Tag Archives: Penny Dolan

A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.

Some books know when to tell you it’s time. Penny Dolan’s A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. is one such – extremely patient – book. Suddenly, after years, I knew I had to read about Mouse.

Penny Dolan, A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.

It’s a lovely book; a sort of Jane Eyre meets The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Set in the days when wealthy parents might take off to some far flung corner of the Earth, leaving their toddler with his rich grandfather, his angry uncle and his loving nanny, before being ‘lost,’ thought dead.

The grandfather seemingly doesn’t care about young Mouse, and the uncle looks like he wants a shortcut to his inheritance, so the nanny removes her charge to somewhere safe, loving Mouse as though he’s her own son.

But uncle Scrope can compete with the worst of fictional villains, and he sets things in motion to find Mouse, and then to put him in a ‘school’ which is one of the worst I’ve come across, even for Victorian fiction. Eventually the longsuffering Mouse escapes and makes his own life, meeting good, normal people, who help him, and who point him in the right direction.

Mouse grows into a capable and loveable boy, with friends and things to do. And then…

Well, I won’t tell you. If you haven’t already, then join me in discovering Mouse and his world.

(Nicely old style illustrations by Peter Bailey.)

Daughters of Time

I was in the middle of the story by Celia Rees in the anthology Daughters of Time, when the captain on my plane made an announcement. I looked up. ‘She’s a woman!’ I thought. I know. Stupid thought to have, but I did, and she wasn’t even my first female pilot. Then I looked at what I was reading, which was about Emily Wilding Davison, and I told myself off for my reaction. I’m ashamed of myself.

After that came Anne Rooney’s story about Amy Johnson, so there we had the second woman pilot of the afternoon. And of course, it felt completely normal, because I knew she was female, if you are able to follow my train of thought. I just hoped my plane and ‘my’ captain wasn’t going to crash as spectacularly as Amy Johnson did. Preferably not crash at all.

Daughters of Time

This collection of stories about women, and girls, from various times in the past, written by women and edited by Mary Hoffman, was published last year, so I’m rather late. I knew I’d love it, though, and I did.

Arranged in chronological order the book begins with Queen Boudica and ends with the Greenham Common women, with girls/women like Lady Jane Grey and Mary Seacole and many others in between. The list of authors reads like a who’s who in young fiction, and I’m now wanting to read more on some of these history heroines.

With my rather sketchy knowledge of some British history, I have also learned lots of new facts. I had never really grasped who Lady Jane Grey was, and now I have a much better idea.

This is the kind of collection you wish there would be regular additions to. Maybe not one every year, but I can see plenty of scope for more stories.

Another festival programme

I just don’t know.

That’s whether to go at all, and if I do, for how long, and for what part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Was so sure last year I would take a break this year. But reading the programme is like shopping for cake, or cheese, when hungry. It looks good.

So far I have merely had the quickest of read-throughs and made a makeshift list of the most interesting events. Three colours of ink to differentiate between children’s, adult programme and schools. I know I am no school, but they do have some really good authors for the schools. (And sometimes I wonder why they only offer these great people to schools?)

I’ll have another read and cross-out and decide who I might see somewhere else, or who I have already seen a lot of, so could give up their spot for someone I don’t know so well.

I need to point out here, that with the odd exception, I would enjoy every single event. If they were offered on their own, and I was free and rested, and didn’t have to concern myself with clashes or if I can make the last train home afterwards or any other silly practical worries.

But if I have to pick ‘only some’ then children’s authors rate the highest, and the more unusual offerings or those travelling from far away will – probably – trump the common garden variety. Although at times dandelions are lovely, and orchids just too fancy.

I have not counted men versus women, but am confident the numbers are evenly matched. (Although, a rapid glance at my own little list does suggest a slight bias towards the men. Oh dear. I’ll obviously count really carefully and make sure I choose as many of them as I do the ladies. If I choose at all.)

Having said that, I must mention that Keren David is doing her first Edinburgh event, and Elizabeth Wein – who wrote that book I really, really liked – will also be debuting. Andy Mulligan is coming from the Philippines, and Elen Caldecott from somewhere a little closer. Brighton boy Chris Riddell will be painting and drawing for the duration, so he will be tired.

