Monthly Archives: March 2012

ALMA and Guus

In the end I forgot. And that was despite having written it down in three places. So when I was meant to listen to the live announcement of who would be the 2012 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner, I was enjoying a mug of Earl Grey, away from my laptop. Just think, I’d even been offered to be bussed in for the event (that is assumimg I’d been in Stockholm in the first place to be carted to Vimmerby for the big moment).

Guus Kuijer books

And once I’d seen the news, I was overcome by one big whopping xenophobic thought. I am ashamed of myself. Just because I haven’t even heard of a writer, does not mean they are no good or not deserving. I should not, must not, feel that the English-speaking world of books trumps everywhere else (apart, obviously, from Swedish books). But I did, for about ten seconds.

After all, I never once doubted the worthiness of Ryoji Arai who shared with Philip Pullman. After meeting him, even less so, and that’s despite this book of his I have which I can’t read because it’s all in Japanese.

So, I am very happy for Guus Kuijer, whose name I will practise pronouncing for the next few days. His entry on English Wikipedia is suitably, xenophobically short. But I gather that Guus has written a tremendous number of excellent books, for many many years. He has won lots of awards. And it is hardly surprising that the ALMA jury have decided he is this year’s winner. It follows much the same principles that the Nobel prize does. Pick someone no one else has heard of.

Larry Lempert ALMA 2012

Actually, having belatedly checked out the live announcement I’m grateful I wasn’t there. It even out-did the one two years ago. Maybe it’s a Vimmerby effect?

Short mad men in heels

Below you will find Josh Lacey telling you about what I did last week. It’s just that it’s not all I did. I’m ashamed to admit to having behaved like the editor from hell (because I can, you know?), which will be why the poor man started worrying about his pension. Josh’s next pizza won’t be coming from me, but I’ll put the kettle on if he calls in on his way past.

‘Last week, Bookwitch wrote very nicely about my new book, and mentioned that it made her think about Berlusconi and Sarkozy. I was delighted that she said so, because I’d been thinking about both of them while I was writing Grk and the Phoney Macaroni. I even dabbled with the idea of calling one of my characters Bunga, if not Bunga Bunga, although I’m glad I decided not to.

I did, however, keep those two men in mind while I was writing the book’s villain, the dastardly Duke of Macaroni. I stole Sarkozy’s habit of wearing high heels and gave it to the duke, another diminutive dictator. He shares Berlusconi’s preening self-confidence, as well as his impregnable empire of newspapers and TV stations. And, like both of them, the Duke of Macaroni is the type of man who lusts after power, absolute power, the power to transform landscapes and lives.

You might think that such figures plucked from the world of politics and international affairs don’t have any place in a children’s book, particularly a book aimed at eight or ten year olds rather than teens, but you’d be quite wrong. I remember worrying about world events when I was eight. I remember eavesdropping on adult conversations, watching the news and reading the front pages of newspapers, hearing about slaughters and disasters, seeing pictures of chaos and devastation, trying to sort out for myself what on earth was going on.

Adults lose their curiosity about their world, or at least dampen it. They have to. Otherwise they wouldn’t have any space in their brains to worry about pensions and mortgages and office politics and where the next meal is coming from.

But a kid who wakes up in the middle of the night isn’t going to panic about his pension. I hope he isn’t, anyway. He should be concerned with bigger questions. What is war for? Why is the world ruled by crazy small men? What does it all mean?

Grk doesn’t know the answers to any of these questions. He’s just a small dog whose stomach is never full enough.

Grk’s constant companion, a boy named Tim, doesn’t know any of the answers either, but he’d like to.

And their adventures around the planet, which have taken them from India to Australia, New York to Rio de Janeiro, tussling with crooked businessmen and power-crazed politicians, have allowed me to ask some of those enormous questions that have been bugging me since I was eight years old.’

To which I can only add that the Duchess of Macaroni’s first name happens to be Carla. Whatever happened to changing names to protect the innocent? And it’s certainly not me who is calling Carla’s hubby a dictator. This is a blog about children’s books, after all.

(I was going to ask Josh for a photo of himself, but then I thought it might be better if they don’t find out what he looks like. That will delay them ever so slightly. Give him a sporting chance and all that.)


The minute I began reading Illegal I felt right at home. It was as if I had been waiting for it.

