Category Archives: Writing

Here I Stand

Here is a book you should all read. Here I Stand is an anthology for Amnesty International, where a number of our greatest authors and poets and illustrators have come together and written short pieces about the injustices in life as they see them.

Here I Stand

John Boyne writes about child abuse and Liz Kessler deals with same sex love. Both stories are hard to read, but at the same time they are uplifting and they make you think.

And it is repeated in every single contribution to this volume, whether by Jackie Kay or Jack Gantos, Sarah Crossan or Frances Hardinge. Bali Rai, Neil Gaiman and Elizabeth Laird are others who have important things to say about why life is far from right for many people in the world.

People who can be jailed or executed for the most normal behavior, or those who are simply too poor or too unfortunate in various ways. People for whom we need to continue fighting.

There is much in this book to think about. Please think about it.

She loves YA

At last night’s Great YA Debate, chaired by Daniel Hahn, the discussion was kicked off by the children’s books world’s enfant terrible, Anthony McGowan, who was of the opinion that you shouldn’t

to be continued...

read YA. If, you are older than twenty, or so. Especially if you are white and female. And middle class.

Yes, that’s – approximately – what he said, but then Tony had been hired to be the naughty one, to get the conversation going. But he did mean it. I think. Mostly. Tony described his part as the hippo poo, spread all over the place, and Elizabeth Wein was there to clean up after him (and if that’s not an example of all kinds of -isms, I don’t know what is).

Christopher Edge, Philip Womack, Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham, Patrice Lawrence, Elizabeth Wein and Anthony McGowan

This year’s YA debate was different from last year’s. We had Daniel Hahn on stage with Tony and Elizabeth, and then they had a stash of other authors on the front row; Annabel Pitcher, Christopher Edge, Jenny Downham, Patrice Lawrence and Philip Womack. They all had an opportunity to disagree later on, as did the audience.

But first it was Tony who described going to YALC and finding it so mono-cultural as to be distasteful. White, female writers, 30+ who write brilliant, terrible dross for people in their twenties and thirties. Elizabeth argued with him, and Daniel pointed out that should anyone tweet that YA is crap, the internet would catch fire.

Tony wants adults to move on. YA is for teens. You should read what makes you unhappy, what you hate, or you won’t be stretched enough. Here Daniel admitted to not only being a reader of YA, but having had an Asterix day not long ago.

I decided it was a good thing Daughter had not come along to this. She’d have exploded on the spot.

No one should read John Green.

Elizabeth pointed out that contrary to what we believe in Britain, YA is fairly old as a concept, and existed in the 1950s in America. You would borrow books from the library or from friends, have them as presents, and you ‘read up,’ so even younger children would read about teenagers in books. She talked about Sue Barton and the Hardy Boys, and how Nancy Drew wasn’t considered highbrow enough…

Back to Tony who called readers of YA immature. Then he went on to talk about Meg Rosoff and Mal Peet as supposedly YA writers, but who write adult books, really, mentioning Life: An Exploded Diagram, which is a proper novel. (I think we are allowed to read it.)

Christopher Edge, Philip Womack, Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham and Patrice Lawrence

The authors on the front row came to life here, and Christopher Edge mentioned how he as a teenager went between Alan Garner and Jack Kerouac, depending on how he felt and it had less to do with age. Annabel Pitcher said she doesn’t agree that YA is twee or cosy, and looking at her own books you can see her point.

So Tony said the problem with YA is that it always takes you home. There will always be some sort of resolution and happy ending. It has to be miserable to be worthy. (You have to hand it to him. He really found irritating things to say.)

Philip Womack talked about Mary Shelley, who was a teen author (her age), although Daniel reckoned that writing Frankenstein was never a normal thing.

Back to Tony, who spoke about his experience of working with children in First Story, saying children themselves don’t write YA, unlike the white women or his students at Holloway [writing class]. The difference between [Edinburgh] events where audiences can be self selecting, or they come as part of school groups, is an important one.

Jenny Downham remembered being asked by a young working class girl at a school event whether people like her could write stories. And Jenny mused over the weirdness of finding her own Before I Die on two different shelves in bookshops, both as a children’s book and an adult book.

