Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Egypt's answer to Montmartre *

It can be hard reading and reviewing books by someone you know. My reputation is as a pretty rigorous critic and this can come into conflict with warm feelings for a writer.

I heard a lot about Cleo in Bologna, not just from its agent Sophie Hicks but also from its author, my travelling companion and good friend Lucy Coats. And I'd already been seduced by that gorgeous cover by Thy Bui.

But after a few pages, if it's a good book, you forget all that and just give in to the power of the story. And Cleo is a very good book indeed. For a start it's a brilliant premise, the "before they were famous" one. Young Cleo doesn't know she's going to become the "serpent of old Nile." She doesn't know she'll be celebrated by a sixteenth century playwright and bodied forth by Helen Mirren, Glenda Jackson, Harriet Walter. Least of all that she'll be portrayed by the black eye-linered siren Elizabeth Taylor in an iconic movie on the 1960s.

No, none of that. She's just a young girl, watching her mother die and suspecting her half-sisters, Berenice and Tryphena, of the murder. She has one ally, her slave Charmion [sic], who is so much more than a servant. The two girls are friends and Charm, as she is known to Cleo, finds a way to get them both out of the court which Cleo's father, the Pharaoh, has abandoned. And just in time, since the evil half-sisters enjoy feeding enemies and rivals to their crocodiles. Piece by piece.

Four years later, Cleo and Charm return to this dangerous place, with a mission to find and rescue an Ancient Egyptian McGuffin, the captured secret that is causing the goddess Isis' power to wane. For Cleo is the chosen servant of Isis, marked out for this destiny from birth.

And there is a secret ally in the court, who does not want the death-worshipping Berenice and Tryphena on the double throne of Egypt. Khai works in the Great Library and Cleo has felt something for him since she was little because of a shared love of learning and a thirst for knowledge. But on her return she finds him in the new role of toy boy to Tryphena.

Together the three young people, Cleo, Charm and Khai, with the help of a few other allies, work to overthrow the half-sisters and restore Isis' power but there and dangers along the way and several very gruesome deaths.

(Of course this is all invention: no-one knows anything about Cleopatra's early life, before Caesar, before Mark Antony and long before the fatal asp.) 

One of the things I really enjoyed about Cleo was the rich sense of actually being in Ancient Egypt. Lucy Coats' thorough research underpins a seemingly effortless recreation of the smells, sights and sounds of Alexandria and the banks of the Nile, still then teeming with crocodiles and hippos. And all this is achieved without recourse to any faux-ancient language.

The second book, Cleo: Chosen, will follow soon and we'll get the end of the adventure, which takes Cleo to Rome, presumably still unknowing what part the Eternal City will play in her future. I will be waiting as eagerly as a hungry crocodile.

Creative Commons - Eslam17

* The seductive rhyme from Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds" musical Salad Days, whose title is of course also a quotation from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: "My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood...."


Thursday, 21 May 2015

Bologna 2015

Apologies for the long hiatus in this blog - I have been dealing with a family medical issue. As a compensation, here is my long overdue report on the Bologna Book Fair. A version of this has already appeared on BookBrunch.

Day One

The sun is shining and the sky is blue! This is what people who stay behind in the UK each spring think that the Bologna Book Fair is like every year but the last few have been cold and wet. Since we left Heathrow in such weather on Sunday afternoon, this new climate is very welcome.

We walk into this year’s fair following a trail of Alice-related images – playing cards, cut-outs of black and white Dodos and a White Rabbit. It’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a good theme for a fair which is all about not knowing what you’re going to find next.

I start, after the usual crowded and stressful business of registering with the Press Office, with Hachette, a large stand to house all its many imprints. Nirmal Sandhu is Head of Rights for the whole Hachette Children’s Group and the first thing he shows me is the follow up to Steve Antony’s picture book, The Queen’s Hat, which I raved about last year.

The new one is The Queen’s Handbag, making me wonder if there will be a whole series of Royal accessories as book subjects. How far will Steve Antony go? As before, the illustrations take us on a whirlwind of guardsmen and others trying to locate the missing object but we now get as far as the Angel of the North.

These appeal to me more than the “panda books” by the same author/illustrator but it’s the latter that are making big sales – with a print run of 115,000 copies for the first one, Please Mr Panda. I’ll wait, Mr Panda follows in January next year.

The big news on the Orchard list is a new Charlie and Lola title, from Lauren Child, who was at the Fair. One Thing shows young Lola tackling arithmetic in her inimitable style (it’s 15 years since the first Charlie and Lola book and this is the fifth title – “the funniest one yet” according to Hachette).

Another highlight for me was the new Pat Hutchins coming in May from Hodder – Where, Oh Where is Rosie’s Chick? When publicity departments say “the long-awaited sequel” they don’t often mean 47 years, which is how long it is since Rosie and the fox first walked across the farmyard and into children’s collective memory in Hutchins’ stylised pictures.

Then it was on to Quarto, where I met with new Children’s publisher Rachel Williams and editor Jenny Broom. As well as running the Frances Lincoln list, they have originated a new imprint Wide-Eyed Books. Both having come from Templar and Jenny having written the worldwide success Animalium, they are ideally placed to produce a new list of stunning non-fiction titles.


I was lucky enough to see some of them at the ALA winter conference in Chicago this year and Wide-Eyed will be publishing 20 titles a year by 2016. Books like The School of Art, with 40 “lessons” taught by five fictional professors on topics from colour to perspective.

