or the US Amazon site HERE.

Finally the third in the Burdock the Rabbit series The Abacus will be available for FREE between the 20th December and the 24th December. UK readers can download by clicking HERE or US readers can download by clicking HERE.

And remember you don't have to have a Kindle to enjoy these books. Just follow this link to download a FREE Kindle App so you can read on other devices. 

I hope you enjoy sharing my books and I wish you the very best for this festive season.

Lynne Garner

P.S. If you do enjoy my books would you be kind enough to place a positive review on Amazon. Such reviews help boost sales. This enables me to write and publish more books, which means I can then release more free downloads as a thank you for supporting my work.   

Thursday, 13 December 2012


I'm red-faced because I was supposed to blog today but got muddled about what date we were on and posted it yesterday, before Penny came along with her proper one. So, in case anyone might wonder why there was no post today, that's why. I'm not going to disturb things by putting a link to mine, but it's below Penny's. I've waited till later in the day to let Penny's post have plenty of time at the top. And please read and comment on Penny's and ignore me completely, because I'm an idiot and can't be trusted with anything with numbers on, such as a calendar.

*creeps back into her hole*

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Bookaroo - the Fifth Edition! by Penny Dolan

Excuse the breathlessness but I’ve been on an author adventure! I’m just back from India and another visit to the amazing Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival in Delhi.

On the way, I flew to Bangalore to run a one-day workshop on Writing For Children at the British Council Library. I dozed through the overnight flight, checked into the hotel, slept a few hour and then went out to walk. I found the nearby British Library – yes, that urgent need to see "my venue" -  then went wandering in some nearby gardens. I sat in the warm sun, watching sparkling water spraying on green lawns and flowerbeds. A short way over, a gang of laughing street children ran along the paths, trailing a bouncing cloud of bright balloons above their heads. Then I spied inside a small archeology museum, managed more intersting Indian pavements, made another brave crossing of the road, and retired to a very early bed.

Then came the enjoyable Bangalore workshop day with  a group enthusiastic students. Although Enid Blyton had been a favourite children’s book of many of the students, there's a great wish for stories that reflect the Indian child's experience.

Next day came the flight to Kolkata, where the calm of the elegant hotel contrasted with my sightsseing stroll along the crowded, choking streets. But such an energy! The British Council Library there had kindly invited me to the Oxford Road Bookshop to hear Philip Hensher on his novel “Scenes from An Early Life”, his talk framed by a Bengali musical recitation. At the bookshop I met up with the people involved with the next day so was able to catch up on what was happening, when and where. Emails don't tell you all you need to know.

Yes, the Kolkata workshop was another happy experience. Must admit I felt quite sad that, having met the lovely students during the sessions and through their writing exercises, I then had too leave them again. Within hours I was back to the airport, waiting for the Delhi plane. Many thanks to all at British Council India for their help with these workshop days and their support for my Bookaroo visit to India. 

On Thursday, I was driven out into the country south of Delhi, to the Gairatpu Baas Panchayat School at Tickli Bottom. After four cheerful story sessions with pupils from that school and others ( aged from 3 to 12) I spent a time chatting with the staff about telling stories. My visit ended with a wonderful staff picnic under the trees as the children played nearby, and then a look around the school. Many thanks to Head Teacher Sheela Bazroy and everyone for welcoming me to such a happy place.

The next day, Friday, was Bookaroo Schools Day. I was sent to help at the Doodle Wall, chatting to waiting children while others went up to draw and doodle an extraordinary Bookaroo Bookworm with the wonderful illustrator Vandana Bist.  Her lyrical illustrations, seen in the Bookaroo Gallery, reminded me of Jane Ray. At the Doodlewall, the children and I talked about what it means to “eat up books” – whether as bookworm or reader -and I told them about Oliver Jeffers’ picture book “The Book Eating Boy”, In return, they told me about their favourite books. 

