Laiking about

No – I haven’t spelled it wrong; I’m using the dialect term from my childhood. ‘Laik’ – to play – is a word of Viking origin, as many are in Yorkshire. It’s also the root of a certain famous brick:

The name ‘LEGO’ is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “leg godt”, meaning “play well”.


I loved Lego. I only had red house bricks, some roof tiles and the odd see-through window as a child. But oh the things I created. Since my Dad was a builder, houses came first. I learned the hard way that you have to layer each row of bricks across the joins. Too long a stack of unkeyed bricks and it all topples over.

I got quite ambitious, architectural even. Castles, palaces and cathedrals – which became stage sets for my odd collection of figures to have adventures in. Later on, with my sons’ larger sets, Barad-dûr was recreated entirely out of black bricks. Great fun.

The point I’m making to myself is how often I had to take things apart and rebuild them. How I would disassemble an entire floor to get the chimney in the right place or take apart and rebuild a wall to create a jettied storey Medieval style. Hours of fun where I lost track of time.

That’s what ‘playing well’ can be; that deep interaction with what we do.

We love seeing young animals at play – the internet is full of them. The concentration and realness-to-them is so engaging. It’s not just cute – at best, it’s recalling our creative, experiment selves.

‘So,’ Wise-Writer-Self tells Maungy-Me, ‘you must approach your editing in the same spirit. Get laiking!’


The perfect is the enemy of the good.

There are few things I like better than dressing up. I have gilded memories of the costumes my immensely talented Nanna made for me and the Halloween theme at this year’s SCBWI Conference was a gift for me.


I also loved dolls with national costumes: I so yearned after a glossy satin Flamenco dancer in the Canary Isles, it hurt. I sought out books and my childish heart went out to those scenes with Children of the World linking hands. I confess: I went all gooey in ‘It’s a Small World’ at Disneyland.

Rarely have I been happier than when my Aunt from the US brought me a cowboy outfit – and a bow-and-arrow set. What I really really wanted was a Tiger Lily outfit, though: eagle feather head dress and everything. Now, I understand, costumes are a subject of dispute. Is it OK to wear a Native American outfit if you’re white? Part of me is very sad if it isn’t.

lillte white girl in native american costume

When I wore my Flamenco dress that Nanna created out of a shiny underskirt and red felt roses, I was Spanish. I had a fan and high heels and my hair piled up with a comb and a lace veil in it. This version of me was haughty and grown-up. I don’t think I was looking down on anyone Hispanic – rather, wistfully yearning to be them.

The same goes for the beautiful women from all over the world  I saw in films and cartoons and illustrations. I’ve been a ‘South Sea Islander’ from South Pacific, a Russian Princess and Heaven knows what else out of the dressing-up box. I used to draw children in national costumes – and was ever so disappointed England didn’t really have one.

I do understand they were stereotypes. I know there is far more depth and variety to any aspect of Chinese culture than, say, Lin Tang the splendidly villainous daughter of Fu Manchu or much more to say about black women than Lieutenant Uhura. Yet they were characters I loved to be – and they weren’t white.

It’s a similar issue with books. I wholeheartedly want there to be more diverse books in every possible dimension. Long ago I took on the teaching:

Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
― Mahatma Gandhi


I must be open to characters of any kind in my work.

A few years back, after a visit to the National Maritime Museum, a young black man ‘asked’ to be part of my Work-in-Progress. I wanted to do the right thing – so I went to the top: I asked Malorie Blackman.

‘Treat him with the same respect you would any other character,’ she said, ‘ do your research.’

So I did. And I learned all sorts of wonderful, terrible and unexpected stories. As it happened, Abednego took a bow – though he waits for his own story, I think. But one thing really stuck with me – the criticism of white writers, film-makers and so on who tried to show anyone who wasn’t the same as them.

I have absolutely no doubt that much is deserved reproof. I am braced to accept that I am over-sensitive, and that as a privileged, white woman [ oh do I hate those labels!] I haven’t a an angsty middleclass leg to stand on. Yet, to be frank and vulnerable, it put me right off trying.

