Monthly Archives: August 2018

Coping with change

I found I rather liked ‘The Polar Bear,’ aka Steven Camden, at Wednesday evening’s bookfest event. I knew nothing about him, but would quite like to read his book, Nobody Real. I imagine most people were there for Melvin Burgess, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. With them was late addition L J MacWhirter, and they were all kept in reasonable order by Agnes Guyon. (I do like the French way of pronouncing Agnes…)

Steven Camden

Not that Melvin was ever out of my good books, but I appreciated the way he said ‘I love witches.’ His new book is The Lost Witch, and the subject of witches was suggested to him by his editor. I think. And that led to him thinking through what a book about witches would be.

Before this L J volunteered to go first, so she read chapter 11 about the stairs…

Steven didn’t have room for imaginary friends, and this made Thor Baker – an imaginary friend – angry. He read the A-level scene from Nobody Real. Talking about change – the topic for the evening – he said that what’s good is what you add to a situation.

Melvin feels that for teenagers change is obvious, and that’s why YA is interesting.

Agnes wanted to know whether the panel considered themselves to be feminists, and after rambling for a bit, Steven checked himself and replied ‘yes.’ Melvin said you have to be careful, because we all carry our prejudices around. He starts with a male character and then does a sex change halfway through. (Not sure if this is feminist behaviour.) For his next book he’s got a black character, and a friend had explained what he could and couldn’t do. L J loved writing Silas in her book. He’s a bit of a Poldark, apparently.

L J MacWhirter and Melvin Burgess

There were a couple of big names from the children’s book world in the audience; Julia Eccleshare and Ferelith Hordon. It was Ferelith who asked about morality in books. Melvin ‘objects to that’ and fears it might make you sound too pompous. Ethics, on the other hand, are interesting.

L J spoke of disadvantaged teenagers she had met, who wanted to do work that might not be an obvious choice for someone of their background.

Steven doesn’t know about morals. He’s ‘not a great believer in answers’ and prefers to trust his gut. Reading The Bunker Diary ‘messed me up for a week.’ (And then he asked the audience if we’d eaten. He was starving..!)

I’m not sure how we moved on to favourite books, but Melvin is very fond of Not Now Bernard, and Steven loves I Want My Hat Back.

For some reason this made L J mention dark books, which you want or things could get really boring. But after the dark, there should be hope. This might be from Geraldine McCaughrean, or it might not.

Can there be dark middle grade books? Ferelith told Melvin that his books are dark, and he said they aren’t MG, but she replied they are now, The Cry of the Wolf, Baby and Fly Pie (ending with a dead baby). He agreed this was a dark end with no hope.

Melvin doesn’t feel education has a place in novels. You go to school for that. You read about things [to find out about them] and that makes it private. He played around with the word ‘resilient.’ Teenagers can be too resilient = resilient to change. He sent us on our way, wishing us ‘good luck with the resilience.’

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Day #4 of the 2018 EIBF

That’s my fourth day, which to my surprise turned out to be a Wednesday and not a Saturday, meaning I was able to contemplate a much better train home. And as I said to Daniel Hahn when I waylaid him on his way in, having just the one event felt positively holidayish.

We exchanged fond memories of an event at Waterstones piccalilli three years ago, which Daniel seemed to remember even more of than I did.

I was there ‘early’ because I’d agreed to meet up with Toddler Tollarp and his mother. So we had a couple of hours chatting about everything under the sun. Almost. Unfortunately for TT, he slept through most of it, not even getting cake!

Sitting in the greenhouse watching the bookfest world go past, I saw Beverley Naidoo and Jackie Kay. Later on as I checked my train timetable outside the yurts, Nicola Morgan ran past, but I knew she was in a hurry, so didn’t run after her.

It was a pleasant afternoon, which meant lots of people were enjoying drinks on the yurt decking. Saw Alan Johnson and Allan Little walk to their event.

Melvin Burgess

Strolled over to my lone event with Melvin Burgess, Steven Camden and LJ MacWhirter, who were talking to Agnes Guyon. Chatted to friendly, but hungry, lady in the queue, who had a poetry tale to tell. Those are always the best.

