Monthly Archives: February 2011

The Rebecca Stead interview

Rebecca Stead

Meeting someone new and interviewing them is a lot harder than when I’ve been reading someone’s books for years and feel as if I know them inside and out. But it’s a fun sort of challenge, once in a while. There are authors you’ve heard of but never read, and then there are the Rebecca Steads, where I haven’t even heard of them until just before meeting them. What you need then is a book that you like a lot.

And I loved When You Reach Me, and the idea of seeing Rebecca in London and finding out more about her was a great idea. It rained rather, but the ginger cake was good. And Rebecca turned out to be a really nice person. Thank goodness for that unusual New York education!

Read the interview here.

Then read When You Reach Me.

Goodnight Mister Tom

Should you make novels into stage plays? Some books dramatise better than others, and it’d be unfair to expect any novel to seamlessly turn into something of the same quality as a Shakespeare or an Alan Bennett. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. I just minded a little bit that Lyn Gardner in the Guardian found the new production of Goodnight Mister Tom ‘too safe’.

What did she mean? People were dying all over the place, but maybe that’s not what she had in mind. It’s a novel first, and it can’t work in the same way that a play written exclusively for the stage would. There is a difference. And she seemed to mind that it’s such a safe choice, box office wise. I saw a packed theatre where everyone enjoyed the performance. As Daughter said, there were a lot of old people there. And those that weren’t old, were mostly around ten or eleven. Neither a category that would be looking for avant garde drama.

WWII is popular. And all those junior school pupils were presumably doing the war for history. I bet Michelle Magorian never expected to have her children’s novel put to use as a school book. I well remember Son in Y6 being told to watch the film when it was shown on television. Was meant to be, and then didn’t happen. He was dreadfully upset, and the only way we could remedy the failings of the BBC was for the video to magically magic itself into a birthday present a couple of weeks later.

Goodnight Mister Tom

This production only had time to fit in the bare bones of Michelle Magorian’s novel. But that’s fine. It was all there in spirit, including the best puppet dog I’ve ever seen. Sammy must count as a first cousin to Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse horse puppets, and he truly helped with William’s transition into Tom Oakley’s home.

‘The Sad Man’ – which is how I always think of Oliver Ford Davies – came into his own as Mister Tom. So much more right for the part than John Thaw was in the film. He had an impressively worthy William in Toby Prynne, who was both small and powerful at the same time.

William and Tom in Goodnight Mister Tom

The villagers milled about as villagers do, but in such a way that you could believe in the friendship with the small and frightened evacuee. Clever use of one actress both as the kind teacher and as William’s mother, bringing their differences into the open. The simple set worked well, adding enough period feel without going over the top.

Goodnight Mister Tom is a lovely, heartwarming dramatisation of a wonderful book. It might not be the greatest play in the world, but it’s very enjoyable – apart from the sad bits – and I would guess we all went home happy, albeit in tears.

(This is a reworking of my CultureWitch theatre review on Tuesday. And the William in the photo is not my William.)

A fan letter

I received a fan letter yesterday. It’s not my first, but the others were regular letters from fans (what do you mean, of course I have fans..!), whereas this is a letter to the fan. Me.

“An open letter to the Bookwitch on the occasion of her fourth birthday.

Dear Witch

It is nigh-on impossible to believe that only four short years ago you were a mere civilian witch, ‘my stalker’, as I fondly named you all those years ago when the thought of a person who was not a member of my immediate family travelling all the way from Stockport to hear me speak actually frightened me a little.

I don’t remember when the subject of blogging came up, whether it was on that day or sometime later.  But it did come up – clearly anyone with as expansive, informed and passionate an interest in YA books was wasted as a mere reader.

Since that day, you have developed a vast appreciative following, acquired a reputation as a reviewer with the world’s driest sense of humour, and attracted a mountain of books from publishers jostling for your approval.  Your interviews are legendary, ditto the witchling’s literary portraits.  You have predicted the outcomes of any number of awards (frequently incorrectly, but who else manages to read through so many shortlists?)  You have read the books we all know we should read, and guided us in directions fresh and new and important.

In short, you have become indispensible.