Annabel Pitcher, Jenny Downham, Patrice Lawrence, Elizabeth Wein and Anthony McGowan

Elizabeth said as a teenager she read lots of categories of books, but as an adult she doesn’t. Tony chipped in and was disparaging about YA book bloggers, and claimed we are not his friends (I will have to think about this). Patrice Lawrence pointed out that at 49 she has lived more than half her life and she has no intention of ruining the rest with Dostoyevsky. Her own Orangeboy is not a book for 28-year-old book bloggers.

And on that note Daniel opened up the discussion to the audience ‘in the unlikely event anyone has any views.’ They did.

The talk was about marketing and whether editors have views on what should be written. The difference between rainbow colours for children and black teen books in shops. A 16-year-old wanted beautiful books [the writing] and Tony came back with saying children’s books are often funny, and teen books not.

Elizabeth feels independent bookshops have more advice to give on what to buy, and it’s important as young people rarely buy, but have books bought for them.

Elizabeth Wein and Anthony McGowan

Daniel suggested that the remaining time should be for readers under twenty (so that shut me up!) and there were many of them, with interesting thoughts on books and reading. The odd one even agreed with Tony. The girl behind me said she finds War and Peace intimidating. Someone else said there are many exciting YA novels out there, but you have to dig deep to miss the crap.

Our time was up and Daniel suggested continuing the chat over signing in the bookshop. The adult bookshop (the children’s bookshop was closed)…

There were many readers queueing up and many discussions. Elizabeth Wein won the popularity contest (if there was one) with by far the longest queue, which, naturally, I had to join. But I did have some books for Tony – yes – to sign, too. He asked if I offered them out of pity.

Before running for my train, I had time to chat to publicist Nina, ‘Mr Wein,’ and the lovely Philip Womack, who actually is a Bookwitch reader and who didn’t even twitch when I admitted to not having reciprocated. And finally I made myself known to Barrington Stokes’ Mairi Kidd, who thanked me for loving them, and wondered whether I could love even Tony. We decided I could.

Daniel Hahn, Philip Womack and Jenny Downham

Beck

Beck is a beautiful story, with a sad but beautiful background. Written mostly by Mal Peet, but finished by his dear friend Meg Rosoff after Mal’s far too early death in 2015, it is a collaboration between two of the best writers for Young Adults. I’ve heard of other writers who agree with a colleague and friend that if the worst should happen, the friend will finish their book for them. We don’t want this to happen, but if it does, it’s far better for a ‘chosen one’ to take over.

Set primarily in the 1920s, Beck is the result of a brief encounter between a poor Liverpool woman and a black sailor. Mal kills off his whole family in a sentence or two, and then our orphan is truly on his own, before he is shipped off to Canada at 14. Received there by the Catholic Brothers, the modern reader can’t help wondering if they will be good Brothers or wicked ones.

Mal Peet, and Meg Rosoff, Beck

Eventually most of the orphans are sent on to work on farms, and it’s not exactly Green Gables. Beck ends up in one place after another; not all bad, but he definitely doesn’t have an easy life.

I was wondering if I’d be able to tell where the join is, but reading part four you can tell a woman has taken over the story. It’s not necessarily easier for Beck, but it’s hard in a different way. A softer hard, so to speak.

This is a wonderful story about a young man battling adversity, and it offers a window on a Canada of almost a hundred years ago. It’s not the Depression, as it says in the blurb, but you can’t help thinking about what will happen to the people you have come to love, when the Depression does arrive.

It’s not easy deciding whether an interrupted book should be continued by another writer, but I often think of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and how I wondered what was meant to happen, and whether I should make up my own [happy] ending, or not. And if I’d get it right.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to read all of Beck.

Peddle? I don’t think so.

Aaand we’re peddling again. Eighteen months ago (thank goodness for the search facility – and I’ll get to that word any minute now – on Bookwitch) I moaned grumpily about the peddling of bikes in fiction. I do enjoy a good complaint. Towards other people, and not directed at me.

