Tag Archives: Mal Peet

Writing Children’s Fiction

The trouble with a book like Writing Children’s Fiction: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion,  is that it makes someone like me believe that they can write a children’s book. It is that good, and it is above all, that inspiring.

(So avoid at all costs if you don’t want to sit down and write a book just now.)

Linda Newbery and Yvonne Coppard provide loads of good advice for the budding author, based on how they themselves go about writing. Linda, for instance, began by wanting to be Monica Dickens. (Makes a change from all of us who thought we were Enid Blyton.)

Along with their own tried and tested methods, they have invited the cream of British children’s authors to share their thoughts on what to do. Or not to do. Many of them started off making beginner’s mistakes. Now that they have done it for you, your own path will be that much straighter.

I was pleased to learn Mal Peet made Marcus Sedgwick concerned with his flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants technique. A little more worried by Meg Rosoff decking an interviewer for saying writing looked easy. Tim Bowler was a child prodigy if he’s to be believed, and Mary Hoffman has had a lifelong love affair with her muse, Italy.

Once inspiration has you in its grips, there are workshops on every possible aspect of writing books. And because these ladies don’t seem to doubt that my (your) book will get published, there are links to useful consultancies, blogs and how to get a school visit arranged.

And how could you fail? There are so many tips, not to mention inspirational tales in Writing Children’s Fiction, that you will be absolutely fine. Anne Fine, who has written the foreword, wishes she had had access to this kind of guide when she began, instead of doing it the hard way.

I will try to refrain from embarking on a book, but will be happy to review yours when it’s done. Always assuming you have followed the advice and made it a good one. But you will.

Call Down Thunder

It’s good. In fact, I’m beginning to suspect that Call Down Thunder is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Written by Daniel Finn, who is really Will Gatti, and whose books I had quietly ignored after we met four years ago at the Bolton award. Not that I didn’t trust him to be good, but you know how it is. Very grateful that Will/Daniel suggested I might like this book.

Daniel Finn, Call Down Thunder

Call Down Thunder is not like other books, but a little Mal Peet-y if I have to describe it. Set in some Latin American country – I think – real, or made up, doesn’t matter. It’s got the right feel.

Young fisherman Reve and his sister Mi have been living with Tomas in the small fishing village Rinconda since their father was murdered and their mother disappeared. Mi suffers from weird fits, and has taken to living in a wrecked car on the beach, while Reve tries to be a good boy and friend and brother.

After a couple of bad things happen in Rinconda, Reve and Mi go to the big city to find their mother. More bad things happen to the two country teenagers who have never been out of their village before. It’s a tough and violent life, and a poor one, but with Mi’s second sight, and Reve’s hard work and courage, they eventually ‘arrive somewhere’ and can go on with living.

Daniel/Will has packed a lot into 300 pages. There is absolutely no waffle, and the dialogue is in some sort of dialect, which curiously enough doesn’t grate on the reader’s eyes. It’s just perfect. There’s a whole cast of fascinating characters, and so very believable.

You must read this. It’s yet more proof that the best books aren’t necessarily written by the best known writers.

The Penalty

Sometimes I stop and ask myself how I can be sure that a book is good. When I am already reading it, is what I mean. If it flows easily and is exciting or romantic or whatever. Does that alone make it good?

And then along comes a book like Mal Peet’s The Penalty and there is no need to wonder, because you just know you are in the presence of greatness. Even when it’s a book – partly – about football.

This was the one I missed before, and I was wondering what to do about it when I discovered that Walker are re-issuing Mal’s older novels to fit in with the oh so gorgeous design of his new one, Life: An Exploded Diagram. I had worried in case it might be wrong to read the second Paul Faustino book last (I began with the third and then went on to the first), but it was fine.

Mal Peet, The Penalty

The Penalty is a book about two things. First there is the football, featuring a new and very young star player, El Brujito. Journalist Paul Faustino happens to be in his home town soon after the player mysteriously disappears. The second topic is African style religion, which isn’t voodoo, but was probably inspired by it. The reader is introduced to the ancient slave trade, and there is a mix of the now with the then, and the setting of San Juan being the thing in common.

Neither is your ordinary YA topic, and the question here is how do we know it is a YA book? With the exception of meeting some of the characters at age 14, they are all adults. But you sort of know it’s a YA novel. Latin America, football, politics, religion, and all written in a grown-up way, but still…

It all ties together quite neatly, and the end is… well, it’s different.

