Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lest we forget

This week, on 22nd July, was the exact 800th anniversary of the massacre at Béziers. Did you read anything about it in the papers? See an item on TV? Get a newsfeed or other alert about it? No, neither did I.

So I'm going to write about it here.

The Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent 3rd against the Cathars in what is now the Languedoc region of France and mustered in Lyon in June 1209. It was led initially by Arnaud-Aimery, the Abbot of Citeaux, who was a Papal Legate.

When they reached Béziers, they sent its bishop in to negotiate with the citizens to hand over the 220 or so heretics listed as being in the town. They refused. By a fluke, the French army got into the city and started looting and killing.

People shetered in the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire and the church of Mary Magdalene, whose Feast day it was. They were all slaughtered - men, women, children, priests - burned or hacked down and the churches set fire to. It was on this occasion that the words "Kill them all - God will know his own" were attributed to Arnaud-Aimery.

He could have said them; he certainly wrote to the Pope saying that his army had killed 20,000 people that day. Twenty thousand people, two hundred and twenty of which were designated heretics. You can do the maths.

What does this have to do with books? I have written one about it, called Troubadour, published on 3rd August. So you can regard this as a shameless plug. Or a memorial to the brave citizens who were murdered 800 years ago in the name of religion.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Death of a fairy

I suppose I first met Naomi Lewis at a publishing party about thirty-five years ago. Over the next three decades, she was always there, always the same, a tiny figure dressed in black (invariably) and always at the centre of a group of fascinated listeners.

Chris Powling confided early on that he believed she was a fairy. She certainly knew how to enchant. I used to take my three daughters to some of these parties and she was unfailingly kind to them and genuinely interested in them. She heartily approved of the fact that we were all vegetarians (this is no longer true of the youngest) and I could not get her to read Peter Dickinson's The Dancing Bear, which I thought was his best book, because she would not even consider a story which touched, even sympathetically, on any harm to animals.

She explained to me at one such party - the only way we ever met - about how she rescued London pigeons that had cotton or nylon tangled round their feet. Although I share her compassion for animals, I would find it VERY difficult to pick up a pigeon, let alone untangle anything from its claws.

Her reviews of children's book in the Observer were always illuminating and beautifully written. And her collections of re-tellings of fairy stories will remain on my shelves for ever.

She was ageless and asexual and able to do things I couldn't, like a true fairy. It's a few years now since I'd seen her at a party but I had no idea that she was only 26 months short of her centenary. I don't know what her actual funeral will have been like, but I like to think of it as William Blake's vision of a cortège of grasshoppers and a rose-leaf for a bier.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

In praise of writers

This weekend there was a conference in Bristol all about Diana Wynne Jones. Not like the fanfests that are Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett conventions but but a proper academic conference dedicated to the work of one writer, which is a rare honour - especially in the children's book world. Sadly, in the end Diana herself was not well enough to attend, which must have been a disappointment for her as well as all those delegates and speakers gathered together.

Still, it must have given her a warm glow and writers need this. They need constant praise from reviewers, fans, peers, academics and family members, because their work is necessarily solitary and without feedback. This is why they experience such pain when they get a bad, or even snide, review.

Recently my namesake Alice Hoffman reacted so badly to a less than positive review of her latest novel in the Boston Globe that she posted the reviewer's address and phone number on Twitter and encouraged her readers to write or ring to blast her with their displeasure. Hoffman has since apologised and deleted her Twitter account but the bad smell remains.

We all hate bad, lukewarm, innacurate or spoiler reviews - I had one in the Times once that began "This book made me feel sick"! - but there is only one possible response: dignified silence and a hope of boomerang karma.

The other side of the coin is that you don't know how to rate praise from someone until you know what else they like. I've lost count of the number of fan e-mails I've had that say "You are my second favourite writer after X" where X = someone like Christopher Paolini!

It might be over-fussy to care about the literary standards of those who praise us. But I'm afraid I do. And that includes reviewers. But I won't be tweeting about it.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

A first and big feet

This is the first time ever that the Carnegie Medal has , in 72 years, been awarded posthumously. And it has gone to Siobhan Dowd, for Bog Child, the last book she finished, just a few months before her death from cancer in 2007.

A very shouty David Fickling, who published all Siobhan's novels, said she would have been "so wickedly delighted to have won ... the Big One." It was an emotional moment when the prize was announced and all three of Siobhan's sisters were there to accept it on her behalf, Denise thanking David and the two other people who had helped to launch Siobhan's career - Writer Tony Bradman and her agent Hilary Delamere.

But it was not an emotional decision; the book has been widely praised for its beautiful writing and the accomplished interweaving of the plots of hunger strikes in Northern Island and an ancient corpse of a young girl found by archaeologists. It tells the story of Liam whose older brother is close to death in prison, following Bobby Sands, and the history of the child found in the bog.