The title makes me a little uneasy. It feels so, well, Illegal. But other than that, it is a great story. I was going to say, maybe even better than Hidden, which was Miriam’s first book in the series. But that’s time for you. I think they are both equally exciting and also equally necessary. Where Hidden was about illegal (as well as legal) immigrants, Illegal is about doing things which are against the law.

Miriam Halahmy, Illegal

Here we see more of Lindy, who was the ‘bad girl’ in Hidden, and we find that she’s not bad at all. She’s got a tough life, which makes everything seem worse. Lindy’s toddler sister has died, two of her brothers are in jail, and her unemployed parents do nothing all day, leaving Lindy and her little brother Sean to fend for themselves.

When her cousin Colin offers her good money for some ‘gardening’ work, she jumps at it. Except it’s his way of tying her into his drug dealing business, and when she realises this, it’s too late to get out.

Or would have been, had she not met mute boy, Karl, who goes to her school. Together they work on sorting things out.

This is an exciting story, which also shows teenagers like Lindy that there is always hope. Just because you are perceived as bad, doesn’t mean you are. It’s important that young people can read about how there is a way out, and that you can find friends in the most unexpected places. In the end, there was less help from Hamlet and St John Ambulance than I had come to expect, but Lindy grows from experiencing what she can do for herself, and for her family.

It was a little broken, but not forever.

I’m looking forward to Miriam’s next book.

Here’s one they made earlier

I’ve been working on educating the Resident IT Consultant. Whenever the Guardian publishes a photo of whoever they are writing about, you can be fairly certain it will be an ex-Edinburgh Book Festival photo, if the person ever appeared there. And let’s face it, most people seem to have passed through at some time or other. It’s a convenient way of collecting images. And having been on the other side (I don’t mean that other side; just the right side of the cameras) I can now recognise them instantly.

The Guardian on a Saturday also does a My Family Values regular thing, which featured Jacqueline Wilson last week. Her photo ‘hit’ me from across the room (well, it was big) and when I quizzed him, the Resident IT Consultant gave me the correct answer at once.

This time there was nothing really new, seeing as I keep up with who Jacqueline is. It was as I got to the end, where they mentioned her most recent book, that I worked out that these columns are most likely made quite some time in advance. OK, so they don’t expect people to pop two books every year, but her September book is no longer the most recent.

And then I thought about the mention of the Jacqueline Wilson exhibition at Seven Stories in Newcastle, and the penny dropped, albeit slowly. Maybe they prepared this piece back in October, when both exhibition and book were brand new? That’s when there was extra media interest in both.

So even national newspapers ‘make things earlier’ and keep until needed, or wanted.

Jacqueline Wilson and paparazzi

As for the photo which started this post, can you see me there? On the other side? I’m not there all the time, but increasingly I have my own version of what the ‘real’ press use. And sometimes it feels as if the Witch Photo Gallery (I just made that up) actually has pictures the ‘real’ photographers never end up using. Whereas I have used this one several times. (To be fair, Colin McPherson who is getting ‘his’ book signed here, recently let me use one of his photos for free.)

I too do Blue Peter style blog posts. You never know when you’ll have a rainy day and need a magically transformed bottle of washing-up liquid. It’s not Sapphire Battersea which is the latest. It is The Worst Thing About My Sister. And if it isn’t, then this post has Blue Petered out of all control.

Bookwitch bites #74

Because I can. Rather like the annoying DiNozzo in NCIS, except he does bad things ‘because he can.’ Here I will present you with things I’ve got up to because it was possible, or because I was lucky. And cheeky enough to ask.

I hinted earlier in the week that you’d see more of James Draper’s socks. Here they are, in all their froggy, Kermit-y glory. It’s the power of being able to say to someone ‘show me your socks!’… Any sensible person would say no, whereas Manchester Children’s Book Festival organiser James is just nice. The shoes are nice, too.

Kermit socks

‘Oh crikey you live in Stockport’ comes under the heading ‘favourite subject lines’ in my inbox. I correspond intermittently with one of my wonderful blog readers, and didn’t mind in the least when this reader said something rude about my home town some months ago. But his/her awakening was fun. At least for me. (There was really no need to apologise.) And then came the irregularly addressed Christmas card, as seen below. (I’ll never receive another one after this.)


My most popular interview (hits wise) is the Derek Landy one. And I am still not him. Someone who seemed to realise this, when she read Derek’s guest post in October, still thought it’d be nice if Derek could read her very enthusiastic fan gushings on Bookwitch. So I half offered to ask him. She more than half asked me to actually do so. And the lovely man did, and for a few minutes away from his Skulduggery-ing, Derek wrote her a reply. I can never ask anyone to do so again.

