Category Archives: Books

The new kids

When I first joined Facebook – and I must point out I only did it for literary reasons! – I was quickly introduced to lots more authors than those I already knew and corresponded with. It’s that automatic suggestion system thing they have, and before long I was awash in new – to me – authors of children’s books.

Some of them I’d barely heard of, and I had not read anything by them. But then I discovered a new category of people. I don’t want to call them wannabes, as that sounds childish, and as though you could become a published author if you only wish for it enough.

Hopefuls, maybe. Those fully intending to be out there with published books very soon. I was amazed at how they all seemed to know each other, too. I was under the impression that garrets were there for a reason, and when you weren’t even published, how could you know others who were also not published?

Seems there are groups for everything under the sun. They knew each other because they attended writing groups, or critiquing groups, or any other kind of authorial group. They supported each other. They were friends.

But I was always afraid that when they did get published, I ‘would have to read’ the books and that I wouldn’t like them.

Well, that was almost as silly as my other ignorant thoughts, because the books have all been great. Many of the ‘hopefuls’ were published around the same time, like Keren David and Candy Gourlay and Jon Mayhew. Teri Terry wasn’t far behind. But so far Kathryn Evans hasn’t joined them. Until now.

It’s almost more exciting, after such a long wait. Not everyone writes at the same speed, and of course, I never knew where in the process people might be when I first encountered them. And Kathryn has strawberries to grow, and bellydancing to do.

Kathryn Evans

Here she is, at the recent SCBWI conference, wearing purple hair and the covers of books being published by her SCBWI friends this year. (In other words, perfectly normal…) Kathryn’s own book – More of Me – will be published in February. I’m really looking forward to it.

W.A.R.P. – The Forever Man

That FBI. It gets everywhere, including the 17th century. But that explains a lot, actually. And it’s lucky they wear those fetching overalls, with the letters on the back, so you will know it’s them. And there is always one more wormhole through which any combination of characters can fall, to some time other than their own. Quantum foam. Hah.

Yes. So Eoin Colfer thought it’d be more normal to write about time travelling FBI agents than leprechauns. It’s easy peasy getting your head round tunnelling dwarves and foil-clad centaurs, but my head always gets confused when it tries to think about time travel. Like, if so-and-so did this then something would/would not happen. And you mustn’t meet yourself.

Eoin Colfer, The Forever Man

I enjoyed The Forever Man, which is the last instalment of Eoin’s W.A.R.P., the time travel-based witness protection scheme which put people safely in Victorian London. I wasn’t sure I would, as the time travel slipped back to Cromwell’s days – which I’m not keen on – and Riley’s old boss was going to reappear. I’d really hoped to have seen the last of him. But that strange thing happened; where you find yourself almost fond of the baddie, because you go a long way back and familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt.

So – the now unkillable – Garrick is back, and his latest hobby is to burn witches at the stake. And he decides Agent Chevie is a witch. Riley needs to free her, but the trouble is that he and Garrick know each other so well, that it’s almost impossible for one to trick the other. Luckily the FBI has one or two tricks up its sleeves, and not everyone in this witch-hunting village believes that burning witches is a marvellous idea.

This is exciting, and romantic – yes – and funny. It even restored my faith in the FBI.

Eoin; please consult me if you need more timetravelling Swedish bores. Sorry, boars. Or similar. Especially if they are to be called Olaf.

Booked – Elizabeth Laird and Daniel Hahn


As Janet Smyth – who organises the children’s books programme for the Edinburgh International Book Festival – said yesterday, away from August and Charlotte Square it can be a lot of fun to revisit events and ideas in greater detail. So that’s what they are doing, with a programme under the [extremely clever] title Booked. What’s more, we are no longer suffering from bookfest fatigue.

