Category Archives: Siobhan Dowd

EIBF and me, 2014

It is here. The programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Book festival. And I’m sorry, but all I can think of is that Sara Paretsky will be there. It’s been three years, and she is finally coming in the summer rather than freezing her nether regions off in February/March. Which is so sensible.

OK, there must be a few other authors scheduled for the two and a bit weeks. Think, witch, think!

There are some very interesting looking events where authors one admires talk about authors one admires. I’m going to have to see if I can catch one of those, because they look like tickets might sell out fast (small tent). Then there is Patrick Ness who will give the Siobhan Dowd talk and Val McDermid will pretend to be Jane Austen.

Wendy Meddour is coming and there is a lovely pairing of Francesca Simon and Irving Finkel. Another interesting pair is Caroline Lawrence with Geraldine McCaughrean. Elizabeths Laird and Wein will cooperate, and Gill Lewis is also making an appearance.

Many more excellent authors like Sophie Hannah and Arne Dahl, Tommy Donbavand and Liz Kessler will be at the festival. I have to admit to paying less attention to the ‘grown-up’ authors again, in favour of my ‘little ones.’ Those who are given orange juice instead of wine (although I am sure not at EIBF!) because they write for children.

Have to admit that many of my hoped for events are school events. I am glad that some of the best looking events are for schools, because it means someone thinks school children deserve the best. I want to be a school child on a very temporary basis at the end of August.

Deck chair

I’m hoping for plenty of stamina on my part. I have planned a number of full or nearly full days, for about two thirds of the festival. (I was thinking of having a holiday at some point.) The event I am fairly certain I won’t be able to go to but wish I could, is Eleanor Updale talking about Vera Brittain. That would be really something.

Perhaps I will see you in Charlotte Square? (If my eyes are – temporarily – closed, just give me a gentle nudge.)

They came for dinner

I started leaning on them a week ago. At various points most of them could either come or not come and it kept changing until the last minute, and I moved venue two days before, but finally they were here.

Dinner table

On Thursday evening it was time for my annual tradition (three times is tradition, yes?) of asking the shortlisted authors coming to the Salford Children’s Book Award to meet for dinner on the night before the ceremony. Not all of them managed to come up with a convincing enough excuse for not joining me – and Daughter – so three authors and one very cool aunt actually made it to Carluccio’s at Piccadilly.

Gill Lewis

Sally Nicholls

Gill Lewis arrived nice and early, and we decided to string out the dining experience by having starters we strictly speaking didn’t need. Olives, crispy pasta. That sort of thing. Sally Nicholls, accompanied by her Cool Aunt, got there at the end of our main course, and Cliff McNish wasn’t too far behind.

This year the award is a Top Ten kind of arrangement, so the authors had all won their year, and this morning they have to fight it out between them (including Michael Morpurgo who even has to fight himself), to see who is the overall winner of the last ten years. (Daughter pointed out it was like The Hunger Games, except they’d had dinner, and hopefully they will all be alive at the end.)

We talked about being a vet, about big animals and small animals and disobedient dog sled dogs. There was some general writing world gossip, and just as it got really exciting I was asked to sign the official secrets act, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything. Deadlines. Editors. Killing the wrong character. Who’s been buried in the garden. Mmmphh… (OK, I will be quiet now.)

Cliff McNish

Cliff had questions on everything, including why I arranged the dinner. (Stupid question. I want to hang out with the cool kids. Obviously.) Sally waved her minestrone about and talked, making the table shake. Cool Aunt makes puppets (films and television), and she has a brand new grandchild, as well as the sense to bring photos of the baby. Adorable!

At some point the latecomers caught up with the menu, and Cool Aunt was seen finishing the large and rather green olives which were still around. Just before we were chucked out, we managed to work out how much money we needed to find, before going in search of taxis to Salford Quays and last trains for Cool Aunt and Daughter and me.

It was lucky no one was hoping for an early night, except MC Alan Gibbons who had flown in from Hong Kong in the small hours, and who came to the belated conclusion he actually needed some sleep. Which is why he didn’t join us.