At the second Doodlewall session, enthusiastic illustrator Petr Horacek began by showing and talking about his books, inspiring his young audience to draw animals doing unusual things and how to blend pastel or pencil colours to create stronger colours. The resulting collage was a riot of colour and fun! (Petr's name should take you to his Bookaroo blog!)

Schools Day offered all sorts of other events including story sessions from Usha Venkatraman, Shamim Padamsee and more, as well as talks and workshops from UK illustrator Marcia Williams, Bhopal illustrator Jitendra Thakur, plus author Grant Clark from Australia and writer & editor Nividetha Subramanaim. Too soon School Day was over – children needed to be bussed back to school, of course - and it was time to help sort stationery for the next day.

That Friday evening, the excited authors, illustrators and storytellers were back at the hotel getting ready for the Bookaroo Celebration Dinner with the sponsors, including the Hindu Times and many others involved in the Bookaroo Trust. A sparkling occasion!

 I particularly enjoyed the fact that we, the “artists”, coming from across the world, had been put in one hotel, mostly, so we could make friends and share our many different experiences over the three nights we were staying and travelling together. If you want to know all the artists and authors involved, do look at the Bookaroo site but there had aslo been Bookaroo in the City events running throughout much of November. (This team also take Bookaroo all the way to Kashmir!)

On Saturday, Bookaroo saw huge crowds of chattering children and families arriving at the venue, Sanskriti Open Air Museum. I had a storytelling session for four to six year old children and their families in the morning and a session for older children about my book “The Third Elephant”, now published by Walker India. 

This small novel was a special book for me and it felt an honour to be there, talking about the story behind the story and hearing the children’s own wishes - as well as knowing the whole Bookaroo site was buzzing with plenty more exciting sessions.

Then I crept back to helping with stationery, in the care of a regular Bookaroo speaker, visitor and helper, Wendy Cooling. She was busy all weekend creating “D is for Delhi”, a clever collage alphabet book, with groups of eager children.

Bookaroo Sunday was suddenly busier! I was booked for another storytime for small ones but also became part of an "emergency" session. Sadly, long-established children’s author Ruskin Bond was unable to attend Bookaroo. 

Instead, a panel made up from several authors and artists was there to meet the many school-children waiting with their questions around the amphitheatre. Singapore storyteller Rosemarie Somaiah most ably led the panel, which included Indian writer and ornithologist Ranjit Lal. 

After lunch, I was back at the amphitheatre again, this time admiring some beautiful puppets, including an alluring dancer with the most wiggly of hips and  . . . 

Oh dear. There was so much going on. And so much that I’ve left out, so many names, so many small details I’d love to share. 

 What I’d most like to leave you with is my admiration for all involved, not only all the authors, illustrators and storytellers I saw but especially for the main Bookaroo Trust organisers: Swati Roy & M. Venatesh of Eureka Children’s Bookshop in Delhi and Jo Williams as well asall the sponsors who value this admirable vision of children's literature reaching out through India. 

Wishing all at Bookaroo good luck and much strength for your 6th Edition! .

And, ABBA reader, if you are still here, thank you for listening!

Fighting for fiction - Nicola Morgan

A couple of days ago the Daily Telegraph told us that "Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of 'informational texts'." The article went on to say that "American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014."

OMG, clearly.

Well, that was the desired reaction and it was the reaction I duly gave. However, it appears, judging by the early comments below the piece - which I hadn't read at the time because comments beneath online newspaper items generally give me appalling indigestion - that the article was wildly misleading. The third comment, by Deborah Brancheau, seems particularly informed and suggests that we needn't worry too much.

Anyway, I am not here to say who may have exaggerated what and why, or not checked which facts. I am here to shut the stable-door before the horse bolts, just in case anyone from our Government could possibly be so stupid as to consider trying to undermine the importance of reading fiction. Hard to imagine, but still.