I like Paul Faustino, and I like Mal Peet. This is what good is. In case I wonder again.

Witch’s Eleven

Here’s the 2011 top ten. Because it’s my top ten, it has eleven books. Because it’s 2011. Eleven is such a nice number. You know.

Anyway, I can’t have the same number every year. I need to keep my readers on their toes. There could have been many more. Books. Not toes, unless we count them individually, since every extra reader ought to bring around ten when they join.

DSCN1202

I was aiming for some sort of order of colour in this pile, but eleven isn’t enough. And rest assured, I didn’t choose my list according to colour of spine.

Whereas in the photo the books are rated by colour, I will list them here based on titles in alphabetical order. It’s an even year, and almost impossible to pick a ‘winner.’

Being Billy, Phil Earle

Bloodstone, Gillian Philip

Caddy’s World, Hilary McKay

Cat’s Paw, Nick Green

In the Sea there are Crocodiles, Fabio Geda

Life, an Exploded Diagram, Mal Peet

Outlaw, Stephen Davies

Return to Ribblestrop, Andy Mulligan

There is no Dog, Meg Rosoff

The Unforgotten Coat, Frank Cottrell Boyce

Wonder Struck, Brian Selznick

My rules are few. The books need to be from this year. I need to have loved them more than I loved many other excellent books. They need to have made me go ‘Yes!’ when reading them. Made me laugh or cry, or both, that little bit more than average. I’m also hoping to have at least partially avoided what someone was complaining about on facebook the other week, which is that recommended books often have very little to do with what children read. Or rather, since I don’t know what children actually read, that I’m not recommending books suitable for adults only.

If I’m to elevate one book above the others, it will have to be Fabio Geda’s Crocodiles. And it’s not even fiction. And it’s a translation.

Haunted

Would you rather sleep well? If so, don’t do what I did. I read a short story every evening before going to bed. I thought it’d be a good way of enjoying this new anthology – Haunted – for Halloween. How wrong I was.

Haunted

The stories aren’t bad. Not at all. Most of them do exactly what they are meant to do. Scare you, and make you think of ghosts, and possibly even make your pulse go a wee bit faster.

Who’d have thought there could be so many ghosts? There are bad ones and small ones and sweet ones (I think so, anyway) and funny ones and ones you wouldn’t want to meet in your friendly neighbourhood graveyard. Even in daylight.

Some stories end well (ish). Others don’t.

As I might have mentioned when Derek Landy guest blogged here the other day, his story is very funny. Doesn’t mean people don’t die.

And if you look in the mirror, is there someone there? Apart from your good self, I mean. Also, whatever possesses people – children – to go out late at night to some dark and haunted place? On their own. It’s just asking for trouble.

I have to take issue with Matt Haig over giftshops. At first I thought he’s a really enlightened man. Then I realised he’d got it all wrong. He could have done the umbrellas even by doing the giftshop the other way round.

It’s not just dark dungeons that are haunted. Sunny beaches aren’t necessarily any better. Sunnier, but not safer. And what are you most scared of; computers or dogs?

Anyway, don’t let me put you off. Joseph Delaney, Susan Cooper, Mal Peet, Jamila Gavin, Eleanor Updale, Derek Landy, Robin Jarvis, Sam Llewellyn, Matt Haig, Philip Reeve and Berlie Doherty have come up with some good stories. Best enjoyed with your elevenses, than with your bedtime snack, though.

A Kathryn Ross event

Kathryn Ross chaired an event this morning, and it set me thinking about what I’d written on the rather good event she chaired earlier in the week. Now, which one was it? Oh yes, it was the Southern hemisphere one, on my Aussie day, with Morris Gleitzman and Jason Wallace. The one Mal Peet was sad to have missed. And the reason I couldn’t recall what I’d written was that I hadn’t. At all.

Jason Wallace

I assumed Morris to be here for his umpteenth EIBF appearance, but it turned out to be his first. I’m fairly certain it was Jason’s first, as Out of Shadows is his first book. And here he was, paired with old-timer Gleitzman, whose new book Too Small to Fail is yet another laugh-and-cry story about a young child who tries to do his best in an awkward situation.

Jason Wallace, Out of Shadows

They started off by each reading a piece, with Jason in the nice boots choosing the snake story from somewhere at the beginning of Out of Shadows. He did a passable Zimbabwean accent, or so I’d like to believe, anyway.