The other hopefuls this morning are Paul Adam, Georgia Byng, Angie Sage and the sisters of Siobhan Dowd. Robert Muchamore and Michael Morpurgo won’t be there, but might still win. I’ll update this when I know.

(Michael Morpurgo won with Shadow.)

The Ransom of Dond

Somehow, from somewhere, someone has dredged up a short story by Siobhan Dowd. We are many who are grateful for more, however brief.

Because although this looks like a short novel, it is more of an older picture book, with many illustrations to fill out a short story. With illustrations like these, from Pam Smy, I am more than happy with this situation. Bluey grey, they literally are the story, The Ransom of Dond.

Ransom of Dond, from Pam Smy's sketchbook

I learned long ago that anything Siobhan wrote will be well worth reading, even when the subject doesn’t sound like it’s for me. It’s the same this time (and I’m secretly praying for more little finds).

This is wonderful. Set on a small island near Ireland, there is an old curse which says the 13th child born on the island will have to be sacrificed to bring the islanders luck.

Darra is that child, and on the eve of her 13th birthday we meet her and some of the people on that island. It seems very cruel, and while it obviously is, there is always anoher side to every story, and there is here as well.

Read, and be happy that Siobhan had one more story for us.

Thanks, Siobhan!

Siobhan Dowd NYC 80s-90s, by Helen Graves

Easter brought back my earliest memories of Siobhan Dowd, and of The London Eye Mystery. It was as we left the local bookshop just before Easter 2007 that Daughter grabbed the proof of this wonderful book, and once she had read it, she gave me permission to read it as well.

I’d like to think that this ‘illustrious’ blogging career of mine would have gone in much the same direction even without Siobhan and The London Eye Mystery. Hard to say. It made me do my fan email thing, which in turn meant Siobhan wrote back to me, opening up a more personal view of herself; one which I might never have encountered otherwise.

Looking back, it seems so dreadfully unreal that she would die just a few months later. And who would have thought that her work would just go on and on afterwards? I won’t be alone in blessing her strength, writing four novels in such a very short time, giving us her fantastic books to read after she was gone. And her trust, which she had time to plan, helping young people to read.

This was the very beginning of my moving in literary circles, and I marvel at how I dared get on that train to Oxford for Siobhan’s memorial service in November. I met so many people there, who I would probably have met at some point, but not quite like that. Would I have known that Siobhan’s friend Fiona Dunbar would make the perfect Bookwitch Profile as seen here last month?

The London Eye Mystery made more magic later with the stage version. Again, lots of people met up, and for me a lasting pleasure was meeting her best friend Helen who came over from New York, and who provided the photo above. (You could ask why it’s important to meet the American friend of an author you never met. I don’t know. But it feels good.)

Siobhan Dowd and Helen Graves: friends at Blenhaim Palace spring 2006

When I think back to first meeting literary people – online or in person – I can link back to Siobhan surprisingly often. It’s not just Declan Burke of Irish crime fame who popped up. He brought with him all those Irish crime writers that I’d never heard of before. Other bloggers. And in turn, these writers have taken me further in many different directions. I find paths doubling back on themselves.

Rings on the water, is what it seems like. Once this idea had come to me, the rings just grew and grew. I am not going to bore you with long lists of authors and publishers (although the lovely David Fickling must be mentioned). I started counting how many facebook friends originated with Siobhan, but gave up…

There was something in the way my brief contact with Siobhan encouraged more mad behaviour on my part. It wasn’t only meeting people. It was learning other things I could do. Was allowed to do. I owe Siobhan a lot, and I hope she’s sitting up there looking down at all of us, having a bit of fun herself. Maybe with a fluffy dog by her side, and a glass of something.

(I know. This is very much a me, me kind of post. But whenever I think ‘how did that come about then?’ my inner detective notices footprints going all the way back to this great author and person.)

Brilliant Books

It was Oldham’s first book award last night, and what a brilliant name Brilliant Books is! Queen Elizabeth Hall was teeming with beautifully dressed school children of all ages, and I must say that those authors who usually spend their days in lonely garrets scrub up really well, too.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Oldham

As for your shabby looking witch, she was given her very own escort who did some excellent looking after. His name was Snape. Keith Snape. Not Severus. But anyway. (He’s older than he looks. Apparently.) He told me about the wonderful libraries in Oldham, and he is dreadfully enthusiastic about all sorts of things.

