Category Archives: Philip Pullman

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.

Don’t pay? Won’t come!

Whereas I quite like the idea of Philip Pullman perusing his daily Bookwitch and taking my New Year’s post to heart, if I’m to be realistic, he probably came up with his new stance without my help.

But I’m glad that someone like Philip has decided enough’s enough, and that he is speaking out against festivals who don’t pay. Then there was Amanda Craig’s letter in the Bookseller, which collected a good number of signatures. It’s not enough for someone in the kind of income bracket who really needs to be paid to say they’d like money instead of ‘exposure,’ as no one much listens to ‘unknowns’ with not a lot of money behind them.

It’s a shame that the Oxford Literary Festival and Philip are having to part ways over this, but it sounds as if he tried discussing it with them. And I do understand that money might be short. But if none of the other categories of people who work for the festival do so unpaid, the question is why authors should give their time for free. They wrote the books. Yes, they will – hopefully – sell a good number after their event, but what do they get? 50p per paperback sold?

There are reasons for appearing somewhere for free, but it should be by choice, and after some serious thinking about why. (I ought to declare myself here. I once bribed an author to come for train fare only, but the bribe I offered has yet to be taken. I suspect it won’t, but it was all I had. I have also asked two authors to come to my house for a private event. I offered to pay on both occasions. One, the author was happy to come for free, if the indie bookshop was allowed to sell books. The second didn’t happen as the author was unavailable.)

Some time in the past I suggested that authors need to belong to a union, but that it would most likely be a difficult and awkward thing to arrange. But perhaps the time has come. ‘Don’t just agree, organise!’ as Joe Hill never said.

Harry hole

I almost sat up in bed in the middle of the night. I’d remembered a few more book suggestions I could make.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am always on the lookout for more child readers. They grow up so fast, and I need more recipients to give books to. I found an eleven-year-old whose grandfather lives in the flat above the Grandmother’s, and have been lobbing bags of books in her direction for some time. She’s a keen reader, and I went so far as to ask for a list of what she normally reads, the better to choose books for her.

Then I thought to make a list of suggestions for her, for books I like so much I wouldn’t dream of parting with them. It was this list I suddenly thought of new additions to, mid-sleep. (Since you ask, Che Golden, Kate Thompson, among others.)

The list already has Philip Pullman and Derek Landy and Debi Gliori on it, along with several other great writers.

And then I had another thought. (Yes, I know. That’s awfully many thoughts for one night.) I take it as read (!) that everyone has read Harry Potter. You can’t not have heard of him. But is eleven too young? Was Harry not on the list because he’s obvious, or because this girl hasn’t actually read the books yet? Or tried them and gave up.

Are we now so far removed from Harry hysteria that not ‘every’ child will read about witches and wizards? Would I be an idiot if I suggested it? Or would I be more of an idiot if I don’t?

He’s no Olaf

OK, so anyone, just about, could be called Olaf. In principle, anyway. But occasionally I feel there are more unfortunately named Olafs in non-Nordic language fiction than there are actual boys in Sweden, bearing that name.

Yes, Sweden. If you at least could make Olaf Norwegian. If you did, I wouldn’t even know what age he ought to be. (Although someone else would.)

There are skills in naming people. In your own language, or more narrowly, within your own area, you probably know who might be called what, and how old they are likely be.

I don’t know whether to blame Olof Palme. There are two main facts about this former prime minister. One, his name was Olof. Not Olaf. And he was ‘old’ even when he died, by which I mean a boy Olof would not be someone today. But there is a real fondness among authors for naming their Swedish characters Olaf. As they have every right to do.

The other thing that sets my teeth on edge is a surname ending in -[s]sen. Doesn’t matter if it’s single or double s. If the letter e follows, they are either Danish or Norwegian. Originally, I mean. I went to school with a Jensen, who was pretty Swedish, apart from his Danish passport.

Sweden has so very many -sson names that it’d be a shame not to use one of them. Johansson, Nilsson, Svensson, to list but a few of the very commonest. (This is why I can’t take Scarlett Johansson seriously.)