I had no intention of tokenism, cultural imperialism or recreating Magic Negro stereotypes: I didn’t know what they were. The more I read, the more confused I became – and the more worried. The bolder part of me wanted to carry on regardless. Everyone has the same sort of lungs and spleen and tendons whatever shade of skin they bear – so they feel the same beneath, surely?

Yet I also knew that a person’s background shapes those feelings and how they are manifest. I just didn’t want to get it wrong. So I suppose I ducked it. When I reckoned up the gender balance and there were far too many male characters, Abednego disappeared. I miss him.

Portrait of Olaudah Equiano

Three key incidents confirmed my decision. Early on, I watched Rich Hall’s fascinating documentary ‘Inventing The Indian.’ Sadly, it’s not currently on i-player, though there’s a clip to give you a flavour. The main thread was how the media’s portrayal of Native American Peoples has born so little resemblance to their own truth. I knew some of this and learnt more.

Then the presenter got to ‘Thunderheart‘. He tore into it and I felt distraught. I had loved the film and OK, rather belatedly, it had made me respect Sioux culture. Was my judgement so crap? Had I no idea about anyone else but my narrow community?

Second was reviewing ‘Ghost Hawk’ by Susan Cooper. Although the book has its flaws, I thought the Pokonoket Indian boy’s journey to manhood both bold and fascinating. I mentioned this to a friend – whom I really, really respect. I think she would describe herself as ‘a person of colour’. She was not impressed. My mouth closed. My heart sank. How could I have got it so very wrong?

The third was another writer friend. She had been shortlisted in a competition promoting diversity. She had said how disappointed and small she felt when she went onto the stage for the awards. There in front was a sea of hopeful faces of every colour – but on the stage, the writers were all the same: white.

Neither she nor I can help our family background. I truly, truly wish there to be more diverse books written by more diverse authors – featuring characters of every stripe. And these books shouldn’t be shoved into a worthy-and-improving ghetto.

Griffon on the front

It’s perhaps only a small thing but I was enraged by the difference in the two covers for a book I was writing about for Serendipity Reviews – ‘Transcendence’ by CJ Omololu. One clearly showed the mixed heritage [am I even supposed to say that?] love interest – but the other ditched him. Being seen is crucial. Books are both windows – and mirrors.

white-washed cover

So that leaves me with a big question to which I have no answer. Is it better to have more characters from different backgrounds which are not that well done – or a fewer that portray cultures more accurately?

For myself, I tend towards the better-a-bit-of-a-caricature-than-nothing camp. Stalking invisible elk in plastic beaded moccasins is better than never trying at all.

You may well have different view – I would welcome the debate.

Some resources you might enjoy too:

An illustrated guide to writing people of color


Long list of History’s greatest Black achievers.

Happy to add more – just tell me in the comments.

A Story for Samhain

The Crying Valley

Lumb Mill Colden Clough adapted from a photograph by Michael Ely
Lumb Mill Colden Clough adapted from a photograph by Michael Ely

Why did they call it The Crying Valley? The walker skirted a stagnant dam, puzzled.

A derelict mill chimney pinned the bottom of the gorge in shadow. The Pennines hid the sun and the first voice came.

‘I wants my Ma.’

Far from her East End workhouse, a child sobbed.

with thanks to Jill at Lumb Bank

Perks of being a reader

Amongst all the debate about Kathleen Hale’s piece in the Guardian and the Goodreads reviewer allegedly* hit over the head with a bottle by an enraged author, I want to put my emphasis on the positive aspects of reading and reviewing.