Twenty schools have participated in reading this first year, and the children came for a glittery night out at the round tables in the beautiful ballroom. The Mayor of Oldham spoke, and then it was Dave’s turn to look after things on stage. At least I think he’s a Dave. I didn’t catch his surname. He did a great job, ably assisted by young readers.

The names of the shortlisted authors for each category were read out by readers of that age group, followed by some very nicely done recorded readings from each book, along with an opinion on why that particular book was the best. (Like because the character had orange hair.)

Caryl Hart

Caryl Hart and Ed Eaves won the Early Years award for How to Grow a Dinosaur, and Caryl was there to receive the prize. She impressed Dave by reading her acceptance speech on her smartphone…

Oldham Youth Wind Ensemble played The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, before the titles of the five shortlisted books in the Key Stage 1 group were read out, by slightly older children, who in an egalitarian attempt to split the five titles, shared the last one between them.

Caryl Hart

Julia Donaldson and David Roberts won with Jack and the Flumflum tree, and our esteemed Children’s Laureate made up for having gone on holiday instead of coming to Oldham, by sending a video message, which included singing a song with her husband. Pretty good, actually.

Not wanting to be outdone (as if they would be!) the Wind Ensemble gave us the Drunken Sailor, and then it was straight on to Key Stage 2. I am pleased that Philip Caveney won with Night on Terror Island. It’s especially nice, because it’s a local award. Philip thanked his daughter for making him a children’s author, and his soulmate, who then ended up carrying his rather lovely trophy around for him.

Philip Caveney

Clive Goddard

Clive Goddard, who didn’t win, but who was there anyway, stood up to wave, so we know what he looks like. He wrote a book with the tongue-twisting title Fintan Fedora the World’s Worst Explorer. I agree with Dave; I don’t think I can say that too many times.

Stanley's Stick

Ruth Eastham

Before moving on to the Key Stage 3 books, we enjoyed a performance of Stanley’s Stick by young actors from Oldham Coliseum. The winning book in this category was The Memory Cage by Ruth Eastham. She gave a great speech, which partly consisted of reading us her first published poem, written when she was nine. Basically, we should be aware of our inner caterpillar. I think. We will eventually turn into butterflies.

Ally Kennen

By this time poor Dave wasn’t sure if he was even at the right stage, but he was, because it was the turn of the oldest readers (so much taller than the first ones) to announce that Patrick Ness and Jim Kay had won with A Monster Calls. Unfortunately they were running late with their homework, and had been given a detention so couldn’t be there.

Sarah from Walker Books read out a message from Patrick, who regretted that his nice suit wasn’t going to get its annual airing, and he thanked Siobhan Dowd, on whose idea the book was based. Another shortlisted author, Ally Kennen, was in the audience and we got a wave from her.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Oldham

Dave said he’s happy so many children can and do read more than 140 characters, and then everyone thanked everybody else. Andrea Ellison, whose brainchild Brilliant Books is, spoke and listed all her helpers. She waved her plastered arm around, and I wasn’t sure how much she had used it to persuade people… She finished by asking the children to parade round the room, to show off their beautiful outfits and perhaps to get some restlessness out of the way by marching round to the upbeat music.

Ruth Eastham

After which there was nothing more to do than buy books and chat to authors and give Lady Caveney advice on the Scandinavian languages and their differences. And seeing as it took me two hours to get there by public transport, I then decided I had to start working on my return journey. (Car would have been 30 minutes. Broom probably even faster.)

I feel honoured to have been present at the birth of a new award, and here’s to many more Brilliant Books!

Books

He can marry me anytime

Patrick Ness wanted to be an author from an early age, but had no expectations about getting to where he is today. Not through misguided modesty or anything, but his Pentecostal church knew the world was going to end (in 1980, I believe), so there was no point in looking further. He is now living on borrowed time, and reckons God just hasn’t noticed.

