Saturday, 12 April 2014

Bologna Book Fair 2014

Disgracefully late, I am bringing you my account of this year's Bologna Book Fair. I was reporting for Book Brunch and Armadillo, which kept me taking notes fairly busily and only a week after getting back had to fly to Florence (I know, I know) for another teaching gig. I will try to write that up later for you.

It was a very sociable Bologna for me since I travelled not only with Lucy Coats, for the third year in a row but also my daughter, Rhiannon Lassiter, who last came with me in 2011, and this year's "Fair Virgin," Frances Hardinge.

Lucy Coats

Rhiannon Lassiter and Frances Hardinge with a bee
As well as all the agents and publishers (no authors) we found at Heathrow, we bumped into old friend Lawrence Schimel on the bus from Bologna Airport to our hotel. Rhiannon and I first met Lawrence at Bologna in 2003 when we were compiling our fastest ever book, the anthology Lines in the Sand (Frances Lincoln 2003). We included one of his terrifying, excellent poems looking at the Shoah through a fairytale lens; that was his Hansel and Gretel, with a very different kind of oven at the end. Now he has published a small volume of poems called Fairy Tales for Writers, which he gave us:

Like the prince supplicating
from the base of the tower for Rapunzel
to let down her hair, the editor calls her
to ask for the rest of the manuscript.

After a quick dip into the exhilarating social melee of the Random House party - full of prosecco and agents - the four of us went to our "usual" restaurant, the Trattoria del Rosso, and braced ourselves for day one of the Fair.

As I've often said, it's the serendipitous encounters in the aisles that make the Fair, as much as the appointments with agents, Rights managers and editors. One of our first was with David Fickling, newly independent and without his own stand. He told us about so many new books coming out - including Jon Walter's refugee story, Close to the Wind, Sarah MacIntyre's Jampires and the delicious-sounding Bumps and Babies anthology - that it's hard to remember that DFB is such a small operation. "We're not having a launch, just carrying on producing the best books," says David, buoyant as ever.

A highlight of the day was the launch of Sarah Towle's Time Traveler Tours and Tales at the SCBWI stand. (= Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators but that's such a  mouthful, everyone calls it Scoobie!).

Sarah Towle Photo: Candy Gourlay
Sarah, who is producing collaborative narrative non-fiction, says "there's a format for every user and for every time of day," from smartphone Apps to iBooks on tablets to paper books and Curriculum Guides for teachers. She was way ahead of her time producing Beware Madame la Guillotine as an App in 2012 1nd is still a pioneer in introducing Digital Technology into Education programmes.

After exploring our way round the Fair, all four of us went to different dinners. Mine was with my Italian publishers, Lo Stampatello, two women called Maria Silvia and Francesca. They have published The Great Big Book of Families and The Great Big Book of Feelings already and this autumn will bring out Welcome to the Family, all illustrated by the marvellous Ros Asquith and published here by Frances Lincoln.

I had a double reason to visit Barrington Stoke next day, since I have two books coming out with them this summer and I also always want to know what they have coming out. In this case new titles by Charlie Higson, Mike Rosen, Cornelia Funke, Eoin Colfer and Alexander McCall Smith - quite a roll call! And it doesn't end there: Sally Nicholls, Caroline Lawrence, David Almond, Lee Weatherly and Mary Hooper have all been writing for their 8-12 list.

After a lunch with Janetta Otter-Barry and new MD David Inman of Frances Lincoln, the first part of the afternoon was spent visiting agents, such as Jodie Hodges of United Agents, Fiona Kenshole of Transatlantic (Canada) and Jo Unwin, who is currently working in association with Rogers, Coleridge and White.

Jodie's clients Laura Dockrill and Emma Carroll are doing really well, with their Darcy Burdock titles and The Girl who Walked on Air. Fiona, who used to work for many British publishers, is now based in the US, working for a Canadian agency, with clients in Hong Kong and Mumbai - a very modern set-up.

Jo Unwin, who has returned to agenting after a brief foray into editing for Random House, was presenting Claire Wilson's list while Claire was on maternity leave. She told me that Half Bad - last year's "Book of the Fair" - had made the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling rights for a début author, whether for adults or children.