Earlier, Catherine Rayner had charmingly accepted the Kate Greenaway Medal for Harris Finds his Feet, a picturebook "about a learning curve" in which a hare grows into his outsize feet. Much was made of Catherine's own size eights, which were discreetly hidden behind the podium.

Behind me were sitting an earlier short-listed author Linda Newbery and 1976 winner K M Peyton, in front of me Siobhan Dowd's agent and beside me one of the judges. It was a special place to be on a special day.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Parental Guidance

I had to read this, didn't I? And I found it absolutely compelling, in spite of its flaws. (Must write a post one day about how page-turning does not necessarily = excellent).

I actually think it's much better than the Booker Prize-winning Possession, where the story in the past was so much more interesting than the one in the present, and almost a masterpiece.

It is big in scope, the plot taking us from 1895 to the aftermath of the Great War, and it is well written. I'll do the synopsis quickly because if you read literary reviews at all you must be aware of the underlying story.

It charts the development of four families, two called Wellwood, one called Cain and one called Fludd. (Now you'd have to be VERY secular and ignorant not to see the Biblical overtones in this choice of names). Olive Wellwood, who recalls Edith Nesbit, is Socialist whose children's stories keep the wolf from the door when her husband, Humphrey loses his job as a banker through writing inflammatory articles. They have seven living children, only one born after the beginning of the book, but in time we learn that not all seven share the same two parents.

Olive's sister Violet lives with the breeding pair as an unpaid nurse and nanny and there are many comments about who is the real mother, the one who gives birth or the one who raises the child, which gain an added poignancy as the children's biological parentage is revealed.

Humphrey's brother Basil is a real banker and has two children, the older of whom flirts with Marxism in Germany. Prosper Cain has two children too and is a widowed Major working at what will become the V & A. Three more children for the monstrous genius Benedict Fludd, a potter who sexually abuses his two daughters, with his wife's knowledge and then makes obscene pottery based on their genitals. (He is clearly suggested by Eric Gill, although one reviewer referred to him merely as a "bully").

Are you keeping up? That's fourteen children and adolescents lined up near the beginning of the novel. But they are not all. The two most interesting are not from this Edwardian class of money, privilege and the luxury of having political opinions. Philip Warren, the self-taught artist found hiding in the V&A in the first chapter, and later his sister Elsie both end up in the Fludd household. A German puppetmaster has teenage sons; the young people proliferate like William Morris leaves in the fabric of the novel.

Olive and Humphrey Wellwood are in their way monsters as bad as Benedict Fludd; incredibly selfish about their sexual appetites and need for flattery, they also neglect their children and think they don't need to be told who their parents are. Olive compounds this by leading a sort of vampiric life, sucking the childhood out of, in particular, her favourite eldest son, Tom. Each child has a book written specially for him or her, not for publication.

This is a kind of extension of the labelling that all parents are prone to do to their children: the sensitive one, the clever one, the unconventional one. Olive pins her children's lives to these stories as unemotionally as if she were collecting butterflies and doesn't notice when the stories no longer fit.

But there are other monsters in this book too, namely Herbert Methley, a ghastly naturist novelist who preys on young women and is the cause of two illegitimate pregnancies.

So, a large cast of characters and it is unwieldy, particularly near the beginning. Byatt tells the names of every guest at Midsummer Party given by the Wellwoods - and what names! Pomona Fludd, August Steyning, Griselda Cain, Florian Wellwood. Not content with that, she has to tell us what every single one of them is wearing, in some detail. And this is not the only time.

This is partly what stops it short of being her masterpiece. Either she needs a braver editor or she needs to listen to the editor she has. In this encyclopaedic charting of details, which can be very telling, she lapses into the flabby because of not knowing where to draw the line between what she knows (and has thoroughly researched) and what the reader needs to know.

And we all know what's coming don't we? 1914 looms like a brooding presence over the whole book. But for Tom, a more personal, localised tragedy removes him from that option. His mother dramatises his story without telling him and that violation, piled on top of the physical and sexual abuse that caused him to run away from his private school and become almost a wild boy of the woods, precipitates him towards a different end. What's the good of having enlightened creative parents if they can't save you from torment and then betray you publicly?

In a spectacular display of parental neglect, Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland lost their son Fabian to a tonsilitis operation performed in their kitchen when he was only fifteen. They had forgotten that he shouldn't have food before an anaesthetic and, left alone, he choked on his own vomit. I'm sure A S Byatt knew this story. Her own son was killed in an accident at the age of eleven. These facts resonate throughout The Children's Book.

Towards the end, when we are in the thick of the war and its aftermath, Byatt interleaves a poem written by Julian Cain about the names soldiers give to the trenches and I couldn't read it. I didn't want to read a poem at that point; I needed to know who survived and who didn't. I doubt I was alone in that.

And she has a tendency to introduce charcters and tell us lots about them and then abandon them.