At this point Patrick tried to deflect the attention from him to Keith Gray by talking about Ostrich Boys, but Keith told him in no uncertain terms that this was no debate; it was an interview.

Patrick Ness

He – Patrick – actually entered the Corner theatre so quietly we hardly noticed he had arrived. But Keith made sure we knew all his achievements by listing Patrick’s awards, from the Carnegies and ‘down.’ The place was packed, and mostly by teenagers, which is almost unusual these days.

So it was interesting to hear Patrick’s next book is an adult one. The Crane Wife was written because he needed to write it, and he sort of omitted telling his publisher about it. It will be out in 2013, and so will the next YA book he is currently two thirds through editing the second draft of.

Keith asked him about his rather public argument with G P Taylor, on age banding, which Patrick felt had more to do with G P T’s wish for publicity (he’s not here today, is he?) than anything else. Then it was on to Will Self, and later Stephen King, after which Patrick might have run out of steam, coming up with caustic comments about his peers… He doesn’t mince words, and I suspect that’s something young readers notice and like.

As for his own writing, if Patrick doesn’t like it himself, why should he expect anyone else to? You need to laugh at your own jokes. He needs to want to hurry back to writing, or we won’t want to hurry back to where we left off reading. You can’t be both an oracle and an author. To him being an author has to come first. Always.

‘Momentum is everything’ and the Chaos trilogy really has come to an end. He can’t rule out another book set in the same world, but these books are done. There will be no more. When he wrote The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick knew what the last line of Monsters of Men would be. (Although, there could be a few more short stories…)

For those who might not already know, Patrick explained the background to A Monster Calls, talking at length about Siobhan Dowd. It was important to him that the book should be his book. He didn’t want to pretend to be Siobhan. When he began, he could see the ruined living room in his head, so he knew what to do.

As to whether the tree is real, he leaves that to every reader to determine for themself. He knows what he thinks. But he won’t tell. He has written the screenplay for A Monster Calls, because he didn’t want it changed by someone else.

Patrick might feel he has left the church behind, but the phrase ‘totems are the work of the devil’ tripped very easily off his lips. One piece of advice he has for would-be writers is to write from a totally new or different point of view. If you are a boy, write as though you’re a girl. And write the best you can. You can always go back and fix it, so don’t wait for perfect.

And then to the last question, which Keith bagged for himself: ‘Will you marry me?’

Patrick pointed out they were both happily married, and not to be an idiot. (He might not have used that exact word.)

The explanation for all this was simpler, and also stranger, than you’d think. Patrick’s oldest friend in America had got married recently. She wanted him to marry her. So he went and got ordained online, and then he married his friend.

Form an orderly queue here.

A Little, Aloud

This is one anthology that I won’t be able to carry around with me in order to catch all its participating authors for autographs. Many are dead, and anyway, there are so many of them. Many means good, because there is a tremendous variety and choice, and once you’ve read what you fancy, you might pick something you don’t. That way you discover that is actually also perfectly fine.

You don’t always get anthologies intended to be read aloud, which of course doesn’t stop you from doing so. Short stories and excerpts and poems are just right for that bedtime read, when you are praying you won’t be sitting on the edge of the bed half the night. This book obligingly tells you how long you can expect to spend reading each contribution, so no nasty surprises.

A Little, Aloud

The royalties for this collection of good reads go to The Reader Organisation, which has as its aim ‘reading and health.’ Very nice to see those two words used together. I frequently sit down with a book even when far too many little jobs and crises scream at me that my attention is of the utmost importance. I know that I will feel so much better after a read.

Foreworded by Michael Morpurgo (naturally) and with blurbs by Philip Pullman and Stephen Fry (two men whose voices I just love listening to), the book begins with Instructions by Neil Gaiman. I mistakenly thought he was needed to tell us what to do, but it was actually a proper poem.

Many of the stories in here are ones I have already read, as part of the novel they hail from or as works in their own right. They have, for instance, had the good taste to pick my favourite Shaun Tan story, Broken Toys. There are excerpts from Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase as well as Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

You have Shakespeare and Kipling, Stevenson and Larkin, and even good old Anon. I haven’t read them all. Yet. This is another of those volumes I want to keep somewhere near, just to dip into. The pile for dipping is getting taller, but that just can’t be helped.

