Friday, 29 April 2011

Let's improve our Royal Wedding vocabulary




Well, I watched it. Always meant to and did. Was fascinated by the Abbey cosmati floor, the liturgy, the visiting dignitaries, the hats, the lot. What annoyed me is the very low standard of blather we get from broadcasters. Huw Edwards read out bulletins about the principals' outfits as if he was doing it phonetically from a script written in Martian and couldn't tell the difference between sky and powder blue (Carole Middleton).

Now as for Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, Martian would have been very appropriate. Who advises those poor young women on what to wear? Fergie? Mr Blobby? Perhaps nice Mrs Middleton could have a new career within the Firm - or even that Mrs Parker Bowles, who is now Auntie Camilla?

No wonder words failed in some of the commentary. But even when faced with lesser challenges, the broadcasters did no better than the vox pops - fantastic, stunning, brilliant, beautiful - they all said the same until I thought I would scream if I heard "down-to-earth" again. Even HRM the Queen apparently said it was "amazing!"

Here's a  competition: describe William and Kate's ceremony, clothes, relationship without using any of the above adjectives or phrases - and I mean positively. No Republican snideness here - this is an exercise in extending the range of words that could be used without sending the 2 billion or so viewers into a coma.

The prize? Just the satisfaction of knowing you did better than the BBC.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

When a Monster called

Every now and again a book drops through my mailbox with such a pedigree it becomes quite hard to write about it. One such is A Monster Calls. There has been a lot of publicity lately for The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, published after his death and leading to much talk about whether it is right to finish an author's final work.

Well Siobhan Dowd's book was not so much "unfinished" as "unstarted." The central idea was there: a boy, whose mother is dying of cancer (the words "dying" and "cancer" are not used in the book) is visited by a monster - a kind of Green Man - who is going to tell him three stories. In return Conor has to tell him one. Siobhan had not written down what the stories were.

In choosing Patrick Ness to bring this book to birth, Walker were making a bold leap into the almost dark. Ness has received many plaudits and prizes for the books in his Chaos Walking trilogy. (The final volume, Monsters of Men, is on the shortlist for both the Carnegie Medal and the Arthur C. Clarke award). No doubt then about his credentials but he has not exactly written in anything like the style of Siobhan Dowd, who died in 2007 of breast cancer.

But Patrick Ness was very keen NOT to write pastiche Dowd. And the result doesn't sound like either of them - at least not the way they have sounded up until now. The writer I was most reminded of was Ted Hughes.

It's a beautifully produced book. In fact for me, particularly at the beginning, it felt a bit OVER-produced. I did not want to move from a page printed black on white to one printed white on black; it felt fussy and distracting from the story. This is not to detract from the cover and decorations  by Jim Kay, which are suitably sinister and apt to the theme.

Every night Conor wakes from a nightmare he can't bear to finish. A monster in the shape of  Yew tree holds no terrors for him worse than the fears he is living with day to day. His mother's treatment (understood to be chemotherapy) is not working, his dad lives in America with his new wife and baby, his grandmother is someone he just can't get on with. At the back of everything is the horror of what Conor can't let himself think about.

And to add to all that, he is being bullied at school. Conor almost welcomes the brutality of Harry and his two cronies (Linda Newbery pointed out to me once that bad characters always have cronies; only good ones are allowed friends. Though to be fair I don't think Patrick Ness uses that word). It feels good to be beaten because Conor WANTS to be punished. He can't bear it when the Head refuses to exclude him when he finally lets the monster have his way.

For yes, this is an allegorical monster. He is not just Green Man, Herne the Hunter etc. Not just the berry-bearing saviour whose derivative (Tamoxifen) might save Conor's mum. He has something in common with William Mayne's A Game of Dark. When Conor trashes his grandmother's living room or beats his tormentor, he believes the monster is doing it.

The monster does tell Conor the three stories and very satisfying they are, though Conor doesn't think so. And then it's Conor's turn; he has to see the story of the nightmare through to its very bitter end.