I have now read two novels in quick succession where the main character peddles their bike. Several times. Consistency is good. It means they firmly believe you peddle bikes. Or their editors do.

Bikes obviously are peddled, but mostly in bikeshops or on Gumtree and similar sites.

And don’t get me started on facilities. Usually I rather hope I will be offered a toilet, or more generally a nice arrangement of useful things and services.

I was reading the local paper last week, about a primary school that had closed its doors for the last time. The building was so old and decrepit the school will be demolished.

And a new facility will rise in its place!

So they get rid of a school, and build a facility. It’s hardly surprising a facility won’t be as good as a school in getting the difference between peddling and pedalling across. (Offspring pedalled at their primary school. There was an after school class in safe cycling.)

(Psst, anyone want a bike? Or two? The Resident IT Consultant is about to peddle a couple of bikes, as we can’t even swing a squirrell in our garage at the moment. Which, presumably, is why one of them visited the conservatory a few days ago. Stray cats needing to be sent packing is one thing. But I can’t abide the thought of the squirrels starting in on our food supplies, having witnessed how they dealt with the Christmas canapés last December.)

Bike

MCBF – ‘a festival to grow up with’

It’s almost that time again. The Manchester Children’s Book Festival launched yesterday. Without me, but a launch is still a launch, and they have Carol Ann Duffy.

I like the way they describe their programme, suggesting that if you’re a little bit older than you were six years ago when they began – oh so beautifully! – you might have grown from younger books to some of the older, YA books and their authors. I really like that idea; that you grow up with a festival.

James Draper and Kaye Tew

And it goes without saying that once grown up you can still never be too old. After all, just look at the festival directors. Do Kaye Tew and James Draper strike you as old? No, I thought not.

I fear this may be another festival where I miss Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve. I have seen them, but they feel like my forever missing act. I don’t even know if I’m going this year. I’ll wait and see if I’m suddenly afflicted by energy, next week, or the week after.

The other side of Jacqueline Wilson, MCBF 2012

They have a lovely patron in Curtis Jobling (I’d like to think I made the introductions, but that could well be fake memory syndrome), so I don’t see how they can go wrong. And I love the fact that on their home page there is a photo of Jacqueline Wilson from a few years ago, with Daughter shooting away in the mid-background, and a virtually invisible witch next to her. We’ll never go away!

There’s a poetry competition, with judges of the highest calibre. If I wrote poetry I’d love the opportunity of being read by the poet laureate, and her Welsh counter-part, Gillian Clarke.

So, for two weekends MCBF takes over various venues across Manchester, including the library and Waterstones, where on the last day you can check out local boy Danny Weston with Sally Green [she’s not a boy].

That sounds good, doesn’t it?

Teary about Terry

When Terry Pratchett discussed his inevitably upcoming memorial with his assistant Rob Wilkins, the one thing he wished for was to be there. He was, in as much as we all had him in our hearts last night. We talked about him. And there were a number of heartstoppingly bearded men in black, wearing hats in the bar outside the Barbican theatre. But those fans have always been there. It’s just that on the other occasions, so has Terry.

Terry Pratchett memorial ticket

Why I was included on the guest list for this outstandingly special memorial, I don’t know. But there I was. And as we were warned not to take photos or have our mobiles on, or we might end up a bit dead, I didn’t, and we didn’t, and it was mostly too dark to see to write notes, so I’ll make up a few things now instead. There was a choir. There was a display of all of Terry’s books travelling through a time glass.

Terry Pratchett: From birth to death, a writer

Lord Vetinari kicked off – after the death threats – by thanking Terry from all his characters for putting them in his books before they ended up in someone else’s books.

After a long-wished-for opportunity to utter the words ‘do not let me detain you’ to Vetinari,  Rob was there to speak for the family, introducing others, including Terry’s daughter Rhianna. There were people from Terry’s past (whom I might have known if I knew more). There was a coven of Terry’s three editors; Philippa Dickinson, Anne Hoppe and Jennifer Brehl. Only once did Philippa fear she’d gone too far in suggesting a change in one of the books, but whereas Terry wouldn’t go so far as to say she had been right, he could see some merit in what she said.