Bookwitch comment

And – this must be an Irish thing – my Cynical reader sent me a message to tell Michael Grant ‘in no uncertain terms’ not to kill Edilio or Dekka, but that he ‘can do what he wants with Astrid.’ Michael took this in the good natured way it was intended (it was, wasn’t it?), and consented to a photographical hello to his Cynical fan.

Michael Grant


It wasn’t my first time. But I suppose my luck could be running out and I need to think of new ways to embarrass people and myself. Before they run away when I turn up. (Actually, many of them already do.)

When Michael Grant came to Manchester

I can honestly say I’ve never before returned home at ten minutes past ten – in the morning – from meeting an author. But at least there’s a lot of day left after a thing like that. ‘I’m going to Manchester?’ asked Michael Grant when I emailed him. It’s not easy to know, especially when it says Cheadle Hulme on your itinerary. Trust me, it was Manchester.

Michael Grant

We couldn’t decide whether to shake hands or hug. In the end I hugged Michael’s middle and he did something in the vicinity of my head. I had cold hands, so it was probably a good idea. And then we sat down for some post-breakfast coffee and water. It was very nice water.*

Michael’s combined Fear-BZRK tour has gone well, and he told me he’d been greeted like a rock star at one Scottish school (always nice when that happens) and the Mitchell library in Glasgow had been impressive.

I wanted to know if Michael actually understands all the computer gamey stuff to do with BZRK, but he sort of avoided admitting to anything. He’s had creative control over the contents of the ARG, but obviously got someone else in to do the transmedia stuff. There will be three books in total, and he’s not saying that some of the characters won’t change sides. I’d been wondering about Bug Man, and Michael said ‘Bug Man is completely amoral, or at least he is in book one. He may have an awakening in book two. And Sadie and Noah will realise how trapped they are.’ So now you know! Or not.

BZRK isn’t exactly politically correct. Sacrifices have to be made. Every war has been like that, and this is war. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions. People always start off with some sort of rationale, and you can’t really kill people unless you think you are doing something good. It is a hell of a fine line and a very dangerous place to go.’

I pointed out it’s hard to grasp exactly what happens in BZRK with the biots and the nanobots, and Michael mentioned how ‘if you write near-future stuff, then you’ve got reality nipping at your heels the entire time. I thought it was speculative when I wrote it and now it’s fact.’

(I’ll mention right now that I ‘ve tried to avoid any spoilers for Fear, as no one will have read it yet. But it’s hard, because Michael said so many interesting things about it.)

Michael Grant

I tried asking for some early, inside information on Light, the book that comes after Fear (which is out in April), but like the last time we met, he’s keeping most of it to himself. That includes the very big secret that he hasn’t even begun writing it. Michael has a ‘mere’ four books coming out this year, and another four to write next year. But he doesn’t suffer from RSI, because he only types with two fingers, and he likes doing it sitting in a rocking chair on his deck, squirming a lot.

I mentioned that all his books are quite long, as well. ‘Stupid of me. I should write shorter books. I hope I can nail it in four months.’ Basically, the situation Michael has laid out in Fear, will have to be resolved and everything tied up neatly in Light. He’s confident he’ll be able to. ‘It’s been a long, long job and I’ve had fun through the whole thing.’

We tried to see if we could agree on whether Drake or Penny is the worst, but it’s a hard one. Drake is bad, but he’s normal whilst being evil. Penny is a psycho, and even Drake can’t stand her. And for the Astrid haters Michael explained that ‘I deliberately made people dislike Astrid, she’s the girlfriend, the perfect girl in so many ways.’

I said how impressed I’ve been with the development of all the children in the FAYZ. How they’ve been able to learn to do what modern children never need to, or get the opportunity to do. Michael feels that too many adults – and it’s always the adults – have very little belief in the capabilities of children today, and that includes being really horrible to others.

Something that wasn’t clear to me when we last met, was that whereas little Pete is autistic, I suspected it was ‘just something he was.’ It has since become obvious that Pete’s autistic-ness has a bearing on all that happens in the FAYZ.

