The cave you fear…

…holds the treasure you seek. (Joseph Campbell)

People ask me why I choose to write for younger readers. Apart for the wonderful freedom on offer, (which I have posted about here) there is also the company of fellow children’s writers.

I belong to SCBWI-BI. The lovely Kathy Evans talks about reasons to join here. I would add more to her celebratory post. It’s warm-hearted people like all of Chi-SCBWI, and Candy Gourlay and Nick Cross and Nicky Schmidt and…and…and…far too many to mention that I need.

Some of the stuff I do frightens me.

I’m going into parts of my self that are dark and hidden and oppressive.

I really appreciate my support team standing at the surface, cracking jokes, willing me to come back safely, egging me on to go further. All the messages about my recent successes have astonished and delighted me.( A bit of a sugar rush, to be honest.) It may well be that other writers are equally close-knit – but I know I can rely on this lot.

Thank you fellow children’s  writers- and I promise to hold the rope while you go exploring.




What sort of writer do you want to be?

The viva voce for my MA in Creative Writing was on Monday. I have passed ( thanks to superb tuition from Greg Mosse) – and I am immediately wondering which subset in the Venn diagram of authors I should inhabit.

I’ve been asked to consider writing for adults. Straight off I flinch at that. I will admit to an entire Harry Ramsden’s on my shoulder about the status of children’s writers. It is compounded of my experience as a teacher that your rank is in direct proportion to the age of the children taught; the same impulse that made the ‘Children’s Writing IS a proper job’ badge sell out so quickly in November 2010, and Martin Amis’s remarks in February about brain injury and writing for children. The subtext is that writing for adults is somehow better, cleverer, more valuable.

Well, I’m with John Dougherty:

Don’t worry Martin. We can’t all be imaginative and versatile.

One of the things I admire most about the literature published for young people is the sheer range and breadth of ideas. Big ideas, written for people who will not be blinded by the effulgent beauty of your prose nor give one microfortnight of attention to reviews by your literary chums.

It is notable that David Almond (a literary hero to me) found a sense of liberation in writing for the young. I am put in mind of this concept:

Australian Aborigines say that the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.

Robert Moss, Dreamgates 

Quite simply, I believe young people are more likely to be receptive to the stories following me about and asking to be told than adults. And I bother to write because of my belief in those same young people, and what stories are for.

 Every word written, every sentence, every story, no matter how dark the story itself might seem, is an act of optimism and hope, a stay against the forces of destruction.

David Almond, Hans Christian Anderson Award acceptance speech

Now before I get all too Messianic, I’d also like to point out that despite all the moaning of the pessimists, the children’s book market is thriving. According the ‘The Bookseller’ in 2001 it was worth £193 million – and in 2010 £325 million. Christopher Paolini’s ‘Inheritance’ sold more than 76,000 copies in UK in first week of publication this November.
Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ (Man Booker winner) ? 14,600.
Children’s books often demonstrate the effectiveness of long tail marketing: they carry on being bought long after the brass bands and banners have left town.
It’s possible for me and my colleagues to do well.
When I decided to get serious about writing, I read Alison Baverstock’s unsettling but finally very useful ‘Is there a Book in You?’. She made it quite clear how important a support system is for any writer. My best scaffolding comes from SCBWI – I know I can contact wonderful people who will talk me down off the parapet, sort out my formatting issues or just plain be there. The conference in Winchester is a highlight of my year.
What other sort of writer could I possibly want to be?
Then come the next questions: YA or middle grade? Fantasy or thriller? Ghost stories or sea stories?
 to be continued….

Why bother?

You might well wonder. Why would any sane person face rejection after rejection, hours of work for an income of maybe £5k,  and people asking ‘so what’s your proper job?’ or ‘are you the next JK Rowling?’ One answer, of course, is that children’s writers and illustrators are not sane!

A recent  SCBWI group topic set by Candy Gourlay  was  “Authors and Illustrators in Waiting … How are you coping?‏”  Paul Morton of Hot Frog Graphics came up with an excellent response:

 ‘ keep at it and keep believing’

 I rather thought that could well be a SCBWI motto. It also set me to thinking about optimism in general.