Poisoned Chalice

As I enumerate these many excellent qualities, I can not help but take credit for having landed you a four year, full-time, unpaid job, without overtime compensation or holiday leave, a job that has undoubtedly cost you a fortune in unreimbursed expenses, destroyed your family life, consumed far too many late nights and early mornings, and filled every room of your house with unbound proofs of dubious quality.  Where once you were merely a joyous, carefree reader, you are now a professional blogger, weighed down with responsibility, behind on your deadlines, slave to your daily readership stats, doomed to devote the best years of your life to feeding your public’s insatiable hunger for words.

I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me.

Yours, with affection, admiration and remorse,


A love story – kind of

It’s that pesky pestering power of the PR person. From Puffin this time, just to use up every last of my ps.

They kept asking ‘have you received it?’ to ‘have you read it yet?’ to ‘have you read it yet?’. Quite frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. ‘Bad’ boys and care homes are not top of my list for happy topics. But there was the pestering. (Note to PR people: This kind of behaviour won’t always work.) And Jacqueline Wilson liked it. So did half the rest of the children’s books world. I would guess the other half just haven’t read it yet.

Tracy Beaker it ain’t. I gather children actually wanted to go into care because it seemed such fun. No one will want to be taken into care after reading Being Billy. But it’s more uplifting than you expect. Jacqueline is quoted as having been moved to tears, but I wasn’t sure if they were good tears or bad tears.

Phil Earle has a background working with children like Billy, and it looks like he knows his stuff. And it may be a first novel, but he can write, too.

15-year-old Billy lives in a care home with his twin siblings who are nine. He is aggressive and generally difficult (there’s a reason, but anyway), although good with his sister and brother. He hates the Colonel, as he calls Ronnie who works at the home. Ronnie has to pin him down every so often, and he hates Ronnie. He hates others, too, but Ronnie has been there the longest, so gets the most of Billy’s hate.

A failed foster – possibly adoption – placement keeps upsetting Billy, and so does the fact that his mother turns up again. He hates school, obviously.

And then he comes across someone different. And he slowly starts looking at some things in a (very) slightly new light. I could see the two major things coming a long way off, so am unsure whether I’m terribly astute or simply that it’s meant to be obvious.

Couldn’t quite work out how some of the other things would turn out. There is love out there, even for the Billys of this world. Just not where – or how – you imagine it.

I cried too. But I’ll forgive the constant pushing. It’s a fantastic book.

Heart Burn

I grasped the bull by the horns, almost as soon as it arrived. Just in case my courage was about to desert me.

Anne Cassidy, Heart Burn

The bull was Anne Cassidy’s latest novel, Heart Burn. Anne scares me more than most, and I felt I was likely to skirt around the book for ages if I didn’t act decisively. So I grappled with it, and it only made my pulse go faster some of the time. And a lot more towards the end.

Heart Burn is set in the dangerous world of drugs and the creeps who run the small drug dealers and pushers. Ashley went out with Tyler a year ago, until she found him doing something she didn’t like. But she sort of likes him still, and he helped her with something then, and now that he’s in deep trouble he asks her to help him in return.

For someone who – naturally – is about to do something stupid, Ashley behaves quite maturely and proceeds with caution a lot of the time. But Tyler’s situation is past what could possibly count as normal, and things go seriously wrong. And someone obviously can’t be trusted. Who?

Very exciting, and more romantic than it seemed at first. And readers should avoid trying any of this at home.

In the papers

I could be forgiven for thinking that Facebook had spilled over into the Guardian these last couple of days. I was quite impressed with Lucy Coats’s rant about Martin Amis (with whom I’m not even remotely impressed) ending up in the Guardian, courtesy of Benedicte Page. Even more impressed to find that Lucy’s fame travelled on to all sorts of other grand, and possibly not so grand, publications. So what I’m really doing is joining in. Belatedly.

Lucy Coats

The ‘Facebook spillage’ comes from finding other Fb friends quoted, and I welcome their arrival in the world of ‘real’ news. There should be more stuff like this. Yes, they should ideally ask permission first, but at least we now have real people making sensible comments.

So, on the basis that you all know I read things backwards, I obviously read Friday’s paper after Saturday’s. (I have also saved up three weeks’ worth of Weekend to read, yes to read, some time. Not sure when.)

Friday’s Benedicte Page (such a suitable name don’t you think?) piece was about this giving away of one million books which, to be honest, I haven’t given as much thought as perhaps I ought to have. Yet again it featured ‘my’ Fb friends. I got so paranoid that I had to go and check whether this Benedicte and I share these friends. We don’t. We share some others, though.