As Michael put it, ‘I wanted the basic theory, that the gaiaphage alters the law of physics. Autistics have brains that are overly wired, too ready to go, and they get hit with data and it’s just like opening up a firehose in their heads and then they withdraw. So I thought that’s the kind of person who would be particularly vulnerable. Pete has all the power and no responsibility, so I thought that would be fun to play with. How I’m ending that I don’t know. I’ll figure it out…’

Michael Grant

I had to apologise that it was me taking photos this time, but said hello from the real photographer, mentioning that her pictures of Michael are about to appear in an American reference book on authors. ‘Photos? You’re kidding? I’ve kind of lost weight since then.’  He has, and he looked good, dressed in a more relaxed style. I wanted to know the secret behind his success. ‘The usual really depressing way of eating less and exercising a whole lot. Way more exercise than you think it will have to be, and you have to be a lot more hungry.’

Michael Grant

I told him about Bookwitch and Michael Grant fan Cynical, who had instructed me to tell him who he can and who he can’t kill off. I’d brought a greeting to her from him to pose with, which he gamely did. ‘Cynical Kate.’ He laughed. ‘I like that!’ We went outside to get better light, and ever the perfectionist, Michael had to check all the photos…

Once I’d snapped him with the real Manchester in the background, it was time for me to go catch a train and for Michael and his publicity lady, Isla, to check out of the hotel in order to convey themselves and all of Michael’s luggage to Cheadle Hulme and his next school event.

*With hindsight, I should have stashed the remaining water (inside its bottle, obviously) in my bag and taken it home.


This week you could be forgiven for thinking I’ve swallowed a whole tin of the alphabet. Or more precisely, a tinful of consonants. BZRK. grk. Must be a new fad in book titles.

Joshua Doder, grk and the Phoney Macaroni

I have read my first grk, and this one is called grk and the Phoney Macaroni. It’s by someone calling themselves Joshua Doder, but I gather it is really Josh Lacey. The macaroni dude is the baddie in the eighth grk story, and at first I thought he might be no worse than a dog-kicker (although that is Very Bad). He turns out to be truly, really bad, and I don’t know why, but as I read about the Duke of Macaroni I kept thinking Berlusconi, Sarkozy, and other very bad, foreign thoughts.

It makes you hungry, this book. I love cheese. Signor Pecorino, Mascarpone, Gorgonzola… Cheesy names, in fact. Tasty. Like the mozzarella, below.

Tim, who co-owns his little dog grk with his foster siblings Max and Natascha, ends up following a pair of evil dog-napping twins all the way to Italy, hoping to free his tiny pal from the clutches of the Macaronis.

It’s not easy, but Tim can do anything, especially with the help of Italian pizza, and some friendly natives.

Really funny and entertaining, even for an oldie like me. If I was eight I’d think it was the greatest thing since possibly the last grk book. It’s good to discover ‘young reads’ that don’t talk down. Consider me a fan.

(And no, dear search engine. I did not mean grk and the pony macaroni. I fail to see how that would make more sense. Honestly.)

Sufiya Ahmed at Whalley Range High School For Girls

We were worried about being late, so naturally ended up arriving first. Whalley Range High School For Girls hosted a visit from Sufiya Ahmed yesterday, arranged with the assistance of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival. It was definitely the right kind of school for a talk on forced marriages, and Sufiya seemed to go down exceedingly well with the girls.

Sufiya Ahmed at Whalley Range High School for Girls

It was a good thing it was girls only, except possibly for the Resident IT Consultant and mcbf’s James Draper who were seriously outnumbered, but suffered in manly silence as best they could. They were both useful. James in that he wore his frog socks (and introduced Sufiya), and the Resident IT Consultant for assisting me in signing in, when I had a momentary lapse of just about everything.

Sufiya Ahmed at Whalley Range High School for Girls

Whalley Range is my kind of school, with some great Art Deco interiors and with a student population who wears purple blazers. They have a large proportion of muslim girls, and I saw many headscarves being worn, although I expect and hope that most of the girls will never have to face forced marriages. Although, there were several who had come across them happening to others.

We have Enid Blyton, and to some extent Roald Dahl, to thank for inspiring Sufiya to write. And the Whalley Range girls brought new and unsuspected skills to the often asked question of inspiration, managing to ask it in many different guises. Sufiya stayed on the ball, and most of the time Enid continued being her source of inspiration.

Henna pattern competition

Sufiya’s father used to make her watch the nine o’clock news, and her work in parliament where she met groups of women who were working against forced marriages, helped decide her that this is an important topic for a teen book.

