Monthly Archives: January 2016

RED 10 Book Award 2015

As I was hinting earlier, I made it to Falkirk and its 10th book award, with badge and everything (And yes, I know it says 2015. They do these things out of sync.) I rather expected to just make my way in unnoticed, and having been before, I’d know where to go. But superwoman Yvonne Manning who runs this show, was there to welcome me, give me my badge and tell me I had to have a cup of tea. (Once she’d turned her back, I was able to ignore the tea.)

RED awards Falkirk, Keren David and Lari Don

I found all four shortlisted authors – Gill Arbuthnott, Keren David, Lari Don and Ria Frances – in the lounge part of fth, and chatted to Keren and Lari, who repeatedly checked with me whether I knew the other one. Introduced myself to Gill, and we decided we had actually spoken before. I even ended up talking to the Provost, who’s at the end of his second five year stint of provosting and attending book awards. Agents Lindsey Fraser and Kathryn Ross had braved Gertrude to be there for their authors.

When it was time, Yvonne started things off, wearing tartan tights and red skirt and a special RED 10 t-shirt. Red noses were found under chairs and prizes handed out and more prizes promised. Ten schools in nine other countries had been sent the shortlisted books to read, and some of their comments were read out.

RED awards Falkirk, Ria Frances

And then, it was time for the dramatised presentations of the books, by the schools who had taken part. This involved the accidental dropping of a baby on its head (it was ‘only’ a baby doll). Much hilarity ensued and later I witnessed the doll actually being autographed…

The prizes for the best reviews were handed out, the overall winner’s review was read aloud, Yvonne swirled round in her magic red coat and Provost Reid hitched up his trouser legs to show us his red socks. So it was all quite serious stuff.

RED awards Falkirk

We had a coffee break (you need this when the award takes all day to be awarded). We discussed lukewarm hot drinks (don’t ask!), I let Lari use my very tiny Swiss Army scissors, and I returned to my seat to find the school behind me having ‘spilled’ their drinks on my row of seats. I think we can assume a good time was being had by all.

RED awards Falkirk, Keren David

The authors’ turn to entertain came next. They each had three minutes to say something profound. Gill said she made her character Jess to act braver than she was. Keren mentioned that she’d had a completely different end in mind for Salvage. Ria’s book got written at night, when she suffered from insomnia, and she told us about Albert Göring, who was a better guy than his brother. Lari explained how surprised she was to find herself writing a YA book, which she’d never expected to do.

We had a second round of dramatised books, and I decided on the spot that the one for Mind Blind was by far the best, and it had a lovely cardboard van for kidnapping characters in. There was at least one flying potato and an amusing kelpie.

To celebrate the past nine winners of the RED award, some schools had made designs for a quilt, which was then practically singlehandedly sewn by Anne Ngabia from Grangemouth High. The very beautiful quilt was held up for us to see by two extremely unreliable stagehands,  while Anne told us about the batch of 3000 books she has just packaged up for Kenya, and how helpful we’d all been. (You’re welcome.)

RED awards Falkirk, Anne Ngabia

Lunch came next, and I managed to sit with and chat to Keren and the Provost, with Lari and her agents joining us after a bit. I believe Lindsey had a dog to walk first. I learned a lot about Falkirk, and politics, from Provost Reid who, while proud of his town, could understand why my first time (in 1973) I took one look at the place and left again.

RED awards Falkirk, Ria Frances

After they’d eaten, the authors had books to sign, with long queues snaking in front of them. Even the Provost queued up.

RED awards Falkirk, Gill Arbuthnott and Provost Reid

RED awards Falkirk, Gill Arbuthnott

More prizes. Prize for best dramatisation, prizes for best red clothes. Apparently someone even wore red contact lenses. My favourite was the boy in the red tutu, but the Cat in the Hat girl was very well turned out too.

RED awards Falkirk

RED awards Falkirk

Q&A followed, with a rapid pace for questions, very ably controlled by two teachers (I think) with a nice line in comments about the pupils. Gill wants her readers sleepless as they wonder how the characters will fare, and she couldn’t give up writing. It would be like giving up eating. Ria started her career with some early praise from a teacher at school, and Lari says she absolutely must edit what she’s written. Keren reckons the first draft has to be rubbish or it can’t be edited to become really good. The beginning matters more than the ending. As for weird questions from other readers, Gill said she wants to be a cat, while Ria once went dressed as a mermaid, and Keren got asked what hair products she uses…

Getting closer to the big moment, but first Yvonne had to be thanked, so she ran away. (She is a bit crazy like that.) Provost Reid entered in his official – Father Christmas style – outfit, red all over, and flowers had to be handed over to Barbara Davidson who made the prize, and the press photographer also got flowers, and as the Provost waved the large red envelope around, he thanked the ‘shy and retiring’ Yvonne for her hard work. Organised stamping from the audience.

