Tag Archives: Hilary McKay

That’s funny

Much as I don’t enjoy the trend of famous comedians suddenly discovering that they need to write a children’s book, and doing very well and getting plenty of publisher attention for their efforts, it has caused one improvement to the state of things. Humour is now seen as something worth considering.

I have always liked humorous fiction. I have long felt there’s not enough of it, and also that it’s been so wrong to look down on it. As though humorous fiction is to children’s fiction as children’s fiction is to Booker prize type fiction; i.e. inferior.

It’s not. In fact, I’d suggest that just like writing for children requires more skill, and not less, to write good humour means you have to be really excellent at what you do. Not everyone can do it, or do it well, but when they can, the results can be spectacular.

A couple of weeks ago Adrian McKinty blogged about his twenty funniest novels and it’s an interesting list. I agree with his choice, about the ones I’ve read. I might have picked others, and it could be Adrian doesn’t find them funny, or that he’s not read the same books I have. These things happen.

I do agree with him about this, though: ‘It’s got be funny throughout too. One really funny scene as in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim for example just doesn’t cut it. I’m also not allowing anything that people say is funny but which actually isn’t or perhaps used to be funny but isn’t anymore. I’ve read Gargantua and Pantagruel and they are not funny. Shakespeare’s comedies are not funny. Dickens is not funny.’

There’s a lot in life that’s not funny. But there’s also a lot that is. And yes, I hated Lucky Jim the first time I read it. Loved it on the second read. But Adrian is right; one funny scene isn’t enough. (Apart from The Vicar Of Nibbleswicke, I don’t reckon Roald Dahl is funny. Not in that way.)

I’ve not thought this through enough so I can give you my own list, but Terry Pratchett is obviously on it. Would be, I mean, if there was a list. And even if I stick to children’s books, I reckon Douglas Adams has to be on it. From there it is a quick jump to Eoin Colfer and from him to many other Irish authors (it must be the water?), and then jump again, to Frank Cottrell Boyce, Joan Aiken, Morris Gleitzman, Debi Gliori, Barry Hutchison, Hilary McKay, Andy Mulligan, Kate DiCamillo. And last but not least, my fairy blogmother Meg Rosoff. She doesn’t only kill goats.

My apologies to anyone not mentioned. I didn’t go about this scientifically, but merely wanted to mention that being funny is a good thing. A good read is good for your wellbeing, and a funny read is even better. Go on, find something to make you laugh! Preferably until you cry. The hankies are on me.

The 2016 best

Yes, there were good books, even in a year like 2016. Let’s not lose [all] hope, shall we? In fact, after careful consideration, there were more serious contenders than I could allow through to the final round. Sorry about that.

During 2016 I seem to have read and reviewed 154 books. Before you gasp with admiration, I should mention that 40 of those were picture books.

2016 books

And here, without me even peeping at other best of lists, are my favourites, in alphabetical order:

Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

Broken Sky + Darkness Follows, by L A Weatherly

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

Five Hundred Miles, by Kevin Brooks

Front Lines, by Michael Grant

Knights of the Borrowed Dark, by Dave Rudden

More of Me, by Kathryn Evans

The White Fox, by Jackie Morris

I believe it’s a good list, and I’m glad that two of the books are dyslexia friendly; one at either end of the age spectrum.

And, you are human after all, so you want to know who just missed this list. I’m human enough to want to mention them. They were Hilary McKay, J K Rowling, Malcolm McNeill, G R Gemin, Jonathan Stroud, Kate DiCamillo and Philip Caveney.

Two dozen more on my longlist, and we mustn’t forget; if a book has been reviewed on Bookwitch at all, it has passed quite a few quality tests. So there. You’re all winners. But some are more winners than others.

I love you.

The Sticky Witch

Ah, I had rather hoped for a nicer witch. Oh well, can’t be helped.

Hilary McKay, The Sticky Witch

Hilary McKay’s The Sticky Witch, for Barrington Stoke, features a useless couple of parents who set off on a three year trip round the world on a raft made with rubbish. As if that’s not bad enough, they hand their two lovely children – and the cat – over to a woman they don’t know. Called Aunt Tab, she’s no one’s aunt, and she’s a witch. And she’s mean.