Morris read the early chapter with Oliver standing outside the pet shop loving the doggie in the window. It quickly goes from sweet and traditional to potentially dangerous but also funny, because this is Morris Gleitzman, after all. He was probably rather tired, as he’d just arrived from Australia, but you wouldn’t have known.

Both authors like introducing difficult situations for their characters to solve, or for the readers to solve. They go for characters who do what you yourself wouldn’t do. Jason is an optimist who wanted to find out why Ivan was quite so horrible, and Kathryn suggested that perhaps we can sort of like him, simply because he is so awful.

When asked if they like their characters, Morris said it’s like with your children. There is a reason you don’t strangle them, even if you sometimes feel like it. Characters and children can be disappointing and surprising, but it’d be hard to live with the characters for the length of the book if you don’t like them.

Jason found he ‘enjoyed not liking Ivan’ very much, and that it made the writing work. And no one sees themselves as totally bad or evil. He believes in writing about what you know, whereas Morris subscribes to the idea that you should write about what you feel.

Someone asked if Morris felt bad about the end of Then, and he admitted it was the hardest thing to write, ever, and he had had to force himself. Morris then asked if they thought it was the wrong end, but was told that Then needed to end this way.

Morris Gleitzman

The eight-year-old Morris was a daydreaming wannabe dentist who wrote in secret, until the day someone in the football changing rooms found a story of his and was still reading it ten minutes later. That’s when he realised that if he could ‘keep kids in bag rooms’ his writing might be OK.

A question as to why adult characters come across as a lot weaker than child characters was explained by describing parents as ‘collateral damage’ in children’s fiction. There wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise, and the books need to be written from the point of view of the child, seeing adults as the child sees them.

Which makes a lot of sense. The same goes for the child being a smaller person, while their feelings are not smaller.

We didn’t want this event to end. Kathryn could have gone on and on, and so could most of us. Except perhaps for Morris who really might have been ready for bed.

A masterclass with Shaun Tan

Those pillows were definitely not necessary. Or perhaps the couple in Shaun Tan’s audience last night had been shopping?

The word masterclass makes me suspect that whatever is coming will be boring. But I didn’t for a moment think Shaun would be, and he wasn’t. In fact, I almost wish more events were done in this way. It’s not for everyone, but for those who can.

Charlotte Square’s Corner Theatre was almost full to bursting. I was glad to see Mal Peet there, making up for missing the other Aussie earlier on. Nikki Gamble was there, but Andersen’s Clare was stuck on the train home and was devastated to miss Shaun.

I occasionally worry that I shouldn’t use words like weird in connection with this marvellous – but weird – artist and author, but he used it himself. So that’s all right, then. Shaun had a presentation on his Mac, which he described as ‘very weird stuff, somewhat autobiographical’. As Janet Smyth who introduced him said, it’s been a good year for Shaun. He won an Oscar for The Lost Thing, and then there was that pile of money from Sweden, which now that I think of it, isn’t nearly large enough for Shaun’s talents.

He usually imagines himself talking to his brother, who has a ‘radar for pretentiousness’, and this decides how Shaun describes things. His mother is responsible for the phrase ‘it’s a cultural thing’ which I have recently adopted, because it is so useful. And it’s his architect father who inspired his style of drawing.

Shaun often kicks off with Eric, the tale about the foreign exchange student. It seems they once had an ‘Eric’ themselves, and he was Finnish. That’s why he didn’t talk much. The emotion is under the surface, but it is there.

I was struck by the Tove Jansson quality of the picture that stayed as Shaun’s backdrop for most of the talk. More Finnish-ness. Shaun has travelled from dinosaurs at age three via sci-fi and Star Wars at school to books like The Arrival which took five years to make.

Let’s hope that the Astrid Lindgren award money doesn’t go towards a dishwasher. Shaun does his thinking over the washing up, and where would we be if that stopped? Also, he doesn’t like work, so tries to prune as much as he can off potential work before he even begins.

That’s my kind of person!

And so is his art. Except as he said, he leaves enough space in his work for the readers to put themselves there. So maybe it’s just that he has left what I need to make those beautiful books mine.

Mal was here

Now I feel bad. Mal Peet is such a nice man! And he writes marvellous books. We went along to Mal’s signing to make up for having missed his event.

And the lovely Mal asked if we’d been to see Morris (Gleitzman), which we had. Turns out Mal had wanted to see Morris himself, but I suppose it would be frowned upon to leave your own event to go and admire a colleague. We agreed that in my case it was OK to say that Australian trumps English writer.

