Category Archives: Writing

I love cheese

I also love books.

Today’s the day when one should talk about love. I’ve been trying to come up with ‘love’ stuff to mention.

So that’s cheese and books. I love my family.

And, I quite like Bookwitch. Yes, awfully narcissistic of me. It’s not love, though.

The other day I had cause to search through older parts of Bookwitch, looking for something. Gold possibly. And I found I enjoyed re-reading older posts. Not all of them, but some were reasonably entertaining.

So that was nice. Reassuring. Maybe it hasn’t been a complete waste of time.

I came to the conclusion I am [a bit] like Gwendolen Fairfax, who said:  ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’

Cough.

Well.

And I discovered a fan letter I’d completely forgotten about. Clearly I could do with regular re-readings, if only to remind myself of my destroyed life, as imagined by my fairy blogmother.

I just love fan letters❣️

Bookwitch bites #138

If I was in Manchester this Saturday, I could celebrate Harry Potter turning twenty. But I’m not, so I can’t. It’s slightly premature, but that’s all right. If all his birthday parties happened at the same time, we couldn’t go to all of them. It’s the lovely people of Manchester Children’s Book Festival (oh, how I miss them) who are Pottering this weekend.

Strangely, I had been thinking of Andy McNab recently, and here he is popping up in the Guardian, no less. Andy has opinions on how children learn to read, or in his own case and that of many others, how they don’t learn. Yesterday saw the 2017 batch of Quick Reads launched, and as always the books look fabulous, and I’d like to pop out and get all of them. I hope many of them will reach a large number of readers who need books like these. We obviously ought to have many, many more Quick Reads, and not only once a year.

In times like these it almost feels as if we need to look for news that isn’t too bad, as opposed to actively good or wonderful. These are also times when far too many people turn out to have misplaced their spines at some point, now that we could do with a few more good strong backbones.

Malorie Blackman is doing the right thing in saying she won’t be visiting the US in the near future. Hopefully this is one of many actions that will be instrumental in changing what must be changed.

Barry Hutchison is someone who acts instead of talking. You will remember Tommy Donbavand who was diagnosed with cancer a year ago, and whose livelihood of writing books and making school visits was threatened by his illness. He was optimistic that he’d be able to write while getting treatment, but found he was far too unwell and exhausted to do much. So not only did his good friend Barry alert the rest of us that help was needed, occasionally writing Tommy’s cancer blog, but he actually stepped in and wrote Tommy’s books for him.

Tony Higginson, David Gatward, Barry Hutchison, Tommy Donbavand, Jon Mayhew, Philip Caveney and Joseph Delaney at Scarefest 3 - photo by Sean Steele

Deadlines have to be met, and while I’m sure Barry might have had the odd deadline of his own (there is a steady stream of books from Barry), he wanted to help Tommy, and knowing quite a lot about what Tommy had planned and what his books are like, he wrote a book and a half for his friend.

That’s friendship! If I ever need a friend to rummage in my sock drawer I suppose I shall have to ask someone else, because Barry is a very busy man.

Read, Enjoy, Debate # 11

It was chilly. And there I was, in Falkirk, red clothes, rosy cheeks and everything, and the station footbridge was being repaired. Luckily I had my folding broom with me, so managed to cross the railway lines (my apologies for any subsequent unentangling required) and arrived at fth (Falkirk Town Hall; keep up!) with barely any delay, for a day of the 11th RED book award.

Greeted Cathy MacPhail who was shortlisted for the umpteenth time (they know a good author when they see one), still basking in the glow of her birthday the day before. She introduced me to Narinder Dhami (13 Hours), and we spent some happy minutes saying gossipy stuff about [some] people. Very satisfying. A few of the students were going round interviewing the four shortlisted authors, who also included Clare Furniss (The Year of the Rat) and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (The Apple Tart of Hope). All beautifully decked out in red, and all looking very beautiful, too. And they were nice people…

Yvonne Manning

RED captain Yvonne Manning was wearing red fairy lights. Clothes, too, but those lights really caught the eye. She welcomed each school and they were as noisy as ever. She encouraged them, it has to be said. (That woman is not a normal librarian! Whatever happened to silence?)

The schools charged straight ahead with their dramatised presentations of the books, two schools for each book. Between every little show, the same slow stagehands cleared up. They really want to look into who they employ. At times they sat down and read the paper and took selfies. If we’re not careful they’ll get used to this kind of slacking, and the audience encouraging them.

Presentation of Devil You Know on behalf of Polmont Young Offenders

As well as the eight schools who took part, they were shadowed by boys from Polmont Young Offenders (who for obvious reasons were not present, although I suspect if this had been Sweden they would have been). One of them had written a script for Cathy MacPhail’s book, Devil You Know (very appropriate), and Yvonne got seven volunteers on stage to act it out, totally unrehearsed. They would have found it easier had there been more microphones and printing of words on one side of the paper only, I reckon. But well done to everyone; actors and script-writer!