And a bit more stamping. And the winner is: Lari Don, for Mind Blind. (Very worthy, if I may say so.)

RED awards Falkirk, Provost Reid, Lari Don, Gill Arbuthnott, Ria Frances and Keren David

Lari’s unprepared speech was admirably short and sweet, just the way we want it. Before the authors were spirited away, there was a lot of posing for photographs, with the prize, and the Provost, and the little red cardboard van.

RED awards Falkirk

I got on my broom and headed home.


My second RED in Falkirk

The sandbags were at the ready. Falkirk Town Hall seemed safe enough, but you never know. Storm Gertrude had threatened to do her worst, which in my case was only half a train service. Luckily one had one’s Resident IT Consultant to convey one (sorry, that hurt even me) to Falkirk on Friday morning, where the ladies below were ready to fight it out to see who’d emerge the winner of the 10th RED award.

RED awards Falkirk - shortlisted books

I will tell you more later…

Queen of the Silver Arrow

Caroline Lawrence has written a story to inspire girls that they can do more. Admittedly, the cover features a beautiful girl with a bow and arrow, and I understand that recent films (and the books behind them) have made bows and arrows the thing to have. But why not?

Caroline Lawrence, Queen of the Silver Arrow

This re-working of Virgil’s The Aeneid for Barrington Stoke tells the story of Camilla, who is the Queen of the Silver Arrow. Her father, who’s a King, brought her up in the woods where he fled with his baby daughter, and she learns to be of service to the Goddess Diana.

Camilla’s story becomes well known in the neighbourhood, and Acca who is the same age, dreams of being like her, and so do some of the rich girls in town. Eventually they all meet and Camilla trains the girls to be warriors, something that becomes necessary when the Trojans arrive.

Violent and bloody in parts, it’s still a beautiful piece of history (it was real, wasn’t it?), and as I said, very inspiring for girls. It needn’t all be about getting married. Or at least not without doing something worthwhile first.

Sometimes we all want to be like an Amazon, although perhaps stopping short at baring a breast.

A children’s book for Costa

Time to rejoice! For only the second time ever, a children’s book has won an award in direct competition with so-called ‘real,’ adult books. I’m very pleased for Frances Hardinge who won the overall Costa award on Tuesday, for The Lie Tree.

Frances Hardinge

I have not read it, which primarily is because no one sent it to me. I have not read any of Frances’ books, but keep hearing so much good about them. I will try to get hold of a copy, and while I do, I wish Frances all the best, and much fun spending the £30,000. It’s what I call a pretty decent reward.

Statistically it must be wrong that children’s books don’t win more often. I had more or less given up hope that any other writer after Philip Pullman would ever win the ‘big’ Costa award. I rationalised it by thinking that Philip’s books appeal to adult readers as well (not saying other children’s books don’t or shouldn’t). I mean those who are not far-sighted enough to realise that children’s books are the best.

Judging by the delighted reactions online from her peers, they are happy for Frances and for children’s books as a whole. If it could happen twice, there is every reason it might happen again. And everyone who has read The Lie Tree (and they are many) say what a great book it is.

I believe them.

More of Me

Kathryn Evans’ debut, More of Me, is as marvellous a story as I had hoped for. The concept is very slightly off-putting, to be honest, but it makes perfect sense when you read the book, and it is of the unputdownable kind. You might want to give it a go.

Teva is 16 and has a best friend and a boyfriend and she likes school. At home she has her mum, as well as a dozen copies of herself. Every year a new Teva emerges from the ‘old’ Teva’s body, looking the same, but a year older. The discarded Tevas remain at home, staying the age they were when they were the ‘real’ live Teva.

Fifteen is really angry with her successor, who has her life, her best friend and her boyfriend. For the earlier versions of Teva, it’s been longer and they are used to it. But the new Teva is determined she will not be a victim to this annual change into someone else. She wants to stay alive and out there, enjoying the boyfriend Fifteen found and fell for.

Kathryn Evans, More of Me

This kind of plot nearly does your head in. Is it real? How can it be? Is Teva crazy? Is her mum crazy? And whatever the answer is, how can this end well? In fact, how can there be an end, with Teva after Teva emerging?

The answer wasn’t what I’d imagined, even though any imagining was quite difficult. But the concept is both fascinating and has a lot of reality about it. I’m not the same person I was at ten or 46 or whatever. We change, while still being mainly the same as we were. I’m just grateful I don’t have a few dozen younger Bookwitches hanging around, giving me attitude.

Write to me

Authors’ letters are drying up, it seems. Maybe they were a luxury, anyway, and now it’s all many can do to keep their heads above water, writing things that might pay. On the other hand, there is nothing actively wrong with emails. Paper can burn, while cyberspace could be lost in, well, cyberspace, as it were.