But, oh dear, I feel bad. He could at least have seemed more put out.

Mal Peet, Life, An Exploded Diagram

So, there he was, signing piles of copies of Life, An Exploded Diagram, before calling on his wife to come and sign (one that she had written, I hasten to add), while he went outside with us for some photos. Mal leaned against that tree like a pro. He had lost his voice (one of the cons of authoring away in lonely garrets for most of the year and then coming out and talking to crowds), so couldn’t manage too much protesting. Very nice to finally meet Walker’s Ruth, as well.

Mal Peet

We had just come from someone who is used to flashing cameras. Ian Rankin, whose audience was that very minute lining the Charlotte Square boardwalks, posed in front of the collected paparazzi, and when I happened to turn round, I saw some tourists pressing their noses against the nearby gate, trying to see what was going on.

Ian Rankin

A minute or two later someone passed me a mobile phone through that very same gate. She was on double yellow lines and just needed this phone handed to someone in the yurt. Brave of her, and I hereby declare the mobile delivered.

Then we went and dined on M&S sandwiches on the concrete Chesterfields in the mud. Not that I was able to get up afterwards, but that’s another story.

Chesterfield

(There are more and/or different photos on Photowitch every day.)

Life: An Exploded Diagram

This novel barely scrapes by as Young Adult. I was about to say something really stupid here, like Mal Peet has written a book which is so intelligent that it isn’t mphfhmp…. (Leave me alone! I’m trying to review a book here.)

OK then, it is a really intelligent story and that proves it’s a YA novel, and only what we expect from a writer like Mal. It’s so grown up that it really is a book for younger readers. How’s that?

Life: An Exploded Diagram is about sex and bombs, whilst also managing to be a concise description of life during the twentieth century. Strawberries. Horses. Religion. Art. Politics.

I’m so impressed by how Mal has woven the bits from all over the century into a story this way. He begins by letting Ruth give birth to his narrator Clem back in 1945. Mal then goes back in time, giving the reader some perspective on what kind of life Clem was born into. Then he goes forward quite a long way, only to return to the middle of the last century for most of the book.

Most of the story (I believe) is about the teenage Clem meeting Frankie and falling in love. It’s one long hunt for an opportunity to have sex, which was no easy feat back then. It’s sort of a Cuba crisis Lady Chatterley.

I’m old enough to remember, well not the Cuba crisis as such, because I was too much of an idiot for that, but its aftermath of admiration for J F Kennedy. Mal has either done a tremendous amount of research into what Kennedy and his aides talked about, or else he has made it all up very beautifully indeed. I had no idea about Kennedy’s bowels, for instance.

The story is set in the Norfolk countryside, where Mal grew up. It feels as if he knows everything there is to know about the landscape and its people and their language. It’s fascinating!

You can’t really begin to describe this book (yes, I know I already have). You just need to read it. I hope lots of young readers will want to find out about sex in 1962.

Edinburgh 2011

It is pretty dreadful. But on the other hand it could have been a lot worse.

I’m talking about the freshly released programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And before you jump to the erroneous conclusion that the programme is bad, I’m simply bemoaning the fact that I will miss ‘a few’ people by not getting there for the first week.

EIBF

No doubt it will come as a relief to Meg Rosoff and Tim Bowler and Cathy Cassidy that they will miss me too. Not to mention Julie Bertagna and Lucy Hawking. Derek Landy, arghh. Elen Caldecott. Lots of lovely people, who all write great books.

On the plus side, we have Nicola Morgan with Celia Rees, and there is always Patrick Ness and Darren Shan. Janne Teller and Fabio Geda from my foreign reading challenge, and also Mal Peet, Morris Gleitzman and Debi Gliori. And many more. So plenty of little rays of sunshine, in the shape of authors. We know more than well that last year’s lack of mud must be compensated for, so it will rain. Plenty.

Jacqueline Wilson and paparazzi

How will I find the strength to do all this? Last year – sunny weather notwithstanding – nearly finished me off. Would they frown very much if I were to erect a tent in Charlotte Square? Silly me, the place is full of tents. No need to bring my own. It would be convenient, if a little uncomfortable and against the rules. So I guess it will be the Stirling commute again. All that walking is good for me. (To and from the train. Not all the way.)

As for the programme, it looks very, very tempting. It was at this point last year that I threw caution to the wind and opted for the whole caboodle. I can’t this time, so I won’t. Which doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there.