*it is under police investigation at present

10 reasons to review - with examples

  1. Finding works and writers you never expected – Gail Carriger’s Etiquette & Espionage, China Mieville’s Railsea, Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne Trilogy, Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who …series
  2. Seeing  authors grow and change over time – Frances Hardinge, Chris Priestley, Celia Rees, Jonathan Stroud
  3. Developing relationships within the community – readers, writers, publicists, editors. Chutzpah pays off.  My experience so far has been overwhelmingly good. I love it when I tweet or comment and make someone’s day – or I get hold of a book I really wanted.
  4. Improving your understanding of the book market. I’ve much more idea of age-ranges, the style of different imprints and the likely readership than I had before.
  5. Matching the right book with the right reader. I cannot emphasise this enough. A reviewer’s purpose is to unite the people who like that-sort-of-thing with their preferred reading material. It’s not for me to judge – the thing’s been written. I know what love and care goes into the vast majority of writing for young people that I read – what earthly good could come of me slagging it off?
  6. Investigating good and sometimes great writing. How does it work? What can I steal?  [ Please don’t take that too literally] Even with works that really aren’t my thing, I have learned a lot by thinking about why.
  7. Inspiring me to write. We’re all ‘just adding pebbles to the cairn’ as Maeve Binchy put it so beautifully. Not rivals – fellow creators.
  8. Receiving books for free – how wonderful is that? If I can bear to, I pass appropriate ones to my local library – doubly pleasing.
  9. Occasionally getting books well before they come out. I feel so honoured when that happens. Hint hint publishers!
  10. Pleasure.


I mostly write for Serendipity Reviews and occasionally for Fantasy Book Review. I read the whole book – or I don’t review it. Why not join me?


Coming round to the Dark Side

On Tuesday, I had the rather tremulous pleasure of visiting the British Library exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination‘. Indeed, there was a certain amount of trepidation involved – going up to That London – and not knowing what to expect. Would it be over in a flash and leave me at a loose end? Would it be tacky, or too full of jargon and conceit to enjoy?

I had no need to worry. I shall try to avoid ‘spoilers’ – but if you want surprises, just stop here at the end of this sentence: it’s fascinating and diverse. I wrote over twenty pages of notes – but you won’t get all of them, I promise.

There is a chronological thread; you start with The Castle of Otranto. Don’t miss the curious Czech film – and try imagining what the transparencies would look like backlit with flickering candlelight. I am a bit of a fan, so many of themes were familiar. Still, it was a treat to see exemplars of the Sublime up close, as a for-instance. As long as I can remember certain places – gorges, mountains, waterfalls, ruins, castles… have thrilled me.

Lady Blanche crosses the Ravine… by Nathaniel Grogan

That’s none too weird, you might say. But then some frissons of pleasure I had mingled with concerns about what these said about me. I felt a surge of delight when I re-encountered old friends like Count Dracula and Carmilla. I wished I hadn’t got rid of my LPs, posters and books.

Was this stuff I should enjoy?

When prompted to think about the real Terror in Revolutionary France, I faltered. My vision of Gothic is one of disturbing beauty, of hidden desires. I cheerfully admit that it had much to do with my adolescent sexuality.

But extreme violence – where did that sit in my understanding? I have to say I felt nauseous contemplating the Jack the Ripper letter. Violence against women is not a matter for my entertainment. This was an ethical challenge.

Image by James E. Nicol

As you may know I am fond of dressing up. Perhaps my Gothic side is merely superficial, put on like the Blackpin veil ? But that doesn’t explain why this weird disconnect troubles me so much. There’s deep ambivalence here – I do love and yet I fear I should not.

It is not resolved. I have found some comfort in the thought that expressing the darker side can be, perhaps, cathartic. I believe, for example that Boris Karloff was a perfect gentleman – and I know Chris Priestley (talented artist and cracking writer) is a delight to engage with.

And after all, the Gothic Imagination deals with the two biggies Love and Death – like the best opera. [Lots of similarities there, now I come to think of it.]

Il Commendatore by Anna Chromy

The best resolution I have found to this debate comes in the words of Cornelia Funke, though she is talking about fantasy in general:

 If you cannot imagine another world, you won’t be capable of changing this one. The role of the writer is to ask the questions that others may not get round to asking, to fish for the unspoken truth.


full article here c/o David Almond

I really don’t have an answer – do you?

Gone – but not forgotten [quite]

Apologies if you were waiting to learn which character I chose for the SCBWI Agents’ Party. I went for Tolly.

Inside Tolly’s bedroom at Greeen Knowe

For those of who you have not had the pleasure, I refer to Toseland Oldknow in L.M.Boston’s truly enchanting ‘The Children of Green Knowe‘. He is a lonely boy – who makes friends with the ghosts of children long gone in his great grandmother’s ancient house.

