Tuesday, 21 May 2019

'What big teeth you have, grandma' by Anne Booth

I have recently been thinking about writing about grandmothers. I have written quite  a few grandmothers in my books - Lucy's grandmother in my Lucy books runs an animal  rescue centre, Jessie's grandmother in 'Girl with a White Dog' is elderly, with dementia, Anna in 'Dog Ears' has a rather bossy grandmother who doesn't notice her granddaughter is worn out with caring, whilst in my latest middle grade book, 'Across The Divide,' Olivia's Gran is a vicar's wife, fun and caring and sensitive.

None of them are very young grandmothers, and I think I would like to write one. I am 54, with four children and I am not a grandmother, but I could be. If I had married earlier and not at 30, and if my daughter or son had also married young, I could even be a great grandmother.  I've realised, in terms of writing books where children can see their own experience reflected in them, that more young grandmothers might be a good idea.

How many books are there with young grandmothers and young grandfathers? I'd love to read more and hear recommendations.

But what about the really very elderly grandmothers, great grandmothers etc. How do we write about them?

When I was a teenager I used to visit an elderly lady, and because she lived on her own and was bed bound and didn't have much help, she did smell, unfortunately, of urine. I noticed that smell when I visited, and if I were writing from the perspective of that teenager,  to describe my visits accurately, I would have to include that in the description. It was really unpleasant, but she was lovely - interested and fiercely independent and a pleasure and an honour to know.

In our society the odds are weighted against the elderly, and in particular older women, and it is sadly not unusual in our media to come across the stereotype of the smelly elderly person who is, not lovely, or interesting, like the lady I knew, but funny in a worthy- to- be-sneered- at way or unpleasant or easily dismissed. Being frail, or unsteady, or having memory problems, or getting confused, are also real states which can be described with respect, but  which have become negative stereotypes associated with old age, and which I have been a bit shocked to recently see not handled well in our media. Children are affected by this, just as they are affected by negative depictions of race or sexuality or gender or disability, but I think negative or lazy or unsympathetic depictions of the elderly in particular  seem to be less challenged than they should be, and maybe, as an industry, we have a part to play in raising awareness and making this better.

So could editors and writers of children's books also be aware about our depiction of the elderly and how they are being presented to children at the moment? This is our opportunity as editors and writers of books  for children to quietly challenge stereotypes - let's have younger grandparents in our stories, but also, let's present any physical problems of old age with empathy and respect.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Ditch the Words - Joan Lennon

Writers' heads are full of words - of course they are.  Words are our tools and our delight and what grounds us and what drives us round the twist.  We see in words.  We understand in words.  But sometimes, living constantly with/through/by words becomes a tyranny.  You just have to take a break.  You just have to ditch them.   

I find my escapes from words in photography, art galleries and music.  Where do you find yours?  Please share in the comments, but first, why not spend a couple of minutes with the Vivaldi Guys.  Not a word in sight ...  

P.S.  When you are reading this, I'll be in Indonesia, trying to respond to that amazing country in words and most likely failing utterly.  Thank goodness for cameras! 

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Sunday, 19 May 2019


Penguin might have made a good profit from their Ladybird Books For Grown Ups series, but from where I sit in the bookshop cafe, chewing my pencil, the requirements surrounding real writing for young readers look quite daunting.  

The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness

"Wait a moment, you grumbling grump!" calls a voice. (Is it Peter? Is it Jane?) "Surely it is a simple enough task? Just dream up any old idea. Besides, you'll only need three hundred words or so, which means it will be delightfully easy for anyone calling themselves a writer." 

Let's go . . .  and as the dreamy face of Inspiration wakes from its sleep, Commonsense - its rather brisker sister - starts to determine which tales are possible and which way the story can be told, we can begin . . .

For, yes, dear writer, it is time to come up with an idea that:

- Reflects the complexity of modern family life yet retains the charm of simple family relationships.

- Uses a setting that modern children can recognise and an activity that modern children can understand.

- Does not show children in physically risky situations or doing or using anything dangerous.

- Nor show a child obviously alone meanwhile excluding all (possibly strange) solitary adults.

- And is yet a story that is a rich, surprisingly exciting and compelling experience. 

Got that?

The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness

Moreover a story that:

- Represents male and female characters equally, unless anthropomorphic.