There’s a lovely picture book from Frances Lincoln too, called The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield, which is all about creativity, celebrity and belonging.

Bloomsbury next, where I saw Jim Kay’s colour artwork for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s already been sold into 22 territories and that’s all I’m allowed to tell you or MD Emma Hopkin might have to kill me. The first book will be out in October and Jim will illustrate all seven titles, with the complete text.

Other highlights are the American Sarah J. Maas’ new book A Court of Thrones and Roses, starting a new series and our home grown Michael Rosen, whose middle grade novel, Uncle Grobb and the Dread Shed, features a 10-year-old boy with an uncle who, in Neal Layton’s illustrations, looks rather like Michael Gove!

Aisling Smith, the Rights Executive at HarperCollins, showed me the book that was announced to great excitement at the last Fair, a lovely Irish collaboration between writer Eoin Colfer and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. Imaginary Fred has provoked a lot of interest from both men’s existing publishers in foreign territories. I was quite anxious reading this tale of a boy and his invented companion, who seems likely to disappear as he makes a real friend but it all turned out fine.

Rob Biddulph’s Grrr! was another book about bears, this time one who loses his growl before the Best Bear championships. Or was it stolen?

My last publisher meeting of the day was with the newly amalgamated Penguin Random House at their huge stand. Zosia Knopp, Rights Director, and Shannon Cullen, Publisher for Puffin Fiction, showed me a dazzling array of wares.

But the first innovation is no paper Rights Guides! Just two credit-sized laminated cards with the URLs of them. If every publisher at Bologna did this, my suitcase would be a lot lighter on the way back.

They had everything from a new Lauren Child, The New Small Person, about the arrival of a baby sibling (which I was pleased to see featured a Black family, without comment) to the second YA book from Sally Green, Half Wild. (Her Half Bad is now in 51 languages).

And a new Allan Ahlberg called Hubble Trouble, illustrated by Bruce Ingram, featuring Alison Hubble who wakes up one morning to find there are two of her.

Already, at the end of day one, I have seen some clear trends, especially in picture books: Bears are always with us and there are some fine new ones, but also Lions seem to be everywhere. Pugs, imaginary friends, time travel, gorgeous adult colouring books and information books that look like trade titles.

Work (almost) finished for the day, we began to wind down with Prosecco at the OUP stand, where Joel Stewart’s Tiny Cops and Robbers featured prominently, a modern take on The Borrowers. There were also many copies on display of Daniel Hahn’s The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature – not a children’s book obviously but eyed covetously by all the party guests.

The final event of the day was a bigger party, the annual Scholastic bash, this year in the grand Palazzo Re Enzo in the Piazza Maggiore, in the Salone del Podestà – the very room was the first Bologna Children’s Rights Fair was held 52 years ago.

Guest of honour was Dav Pilkey. If the name means nothing to you the title of his series Captan Underpants certainly will. It has sold 70 million copies wordwide. A very personable man, Pilkey had the room on his side when he told of his childhood ADHD in America and his dyslexia. He was told he couldn’t spend his life drawing comics and making people laugh.

Day Two

Miraculously the sun is still shining and the British contingent is complaining about not having packed enough summer clothes. It’s “agent day” for me but on the way up to the Agents Centre, I stop off to visit my Italian publishers Lo Stampatello. They tell me that Forza Italia, the right wing group has been burning their books (including mine) for encouraging homosexuality but there has been a counter demonstration in Milan, where they are based, in support of our books.

We shake our heads over Signori Dolce and Gabbana and then I go to visit Caroline Sheldon. She represents Teri Terry, whose Slated trilogy has just won its 12th regional prize in the UK. Terry is writing a new trilogy, Dark Matter, also urban futuristic thrillers, the first called Book of Lies.

Caroline is getting interest in a new book by Patrice Lawrence, called Last Man Standing, which Hodder are publishing in the UK. It’s about a Black boy who gets caught in a downward spiral of suspicion and danger.

My next agent is Stephanie Thwaites from Curtis Brown and she agrees there is no “book of the fair” so far and it might be an outdated concept. She shows me the gorgeous cover for Catherine Johnson’s The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo, which Random House are publishing in June. It is a curious tale indeed, about a young woman who claimed to be a princess but might have been a confidence trickster.

There was interest too in a new series from Joe Craig called Quantum Ninja about a time-travelling Elizabethan and Sam Hepburn’s If You Were Me, sold to Chicken House about a family escaping from Afghanistan, only to end up in a different kind of danger in Britain.

Taking a break from agents and looking longingly at the Gelateria at the bottom of the escalator down from the Agents Centre, I go to visit Barrington Stoke, who have always got lots of interesting books in their dyslexia-friendly list.

But now they’ve started another venture, Conkers, which is more oriented towards to reluctant reader aged 7-9 than the dyslexic one. It’s being led by Philip Ardagh’s The Unlikely Outlaws and the re-issued Hook or by Crook by the late Jan Mark.

Their app that I wrote about last year is nearly ready to launch, after a few glitches. There will be more to see at the London Book Fair and it will offer the app for free and the books (12 to begin with) at the same price as a paper book. But the reader will be able to choose the background colour and use the “reading ruler” to keep their place in the book.

Dyslexia was another theme of the Fair with not just Dav Pilker but Sally Gardner and Liz Pychon all present. I caught up with Sally later when I managed that gelato in the sun.