I have done many different talks about literacy and the reading brain over the years, as it's one of my hobby-horses. I will also admit that I used to recommend non-fiction as equal in value to fiction, particularly as I used to teach reluctant readers and am a dyslexia specialist, and keen never to undermine anyone's reading choice.

However, while it's certainly true that readers should be allowed to come to a love of reading by whichever types of book they wish, I can't get away from the increasing research that suggests compellingly that reading/listening to fiction is necessary to developing empathy and an expanded Theory of Mind, which are in turn necessary for tolerance, wisdom and the strong foundations of human society.

If you are interested in this research, here are some resources:

Four fascinating books:
Proust and the Squid – Story & Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf
Such Stuff as Dreams – The Psychology of Fiction, by Keith Oatley
Grooming, Gossip & the Evolution of Language, by Robin Dunbar
iBrain – Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, by Gary Small

And one online article: “Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood”, by Marr, Djikic and Oatley. Keith Oatley is the author of Such Stuff as Dreams, mentioned above, and this article is an academic but shorter introduction to that message. He and his colleagues find numerous links between degree of empathy and reading fiction and their work seeks to find explanations for such links, in psychology and neuroscience. I find their findings compelling and fascinating and I urge you to read the article and to try some of the books above if you're interested in pursuing this.   

In the article, they ask: "Is fiction just a pastime, an entertainment, or does it have psychological effects that can be distinguished from those of reading non-fiction? Does reading the works of great artists have effects that can be distinguished from reading the same information but without artistic form?" And the work in Such Stuff as Dreams and on their blog, Onfiction, suggests that the answer is Yes, and provides possible explanations and greater detail.

Let me offer one quote from the article, describing one study which goes to the crux of the argument: "Students read either a chapter of a novel about the difficult life of an Algerian woman or an essay on the general problem of women’s rights in Algeria. As compared with those who read the essay, those who read the fictional piece said they would be less likely to accept current Algerian norms for relationships between men and women. In another study Hakemulder (2000) found this same decreased tolerance for current norms in students who read the fiction piece under instructions to mentally project themselves into the situation, as compared with those asked to mark the structure of the text with a pencil instead." The latter finding, they suggest, shows "that it is our imaginative projection of the self into the described situations that is key."

Narrative transportation - that "imagined projection of the self" - it's what humans can do, and what fiction facilitates. And it's this, they (and I) believe, that generates empathy, the human understanding that what is in my head is/may not be what is in your head, at the same time allowing the difficult skill of guessing what might be in your head, based on a combination of what is in my head and a generalisation of what I have experienced from the other heads I've been able to enter - in fiction.

So, if a government were to introduce any circumstances that would make fiction rarer, harder to access, available only to those wealthy enough to buy lots of novels and stories - supposing, for example, libraries and librarians were threatened - they would be threatening empathy, wisdom, tolerance and society. 

And that would never happen, would it?

[If you'd like me to speak about any aspect of literacy acquisition, Reading for Pleasure, and/or the reading brain, whether for parents or educational professionals, do email I've done a number of conference keynote speeches this year and a series of talks to parents for Education Scotland.  I've got dates lined up for trips to London and elsewhere (Kuala Lumpur and Prague!) throughout 2013 and I'm happy to add talks onto those visits, thus saving you some costs. Have brain, will travel!]

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Deadline Panic ... Ruth Symes / Megan Rix.

Picture by Marion Lindsay for Cat Magic
On Friday morning I realised that at my current rate of writing, about 1000 words a day, I wasn't going to make the 21st of January deadline for my next novel. I like having deadlines, either from a publisher or self-imposed, as they help me to focus on what I need to get done but realising I couldn't make it produced: A) Panic - the sort of trapped by headlights and get nothing done panic B) Action - I emailed my publisher to ask for a few weeks extension. C) More action - during the weekend that's just gone, from 5pm on Friday until 5pm on Sunday, I wrote l0,140 words. I'd already planned out the story and had the thumbs up from my publisher so knew where I was going (roughly) with it - all I had to do was get words on paper.
Were they the best, most considered words? Nope. Does that matter? Not a bit in a first, scribble, draft. Those 10,000 words can become polished and honed later - what I have got now is a much better knowledge of my characters (including one who had a minor part but is now a major player) and most of the crucial scenes written.

