Thursday, 22 February 2018

Lists, lists and more lists, by Dan Metcalf

I live for lists. As a former librarian, nothing is so tempting to me as a list – a neat, ordered, chronicle of intentions or accomplishments. It seems to me that as bookish people, we are predisposed to these things – as lovers of literature we long to see things recorded properly and succinctly. I was reminded of this as I spoke to a 8 year old neighbour this morning, who proudly presented me with a list of the books she had read over the half term holiday. Neatly titled, listed and folded up, placed in her top pocket ready to show her teacher, were a list of 5 Roald Dahl books. I congratulated her and was immensely proud myself, not just of her reading ability and love of books, but of her compulsion to list it all down.

My wife, an academic in the field of Children’s Literature, has books of lists. Alphabetical, written in numerous biro colours, she has kept it since the days of our ‘A’ levels. My dad, recently retired and a convert to reading, keeps a list of books although largely so he can remember which ones he has read. He even notes down the plot and gives a brief half-page review. Listing, it seems is in the family.

Many may remember Nick Hornby’s tribute to lists, High Fidelity, and for a brief time among my classmates we emulated the protagonist in making our own Top Five lists, although that was mostly of our favourite films and alcopops. The notion of noting down our favourite movies, songs, albums, bands, or cartoon character crushes (Jessica Rabbit wins every time, obvs) is now laughable as my tastes have changed so much. I recently found lists of the above from my early twenties and they are so cringe-worthy and banal that I cannot begin to reproduce them here. So I find the idea of popular media covering such lists insane. The TV schedules have them as their mainstay; remember the BBC’sBig Read? A summer long season that tried to compile the nations’ top 100 books? (An easily skewed online poll voted Lord of the Rings in at Number One, if you’re interested) Channel 5 seem to have one a week, which surely has culminated with Britain's Favourite Biscuit.(Spoilers: Here's the result) And Desert Island Discs, Radio 4’s 75 year old programme about kidnapping the great and the good and leaving them to die on a rock, asks notable persons to list their favourite songs; I pity the person who records their Desert Island discs in their twenties and then has to endure ribbing for the rest of their life because they chose ‘Touch My Bum’ by the Cheeky Girls “for a laugh”.

In fact, I always thought the format had the lists the wrong way around. Guests (or victims, if we’re taking the whole castaway thing seriously) are asked to tell the presenter (chief tormentor) their seven songs they would like to be washed up with (presumably they dropped their iPhone in the water with their 10000+ songs on it and the island handily has a turntable and electricity supply but there’s me picking hairs again). They also get to pick a luxury item (mine's a fully crewed yacht) and a book.

One book.

You get the bible and the complete works of Shakespeare for free (which will delight all non-Christians appearing on the programme) but get to choose one book. ONE! How in blue blazes am I supposed to pick just one book to see out my days? I’d happily swap my seven discs for books and get to choose just one song (That Golden Rule by Biffy Clyro, of course).

One list that has grabbed my attention since I was in short trousers though (I mean since I was a kid, not since last summer and the unfortunate choice of leg wear at the beach), was when I watched the 1960 film adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine. It departs from the book slightly in that the plot seems overly concerned with the Earth being driven back to the stone age by a nuclear war, but as that seemed a very real possibility then I’ll let them off (and yes, it seems to be a very real possibility right now, but let’s leave politics out of this for a moment)

At the end, the Time Traveller absconds himself to his laboratory as whisks himself away in the machine once again, seemingly to never return. His sceptical friend Filby and housekeeper enter and see the space that the machine once held surrounded by debris and the Housekeeper notices nothing is missing except for three books that she could not identify. Filby supposes that he took them with him into the future, and proposes the question; if you were heading into a new world and time, what are the three books you’d take with you?

That question has played on my mind for 20+ years. Should I take something practical and informative like Nigella’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess? (the burnt butter cupcakes are to die for) Or a DIY Manual? Maybe, if the earth has succumbed to a nuclear war, a foraging book to help me collect food.

Nah. I’ll settle for some good reading material. I’ll probably be clubbed to death by Morlocks anyway so may as well enjoy myself. Here’s mine:

1 – An Omnibus of the Paddington Stories by Michael Bond – If I’m living in a post-apocalyptic landscape, I’d like some escapism and delving into the world of Number 32 Windsor Gardens is my ‘safe place’. The only thing you have to worry about there is Mrs Bird’s temper or running out of marmalade.