Not to mention sticky. There is treacle everywhere. She has rules. She doesn’t like the children, and she likes the cat even less. With good cause, I have to say. The cat, I mean.

There’s a frog or two. Postcards in bottles. It’s pretty bonkers, but should appeal to any young child who doesn’t already suspect their parents might be of the leaving on a raft variety.

Fun, if somewhat sticky.

(Stickily witchy illustrations by Mike Phillips.)

Save that email!

Yesterday Hilary McKay said in a comment here that lovely letters from friends and fans are a problem, from the point of view of hanging on to them. Or getting rid of them, as the case may be. And I agree, apart from the fact that I have no fans. While smaller than books, letters can be harder to store. How do you file them so they can be found again?

Hilary’s books will be found on the shelf with the other M books. But a letter from someone whose name you might not remember later on? Can’t even do the alphabetical filing. (It’s pretty much like all the rubbish I have kept because it might come in handy one day. And when you accidentally come across it ten years later, you neither recall you had it, nor would have known where to look for it.)

Anyway, letters and cards are one thing, and I do hang on to some of the best and prettiest. But emails. Do you keep them?

And by keep, I don’t necessarily mean whether you let them sit in your inbox, or in a mail folder carefully labelled Hilary McKay (sorry to be using you as an example, Hilary), to be unearthed at a later point. I mean print them out and keep them as though they’re letters (which many are, in some way).

I tidied the filing cabinet some time ago. This was long overdue, and I pruned the contents much harder, being quite ruthless. I was somewhat taken aback when I came across a thick wad of authors’ emails on paper. They were from the olden days, when emails were longer and less frequent, and I was less jaded and treasured them immensely. Hence the printing out and keeping.

Well, I don’t do that anymore, I can assure you. I don’t necessarily believe that cyberspace will safeguard correspondence any more than I did then, but I’ll risk it. (Obviously I treasure every last scrap of email from real people.)

Also, I am not keeping the stash of print-outs. They have been shredded. Could have turned into bedding for the hamster, if I had one.

But I do wonder what happens to any future books about a person, where in the past letters have been one of the ways to learn about someone. Michael Faraday wrote so many letters during his lifetime that they fill six volumes of very hefty books. When a biographer comes to write about Hilary McKay, how will they find the material? I’m sure there will be lots of letters, but will any researcher know to ask me to make my inbox available? And should I do so? I mean, you never know what might turn up.

Binny Bewitched

Never was a Hilary McKay book so needed as this week. Her magic worked well, considering my state of mind, and I feel much better for having read Binny Bewitched, the third book about Binny and her lovely family. And I’m honoured that Hilary put a witch in there.

Hilary McKay, Binny Bewitched

It seems that there is a new neighbour on the opposite side to Binny’s friend’s Gareth’s house, who might just be a witch. She seems to know all about the money Binny ‘found’ by the cash machine.

When you are counting the pennies in your daily life, unexpected ‘piles’ of money will appear to be just the solution. If your mother has an impending birthday, for instance.

Poor Binny spends the entire book in a state of confusion; what to do with the money, who to tell, how to remember where she hid it, and so on. She keeps seeing stuff. Not where the money is, but many other puzzling things. It’s got to be the witch’s doing.

There are bills to pay, now that Pete the builder has more or less finished putting the house together after the roof blew off in book two. Clem is worried and James has a new, weird, friend, and Mrs Cornwallis works all hours to earn enough money.

It’s hard to see how a story about – relative – poverty can be so heartwarming, but it is. Naturally. Very satisfying that I didn’t see the end coming. Well, some of it, and then only halfway through. Loved it!

2016 Yay! YA+

Cumbernauld Theatre

I swear I didn’t enter Cumbernauld Theatre yesterday morning, uttering the words ‘do you know who I am?’ I merely wondered if they needed to know who I am. You know, similar question.

(I suppose I should be grateful I arrived at all. The Resident IT Consultant was to give me a lift. What he’d omitted to consider was the amount of diesel a pumpkin likes to have in order to go all the way to Cumbernauld. It did. It even got him to the nearest petrol station after, so he could drive home.)