The Bookwitch seat

I arrived at Assembly Roxy with plenty of time, and as the first one there (I know…) I was not only given the choice of best seat, but was more or less led to the most comfortable seat in the place, which happened to be a high-backed leather armchair [with just the right support for an ouchy back] which I sat down in and then simply never left. (Feel free to copy this idea at other venues.)

My back and I had come for Elizabeth Laird in conversation with Daniel Hahn, on the occasion of her nomination as the UK representative for the 2016 Hans Christian Andersen award. This IBBY book award is a global one, which looks at an author’s whole body of work. Liz has written around 30 novels, translated into about 15 languages, and she has lived in several countries, including Malaysia, Palestine and Ethiopia.

Asked how she feels about her nomination, Liz said it’s ‘absolutely stunning!’ She spoke of having a couple of her books translated into Arabic, which led her and Daniel to talk about the way so many children’s books in English are translated into other languages, as witnessed by them at a big book festival in Tehran. And Daniel compared this to the relatively few foreign books that are translated into English.

Janet asked if you have to be dead to make it into translation, and he said yes, or you are Cornelia Funke. From his own childhood he knows that children don’t care (possibly don’t know) that books are foreign. He grew up with Moomin and Asterix, and feels that publishers worry too much about what you can put into a book, in case it doesn’t translate well, and this goes for the illustrations too. As for the difficulty of translating rhyming verse, he says that doesn’t seem to stop Julia Donaldson’s books from selling abroad.

Liz said we don’t want child characters who do what their parents say, and Daniel pointed out that’s why we have so many orphans in books. As an example he mentioned James and the Giant Peach, where the parents are killed by a rhinoceros on page one; presumably because Roald Dahl felt he had to get it over with.

Children will engage in a story, and offer hope, endurance, forgiveness and love. Liz likes happy endings, and said that she wants to write hopeful, if not happy, endings. Children’s books should be something to remember as an adult. These days we have emasculated stories, making Grimm and Noah into tame versions of the original stories, in order not to upset.

Daniel Hahn and Elizabeth Laird

When it came to the Q&A, no one knew what Hans Christian Andersen did when he visited Edinburgh. (Did any of you see him?) Daniel reckons this keen but neurotic traveller probably worried about losing his passport, and that he would have had a rope in his luggage, just in case. And he’d quite like to be able to read HCA in Danish.

Asked for a racy story, Liz told us her favourite about the beautiful girl and her silly husband, equally silly father, and hopelessly silly neighbour.

They talked about Liz’s book A Little Piece of Ground, which is about football in Palestine, and she finished by saying she’s not ‘holding her breath’ as regards winning the award.

I think she could. Should.

Elizabeth Laird

There was a signing afterwards, but not before Liz had rushed to put her warm coat on, as she must have been freezing up there on stage. I finally cornered Daniel with my copy of his Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, ‘this lethal weapon, a nightmare,’ and it has been duly signed.

Daniel Hahn

One Thousand Things

This is more fun and useful than you might think at first. One Thousand Things by Anna Kövecses is simply that; lots of words for the beginner.

Aimed – I assume – at the young learner reader, it would work very well for someone older, but new to English, too. The whole book consists of pictures of fairly ordinary things, with the word next to what it describes.

Anna Kövecses, One Thousand Things

I haven’t counted them, but one thousand seems likely. And that’s quite a lot. You can go a long way with that kind of vocabulary. OK, they are mainly nouns, but you could always mime a verb to go with it.

Bookwitch bites #131

Sally Nicholls, An Island of Our Own

David Almond scooped the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize on Thursday. Congratulations to him, and commiserations to young ‘Master Sally Nicholls,’ who at his very young age let his disappointment that Mummy didn’t win be known. I like a baby who can cry when the time is right. And apparently he was passed round like a – very valuable – parcel, so I’m quite jealous I wasn’t there.

Sally is also on the shortlist for the Costa, so perhaps the young Master will appear at another awards event soon. Because as he well knows, Mummy’s is one seriously good book, and he will read it as soon as he can.