There were prizes for best reviews, before Provost Reid went off to a council budget meeting on libraries, and as we broke for coffee Yvonne introduced ‘selfie corner.’ (It was really only a cardboard frame…)

Narinder Dhami

You could tell Cathy had been before, as she managed to get coffee long before anyone else. But eventually we all sat down and chatted, and I had a really good idea for a blog post from what we talked about. (It would have been even better if I could remember what it was.)

RED coffee

Once back, Yvonne had changed into an enthusiastic red wig, with fairy lights on top. She hoped it wasn’t too much. Well, I’m sure we were too polite to say. Before the last set of book presentations, the authors got their three minutes of saying whatever they wanted. Each. Narinder told us about her breakfast that morning (sort of, anyway), Sarah has a lovely Irish accent and Clare wore fabulous red high heeled boots, while Cathy said how pleased she was that the young offenders got her book.

The stagehands grew ever more inept as the day wore on.

Provost Reid was back by then, and he whispered to me that he could smell lunch. Clare was extremly fortunate with her school, who presented her with an iced cake at the end of their presentation. (I was worried it’d turn into a pie throwing event at first.)

RED lunch

Covers 13 Hours

At lunch we said how fantastic it was to have an all-women shortlist and we discussed agoraphobia. As you do. The authors were asked to go and cast their votes on alternative book covers, before the signings. I asked the Provost what happened to his retirement from politics plans from last year, and he seems to have sacrificed himself for the greater good.

Narinder Dhami and Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Clare Furniss and Cathy MacPhail

RED award disco

Back in the hall there was disco dancing in one corner, with Yvonne and her fairy lights leading the way. Most of the students were singing at the top of their voices, and I couldn’t help wondering if they know how ancient that music is. Grease must have been at least forty years ago?

RED award disco

RED award

The authors got to sit on the sofas in readiness for question time, while more prizes were handed out; for best presentation, for best red accessories (I especially liked the feathers one girl wore in her hair), the stage hands, and for best book covers.

RED award

Questions were many and varied, on how long to write a book, is it hard to get published, inspiration, apple tarts, do they Google themselves, why read books, advice to themselves as teenagers, and favourite children’s books. Little Princess did well. Believe in yourself. Yes, some do Google. Time to write a book depends. Lots of good questions and the answers were all right too.

Librarian Anne Ngabia told us the latest news about her book collecting for libraries in Kenya (I have plenty more!), saying how good our children have it with free schools, even if it doesn’t feel like it. How in Kenya people might walk for three hours to the library, queueing up when it opens, and walking three hours back again. (I dare say this could happen here too, if libraries get scarcer.) And thanks to the army and the air force for sending the books out with the troops.

RED award

The boy with the lovely red hat got the job of opening the red envelope, to announce the RED winner. That envelope was made with very good glue. It had glued itself to the paper inside and only after a prolonged, manful struggle did red hat boy sort of manage to peer into the mangled remains of the inside and tell us that this year’s winner was Narinder Dhami!

Narinder Dhami

Narinder made a short speech, not even thanking her cat, cried a bit, and then she needed to sit down to stop her legs from shaking. But there were photographs to be taken of everyone, of her, the provost, envelope boy and the award (a photo of the famous Kelpies).

RED award, Yvonne Manning, Cathy MacPhail, Narinder Dhami, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, Clare Furniss, Provost Reid

Then we went home. Me not forgetting I came with a coat, and Cathy hunting for hers. The Provost let the students try on his red ‘coat’. And Clare had a cake to carry. It was a good day.

A Monster Calls – the film

This was the film we tried to go and see all week. We should be grateful it made it to the local cinema, because who would want to be deprived of a good long cry? As it was, Kleenex were required, and there was a bucket too.

A Monster Calls

I can no longer recall the exact details of the book* by Patrick Ness, and by that I mean the minor characters and any minor plots. I think there were some. They are not in the film, which is good, as you don’t want anything to detract from the main story about Conor, his dying mum and his angry grandma. And the school bullies, because to be beaten up every day as your mother is dying is obviously [not] what a 13-year-old boy needs.

A Monster Calls

The film let us concentrate on Conor’s nightmares and the subsequent meetings with a tree monster who comes to the house (voiced by Liam Neeson) to tell him stories.

Then there is grandma, played by Sigourney Weaver, doing a good British accent, while going around being at least as angry as her grandson. And who can blame her; she is losing her child, and gaining a grandchild who hates her.

A Monster Calls

At first the film went so slowly I was afraid it would ruin things but, almost imperceptibly, it sped up and before we knew it we were hooked, by Conor’s dismal daily life, and his mum’s sufferings, and you could literally see her getting worse.

Beautifully filmed in the Northwest, it looked like home to us (not quite as I’d imagined it from the book or from Jim Kay’s illustrations).

And it was only on the way out I remembered I had tissues in my bag, after casting around in my mind what we could possibly use to mop those tears with.


*Based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd

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.