Then Sufiya read aloud from Secrets of the Henna Girl, choosing the scene on the rooftop garden where Zeba finds out what’s in store for her. After that she did some Q&A and told the girls about a facebook page for the Forced Marriage Unit.

Dressing up as a bride with Sufiya Ahmed at Whalley Range High School for Girls

And then, in order not to be too serious she talked about the fun things connected with Asian marriages, like the clothes and the henna patterns. An amazing number of volunteers wanted to come up on stage with her to dress up, and five lucky girls had a go with the clothes, and another three had a quick henna session with Sufiya.

Sufiya Ahmed at Whalley Range High School for Girls

Not surprisingly, Sufiya has never hated books, her childhood favourite was Mallory Towers, and her most recently read book was by Philippa Gregory. Her advice for hopeful writers is to read a lot, to always carry a notebook and to take part in writing competitions.

Sufiya Ahmed at Whalley Range High School for Girls

Judging by the number of questions they had and how the girls flocked around Sufiya afterwards, and the books bought and the bookmarks signed, this was a very successful event, and I hope they went away inspired by seeing someone like themselves doing an author visit in a school. The girls might have been on the young side to be seriously thinking about forced marriages, but they were just right for the event, the dressing up and the henna and everything.

Secrets of the Henna Girl

The title is misleadingly carefree for this teen novel about the very important subject of forced marriages. Sufiya Ahmed has tackled an issue that we hear about in the media, but which we perhaps don’t know enough about, isolated as many of us are in our western values.

Sufiya Ahmed, Secrets of the Henna Girl

Zeba is a 16-year-old Yorkshire muslim girl, who in the summer after her GCSEs goes on holiday to Pakistan where she discovers she has been promised in marriage to her cousin Asif.

The difference here for the reader is that we get to see all that takes place, rather than a one-sided European newspaper article. This book is valuable in that it educates us and shows us what life in the Pakistani countryside can be like. It still only shows us one reality, and if there is a weakness it is that Zeba’s intended husband comes from a reasonably well off family, and her maternal grandmother who lives in the same village is highly thought of and not without either education or influence.

The book could have done with more careful editing, and I felt that Zeba’s voice seemed a little mature for 16, and not perhaps a very typical 16-year-old, either. But as the story progresses you sort of forget about that and you want to see what will happen to Zeba.

There is none of the ‘get out of here fast’ that a western reader might expect. Zeba is truly stuck and she discovers things about Pakistan and about muslim life. And most of all, about the lives of women under the complete power of men, however stupid.

At times you feel that whereas Zeba is expected to escape because this is a British book, she might well not do so. There are many good aspects to Pakistani life, and there is a difference between forced marriages and arranged marriages.

I don’t want to tell you what happens, but there is plenty in here to give you food for thought. And as for instructing me about muslims, I learned a lot I didn’t know before.

If Sufiya’s novel saves just one girl from a forced marriage, it will have to be considered a worthwhile book.


I so do not need another Michael Grant series to follow. Blast the man! Until fairly close to the end of BZRK I was under the (clearly erroneous) impression that I could let go after the one book. You know. Read one to see what it’s like.

I did.

BZRK is also an ARG (Alternate Reality Game). It’s an app. (I wish I knew what to do with an app. No, I don’t. I’m old. I have no time for games.) So to an old-fashioned book reader BZRK ought to be no more than an exciting sounding modern toy for teenagers.

It is a bit more than that.

At first I was almost disappointed when it looked as if the first few violent chapters where people go mad or are killed outright were nothing more than computer game plots. But we are not mourning those dead for nothing (why did he have to make them so likeable?). They are dead. It’s ‘just’ that the deaths were caused in a kind of computer game surrounding.

This is a ‘disgusting’ set-up where nanobots and biots fight it out inside our bodies. It’s bad guys versus slightly better guys. I don’t understand the technicalities of it, but you don’t have to. It is a most compelling read.

So, you have these conjoined twins who are evil and are aiming to take over the minds of major world leaders. And then you have BZRK who are trying to stop them. The twins are likely to kill any of their operators who don’t do well. On the BZRK side you simply die. Or go crazy.

Whether because the plot requires some of the action to be set somewhere outside the US, or because Michael wants to attract more UK readers by being seen to move around London, we get quite a bit of British ‘charm’ along with the American action. He does it well. And his Tourists From Denver are priceless.

I’ll never feel safe again.