If in doubt, ask a Swede. Find a phone directory if possible. Try to avoid the immigrant names. I believe Philip Pullman found Serafina Pekkala in a phone book. Wise man, because it rings (pardon) true. At least to me, who will have to count as a foreigner in this matter.

HDM on BBC

Not long ago I thought about His Dark Materials and how I found it hard to believe that they made a film of the first book and then abandoned the project. So much was right, and it would go to waste if not used. Lyra was perfect [in my opinion] and Nicole Kidman was a marvellous Mrs Coulter, who then got pregnant and obviously couldn’t go on with more films. And as for Lee Scoresby… Well. He was just right.

The list could go on. While the film wasn’t 100%, it was pretty close, and I’m not easily pleased when it comes to top books.

But as the years passed, it became clear that you can live without the other books made into film if you have to. And we had to.

Jericho

The good news this week is that there will be a BBC series of His Dark Materials, and I so hope they will – also – get it right and not mess about too much. (I loved Philip Pullman’s I Was a Rat on television, so hopefully someone will be able to do something similar with HDM.)

It’s just that Philip’s books aren’t merely really good books, but they have had such an impact on life at Bookwitch Towers; reading the books, listening to Philip reading the audio books, travelling to London to see the dramatised HDM at the National Theatre, travelling again to see it another time (that was Son), travelling to Dublin (Son again) to see the stage play there, involvement in the HDM fan websites (Son), new friendships for us all, and so on.

'That' bench

I’m guessing I will have to be patient, as you don’t rustle up great television just like that. But it will come. (As long as they allow for young people’s habit of getting older faster than films are made.)

Pruning for Kenya

I thinned my books a little bit last week. The time had come when I could barely go to bed, on account of piles of books in unsuitable places. Like on my bed. So instead of the let’s get rid of three or four books policy, I decided to go for books everywhere, getting out climbing implements to help me reach.

The living room had been tidied, with only a pile of book boxes next to the sofa (so counting almost as a coffee table, really), being in the way, looking less than neat. The next step would be to send those boxes on their way to Grangemouth and from there to Kenya. The efficient way would be to add to those boxes before they went, rather than after (which would really be both stupid and impossible).

So I hardened myself and went for it. The shelves in Son’s room now look positively empty. No, they don’t. But they could certainly welcome quite a few newly read books as and when they are ready. Still double rows, but relaxed double rows.

I am not a library. I have to remind myself I don’t have a duty to stock a representative selection of children’s books for passersby. After all, I don’t lend books. I’m a mean old witch.

It’s no longer a question of whether I liked the book in the first place. It’s more whether I am likely to read it again. And even if it has been signed, I toughened up and pruned.

When I first met Adèle Geras and she signed her first edition hardback for me, we both agreed that if the book should turn out really valuable one day, then I should sell, and she wouldn’t mind. (This was as she reminisced about her signed proof copy of Northern Lights, which she gave to Oxfam after reading…)

So, dear authors, if by chance you come across one of your signed books and you can identify it as mine (I have no idea why it’s not in Kenya!), please don’t be insulted. I loved the book, but I have only so many shelves.

Celebrating Young Adult Fiction

Daniel Hahn

There were so many authors for Daniel Hahn’s event on YA literature that we got 15 minutes extra to sort out the seating arrangements, (a rather nice booth at the edge of the Spiegeltent for me) or so he claimed. We should – could – have had much longer. Not so much for the chairs as for the sheer marvel of what everyone had to say, whether or not YA exists. (Some of them reckon it doesn’t.)

Them, were Elizabeth Laird, David Almond, James Dawson and Tanya Landman, plus Agnes Guyon, chair for this year’s Carnegie. That’s four award winners, and one awarder. Daniel said, two of them were suspicious, but he changed that to having suspicions [about YA] when we laughed. The introductions had to be kept short or there would have been no time for the event. Elizabeth has written 150 books, and she claimed ‘most of them rubbish.’ David Almond has won everything, including the Hans Christian Andersen prize. New kid on the block, and reigning Queen of Teen, James Dawson, hasn’t won so much yet, except for the rather spiky QoT crown he keeps in a cupboard. And then there was this year’s Carnegie medalist, Tanya Landman.