It is hope that that inspires people to make New Year’s resolutions. Although we can be a little dismissive of such clichéd vows, we have to admire and learn from those who do make it through the grotty days of January and February sticking to their promises. The tough nuts who carry on cycling to the gym, the reformed smokers, the impressive slimmers – each deserves our admiration. Indeed, any sort of promise or vow is predicated on hope: I believe it is another reason why we love weddings, and why a baby brings joy.

Sometimes the sheer difficulty of attaining your dream can make hope shrivel. It seems hidden, and keeping going seems more a case of dogged determination than optimism. Tolkien had Aragorn hidden and named Estel  (Hope) as a child. He made the future king of Gondor wander the wilderness for the best part of sixty years. He suffers moments of terrible self -doubt:  “An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes  amiss”  – but his stubborn determination and belief in good over evil end in triumph.

It is also hope that makes campaigners speak up for the things that matter to them:  campaigner Steve Ross and children’s writer Michael Morpurgo bother to call on the government to “stand up” for libraries on Radio 4’s “You and Yours” as part of the show’s debate into library closures.  Why Kate Mosse, Philip Pulman and Alan Gibbons keep banging on about this too – because they have hope. And it was why anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano wrote:

I hope to have the satisfaction of seeing the renovation of liberty and justice, resting on the British government, to vindicate the honour of our common nature.

Just as well something else other than  the world’s ills came out of Pandora’s Box.

Books to build upon

First off, let me not claim any form of originality. It all probably started with my fab friend Dave Cousin’s Festive Fifteen  (well worth a look) – which then inspired the lovely Candy Gourlay. She wrote more about the longer term influences on her work – and so did the inspiring Keren David. Another couple of my favourite blogsters took up the baton – Nicky Schmidt and Kathryn Evans ( just because they’re yummy and my friends doesn’t mean I’d link unless they had something worth saying!)

My slant comes from a quotation passed round the  British SCBWI yahoo group – courtesy of the aforementioned Candy Gourlay:

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, the Meg Ryan character sums it up beautifully when she explained what her mum, an independent bookseller vs a discounting chain did:

“It wasn’t that she was just selling books, she was helping people become who they were going to be. When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading does.”

So I had a good think about ten books that could make me the writer I aspire to be.

  • ‘The Lord of the Rings’  by JRR Tolkien. This is terribly nerdy, not one you should admit to if you want to be taken seriously. I was allowed to read this ‘under the counter’ by a sympathetic librarian when I had finished all the children’s books in our little local library. Inside the plain dark covers I found such grandeur, such terror and beauty – not to mention a shieldmaiden and maps! This makes me want to write about big things.
  • ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ by CS Lewis  – in fact all the Narnia books. I loved the gloomy heroism of Puddleglum, Lucy’s innocence , the gallantry of Reepicheep and the redemption of  Eustace the dragon. All these inspire me to show loveable, fickle humane characters – I hope.
  • ‘The Water Babies’ Charles Kingsley – unabridged version! I was moved by Tom’s plight as a chimney sweep, delighted by his underwater adventures and terrified by Mrs Be-done-by-as-you-did. I should love to convey the sheer wonder of life that Kingsley does at his best, and to have that certainty of purpose shine through.
  • ‘The Children of Green Knowe’ by L.M. Boston. Oh, how I identified with the lonely Tolly so wanting brothers and sisters and finding that he had friendly ghost family. I have a prized letter from Mrs Boston and I have had the joy of visting Hemingford Grey. Her work is imbued with a great sense of place and its history – I aspire to that too.
  • ‘The Ghosts’ by Antonia Barber ( re issued as ‘The Amazing Mr Blunden’ after the film). I love ghost stories of any stripe -but this had such a sense of regret, of someone wanting to put things right (a little like ‘A Christmas Carol’) that  I loved it. I’d like the sense of compasssion from this.
  • ‘The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler’ by Gene Kemp. Spoiler Alert I was utterly thrilled by the undisclosed protagonist turning out to be a girl ( this was the Seventies) – I am still very, very interested in gender ascribed roles. I would still love to write a book where the protagonist might be male or female – and leave it to the reader to decide. Not a chance of getting published though – they wouldn’t know which shelves to put it on – or whether it should be black or pink.
  • ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman. Here, more recently, I found another world of big ideas – and Lyra Belaqua, what a heroine! I also have a soft spot for Lila in ‘The Firework Maker’s Daughter’. Unsurprisingly, I want to give my female characters room to express their courage and talents.
  • ‘A Hat full of Sky’ by Terry Pratchett. Tiffany Aching had to make an entrance, didn’t she? All the books with the witches in are brilliant, and Susan Sto Helit , and… and… Bother it – bung in all of Discworld. The man’s a genius and won’t be properly recognised by the-literary-powers-that-be because he has committed the ultimate crime of … being popular. People read him and laugh and so he can’t possibly be any good, can he? Well, if I could have a smidgeon of Sir Terry’s observation and good sense to sprinkle on my work, I’d be very pleased.
  • ‘Moonfleet’ by J. Meade Faulkner. An oldie but a goodie – this was read to our class way back in the Seventies and had us absolutely gripped with smuggling, diamonds, secret codes  and splintering coffins. I love derring-do – and I would love to grab my readers by the imagination like that did. Of course, it’s melodramatic and overblown and often sentimental – but then again, so am I.
  • ‘Kit’s Wilderness’  or anything else by David Almond. I’ve only read his work relatively recently – and I have been enthralled by his voice. It has such a sense of place, of his local character, without being off-putting. I was so heartened to read a regional voice that wasn’t clichéd – and got published. I have to be true to my roots too.

