Category Archives: Writing

Why not me?

The lists are gathering all over the internet. I am gathering a few books myself for my 2016 list, which is fairly imminent. Some people I admire, who are very knowledgeable about children’s books, are moaning and asking if this ‘list is any good?’ because they haven’t heard of a single book on it, or at least not read them.

And I’m rather like that myself. Not the moaning, obviously. I never moan. Except when I do, like now.

On most of those lists I have managed to find one I’ve read, and liked, and occasionally another I’ve heard of or even received but not read. My own gathering list already has too many books on it, even when I stick to my rules, children’s books published this year, which automatically disqualifies great adult crime and some really excellent books that were last year’s. But you have to have boundaries.

So I’m not short of wonderful books. I’m merely pondering why so many of the ones on other lists have not passed over my threshold. Or, it seems, a number of other thresholds either.

It is well nigh impossible to request books you don’t know exist, or I would do. And by the time enough people have enthused about them somewhere, there is less scope to jump on the bandwaggon. If they were by authors I know and have read before, the chances of hearing about their new books is greater. Except, even those writers who first became published during the Bookwitch era, and are considered – by me – to be established authors, seem to find it difficult to have their new books bought by publishers.

And at the same time there are countless debut authors. It makes me wonder if publishers actively go for new rather than established, because the established ones have failed to write the next Harry Potter, so the debut writers are seen as more likely to do a JKR? OK, so she was a beginner, but surely a new Potter success could come from anyone? Clearly not on quite the same unlikely scale, but still big.

Is a hitherto unpublished writer more likely to strike gold than the author who has had four really good novels published, but who is now not having any luck with their latest offering? Surely it must be possible to have plodded along for ten years before hitting on just the right thing at the right time?

Unless the only money publishers are looking for will be coming from celebrity books, ghost written or not?

Whatever.

Lowering the tone

I was struck by how civil everyone was. At the weekend there was a social media discussion about a celebrity who writes children’s books. There wasn’t much said that was positive, but people were discussing the topic like the adults they are.

The only reason I was a little surprised was because a week earlier I had taken part in another online chat about a fairly new, and therefore pretty unknown, YA author. In fact, I only contributed my bit on the grounds that I felt someone had to behave. The author had a couple of friends who spoke up on her behalf, and a couple of strangers who also seemed quite level headed, but apart from them it became pretty vile. And these were also adults, and I found it hard to believe so many would say so much that was so unpleasant. But they were mostly not my friends.

You may be aware I’m a long standing fan of NCIS. So far this year I have been dreadfully disappointed with the way the show is going, and the episode two weeks ago reached an all time low. For that reason I was glad to find last week’s episode pretty decent, and I even went to the Facebook page to see if people agreed with me. Unfortunately the consensus appeared to be that if they were going to be muslim friendly, then they would stop watching.

I’m sure people have always had opinions such as these, but have not been so quick to voice them publicly. Just as the YA author discussion went beyond what would have seemed decent until fairly recently.

On the morning of November 9th, I turned to Facebook as I turned off my mobile phone alarm clock, hoping for the best but knowing I’d not find it. Two friends had posted; one a relative who was now very worried about her recent – prestigious – job offer in California. The other, a friend from school, and a brand new US citizen, who was ecstatic over the result of the election.

I’m sure you can guess who overstepped the mark? Yes, the latter. She was so buoyed up by success that she started posting so many offensive comments on Facebook, insulting everyone from people like me to President Obama, that I did that modern thing and unfriended her. I was pleased for her that she was pleased, but didn’t feel it gave her the right to say what she said.

The relative? I understand she’ll head off for her new job, and I hope both she and the job will be safe. There was one thing I’d not considered before that morning. I’ve known her since she was one year old, but I’d never noticed her skin colour before.

As for the celebrity, I will leave him alone. And the YA author is someone whose acquaintance I hope to make soon. At first I thought it might have happened by now, as she took part in Book Week Scotland, at a venue within reach of Bookwitch Towers. But we decided to wait for a less frantic time.

And all this is why I enjoyed the discussion at the weekend. It showed me I know lots of people who are witty and intelligent, and they can be somewhat rude, while still spelling all the words they use correctly.

When books become retro

In the end it was the fonts that made me go all nostalgic.

Inger och Lasse Sandberg, Här är Lilla Anna

I was reading Scandinavian Retro, a style magazine, featuring mainly mid-20th century things. I’d expected furniture, china, textiles. That kind of thing. But here were all 105 books by Inger and Lasse Sandberg; every cover of every book they wrote and illustrated together for over fifty years.

First I wondered why, when they started in the mid-1950s, I hadn’t really read any/many of their books. I’ve always been aware of them, but had somehow felt they were after my time as a picture book reader. And mostly, it turned out they were. They had a slow start and I must have missed the early books while I was still young enough.