Someone (Muckle Media. And you know, I blogged about muckle only the other day) has been looking into who is most popular on Twitter in Scotland. It seems J K Rowling does quite well with followers and such. And what’s fascinating is that I’ve never heard of some of the top names, although Ian Rankin and Val McDermid ring a bell. As do Bookwitch favourites like Gillian Philip, Nicola Morgan, Julie Bertagna and Helen Grant. Long may they tweet.

On Twitter (where else?) I learned that Teri Terry was interviewed when she was in Denmark recently. Her answers are perfectly easy to understand. For those of you who still don’t read Danish after all those Killings and Bridges, I can only suggest you guess what Teri is replying to, as the questions are in Danish.

Anne Rooney has been interviewed by the Society of Authors about non-fiction (I thought of it first!), and it makes for very interesting reading. Times are hard. Being interested in everything is good. Anne is good.

If all this feels like it’s getting on top of you, counselling is at hand. Nicola Morgan is now the proud owner of a Certificate of Counselling, part of her Diploma in Youth Counselling. She is so good at so many things. And I’d have happily unburdened myself to Nicola even before she was certified.

Stirling Literary Society

The Resident IT Consultant had been a couple of times, but I needed something special to tempt me out on a wet and dark Monday night, so it was my first time. Stirling Literary Society meet at The Smith [local museum] once a month, and the thing that got me out of the house was Scottish Children’s Literature. Dr Maureen Farrell from the University of Glasgow drove through floods to tell us about it.

When she realised that her degree didn’t cover any Scottish books Maureen decided to do her PhD on Scottish children’s literature, but was dissuaded because it was thought there wasn’t enough material for a doctorate… (I was unsure in the end if she went ahead with it anyway, or not. But whichever way, Maureen knows a few things about those non-existent children’s books.)

In the ‘beginning’ there were books, and some children read them. And there were chapbooks, sold by travelling chapmen. In the 18th century James Janeway published A Token for Children. Often books were written by puritans who wanted to educate, and needed to use language accessible to children. As early as 1744 there were ‘magazine giveaways’ with balls for boys and hoops for girls.

Then we had Sir Walter Scott. Naturally. He wrote a book for his grandson, but as a ‘very wordy writer’ it probably wasn’t all that easy to read. But he enjoyed it so much he wanted to give up writing adult books. The first proper children’s book in Scotland seems to have been Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House, where children played and were naughty.

Maureen Farrell’s criteria for what counts as Scottish literature are books by someone Scottish, set in Scotland or about Scottish people. If not, we couldn’t lay claim to J K Rowling or Julia Donaldson.

There wasn’t really time enough to talk even quite briefly about most Scottish authors. Maureen galloped past Treasure Island, The Light Princess, Peter Pan, and on to Theresa Breslin and Eric Linklater, explaining what the Carnegie Medal is (very elderly audience, but maybe not necessary?), Molly Hunter, Joan Lingard, and she showed us covers of lots of books, including The Wee Free Men.

She described the beginning chapter of Nicola Morgan’s Fleshmarket, and I decided I could possibly avoid fainting if I was lucky. Jackie Kay cropped up with both fiction and poetry, local author Rennie McOwan got some attention, as did Mairi Hedderwick and Debi Gliori.

And then there were the books in Scots, of which she had many to show us. I particularly liked Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which became The Eejits.

I reckon you can deduce that there’s enough for a PhD there, somewhere. We could have gone on for hours and only skimmed the surface. There was a lot I knew about, obviously, but there was also quite a bit I didn’t, because I was never a small Scottish child, unlike others in the audience who had strong and fond memories of many of the books mentioned.

Shetland Noir, only once removed

I’m the kind of witch who can recognise Denise Mina from behind, out of context (i.e. not at some book festival). On the other hand, my Shetland Noir representative, Helen Grant, had no idea who this ‘tremendously likeable’ woman was, gorgeous black furry boots and all. They travelled on the same plane, which despite it being Friday the 13th suffered no mishap, which is lucky for Scottish crime and its future. Helen did know the other crime writer at the airport, though, as she had been at Oxford with MJ McGrath.