Sally Gardner, Sarah Towle and me
But I had to return to the Agents Centre for now and a fascinating session with Sophie Hicks, late of Ed Victor and now running her own agency. An early success for her has been Weightless by Sarah Bannan, an American début author living in Dublin. Sophie pitched it as both YA and adult by Martin’s Press). It’s a chilling High School thriller, already sold to Germany and Hungary.

Then there is a new book from Herbie Brennan, Changeling, after a long gap since his very successful Faerie Wars. This has been bought by Mondadori and is being launched in Lucca and the Comics and Games conference which actually features in the book.

Surprisingly. Actress Emerald Fennell (the tragic Patsy in Call the Midwife) has written a “blackly comic tale” called Monsters, about twelve-year-olds who find a body on a beach in Cornwall. Hot Key are the UK publishers.

And I’m pleased to see how well Lucy Coats’ Cleo (Orchard, May) is doing, since Lucy is my companion at the Fair and I’ve heard a bit about it during the writing. A teenage Cleopatra before she became Pharaoh is a winning idea for a YA novel. [I’ve now read it and it is brilliant!]

I get the chance for a quick review of my editor Janetta Otter-Barry’s notes on my latest Great Big Book for Frances Lincoln, with Ros Asquith. This one is The Great Big Body Book – not an anatomy book but one that talks about all sorts of aspects and attitudes. I can certainly predict that Forza Italia will hate it.

After my gelato, it’s time to go and hear nine Laureates from round the world, including our own Malorie Blackman. Two of them, Aneurin Karadog from Wales and Martin Davis, who is the Laureate for Englsih speakers in Wales, are both performance poets and give us raps, the latter with beat-boxing and we have to join in.

Eoin Colfer is the Laureate for Ireland (Laureate Nà Nog) and treats us to an entertaining story from his teaching days when he had written the school Nativity play and there was an incident with a missing baby Jesus. Once the doll was found a lobbed into the crib by a “shepherd” the cry went up “it’s a miracle!”

They are all very entertaining and by the time they have finished it is time to drink more Prosecco, this time at the Barrington Stoke stand, which is so conveniently on a corner that all sorts of people drop by. Indeed Eoin Colfer himself arrives, after downing some whiskey at the simultaneous party on the Irish stand.

If it sounds as if there is more partying than anything else going on at the Fair, it’s because publishers and agents have back-to-back appointments every half hour from 8.30am and when they finish their day at 5.30pm, there’s usually a drink and a nibble to be had somewhere.

And though there may be no “book of the fair” the story of the fair is certainly the removal of the agents’ loos. There was almost a riot (remember the back-to-back appointments?) and the queues for the ones in the Halls are so long for the Ladies that strong letters are being sent to the Bologna organisers.

I predict the Agents’ loos will be back next year.

Day Three

On Wednesday we pack up ready for our flight in the afternoon and head back out for our last day at the Fair. My first appointment is someone who has been in post a very short time, Jane Harris, the new Executive Director for Children’s Fiction at Hot Key. But she’s clearly been reading up a storm. First up is a two book series by Ciaran Murtagh, The Fincredible Diary of Fin Spencer, for the all-popular Middle Grade market. It’s already been sold to Denmark, Hungary and Turkey.

Linda Coggin, whose The Boy with the Tiger’s Heart was a big hit here last year, has a new novel called The Dog, Ray, about a girl who dies and comes back as a dog!

Their lead YA book is Julie Mayhew’s The Big Lie, which is set in a fictional future where the Nazis run Britain. It’s a sort of Fatherland meets The Handmaid’s Tale, says Jane.

I’m glad to see that Claire McFall has found a home at Hot Key with Black Cairn Point. Her début was the very striking Ferryman for Templar before their fiction list was axed and it’s good to see McFall still under the Bonnier umbrella.

And she’s right on trend with this story of a camping trip gone wrong, as realistic YA thrillers are very much the preferred genre and we are finally seeing the last of Dystopias.

It was good to fit in another brief meeting with Janetta Otter-Barry in her new capacity as Publisher of the independent Otter-Barry Books. Janetta will remain at Frances Lincoln, where she started the children’s list 25 years ago, until June, but then will publish her own titles in picture books and poetry.

Kangaroo Kisses in by Nandana Sen, daughter of the Nobel Economist Amartya Sen. Her illustrator, Pippa Curnick, won the Seven Stories Illustration Competition in 2012. Their book, bought from Sophie Hicks – so new ventures on both sides – is an unusual take on the little girl who won’t go to bed.

And Dreamer is a poem of Brian Moses about an unpolluted world, beautifully illustrated by Bee Willey.

Alyx Price at Macmillan told me that Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Astounding Broccoli Boy had sold 2,257 copies in hardback in the UK in the last week. Frank was at the Fair too, apparently, with his mum. Macmillan have given his backlist (Millions, Framed, Cosmic) a new look to match the cover of the new book, each featuring a shadowy but larger-than-life super hero figure. I am tickled to see that the binding of Broccoli Boy is covered in tiny penguins. They do feature memorably in the book.

Meg Cabot had been at the Fair too – surely there are more authors here than in any other year? – and Macmillan are celebrating fifteen years since the Princess Diaries. Her new book is Notebooks of a Middle School Princess and is bound to continue the winning formula.

It seems to be the year of anniversaries. It’s ten years since Emily Gravett’s Wolves and she has designed a new special edition with ten little rabbits having their own book inside.

There’s a tradition for Lucy and me to meet John McLay the literary scout before we leave the Fair and to pick his brains about trends. He now concentrates on British YA because it’s so strong and he wants to talk it up. Fish Boy by Chloe Dakin has been sold to Faber and that and The Graces by Sam Copland were both “witchy”.