Dried Frog Pills

Larry Finlay, MD of Transworld, told about the reports Terry used to send after every author tour; what the bookshops had been like, and the hotels. You could get a four and a half star rating (frozen peas provided for his aching signing hand), but never five. And the ‘first’ hotel of the country was so bad he could well believe it was. Old floorboards, and so on.

And then there was Steeleye Span. You could hear the collective held breath of the audience as we deduced we were about to be treated to some top notch music from Terry’s favourite band.

You can’t send just anyone in after such a music display, and they didn’t. We got Neil Gaiman, who had flown in specially for his old friend, reading his foreword to A Slip of the Keyboard, including the tale of their long trek through San Francisco when they really should have been on live radio. He was also able to spill the beans on a Manchester bookshop that did get a minus star in Terry’s ratings. (It’s when the staff lock themselves in and won’t come out until the customers have gone away.)

Terry Pratchett postcards

Rob told us about the four documentaries about Terry Pratchett. The three we may have already seen; on Alzheimer’s, about the Orangutans, and about choosing to die. Currently there is work on the fourth, and I suspect some of yesterday will end up in there.

By then we’d been there for well over two hours, and Sir Tony Robinson chose to come on stage and mention bladder control. He admired us for it, as well he should.  He had the opportunity to prove again how perfect he is for reading Terry’s words out loud. This time he chose a letter Terry had written. (In fact, Terry left behind a number of letters to friends and family, written one day in October 2014 when Rob was out of the office.)

Terry Pratchett memorial brooch

Another thing Terry had arranged was for some special jewellery for special friends; the less visible people who helped make everything possible, his agent, his editor, his illustrator, his banker and so on. The ones who Terry turned to in order to find out the necessary force needed to pull the head off a troll, for instance. They are the Venerable Order of the Honeybees, and their rewards were presented in a newly made version of The Luggage.

More singing from Steeleye Span, and special thanks to Maddy Prior, who came and sang to Terry at home shortly before he died.

Terry Pratchett memorial tissues

As you can tell, this was very much not a dry eye kind of evening. Luckily there was in the ‘partybag’ left on everyone’s seat a packet of tissues. I put mine away, and then wondered what the protocol was for nicking my neighbour’s pack which he hung onto for the whole evening. But there are always sleeves that can be put to good use.

Rob was aware that the clock was ticking, but he still talked us through what the future has in store. There will be no more Discworld books, but there will be books on all sorts of things, including a biography by Rob. Films are also in the pipeline, for The Wee Free Men, Mort, and Good Omens (with screenplay by Neil Gaiman, despite his agreement with Terry that they’d always work together).

And lots more.

Tommy’s fight

Tommy Donbavand has cancer. Normally I wouldn’t mention anything so private on here, but because Tommy has gone public with his illness, I feel I must do so as well.

To share what it’s like, Tommy has started a blog called Tommy v cancer. It makes for painful reading, and it is tempting to skip past the bad bits. But if Tommy can put up with what’s being done to him, the least we can do is read about it. You need to be well to be strong enough to deal with cancer treatment. (Luckily we do still have a free health service.)

Another thing that’s easy to forget is what happens when an author, who of necessity is freelance, can’t do what it is they usually do to earn money. Writing is one thing, which perhaps you can do from a sickbed. But it’s the money brought in by doing school visits and similar, which suddenly stops coming. Apart from wishing to be well again, Tommy obviously wants to provide for his family.

What you can do to help, is donate money. Tommy has a PayPal button on his blog, or you could become a patron of Patreon to support him financially. I’d find it hard to ask for money, and I know Tommy does too. But he has to. Please consider if you could help a little.

He has some great friends, and none better than Barry Hutchison, who even sneaked in on Tommy’s blog one day and wrote his own post, which tells rather nicely of their friendship, and what lovely men they both are. Humour helps when things look grim.

I hope for the very best for this kind and funny man, who has such a knack for wrapping little children in toilet paper.

Tommy Donbavand with dragon and others at Sefton ScareFest