I will want to dip.

(Apologies to all those, dead or alive, whose names I haven’t listed. They are many. And how marvellous to be able to share classic writers in an easy bite size form with a child.)

A Pope kind of moment

I recall Putney Boy’s reaction to hearing that the Pope had died. Being very Italian and impatient with it, he pointed out to the bearer of this piece of news that it was old news. Very old news. What this favourite waiter of mine had missed was that Pope John Paul I had died, and that we weren’t still talking about the death of Paul VI.

But it’s easy to miss even the biggest news on occasion.

I had one of those dead Pope moments on Thursday evening. I saw a mention on facebook that Carnegie winner Patrick Ness had made some speech about the government and books. I thought irritably that it was all very well to post this if you care about books and reading, but that it had been a year since Patrick’s speech.

Patrick Ness

By Friday morning I had cottoned on to the fact that he had only gone and been awarded the Carnegie again. And the speech was a new speech. My next piece of intelligence suggested that A Monster Calls had actually won the Kate Greenaway medal, which to my tired mind (two days on the road and very little sleep) meant that it was really Jim Kay who had got the medal.

Over mugs of tea the witch family slipped onto the subject, and I shared this Greenaway thought when Daughter said A Monster Calls had received both awards. Personally I thought it unlikely, and we only managed not to come to blows over this by some unexpected maturity we must have had in us.

Struck by a need to know, I researched the whole thing and found she was correct, and that the 2012 medals had been awarded in an unusual way, with one book sharing both.

Well deserved, as everyone has been saying. And some of us feel that it is perhaps an award shared by three people if we count Siobhan Dowd as well.

A Monster Calls

I really, really need to get on a Carnegie mailing list, if there is such a thing. Longlists and shortlists and award dates and winners must no longer slip through my keyboard in this embarrassing fashion. And to think I was actually, for once, in London on the day, too…

In a minority

I need to disagree with Simon Mason. At least, I think I do. His review in Saturday’s Guardian of Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine wasn’t terribly favourable. That’s fine. For all its merits, Mockingbird wasn’t my favourite aspie book, either. But as an aspie book, it is of interest to me. It has a job to do, and I believe it does.

I suspect Simon ‘only’ reviewed Mockingbird as he would any other book, and he’s probably right to do so. You shouldn’t be more positive about a novel featuring black characters only for that reason. Nor should you get a black reviewer in to ‘do it justice.’ So my feeling that the Guardian would have been better to ask Charlotte Moore is possibly also wrong.

But then I was wrong back in the infancy of Bookwitch when I produced a list - soon followed by a second list – of aspie books (and ultimately a blog in the Guardian). I imagined they were for normal people wanting to read up on aspies or enjoy a novel featuring people who are different in some respect. I felt there was more to aspie literature than Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident. There is, and if reviewers of aspie books will insist on harking back to Curious Incident and compare unfavourably, then I will end up resenting Mark’s wonderful novel.

My own epiphany back in 2007 was that aspies actively look for – and don’t often find – books about themselves. There is a need, and it needs to be filled. Mockingbird does that. So do many other aspie novels. They might not be great literature, because they are often written out of a sense of need and desperation. Unless we can commission top authors to write aspie books as though they were writing one of their ‘normal’ novels, we have to be happy with what we’ve got.

Simon’s is a neurotypical review. It doesn’t allow for the need for aspie books, nor that top writers don’t ‘go there.’ For children’s needs, and especially British children’s reading needs, I want a Jacqueline Wilson book with a main character who has Asperger Syndrome. Not the best friend or the sibling, but the main character.

Once or twice I have suggested to authors I admire that they’d do many readers a favour by incorporating aspie characters in their books. Usually the response is that they know too little (research!), and why don’t I write one myself? That, of course, is what many aspie authors have ended up doing.

Most of my aspie novels are American. Simon is right; there is a difference between our two countries. So far the US appears to have been better for aspie children. A recent suggestion for changing the law means that they will soon have it as bad as we do here.