But the mash-ups are still ongoing: The Last Duchess by Lawre Eve was described as “Dowton Abbey with dragons.”

Still, John thinks that basic YA is still about love and all that differs is where the love story takes place.

My last publisher is Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow – always a pleasure. The firm started only four years ago and is already the 16th biggest children’s publisher in the UK and sawa growth of 41% last year. She finds there’s a big appetite for Novelty books and something like Axel (the Gruffalo) Scheffer’s Flip Flap series is easy to sell (140,000 copies so far).

They’ve been having a lot of success with Big Bug Log by Sebastien Braun – “a book in the shape of a brown log – who’d have guessed?” – and they still publish successful young fiction like Philip Ardagh’s The Grunts. But they continue to lead the way in apps for younger readers too.

We pass the now fully coloured-in Animorphia picture at Michael O’Mara .There is just time to take a quick look at the Illustrators’ Exhibition before leaving and pick out an artist from Poland, Gurowska Malgorzata. The number of walls with would-be illustrators’ details on has increased to over a dozen. How many of them will ever end up in an exhibition?
Trains by Gurowska Malgorzata
So, another busy, buzzy Bologna with deals still being made as we leave. It does feel a bit like stepping out of Wonderland.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Rhino, a Rainbow and an icon

Anyone on here remember "bibliotherapy"? It was big in the '70s and meant that there should be an "issue" book to go with most "issues" that a child would encounter - everything from a new sibling and first day at school to death and divorce.

The best books just had a good story - like John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat or Badger's Gifts and children took what they wanted from them.

These days we don't hear much about bibliotherapy  - maybe because there is such a plethora of what we'd now call "issues books" that people take it for granted that a well-written, attractively illustrated book can make children feel better about a lot of things.


This sympathetic picture book deals with children's fears in a way that is both striking and comforting. The authors are LeVar Burton and Susan Schaefer Bernardo and the illustrator is Courtenay Fletcher. I don't expect I'm the only one who knows far more about the first name than about the other two, especially in the UK.

LeVar Burton sprang to stardom as the twenty-year-old star of the TV version of Alex Haley's Roots; he was Kunta Kinte and was the Chiwetel Ejiofor of his day:


But then he had a whole new career as Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation up on deck with captain Jean-Luc Picard, Lieutenant Riker, Data and Whorf. He was a blind Chief Engineering Officer with a VISOR that allowed him to sense energy waves, a prop based on a woman's hair barrette that gave him a headache every day on set for six years.

And then this versatile actor got the job of presenting the US children's literacy TV series Reading Rainbow and was immensely popular in this role. Now that Burton has tried his hand at writing the same warm, avuncular personality comes through in the text of The Rhino who Swallowed a Storm. Schaefer Bernardo is a poet so I'm guessing she helped Burton turn his story into rhyme.

There is a framing device of a father mouse comforting a little one who  lost her house in a hurricane. When a new storm is raging, Papa mouse puts down his copy of Gouda Times (nice!) and reads her the story of the rhino. (Actually I think the book would have been just as good without this device).

The rhino comes from a time "before there were words" and when a terrible storm destroyed all that was dear to him. He was so upset and angry that he opened his mouth and gulped the storm down inside himself.  It took a long time a lot of help from his friends before he was able to release it in a storm of tears.

It's a book about alowing yourself to let your feelings out and about how we all need help from others.

I don't know if it's available in the UK but it certainly should be.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Losing the plot - what Peter Jackson did to The Hobbit

Photo by Stefan Servos
Well, I've done it. I've seen the third Hobbit movie, The Battle of The Five Armies. When I first heard there were going to be three films made of the slender children's book that prefaced Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, I knew they wouldn't be good. It was clearly a commercial decision not an aesthetic or literary one.

I read the book only once or twice as a child, after discovering LoTR, as opposed to re-reading the trilogy every year till I was eighteen and was forced to realise that the writing wasn't as good as the world-building and plot.

The Hobbit first came out in 1937 and I have the 50th anniversary edition with this cover:


The strongest memory I have of the book is not from my childhood, however, but from the middle daughter's. We were started on my reading it to her when she was admitted, aged seven, to hospital with appendicitis. Between A & E and a surgeon and operating theatre becoming available, we were in a room in a children's ward and she was in pain but also hungry and it was strictly a Nil by Mouth situation.

So I read to her from The Hobbit, bowdlerising for food as I went along; it was very hard. Passages like this:

"At last Gandalf pushed away his plate and jug - he had eaten two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and drank at least a quart of mead."

That would have been cruel to a little girl suffering two kinds of tummy pangs. (We had reached the house of Beorn, you will realise).

I have, of course, read it since then, middlest daughter now being a grown up woman with a husband and baby. The last time was probably after seeing the first Hobbit movie. Then I was struck by how - although clearly a book for children, with a very simple plot - there was a very dull coda after the big battle at the end which seemed to be a rather bureaucratic division of the spoils. All the action, quest and adventure just dissolved.

We were as a family very charmed by Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's world and looked forward to seeing each LoTR film each Christmas. Maybe that's why husband and self, without the rest of the family continued to make the pilgrimage to Cineworld every December: we wanted to revisit that  transformation of New Zealand that is Middle Earth.

But...






In order to stretch the story over three movies, extraneous bits of plot had to be added. Specifically the spurious love affair between a female elf and a male dwarf.