My last stand visit of the day, before the Barrington Stoke Prosecco party, was to HarperCollins. There had been an announcement the day before that their star illustrator Oliver Jeffers was going to collaborate with Eoin Colfer on a picture book called Imaginary Fred. Jeffers was actually on the stand; they had been taking him out to dinner with his foreign publishers the night before, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his first book with them.

Jeffers is also producing a book called Once Upon an Alphabet, with a short story for every letter. Other titles to look forward to are Rob Biddulph's début, Blown Away, about the unexpected journey of a stylised - and stylish - penguin and new books from Judith Kerr and Emma Chichester Clark.

During the day it had been announced that Quercus had been sold to Hodder so it was going to be interesting meeting Roisin Heycock and Emma Thawley for drinks that night. Although Quercus had been up for sale for some time Roisin as publisher and Emma as Rights Director have not let the grass grow under their feet. They had been giving out red tote bags at the stand celebrating ten years of Quercus books and were enthusiastic about two new books: Anna McKerrow's YA novel Crow Moon, about a reluctant boy witch and Georgia Pritchett's funny Middle Grade title, The Big Kerfuffle.

And so we had reached the last day (for us) of the Fair, with only the morning before lunch and the journey back to the airport. For me, it began with meeting Nirmal Sandhu, the Rights Director at Hachette, who showed me my favourite picture book of the Fair: The Queen's Hat by Steve Antony, a beautifully designed and executed tale of a flyaway titfer chased by lovely, stylised multiple guardsmen!

Clare Somerville, the Deputy Managing Director, joined us to talk about Orchard's the World of Norm series by Jonathan Meres, a good example of the funny Middle Grade series titles that - since Jeff Kinney's wildly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid - is pure Rights gold.

There are quieter books coming too like Heartsong, an Orchard collaboration between Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jane Ray telling the story of one of Viva;di's orphans, and The Colour Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters and Karin Littlewood, about a parent's depression.

Then it was off to Hot Key for coffee from the integral café on their stand and a meeting with Kate Manning, their Rights director. We talked about a book with possibly the most stunning cover at the Fair, the novel Boy with a Tiger's Heart by Linda Coggin. Kate doesn't think Fantasy is over, as so many pundits were trying to convince us. They have just published Trubute by Ellen Renner, the first in a series about Mages and Knowledge Seekers, which is pure traditional fantasy material.

Frances Lincoln has a very strong and varied autumn list and I don't just say that because I had a book on it! Elizabeth Hammill's Over the Hills and Far Away is a collection of nursery rhymes from round the world, with seventy-seven equally international illustrators. All royalties go to Seven Stories in Newcastle, which Hammill helped to found.

I loved Wendy Meddour's How the Library (not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel, a "fractured" fairy tale. The heroine's rampant locks portrayed by new illustrator Rebecca Ashdown are a bit reminiscent of Wendy's own impressive curls.

And so to my last meeting, with scout JohnMcLay, who thought that there had been a resurgence of Middle Grade fictuon in the UK, all in the area of humour or magic and invention. "Up till now we've been a net importer of US Middle Grade books but now we are producing more of our own." UK YA has also struggled to find overseas publishers but the many creative writing programmes, such as those at Birkbeck, UEA and Bath were producing some fine writers.

A book John had particularly liked at the Fair was The Tapper Twins go to War by Geoff Rodkey, which Little Brown was selling strongly in several territories. He had identified a few "mini-trends" - books about suicide, like Jennifer Niven's The Bright Places being published by Random House US - had had been pitched at least four.

Witches are still strong both in YA and Middle Grade but also realistic stories about illness and car crashes, "love stories with obstacles."  He told us about Endgame by James Frey, which is a bit like Kit Williams' Masquerade. But this time it's a multimedia event with film rights bought by Fox and a book series with HarperCollins, not to mention videos on YouTube.