There are one or two inaccuracies in Simon’s review. Maybe they don’t matter. Although I think they do. Too fast reading of the book is what I’m thinking. Caitlin isn’t into video games. She likes videos. The games were mentioned as part of her ‘conducting small talk.’ The way she talks about her brother is because her Dad fell to pieces and seems not to respond to her. Devon didn’t go to Caitlin’s school, so wasn’t killed there. The lack of colour could constitute a possible angle of aspie life. Caitlin is surprisingly good at drawing. I don’t think her drawing has to be the passion Simon expects it to be.

OK, I’m being petty. But I’d rather a book like this was pulled to shreds for the right reasons. In some ways I wonder why the Guardian bothered reviewing Mockingbird at all. I think it’s important. But I would rather they picked a book which a reviewer could wholeheartedly recommend. Until Carnegie level authors write aspie books, we need to nurture the ones we get. The books still have a value.

Bearded off

You can’t leave a good yurt alone. It grows. The Edinburgh press yurt has sprouted an extra room over the winter. The sideways growth will no doubt prove to be a blessing. As the witch and her photographer fell across its threshold yesterday afternoon, suitcases and everything in tow, we found Claire Armitstead from the Guardian interviewing away in there. (Come to think of it, perhaps it’s the Guardian as BookFest guardians we have to thank for the space?)

My photographer returned General Sutton’s press pass from the Science Festival in April (don’t ask…), and then we set off with our fresh press passes for the year, with much softer ribbons, so we won’t be uncomfortable. At least not round the neck area.

Philip Ardagh

Gentleman with beard

We went looking for Philip Ardagh, of long beard fame. We found someone with an even longer beard! Although PA will be pleased to know he still leads in the excessive height and very large (red, nice) shoes department.

Philip Ardagh

Philip had moderated the Horror boys, aka as Alexander Gordon Smith, Barry Hutchison and Darren Shan. We missed their event, but not their signing, with a mile long queue of mainly boys, and some very useful mothers who queued for them.

Alexander Gordon Smith

Barry Hutchison

Darren Shan

(I fully believe Darren is starting an argument above.)

I can tell you that Patrick Ness doesn’t arrive in time for official photocalls. And we had been so pleased that he’d been considered important enough to merit one… Oh well. We got Nick Sharratt instead. Although as the photographer pointed out, there are only so many pictures you can take of a man wearing a cloud shirt, even of someone who happens to be her favourite illustrator.

Nick Sharratt

‘Hi, here we are!’ said Patrick when he arrived for his event A Monster Calls, in the company of moderator Julia Eccleshare. (Too late, I say.) He read the first chapter of his book with the same title. Then he and Julia talked about how the book came to be written, after an idea by Siobhan Dowd.

It was something she wanted, and Patrick has written it as a tribute to Siobhan, rather than trying to copy her style or even using the first chapter she had written. He got the general idea for the plot and the characters from Siobhan’s notes, and then he did his own thing.

That’s generally important to Patrick, writing for himself, keeping it private, and he reckons A Monster Calls is a sad book, but a hopeful one. He remembers only too well what it was like to be a teenager. He feels it’s important to have picture books like this, for older readers, and Patrick was involved in choosing the illustrator, Jim Kay.

To engage in some name dropping I can tell you that the Children’s Laureate Julia Donaldson was in the audience, joining in asking questions afterwards. It was an almost full event, after which most of us obediently toddled over to the bookshop for a spot of queueing. It’s a something we can never have enough of.

Patrick Ness

Although it might have been the after-effects of the massive queue round most of Glasgow Queen Street station earlier in the day that finished us off pretty promptly, and meant that all my earlier ‘coughing’ all over Philip Ardagh came to nothing. I’d been hoping to hear him and Jenny Downham talk about her second novel You Against Me. But I’m sure it went well, even without my witchy presence.

We just went and stood in a few more queues on the way to our BookFest home-from-home. Edinburgh in August, is there anything better? (That’s a more or less direct quote from one of the natives. It would have been rude to disagree.)