But my God, she can write! No-one else I know has pulled off so well the descriptions of imaginary works of art, particularly those of Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren. For those alone it is worth reading The Children's Book.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bearded author expelled from Facebook

Famously bearded children's author Philip Ardagh (the best-selling Eddie Dickens books) has until recently been a very visible (well, partly) presence on Facebook, regularly commenting on the status of friends, many of whom are also children's writers and illustrators.

Until he took it into his head to wish someone a happy wedding anniversary and then compounded the felony by wishing someone else a happy birthday. He received two warnings from Facebook about abusive behaviour and has now disappeared from the site.

All his posts have also been removed.

But Philip's friends have not taken this lying down; as well as petitioning Facebook to reinstate this harmless if bumbling giant, many of them have donned similar beards in protest (see the Book Maven, above).

But wait - could this all just be a cunning plan? Philip has a new book out - four in fact - called Grubtown Tales, published by Faber. Surely not even PA would stoop to PR that involved his Facebook friends making fools of themselves in photoshopped beards?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The tantalising gap

The charm of this photo of two laureates embracing justifies its place here, even though it is a bit blurry! The Maven was sitting on a windowsill 31 floors above Tottenham Court Road/Oxford Street (on the inside, naturally) on Tuesday and taking photos from a distance over the heads of a large and enthusiastic audience.

The tension was ratcheted up as more and more lovely people came to tell us what a great job Mike Rosen had done for the last two years (hear, hear) and what an exciting two years we had to come. Viv Bird from Booktrust, Sue Wilkinson from MLA, Toby Bourne of Waterstone's, Lord Chris Smith ("So nice not to be an MP these days!"), Julia Eccleshare, and then Mike Rosen, the outgoing Laureate.

He's started the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the A-Z of Poetry (from Agard to Zephaniah) and the Poetry on YouTube project, which his son Joe has been working on. He made a dramatic difference to a school in Cardiff, the subject of BBC4 documentary and has launched the Just Read initiative for schools (of which more anon). And he has been a powerhouse of energy as a champion of children's books and reading.

Mike said we are at a vital moment in the history of the book, when we need to decide whether they are for everyone or for a self-selecting minority.

Then came Andrew Motion, the outgoing Poet Laureate, who has worked closely with the Children's incumbent in the ten years of the younger laureateship. He described the title as an "honour, a benediction, a commendation and a challenge" and if anyone knows what he's talking about it's him.

Then came at last the big announcement - that the Children's Laureate for 2009-2011 would be
Anthony Browne.

This, although not a surprise, had been a well-kept secret. It was time for another illustrator, since we hadn't had one since Quentin Blake, the first, and Anthony Browne is a hugely popular and judicious choice. He has won the Hans Anderson Medal, so has enormous prestige internationally. More importantly, his work, with its gorillas and chimps and references to art and disturbing background details in which floral wallpaper might turn into pigs if you don't keep an eye on it, is instantly recognisable to and enjoyed by children.

He will be a terrific laureate, concentrating on picturebooks and the "tantalising gap" between words and pictures. He will get us all playing the "Shape Game" that he invented with his brother Michael - there to play it again on stage at Centrepoint. As Anthony said, "Everything comes from somewhere else."

The Maven expects some very good things to come from this appointment.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The malodorous one is 21

To Notting Hill for a twenty-first birthday party. Kaye Umansky's Pongwiffy, the witch with a personal hygiene problem, celebrates her majority this year by being re-issued by Bloomsbury.

The first title is Pongwiffy Back on Track, about the O'Lumpick Games, so very topical. But there are six backlist titles, all re-illustrated by Nick Price in the new look you can see on the witch's birthday cake.

Bloomsbury are bringing out one a month, so you can follow the smelly witch's fortunes like a soap opera.

It was a very happy occasion, with no need at all for air freshener as this very popular author celebrated her latest success. Kaye Umansky is a great champion of short funny books for children and has certainly written many of them herself.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Another Frances LIncoln story

Well, I know they are one of my publishers but this is a good news story. We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures has just won a special award in the category English 4-11 Best Children's Illustrated Book. It was a bold move to choose to illustrate such a set of concepts and Amnesty International were the publishing partners. Many illustrators, such as Jane Ray and Marcia Williams, contributed pictures which are far from grim.

And at a time when Aun Sung Su-Kyi is on trial again and we are not to be shown any further images from Abu Ghraib we might think there's never too early an age to introduce children to the concept of Human Rights.

The Book Maven's been away, sweltering in record-breaking heat in Italy. Then she came back and found it almost as hot here. Not to seem ungrateful, she is glad that it will be a bit cooler, with so many trips to London coming up.

And just to avoid charges of partisanship, she raises a metaphorical glass to Usborne Fiction (who have not published her) in celebration of their first five years. They are marking the anniversary with a competition to find new young writers. Full details are at:

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Moi, j'aime le noir

I've blogged about thsi book before in my Bologna report and now I have a copy of my own, with an English translation.

Marre du Rose is a book I'd like to see every little girl in the western world read! "Sick of Pink" is what the title means and it begins, "Moi, j'aime le noir."