It's a book to make you weep and a towering achievement; I read it at a sitting.  My only tiny reservation is about who is going to read it. The adult gatekeepers will - and it does deserve every plaudit and prize it gets. But to which young reader would you give it? A child whose parent is dying? A child whose parent isn't dying? Either way it's terrifying as well as healing.

I don't know the answer to this question. I only know that Patrick Ness can be very proud of what he has done. Even though injury prevented his running in today's marathon, to raise money for Breast Cancer.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A long way from Italy in Earls Court

It's only the second time I've ever been to the London Book Fair. I went once decades ago under the impression I'd been asked to do an event. It was chaotic, with no-one expecting me and I found the whole experience daunting, exhausting and off-putting. And that was when I still lived in London, too.

So why was I there again this Tuesday? Well, I had been invited by the Nordic Ambassadors to a reception at the Danish Embassy on the Monday night, in honour of the London Book Fair and I thought it might be a bit off to attend it without going to the Fair itself.

I didn't expect to see anyone at the reception I knew but in a Ferrero Rocher-free environment at the top of a building in Knightsbridge, with a wonderful terrace, I spotted Shirley Hughes straightaway. And later my Swedish publisher. Shirley and I agreed we must have been invited because we were both ALMA nominees ( and every pleased to be so.)

Anyway, I have the use of a room in middle daughter's north London flat so I stayed over and made my way to Earls Court in the morning. I'd bought a Fair ticket already and registered and had decided to go to a couple of seminars on children's books in the morning. In the event, because of a breakdown on the Piccadilly Line (the train's - not mine), I rushed into the seminar on children's book prizes at the last minute when it was standing room only.

So, this very distinguished panel of Beverley Naidoo, Piet Grobler, Julia Eccleshare and Philip Pullman were trying to talk about the significance of book prizes and no-one could hear them properly because of the utter incompetence of whoever was in charge of the sound system and whoever had decided to hold the event in an open-plan "room" with no ceiling and just a few screens. Do better next time LBF!

Anyway, Beverley was pleased with her Other Award for Journey to Jo'burg, which came before her Carnegie Medal. I was an Other Award judge and was pleased to have it name-checked. (Rosemary Sutcliff always mentioned her Other Award for Song for a Dark queen alongside her Carnegie).

Philip Pullman said you can't compete for a book prize. You have to regard them as the random kindness of providence - which is a very nice thought. Julia Eccleshare thought that the danger of tagging authors as prizewinners sometimes means other deserving books don't get enough recognition. And that there should be a prize for authors "in mid-career."


This is the illustrators' Café right next door, whither I repaired between seminars. They are not in this photo but I overheard a hilarious pitch from an American agent trying to sell to a VERY literary editor a whole bunch of commercial but truly dreadful sounding books.

I was joined by Lucy Coats an we had lunch together too, lamenting the fact that her copy of Mslexia hadn't arrived, though mine had (there's a lovely interview with me by Lucy in the current issue). And I managed to see briefly Anne Rooney,  Miriam Halahmy, Malorie Blackman and Tricia Adams.

But it felt weird being at LBF. It's not like Bologna, not by a long way. Everything is in the one massive hall (with the Agents upstairs) and children's, adult, academic and all other kinds of books are all in together - though children's has its own section.

The second seminar was about Interactive Reading Communities for Young People and Julia Eccleshare said that the new Guardian Children's Books website already had 850,000 users after less than three weeks. Keith Grey doesn't even have a website but was Scottish Booktrust's first Virtual Writer in Residence. M. G. Harris, on the other hand, whose hero of The Joshua Files has a blog, wrote his posts on a special website.Anna Rafferty, Head of Puffin Digital, made the excellent point that what children like is not digital for its own sake but social.

And someone said that most teenagers don't begin their Web searches on Google but on YouTube.  Good thing I'm getting that video camera this month!