Anything can disappear, but most things can also last surprisingly well.

I read an article in Vi magazine the other week, about the correspondence of authors. One of the people interviewed was Peter Englund, former Permanent Secretary to the Swedish Academy. He saves every email. Which should mean that mine to him must be there, somewhere. (As is his to me; in my archives, so to speak.)

The article touches on one published volume of letters, which I’ve already blogged about. I did some more research on what they said, and decided that I was possibly slightly misinformed back then. But so were they. I believe the letters were from the author to ChocBiscuit’s father’s first wife’s first husband’s mistress. Rather than the other way round.

Tove Jansson is mentioned by someone who met her, many years ago. She astounded her companion by saying she read every letter, and replied to them as well. This someone wrote to Tove afterwards. He never had a reply.

Oh well.

As I said, I’ve got a small email archive here. If I save emails, it’s either because I might need to remember what someone said. Or because they wrote so well that I like keeping it. I very much doubt that I will publish any books off the back of my collection, however. So please continue writing.

Besides, most of them are signed xxx, and perhaps an initial, if I’m lucky. (And if I may quote briefly from one, ‘holy shit Batman!’ does not necessarily have a lot of literary merit.)

Village character

Daughter should be on her way to a Harry Potter character. Or is that the Swiss village? You Google Grindelwald and you get the option of one, or the other. To be on the safe side, I went for both. I’m not enough of a nerd, either way.

It’s obvious that Grindelwald is a place name in the German-speaking world. You don’t have to know where. At this time of year it’s a fair guess that it will be snowy.

Because I am not all that Harry Potter-nerdy, I can’t say I remembered much about any character called Grindelwald either. In one ear and out the other, so to speak. Daughter thought it was amusing. That she was going there, not that I’m useless and forgetful.

But thanks to other Harry Potter fans it’s easy to find out. There is a whole wikia, where I assume you can look up anything at all, when you are as forgetful as I am. Which is good. I now know more about Gellert Grindelwald than I ever needed to, and what worries me is how many other characters I might have forgotten as they left the page.

I can’t help thinking how much fun J K must have had when naming her people. I have no book and no characters, but I have an urge to go through atlases and reference books to find outlandish sounding [Swiss] villages to name them after.

The Spiral Stair

I’m eking these books out, very slowly. I love Joan Aiken’s short Arabel books, from across a distance of over 35 years. I’m all ready to read the next one, but might just be able to contain myself. Not sure, though.

The Spiral Stair is all about when Arabel and her raven Mortimer went to stay with Uncle Urk and Aunt Effie, because her father was having his various veins seen to. Her mother put her on the train, after checking with the bowler-hatted gentlemen in her compartment that they’d see her off safely at the stop for Lord Donisthorpe’s zoo. The way you did in those days. Leave your child in the care of two zoo thieves.

Joan Aiken and Quentin Blake, The Spiral Stair

Because that’s what they were, and it’s lucky that Arabel and Mortimer were staying at the zoo, and could keep most of the animals safe, with the help of Noah the Boa.

The doughnut machine was useful too, as was Lord Donisthorpe himself. The archetypal, elderly and lordly gent with an adventurous sense of humour.

And I imagine that Arabel’s dad’s veryclose veins were all the better for her little absence.

(There’s something so reassuringly, slightly crazy about Quentin Blake’s illustrations.)

Mystery tour

My knee felt tense earlier in the day. I should have heeded this, especially when the Resident IT Consultant proposed he take me on a mystery tour somewhere, as it looked like the afternoon might be sunny.


Let me be clear on this. I never agree to unknown surprises! But I felt I could just about give in, this once. As I got ready, I quickly ran through possible places he might have in mind, and realised fairly soon what he must intend. I didn’t want to ruin his happiness, so didn’t say ‘it’s going to be Linlithgow, isn’t it?’

But it was. Obviously.


So 42 – and a half – years after I didn’t go to Linlithgow, I finally set foot in the place, so carefully avoided, in order to keep it mysterious.

I needed my daily walk, so hobbled round the outside of the Palace, which was nice, but with a bit too much downhill for my liking. Kneewise. My mind doesn’t object to downhill.


Then hobbled along the High Street as far as Far From the Madding Crowd, by which time my knee pointed out it would like to sit down. That’s a bookshop, by the way. Bookshop with crafts and stuff, fully in the spirit of an old-style Scottish town.

My knee didn’t linger, so it and I hobbled back the other direction, to the tearoom we’d noticed earlier, where I did what I do best; tea and scone.

The Resident IT Consultant was feeling in need of a bookshop, so abandoned me there and went to Oxfam, which supplied him with a new old poetry collection, to replace his falling-to-bits one.