I get the impression that someone is combing through people’s blogs to find newsworthy material. Feel free to come here for some first class blog-filler.

Though, setting the ‘borrowing’ aside, I’m glad that it’s not only journalists having a say. They only know so much, and maybe they are beginning to see the light.

Bookwitch bites #43

3 OUP Spring books, 2011

When I grow up I’m going to be a children’s books publisher. They have such very nice offices. Klaus Flugge’s office looks nothing like David Fickling’s, but they have more in common than they are different. And I will have a canteen that does ginger cake. I didn’t know modern work places still had canteens.

Klaus Flugge's mantelpiece

David Fickling's mantelpiece

Forgot a few things when I wrote yesterday’s post. Hardly surprising. At my age one tends to go gaga. I meant to show you this picture of the OUP party bags. Not a lollipop in sight.

Ice Maiden, Wreckers, Buried Thunder

And I suppose if I can’t run a publishing house, I could perhaps get a job as the one who ties books up with ribbon.

Did you happen to notice how they had matched the cover of Wreckers to Julie Hearn’s dress? If you missed it you need to go back to the last post. The ‘creature’ matches Julie’s hair, so that’s a job well done.

Candy and Tim

I’m unsure what happened here. I doubt it’s camera malfunction, so am guessing it’s some devilishly clever way of playing and making Tim Bowler and Candy Gourlay fizz.

My own fizz has just about come to a temporary end, so this witch will go and rest until she becomes normal again. Or until tomorrow, whichever occurs first. Suspect it will be Sunday. Normal feels too much to hope for.

Gridlock, heavy medal and stacked aubergines

You, my dear readers, are very lucky to be reading (at this very moment, in fact) the best blog in the world. Tim Bowler says so, and I don’t feel he could be mistaken. I have admired him for long enough that I’d take his word for (almost) anything. The man has taste.

So, I had eight hours in a very wet and dismal looking London yesterday. I had three events booked in, and four authors to meet up with. That was until the day before, when I saw fit to squeeze Candy Gourlay into a small gap perceived when the timetable was looked at in a slanted sideways kind of way. Candy made five. (That’s not counting waving to Jon Mayhew as our trains passed…)

Tim Bowler

I started some weeks ago by arranging to meet Tim for a very overdue interview. I mean, I’ve treated the poor man as I would a local museum. It won’t do. Then I discovered that his publishers, OUP, had a dinner thing the same evening, featuring not just Carnegie Medal winner Tim, but Sally Prue and Julie Hearn, and I invited myself and my trusted Photographer to it… I ought to be ashamed. The very patient Jennie from OUP put up with a lot and allowed us to come.

The next serendipitous thing to occur was an invitation from Andersen Press to come and meet Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead in the afternoon, nicely positioned between the other two meetings. It took care of that annoying period when you have time to kill and may be forced to drink tea and eat cake somewhere.

Rebecca Stead

In actual fact, Andersen’s lovely Clare made lovely tea and served it up with three kinds of cake, including ginger, so I’m a fan forever. We discovered that Daughter/Photographer was quite comfy in the chair belonging to Klaus Flugge, elephant cushion and everything. Did an interview with Rebecca, and talked about the previous night’s Waterstone’s prize event, where she had met Candy, and been introduced to David Fickling.

So that’s the heavy medals taken care of. I had joked with Tim about causing gridlock in central London. Just hadn’t expected the gridlock to happen, but the streets round his hotel were very much of the not-going-anywhere kind. OK, I know streets rarely move at all. I meant the traffic. You knew that.

Candy had been squeezed in before this, and had to ‘put up with’ meeting Tim and being hugged, despite being wet. I felt that having Candy around made for a more writerly chat, and she is considerably easier on the eye than yours truly. The two of them made mutually admiring noises. And if David Fickling’s ears burned it’s because he was the topic of conversation twice in one afternoon.

Candy Gourlay and Tim Bowler

At the end of the day we found ourselves in the Judges Chamber with the cream of the children’s books world and I totally refrained from making a fool of myself over Nicholas Tucker again. Super-agent (book variety) Catherine Clarke was there and it was only the second time in two hours we saw her.