Liz Kessler

Sally Gardner

In my comment to Penny Dolan on yesterday’s festival interview, I hinted at something I might mention here. And it’s that while there are lots of good names, hopefully evenly distributed between the sexes, and there are both the very well known authors everyone has heard of, as well as the new ones with perhaps just one novel published, it will be the Jacqueline Wilsons and Michael Morpurgos of this world who are going to be mentioned (most) in the official festival publicity. It is from that category of authors that the photo shoots for the press will be chosen.

That’s what I am unhappy about. I do understand that newspapers won’t flock to purchase pictures of the least know authors. They will want Jacqueline again, or Patrick Ness (should he be offered a slot with the paparazzi this year) because he is hot news.

Last year we found a nice tree trunk to use as an alternate studio. That’s for when we couldn’t walk people to the willows. Trees are good. And I am determined that non-millionaires will also get their faces on here.

On changing your mind as often as you change your underwear – Michelle Lovric

We are five today! Well, Bookwitch is. Her alter ego needs more fives for a full description. Michelle Lovric, on the other hand, is young and beautiful, although slightly older than five. I’m very grateful to have her call in here today to chat about her new book. What Michelle is about to tell us will help in the appreciation of Talina in the Tower.

Here she is, ready to enlighten us about things connected to underwear, making my day extra special.

Michelle Lovric (c) Marianne Taylor

“Sometimes writing a novel is all about changing your mind – or someone else’s mind. It’s a traditional device of romantic novels to have the heroine desperate for the wrong man (generally a handsome but shallow bounder). So the happy ending consists of her losing him, but finding what – or more usually whom – she really needed and wanted all along, and could have had, if she’d not been blinded by the one fault in her own character that the story arc requires her to overcome. Think of Emma and her Mr Knightley, to whose husbandly attractions she remains resolutely immune until she’s been humbled and has learned to desist from meddling disastrously in the lives of others. She then proceeds to ‘earn’ him through the pain of personal transformation.

In writing for children, the whole solution cannot be found in the familiar Austen trope of humiliation, revelation, emotional rescue and marriage. So instead we put our children through hoops that will lead them into temptation, aggravation, desperation and any number of other ‘ations’.

The solution, generally more interesting than marriage, lies in their overcoming a weakness, a blindness or an adversity imposed from the outside.

Michelle Lovric, Talina in the Tower

In Talina in the Tower, I set my young heroine just such a conundrum. Talina is a keen cook and amateur magician. But she’s also a fiery girl, easily distracted, who rarely thinks before she speaks. A mishap in the kitchen, arising from precisely this combination of traits, puts her under a shape-shifting spell. Her dilemma is that she starts to assume the physical characteristics of whomever or whatever is making her lose her temper.

You’d think, ‘Simple. She must just keep calm, then.’ But Talina is the most impudent girl in Venice, famous for her campaigns and her pranks. Keeping serene and reasonable is a formidable challenge for her. At the beginning of the book, she fails every time.

And so a rat who annoys her soon points out that she’s grown a hairless pink tail. Captured by a hungry vulture, Talina grows a pair of wings, and so on.

Not only must Talina save Venice from the Ravageurs, ferocious hyena-like creatures, but she must also save herself from turning into a Ravageur. This is especially hard because the Lord of the Ravageurs is, to paraphrase a BBC reporter, ‘like Jeremy Clarkson, but without the crippling self-doubt’. Grignan is a bully and a sneerer – two of the qualities that Talina can least tolerate in a human, let alone in a creature with terrible table manners who has kidnapped her parents and is terrorizing the city she loves.

I suppose that the lesson Talina learns in the book is to save her anger for the things that justify it. She learns to focus her emotions on worthier things, to brush aside casual insults and to rise above what is irritating but essentially unimportant

In a sense, she learns to be ‘grown up’. But as a writer, this posed another dilemma. Did I want my Talina turned into a prim and priggish little Stepford heroine? No. So I had to leave her still with a sting in her tail, and a lot to say. She had to change her mind about things, and change in some ways, but she had to remain true to the girl who captures the readers’ interest early in the book with her entertainingly extreme behaviour. I refuse to use the ‘journey’ word, but I needed Talina’s character to have its own story arc, parallel to but separate from the plot. The problem (almost geometrical in construction) was that the point where the character arc finished had to be a high point too.

I think I found a solution. But I imagine this is something faced by many writers for children. How do we refine our characters without flattening them? How do we choreograph their emotional progress across the stage of our book? In exciting but confusing leaps or carefully measured steps?

Penny Dolan, A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.