2 – An Omnibus of the Mortal Engines Quadrilogy by Philip Reeve – Okay, I’m probably cheating here by choosing an omnibus, but it’s my game so shut up. I love the world Reeve creates in these books but more than anything the characters. If I’m in a ruined Britain (again, you could argue we are already there but let’s leave politics at the door for the moment) I want to take Hester and Shrike with me. Also may be a handy manual in case the human race do accept Municipal Darwinism as their new way of life and begin to mobilise their cities, so, y’know it’s kinda practical as well.

3 – The Complete Y-The Last Man by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra – This graphic novel showed me what real storytelling is; epic, brutal and compelling. If you don’t know it, a mystery illness kills off every male on Earth in the first few pages, all except one goofy responsibility-shy slacker called Yorick and his pet monkey (okay, sounds stupid now I write it down but trust me). It has everything you want from a major summer blockbuster movie – Amazon Warrior Women, secret spies and societies, danger, terrorists and monkeys. Did I mention monkeys?

Okay, I’ve shown you mine, now you show me yours. Catch me in the comments and on Twitter (@metcalfwriter)

Dan Metcalf writes Children’s books and can be found at Dino Wars, his new series about genetically engineered talking dinosaurs and a race against time to save the world, launches on 28th April from Maverick Books.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Thoughts on Words and Pictures by Anne Booth

Tomorrow evening I begin 5 weeks of  teaching a weekly, two hours creative writing class to first year teaching students. The idea for the (voluntary for the students) sessions is that they need to gain confidence in themselves as writers before they can teach writing to children, so I need to give them fun exercises to do. I am looking up books, thinking about courses I have been on etc.. I know for certain that I will be bringing pictures and objects in, and I will spend part of today gathering them up.

I will also bring illustrated books in, including the stunning 'Lost Words' .

I think it is very interesting to read how Jackie Morris and Robert MacFarlane worked together on this. The initial impetus for the book came from the illustrator, Jackie Morris, although Robert MacFarlane was already thinking along similar lines.

I bought the book for Christmas for our family and for one of my brothers, and then heard that there was going to be an exhibition of the paintings.  t I met up in London with an old friend last week and went together to the Foundling Museum to see it and I would highly recommend going.  It was such a lovely thing to go to see, and it was heartening to see so many children in the gallery on a half term trip.

Whilst we were there we also went to an exhibition of Michael Foreman's illustrations to Michael Morpurgo's  book, inspired by The Foundling Museum, 'Lucky Button'.

This touching book about a modern young carer and his relationship with a ghost was inspired by one of the tokens left with foundlings when their desperate mothers gave them up.

So here we have an example of something visual inspiring the words which follow.

The inspiration for so many books begins with an image rather than a word. A forthcoming picture book I have written started with an image I had of a blue sky, and the illustrator has taken the words I subsequently wrote, and created a wonderful world.  This happens again and again for authors - there is a wonderful excitement in seeing our words translated into images. I am so happy with the illustrations Sophy Williams, Rosalind Beardshaw, Sam Usher and  Amy Proud  have already  produced to go with my words. In June OUP will be publishing a series of highly illustrated books for 7-9 year olds, written by me and gorgeously illustrated, outside and inside, by Rosie Butcher,

and later on, OUP will publish another Lucy book, beautifully illustrated again by Sophy Williams, and I also have a Christmas picture book with Lion coming out, about Jenny, a shy angel, which has enchanting illustrations by Ruth Hearson.

But now I have two new, exciting projects, both writing texts for illustrators to work with. One idea for a project has come from an illustrator, one from a publisher.

 So I have a new approach now to these next picture books. If I think it is a good exercise to give visual stimuli to inspire my creative writing students, then, I realise, I can also apply it to my own creative output.  I am going to look at the illustrators' existing work, and really think about where their strengths lie before I write my story. Illustrators have to adapt their work to writers' words - why shouldn't a writer adapt their words to the illustrators' styles?

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

School Visits and Book Sales - A Vexed Question by Joan Lennon

When I looked up "vexed question" this is what I found:

Vexata Quaestio. A question or point of law often discussed or agitated, but not determined nor settled.

Which pretty much describes the fit between book sales and school visits down to the ground.  Opinions for and against can run strong.  More and more schools won't even consider it.  What are some of the advantages, disadvantages and methods of making book selling and signing part of an author event?

The pros:
* There's something pretty special about having a book signed just for you - it's a connection - it makes that author your author.
* And for the author, it's a brief but lovely chance to make a one-to-one contact, answer a question, share a smile or a joke.