I'm going to get better organised for next year and meet lots more virtual friends from Facebook and Twitter (I wrote a book called Virtual Friend once - prescient). Now that I've been to Bologna so many times, I'm no longer scared of big halls. The weather was quite Mediterranean but Earls Court needs to work on the coffee a bit - two and a half times the price of the Bologna brew and much less good.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Discovering a voice

Nearly two years ago now, I got in my car and drive north to an unfamiliar venue in Staffordshire, to be guest speaker at the SCBWI retreat. If you are not familiar with this almost unpronounceable acronym (Scooby, Skiboowy, Skibwee), it stands for Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. The great thing about it is that, unlike the Society of Authors, for which you need a book contract to join, it is open to unpublished writers.
Now, if this sounds like a gathering of wannabes, think again.

The thing about SCBWI is that there is a very high standard of commitment and professionalism. People being kind to aspirant writers often refer to them as the "pre-published" which presupposes that anyone who wants to will make it as a published author one day. It's well-meaning but inaccurate.

Lots more people want to write, especially for young readers, than have a chance of ever being published, especially in these difficult times. And many of these talk in vague terms about things like "inspiration." They are far less like to complete a book, let alone find a publisher for it, than those who do their homework by joining SCBWI.

They have 19,000 members worldwide, who form a support and friendship group; there are conferences and retreats where agents and editors come to give one-to-one sessions and there is the marvellous anthology idea Undiscovered Voices. There have been two of these so far 2008 and 2009 and 13 of the featured authors - more than half - have gone on to be published or are contracted for publication.

At the retreat I went to in 2009, I met three authors who have gone on to be published (and many more who have become Facebook friends!) One was Candy Gourlay, who was an "undiscovered voice" in the first anthology of 2008. Since then, her first novel, Tall Story, has been published by David Fickling Books and shortlisted for Waterstone's Children's Book PrizeBlue Peter Favourite Story Prize, the Leeds Children's Book Prize and the Hillingdon Secondary School Book Prize. It has been nominated for the Branford Boase, the Redbridge Children's Book Award, the UKLA Book Award and the Carnegie Medal.

Candy is from the Philippines and half the book is set there, alternating with what is going on in London. It's a highly original story, with memorable characters and a touch of magical realism. It's a 9-12 story, with strong themes of family, responsibility and difference. Oh, and basketball.


Another person I met on the same retreat was Jonathan Mayhew, who had a three-book deal under his belt already, with Bloomsbury, two of which have since been published.
The first was Mortlock, a grisly piece of junior fiction for lovers of horror, with some terrifying aunts who are half human and half crow, and some real deaths.





That too was shortlisted for the Waterstone's prize and nominated for the 2011 Branford Boase Award. And Mayhew's second book, The Demon Collector, is just out.

So you see, these SCBWI-ers really do have a high success rate.

A third writer I met in Staffordshire was Miriam Halahmy and her first book is so recently out that it hasn't had time to be put on any lists but I'm sure it will. Hidden is the only one of the three aimed at teenagers and is set on Hayling island, a location Miriam knows well. When I first heard that, I thought it might involve sailing but it doesn't. It's about illegal immigration, prejudice, ignorance and the gradual growth of trust, respect and tolerance. Apart from the arrival of Mohammed by sea, hit over the head and dumped in the water by unscrupulous people-smugglers, the plot that unwinds could take place anywhere in the UK.

Alix is a 14-year-old girl living with her single mother on Hayling island and sympathetic to Samir, an Iraqi boy who has achieved legal refugee status. They are walking on the beach when they find Mohammed, half-dead and seriously wounded, both by the smugglers and torture he has undergone in Iraq.

Halahmy knows a lot about family life and customs in Iraq because she has been married to an Iraqi for more than thirty years and that experience makes her book all the more authentic. She has also addressed an increasingly common situation about which most teenagers know little and has cast an uncomfortable spotlight on their reaction to the strangers in their midst.

SCBWI are now accepting submissions from members for the 2011 Undiscovered Voices anthology - see www.undiscoveredvoices.com for details.