I wanted so much to be like Tolly – and in some ways, I still do. Slipping in and out of time, finding companionship in strange places – that’s my world at its best.

Happily, you can visit Lucy Boston’s fascinating house and garden – and the 60th Anniversary of  the first of the Green Knowe books will be on the 9th November this year. There will be a celebration at Hemingford Grey. Do go if you can.


Character Actress

I’d never make a Hollywood leading lady – but I can do character.

This evening I am braving possible thunderstorms and the rumblings of my own trepidation to attend  the annual SCBWI BI Agents Party at Foyles Grand Design of a new bookshop. Choosing what to wear was tricky enough – but archfiend Nick Cook has issued us with a second badge.

We have to select one character from children’s lit we’d like to be. Crumbs. Where to start? All of them is not an acceptable answer. One close to me seems good.

Hermione? Well, I am a bit of know-it-all but she is too recent. If I included all the  children’s characters I have grown to love as an adult, it would be impossible. Also I suspect Hermione will be very popular – as will delightful bookworm Matilda.

Eowyn? I think that’s cheating. OK I read LOTR when I was still a child but she’s not really a children‘s character. So how about Alan Garner’s Susan? Could be – I was utterly convinced that a bracelet of my grandmother’s with blue tear-drop stones was a magical talisman – and I’d get two books to inhabit (three if you count ‘Boneland’).

What about the other Susan – Narnian queen and healer ? Well, putting aside The Problem of Susan for another day, she does get four books to go at – but she is a bit of a bystander. I feel like that with Jane Drew in ‘The Dark is Rising’ books – I don’t really remember her that well.

That goes for many others – and I won’t pick ones I only really know from films or TV. Princess Eilonwy from The Chronicles of Prydain is too pretty, and so too is Princess Irene. Never could  be doing with that. I will admit to fancying a few ‘baddies’ , though. Empress Jadis of Charn – who wouldn’t want to  be remembered this way?

But she was a dem fine woman, sir, a dem fine woman.

That’s grown up me speaking, I suspect. Still, I’m far more fond of Captain Hook than Tinker Bell or Wendy – though I do have soft spot for Tiger Lily. She used bow-and-arrows in my mind – and how marvellous was that?

Of course, I can gender-swap. That gives me Kay Harker and Eustace Scrubb. Yes I know – Eustace is a complete prig – but he gets to be a dragon and learns his lesson. I’ve always loved that. I can identify with the miseries and misfits – Eeyore, Puddleglum, Bard the Bowman [though he gets a bit grand].

Well, time has run out. I have made my choice. If you’re at the Agents Party, you’ll know. If not, I will reveal all tomorrow.

Of riffs, tweets and bees


Twitter can be a source of unabashed delight, I want to tell all the non-Tweeters out there. I spotted a lovely picture of a white bee posted by Kate Long – and alerted Joanne Harris to it. Those who follow her will know she starts every #storytime with

There is a story the bees used to tell, which makes it hard to disbelieve..

It seemed likely she’d enjoy it as much as I did. And then one bit of sharing led to a happy little exchange of riffs on the white bee theme. Joyous.

From that exchange, a little story has emerged in a flurry of wings and pale fur. I hope you enjoy ‘A Tale of White Bees‘.

In the Light of Day

By now, there will be plenty of reviews and critiques of Kate Bush and her concert last night in Hammersmith. Fans will chant a hymn of adoration: share, relive and adorn their experience. Detractors will mock and sneer to amuse their tribe.

My approach is neither of those things.

I write from my perspective – way up close to the deluxe beryl green art deco ceiling of the Apollo – for no such defined readership. Lucky me,  I have few expectations to meet.

Never For Ever by Will-O'Mailley - non-commercial reuse

As we waited for her first concert after thirty-five years, my husband wondered aloud what she might be feeling. I thought about that too. How I have so often read artists in different media say:

I wonder if I can do it again? Will I pull it off this time?

And the astonishing thing, at least to me as a beginner with so much to learn, is that the most established, practised and loved artists in any field feel the same. Over and over again truly creative people doubt themselves.

From what I have read and understood the hard way, there are two ways to get through this. Both require a particular kind of focus. Not straining, not blinkered, but a sort of yearning.