Inger och Lasse Sandberg, Är det jul nu igen? sa Spöket LabanI did read about the little ghost, however. Both for myself, and later to other young people, including Offspring. Lilla spöket Laban (Laban, the little ghost) is rather sweet. He is scared of many things, including the dark, which is awfully inconvenient for a ghost. Apparently he was born to help the Sandberg’s middle child who was afraid of the dark, after his older sister locked him in a wardrobe.

But, as I said, I can only have read a handful of the 105 books. They all look thoroughly familiar, however, and I worked out it’s because of the font(s) used on the covers. The pictures are also quite typical for that era, but there being so many, for me they blend into one and the same. There’s probably a name for the font, but for me it will always be the ‘Swedish children’s books font.’

Inger och Lasse Sandberg, Fixa fisk, sa Pulvret

And, as I also said, there were obviously more than one font, and styles developed over the years, but mostly they all look soothingly familiar.

Just as Laban was born to deal with the dark, many of the books were written by Inger to cover a small matter of some importance to small people everywhere. I really like the sound of the story about the man who suddenly shrinks and discovers what it is like to be small and treated like a child again. He becomes a children’s politician after that, with notes explaining to young readers what a politician is.

Never mind your ABCs. You can have a book about the number 0, which when standing next to other numbers, becomes terribly important.

And when all is said and done, this whole concept feels frightfully Swedish and egalitarian, besides being trendy and nice to look at.

The effect of jail, and stealing a book

Or how good comes from bad.

Very pleased for Alex Wheatle who won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize last night, with his book Crongton Knights. Congratulations!

I know very little about Alex, who’s not been on my horizon long. But I like the sound of him. The one fact that seems to stand out when people write about him, is that Alex discovered books and reading while in jail over thirty years ago. So something good resulted from a fairly negative event; both the starting to read, and eventually writing books himself. And I believe there’s an MBE in Alex’s past as well.

Another vaguely criminal background story was given some attention this week when Chris Riddell illustrated a story by Jenn Ashworth about how she discovered YA books in her library as a child. In her case it was finding Melvin Burgess’s Baby and Fly Pie and reading it in one morning in the library, before stealing it.

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 1

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 2

Chris Riddell and Jenn Ashworth 3

Yes, that’s not to be recommended, but to find yourself in a book to such an extent, and to be guided by this new reading experience into becoming an author feels right.

Sometimes bad leads to good.

(And I seem to have done my normal thing and borrowed very freely from Chris. And I can’t claim never to have taken something that wasn’t mine.)

Sophie Hannah on her second Poirot

Despite Edinburgh’s trams trying really very hard to keep me from Sophie Hannah’s event at Blackwell’s on Thursday evening, they failed. I steamed in just as Ann Landmann was pressuring everyone to move closer, saying there – probably – wasn’t going to be any audience participation to worry about. I was just pleased to be so late but still find someone had kept Bookwitch’s corner on the leather sofa for me. That’s all I cared about.

Ann at Blackwell's

Ann was busy stroking Sophie’s new Poirot novel, Closed Casket, suggesting what a good Christmas present this lovely, shiny book would make, hint, hint. (And it would, were I the kind of person who gives people presents.) The rest of you, pay attention! Buy Closed Casket for everyone.

I have heard the background to how Sophie was given the lovely task of becoming the new Agatha Christie before. I was interested to see how much she’d be able to vary it. It was about half and half; some the same, some new.

She put most of the blame on her crazy agent, who doesn’t do reassurance terribly well, and thinks it’s OK to tell her she is ‘brilliant, etc’ when she needs to be comforted. (As an aside I reckon Adèle Geras [Sophie’s mother] was quite correct in feeling her daughter should have been made head girl at school. Sophie is a very head girl-y kind of person.)

Basically Sophie got the job (Agatha Christie, not head girl) through good timing, and also by having plenty of experience of Dragon’s Den. Whatever that is. And you ‘can’t say no to Agatha Christie’s grandson.’

Sophie Hannah

The idea for Closed Casket, which incidentally is another four-word idea [like Murder on the Orient Express], describing how the novel ends, came when she had an argument with her sister. As Sophie now ‘blames’ her Christie fixation on her father Norm’s cricket book collection, I feel we have much to thank the Geras family for.

She doesn’t know if her book is any good, but she does know that her idea is. It’s the best and simplest idea ever, and she is very fond of this book. It has an Enid Blyton style character in it, and if the first chapter is anything to go by, I can see this will be a fun book to read.

Sophie doesn’t write chronologically, and in this case she was so tired that she began with the easiest chapter. Chapter 23. The house where the murder takes place was found by extensive time spent on Rightmove until she happened upon a house in Ireland that fitted the bill. So no, nothing to do with Irish politics in 1929.