And so home to recover, to write up my articles in bed with a streaming cold, not helped by the recycled air in the plane. A good solid Fair, not as hectic as some but I came away with the feeing that children's books in the UK were doing OK

Inflatable Moomins - just one of the sort of things you find at the Fair
NB: I have no report on the London Book Fair this year, because they changed the date and it clashed with my teaching commitment in Florence. I hope this won't happen in 2015.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Teri Terry's trilogy by Mary Hoffman

Slated has been one of the most successful UK debuts I can remember. It won nine regional book awards and was on numerous long- and shortlists. These are the awards given by the actual readers and all the more valuable for that. Librarians are great and they put books into eager readers' hands but the praise from readers is special.

The concept was, like all the best ones, simple. In a future Britain, still recogniseable fifty years on, teenagers who have been convicted of crimes are "slated," that is their memories are wiped and they start again in a new family with no recollection of their past.

But Kyla does remember things, even though she ought not to. She remembers a terrorist attack on a coach full of students who went to the school she now attends. She remembers how to draw, even with her left hand, when she is supposed to be right-handed.

We find out why that is in the first sequel, Fractured.

(The books' look has done them a lot of favours with teenage girl readers)

I asked Teri Terry if she had always known it would be a trilogy and she said, "It was originally a standalone, but it became apparent quite early on in writing it that the story wasn’t going to fit in one book. The ending is much as envisioned, though it did evolve - as they do!"

By the ending, Teri is talking about the third book and I mustn't jump the gun. The society she describes is itself fractured, riven by the Lorders (Law + Order) who monitor people's behaviour and spoken views in a terrifyingly Stalinist way, and the AGT (Anti-Government Terrorists) who we presume to be the good guys.

Kyla remembers more and more about her life before she was Slated but was it just one life?

At the beginning of Shattered, she has yet another identity and I realise how very hard it is to review or describe these books without plot spoilers!

I did ask Teri about her world-building, because although the books are set fifty years in the future, there are still schools, buses, cars and trains. She said, "Because of events in the back history of the novels – the civil unrest and riots, the isolation - the UK hasn’t evolved as much as you might expect in forty years. Though there certainly is technology beyond what is available to us now, particularly noticeable in Shattered. That is the explanation, but yes: it was a conscious choice to have it this way. I wanted it to be a recognizable world, that readers could relate to – to give them that this could really happen sort of feeling."

Good answer.

I can tell you that the resolution, when it comes, after very tense and heart-thumping reversals, is thoroughly satisfying, even though things don't work out for every character as you might expect. Kyla's original identity is surprising.

"Identity is certainly a big part of it: how can you know who you are or who you want to be, if you don’t know who you were? Another big thing to me is the nature-nurture debate, and the influence views on this can have on punishment and rehabilitation of violent criminals. I was a lawyer years ago, in Canada, and this has always been an obsession of mine. Also the balance of rights and freedoms in society: are any actions justified in pursuit of freedom? Is a group fighting for freedom defined by their objectives, or by their methods?"

I asked Teri about Kyla's twin skills: she is a brilliant artist and an athletic runner. This is her reply: "The best I can manage with art is stick figures! Though I’ve always been fascinated with people who can do artistic things, probably because I completely can’t, and this often creeps into things I write. And years ago I used to run and be kind of a gym junkie, so I totally get the exercising to the point of exhaustion to get a buzz from endorphins. Though not recently."

Teri Terry
The whole trilogy had for me a very fresh and compelling premise, well executed. I'm not surprised it has been so popular and I'll certainly keep an eye out for anything else by this writer.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The SAS were at it again

Orton Hall in the sunshine

This is Orton Hall, near Peterborough, now a hotel with a swimming pool and spa. I spent last weekend there with 39 other children's writers. The February conference of the Scattered Authors Society was held there for the third time in a row - the only difference being that this year I was one of the organisers. Anne Rooney and I had been putting it together for months and called it Who Dares Writes.

It's hard to write about what went on because of the first rule of the conference: "What happens in Peterborough stays in Peterborough." But a little boasting might be in order and some veiled allusions.

We had been lucky enough to secure Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman as our outside speaker and her warmth intelligence and humour kept everyone spellbound.