The cons:
* Books are expensive, and many families are under enough money pressures already without adding one more.
* What about the kid who doesn't get a book - everybody remembers how it feels, being the one left out.  

The hows:
* A local bookshop comes in and deals with it all - providing stock, doing the selling.
* The school deals with a supplier (bookshop or direct with the publisher) and has a teacher or someone on hand for the nitty-gritty.  
* The author carries stock with them and handles the money.

Should book sales and signing be part of an author visit to a school?  What do you think is the best answer to this vexed and vexing question?  Or if there is no single answer, what do you think is the best compromise?  What pros and cons and hows have you experienced?

Let the conversation/discussion/agitation begin!

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

Monday, 19 February 2018

The new Book Buddy scheme - Lucy Coats

Authors almost always have too many books, and we're not the only ones. I know I do, because I like to keep up with what's going on in my industry (code for I am an inveterate and avid reader). Sometimes I'm lucky enough to be sent them by publishers, most times I buy them, and occasionally I'm given them by kind friends. In my house, they're in piles everywhere, double shelved on the groaning bookshelves, and generally taking over the whole place with their lovely colours and tempting contents. Quite regularly, once I've read them, I give some away to random kids, and to schools I visit. But there are still too many, and now I'm moving house, I need to downsize them considerably. That's why I was so thankful when the brilliant Maz Evans (author of the marvellous Who Let the Gods Out and Simply the Quest) set up the brand new BOOK BUDDY scheme. 

Book Buddy is very simple. It pairs people who have too many books (and who would like to donate them) with schools. It is a sad fact that school budgets are squeezed to the limit, many schools struggle to provide basic supplies to their students, and most often it's book provision which suffers. This is not a state of affairs any of us like, I don't think, and there will be some who argue that the government or local authority should step up and deal with it. They absolutely should, but meanwhile, while the politicians argue, kids are left without access to a school library or books which they can borrow.

I'm am no doubt preaching to the converted when I say that many studies have proven that the act of reading itself enhances intelligence and boosts brain power. But with school libraries either absent or ill-supplied and public libraries closing at a scary rate, many kids are left with little or no access to books in school or at home. We shouldn't need Book Buddy. But we do. So I've signed up to help, and it would be great if you could too. I personally would rather give my surplus books to kids who need them than have them hanging around like unread ghosts on my shelves.

If you're interested in finding out more, you can do so at book -- and if you have a local school, do encourage them to sign up too. The more the merrier!

OUT NOW: Cleo 2: Chosen and Cleo (UKYA historical fantasy about the teenage Cleopatra VII) '[a] sparkling thriller packed with historical intrigue, humour, loyalty and poison.' Amanda Craig, New Statesman
Also out:  Beasts of Olympus series "rippingly funny" Publishers Weekly US starred review 
Lucy's Website Twitter - Facebook - Instagram
Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Haunted Attic by Lu Hersey

Moving is traumatic. I know, because I moved this week. For me, the trauma wasn’t so much about the upheaval or change of neighbourhood –  it was dealing with the bodies in the attic.

Not my attic - way too interesting...

Somehow the loft had accumulated a number of dead relatives, and I had to clear everyone out. There weren’t any actual bodies of course (sorry to disappoint) - I’m talking about family history. Sentimental attachment. Guilt. More guilt. People’s entire lives in a few boxes.

I hate dark, spidery loft spaces, and have a fear of death by falling from a loft – so over the last 20 years, I’d been shoving things up there just to get them out of sight, thinking I’d deal with them later.

Bad idea. The day comes when you have to confront them all, and that time is when you move house. The loft had to be totally emptied, so I was forced to clear out the ghosts. All those things you get landed with when people die, the detritus left from other people’s lives.

Years ago, I had to translate a chunk of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the reign of Alfred the Great (an interesting man, who didn’t just burn cakes) as part of my English degree. It was about a visitor to Alfred’s court from somewhere in Scandinavia, telling them about the customs of his people.

King Alfred

When someone died in his community, all the dead person’s possessions were piled up in a big heap in the middle of the village. Then everyone raced to take what they wanted before the rest was burned. Alfred probably recorded this to make a point to his courtiers - that inheritance isn’t a foregone conclusion.

However, since King Alfred chose not to introduce this custom over here, we still end up dealing with our dead relatives’ possessions. If we’re lucky, these will include useful things, like treasure and property. Sadly, not in my attic. 