One book I’ve read recently is a masterclass in this issue of accelerating maturity in child protagonists: Penny Dolan’s A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E. Mouse undergoes a series of picturesque and picaresque Victorian trials. Each experience changes him. But none of his reactions are stereotypical. His ‘inappropriate’ outbursts bring his character into the present – he is a child modern children can understand. He finishes the book as himself, but with dignity and agency he’s earned himself along the way. He’s done this by changing his mind – by letting slip misbegotten certainties, by reassuring himself about groundless doubts, by stabilizing his ideas in the quicksand of experience.

Rat, from Talina in the Tower

So when my rat Altopone reproaches Talina, saying, ‘Hope you change your underwear as often as you change your mind’, he means it as a compliment. It is only by changing our minds that we grow up.”

I’ll have to think about this. Underwear. Minds. I like to believe I know exactly who I am, and what’s right. Mr Knightley, here I come! (But first some birthday cake, courtesy of Talina. Spell-free.)

ABBA festival!

First they steal my idea, and then they put it into action on a day when I can’t even enjoy it. Pah.

It’s ABBA. No, not the pickled fish and not even those people who used to sing. I’m talking about the Awfully Big Blog Adventure and the festival they are running this weekend.

Yes, I know. It’s ridiculous. How can you possibly have an online book festival? Can I take pictures of my authors? Can I have my books signed? Are there even any tickets left to all these events, and how do they expect me to get around from one event to the next without a break in-between?

PhotobucketI’m busy today. Very busy. I can’t just sit there and commune with my beloved authors through a computer screen all day long. But I want to. I’ll have to make a timetable of sorts, to see if I can fit in my bestest people that way. Maybe eat with them? (Hey, do you object to crumbs and slurps?)

Just look at that programme!

ABBA festival Saturday

It sort of makes a witch want to skive off for the day. How are they going to pull it off, technically? (My idea was for a normal live kind of in person sort of festival…)

Oh well, see you tomorrow.

Bookwitch bites #56

All together now.

How I wish I could have popped over to Dublin last week. It was positively teeming with crime writers. I know it’s the latest vogue but this strikes me as exceptional. It was the launch of crime anthology Down These Green Streets; Irish Crime Writing in the 21st century, edited by our very favourite Declan, Declan Burke. (Sorry Hughes.)

Down These Green Streets

And I do realise some of you will find it a little hard to drop everything and pop in the Belfast direction for the NI launch tonight. But do try. I would. If I could. There are multi-signed copies of the book for sale from The Gutter Bookshop (which I believe is a lot nicer than the name suggests). I want one. It’d be the next best thing to having been there. But it’s this idea of actually paying…

It’s not just those criminally minded Irish who are ganging up. We have the History Girls. I’ve been hearing rumours for a while, and now they have got their act together. Almost. You can get them on facebook already. And from the 1st July you can enjoy their new blog.

The History Girls

They are girls who write historical fiction. I’m amazed they managed to get so many together for a photo, and very nice they look too. I understand they launched with a lunch, or possibly vice versa, at the home of Michelle Lovric. Should have known someone like Michelle would have an interesting house!

I suppose I shouldn’t ignore that large group of people who have their day tomorrow. The Daddies. We are an unfriendly kind of witch family, so don’t celebrate this kind of event at all. Not even with socks. (And he got a tie for his birthday, so there.) But can you really not go wrong with the books ‘advertised’ below?

Father's Day Penguins

Barnaby Booth

Feeling the need to finish on a softer note; here is Barnaby Booth. Barnaby’s human Daddy is Stephen Booth. I believe Barnaby (I trust you can work out who Barnaby is named after?) helps with the murdering around the house.

Campaign for the Book (3)

Just imagine! There I was in a classroom sitting next to Linda Newbery, with Frank Cottrell Boyce and Beverley Naidoo rushing in late (and without a reservation, I believe), sitting down at what they soon named the ‘naughty table’. In fact, Frank continued looking slightly naughty throughout the session with our ‘teacher’ Bali Rai. Our workshop had the fancy name ‘The Importance of Identity and Race in Young People’s Fiction’, but Bali called it Diversity. I’d like to think that our room was so crowded, because it was the best of the workshops.

Bali Rai

I was somewhat dubiously placed, sitting right underneath a photo of the recently departed President Bush, but then Obama was there, too, and Yeltsin was nearby with Gorbachev. I’m full of admiration for Bali’s powers. When the session began it started raining fairly heavily. Before long we had a full-blown storm with thunder and lightning and rain cascading down from the gutters outside the window. Very dramatic. It ended when the workshop was over.