You and me both, sister! What does pink mean to you? To me it means Katie Price, Barbie, favours at weddings that cost an average £20K in the UK (Yes, average! Yes £20K!), rosebuds and kitten noses on cutesy stationery etc etc.

Black means midnight, shape disguising chic, witches' cats, dark chocolate, Gothic, oh and yes = beautiful. What's not to like? Of course I'm not advocating funereal outfits for seven-year old girls, just an acknowledgment, on book jackets and elsewhere, that there ARE other colours! And not just purple, turquoise and lilac either.

I LOVE this book and I hope it will be published in the UK and America. And sell gazillions of copies.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Diversity and perversity

The winner of the first Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Award is Christy Burne with Takeshita Demons. Her novel, about a Japanese schoolgirl, will be published by Frances Lincoln and she wins £1,500.
Geraldine Brennan wrote a thoughtful piece about the award and the need for more diversity in children's books in the Times:
and opened the floodgates to a horrifying reaction in the comments. The very least was along the lines of "they should publish their own books."

And these are responses to a broadsheet article, albeit online. I've found the same with the Guardian website. It's so bad that I've almost decided never to read online comments on anything, since they always seem to bring out a hang 'em and flog 'em, send 'em all back where they come from squad of commenters, who, I hope, represent a tiny minority of the population.

More news from Frances Lincoln is that Janetta Otter-Barry, former Children's Editorial Director, is to have her own list. Janetta will publish about twenty books a year in a very hands-on way as commissioner and editor. For the main FL children's list, Maurice Lyon will be Editorial Director. And both lists will continue to have a strong multi-cultural flavour.

This is in accord with the beliefs and principles of their founder, Frances Lincoln, who died unexpectedly, aged 55, in 2001. Since then the company has been run by her widower, John Nicoll, who has continued to publish children's books that accord with Frances's philosophy.

How pleased she would be with the new developments.

Monday, 11 May 2009

May books

May 7th and thereabouts has become a very popular date for publishers to bring out new titles for juniors and teens. Here is a selective list:
N.M. Browne Warriors of Ethandun
Fiona Dunbar Tiger-Lily Gold
Adèle Geras Dido
Liz Kessler Philippa Fisher and the Dream-maker's Daughter
Katherine Langrish Dark Angels
Tabitha Suzuma Without Looking Back
Leslie Wilson Saving Rafael

Now, I have not managed to read all of these yet but I can tell you that two of them at least are corkers. I read Saving Rafael some time ago in proof and thought it very strong. It's basically a love story of a German teenage girl in Berlin before and during WW2 and her Jewish friend Rafael. Some of it makes for very bleak reading but it's not a run-of-the-mill tale of star-crossed lovers and Leslie Wilson keeps you guessing till the last minute about whether they will escape and survive. An earlier novel of hers, Last Train to Kummersdorf, was very well received.

Completely different but very accomplished is Katherine Langrish's Dark Angels. This writer arrived on the scene with her three books about trolls ( a trollogy?): Troll Fell, Troll Mill and Troll Blood. Dark Angels is different again, a story set in the 12th century, about a boy called Wolf who escapes from a punitive monastery and finds a wild elf-child, who has been abandoned by her people.

Both of them are captured by Sir Hugh, a crusader and troubadour, and taken back to his home, where his daughter Agnes is intrigued by both of them. Sir Hugh is maddened by grief for his dead wife and believes that the elves could restore her to him. So it falls to Wolf to try and teach the child to speak.

But a plot summary doesn't really do this book justice. I loved the way the final part spiralled into some very weird places but never out of control.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Coraline the movie

I saw this last night, in glorious 3D, with special specs, such as I haven't used since I was a child. Not the cardboard framed, one red, one green lens effort of back then but something more like regular shades. We must have been quite a cool-looking audience; in fact the photographer from Laika took a picture of us all specced up.

It was a visually stunning realisation of a book that just begged to be made into a film.

At first it was a bit of a shock to hear Dakota Fanning voicing Coraline but of course it made good economic sense for her to be American and it's an American film company. The second shock was the arrival of a character who doesn't appear in the book - Wyborne (Wybie) Lovat - whose grandmother owns the house.
He serves two functions: a sounding board for Coraline, who would otherwise have had to spend a lot of time talking to herself and someone for the boy viewers to identify with.

Once past these changes, I was struck by the film's fidelity to the book. They both have the very strong USP of the little girl who goes through a door in the wall of her parents' new apartment and finds an alternative mother and father in the one next door.

At first they seems a refreshing change, since they actually have time for Coraline, as well as cooking her favourite food and creating a wonderful garden for her to play in. This is in direct contrast with her real parents, who spend all their time at their computers, expecting Coraline to amuse herself.

But at least her real parents have real eyes! Other-mother and Other-father have buttons sewn in where they should have theirs. And Other-mother, who is rapidly revealed as the mastermind behind Coraline's Other-home, says she can perform the same little adjustment for Coraline as a condition of her staying in the preferable flat for ever.