Sally Prue

I finally met Sally Prue, who is as lovely as she has seemed in her emails. And Julie Hearn was equally nice to meet, and both of them agreed to pose for photos, before we sat down to the stacked aubergines. Which were very tasty, I have to say. Veggie food can be so bland, and my only problem here was the discrepancy between the amount offered on the plate and my own internal capacity. The aubergines won.

Julie Hearn with Wreckers

There were talks from all three stars, but we only heard Tim’s (and he managed to avoid his ten minutes taking longer than twelve) before we dashed off to the late northbound broomstick from Euston. The advantage of seeing Tim twice in a day was that he got to hug us four times. (I need to point out that Mrs B was present. She’s just as nice as we remembered from Northampton four years ago.) Then lovely Tim saw us off the premises.

Because this is such a marvellous blog, I am writing this in the middle of the night, when sensible people are in bed. So all you get is this flimsy account of the day’s proceedings, and there may well be more. Later. Post-sleep.

Reading backwards

You know how you go on Facebook and you start with the latest news? Then you read backwards until you get to where you left off last time (always assuming that it wasn’t too long ago).

The problem with this is that people often say something which makes no sense because it’s building on another thing they said earlier, but which you haven’t yet got to. When you eventually do, you go ‘aha, so that’s it’.

Discovering a new blog is the same, generally. You find today’s post and then you gradually work your way into the past. Someone on here very kindly said recently that now she’d found me she was reading up on the old stuff. It doesn’t help that maneuvering from day one up until today seems not to be possible.

Antique mobile phone

Thinking about this I’m occasionally reminded of the texts I sent my neighbours a few years ago. I, and their daughter. They had gone to the Galapagos islands – as you do – and were in mobile reception shade.

When they finally switched on, somewhere roundabout Madrid, they were greeted with the happy news that the police had arrested four men. Just the thing you want to know. Intrigued, they continued to the next text message (i.e. really the one before the arresting one), and learned that their car had been found.

Always nice to know. Bet they weren’t feeling at all tired from that Galapagos flight across half the globe. I’m getting a little hazy about the order of things here, but think that next they found that I and another neighbour had cleared up the worst in the house.

And then they were able to finish with the information that their alarm had gone off and the police had just been. And not to worry.

Now, why the daughter and I felt we couldn’t wait, I don’t know. You just think that people need to be kept informed. And once sent, you can’t retrieve the text or change it for a more suitably phrased one.

Welcome home.

When You Reach Me

There is only one thing nicer than a beautifully good read, and that’s when it’s unexpected. I’m not saying I thought Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me wasn’t going to be good; I’m saying I hadn’t heard of it or of her until I was offered this Newbery medal winning novel to read. And cynic that I am I thought it’d be good, but, you know, ‘just’ good.

But it’s absolutely amazing, and I really loved it.

I haven’t – yet – read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, but I must. Soon. Adults who have, will realise it has a bearing on Rebecca’s book, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention it here seeing as it gets mentioned early on in the story. And for the child who knows the book, it will probably be doubly welcome to read another on a similar topic.

Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me

Setting any such parallels aside, it’s all about friendship and the many ways in which you can be a friend. It is so very American and that is attractive, especially as it’s set in the late 1970s, with the freedom to roam children no longer have. I’m guessing it also means there is more of a mix of rich and poor, and it’s fascinating to see how close they live, and that the children go to the same school.

Miranda lives with her single mother, who wanted to be a lawyer but had to give all that up when she had Miranda. Now her ambition is to go on television and win money. This sounds pretty shallow, but it isn’t, which is just one more piece of proof of the quality of Rebecca’s writing.

The boy who Miranda has always been best friends with starts to shun her company, and she has to learn to talk to other children. And that’s what this is all about. The social mix makes it more important still.

And then there is the ‘Wrinkle’ mystery, which Miranda needs to solve. Another positive aspect for me is the aspie-ness of one of the characters, which is done in an unusually nice way and not at all OTT.


Something that would have made my reading experience much better however, would have been to avoid the reviews the publishers sent me. Most were of the normal type and I sort of glanced at them with some care, in case someone had been idiotic enough to give too much away. (I know, I know, I shouldn’t have been idiotic enough to read them in the first place.) Susan Elkin in the Independent on Sunday spent all of nine lines on her review, two of which went on the title, author’s name and publisher and price. So in the seven lines left to her she mentioned nothing but the whole ‘the butler did it’ thing. So I read the story knowing full well that the butler was the one. And it would have been nice to work that out slowly on my own.