- Is best told through fantasy and/or anthropomorphic animal characters, as these are saleable world wide.

- Places animal characters within a vegetarian world; if polar animals are used, avoid mention of climate-change.

- Makes sure that crocodiles, wolves, alligators, lions, tigers, bad bears and other carnivores can never ever win, unless created by illustrator Emily Gravett. 

Or fairly similar.
The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness

And all this while remembering: 

- If drawing from the World-Wide Sea of Stories, be wary of cultures not your own and also any purely religious festivals. Christmas may be permissible.

- To avoid bathrooms, loos, bodily functions and vocabulary, although these will be exuberantly permissible and profitable within chapter books aimed at boys a couple of years older.

- To never use cakes and sweet treats or unhealthy food as "rewards" in the plot, nor suggest anyone is fat except - perhaps - grandmothers, hippos and elephants.

- To use generic rather than particular words to describe the natural world: flowers and plants rather than buttercups and daisies, trees rather than willows, birds rather than blackbirds. Too rich a vocabulary might be confusing. 

- And a few additional "suggestions" which I may well have misremembered. Or not.

Great! And Is your imagination racing by now? 
Are you all tuned up now and ready to write?

And don't forget to set your now-dramatic and enticing storyline out across a set number of spreads, with suggestions for art-work too.

 Simple. Just put your mind to it, all right? A little child could do it. :-)

The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness
  Happy writing, everyone!

 Penny Dolan


Saturday, 18 May 2019

Making wine from sour grapes - by Lu Hersey

If you watch the BAFTAs or the Academy Awards, you notice an interesting thing about actors. They can convey any emotion, from deep sorrow to ecstatic joy, and make us totally believe in their on-screen characters – but they just can’t quite get it right when they don’t win an award. Their fixed smiles at the success of their fellow actors really doesn’t quite cover the gritted teeth and barely suppressed anguish at not grabbing the Oscar for themselves.

The thing is (I’m not up for any book awards right now, so I’m allowed to say this), WRITERS FEEL EXACTLY THE SAME! 

Of course we do. We can recognise the brilliance of another writer and be glad they’ve been acknowledged – but at the same time, we wish we'd won instead. We just want to run away and sulk BIG TIME. What we really DON’T want is to be all over social media telling everyone how delighted we are for the winner and how amazing and deserving they are…but obviously we do it anyway, because usually it's true. We just can't feel it at the time.

In any kind of writing competition, whether you’re looking for an agent, or a publisher, or hoping for an award for your published book, not succeeding doesn’t mean you’re no good – just that someone else won. I’ve read manuscripts by excellent writers, telling fantastic, original stories, who somehow haven’t yet found a publisher - and plenty of published books by amazing writers that weren’t even nominated for any awards. There must be an entire library’s worth of books out there that deserved all the accolades, but didn’t get them. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t mean they’re not great books by brilliant writers.

Years ago (more than I’d like to admit to) the person I believed I was going to marry, married someone else. There was one song that kept going around in my head - Yvonne Fair’s It should Have Been Me. (Turn up the volume - it’s amazing and packed with raw emotion. Forget Celine Dion.) The quantity of sour grapes I swallowed congratulating the happy couple was enough to pack a crate and the champagne toast practically choked me – but years later, I’m glad it worked out the way it did. My life just took a different direction, and truth is, sour grapes can mature into fine wine.

The same goes for writing awards and competitions. Don’t waste your energy wondering if you should give up and if you’re no good – just congratulate the winners. You might win next time…and you’re going to really appreciate others wishing you well.
Meanwhile, maybe we should start a virtual library for all the brilliant books that weren’t best sellers or award winners, but really deserve some love…

Lu Hersey


Friday, 17 May 2019

You and I can't be friends anymore, Jackie - Tracy Darnton

Teenage magazines from my (distant) past include Look In, Smash Hits, Just Seventeen and Cosmopolitan. But the one I remember most is Jackie

I loved that magazine. I remember it fondly as where I learnt how to wear my ra-ra skirt with panache, to talk to boys as my school was single sex until 16, and how to manage my ridiculous curly perm with an afro comb which was forever getting stuck.  