That's when Coraline decides she would rather have her original life. "The needle's so sharp, it won't hurt" is Other-father's idea of reassurance.

The set-pieces are quite spectacular: a hundred blossoms really do bloom in Other-garden - and multiply exponentially; the mouse circus sequence is a tour-de-force of Busby Berkeley-ish exuberance and the scenes towards the end when the Evil Mother's powers are challenged and her elaborate traps demolished are visually stunning.

The grotesques that are Coraline's neighbours in both worlds - Miss Spink and Mis Forcible (voiced by French and Saunders) and Mr Bobinsky (Ian McShane) - are really OTT grotesque. And there are two things that work better "visually" in the book. One is the scene, in the cellar in the original, where Coraline finds that the concept of Other Father has been unravelled by the Beldam. He tries to warn the girl but is unable to stop himself from attempting to hurt her. In the movie, he charges towards her on his mechanical preying mantis in the garden and collapses through a bridge. It's spectacular but doesn't compare with the creeping sinister, clutching, open- mouthed, eyeless figure in the cellar.

The other is that the Beldam's hand, which gets in through the door in the wall, is in the film a kind of spindly metal scurrying thing. But you don't really need to make Neil Gaiman more scary; that severed hand with the red-painted fingernails is quite horrific enough.

I'm also sorry that it's Wybie who crushes the hand at the end. Bring in a boy if you must but don't let him take anything away from Coraline's heroism and resourcefulness; in Gaiman's orginal she lures the hand to its destruction by a trick that requires a cool brain more than a hot head.

But these are quibbles. It's a spectacular film and a triumph for the animators at Laika who spent four years lovingly creating every detail. It will linger in the mind a long time, so be careful what child you take to see it. Not for those under ten and/or of a nervous disposition.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The long, the short and the confusing

Here they are: Henrietta Branford in colour and Wendy Boase in Black and white. Their names are commemorated in the Branford Boase Award whose shortlist has just been published. It is a prize for a first book for children or teenagers and not only the author but the editor of it.

Before we get on to the shortlisted authors and editors, a word or two more about the women in whose memory they are being honoured. Henrietta was a writer, who produced two dozen book, from picturebooks to novels in the round about thirteen years she had from her "late start" at the age of forty till she was lost to breast cancer.

Wendy Boase was a charismatic editor at Walker Books, one of the founder members with Sebastian Walker and Art Editor Amelia Edwards, who had edited Henrietta Branford's work. They died within weeks of each other in 1999, Boase also a cancer victim, and the award was set up in their joint names. This is the tenth year.

The first winner was Katherine Roberts, who later wrote the magnificent I am the Great Horse, and others over the years have been Marcus Sedwick, Meg Rosoff and Frances Hardinge.

This year's shortlist is a bit confusing. Here it is:

The Traitor Game by B.R.Collins edited by Emma Matthewson, Bloomsbury
The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt, edited by Bella Pearson, David Fickling Books
Flood Child by Emily Diamand (formerly Reavers' Ransom) edited by Imogen Cooper of Chicken House
Between Two Seas by Marie-Louise Jensen, edited by Liz Cross of OUP
Bloodline by Katy Moran, edited by Denise Johnstone-Burt of Walker Books
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, edited by Denise Johnstone-Burt of Walker Books
Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls, edited by Marion Lloyd of Marion Lloyd Books

Last year's winning writer was Jenny Downham, whose Before I Die was reviewed in many places alongside Sally Nicholls' book because they were both about main characters with fatal illnesses. Sally's book won the Waterstone's award.

But Before I Die was shortlisted for the Guardian Award, which Patrick Ness won with The Knife of Never Letting Go. Marie-Louise Jensen's Between Two Seas was on the shortlist for the Waterstone's award that Sally Nicholls' book won but Marie-Louise's second book, The Lady in the Tower, has also already been also on the shortlist for this year's Waterstone's prize.

Which is all another way of saying that all children's book prizes have different eligibility dates. It would be wonderful if they all, regardless of when the prizes were decioded and presented, covered the same time period!

Anyway, this is a list full of stonking good books, well worthy of the women whose work it commemorates and I don't envy the judges their task.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

New Kid on the Block

Well, actually, David Teale is quite an "old kid" if he won't mind my saying so! He started the Red House Book Club thirty years ago and ran it for nearly twenty and now he's at it again. I met David in Bologna in March and he was telling me about his new website which has just gone live.

My School Book Club ( is dead easy to use. If you're a school, once you've registered, you'll have your own personalised website, e.g. and order books direct. If you're a parent, grandparent, you join and have the books sent straight to you. Either way the school benefits and gets 20% worth of orders extra in free books.

"The aim is to make reading pleasurable and help mental and personal development of children by guiding their reading," said David, who has four grown-up daughter and six grandchildren, stressing that this is all about pleasure and nothing to do with testing.