L J MacWhirter

Steven Camden

Afterwards, I had my good train home in mind, so made sure the photo session in the bookshop was swift, and I didn’t stop to chat. So you know what happened then, don’t you? The train was late.

Oh well.

The Invisible Man From Salem

Except I read it in the original, so it’s really Den Osynlige Mannen Från Salem. But at least this way you know that you, too, can access Christoffer Carlsson’s award-winning first crime novel featuring Leo Junker. Because I think you might want to.

Admittedly, I hate the kind of society he’s writing about, but firmly believe that this is what people in other countries find so charming about Swedish noir. Life is dark and dismal, but because it’s not your dark and dismal, it’s all right.

This is an adult crime novel, but with enough flashbacks to Leo’s youth in a concrete-covered Stockholm suburb in the mid-1990s, that it can almost double as YA. Almost.

Christoffer Carlsson, Den Osynlige Mannen Från Salem

Leo has been relieved of his police badge after some dubious goings-on on Gotland. Not his fault, but a scapegoat was needed. And now a woman has been murdered in the flat below his, and he feels he could do with something to occupy himself with, in his half-drugged, sad state. And then it turns out it’s all much closer to home than he thought.

Maybe something to do with his friends from sixth form college? The police don’t like him much, nor do people from his past private life. It’s been tough, and the drugs are just about understandable.

There are no charming vicarages here. Very little that is nice at all, in fact. There is so little hope, even. I was glad I’d got out. Despite this being set 30 years after I was that age, it felt as if nothing had changed. I could have gone to that school. Those teenagers could have been my classmates.

It’s awful.

And it’s also very well written, and after a while I sort of liked Leo. A little. When I reached the end I did what any sane person would do and started on the attached sample chapter for the second book. Apart from having other books to read too, there is the slight conundrum of me only having the fourth, and last, book to hand. On Christoffer’s advice.

What to do?

(There are more than a few nods to Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series.)

Freedom to Read, Freedom to Write

Some events simply want to go on for longer. Or, failing that, to come back and continue. The SCBWI discussion on freedom to read and to write, with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, was one such event. There was so much to talk about, and with three women with lots to say, an hour was not enough.

But that’s my only complaint! Very ably chaired by Elizabeth Frattaroli and Justin Davies, we all enjoyed it from beginning to end.

Despite feeling I know these three authors well, I had not stopped to consider what very different reading backgrounds they have, growing up in three countries well apart from each other.

Candy Gourlay

Candy grew up in Manila where she did have access to a school library, but there were no public libraries at all in the Philippines. She began alphabetically, but got stuck on B for Blyton, fascinated by the different world discovered in those books. But she never found any brown children in them, and deduced that maybe Filipinos weren’t allowed in books. There was one, The Five Chinese Brothers, which as an adult she has discovered to be very racist.

Elizabeth Wein

American Elizabeth spent her childhood in Jamaica, and therefore did have access to books about children of all colours. Her father recommended what to read, and she felt she had a good selection of books. Her favourite is A Little Princess, and her dream was to live in a cold climate. (I would say that Scotland is a dream come true.)

Lari Don

Lari was ‘not exotic’ at all, she said, growing up in Dufftown. And while her family and relatives lived in houses full of books, there were no Scottish books. She read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Narnia. Her favourite was Power of Three by Diana Wynne Jones. There weren’t YA books in those days, and most of the books Lari read were about boys. Not about girls, and not set in Scotland.

Candy described coming to Britain, with all its wonderful libraries. And now they are being closed!! There were no publishers in the Philippines back then, but today there is a vibrant publishing scene. And there are some libraries. Her own problem is with rights, as US publishing rights include the Philippines, which makes the books too expensive. She has to negotiate a deal to make her own books affordable in her own country.

Reading from her new book, Bone Talk, Candy did so on her mobile phone. (She apologised.) After listening to her read the wild boar incident, I want to listen to Candy reading the whole book. It became something completely different when she read it.

Lari likes mixing different cultural ideas in her writing, but she’s now wary of cultural appropriation, and no longer feels sure she’s allowed to write about culture belonging to others, and definitely feels you can’t touch Maori or Aboriginal stories. You have to be sensitive.