As so many people on Saturday said, Bali reckons he wouldn’t be where he is now without the library. Books were a precious thing for someone growing up in a one-parent family with little money. If he’d asked for pocket money he would have had to go without food instead.

Bali feels that to get ‘minorities’ to read you have to start by putting them in the books. When he talks about minorities he doesn’t just mean poor immigrants; it covers anyone who is different in some way. One of his most favourite books recently was The Curious Incident, so he and I are clearly on the same Aspie wavelength.

His local library in Oadby, Leicester, is ‘brilliant’, and seems to do all that Bali wants from a library. He tells of the father who comes in to use the computer, and whose daughter learns to look at books while her dad goes on the internet. So in effect the girl becomes a reader simply because they don’t have a computer at home. The reverse can also be the case; with library staff putting adult books near parents who bring their children in for various child sessions. It’s a case of catching people where you find them.

Libraries need to shout ‘we are here!’, so prospective users can find them.

Another thing Bali has noticed is that as soon as you have a book about a single parent, they are immediately labelled ‘issue novels’. He himself  has a book on a recommended reads list for schools, which he is pleased about, but also annoyed, as it comes under ‘reading about other cultures’, when Bali has written about life in Britain. So if it’s about people with another skin colour it automatically turns into ‘other cultures’.

He also mentions schools which shadow the Carnegie, where books on the shortlist can be too inaccessible for keen but less able readers. There needs to be alternate lists of books.

Bali’s most recent novel is a mirror image story, about a white boy who is in minority, and is bullied by a group of coloured boys. His next one is about non-white British soldiers in World War I, something that comes as a surprise to people who think that British soldiers always are white.

Publishers need to adapt and publish more ‘minority’ books or they will soon not have any readers left. And it could be a good idea for bookshops not to treat prospective customers as hooligans just because they are young, male and non-white. They might just still want to read, and even buy, a book. Or two.

Campaign for the Book (2)

Thank heavens for people like Alan Gibbons. Someone who not only thinks that things are wrong, but who does something about it. I have barely had time to take in all his emails and newsletters this winter, let alone act on them. Just imagine how busy Alan has been; writing, digging, travelling. Possibly even doing some writing for himself once in a while. Must find out.

So, after the lighter introductions, we settled down to more serious things. Question Time with the politicians, except we ‘only’ had Ed Vaizey and Richard Younger Ross, because Lyn Brown had been promoted to the Whips office during the week, and in this mad world that means she can no longer say in public what she thinks about a subject she is very interested in. A lot was said by those present, but whether any of that will ever happen is anybody’s guess. The panellists had reasonable ideas, but they would, considering the circumstances. The audience had lots of questions and ideas, and we could have gone on forever.

After lunch it was time for two wonderful talks by the librarians who have been in the centre of the storm, so to speak. Clare Broadbelt, who was made redundant when her school library was closed, spoke eloquently on what it had been like both before – when things were normal – and during the period leading up to the closure. It was a good thing to hear how many of her pupils had spoken up. They had started petitions, only to find them torn up and told they were rubbish. And the reading room that had been promised in place of the library has not materialised.

The second talk was by Cath McNally, librarian from the Wirral, where they have an awful lot of millionaires, but also a great deal of child poverty. If all librarians can speak as well and as touchingly as Cath did, then we have much to be proud of. She cried at the end, describing how ‘her’ children had recommended books back to her, which just goes to show how much influence the library has had. I wonder if the suggested small stock of books in the GP’s surgery will have quite the same effect?

Gillian Cross spoke about her use of the mobile library, both forty years ago, and now, noting the changes in needs. The difference is the internet and as she said, the old ways won’t be coming back.  Miranda McKearney from the Reading Agency and Marilyn Mottram from the UK Literacy Association spoke about their findings from experience and research. According to Marilyn there is plenty of money out there; we just need to look for it in different places. Martyn Coles, head teacher at the City of London Academy, is unusual in his love for libraries in schools, and he reckons that architects need to be pushed in the right direction by caring head teachers, if new schools are to be built with sensible libraries.