With the exception of young James, who did grow up on  Nancy Drew, Melvin Burgess and Judy Blume (yes, that book), before moving on to Stephen King, none of the others had had access to any YA books back in the olden days. Elizabeth read Kipling, Geoffrey Trease and moved straight from Wind in the Willows to Agatha Christie and Jane Eyre. Oh, and she read her great aunt’s books…

David liked John Wyndham and Hemingway, as well as Blyton. Tanya was also a Wyndham fan, she read Leon Garfield, and then she has forgotten the rest. Agnes Guyon went straight from the Famous Five to Zola. As you do. Daniel felt this was a terribly French answer, and one he will use in future.

On being asked how they became YA writers, James said he decided after reading Noughts & Crosses. He reckons we’re all here because of J K Rowling, and what Stephenie Meyer did to follow. David didn’t even know he’d written YA when asked about it in America. Tanya reckons a book is a book is a book, and she doesn’t like categories.

James Dawson

James believes Philip Pullman only got away with what he wrote because the books were aimed at young readers. Elizabeth’s reading is mixed, and she reads what she needs for the moment. When ill she can consume many Agatha Christies in a short time.

Tanya read from her Buffalo Soldier, and had to stick to the first chapter, as she wrote the book with a southern American accent in mind, but she can’t actually read aloud like that.

Talking about diversity, James said there are many books, but none are bestsellers, unlike the leading David Walliams, John Green and the Hunger Games. Elizabeth feels that it’s the 3 for 2 offers in shops that make the bestsellers, in a fake sort of way. That’s why we need libraries, with librarians in them.

According to David, children’s publishers are more adventurous, and more confident in what they publish, than adult ones, and mentioned Shaun Tan. Elizabeth has experience of being recycled. If you can stay in print for 25 years, you find that your readers have become parents and will be drawn back to your books, until 25 years later when it’s the grandchildren’s turn.

Elizabeth Laird

Daniel’s bugbear is translations. There are not enough of them. Pushkin and Little Island are two publishers who do look for fiction to translate. Elizabeth read from her book A Little Piece of Ground, which was very moving.

Adults are people who ought to know better; they should read proper books. Or that’s what people think. Tanya reckons To Kill a Mockingbird has become what it is because it’s accessible. She knew someone who was embarrassed to be seen reading The Book Thief, because it’s not a ‘proper’ book. James even defended Twilight, being someone who’s ‘heading into his mid twenties.’

Tanya said what I’ve long failed to put into words, which is that in YA books things get better within the book (except for Kevin Brooks), while in adult books you start level, and then things spiral into something worse, with divorce, unemployment and worse. Elizabeth had some insight there and then which she shared with us; YA wants to tell a good story, straight and simple, with no ‘tricksy writing’ unlike so many adult books.

Agnes said that what the Carnegie judges look for is plot, style and characterisation, well told. And as someone retorted, ‘how hard can it be?’

James read from his new, almost not published, book, about a bisexual relationship. I think we were all impressed by how daring this seemed, but when asked if he’s ever encountered resistance, he said his whole next book got scrapped (grindr culture for gay men, starting with hardcore gay sex), and as a World Book Day author next year this wasn’t seen as being quite right. Elizabeth laughed so heartily at this, that I suspect the publishers are wrong.

We finished with David reading from Ella Grey, about Orfeus and rather grown-up sleepovers.

One question from the audience was on how children seem to get older younger these days, and James treated us to his memories of reading about demonic sex at the age of eleven.

Someone else told us that YA books save her in her job as a teacher, because the books suit the children. Elizabeth wonders if we are all teenagers, really, and Daniel added that it could be we are just optimists.

Perhaps there wasn’t any wolf whistling from the audience, but almost. This was one happy group of book lovers and we could easily have stayed there much longer. As it was, we trooped over to the adult (the irony of it!) bookshop for signings. It was good to finally speak to Tanya Landman, who was excited enough to give me an extra ‘e’ but that’s all right between Carnegie winner and witch.

James Dawson, Elizabeth Laird, Tanya Landman and David Almond

(This photo borrowed from Lindsay Fraser, because it’s so much better than mine.)