Category Archives: Blogs

Retiring Philippa

My pangs of envy and regret started even before Philippa Dickinson’s retirement festivities got under way on Monday. When you’re online you can see what everyone else is doing and quite a few people announced they were heading that way, making me wish I was too. But there are drawbacks to moving to Scotland, and the spontaneity of sudden trips south is one of them.

So I wasn’t there, and now I can follow – online again – those who were, and there are more pangs. But I’m glad there was a party, and that it was good, and that – almost – everyone else was there. Because Philippa deserves to be celebrated.

Philippa Dickinson

Back in 2009 when I was introduced to her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it felt a bit like meeting the Queen, although perhaps more relaxed. And six months later when her publicists invited me to actually come and spend a day in Ealing, I was impressed with her again, and not only for remembering me a little.

Random House Children’s Books felt like the most active publishing house at the time. And she might have been the MD, but Philippa was still hands-on (editing Terry Pratchett, the lucky thing), working like a normal person. During our brief meeting in her office, she made a point of showing me her personal recommendation and arranging for me to have a copy of Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza.

Philippa and I are almost the same age, and occasionally I have stopped and asked myself what I have achieved with my life, and why I couldn’t be a bit more like her. (Answers on a postcard, please.)

Sometimes when I think of Philippa and wonder what made her better or more interesting than other publishing bosses, I realise that apart from a few directors of smaller publishing houses, I didn’t meet or get even a little acquainted with anyone else.

So maybe that’s why. You need to be out there, possibly rubbing shoulders with the little fish.

In the dark

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so they say. Well here you have four pictures. The first one shows you the lovely Helen Grant somewhere in some pleasant countryside, sunshine and all. What could possibly go wrong?

Helen Grant

The second picture is a bit darker, although you could be fooled by the light at the end of the tunnel. I believe this is the tunnel Helen has invited me to come and walk with her. Hah! As if I would, after all she’s put me through in Urban Legends. Could, even. She’d sit me down and tell me one of those legends, and then where would I be?

Helen Grant

You can see the other two, fleeing while Helen’s attention is on me. (If I was in there, in the first place. I’m not an idiot.)

Tunnel

Finally, we have the storyteller looking all atmospheric, getting ready to start on one of her legends. And it’s too late for me to leave. She’s looking right at me…

Helen Grant

Aarrgghh!!!

I’ll send the rest of the family in my place.

Through the cereal box

Well, it was a bit of a disappointment, even for those of us with sunshine, wasn’t it? I’m talking about the eclipse on Friday morning, which I had forgotten all about until I stumbled out of bed, having finally caught up on sleep. ‘Come and see the sun’ said the Resident IT Consultant.

So I did. He sat there in the sunny front room, holding two bits of former Weetabix box, waving them at me. I admired the baby crescent-shaped sun on the second Weetabix board, as the sun shone through the first bit of cardboard.

I went for my yoghurt and bran flakes, sitting down in our north facing ice cube, which was surprisingly warm. I thought I might remain there, as it seemed a good place from where not to accidentally stare at the sun, although it is always sunny even on that side of the house [when there are no clouds in the way].

But I popped back for some more Weetabix crescent just to see which side was best. And back to the ice cube. It got a little bit darker, yes, but to my mind it was still full daylight. And in the ice cube I didn’t have to listen to Brian Cox waffling on the television, or stare at the disappointed Australians who’d travelled to the Faroes, only to be faced with clouds.

OK, it was more exciting than in 1999, when we were on a Yorkshire walking holiday. Afterwards no one was sure what – if anything – had happened at all. These eclipses are overrated. But the Resident IT Consultant’s crescent had shifted to the other side, which I suppose was something.

Eclipse in St Andrews

I stole the above photo from my own Offspring, and it’s not rubbish. But it stands to reason the eclipse would look better right outside the Astronomy department of a renowned university, doesn’t it?

We’re all bookbugs

They invited me along to the Bookbug annual conference yesterday, at the George Hotel in Edinburgh. It was really quite nice and very enlightening in many ways. They are Scottish Book Trust, and the Bookbugs are the youngest readers. You might recall that in Scotland all babies are given a bag of books to encourage reading and help them interact with their parents.

Karyn McCluskey started off by being cheerful. They are quite cheerful here, I’ve noticed. There was the sunshine to make you smile, and and the fact that reading prevents murders (if that’s not too gruesome a thing to mention). Karyn introduced the acting Minister for Children and Young People, Fiona McLeod, who is only ‘acting’ because the ‘real’ minister has been packed off on maternity leave. It’s better to start reading early, rather than putting more people in prison later on.