In time there will be all sorts of extra goodies like video clips and author interviews, games and so on. 15,000 schools have received a mailing about the new club, endorsed by former children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo, among others.

And the criteria for the books featured? "Nothing boring," says David Teale.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Old favourites

All the coverage I've seen and heard about the Children's laureates' favourite books has mentioned the absence of Harry Potter. This is just lazy journalism. Why would four writers and one author-illustrator who are "not in the first bloom of youth" as Anne Fine described them on Radio 4 this morning, pick such a Johnny-come-lately as HP?

What the headlines should have been were: "No Alice, no Pooh, no Peter Pan, no Wind in the Willows, no Tolkien or C S Lewis." For that is the case. You can read the full list of 35 books at

It is a funny list, as all such lists must be, with some of the usual suspects, like Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, John Masefield's Box of Delights and so on. Some are not children's books at all, like Oliver Twist, or only arguably so, like Treasure Island. It takes more than a child protagonist to make a children's book. I hated the Diary of Anne Frank (one of Mike Rosen's choices) when I was a child and felt moved by it only as an adult.

So here's my list of seven:

J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
OK, three books and not according to its author children's ones at that.

I read this as it came out, removing the volumes one by one from my older sister's hands as she finished them. And then I read them every year until I was 18 and doubts began to set in. I read them all to my three daughters in family reading and they loved them and we all, plus my sisiter, adored the Peter Jackson films.

But I can no longer read them as an adult with unalloyed pleasure. The storytelling, names and invented languages and cultures are superb but the language isn't good enough and the attitiudes to women and to "evil characters" totaly inadequate.

James Thurber's Thirteen Clocks
Many of the phrases from this are part of family vocabulary: "a blob of glup," "I'll slit you from your guggle to your zatch," plus the Gollux with his "perfectly indescribable hat" are just part of my mental furniture. The Wonderful O and The Great Quillow are equally good.

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It (one of Quentin Blake's choices)
One of the great classics. I loved the way the sand fairy was so grumpy. But I found I had to expurgate the appalling class attitudes towards the cook etc, when reading Nesbit aloud to my own children.

Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories (One of Michael Morpurgo's)
I adored these and so did the girls. My favourite is The Beginning of the Armadilloes

Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden
An almost perfect children's book. Other recent ones with this claim are Louis Sachar's Holes and Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic.

Lewis Carrol's Alice Through the Looking-Glass
I had Adventures in Wonderland as a child but prefer this one, discovered in adulthood. I especially love the White Knight.

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle
You need to be a 13-year-old girl for this, which I was when I read it first. And I thought the film, with Romola Garai and Bill Nighy, wasn't half bad either.

My omissions? Well I have never liked Peter Pan or Wind in the Willows. I read every word of Enid Blyton but can remember not one so haven't included anything of hers.(her husband did take my appendix out, though).

And CS Lewis is a mystery to me. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a wonderful title and Narnia a magical invention but I find the books such a sloppy unsatisfactory mishmash that they could never be a favourite.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

We want him to be handsome

I heard Professor Stanley Wells discussing the Cobbe portrait with Sir Roy "codswallop" Strong on the radio this morning. Wells is convinced that the portrait is not only Shakespeare but painted from life; not sure who Strong thinks it is but another Shakespeare critic, Katherine Duncan-Jones, thinks it is Sir Thomas Overy.

Now Katie Duncan-Jones taught me a bit at Cambridge when she was a research student and I was an undergraduate. I daresay we have both come on a lot since then.

But what interests me is why so many people, including me, want this to be what the great writer looks like, rather than the Martin Droeshout engraving in the Folio. I'm reading Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare at present and he says he reckons the bust in Stratford church, which has been described as "looking like a pork butcher" is probably closer than even the Chandos portrait (the swarthy one with the gold earring). He says "why shouldn't a great writer look like a pork butcher?" which is a fair question. (Mind you, if you look at PA's author photo, you might consider it special pleading)

The thing is, we DO want people to look like their books. I'm sure Shakespeare's intelligence, subtlety and wit would have illuminated even the stodgiest of countenances but, since we'll never know, we hope he might have been objectively as attractive as his writing.

Why else are author photos on jacket flaps or back covers usually at least ten years old and taken from the writer's best side?

Happy birthday, Will. Handsome is as handsome does, which makes you a stunner in my book.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Caviare to the general

The first book for children I enjoyed this year was Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island ( Macmillan), which came out in January. It took some getting into and runs to around 500 pages but it was thrilling to see this very unusual writer begin to command her talent.

The first Hardinge title, Fly by Night, won the Branford Boase award. Reviewing it in the Guardian, the late Jan Mark greeted Hardinge as a "hugely talented writer of tireless invention and vivid prose" and Jan was hard to please.

But she also added: "Every incident and description is so embellished with similes and dependent clauses that the narrative is left hanging about like a disconsolate bloke in Miss Selfridge, abandoned outside the fitting rooms while the style lingers to admire itself in the mirror."