I particularly liked the photo strip story which, as I remember it, usually involved the teenage main character leaving her curling tongs on while snogging the ‘dish’ next door and causing terrible burns to the little sister she was meant to be babysitting. I have carried this somewhat horrific scenario with me through life always triple-checking hair straighteners are unplugged, but I digress. The point is, Jackie magazine and the Jackie annual in my Christmas stocking were a formative part of my teenage years.

So I should never have looked back at one. Nostalgia is a bad thing. Out to lunch with my teenage sons, we picked up the Jackie Annual 1977 which was calling me from the charity shop window. A princely £1.50 later and sitting in the café, the boys were laughing hysterically but also rather shocked at the pages within. They couldn’t believe I, feisty feminist Mum, had put up with this rubbish. And looking back, neither could I.

It seemed constructed to make you feel bad about yourself and especially the way you looked. Even if some of it is well-meant or tongue-in-cheek, which to modern eyes seems like the only explanation, the steady drip, drip, drip of the same stereotypes and insensitivity grinds you down. The most shocking section was on clothes to fit your figure. I kid you not, it actually says in the “Fatties” section: “Fashion can be frustrating when you’re fat. You love all the latest looks but you know in your heart of hearts that they don’t look as good on you.” And then helpfully tackles individual pieces. I’m amazed I ever left the house.

There was no respite from feeling bad about your appearance in fiction/reader’s true experience:

 Or in the horoscope section with advice like ‘the secret of catching him and keeping him is to intrigue him with a touch of mystery. Be intelligent and don’t chat his ear off.’ What???

And I bravely read the makeover section for Tracy and Wendy.

My namesake who subjected herself to this process was deemed ‘pretty with a small face and large, expressive eyes, but she does have one or two problems, just like everyone else. Her nose is just a little too big, for instance, and she has a slightly greasy skin that’s prone to outbreaks of spots now and again.
Luckily, once Tracy wore blue eye-shadow her life changed (OK, I wrote that bit).

Surely it wasn’t like this, week in, week out? I was only 11 in 1977. Maybe it was better in the early ‘80s, wasn’t it?

Never mind, let’s do one of those personality quizzes for a bit of fun:

How dreamy are you?

1.       When a boy hasn’t looked at you, let alone smiled at you, for a whole month, do you daydream that you’re-

(a)    Miss World

(b)    A fashion magazine cover-girl

(c)     Sought after by legions of fanciable boys

(d)    The girlfriend of some handsome American millionaire

Again, what???

Or let's do something to develop our practical or creative skillset with suggestions for 'things to do when your get up and go has gone…'

That’s just plain weird, Jackie.

Oh dear, Jackie. I’m afraid you and I can’t be friends anymore.

How things change …

I’ve had a run of articles recently in TEEN Breathe magazine. It doesn’t have celebrities or unrealistic photo-shopped pictures of girl models. It has no photos – just beautifully drawn illustrations, and it’s packed with articles about well-being and creativity. 

For instance, a recent issue has 28 upbeat articles including creative activities on writing songs, tackling a problem in the way your heroine from literature would, memory games to play with your family (my contribution), gardening with pineapples and pieces on learning languages, the perfectionist trap and navigating social media. It also tackles important issues like loss and anxiety. The tag is ‘for a happier, healthier, more fulfilled life’ and every cover has ‘Be inspired, be brave, be kind, be yourself’ across the top.

A grizzled old Jackie fan might start muttering about snowflakes and cheesy taglines but they can go and rub a giant bean-can ice-cube over themselves because in this modern, crazy world, I like that TEEN Breathe is not consumerist or materialistic and has practical suggestions for how to spend your time delivered in a friendly, positive manner. Most of all, it’s KIND. And we want our friends to be KIND, Jackie.

So, what’s my conclusion. Times have changed. Thank goodness, times have changed. It was heart-warming to see such disbelief and outrage from the current generation. I’m also alive to my responsibility as an occasional writer of articles for teenagers to do it well. I'll always keep in mind my own teenage self in her ill-fitting ra-ra skirt stuck at home on a housing estate in Stockport but wanting to change the world. One day. 

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019. She has an MA in Writing for Young People.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Thursday, 16 May 2019

In Search of Villainy, by Claire Fayers

I've been thinking a lot about villains this month.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel Leyshom, editor at Chicken House at the Cardiff Children's Literature Festival in May, and during our discussion for aspiring authors she said 'never underestimate the importance of your antagonist in driving the plot.'