Picture credit: Jo Cotterill
 We were also lucky with the weather. As always the sun shone for us and the snowdrops bloomed:

Two of our delegates have already blogged about the conference, much more speedily than me:
Liz Kessler and Abie Longstaff

They made lists of what they had learned and there are no embargoes on knowing that most children's writers have black swimming costumes or the inadvisability of looking up "beaver" on the Internet.

Our fellow practitioners advised on mind-mapping, comedic tropes, writing a synopsis, avoiding "saggy middle," napping, writing "gritty fiction," the variety of ways in which in which people got started in publishing.

And we heard, as usual, some horror stories (ssh!). And some remarkable pieces of good fortune. We saw pictures of several people's writing "rooms." There was and Earnings and Yearnings survey miraculously analysed in a  few hours by Anne Rooney. I don't think I am revealing any trade secrets by saying that the lowest advance ever offered to a Scattered Author was exactly zero.

Apart from that, all I can tell you is that the snowdrops were nice!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

New Tricks

The Guardian Offices, London Photo credit Bryantbob
This is where I spent most of yesterday - at the offices of the Guardian newspaper in King's Place, near King's Cross Station. In recent years the newspaper has been running hugely successful Masterclasses in Writing. This weekend was devoted to Writing for Children, the Saturday run by writer Lucy Coats and the Sunday by publisher Nosy Crow.

And it just so happened that Lucy's most recent picture book, Captain Beastlie's Pirate Party, had just been published by Nosy Crow.

Having been an editor and a bookseller before crossing over to the dark side, there isn't much that Lucy doesn't know about the art - and business - of writing for children. Saturday was a packed day of handouts, exercises and PowerPoints for fifteen keen participants and I'd been asked along to give a session on World-Building as part of the Setting aspect of storytelling.

Another good friend, Michelle Lovric, gave a presentation on how her childhood obsessions found their way into her writing.

I've had over a hundred books published for children and teenagers and I was one of the tutors so I was there to teach, right?

But the funny thing was I came away thinking about how much I had learned - not how much I had conveyed. It really isn't true that you can't teach an old dog new tricks; all you need is a receptive dog, a good trick and a b****y good teacher!

Thanks, Lucy, Michelle and the students - I think we'll be hearing more from them in future.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Mine eyes dazzle

Yesterday afternoon I spent nearly three hours being by turns dazzled and plunged into darkness in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - the indoor theatre at Shakespeare's Globe. I shall write about the building itself over at The History Girls blog on February 1st. But this is a review of the production, hard though it is to prize this jewel from its setting.

Gemma Arterton is the Duchess in John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, a play probably first performed in 1613. So, just over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare's own company The King's Men, was premièring this piece of "Jacobean Gothic" in their indoor theatre at Blackfriars. She certainly looked the part - beautiful and dignified even in the hideous death we saw enacted only feet away from us in the Lower Gallery.

She doesn't have a long history of stage experience however and never reached beyond being a good rather than a great Duchess. But her evil twin Ferdinand, as played by David Dawson was as electrifying as she was serene. Like a manic Sheldon Cooper in a wig, he degenerated from a sinister schemer, driven by incestuous jealousy, to a gibbering lunatic, still capable of murder.

The third sibling, the Cardinal, as played by James Garnon, was the very incarnation of conscienceless self-interest, whether poisoning his mistress or ordering another murder. (We know he had earlier condemned Bosola to years serving in the galleys for carrying out earlier murky deeds for him).

The Duchess is a widow, Webster's heroine based on the real life Giovanna d'Aragona, who lost her husband, the Duke of Amalfi, when she was nineteen. Her brothers are anxious that she should not marry without their approval but she has already made her choice: her Steward Antonio Bologna. (Malvolio must have known this story).

Bosola (Sean Gilder) becomes the brothers' placeman at court, keeping his eyes and ears open for signs that the Duchess is bestowing her favours  on anyone they would disapprove of. He notices that she is wearing (contrary to the Italian fashion) a "loose-bodied gown" and suspects a pregnancy. His present to her of early apricots, perhaps designed to establish cravings, seems to bring on labour and we know as Bosola doesn't, that she bears Antonio a son.