Next up was Dr Kate McKay, senior medical officer, child health. She herself is a product of how going to the library as a child has led to professional success in adult life. She reckons that the use of digital books will change the pathways of the human brain. Kate is also a fan of the five Rs; reading, rhyming, routines, rewards and relationships. Chaos leads to stress, and early adversity in life causes bad health in adults.

It’s important for a baby to interact with its mother, and this is something which can’t happen if the mother is drunk or drugged. By supporting girls, they become good mothers, and this in turn is good for society. And laughing is healthy. Children laugh more with their parents, and laughing a lot makes for a longer life.

The morning session ended with Margaret Clark, senior health promotion officer in Lanarkshire. She talked about the book bags, and how if you start early you stay active for life. And if the Nordic countries can do it, so can Scotland.

Then the whole roomful of – mostly – bookish ladies fought for lunch, and plates of very sweet cakes, and I believe even the water dispenser ran dry. After which we quickly returned to the conference, because Nick Sharratt was there to talk to us about his books. Dressed in one of his signature stripey shirts [red and white], Nick charmed the socks off everyone. He claimed to be nervous because it was such a large room…

Nick Sharratt

He pointed out he doesn’t have children of his own, and that he’s never become an adult himself. There was a photo of a very young Nick on a swing, drawing. He still draws, just not on a swing. Showing us lots of illustrations from his hundreds of books, he then read a few to us. And he wore his purple wig and sunglasses, which was so 1970s.

One of the books was What’s in the Witch’s Kitchen, and that’s something I’ve often wondered myself. Nick feels we should learn to relax with picture books. They are not purely for the very young. When he started writing his own books, he began by rhyming and using very few words. Food is important in his books, as long as it’s not butterbeans.

Split page books allow for plenty of interaction between adult and child, as well as offering many combinations of crazy things. Nick showed us similar books made by child fans, and they are truly inspirational. At the end of his hour long session we had a coffee break and people queued up to have their books signed. I couldn’t help wondering which would prove to be the longest; the coffee break or the queue.

The queue won and was eventually shown the door so we could get on with the panel discussion on digital books. Chaired by Tam Baillie, the speakers were Tom Bonnick from Nosy Crow, Lydia Plowman and Andrew Manches from the University of Edinburgh, and Jim McCormick.

On the whole the panel were in favour of digital even for the very young, and according to Lydia a surprising percentage of pre-schoolers have tablets; often an older hand-me-down. She reckons not to worry about it, though, and to remember that the adult is still boss, and that the adult is a role model, so cut down on the continual staring at your own phone or other screen.

Other thoughts include how easy it is to share digital material, in a positive sense. The quality of teachers is important and so is the relationship between school and home.

I had somehow expected to hear that digital would make it easier to access reading, but the debate seemed to go in a different direction. We had a Q&A session, and for the first time during the whole day we could hear a few small squeaks from the conference’s youngest participant, a – very – young man [I’m guessing from the pale blue] who mostly enjoyed being breastfed and playing with finger puppets. Lovely baby!

Tam Baillie let us finish with a song; Three Craws. The Scots are as crazy as the Nordics they admire so much…

A Birlinn rendezvous

There is a certain freedom – not to mention a sense of adventure – in standing at a railway station as a train comes in, and you’ve got a trainload of alighting passengers to choose from. Who to go and ‘have coffee’ with. Well, to be truthful, I had already googled Sally from Birlinn, so I had an idea of who to look out for, and she knew to find a short, fat witch. And she did.

Sally was coming all the way to me, to talk about the many good children’s books Birlinn – who are an Edinburgh based publisher – are about to let loose on the world this year. I walked her to the Burgh Coffee House, as she confessed to earlier youthful trips to the Rainbow Slides in Stirling. What’s more, she came here from Linlithgow, and the less said about this lovely place and me, the better. (Actually, Sally has more or less sold me on the town, now. It has a good bookshop just by the station, apparently, so as long as I manage to get off the train in the first place…)

Joan Lennon, Silver Skin and Joe Friedman, The Secret Dog

So, Birlinn. Sally brought me books by Joan Lennon and Joe Friedman, which both look promising. She talked me through their whole 2015 catalogue, and plans include a Peter Pan graphic novel, books by Alexander McCall Smith about the young Precious Ramotswe, history by Allan Burnett, the Polish bear Wojtek, Lynne Rickards and the ever orange Tobermory Cat by Debi Gliori. There will be poetry and there will be naughty young lambs.

The books all have some connection to Scotland, be it setting or author or anything else. I knew it already, really, but it’s worth saying again, that Scotland has books all its own. It’s not just an appendix to England. If Norway can have a publishing industry, then so can Scotland.

There was a bit of gossip, too, and a secret that can’t be mentioned. And after that Sally ran for her train back to the big city, hoping that someone else would have done all the work by the time she got back to the office.