After a number of smaller workshops, the day finished with Beverley Naidoo and Frank Cottrell Boyce. Beverley spoke movingly about her own early experiences from South Africa. Post-Sharpeville Beverley learnt to look at things in new ways, and she was introduced to other types of books than those she’d been reading. She mentioned a number of books that have helped her and inspired her. She was saying how wonderful it would be if our taxes were spent on books instead of on bullets and bombs, and her vision of planes dropping books instead is a powerful one. She told a Nigerian friend about coming to this Campaign for the Book conference, and her friend was shocked that we in the UK would need a conference like this. Beverley quoted Susan Sontag,  ‘libraries are a precious treasure chest.’

Frank Cottrell Boyce told a long and funny tale about his daughter’s tin whistle ‘lessons’, which was a random way of describing how anything that is good should be taught. You share, rather than teach. He had had a recent bad school visit, which convinced him of how books should not be treated in schools. As Frank pointed out, his own father had taught him a love of football by playing it with him, not by turning it into lessons. One of Frank’s daughters who is not into reading, had been given Northanger Abbey on her iPod. Apparently Austen doesn’t work so well on shuffle, however; you just don’t know who is married to whom or for how long.

Alan Gibbons finished by saying that he is in this for the long haul. He wants more names on his petition, and he wants us all to organise many smaller local meetings like Saturday’s conference. He’d like authors to adopt an area as their own. ‘A library without a librarian is no library, but a room.’

Campaign for the Book (1)

Alan Gibbons

As I usually seem to do, I ran into Fiona Dunbar in the Ladies at the start of the proceedings of the Campaign for the Book. Since this was held in the impressive King Edward School in Birmingham, which is a boys’ school, we have to be grateful for there being facilities for us girls at all. And while in toilet mode, I may as well admit to ending the day in the Gents, where the lone male customer was showing considerable courage in the face of so many women invading.

Having spent a whole day looking into the future of libraries in schools there is a lot of stuff to tell, so let the number one in the title be a warning that I will not disclose all right now. In actual fact, having begun by not being serious, I may as well continue not being serious. I had a surprisingly easy journey, only getting a little lost cutting through Birmingham University. That is despite the great help from that super-organiser Jean Allen, librarian at KES. Beautifully visible in cerise, and with a beautifully audible voice – so many people whisper, you know – Jean masterminded a first class event. Lots of food. Good food. Things worked.

Fiona Dunbar and Catherine Johnson

I have always wanted to write the words stone mullioned windows. There! I have done it! They had them, you see. Great Hall. The school’s Chief Master (what a title!) spoke. He’s a former pupil, along with his mate Lee Child (who I distinctly remember saying a few years ago that he had had an ordinary English school background…), and he was suitably amusing before leaving in order to stop his son setting fire to their house. Or maybe that was a joke.

Theresa Breslin

It’s fascinating with events where the authors are mainly in the audience. I have only listed the ones I know and recognise, although the list provided had more people on it. (From an alibi point of view I don’t want to state that X was there, in case he wasn’t.) Was pleased to discover Theresa Breslin was on the list, and worked hard at deciding what she might look like. She was, of course, the one sitting to my left.

Celia Rees, Linda Newbery and Penny Dolan

Alan Gibbons is the driving force behind the whole campaign, so he was there. Celia Rees had a speaking role, and so did Gillian Cross. Steve Skidmore kept people in order during one discussion, and Beverley Naidoo and Frank Cottrell Boyce ended the day.

Gillian Cross

We had two sittings for lunch, and if I say that I first lunched with Theresa Breslin and later with Fiona Dunbar and Lucy Coats, you’ll wrongly assume I ate twice. I just didn’t leave when I should have, since it was so nice to finally meet Facebook friend Lucy.

Most of the 200 conference goers were librarians and others similarly occupied. And not a single Gudrun Sjödén stripe in sight. With so much on the programme I was amazed to find we finished on time. I had done a little autograph hunting during the day (my bag would have been a lot lighter with fewer books carted round), and then I finished off the day’s hunt by catching Gillian Cross and Beverley Naidoo as they were leaving.

Bernard Ashley, Lucy Coats and Fiona Dunbar

The Haggis-knee played up on the way back through the university, so some hobbling was engaged in, and I was overtaken by loads of librarians. Like the famous tortoise however, I caught the train and they didn’t. Ticket issues, I believe. Found Beverley Naidoo again at New Street station, where I was also offered a Malteser by polite young Muslim man. All in all, very nice.

(Sincere apologies for being such a very dreadful photographer.)