Elizabeth spoke about the freedom she felt writing for Barrington Stoke. It’s not harder. You just write short, like a novella, and then there is the editing, which helps make these dyslexia friendly books easy to read. So for instance, in Firebird, they chose another spelling of Tsar – Czar – because the first one is easily confused with star. And even if you’re not dyslexic, short is always good.

For freedom to read, Lari suggested letting children choose what to read, or even not to read. It’s interesting to see how all three authors had so many thoughts and ideas on all this that they – almost – fought to speak.

When it was Elizabeth’s turn to read she chose three, very short pieces. First there was freedom in Code Name Verity, then some lines from her favourite Ursula le Guin, and finally the freedom on what to do with your hair and make-up in Firebird.

As for their own freedom, now that they are successful authors, there is a lot less of it. Elizabeth believes in discipline, being interested in what you write and to start small. Candy uses a forest app on her phone, where during 20 minutes a tree grows, and she is unable to access the phone for anything else. So she writes. And she doesn’t do homework for fans who write to her.

Lari loses herself in her own world. She then read to us the first bit from her Spellcheckers series, where Molly becomes a rabbit. Lari feels the best thing about being an author is to meet her characters. Elizabeth enjoys meeting readers and other writers, while Candy finds no one has heard of her…

There was barely time for questions from the audience, but they were all able to ask lots of questions during the book signing afterwards. It took time, but everyone left satisfied, and before the next event was ready to move in.

The bookfest should ask these authors back to continue where they left off.

Elizabeth Wein, Candy Gourlay and Lari Don

(Photos Helen Giles)

Love and commitment

We’re ‘getting older in a younger way,’ as Janet Ellis said at the beginning of the event with Kit de Waal and Jo Nadin. I’ve not heard it put so well before, but have often thought something similar. Kit de Waal had had the idea for her book as a teenager, but discovered at the age of 58 that 60 is nowhere near as old as her 16-year-old self had imagined.

Kit de Waal

She also found that the place where she set part of her story, based only on the memories of a childhood trip to Ireland, wasn’t quite as she remembered it. Much smaller for one thing. Reading from her The Trick to Time, she described a scene with a father talking to his young daughter about her mother who is ill. I’ve never heard it put better; why one should do something now even if it feels uncomfortable, because the time will come when you will regret not having done it.

Kit also finds YouTube excellent for teaching her almost anything, from hedgehog racing to drawing with vegetables. She is an ‘anal plotter’ who writes in fragments, and when it goes wrong she has to go back and rewrite.

Jo Nadin is also a plotter, but puts her pieces together sooner, comparing it to that awful feeling when you’ve knitted lots of little squares and find yourself facing sewing them all together.

Her novel, The Queen of Bloody Everything, features a dream mother, the total opposite of her own. She wanted the kind of childhood she read about in books, even if it would have been chaos. Jo has based characters on people she knows, and admitted as much at her book launch!

Jo Nadin

She has also deleted a couple of books completely, so now has some safety measures in place, in case she gets trigger-happy again.

Kit reckons there is love and kindness in everyone. She has a past working with criminals, and says they can be hard, but still cry over Bambi. Noting that bad behaviour is always blamed on mothers and never fathers, she discovered when her mother died recently that the theory of losing your mother isn’t the same as in real life.

All books are proper books, whether chicklit, crime or children’s. If a book will make you turn the pages, it counts as a good book and is worth someone’s £6.99.

Asked what made them turn to teaching writing, Jo said she needed to earn money. Kit wants to help other disadvantaged people to write, because she was one herself. Having been advised not to set up an award for working class writers, she has crowdfunded a collection of memoirs, where she asked 17 well known writers to write 2000 words, and then paired this with 17 unknown people’s memoirs. Kit wanted to show that working class does not equal only drugs or a dismal life.

Both Jo and Kit write books while visualising what the characters look like, based on famous actors. So Jo’s next book is set in Fowey and ‘stars’ Dominic West and Ben Whishaw, while Kit’s next work has Brendan Gleeson in it!

Unavoidably, there were spoilers if you hadn’t read the two books, although it was obvious that many had. And I hope Janet Ellis gets her copy back. Never lend books!