First is a deep involvement with the piece of art itself – for itself. Growing it, wondering at it as an entity with its own existence. Through nurturing the song, the story, the dance, you lose sight of any pointing, leering critics and the dark pitfalls of the ego. Putting the sculpture, canvas or poem at the centre of the process means all helpful suggestions can be accepted – from whatever source.

This also means waiting until the text is ready to be performed, until the oils are quite dry and the frame is gilded, until all the right sound effects have been sourced.

Secondly, when leading this precious new being out onto the stage, introduce it first to just one person. Read your opening chapter for that one listener who truly hears what you’re saying. Focus on delighting that girl with the open face, that boy with his head cocked, paying attention.

I began to voice my focus-on-the-work-in-hand theory to my husband. Then the first stirrings on the stage led to joyous tumult all around us – fans standing and calling and waving their arms. There was no chance of discussion.

ticket fish painted on

Even the tickets were art.

In the interval, I read the programme. It’s more of a work of art tracing the blooming of the stage show than any practical guide to what happened  on stage. What struck me, though, was how the project had become an entity in Kate Bush’s experience – an ‘it’.

As for focusing on one person, I have no idea if she did that. What I observed was a woman surrounded by a creative hive and its outpourings. Protected perhaps, yet at the heart of the events. As the music and drama and stories burgeoned, it seemed to me she loosened. The stories the music told began to dance through her and that lovely voice soared free again. Older and different in timbre, certainly, but recognisably hers.


Something I long to do.

I do not have the body of work in my past that she has – but to see a mature woman create something so idiosyncratic, risk it all in the public view and then triumph on her own terms is a joy.


Before the Dawn

I tried to have a nostalgic wallow – a warm sound-bath of memories from the 70s onwards. We had the snacks, we had the beer and we watched two hours of Kate Bush on BBC4 – her career and her performances.

It turned out quite differently.


That voice split open my carapace. The notes burrowed somewhere behind the centre of my ribs and gave my heart room to swell. How could I have forgotten how much those songs meant to me? The words gave me no chance to appreciate their cleverness in some filtered way – they swooped in and demanded to be loved again.


I wonder, does it hurt hermit crabs to creep out of their too-small homes? It hurt me to be excavated like that but – ‘what a lovely feeling!’ 

Those songs draw me into other worlds I desire to experience – so many lyrics I have learned by heart. And they dance in my mouth, they move me literally. Her passionate vulnerability rouses mine. Like dry moss in a downpour, it twists, stretches, grows green and fresh again.

Exuberance is Beauty – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell, 1790 – 1793

She sought her voice in her first recordings, tried out all manner of characters – and adolescent me went along for the ride. Alone in my attic bedroom, my shadow was Kate’s. It spread long fingers over the postcards of Pre-Raphaelite beauties on the sloping walls, and swirled amongst the incense trail and cobwebs. It became the woman in The Warm Room, clawed at Heathcliff or flew off In Search of Peter Pan.


Kate Bush’s songs are full of narrative; poetic, sometimes impressionistic, but still they tell stories or fragments of them. I recall that in one of her rare interviews she echoed this sentiment from one of my favourite writers:

I am far more interested in other people than in talking about myself – Joanne Harris

They both want to give the stories themselves a voice – I admire that so much.  I am in very good company: Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry are amongst the writers who treasure that literary spirit. How could I not adore a singer whose first hit was based on Emily Brontë?

My adult self does not wish to be her, but I’ll have a shot of that engaging weirdness. I’ll knock back a tincture of esoteric flavoured by a dash of out there and infused with the dark and ethereal.


I rejoice that her songs and voice and their meanings have deepened over time. It takes more musical power to crack open scar tissue and release that spinning, yearning girl of the Seventies. So many moments of pleasure, jugsful that refresh and sometimes chill the jaw with a rush of pain.

I will take long inspiring gulps on Tuesday, even if my eye-teeth howl like banshees – and there will be no barriers between us if I can help it.


I will be at the Hammersmith Apollo on Tuesday 26th August. Please do say hello.
[Heaven help anyone whose I-Pad, phone or any other gizmo gets in my way, though!]