Kili A.K.A. Aidan Turner



Tauriel A.K.A. Evangeline Lilly
It felt fake from the beginning, with an older, fatter Legolas (Orlando Bloom) appearing as Kili's rival and a whole extraneous sub-plot about Legolas' father, Thranduil (Lee Pace), who appeared younger and sexier than his own son in a Jason-Isaacs-as-Lucius-Malfoy sort of way.

And clearly we are supposed to care about this love-match with the tension, and music, being ratcheted up for Kili's death and Tauriel's grief (Sorry- Spolier!). But I couldn't have cared less. (Kili and his brother Fili do die in the book but their deaths are dismissed in a sentence; they fell defending their kinsman Thorin Oakenshield).

It is quite clear that the writers understood that their source material would not uphold three movies so they grafted on what they thought would make it justifiable but it shows in every phrase of the clunky script.



Things that did work:

Smaug. Forget the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, though that didn't hinder. Any decent director with the Weta Workshop at his disposal could and should create a convincing dragon and his hoard and Peter Jackson did not disappoint. The problem was we got one eye opening at the very end of the first part: An Unexpected Journey and the devastation of Lake Town all over before the credits in The Battle of the Five Armies. So only in the middle movie, The Desolation of Smaug, was the dragon used to full effect.

Bard the Bowman. Played by Luke Evans, Bard was the only credible human, caring for his motherless children and generally being an all-round good egg, Dragon-Slayer and effective leader after the destruction of Lake-Town.

Thorin's dragon-sickness. It was a bit repetitive and tedious but nevertheless convincing that Thorin (played by Richard Armitage) lost any moral centre in the lust for treasure and the recovery of the Arkenstone.

Martin Freeman as the Hobbit. But woefully, woefully underused!

All the Dol Guldur stuff apart from  Radaghast (Sylvester McCoy) and his bunny sleigh. It was nice to see Elrond again (Hugo Weaving).

Things that did not:

Turning the Goblins into Orcs and having a whole sub-plot that repeated stuff in LoTR.

Kili/Tauriel love plot and Legolas/Thranduil conflict as mentioned above.

Casting hunky TALL males as dwarves. And leaving the hunkier without prosthetic noses and other bulbous facial characteristics.

Forgetting what happened to the Arkenstone, in spite of its importance to Thorin and the main plot.

Repeatedly omitting the arrival of the Second Orc Army[sic] in spite of the many threats that it was coming.

In fact who were the Five Armies? In the book it's men, elves, dwarves, goblins and the "Wild Wolves." In the film it's dwarves, elves, men and orcs. Said orcs do ride Wargs, it's true but the numbers just don't add up.

And to cap it all a sudden and previously unsuspected flock of SuperGoats appear to transport Thorin and other dwarves up to the rocky prominence where the Orc-ish creature with a blade for an arm awaits them. The goats then vanish.

It's Star Wars all over again: the second trilogy (which comes first chronologically) had better CGI and effects but lost the magic of parts lV, V and Vl.

In the Hobbit movies if the returning Sauron had been that strong and mustered those forces, the LoTR trilogy would never have happened.

Why did no-one have the courage to tell Peter Jackson he was making three Christmas turkeys, even if they turn out to be high-grossing seasonal fowl? It's all in the story and the script, Peter. You knew that once. What happened? Did success make you unable to know when you were repeating yourself (piles of dead elves, battles with rocks being hurled by trolls, seeming dead person under ice opening eyes etc. etc).

It is just possible that someone who hadn't read the book might have enjoyed these films on their own terms. But no-one surely could have defended them as good? If you did, please comment.





Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lets Toys be Toys


I am so impressed by this campaign! Toys - and books - labelled "for girls" or "for boys" should be a thing of the past.

From the seven-year-old girl who objected to Tesco's putting a "for boys" sign on a superhero alarm clock to the seven-year-old boy who can't wait for me to teach him to knit this weekend, our children do NOT fit into the commercial boxes that some companies want to create for them.

I can honestly say that what one mother of a newborn called called "the tsunami of pink" is far worse now than when I raised my three daughters. At least they had She-Ra as well as Flower Fairies.

And from what I hear it's just as bad for boys.

When I was little I hated all dolls but I might have felt differently if they had looked like this:


This is a "Lammily doll," the first ever to be made to ordinary human proportions, unlike Barbies and Sindys. You can even add tattoos, stretch marks and cellulite!

I reviewed a book called "Made by Raffi"  on the blog here. It is about a real boy who doesn't care for football but prefers to make clothes.

I liked books, drawing things, toy animals, dressing-up clothes (male and female), my toy Post Office and toy circus. I liked pretending to be cowboys, soldiers and guards, as well as princesses.




So I give my support to  www.lettoysbetoys.org.uk (You can use the hashtag #shopoutsidethebox this Christmas)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Five Children on the Western Front


There comes a point in many writers' lives when they want to write a sequel to E. Nesbit's Five Children and It.* Helen Cresswell did it in 1992 with The Return of the Psammead; Jacqueline Wilson twenty years later with Four Children and It.

I passionately wanted to write Five Grandchildren and It in the 1980s but couldn't get anyone to take it. So I was ambivalent when Helen Cresswell got that gig, even though I admire her enormously.

And now, topically, Kate Saunders has taken the story into the First World War. We had of course spotted the same thing: that "two of E. Nesbit's fictional boys were of exactly the right ages to end up being killed in the trenches," as she says in her Afterword.

Reading and writing with the dubious benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to ignore the history of the early part of the last century and not to make that connection. The first book to feature the Psammead - the grumpy but magical sand fairy who can grant wishes - was published in 1902 and the last in 1905, so Nesbit can't have known how we would view the probable fate of some of her characters.