Reko no more

Remember the new crime novel by Marnie Riches that I told you about the other day? I enjoyed it so much, and I was very flattered to be asked my opinion early on. But it’s heartstopping stuff, this being asked. Because what if you DON’T LIKE THE BOOK?

There was a time before Marnie, when I was asked under very similar circumstances, by someone I knew about as well (although someone I hadn’t met in person) as I did her, and whose earlier book I had read and liked, and I was both keen and far too unsuspecting. Both of the book, and of its author. And as I began reading my heart sank and I wondered how I could 1) go on, 2) tell the author anything useful but still sort of truthful.

It was amateurish beyond belief, with wooden characters (although you could tell you were supposed to love one of them) and a pretty clichéd plot. Nice setting, though. I persevered, because this was not a book by a stranger. (Except, of course, it was.)

By some miracle, 11% in (on a Kindle you know these things) it changed for the better, and I mean really good, like someone had clicked their fingers for some magic. Luckily the loveable one died, but you were obviously still supposed to mourn this death.

My feedback was far politer and kinder than what I’ve just said here. But I felt I had to offer my thoughts on the 11% simply to explain why I reckoned this author had yet to interest anyone at all in the book; be it an agent or a publisher or anyone else. If they read what I read, they’d not want to go further, and would never reach even the 11%.

My comments were welcomed and I was encouraged to say more. I did. Well what a mistake that was.

So basically, don’t ask for what you don’t want to hear. And even if you love your character, it doesn’t mean they are the bee’s knees or that everyone else will want to be their best friend.

But the premise for this crime novel was really pretty good, and if a professional editor could get their hands on the 11% without having their head shot off in the process, I could see a future for the book.

What worried me about Marnie’s book [before I read it], were the circumstances of how I was asked, and the fact that the two stories share some basic facts. It was eerie.

(Reko is Swedish for a decent sort. I ceased to be reko as soon as I opened my big keyboard and let the advice flow. Silly me.)

I might wear purple

Terry Pratchett

Son ‘put a lot of sugar in it and showed it the milk.’ That’s Terry Pratchett’s coffee we are talking about, and you know why I’m writing about him, so I don’t need to announce to the world that Terry has gone to meet Death. I think what I’ll do is reminisce a little.

We were with Terry that time in September 2010 to give him a Mars bar, and because he had very generously requested a second interview with me. From me? Whatever. We came. We laughed. We left.

Terry Pratchett

I’d met Terry for an interview ten months earlier. He’d had such a long and busy day, and was so tired, and hungry, that all he wanted was a Mars bar. And because I don’t eat chocolate, I had nothing like that to offer. Otherwise, I’m a mother. You know. We always carry spares in case anyone needs anything.

He was upset that we didn’t get as long as he’d expected, even though it meant he could go and eat something. So he asked to see me again, partly – I think – to discuss the librarian I told him about, who wanted to ban his books to under sixteens. Maybe he even found me less hard work than the real professionals he had seen earlier, and liked a less intense kind of chat.

The interviews were followed by invitations to book launches, and a Terry Pratchett launch is like no other. I feel very fortunate to have had this opportunity, which I did little to deserve. But in general we dont mind having that which we don’t deserve.

Terry Pratchett - Dementia Friends

When I heard about Terry’s diagnosis in 2007 I immediately assumed this would be the end for him, for his books, and everything. That’s why I have felt that every new book we’ve been given in the years since, have been lovely bonuses. I’m amazed Terry could keep going the way he did, despite the handicap of being unable to write. 66 is too young to die, but it is preferable to 59.

In 2008 when Neil Gaiman signed Son’s copy of Good Omens, he said it was a shame Terry wouldn’t be able to sign it as well. There was even a catchphrase that went with the Good Omens signature. Well, you know me. I didn’t feel it was too late, and it wasn’t. Terry’s signature might have ended up somewhat shakier than it once was, but he knew the words to go with it.

Philippa Dickinson and Terry Pratchett

The last time for me was the launch for Dodger, and Terry wore the wrong hat, by which I mean it wasn’t his usual style, but a hat for Dodger. And I should have gone up to him and said a proper hello. Instead I went all modest and assumed he’d not remember me, because I was merely a small cogwheel.

I’m lucky, though. I have not yet read all Terry’s books, if that’s not the wrong thing to admit to in company like this? I’ll eke them out. And I shall wear purple, even if it was a colour Terry didn’t like. So there.

Terry Pratchett and witch

Many, many thanks to Clare, Philippa and Lynsey who made my adventures possible.

‘So where do you come from?’

‘Sweden,’ 

‘Sweden?’

‘Yes.’

‘Hahaha…’

‘It’s not that funny.’

‘Yes, hee hee, it is, it is. Let me tell you a story, to get ourselves warmed up.’