It is Webster's invention that the Duchess herself proposes to Antonio:

"I do here put off all vain ceremony,
And only do appear to you a young widow
That claims you for her husband..."

Just as its his invention that her son by Antonio can claim the Dukedom of (A)Malfi, once both his parents have been murdered. What are we to make of that? The historical Giovanna had two children by her Duke and it's one of those who inherited the title.

Webster's changes to the source material make him seem a feminist and a believer in inheritance through the female line. Was that still dangerous in James the First's day, when first the Tudor and thence the Stuart dynasty hinged on denying that possibility?

Back to this production. The Antonio (Alex Waldmann) was disappointing, being somewhat shorter than Gemma Arterton, and he just didn't seem attractive enough to have won the great lady's heart.

It is an extraordinary play, with its scene between the Duchess and Ferdinand played in the dark - here in absolute pitch darkness - and the reveal of a tableau of waxwork corpses convincing her that Antonio and their son are both dead.

And the final scene raises the body count even higher than that of Hamlet - blood-boltered indeed. But it was disconcerting to hear the audience laughing so much. Maybe it was just the wrong audience but surely a production should be audience-proof?

And there are some good jokes in the piece, from Ferdinand telling courtiers that they mustn't laugh till he does, to the gruesome joke of the Cardinal's own making when he tells his followers not to come to his aid if they hear him cry out. He means to murder Antonio but is then hoist by his own petard when the belatedly repentant Bosola turns on the Cardinal and stabs him.

It is as different as possible from the stunningly-staged and lit Jamie Lloyd production at the Old Vic in 2012. Much more intimate as the tiny theatre makes it, Dominic Dromgoole's interpretation brings out the richness of the language, as the candles pinpoint the gilding on the frons scenae and the metal thread in the women's costumes.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill - a review

I heard Jo Cotterill read the opening of this book at a writers' retreat last summer and I thought then - "Blimey, she's brave!" Now the completed book is out I have no reason to revise my opinion. No country, religion or ruling party is mentioned but Amina and her sister Jenna live in a hot country where women are required to wear headscarves and "liberating" soldiers are arriving to depose the Kwana who rule repressively.

Amina's stable family life is overturned in a moment, when her rebellious older brother runs away to join the resistance, her father is murdered in front of her, and she and Jenna are separated from their mother and little sister at a checkpoint on their way to a refugee camp.

It doesn't sound like much fun in a synopsis, does it?

The bulk of the book takes place in the overcrowded refugee camp where Amina and Jenna have to make do with virtually nothing. And yet they manage to make friends and have some kind of a life. This is largely because Amina has one inalienable possession - her imagination. She is a gifted storyteller and gradually her fame spreads in the camp, with more and more people coming to hear her invented tales.

There is a reunion of a kind at the end but not a happy ending as such. Amina and Jenna have new responsibilities. But somehow we know they will cope and survive, especially with Amina's stories to give them hope and keep their spirits up.

Jo Cotterill's story is utterly convincing, at times brutal and upsetting but ultimately a tribute to the power of the imagination to lift the human spirit above the harsh realities of life. "We are all in the gutter/ but some of us are looking at the stars" is the quotation from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol which gave her the title and is the book's epigraph.

(You might know Jo's other teenage novels: Red Tears and Screwed, written as Jo Kenrick. But be warned: this one is not suitable for the young readership that have enjoyed her Sweet Hearts series also written as Jo Cotterill).

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Close your Pretty Eyes by Sally Nicholls - a review

When Jane Austen said she had written a heroine that no-one but herself would much like, she meant not Fanny Price, as I had misremembered, but Emma Woodhouse. I thought about this assessment when I read Sally Nicholls' Close Your Pretty Eyes, because she has taken the bold step of creating a protagonist-narrator who practically begs you not to like her.

Olivia has lived in sixteen homes since the age of five and she warns you that she is a monster and a witch and that her mother doesn't love her on the first page of the book. On the next page she admits that she tells lies: Olivia is the very definition of an unreliable narrator.