In Kate Saunders' book, the five children have been joined by a sixth - if the title were accurately to reflect the plot it would have to be Six Children, Some of whom go to the Western Front. The original five children - Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and the baby boy known as the Lamb - now have a younger sister called Edie (in a nice nod to the original creator of the Psammead).

It is a brilliant solution to wanting to make Cyril and Robert old enough to fight while still having a child young enough in the story to champion the sand fairy in much the way that Jane did in the original.

Cyril, known as "Squirrel" is now twenty-one and a Lieutenant in the army, Anthea ("Panther") is twenty and at Art School, Robert is eighteen and at Cambridge, Jane a sixteen-year-old strong-willed schoolgirl, the Lamb is eleven and the new girl, Edie is nine.

They are gathered at the house in Kent for a farewell lunch for Cyril, who is off to the war; it is the autumn of 1914, when Edie and the Lamb (he does not want to answer to his given name, Hilary) find the Psammead back in the gravel pit where he first revealed himself to the children.

He can't grant wishes any more: that was a given at the end of Nesbit's first book about him. But he does still inspire exciting and awkward adventures. Kate Saunders captures perfectly the practical details of looking after and carrying around someone that has to be kept dry at all times, is heavy, and mustn't be seen by anyone not already in the know.

The Psammead is trying to get back to his own time and place but seems to be under a curse preventing him from making any headway. And somewhere along the way he has mutated  from a fairy to a despotic god whose exile has been brought about by his own wicked behaviour.

He has to learn remorse and to seek forgiveness from his victims, a learning curve he reluctantly embarks on against the backdrop of tragedy and loss that the time provides.

Kate Saunders doesn't shirk the implications of the date and some will find the ending unbearable. But, on this day of Remembrance, I'm glad she wrote it this way. I would have too.

Poppies at the Tower of London, Remembrance Sunday 2014

*Of course Nesbit did it first with The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Person Without Stories


Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony, scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce, photo by Matt Lancashire

Well, that's not a description that would ever be applied to Frank Cottrell Boyce. I went to hear him give the David Fickling Lecture at the Story Museum last Friday and he kept his audience enraptured  for an hour, telling us stories about many people we had never heard of.

King Anetlas, anyone? Or Henri Gustave Molaison? How about Jeremiah Horrocks or Humphrey Jennings? No, I thought not. You would be on firmer ground with Frank's mate Danny Boyle perhaps, or Raymond Chandler or David Hockney - all referenced in this passionate and entertaining talk about how it's stories that motivate us and keep our attention, rather than the dead hand of "Literacy" as it is taught in schools.

The title of Frank's lecture was "A Million Summer Suns" and this was where David Hockney came in, at the end, when Boyce explained it to us as a reference Hockney made to the sun pouring energy into trees that died and became fossils and thence carbon fuels before we dug them out of the earth to release that energy again. By then we knew what that had to do with stories.

But he began with two images - one of a totem pole in the Pitt Rivers museum commissioned by King Anetlas of the Haida people in what is now British Columbia. This eleven metre pole was the record of the history of his people and he made it for his adopted daughter, to show her what her new family was made of - not wood but stories.

And then Henri Gustave, whose image I haven't been able to trace but who looked as if he would have been played by Robert Pattison in the film of his life. That would have been a movie like Amnesia or Memento because poor Henri Gustave suffered short term memory loss after an operation to cure his epilepsy, which involved removed his hippocampus and more on both sides.

A charming, friendly, pleasant man, who could remember his manners but nothing about what happened to him each day. He was "a person without stories."

Memorial to Horrocks in Much Hoole church. Photo by Chuck Bueter
 Reading for Pleasure is often talked about without definition. Boyce offered "a complicated form of attention." It wasn't immediately obvious how this involved Jeremiah Horrocks but it turned out to be part of a complex chain of how stories are passed on. Horrocks was a fellow Liverpudlian, a 17th Century self-educated man who was the son of a clockmaker. He went up to Cambridge and realised that Kepler's maths was wrong. He accurately predicted the Transit of Venus in 1639 but died shortly afterwards at the age of 22.

And then somehow we were with Raymond Chandler and how he had influenced Frank's chat up lines as a schoolboy - another tale that had his audience in fits of laughter.


"You can get trapped in stories," Frank told us and that isn't always a good thing. It can be a burden. It can also stop you from seeing an alternative narrative, like the policemen at Hillsborough. Or stories can show you a way out as they did to Mariella Mehr.

This Swiss writer was swept up by the "Relief Organisation for Rural Street Children" a Nazi body that separated Yeniche children from their families. She lived in sixteen different orphanages, three reformatories, went to prison and was sectioned in a mental hospital. But she survived and became a writer. Her explanation was that she had "met Heidi." In other words, her way out of her situation was to tell herself a better story.

"Pleasure allows you to enjoy and retain something without understanding it." How refreshing to hear those words in an era where everything has to be explained to oblivion. "Everyone loves being read to."

What a wise man you are, Frank Cotterell Boyce! I could have listened to you another hour or more. I wish our new Secretary of State for Education had been there to hear you say in answer to Nicolette Jones' question that what you would do in schools is institute  fifteen minutes of reading aloud at the end of every day.

Or 're-institute' it. I remember it happening in my Primary School and I'm sure it made me the voracious reader and incontinent writer that I am.