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Helen was on her way to Shetland to receive the Jimmy Perez Trophy for writing the winning short story – The Beach House – from, as it turned out, the very hands of Jimmy Perez, aka actor Doug Henshall. Not bad for a simple misuse of a kitchen utensil. (I can just see how he stands there muttering, ‘not the cheese grater. Please not the cheese grater!’)

Ann Cleeves, Helen Grant and Doug Henshall, by Dale Smith

Strangely (!) Helen was quite keen to see a bit of beautiful Shetland while she was there, so apart from the grand reception and award thing on the Friday night, she ‘only’ went to two events, but they both sound really good. Also very female, because as we know, women scare and kill best. Just look at Helen herself.

Donald Anderson, Jacky Collins, Mari Hannah, Denise Mina, Ann Cleeves and Alexandra Sokoloff

There was a panel on the benefits and pitfalls of screen adaptations, with Alexandra Sokoloff, Ann Cleeves, Denise Mina and Mari Hannah, chaired by Jacky Collins. It’s apparently a bit like adopting a baby, and learning to step away. Ann Cleeves had Vera Stanhope adapted after the producer picked up a copy of her book in Oxfam.

According to Alexandra, who has a past as a screenwriter, in America television does sell books, whereas Ann recognises that viewers might not be readers. Denise has had a very successful adaptation made from her book, totally authentic down to the 1980s Irn Bru sign on Central Station.  And on the benefits of adapting a book, Denise said that we love books – ‘That’s why we’re all dweebing out when there’s a perfectly good craft fair on.’ The book is the real connection with another human being.

Jake Kerridge, Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar

The cheerfully named Killer Women is a London-based group of female (obviously) crime writers, which started as a social group, but now meet to discuss murder as well. In Lerwick Laura Wilson, Helen Giltrow, MJ McGrath and Louise Millar spoke to Jake Kerridge about women in crime, both as writers, detectives and victims. Apparently if the victim is male he must suffer as a spy or at war, and not in a domestic setting.

MJ McGrath enjoys turning things round, like having a female detective instead of just as the sidekick. Her male detective breeds lemmings, in order to replace those who jump off cliffs… Louise Millar has interviewed people affected by crime, several years afterwards, to learn of the long term effects. And MJ interviewed some Hell’s Angels after a murder. She felt that being a woman was an advantage in that situation: ‘Either they want to impress you or they don’t take you seriously.’

Women are ‘equal opportunities readers’ and will read books by both women and men, but men are more likely to read men. Helen Giltrow, who works in a male dominated sector, espionage, has been told ‘you write like a man.’ MJ commented that ‘I have been told with great sincerity and as a compliment, I write like a brunette!’

On sex and violence Laura said that she has heard male writers say that women can go further because if a man writes about sexual violence people will think that he is a pervert who really wants to do it! Louise added that there is also the issue of having to write ‘likeable’ women, which is very constraining.

(I’ve never noticed any ‘constraining’…)

On the gossip front the latest news from Ann Cleeves seems to be a non-crime (I’m guessing non-fiction) book about Shetland. Because she loves it. Alex Gray is incredibly nice, and she and Helen talked about Bloody Scotland. Valerie Laws’ sleep was not helped by waves breaking against the hotel wall right beneath her window. (At least the sea stayed on the outside.) Marsali Taylor wins [Helen’s] prize for best dressed crime writer, with a stunning fuchsia silk fitted dress with gold embroidery and matching trousers.

After a weekend like this, Helen can almost see herself having more of a go at adult crime. It was ‘inspiring.’ And next time she flies to Shetland, her woolly hat will be in her hand luggage.

Doug Henshall and Helen Grant, by Dale Smith