That was it: a great natural talent that needed an editor with a ferocious blue pencil - or at least a dab hand for Track Changes. There wasn't much sign that she'd found one in the second novel, Verdigris Deep. which took us out of the parallel world of Mosca Nye in Fly by Night and into a sort of Diana Wynne Jonesy world of meanacing shopping trolleys and hedges and a spirit trapped deep in a well.

But with Gullstruck Island, it seems as if Hardinge is at last learning to sit the wild horse of her imagination; it might still be going at a hell of a lick and over more miles than many will be able to travel with her but there's a stronger sense of a controlling hand on the reins.

This isn't a book review - the Book Maven probably isn't going to do those - so I won't summarise the plot. Besides, I reviewed the novel for Armadillo ( Spring 2009). But it gave me pause for thought and the thought was this: who is going to read a book like this?

Fly by Night sold well in the US, where Hardinge has done signing tours. And her next novel will be a sequel to that, so should build on her success. But a book like this requires stamina. Not the 500 pages thing. As Patrick Ness mentioned in his Guardian review, JK Rowling has set the bar looong for fantasy fiction (Ness's own The Knife of Never Letting go has 496 pages, by the way).

No - it's the ability to hold all the plot threads in the reader's mind and cope with the incidental spirallings of imagination along the way. The invention is just too prolific. It seems churlish to complain about that though, when so many books just have the one idea that they bash you over the head with till the plot is over.

And I'm not complaining. I'm really interested in the kind of reader that likes non-obvious books. I think there are enough of them across different countries and over time to create a respectable audience for demanding fiction and unuusual prose. but today's market wants a mass appeal now, in the first few months of a book's life. It wants synchronic not diachronic readerships, if you like.

EPOS won't wait, the way a nurturing publishing house and skilled editor used to. Fortunately, Hardinge's work isn't that much of niche taste to put her in danger of losing her public. But this latest book does make me wonder about writers who don't look for the lowest common denominator. I hope there will always be a place for them in a world where young readers are offered so much that is ersatz and formulaic.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Methods of Writing 1

I have been a MSLEXIA subsciber since 2000 and one of the many things I enjoy about it is the "100 Ways to write a book" feature which follows their interview with a successful novelist. Last quarter's issue and the 40th "Way" was Isabel Allende, which featured odd advice like "Start every book on 8th January" and sane precepts like "Weekends are for family and friends."

The current one is Nicola Barker's "Way," which advocates early rising, meditation, and watching a lot of television. Some of suggestions I could not possibly follow ("Try to avoid reading fiction when you're writing") even though I understand why she makes them.

The fact is that if a would-be writer reading Mslexia followed all the 41 Ways already printed, or even stuck to just one published writer's method, it would not necessarily, for them, result in a satisfying and publishable novel.

But whether they are quirky or sensible, ritualistic or practical, the Ways are always fascinating. As was the very different interview with James Patterson in last Sunday's Observer, which describes an altogether different Way. You can read the interview here:

Patterson is introduced as the world's leading bestselling author, which I've no reason to doubt (And top PLR earner too). What interests me is that he now does it by using 'collaborators.' "He comes up with the plot, they write the sentences, he reviews draft after draft," says interviewer Gaby Wood.

This is eerily reminiscent of an interview with Jordan last year in which her PR person told a journalist that Katie Price came up with the plots and her ghost-writer "put them into book words." This delighted me and my writer friends, who have often been heard to mutter since then that we were having trouble with "the book words."

And it raises the question again of what makes a novel a good book, as opposed to just a good read. Patterson is evidently very hard-working, in that he is at his desk by 5.30 or 6am every day, after around six hours' sleep. I certainly don't work those hours myself. And although he uses seven or eight 'collaborators' these days, his books were successfully published for twenty years before he adopted this method.

He used to be chief executive at J Walter Thompson advertising agency and probably knows more than any other writer about marketing himself as a brand, even though he works in more than one genre.

He didn't come across as at all a bad guy but I just kept thinking how much I would hate to write in this way. And how much the plot is only one part, albeit a vital one, in my books. Though sometimes writing them is tough and one daily experiences what Eliot called "the intolerable wrestle with words and meaning" the thought of delegating someone else to write the book words, no matter how much I revised them afterwards, fills me with horror. Even if it brought with it the No 1 bestseller spot every week and top PLR every year.

Call it superstitious or oddball, my Way involves doing every bit of it myself and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

A fair bit more

Bologna follow-up takes a while for publishers and even for writers but a nice part of the aftermath was this photo from Japan. It shows Rhiannon Lassiter (L) and me (R) on either side of our editor Kyoko from Shogakukan. It was taken with Kyoko's camera after a very good meal hosted by Frances Lincoln on the Tuesday night. A lot of "business" is done over dinners, lunches, drinks and coffees at the Fair. It's easy to dismiss it as expense-account schmoozing but actually the one-to-one human interaction is worth a forest of letters and e-mails.