She tells her history in reverse - like Stuart, a Life backwards - starting with the new foster home she has at age eleven, with Jim Ivey and his family and working back to her birth mother who didn't love her. And the Iveys will not be her last home even within the book.

Olivia is the foster child from hell: she puts each new placement to the test by behaving as badly as she possibly can, as if forcing each foster parent (and one children's home) to fulfill her belief that she is unlovable and chuck her out.

But she has had some placements from hell too, from the terrifying abusive Violet to the bland "mummy and daddy" who adopted Olivia's younger sister Hayley but didn't want Olivia herself. There are some blood-curdling stories here, all of which combine to confirm Olivia's belief that "something went wrong when I was born."

It looks as if she might have a chance with Jim Ivey, who has custody of his own two children, Daniel and Harriet, and already fosters a teenager with a baby. They live in an old farmhouse, low and long, and Olivia soon finds out that it used to be home to a notorious criminal.

Amelia Dyer was a Victorian baby farmer, convicted and hanged for the murder of hundreds of her charges - and Olivia can see her. She can hear babies crying too and confuses the sound with the crying of Maisy, the fostered teenager's baby. Gradually the ghost of Amelia comes to dominate Olivia's life at the Iveys and leads her to do the worse thing yet in a foster placement.

Sally Nicholls signing copies at the launch of Close Your Pretty Eyes

If you thought Tracy Beaker was pushing the boundaries, read Close Your Pretty Eyes. The reader's heart breaks to see Olivia deliberately destroying every chance of a loving family life, time after time, because she just can't believe that anyone really wants her.

I found the ghost story almost an irrelevance. Olivia's story would have pulled me in just on its own without the supernatural element. But it is nevertheless terrifying.

And the ending, when Olivia is in her sixteenth home and writes to Jim Ivey asking him to forgive her and take her back, is magnificent. I won't spoil what Sally Nicholls does with it. In the five years since she won the Waterstones' Prize with her début, Ways to Live Forever, Saly nicholls has continued to surprise and enthrall.

Sally Nicholls' titles
(The photos are by Carolyn Hunter)

Monday, 11 November 2013

Choose your favourite children's book

You have only till 15th November - this Friday! - to vote on your favourite childrens' book from the Booktrust list of 100 books to read before you are 14.

So do click on the link above and cast your vote in each category. (I do have a book hiding on the list but am not asking you to vote for me - it's just something to stimulate discussion with children in your family or classroom).

I put up my own favourites in a few blog posts over the last few weeks and some of those make the Booktrust list too.

So, it's got me thinking about what makes a book a favourite and my not very original conclusion is that it has a lot to do with its being the right book at the right time. I'm sure we've all had the experience of being put off a book by reading it when we weren't the right age to appreciate it. But then reading it again years later we suddenly discover what it was all about.

A book by Roald Dahl that I do like!

There are some books you really do need to read as a child and don't enjoy as an adult. I think if I had been a child when Roald Dahl was writing I would like his books much more than I actually do. And - prepare to recoil in amazement - I am not a big Narnia fan for the same reason. Not that they weren't available when I was a child but I think I read only The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and maybe The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I read them all when reviewing the first recent film of TLTWatW and was struck, as an adult reader by the poor plotting, loose ends and many infelicities in the writing. I know this will be heresy to all those who fell in love with Aslan with they were little and for whom the whole Narnia saga is bathed in his magnificent tawny aura. I understand but just can't share.

I have deliberately chosen two writers who are no longer with us because there are some current books hugely popular with young readers that leave me cold and it would be terribly unfair to subject living writers to my just not really engaging with them. Having a favourite is a very personal thing.

What it really points up is the necessity to have a really wide choice of books available at every age and stage of childhood in the hope that something will have that personal appeal. With school and class and public libraries all dwindling, that is getting harder.

On the other hand, I heard today that 25,000 children's books (including e-books, self-published and so on) in 2012. So the variety is there but how on earth is a parent or teacher to choose?