Her words have returned to haunt me as I've struggled to put together an outline for what I hope will be my next book. I'm not a natural plotter, so outlines are my personal nemesis, and my villain (or lack of one) has become a big sticking point. Who is the villain? What do they want? Why?

Thanks to an extended bout of 'flu, I haven't seen Avengers: Endgame yet, but I already know I don't want a standard superhero film villain. I found Thanos a tad disappointing in his desire to destroy half of all life. All life? Even the animals? Even the insects? Even bacteria? What will Thanos do when the bacteria double in number again within a couple of seconds? Click his fingers again? And again?

No, generally I'm not a fan of superhero villains. I want to like them, but many seem to be the large, blustering types, who want to destroy or rule the world for no particular reason. Villains who can be defeated by hitting them very hard. There are some exceptions (Black Panther) but often I leave the cinema thinking the film could have been so much better if only the villain made better sense.

Stories begin with the villain. Many years ago, I was involved in a superhero role-playing campaign in which we decided that for a change we'd play the villains. This threw up an immediate storytelling problem. As heroes we'd generally wait for something bad to happen then jump in to stop it. As villains, we couldn't wait for something nice to happen and go and mess it up. We needed goals and a plan before the story even started. As the antagonists, we had to drive the story.

Possibly even more important that the plan is the villain's motivation. We can all imagine ourselves being brave and noble and doing the right thing so it's easy to understand the motivation of heroes, but why does someone turn to villainy?

But, as is often said, the villain is the hero of their own story, and so their motivation is not so different to the heroes'.

The Villain Who Fights For Right

Just like Iron Man, Captain America and all the rest, but on the opposite side. These villains are convinced they are in the right and no one is going to stop them. 

Take Javert from Les Miserables. His love of justice means he will pursue Valjean relentlessly, because he cannot bear to let a criminal go unpunished.

The Villain On a Quest

They might not even be a villain. They are pursuing a quest of their own and their goals just happen to conflict with the hero's.

This little one wants to play with paper balls then sleep on my chest. I want to write this blog post. Which of us is the villain here?

The Villain Who's Really a Sidekick

Darth Vader, Macbeth (at the start, at least), those weird disciples of the planet-eating demon in Dr Strange.

 I do wonder about them. It doesn't seem the brightest move to summon a demon whose goal is to destroy the world. It doesn't matter how much power your master gives you afterwards, you've still got nowhere to live.

At worst, these villains are glorified henchmen with little in the way of motive. At best, they have their own character arcs, act independently and make their own choices whilst serving the greater bad.

The Villain With a Secret Dark and Tormented Past

For every hero with a tragic past, there's a villain. Magneto from the X-Men, Killmonger from Black Panther, Sweeney Todd, Shakespeare's Prospero. They are driven by the same desires: revenge, justice, the desire to put things right.

These are my favourite villains because, of all the categories, they have the greatest capacity to change. They can take a step back, rethink, and become heroes instead. Sadly, they rarely do.

There are, I'm sure, many more categories, and villains are complex creatures and don't have to be confined to just one. Darth Vader is a sidekick villain with a tormented past who is on a quest to reclaim his son, because he thinks he's right.

I'm still not quite sure which way I'm going to go for my new book, but I have some ideas now.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates duo, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound, all published by Macmillan Children's Books. Her villains are all terribly nice people really.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Humble-bragging. Soz - Rowena House

Many apologies, Awfully Big Blog readers, but I’m up to my neck in GCSE and A-level English teaching, and after two abortive attempts to produce a readable piece for this month, I’ve got to accept reality: at the moment I can’t think straight and chew cud!

Instead, here are links to the Historical Association’s Young Quill readers’ reviews of their choices for the 2019 shortlist for novels for 11-13 year old readers - and anyone else who loves a good historical yarn. I’m so proud that The Goose Road sits alongside these fabulous books by Hilary McKay, Catherine Johnson, Emma Carroll, Pippa Goodheart and Stuart Hill.
Congratulations to you all.
Other age categories have super choices, too, so please direct your young people, their teachers, families and friends to all of the honest, insightful reviews. What a great time for our genre! And thank you to the Historical Association, and every one of their reviewers.