As literary agent David Miller puts it in the current issue of the London Library Magazine, "Frankly, at the moment we should lunch more." Miller, who works at Rogers, Coleridge and White - my agents, adds "- but cheaply." His piece is accompanied by a Martin Rowson cartoon of a large agent reaching over to slice 10% off the steak on his skinny client's plate, though Miller is thinking more of a "£4 bacon sandwich at the local pub." I've never met David Miller for lunch or anything else and as a vegetarian wouldn't eat a steak or a bacon sandwich, but I agree in principle.

Writing in the Bookseller, Katie Coyne said the fair was looking for the Holy Grail - fiction for girls. She quoted Julia Wells, Faber's head of children's fiction, as saying, "I think horror will be around for a while" and that most publishers, even if a bit saturated with vampire romances, were still taking werewolves or angels.

If Jon Malinowski has his way, there will be a chance in the future to acquire and sell rights in a kind of virtual Bologna. I met him on the American Combined Book Exhibition Stand, where he was launching I know it sounds like Quiz Night at your Local but it's a very good idea - a website to put writers, artists, publishers and agents in touch with one another in cyberspace. It will certainly beat lugging your portfolio round on the off chance of a meeting, if you are an illustrator.

Mind you, it's not easy to register. Like so many other sites, it asks you for all your information and then stalls at the last hurdle. But I succeeded. It took me several goes to register with and many e-mails between me and redroom support before it worked. I hope it will be worth it; it's another cyber meetingplace for writers and bloggers.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Bologna 2009

Vampires are still with us -"Bitelit" as Jane Churchill called it in the Bookseller (should that be "bitlit" Jane, or is it all the anticipation?). I saw a book called Swoon, on the Simon & Schuster stand, which says it all about the Meyer effect.

But the word among scouts and film agents was that they were all vampired out; even werewolves are a bit passé. That's the trouble with fairs; they show you what's there and what will come out soon but that is often very like what has just been successfully published.

So we saw lots of princesses, pirates, mermaids, ghosts, dragons and fairies - and girl gangs. Or teams, as publishers prefer to call them. The first person we met at the Fair on Monday was a pretty dark-haired young woman in a red vaguely medieval outfit, handing out dagger-shaped bookmarks to publicise a book called Graceling by Kristin Cashore. She was soon joined by a Daniel Radcliffe lookalike in a black velvet cloak and a knight in armour.

Published by Harcourt in the US last year and this year by Orion in the UK, Graceling is Cashore's first book and the first in a series about characters who all have a special gift. This heroine's one is that she has been able to kill with her bare hands since the age of 8 - nice! What was being celebrated was its publication in Italian by de Agostini.

Another kick-ass heroine in an indigenous Italian series is Licia Troisi's La Ragazza Draco (The dragon girl). Troisi, who is big in Europe but not yet published in the UK is the author of the million-selling Mondo Emerso (emerged world) trilogies, all published by Mondadori.

The covers look a bit Xena-like with skimpy and revealing armour but at least the women are having adventures, rather than swooning.

The word from Germany is that fantasy is as strong as ever but now moving away from "High Fantasy" towards the Urban variety. I suppose Cassandra Clare would be an example of that, though I don't care for her books myself.

I was once told that English and American fantasy is so popular in Germany that even German fantasy writers adopt Anglo-sounding names to improve their publishing chances - can this be true?

Gothic is also big; good news for Marcus Sedgwick, whose Raven Mysteries were being well promoted by Orion. And for followers of Neil Gaiman, whose book Coraline has just been released as a film in the US by the American film company Laika Entertainment, who seem to have found their niche, under UK producer Fiona Kenshole's vision, in animated movies with a Gothic flavour.

I bumped into my old friend Knister, a German author (published there, like me, by Arena) who has sold 17 million copies worldwide of his Lili-Hexe (Lily the witch) stories, without finding a UK or US publisher so far. But Lili has just been made into a film and Disney are interested (though she has to be "Magic Lili" to them since witches are out for the US (along with wardrobes, hedgehogs, badgers, guns - that's a subject for another post.)

There were several British writers at the Fair including Francesca Simon and David Almond, but our paths didn't cross. Almond was one of six British writers nominated for the ALMA (Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award), the most lucrative prize in the children's book world, at €445,000. But in the end the Award went to an institution: The Tamer Institute for Community Education which works in Gaza to encourage reading and a love of books and creativity in Palestinian children. A long way from a zany little girl in pigtails but a popular choice.

The book of the fair for me was sitting unobtrusively on a French stand, Albin-Michel. "Sick of Pink" said the poster, which caught my eye, but the book is called Marre du Rose in French and is by Nathalie Hense, illustrated by Ilya Green. It is a perfect story of a little girl who prefers to wear black and is teased for it. Act quickly British publishers; I've already enthused about it to two of you!