This is where lists like the Booktrust one can step in and pick out the titles most likely to be a hit with a young reader. We can all quibble with any list. The "where is X?" and "surely not Y?" and fun games to play - but only if you know a lot about books already.

So do get your children or class of children to cast their votes. It gets people talking about books and introduces them to titles they might not know.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

My very own little witch

Artwork by Rhiannon Lassiter and Dom Camus
Once upon a time I had a little girl who loved stories. (And then I had two more but this post is not about them, even though daughter number two was due on Hallowe'en).

And we had a dressing up box - a wooden one - that now resides in the first daughter's grown up living room. For one of the many things they had in common with their mother was a love of dressing up and pretending to be someone else. Once they went as rabbits to a summer party in black leotards with cotton wool ball scuts and carrots hanging round their necks on strings. (There might have been some attempt at ears too).

Another time we were all invited to a Walker books Hallowe'en party and everyone dressed up. I seem to recall my long-suffering husband going as Count Dracula in a black velvet cloak and plastic fangs. Rhiannon Lassiter - for it is she - went as a witch and won a prize.

Clearly this was a formative experience.

It's lovely for a writer to have another writer in the family; it makes for quite different conversations. About characters and plots and incidents. And we get to read each other's books before they are published, which is a big bonus.

So I can tell you that Rhiannon's Little Witches: Bewitched is a brilliant book for younger children. You may associate her with YA novels like Hex, Bad Blood and Ghost of a Chance, but she has  written for younger children already, with Superzeroes and Superzeroes on Planet X, illustrated by Tony Ross.

One of the many qualifications Rhiannon has for performing magic, as well as her name, is the possession of an all black cat. Here they both are, above. So it will be no surprise that the Little Witches of her first e-book also acquire a familiar of this traditional form. Only in his case he is sometimes a boy.

But I am getting ahead of myself. There are five stories in Little Witches: Bewitched, with the promise of more to come. The first story, Little Witches and the Trick-or-Treat Trick, tells how Verity and Dulcie both become genuine witches after a trick-or-treating outing, a dodgy shopkeeper in Camden and some delicious emerald green sweets. It's Hallowe'en - the one night when children can accept sweets from strangers.

Verity and Dulcie meet, with their sisters and au pair respectively, on the same doorstep; both are dressed as witches and they become instant friends.  In the second story, Little Witches and the Wandering Shop, when the spells of the old woman with the green sweets have become rather inconvenient in the way they do in E. Nesbit's Five Children and It, the girls try to find again the shop where it all went wrong, only to find it is no longer there.

Their further adventures have them capturing a ghost in Dulcie's grandfather's very grand stately home, acquiring the cat that is sometimes a boy and travelling back in time to meet a very famous playwright and a surprising third witch.

Pumpkin courtesy of Sara Wallcraft

It's a charming read , full of vivid characters, like Dulcie's Eastern European au pair, the ghost of Audley - a sixteenth century boy murdered by a family member - and Tom, the cat-boy, whose hobbies are stealing things and fish. (The description of his corrugated iron shack and its contents reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones).

The book is available for kindle at the normal price of £5 but, just for Hallowe'en  you can snap it up at the bargain price of just £1.53.That's 70% off the usual price.

And is it nepotism to write about it here and tell you how brlliant it is? Of course. But I really had no choice. You see my daughter put me under a powerful spell.

Rhiannon's website

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

20 favourite YA titles

And here are are my "best" novels for teenagers, again randomly ordered.

 • Robin McKinley Spindle's End

The re-telling of traditional fairy tales in a form attractive to today's teens is quite common now but  this is the one I like best. Quirky, sexy and mysterious.

• Gillian Philip Firebrand

This is the first in the Rebel Angels quartet, three-quarters of the way through as I write. This introduced us to Seth McGregor, definitely not anyone's definition of a fairy. He is one of the Sidhe, for all that and a wonderful creation.

• Linda Aronson Kelp

This funny novel by Linda Aronson, an English author based in Australia , has the irresistible sub-title "A story of love, seaweed and Rupert Murdoch."

• Joan Bauer Squashed

Another funny book - and I find few funny books actually humorous - about an usual teenage girl who grows squashes.