The judges have been announced - including agents and editors - and  the Chair is Malorie Blackman. But for all who don't make it into the anthology, take heart - Jonathan Mayhew and Miriam Halahmy were not in the two previous ones.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Bologna images

This was the picture of the Nosy Crow stand I couldn't upload before.

You can see how it now fits right into the Bologna pattern.

Below is a cowgirl I happened to run into at the Orion stand. It was a fabulous outfit and I realised immediately that it must be the author of The Western Mysteries, Caroline Lawrence. She was happy to pose for her own "Wanted" poster and is very much alive.

You see, writers have to work really hard nowadays, not just producing books but getting out there and promoting their wares. It got me thinking about how I could dress for David but that's a bit of a problem since he wears nothing, is very male and about seventeen feet high.

Still I'll add a solution at the end. Caroline, you have given us all a hard act to follow and I'm sure your publishers are very pleased with you.


There were no cowgirls or Romans in togas at the IBBY press conference. Just the exciting news that the 2012 Congress will be held in London at Imperial College 23-26 August. The theme is: Crossing Boundaries: Translations and Migrations.

One of the confirmed main speakers is Shaun Tan, who won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award at the Fair, so the IBBY organisers are right on the button.


This is my promotional shot for David. We went on to Florence for a few days after the Fair and I just had to show him the jacket (though it was actually wrapped around another book, proof copies being in short supply).

This is not the "real" David of course, because that is in the Accademia. Or in my book, if you like.

One thing I know, I am not stripping for my art, so this will have to do.

Another year, another Fair. Lots of prosecco, pasta, ice-cream and pizza. Quick swigs of espresso, queues for the loo, restaurants and bars mysteriously closing down, appointments made or missed. Next year ... I'll be back.

Bologna 2011


Well, there I was again. My eleventh Bologna and beginning to feel pretty seasoned at how to "do" the Fair. I have two goals: one is to meet my foreign editors and I hope experience a rapport with them so that they will feel a warm fuzzy glow when offered another book by me.

The other is to identify trends and just see what's about. So I have a mixture of set meetings, which usually last half an hour, plus time to walk up and down the four aisles each of Halls 29 and 30 and the two of Halls 25 and 26.

"Tough on feet and tough on the causes of feet" is my Bologna slogan. Rights people work harder but don't walk as far.


It made this weird orange sofa on one of the stands look very appealing every time we passed it.

Then of course there is the social side, dinners with editors, publishing parties, "Drinks on the Stand" (usually Prosecco). But by far the most fun part is bumping into people unexpectedly as you rove the aisles.

At long last paranormal YA fiction has stopped dominating what is on offer, though there are still a few demons and angels lurking about, the last to leave the party. "Dystopian" is the new buzzword, after the huge success of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy.

Barry Cunningham of The Chicken House claims he was offered "dystopian dogs" but that might be apocryphal.

There was certainly no one big "book of the fair" as there was last year with The Emerald Atlas. Just a steady and quiet atmosphere of thoughtful deals being done. Not so much a feeding frenzy as a civilised banquet of goodies.


This is the Bloomsbury Rights Manager selling (I hope!) my new novel, David, which you can see on the top shelf behind her. And this is what working at Bologna looks like.

It was also fun to meet Kate Wilson and talk with her about Nosy Crow, which went to the Fair last year with nine titles and now has fifty!

Kate had also delivered the keynote speech at the Tools of Change conference held just before the Fair, because her company (with Camilla Reid) has been at the cutting edge of developing picture book apps - such as the Three Little Pigs - and making all their fiction titles available as e-books.

Last year they had a corner of the Publishers' Association stand and a banner; this year a whole big stand of their own. I took a picture, which Blogger is refusing to display. Perhaps I have used up my quota for this post.

Templar are publishing some very nice books, including The Pendragon Legacy sequence by Katherine Roberts, about King Arthur's daughter Rhianna. And VIII (pronounced "Eight") by Harriet Castor. I'll give you a clue: think Jonathan Rhys Myers!

There's lots more to tell you and more pictures so I'll do another post.