Here's how I did it:  
Friday 10 am - stared at my book writing schedule calendar and realised that writing I,000 words a day would not get my next book finished by mid-January.
10.30 am - went downstairs and told husband, Eric, my concern.
11 am – nearby Travelodge booked for the weekend.
12 pm – Eric buys food and drink that only needs a kettle (at the most) to make. I pack some clothes and my work and make sure the dogs will be OK.
            4pm – arrive at Travelodge and make ‘proper’ coffee using aeropress (more details of everything I used on my website.) Just make sure you screw the bottom on really well or you might end up with coffee everywhere like I did.
            5pm – start writing by longhand using my Echo pen that can convert handwriting to text.
            7.30pm – first 2000 words written.
            Saturday and Sunday… Write! Write! Written! 4,000 words done each day.

Tips to make your writing weekend go smoothly:
1. No TV –  I pulled the TV plug out and plugged my computer into the socket instead – the TV didn’t get turned on once (although I did watch a DVD on my computer about the subject I was writing on.)
2. Use the internet only to check emails and do absolutely necessary research. I was also in contact with my husband 3 or 4 times a day via  Face Time. The dogs were also very interested in me chatting to them via the screen at first but soon got used to it. Loved how one of them kept tilting her head from side to side as she looked at the screen. (I did worry it was cruel initially but they got used to it pretty quick and made me laugh when one went and got a toy and brought it back.)
3. Be in the mind zone to write and pumped up to get on – this is exciting! Having nothing else to concentrate on besides writing meant I could write like the wind and I did.What writing in this speedy fashion meant is that now I can dip in and out of the book, secure that I like how it’s working and growing. It's a good feeling. Prior to taking this action I usually manage to write about l,000 words a day - so 4,000 a day was a bit of a jump!

Three other new things I’ve tried recently:
1. Not listening to other people’s opinions unless I want to:

I used to get upset by the odd bad review but now find I’ve reached the stage where I can shrug them off. I even managed a smile at an email from an irate American reader recently who’d spotted a grammar mistake in my adult book, The Puppy that Came for Christmas' and wrote a back-handed compliment of:  'If a good writer like you can make a mistake like this what hope is there for the world.' Indeed.
On the reverse side I had an email from one of my editor’s this week saying she’d been so busy reading my manuscript on the bus she’d missed her stop – a very nice compliment from a person whose opinion I value highly.

2. Being Vegan:
When I said I was going to take part in November's World Vegan mouth some people reacted with horror. ‘What are you going to eat?’ ‘How will you survive?’ I was asked.
        The truth is being vegan wasn't any hardship at all and in fact it was a pleasure. I got to try lots of yummy foods and made friends with some lovely new people and blogged about it here: 

3. Re-visit from my first book:
I had my first book 'The Master of Secrets' published by Puffin in 1997 and a few years later I got a letter to say that it was going to be remaindered. It was a horrible sick feeling being told this - at first I couldn't believe it and bought up lots of copies. But the publisher did stop printing it and I went on to write other books and my first effort wasn't forgotten about (I often give a copy as a present to my
creative writing students saying I hope one day to read their first book) but I certainly didn't expect to hear much more about it. But in the past few weeks I've had first one email and then another and another from English language students in Argentina who are studying the book and it's been great. I'm so glad that there's life in the old book yet and it's being enjoyed again somewhere. One of the students even became my first newsletter subscriber.

Megan’s book 'The Great Escape' has recently been shortlisted for the East Sussex Children’s Book Award. She writes as Megan Rix and Ruth Symes and her websites are and