• Dodie Smith I Capture the Castle

I don't know if this was actually written for teens but it is a perfect book to give to a girl of thirteen. I was about a year older when I first read it and suffering from the devoted attentions of a male, which I couldn't reciprocate, so identified with Cassandra. And what self-respecting teenage girl doesn't want to live in a castle?

• Judith Kerr Out of the Hitler Time

This is a bind-up of the trilogy that begins with When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Actually it os the second novel - originally called The Other Way Around - which is my favourite.

• John Green Looking for Alaska

I "discovered" John Green at the same time as I found Neil Shusterman, as I mentioned in my post about junior novels. I like this one and Paper Towns better than the recent and notorious The Fault in our Stars. What I like best is the voice he captures so well in each novel.

• Malorie Blackman Noughts and Crosses

A brilliant USP - that it is Black people who have the upper hand in society - brilliantly and bleakly  achieved.

• Diana Wynne Jones Fire and Hemlock

This is probably still my favourite Diana Wynne Jones, though I could have chosen Archer's Goon or A Tale of Time City or Howl's Moving Castle. What a great loss to YA literature.

• Margaret Mahy The Changeover

Another great loss recently was this versatile New Zealander. I could have chosen The Tricksters but Sorenson Carlisle still has my heart so it has to be this one.

• J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Reading for children? Adults? Teenagers? I read them when I was nine and ten respectively, then every year till I was eighteen and realised they were not very well written. Read them to my daughters at family reading. Re-read them after every film and in spite of all the reservations about women, the representation of evil etc. etc. the world-building and action are superb.

• Susan Price The Sterkarm Handshake

When this was recommended to me by Francesca Simon I thought it was the strangest and ugliest title I had ever heard. But she was right: I loved it! The sequel is The Sterkarm Kiss and I know that Susan price has written the third - I can't wait to read it. An action adventure, with strong moral Prime Directive undertones and a sexy hero in Per Sterkarm.

• Katherine Roberts I am the Great Horse

The story of Alexander the Great told from the point of view of his horse - what a USP! And brilliantly executed. The end had me in tears every time.

• Rosemary Sutcliff Sword at Sunset

This is the historical novel about what the actual Arthur of Britain might have been like. And Guinevere. And her lover, who is not that latecomer Sir Launcelot. I first read it years ago and continue to remember whole scenes and dialogues.

• Geraldine McCaughrean A Pack of Lies

Geraldine is another author whose books made me spoilt for choice. She writes something different every time, which is particularly pleasing. This is one of the early ones and the ending is incredibly daring and head-spinning.

• Jan Mark They do Things Differently There

It is a pity than Jan Mark is not remembered more widely now. Her books were intelligent, varied and always a pleasure to read. This one's title is unfortunate and doesn't convey the glorious content. Two friends live in a small town where nothing ever happens. They re-name it Stalemate (which is what the book should have been called) and invent all sorts of outrageous happenings, characters and industries. Just where does all that fat from liposuction go? I love this novel because it's how I tend to look at the world. 

• Annie Dalton Out of the Ordinary

This was her first book, followed by The Alpha Box and The Night Maze, which I alos might have chosen. Sadly for me, Annie Dalton no longer writes for teens. I loved the voice of all of them.

• Anne Fine The Book of the Banshee

Another versatile writer but I particularly liked this one about a bolshie teenage girl.

• Celia Rees Witch Child

This became an instant classic and was followed by Sorceress, the second half of the story. It was reminiscent to me of Monica Furlong's Wise Child, a much older book, but I think that is coincidence. The book's jacket was one of the first featuring a full face teenage girl but, unlike many later ones, the model did look as if she could have belonged in the period written about. The first of Celia Rees's historical novels.

• Julie Bertagna Exodus

The first of a trilogy about a drowned future, featuring the strong heroine Mara and her involvement with resistance leader Fox.

You will notice lots of omissions on this list as on the others. There are books that people rave about that I dislike - such as The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak - and others that I simply haven't read - like The Hunger Games.

But feel free to add some of your favourites.