What would you like to suffuse from the books you love into the books you write?


Reading matters

Reading brings delight.

  • Reading matters because it opens the doors of imagination. You can escape into another world with the most amazing views and adventures – then return whenever you want. Michael Morpurgo can bring you pets to keep without any complaints.
  • Reading matters because it stretches your brain. You can learn new words, new concepts, new methods – and then baffle your friends.
  • Reading matters because it deepens your compassion. You are able to walk in another person’s shoes, you can share their hopes and dreams, understands their fears and sorrows – think of Candy Gourlay’s Tall Story and Meg Rossof’s What I Was.
  • Reading matters because it connects you to writers past and present, near and far. Laugh with Wodehouse and Philip Ardagh, shudder with Bram Stoker, Sarwat Chadda  and Jon Mayhew, wonder with Kathryn Langrish and Sitoshi Kitamura.
  • Reading matters because it takes you to new places and cultures. You could climb Everest in a wheelchair; then dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench; learn about Dunbi the Owl from the Worora people or celebrate The Day of the Dead in Mexico.
  • Reading matters because it takes you to ancient realms and possible futures. Fancy meeting Queen Hapshetsut and her beard, attending the Court of The First Emperor of China, designing your own vehicles ?
  • Reading maters because it’s funhow else can you enjoy the cracker jokes!

If  you feel as strongly about this as I do you might  want to blog and tweet about the decision, using #bookgifting and @booktrust and @savebookstart.

Please support Booktrust . Perhaps you might email Booktrust on  offering support. You could write to Mr Gove and to your local MP. Michael Gove changed his mind about school sport funding.

Read Keren David’s blog for an impassionerd article on this subject too.

This week’s whingeing


So why did what should have been a brilliant day for any normal person leave me in tears?

Lovely weather and a barbecue on the beach with a tripod cooking apparatus by Heath Robinson out of Bewitched! Delightful people: Anita Loughrey, Kathryn Evans and Candy Gourlay and then Hanna the Hungarian, plus a batch of assorted great kids. Even a bit of a splosh in the rather refreshing sea. Couldn’t fault it. So how come I felt so low?

The usual suspects: my innate sense of inadequacy and general patheticness. ( Told you you’d want to slap me.)

These are real people persons – oozing genuine warmth and affection for their children. Something of a contrast to my parenting skills. Gorgeous high-achieving but unspoiled offspring. I try to brazen it out about my lot – not an  ‘A’ level among them and me a teacher. Ho ho ho. No one is amused.

 I’m also shaken by their general talent and interestingness:

  • Candy – superb photographer, website designer and published author

  • Kathryn – brilliant blogger, belly dancing  beauty and funny farmer -with an agent

  •  Anita – witty, pretty and much published – I’ve even used her resources, for goodness’ sake…

Me. Mmmm. I have life on a plate and I still can’t get my act together.