And Humphrey Jennings? He wrote Pandaemonium, the book about the Industrial Revolution that inspired Frank's 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. He gave Danny Boyle a copy.


Danny Boyle

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Problem of Authorship by Mary Hoffman


A huge row erupted via Facebook last week involving three novelists, one journalist and a major publishing house. One novelist claimed, incorrectly as it turned out, on a thread on the private page of another novelist that a third novelist did not write all the books published over their name in a  popular series.

For the purposes of this post it is not necessarily to know the identities of any of the writers, the series or the publishing house. An inadvertent libel had been committed in what the libeller thought was a private context, like a dinner party, and has been corrected.

But it raises many interesting questions about privacy in Social Media, what constitutes libel, what is a proportionate response and, most importantly, what is the nature of authorship. I write all my own books and would be pretty annoyed to see it claimed anywhere that I did not. But I have had help. Once I paid a researcher to do some preliminary work for me. It was helpful but not essential; much of what she found out, I had discovered independently and I have never been tempted to do this again.

I have used consultants, always credited in the books, to read all or part of the manuscript and comment before publication. Once, when ill and exhausted, I got my husband to do some preliminary sketching out of the possible content of a non-fiction title for children. Is any of the above cheating? I don't think so.

What about ghost-writing? I have never done it but I know people who have. In this the deal is made with the reader that the writer, usually a non-literary celebrity, has written the actual words within the covers, even though the publisher, the "ghost" and many other insiders know or suspect this not to be the case. (Actually even when a book has NOT been ghost-written, there is often an assumption that it has - how surprised people were to find that actors like David Niven, Dirk Bogarde and Rupert Everett have a way with their own words as well as other people's!)

I actually think it's shabby not to credit the Ghost, but perhaps publishers fear shattering the illusion.

James Patterson by Susan Sollie Patterson (Creative Commons)


The hugely successful author James Patterson cheerfully admits to the use of a team of writers to create "his" books. These are not Ghosts but credited co-authors, who often go on to create their own successful literary careers, having used Patterson's ideas as a springboard. Patterson admits to having so many ideas for plots and relatively little interest in doing the day-to-day sentence-by-sentence business that he needs eight or nine other writers to bring his books to fruition.

Another such was Tom Clancy, who died nearly a year ago. His action novels and film scripts made him rich and he used credited co-authors on some of his later titles.

Worse to my mind are the non-existent entities of "Lucy Daniels," "Daisy Meadows" and "Adam Blade" who are in fact committees of writers, some of whom I know, writing to a strictly laid-down brief.

To change media, Damien Hirst has done something similar.

Still image from the 2010 documentary "The Future of Art" by Erik Niedling and Ingo Niermann. by Christian Görmer
He conceived is spot paintings but carried out only five of them; the rest were completed by assistants. Those paintings are still called Damien Hirsts and fetch the prices his name commands, even when he has not blobbed a single spot of paint from his own brush. At least he admits it.

But when did it all change? In the Renaissance in Italy artists had "bottegas" or workshops, which could develop into "schools." When you visit Italian art galleries, many labels are prefixed by "Scuola di" or "Bottega di."

Andrea di Cione ("Verocchio ") Baptism of Christ - public domain

Leonardo da Vinci was apprenticed to Andrea di Cione, called Verocchio = "true eye," when he upstaged his master by painting the angel in the left of this picture. Needless to say, the painting was known as Verocchio's own work until Giorgio Vasari mentioned Leonardo's hand in it, but there was no intention to deceive.

You can just imagine it - "Eh, Leo! You can do that little angel holding Christ's robe. If you make a pasticcio of it, no-one will notice." What a nightmare of an apprentice to have!

So who is the "author" of a book or painting? The one who lays down the scheme or the one at the keyboard or canvas?








Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A masterclass in storytelling


At the end of July I was in Normandy, at the time of the ongoing D-Day 70th anniversary celebrations. I flew to Caen, as a guest of Flybe, who can hop you across the Channel in an hour from London Southend airport.

Both airports are tiny and you wait only 5 minutes to collect your bags from the single carousel at Caen-Carpiquet. We were there to see the Caen Memorial Museum, which is well worth a visit, especially in this summer of War anniversaries.

But our co-hosts were the Normandy Tourist Board who, quite correctly, believed that my small group of fellow journalists would be very disappointed if they didn't also visit nearby Bayeux while they were there. We all know what the Bayeux Tapestry looks like, without ever having seen it, don't we? It's like the Eiffel Tour or the Taj Mahal or Michelangelo's David - one of those immediately recogniseable works of art that lodge in the collective consciousness.

I honestly hadn't known it was on my "bucket list" until I got the opportunity to see it but retrospectively it obviously must have been. Adèle Geras has written a lovely post on The History Girls blog about the "tapestry" - actually an embroidery with wool on linen. Such a coincidence that, after more than three years of running the History Girls blog, I should see this great artwork at the same time as another HG!

But I have this blog too, on which to write about all things literary and I think the Tapestry has a lot to tell us about storytelling. Famously, it is the world's "first comic strip", telling the story from left to right in some 70 metres of scenes from the story of Harold Godwinson, William the First, the Battle of Hastings and ...

Well it stops short of the logical conclusion, which would be the coronation of William of Normandy as the first King of England in the list we now reckon monarchs from. That bit of the Tapestry is missing but has been ably re-imagined by the embroiderers of Alderney in a Finale on exhibition in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum on display till the end of this month.

I won't say more about the Finale here as I intend to put it in my Cabinet of Curiosities on 31st August on the History Girls.