Sophie Hannah

As she doesn’t know how many Poirot books there might be, Sophie is eking out the years between 1928 and 1932, not letting much time pass between her first two mysteries, just in case. Hitherto every generation has discovered the world of Agatha Christie, but not the current one. That’s partly the reason the Christie family needed something new to offer potential readers, and the idea appears to have been successful, with fresh interest in Poirot.

No, writing Poirot is not difficult. It has ‘instantly become the thing she most wants to do.’ Even if she does have to share the profits with the Christie family. Sophie does not want to write any Miss Marple stories, if only to prevent herself from believing she actually is Agatha. She’s already half expecting them to turn over Agatha’s house Greenway to her…

Sophie Hannah

Saga’s saga

Never underestimate the entertainment value of history, and especially not the history all around you, where you live. I hinted earlier at having read the manuscript of a children’s book, written by a friend. That sort of thing can be quite awkward, as they could turn out to have written something really appalling. But I felt safe with Ingrid (Magnusson Rading) because not only is she both interesting and intelligent, but she had already written a gorgeous coffee table book about our shared summer paradise. So I knew she could write.

And unlike the young witch who used to imagine herself writing a Famous Five type book set in Haverdal, because there were so many intriguing settings all over the place, where villains could roam and all that, Ingrid not only stopped dreaming and set to work, but she chose a much superior format; a quiet fantasy adventure set in today’s Haverdal with time travelling to the past, using much of the research she did for her other book.

Jättastuans hemlighet – as it is currently called – is about a girl called Saga, who just might be Ingrid’s as yet unborn granddaughter. Saga’s gran bears a suspicious resemblance to someone I know, as does her grandfather and the cottage where she’s come to stay for a week. Jättastuan is a sort of cave near the beach, and Saga’s gran shares a secret with her on that first day.

Haverdal

And before you know it, Saga has been transported to the 17th century, where life was pretty hard. Instead of your normal time travel, Saga actually becomes Ellika, a girl who lived back then, and we see the family’s struggle to survive bad winters and failing crops. Learning about history like this brings it to life and makes it relevant in a way that pure facts never do.

There is time travel in the opposite direction too, with some hilarious descriptions of life today, as observed by someone from five hundred years ago. And when the reader has loved, and suffered with, Ellika’s family, we meet some much more recent historical characters from about a hundred years ago, set in and around the quarry that covers much of the area. So that’s more people to love and identify with, and more facts that come alive.

I think any middle grade reader would love this book. I’d have liked it when I was ten. I certainly enjoyed it now. And I wouldn’t mind more of the same (I believe Ingrid has ideas for another period or two from the past). If children still learn about their local area for history at school, Jättastuans hemlighet [The Secret of Jättastuan] would be a fantastic resource for teachers. And what could be better, education and fun all in one go?

Very local children would also enjoy knowing exactly where Saga goes, as I did. It’s an added bonus, but not essential. But as has been said recently, we like to find ourselves in books, and this will firmly place Haverdal children in literature.

On board the EF III

I went down to the quayside in Varberg last week. I sat for a long time in the sunshine, just enjoying being near the water and sitting there on my own, not having to get up because other people were ready to do something else.

My eyes strayed to the ramp on my right, wondering how much it gets used these days. It’s where the ferry to Denmark leaves from, and back in ‘my time’ there were four sailings every day, which isn’t bad for a four and a half hour crossing. The summer I was 19 I worked on the Europafärjan III, and we left Varberg at noon and at midnight.

Clearing tables on a boat is not exactly glamorous work, washing up while feeling seasick. But it was a job. And you sort of get less seasick after a while. Occasionally you’d have to go round the tables collecting only the dirty knives (leaving surprised passengers in your wake, because they felt you should remove all the dirty things from their table) and giving them a quick wash, as we’d unaccountably be out of [clean] knives. And you’d have to tell non-Danes that no, you don’t generally sprinkle dried onion on top of the Danish pastries.

Being able to say ‘remoulade‘ in as Danish a way as possible eased understanding between the two countries.

I shared a cabin below car deck with two other Swedish washer-uppers, and one cigarette smuggling Danish cleaner. Well, two really, as the shifts were different and their coming and going was out of sync with ours.

For an antisocial witch, I got on well with the others. We’d sit on our bunk beds writing nonsense stories, taking turns to write a sentence each. Not the kind where you don’t see what the one before you wrote, as we managed quite decent nonsense even with the knowledge of what went before. The best one was about me.

Understandable, really. The others were nowhere near as weird as I was. I’d let you read it if I could. But I’d need to find it, and translate it, and you never know what secrets might be let lose on an unsuspecting world. But it ended happily, with me and the dog arriving in Denmark. Can’t remember where the dog came from.

But there we were.