It’s interesting how the meaning of the term YA keeps slipping and sliding. Yesterday I suspected that what it meant was that the books were by young adults, and not just for them. In my mind I categorised the authors present as the teenagers, the debutantes (I know), the old hands (those with three published books) and the grand ‘old’ lady (sorry..!). Kirkland Ciccone had done his best to find authors I’d never heard of before.

Scotia Books at Yay!YA

And when Googling Kelpies Prize winner Alex McCall it is well nigh impossible to find anything that doesn’t suggest he’s an older man who has a lady detective in Botswana, but no, it’s not that one. The other Alex (Nye) also has a prestigious award under her belt, the Royal Mail Award. And organiser Kirkland won the Catalyst prize. Elizabeth Wein has won a number of awards, including the very valuable Bookwitch second best book ever.

Code Name Verity

I’m glad that’s the novel Elizabeth chose to talk about in her session in the bar. Not just because it’s such a favourite, but because I’d not heard her in an event about Code Name Verity before. She read a bit, down in her ‘cave,’ and then she showed the children her silk map, and mentioned that one author who inspires her is Hilary McKay. (Such a wise choice!)

Elizabeth Wein

If you’re wondering why the others have not won prizes, it’s because Victoria Gemmell and Martin Stewart have only just got their first books out (Martin’s not actually officially out, even), and Estelle Maskame is only 18. Not that that should stop anyone.

Estelle Maskame

Estelle was in one of the other bars, where she read the first chapter of what I will probably always call DIMLY, when it should be DIMILY, Did I Mention I Love You? She’s one of these online wonders with millions of hits who has gone on to be published ‘properly.’ Estelle began writing her first book (it’s a trilogy) when she was 13… It’s apparently very popular, and I can sort of see that I’d have liked it when I was 14. And as for becoming a role model for pupils barely younger than herself, I can see how that works.

Martin Stewart

In the third bar was Martin Stewart, more or less stuffed in a fireplace, who also read from his book, Riverkeep. It’s based on the Glasgow Humane Society, which seems to be about fishing people out of the river Clyde; either dead or alive. Martin is a former teacher, who gave up teaching when he was offered a book contract on the basis of a short story he’d written.

Kirkland Ciccone

That was my afternoon in three bars. The morning was spent in the theatre itself where Kirkland introduced Alex Nye, before ‘exiting’ – by that I mean standing just behind the rows of seats – and allowing himself to be interviewed very loudly, drowning out poor Alex and making the audience laugh.

Alex did much the same talk as she did in Dunblane in November, and I think it’s a good one, which works well for a secondary school audience. This time her spooky sound effects worked fine and added a certain something to her ghostly readings. I especially like her 007 and M photograph from Glencoe.

Alex Nye

This ‘failed’ waitress who still hasn’t got the red sports car she craves, got lots of good questions from the children, so now we know she writes accompanied by Kate Bush, and that she admires Marcus Sedgwick (that rather explains the spookiness). Her next book about Mary Queen of Scots will be out in July.

Then Kirkland himself took over and basically did half an hour of stand-up comedy, that no author in their right mind would want to appear after. Luckily there was no one else after the exploding houses of Cumbernauld or Kirkie’s older brother the Tesco robber. He did mention Meg & Mog and Winnie the Pooh, but only to follow with Stephen King and some seriously bad book covers.

He wore his leopard jacket again, and teamed it with failed black hair. Apparently he had been aiming for blue.

Kirkland Ciccone, Victoria Gemmell, Alex McCall, Elizabeth Wein, Martin Stewart

Lunch was nice, with lots of things I’d have liked to eat but couldn’t. Luckily the others made up for this, and Alex Nye did some heroic work on the macaroons. Victoria Gemmell had handbag trouble and spent quite some time jamming an enormous pair of scissors into the zip. I’m not sure if that helped. Kirkie said she ought to give me a copy of her book, but unfortunately Follow Me sold so well that it was decided she shouldn’t. (I gave Victoria my card.)

If you are thinking I’ve not reported on either her or Alex ‘not-Botswana’ McCall, you are correct. Kirkie stashed them down in the changing rooms, and whereas they both returned reassuringly unchanged, I vowed last year not to go down there again. (And after hearing one of the ushers telling me and Alex Nye about their resident ghosts, I feel less inclined still. Alex, on the other hand, looked ready to come back to investigate.)