I mention scenes rather than frames above because the numbers on the Tapestry were added in the 19th Century as aids to following the story and for convenience of reference. And there are no verticals separating the scenes, except for those provided by aspects of the mise-en-scène, such as upright walls of buildings and so on.

But it could well have been sectioned into frames and presented as a graphic novel. It is also a terrific piece of war propaganda. History is written by the victors and, whoever conceived the tapestry, thought to have been commissioned by William's half-brother Bishop Odo, it is a trimph of Norman spin.

Nevertheless the Latin text whose lettering is such a recogniseable part of the tapestry's "look" was probably written by an Englishman. Some think the organising mind behind the depiction was William's wife Matilda - a claim dismissed in the Guidebook as an eighteenth century invention. For an in-depth analysis of the possible candidates, I recommend Carola Hicks' book The Bayeux Tapestry: the Life Story of a Masterpiece (Vintage 2006). She plumps for Edith, Harold's sister and the widow of King Edward the Confessor, whose approaching death begins the story.


At first sight this seems unlikely, since Edith was hardly one of the victors. But she survived the Conquest and would have had an interest in promoting William's unification of England and Normandy, so who knows?

What is clear is that there must have been one unifying mind behind the design. It is SO distinctive and coherent: one of its charms in fact is that very consistency. And the story being told here is not just the record of a military campaign and victory/defeat. It is a moral tale about the consequences of breaking an oath.

It begins with Edward the Confessor asking Harold Godwinson, his brother by marriage, to visit William in Normandy and tell him that he is Edward's chosen heir to the throne. Harold and his companions set off from Bosham on the Solent, complete with hawks and hounds, as if on a fine jaunt.

But disaster strikes when Harold is captured by Guy on Ponthieu, a rebellious vassal of William's. One of his company escapes and takes a message to William that Harold needs rescuing. This duly happens but at a price: Harold must swear loyalty to William as heir-designate to the English throne.


 "Harold sacramentum fecit," Harold swears the oath. You can see him doing it in the middle, each hand placed on a shrine or reliquary as he does so. This a serious stuff.  But is it true? The gift of naming an heir did not lie within the power of the reigning king in the 11th century; nor was inheritance of the title determined by family relationship. The succession was decided by members of the Witenagemot, an assembly of nobles. So that immediately undermines the very basis of the moral and historical story.





But what a story! According to the tapestry, Harold breaks his oath and as soon as Edward is dead, has himself crowned king. If that were true, the whole following shebang - the battle, the deaths on both sides, the arrow in Harold's eye - would simply be a tale of an oathbreaker getting his just deserts.



This famous scene of Harold's death is particularly enigmatic though. I looked as hard as I could and could scarcely see the arrow; at was as if it had been added later - or even removed, so pale are the stitches.

The tapestry is truly a masterpiece of storytelling - clear images, a distinctive style, text and pictures forming an integral part of the whole. But as the message is so biased to one view of history (there is no mention, for example, of Harold's army having marched to Hastings straight after a victory in the north against Harold Hardrada and being exhausted), it made me long to invent an opposite view.

A Hastings Tapestry perhaps? What I do know is that I'd kill for an illustrator and art director like the ones Odo employed.




You can see the whole tapestry roll by here.
The images in this post are taken from Wikimedia Commons, and are credited to Myrabella

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Picture books by Mary Hoffman

I have just acquired a new grandchild, a boy, and at his mother's Baby Shower a few weeks ago (itself an innovation since my day) He was given many items featuring giraffes. Jungle animals have always been popular with parents of small children but it has taken awhile for giraffes to make it into pole position above pandas and elephants and lions. Still, I am now told that all new people need a "Sophie the Giraffe," who even has her own website.


This hard plastic teether - charming as it is - is a long way from the long-eyelashed heroine of the new picture book by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray. Zeraffa was a real historical character, a present from Egypt to France, who made the long journey to Paris in 1827.

Now I may well be prejudiced because this book is written, illustrated and edited by three of my favourite people! Dianne until very recently graced the History Girls' blog with her fabulous photo-essays; Jane Ray is an old friend, with whom I've had the great fortune to publish to publish two books and Janetta Otter-Barry is not only my first and longest-serving picture book editor but a valued friend.

So that caveat aside, I can tell you that this is a gorgeous book. Both women have a real sympathy for and appreciation of the natural world and it shines from every line of text and glowing illustration. Zeraffa is accompanied by Atir, a boy who goes with her every step of the way from her strange journey from the plains of Africa to the boulevards of Paris. First they sail down the Nile to the Mediterranean and then catch a bigger boat for Marseilles. But then how to travel the 550 miles to the capital?

In the end, there is only one way. But once Zeraffa is there, in her own specially-built house, Paris goes giraffe-mad and fashionable ladies glue false eyelashes to their own in an attempt to mimic her beauty. Zeraffa lives out her days in comfort and is a treasured member of the King of France's collection - unlike poor Marius of Copenhagen Zoo.

A completely different but equally lovely title published by Janetta Otter-Barry books, takes a gentle look at what makes a real boy. Maybe my grandson will need this as much as he does giraffes. Raffi is teased because he loves to knit and sew and doesn't like rough playground games and football. "Mum, is there such a thing as a tomgirl?" he asks.

I know a little boy like Raffi, who loves to make things and whose favourite colour is pink - he has lots of girls as friends and would really like a Barbie doll. But even Primary school culture is damning of such "different" individuals. He's a bit old for picture books now, but I'll give this to him anyway.