The poetry collection

By then darkness was descending on Linlithgow, so we went home again.

Life will never be the same.

The #19 profile – Ross Collins

Scotland is sending some of its best authors and illustrators away. But don’t worry; it’s done with the best intentions. Next week Scottish illustrator Ross Collins will take part in the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour run by Scottish Book Trust, sharing his top tips for illustration with more than 900 pupils in Nottinghamshire. So it’s a little too far for me to tag along, which is why I twisted his arm and made Ross answer some questions instead.

Here he is, and using my best judgement, I’d say he’s mostly telling the truth. Probably.

Ross Collins

How many books did you write before the one that was your first published book?

I’m slightly ashamed/delighted to say that the first book I wrote was published. I entered the MacMillan Book Prize in my final year of Art School with my book The Sea Hole. I was lucky enough to win the competition and the book was published. It was a great door opener with publishers, and kick started my career.

Best place for inspiration?

Inspiration tends to come anywhere at any time, when you are least expecting it really. I have had a couple of bits of inspiration when I’ve been dog walking alone in the countryside when I have space to think. The idea for the Elephantom (what would it be like to be haunted by an elephant?) came to me walking up a hill by Loch Lomond with my lab Willow.

Would you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? Perhaps you already do?

I don’t think so. I’m not sure what the point would be – unless I was sent down for crimes against humanity and couldn’t get publishers interested in my picture book ideas anymore.

What would you never write about?

Probably religion.

Through your writing: the most unexpected person you’ve met, or the most unexpected place you’ve ended up in?

I met the pope at the Linlithgow librarian’s conference once…

Which of your characters would you most like to be?

That is HARD! I could be a vampire, a germ, the thing under the bed… so many possibilities.

I once wrote the story of Medusa when she was a little girl, dealing with school life. It was called Medusa Jones. Being Medusa would be kind of cool, she had a hard life in my book but at the same time she did have snakes for hair, could turn people to stone (even though her mum said it was rude to do so) and had a puppy Cerberus. Probably the most interesting thing would be being a girl. I’ve never been a girl.

Do you think that having a film made of one of your books would be a good or a bad thing?

I’ve had lots of my books optioned for film but it’s a hard thing to make happen.

I guess the closest thing I’ve had to it was when the Elephantom was adapted for the stage by the National Theatre’s War Horse team. That was probably the most magical experience of my life. I was really lucky though, because I was working with the best of the best who completely honoured my book so I had nothing to worry about.

Having your book made into a film would probably change it beyond all recognition which would be difficult, but I think if you accept that early on, then it would be a fun ride to go on.

What is the strangest question you’ve been asked at an event?

As a children’s author you get asked lots of very strange questions that don’t really seem to relate to anything you’ve been talking about. You forget most of them.

Last year in Melrose I was asked by a wee girl if I’d ever bled out of my eyes. It turns out that she once had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop so she started to cry and the blood came out of her eyes. She was immensely proud of this fact. Her mother less so.

Do you have any unexpected skills?

I can remember the lyrics to hundreds of really awful songs when they come on the radio – much to my partner’s dismay.

The Famous Five or Narnia?

The Northern Lights Trilogy.

Who is your most favourite Swede?

It’s shallow, but Anni-Frid Lyngstad was a very early crush. (I should really say some notable chemist shouldn’t I?)

How do you arrange your books at home? In a Billy? By colour, or alphabetically?

My partner Jacqui is in charge of that – she has a serious book collection and everything is alphabetisized. Occassionally she allows me to add my books which I just put into three categories, Art, Film and Children’s books..

Which book would you put in the hands of an unwilling eight-year-old boy reader?

This sounds like a shameless plug, but I’m being honest when I say one of my most recent books, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones, by Will Mabbitt. It’s about a wee girl who is kidnapped into a future populated by animal pirates. I only read the first chapter before I signed up to do the illustrations.

It’s probably the funniest book I’ve ever worked on – it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s icky – it’s everything an eight year old boy would love. I’m delighted to say that I am currently working on the third of her unlikely adventures. In fact I really should be doing that now…

If you have to choose between reading or writing, which would it be?

That’s like asking whether you would rather lose your arms or legs – what a horrible question.

I’d hate to give up reading as it’s such a pleasure visiting the worlds that other people create. I suppose if I gave up writing then at least I could keep illustrating which I’ve done since I was three so it wouldn’t be that bad. Just don’t try to take illustrating away from me!

He’s a rebel, that Ross. I like him! His choice of Swede is pretty good, too. Correctly spelled, even. (That’s early love for you, I suppose.) And the whole thing leaves me still as unsettled as far as Linlithgow is concerned. Now maybe Loch Lomond, too.