Alex McCall

I had a little look at not-Botswana Alex’s award winning book Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens, as I’d understood it to be for much younger readers, but if that is the case, I have to consider myself younger. It looked quite promising. And I’d have loved to hear Alex speak. He still looked as young as he is (that makes sense, doesn’t it?), but seemed nice. Perhaps our paths will cross again.

Kirkland Ciccone

There was a sort of book signing at the end. Some of the small venues overran, and some schools had had to leave to get back on time, but there was still a throng of fans in the queue. I decided I was in the way, so escaped into the car park where I was recognised as ‘the witch from last year’ before my newly fed transport arrived for the second time in one day.

Elizabeth Wein

Chickens and Cherry Blossom

I do hope Hilary McKay’s gas supplier continues to send her plenty of gas bills for her to pay. Don’t misunderstand me, but if that’s the main reason she writes those wonderful books, then Hilary must be ‘persuaded’ to keep going.

Hilary McKay

We finally made our 2015 Charlotte Square debut yesterday, and started cautiously, going to just the one event. But it was a well chosen talk, where Hilary was in conversation with Gwyneth Rees (whom I’d not seen since a fairy event eight years ago), chaired by Hannah Love, who is a hard one, promising to keep every mobile phone that dared make a sound. (There were none, but that will be because she scared us into obedience.)

The audience consisted of mainly fairly small fairy types, so I felt distinctly on the old side, while being someone who grew up on the Famous Five, just like the two authors. Hilary set out to write a Famous Five kind of story with her – so far – two Binny books, where you have your summer holidays and your parents don’t see you for six weeks because you’re out doing things on your own.

Gwyneth’s new book, Cherry Blossom Dream, is about a pair of twins and an old house, as well as tarantulas and a python, and the embarrassment of having your mum go out with your teacher. She reckons she can always control her characters, who can be reeled in if necessary.

Gwyneth Rees

Hilary, on the other hand, finds her characters take over, and she gets tired of them. When asked, she decided it’d be quite nice to kill them, but that this won’t do for the age group she writes for. Her intended reader is neither male nor female; she writes for people. And there was a lot of moaning on her part before she was allowed to have a yellow book cover. Writer’s block is not a myth, according to Hilary, who suffers from it a lot, and thinks it’s ridiculous that her short books take a year to write. Right now she’s working on re-writing 12 fairy stories, and having done two, needs ten more before Christmas. So if you have any ideas…

The two authors have different family backgrounds, which might or might not influence what they write. Hilary is the eldest of four sisters, while Gwyneth was an only child until she was twelve. Gwyneth longed for siblings, and Hilary wanted somewhere to be by herself. And the last thing she wants is for the Casson family to ambush her and insist on another book. (Hilary might be alone in this.)

Gwyneth begins her books with the characters, and Hilary has an end she has to work towards, often starting with a (later deleted) conversation between her characters. There will be a yellow covered book for Gwyneth next time, and from Hilary we can look forward to Binny no. 3.

When Hilary counted them last week, she had written 81 books. She can’t afford to stop, what with those gas bills pouring in. Gwyneth thinks she might have written about 22 books. She writes down ideas so she won’t forget, but can never remember what was so good about them later. Hilary has a folder of ideas which she turns to in desperation.

Well I don’t know, but both authors had a long line of fans waiting to have their books signed afterwards. They won’t need to hang up their laptops anytime soon.

I finally got to meet Mr McKay, and I also came face to face with Hilary’s friendly publicist who does such a great job. I couldn’t remember where I’d met Hannah Love before, but luckily she knew. And I reconnected with Gwyneth’s publicist as well, so there was a lot of chattering going on.

It also seems that my Photographer had walked past Hilary in St Andrews the day before, ignoring her shouting and waving… (At the Photographer. I’m not suggesting Hilary goes round shouting or waving her arms in the air, in general.)

Val McDermid

We also caught glimpses of Alexander McCall Smith, Val McDermid and Charlie Fletcher. As I said, it was a brief day, and we were a bit laidback about hunting authors on our first day. But they were there.

Charlie Fletcher

And as the sun set on Albert, we found Son and Dodo and went off for pizza.

Charlotte Square

(All photos by Helen Giles)