My grandmother was up there, confined to a box of photos of her family, a moth-eaten patchwork quilt, a horseshoe from her wedding cake, a few sad letters relating to the death of one of her children, and more on the death of my grandfather. My grandfather was divided between the photo box, and a collection of watercolours in varying degrees of awful.

An unknown dead relative from the attic, and his horse

 My mother took up a lot more attic space. After my father remarried, I got landed with all the photos ever taken of her, her books, all her dreadful paintings, and a collection of letters (which I’ve never read) between her and my father when he was away on National Service.  And all the letters she wrote to me when she knew she was dying. 

My mother with me, a long time ago...

So what we’re talking about is a lot of things you can hardly bear to look through, and leave you feeling like an emotional wreck when you do, but you feel obliged to keep. It’s all that is left of them. And that makes it very hard to get rid of.

Worse, my dead relatives were just the tip of the loftberg. There were all the paintings my children did at school. Four children can do a lot of paintings over the years. And they get a lot of school reports and bring home a mountain of school work. Two very large boxes and a trunk’s worth to be precise. Fortunately, my two youngest showed up to laugh at their old stuff and share the best of it with their friends online, and we managed to more than halve the quantity after some harsh quality control.

Lastly, there were the ghosts of my own past. Photos of people I’d forgotten existed, letters from old boyfriends, and piles of folders of ‘ideas’ (mostly pieces from magazines and old journals, all yellowing around the edges, and frankly the easiest thing in the loft to bin.) There were old computers I thought might still hold info I needed, old tvs that ‘might come in useful’, and tins of paint. Enough to paint entire mansions in a range of out-of-date colours.

My stuff was the easiest to deal with. I junked it all, entirely guilt free because it was mine to junk. My relatives were the real problem. In the end, I squeezed them into a few boxes, and the charity shop benefitted from the rest. Maybe other people will like the some of the terrible paintings. I thought about burning all my parents’ letters, but my youngest daughter persuaded me to keep them. So now they’re in a box marked ‘archive’ – and they’ll become her problem one day.  

But part of me is still tempted to dump all of it. Along with all the guilt and the sadness. As it is, I’ve spent much of the last year writing a book about people in a Mesolithic type environment who aren’t overloaded with stuff. In fact they own nothing.

It’s been very therapeutic...

Lu Hersey

Saturday, 17 February 2018

My Manic Schedule during WBD by Chitra Soundar

Every year schools across the world celebrate World Book Day, which this year falls on 1st March 2018.

Most schools (not all) decide to celebrate books and reading during this time of the year and on the day itself, children and often teachers dress up as book characters too.

For writers like me who go into schools to talk about writing and reading for pleasure, this is the busiest period of our annual schedule. I wrap up all my writing the week before the World Book Day and I cannot get back to my desk for almost a month.


It is amazing to visit schools, to meet with children and introduce my stories to them. It is heartening to see how schools practice reading for pleasure and incorporate books into their daily lives. Often the teacher or librarian (if the school still has one) who organises these events is doing this over and above their day job.

However many writers like me do wonder if there are alternatives to this adrenalin charged 2-3 week period of WBD tour most of us embark on. So if you’re a teacher or a librarian who organises events for schools, maybe some of these other ideas might appeal:

a)    A Day a Term – perhaps it would give a lot of focus and help with planning if there was one day in every term focussed on books and reading for pleasure where the school can come together. Or this could be a week.

b)    Alternate Days to WBD – As a writer from Asian background, I pulled together a list of dates where it would be lovely to bring in authors and books from different perspectives. Click here to download. 

c)     Virtual visits – some of us visit schools via Skype too. But it is tough to do virtual visits during the same week as WBD celebrations. Planning ahead will help you get both paid and free events with a multitude of authors into your schools. Check out Virtual Authors here.

d)    Patron of Reading – as Patrons of Reading, we visit our schools 3-4 times a year and use a whole day to connect with children about stories they love. Find out more here.

As a children’s writer, one of the biggest rewards of the job is to be able to go into schools and meet with children. It is a way to connect with our audience and also share the love of stories and reading. It is fabulous when we can inspire new writers and storytellers.

But it would be good that we can do this all through the year and not just during late February to early March. We do love to get away from our desks, washing-up and filing other times of the year too. So ring me right after Easter and we can get plan a school visit.

Are you a writer or a librarian or a teacher who has a different idea? Do you already do something amazing in your school that involves author visits but on different parts of the year? Tell us about it in the comments below.