(Photos Helen Giles)

A second Saturday of EIBF 2018

Our second book festival Saturday was mostly spent chatting to author friends we’d made earlier. And that’s a very nice thing; this meeting up with people who’ve all come to the same place. It’s also a rather bad pun to indicate that the first event yesterday morning was chaired by Janet Ellis. I got slightly more excited by this than my Photographer, until I did my maths and realised she’s too young for Janet’s time on Blue Peter. But us oldies enjoyed the BP-ness of it.

Kit de Waal

We had to get out of bed really early to get to Edinburgh to hear Jo Nadin and Kit de Waal talking to Janet. But thank goodness it was in the Spiegeltent, where you can buy tea and cake to revive yourself. I reckon we survived until well past lunch on those calories. It was so early when we got to the gates that the gates were actually not open, so we joined the queue, where we were discovered by SCBWI’s Sarah Broadley. My eyes were not open enough to see anyone at all just then. (That’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in case you were wondering. It is, even if you weren’t.)

Jo Nadin

Once my eyes had opened a little more, I saw Alex Nye arriving for her event chairing A L Kennedy. And when we were back by the yurts after the first event, we watched A L being given the Chris Close treatment, although I think she might actually have given Chris the A L Kennedy treatment. She had her own ideas of what to do, like covering her face with a mask.

Jo Nadin and Kit de Waal

We also hung in the signing tent while Jo and Kit did their thing, meeting young miss Nadin for the first time, and after that they were ushered out to the photocall area, which brought back fond memories for Jo. And us.

Sent the Photographer over to catch perennial weekend morning favourite Andy Stanton and his long signing queue. It’s nice with traditions.

Andy Stanton

While getting ready to cross to George Street, we spied Barry Hutchison coming away from his morning event, and I could have sworn that was Chae Strathie who turned up as well. Barry came over for a hug. Two hugs, really, but that was before my Photographer mentioned the squirrels. We were treated to an impromptu show about a banana drink and a piece of popcorn in the wrong place (Barry’s throat; the wrong part of it) before he was called on to drive his family home.

Lari Don

There was a queue for the SCBWI event with Lari Don, Candy Gourlay and Elizabeth Wein, but it was all right. We got in and we got seats.

Candy Gourlay

Elizabeth Wein

Afterwards we hung in the George Street signing tent talking to the various SCBWI members and waiting for Candy to be free to socialise. Even Mr Gourlay turned up for a moment before deciding it was hopeless and walked off again. When the wait was over and Candy had promised not to talk to anyone else – hah! – we went for tea in the yurt, where we had such a good time that we forgot that Candy was going to be photographed by Chris Close, and she had to be extricated to high-five herself and to smile at the unlikeliest props. (At least she didn’t get the head with the black and white-chequered cloth covering!)

Candy Gourlay

Finally met Barbara Henderson in person, a split second after I worked out that’s who she was, and mere hours after talking about her book at home. Chatted to a charming **illustrator, whose name I forgot immediately, and her charming son, who will go far. Caught a glimpse of Donna Moore and then Photographer and I disagreed on whether we saw Jenny Brown or not. But it was definitely Yanis Varoufakis outside.

When there were more SCBWIs round the tea table than you could shake a stick at*, we decided we needed to run for the train we had picked as reasonably safe from too many Runrig fans heading to Stirling. Seems most of the 20 000 or so had not chosen our train. Just as well.

*There is obviously no such thing. I have plenty of sticks.

** Hannah Sanguinetti!!

(Photos Helen Giles)

Dogs in Space

In the last few weeks I’ve come across dogs and space several times. Most recently it was Frank Cottrell Boyce who mentioned Belka and Strelka earlier this week. And the odd thing is, that before I read this picture book about them by Vix Southgate and Iris Deppe, I’d never heard of them.

Laika, yes. I thought she was the most famous space dog, even if she did die up there. And now it turns out that Belka and Strelka orbited Earth in 1960 and lived to ‘tell the tale,’ paving the way for [the human] Yuri Gagarin the following year.

They were street dogs, recruited, ostensibly because they were used to the rough life out there. But you can’t get away from the fact that if things went wrong, they had not been anyone’s pets.

But once lured off the street, they received cosmonaut training rather like their human colleagues, and the best dogs were picked for the first space flight.

Vix Southgate and Iris Deppe, Dogs in Space

And it does seem as if the pair was ideally suited for this job. I’m glad to have made their acquaintance after all these years.