I feel at sea with people  – I don’t get out very often. I try to tell a tale in ordinary conversation  but it falls away. People talk about something else because I’m boring. Or I miss the moment and an anecdote that might have been relevant becomes pointless. I try to be assertive: I just sound rude and pushy. What chance have I got at self-promotion in a hostile or indifferent marketplace when I can’t manage to get myself across in such a supportive environment?

Let me be quite clear I am not fishing for compliments, dear friends who read this. (Though, if you insist…) I’m just attempting to be honest in the faint hopes it might help

  1. me
  2. others who feel the same
  3. normal people to  understand us oddballs

‘The proper study of mankind is man’, Alexander Pope wrote. Well,  I think I might just have  a CSE in it.  Not brilliant when character is all important to a fiction writer. I expect I must be somewhere on the Asperger’s continuum – and so must Eeeyore and Puddleglum.

Reproduction of an original picture of Puddleglum by Illustrator Pauline Baynes

“Speaking as an outsider, what do you make of the human race?” as  our Dawn, my best friend, put it.

Brand New

or How to Get Noticed.

“…a prepossessing personality in an author is a great asset… “How to Get An Agent” by Philippa Milnes-Smith in  2010 A& C Black.

OK seems a good idea. I’d better get one. Let’s start off with interesting interests.

  1. Take up Belly Dancing like the  lovely Kathryn Evans. I suspect in my case the video would make people think of school blancmange and the little ditty beginning ‘Jelly on the plate…”
  2. Develop a musical talent – pace Jon Mayhew and his mandolin. I’m not sure three notes on the descant recorder’s really going to hack it on YouTube.
  3. Get clever with a puppet. Oh to work with the wonderful Woofy like Sue Eves. My poor old teddy has a squished nose where I used to stand on him to get at the book shelves. I don’t think he’s up to it.

Righto – how about developing a distinctive appearance?

  1. Grow a splendiferous beard like the lovely Mr Philip Ardagh. I do have the precedent of a fine hirsute lady relative but I lack the gravitas to pull it off, I fear.
  2. Sport magnificent and intriguing tattoos such as embellish Saviour Pirotta. Perhaps not. I never even liked peeling off the backing on the transfers as a child  – and it took me till I was 21 to get my ears pierced. Once.
  3. Become an all-round style icon like Sarah McIntyre of the Funky Glasses. Touch tricky for an unconstructed hippy, although I am quite good at dressing up. That’s if you count making a small tot cry when dressed up as a witch or having my picture labelled as a hobbit in the local paper when I thought I was Arwen Evenstar.

What about me? Perhaps I need to have a remarkable background.

  1.  Start at an interesting point in your life. Catherine Webb was only14 when first published ( I’m not sure that the ‘A Wet Windy Day in Wakefield’ featured in the Wakefield Express at 11 counts) and Mary Wesley started at 71.  I am 49 – ‘neither nowt nor summat ‘- as they say where I come from.
  2. Come from an intriguing culture. Candy Gourlay, that  fascinating Filipina, uses hers wonderfully in’ Tall Story’. Miriam Halahmy (what a cool name) has an Iraqi husband and all manner of family to call upon. Me – Wakefield in the Rhubarb Triangle of Yorkshire. Not the same, is it?

Oh dear. Perhaps I could hide behind other enticements?

  1. Bring out marketing goodies – let me see – a plush cuddly Giant Moray Eel? A wind-up Dave the Disastrous Diver: guaranteed to ruin any bathtime? Model of the Sinai Emperor – watch as it breaks up and sinks! Just not going to go with a Happy Meal.
  2. Feature really cool concepts. Oh dear,  I can’t nick off with  Sarwat Chadda’s kick-ass heroines and Templars or Nick Cross’s zombies. They wouldn’t all fit on my dive boat. Certainly not together.
  3. Promote Important Messages. Somehow “Don’t steal Ancient Egyptian artefacts, it will all end in tears” hasn’t got the moral integrityand pithyness of say The Lorax. Maybe ‘Be nice to fishes’. I could wear a badge. A very big badge.

I give up. I’ll just have to take a leaf out of all these brilliant people’s books  – and just write really, really well. And be myself.