Categorically Speaking

Ignore external evidence – inside I’m permanently somewhere around 12 years old. A fabulous age for books (could be why), still young enough for magic but old enough to want depth of character, realism, conflict, tough choices for the story’s hero – all the ingredients of a well-crafted, fast-paced novel. So it seemed only natural that when I set out to write children’s books, the main characters would be 12 – 13 and the ideal age for my readers somewhere around those ages: 10 – 14 years.

Just one snag. According to many publishers and bookshops, this category doesn’t exist. Instead, children are divided into PreReaders (picture books), Young Readers (6 – 8 years) and Middle Grade (9 – 12). From 13 years they are officially Young Adults, and apparently ready for stories centred on a range of difficult and disturbing topics: war, drug addiction, rape, incarceration, repression, torture, brutality, cancer, death … Important themes, all of them, and there’s no doubt they’ve inspired some of the greatest writing around today. But I can’t help finding it bizarre that books devoured by my sons in their mid-twenties – and not just them, witness the audiences flocking to hear these writers speak at literary festivals – should be marketed to children barely into their teens, as if there were no age difference at all. Not every 13 year-old is ready for so much bleak reality.

Meanwhile, how do I pitch my own books?

Both Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst have elements of darkness: Hell and the First World War in one, 16th century magic and pacts with Demons in the other. Pain and fear are there but not, I hope, to a disturbing extent; on the other hand, enough complexity and moral conflict are woven into the storylines to need a certain maturity in the reader. Just because Ante’s Inferno fits the 9 – 12 years age range, it doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer teenagers and older readers; while The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, being a semi-historical novel, contains Elizabethan language and references that make it better suited to age 11 and above. A Young Adult book then – but anyone hoping for dystopia, graphic violence and teenage relationships will be disappointed.

So here’s an idea – how about a new category squeezed between the two? It could be known as Y2 A (Young Young Adults) or – my favourite – OMG (Older Middle Grade).

(First published 10th July 2014.)

The Carnegie Medal – two for the price of one?

In 1936, when the Carnegie Medal was first established, Young Adult books didn’t exist. Not in the way they do now. Children were expected to progress from The Water Babies and Peter Pan via Treasure Island and Little Women to Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice and all the way to Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. All right, there would have been other titles, not just the classics (and maybe not the Gibbon) but you get the idea. With one or two exceptions – The Catcher in the Rye (1951), for instance, and Lord of the Flies (1954) – this situation continued pretty much until the 1970s/80s, leaving a gap in a reader’s teenage years crying out to be filled. I remember in my early teens struggling to find books that appealed; for me the question isn’t so much ‘why did YA fiction appear,’ but ‘why did it take so long?’

Well, appear it has, bringing to the fore a great flowering of talented writers: Philip Pullman, Malorie Blackman, Meg Rosoff, Siobhan O’Dowd, Melvin Burgess, Patrick Ness, Susan Cooper, Suzanne Collins, R J Palacio, John Green – the list is enormous (I don’t include JK Rowling, not because I don’t admire her – I do, hugely – but the Harry Potter books remain fundamentally children’s books, even if they get more demanding as the series goes on). Subjects tackled are tough, reflecting harsh realities in human nature and the world young people are growing up into: racism, cruelty, drug addiction, cancer, homelessness, war, brutality, rape, torture…. Gulp. Determined not to patronise their readership, YA writers often refuse to resolve these bleak problems into a happy ending, leaving the reader with a strong sense of, well, bleakness.

The YA age range is considered to be 12 – 18 years. In my experience, these books are devoured by people in their twenties and thirties. Nothing wrong with that. Yet it’s an indication of the maturity they demand in their readership and I do wonder how many 12 year-olds can bear so much reality. Some can, clearly. But my guess is that the majority aren’t ready to let their childhood go quite yet.

Fine, they don’t need to read them. There are plenty of excellent books for MG (9 – 12 years) readers. But here’s the rub: as long as the Carnegie Medal considers children’s and YA fiction for one single award, it’s perfectly possible that YA books with very adult themes will dominate the shortlist. Which is what happened this year, when only 2 out of the 8 titles qualified as actual children’s books http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/carnegie/current_shortlist.php. Moreover, as Mark Thornton of Mostly Books points out in his excellent discussion of the issues http://www.mostly-books.co.uk/2014/06/abduction-abuse-brutality-hope-abingdon.html , it’s the 12 year-olds and under who tend to make up the shadowing teams, reading all shortlisted books, as teenagers are buried deep in GCSE work. It feels bizarre to make all these enthusiastic young book lovers read works intended for an older age group.

So how about it – TWO Carnegie medals. More work for the judges perhaps, but not a huge amount. The longlist wouldn’t change. It would just be a matter of choosing 6 titles, say, in each category, instead of 8 titles over a wide age range. It might even be easier, as judges would no longer be forced to choose between books intended for such different audiences.

Which brings me to the whole question of how you categorise a book that comes somewhere between the two: a story with quite complicated and intriguing subject matter, full of mystery, challenge and supernatural menace, but (thankfully) short on war, dystopia, brutality… but I’ll leave that for next time.

(First published 30 June, 2014.)

The Joy of World Book Day (or rather, Week – even better)

World Book Day used to be just that – one day. In essence it still is of course, but schools increasingly are seizing the opportunity to create a Book Week, celebrating reading and writing and the sheer enjoyment of giving your imagination full play. This is excellent news for children; quite apart from the educational value of books, the ability to lose yourself in a good story is, after all, one of the great pleasures in life and there’s no better time to set this habit going than in childhood.

I visited four schools over Book Week and after and spoke about Ante’s Inferno to audiences ranging from 20 to 120 young people; sometimes just a single yeargroup, at others, the whole of Years 5 to 8. It didn’t matter if the children were 9 or 13; they were all fascinated to hear about Dante, Greek mythology, World War One and how I wove all these elements together into an exciting adventure story. Illustrations of scary monsters by great artists like Botticelli and William Blake helped, though full marks go to the audience where a technical hitch meant that I was unable to show any of these until half way through my talk. ‘Now in this fine, pure blue square’ – I waved at the wall behind me – ‘imagine Dante standing in the centre, holding up his book The Divine Comedy, while down there on the left all the wicked souls are being dragged downed into Hell…’ Without the 15th century painting, the pupils just allowed their imaginations to work a bit harder, that was all.

Much thanks to Chandlings Manor, St Aloysius Primary School, Christ Church Cathedral School (all below) and Cameron House School,for their warm welcome and bright, enthusiastic students. I love it when the questions come thick and fast, and some of the more philosophical ones had me digging deep for answers!

(First published 19th March, 2014.)DSCN1415 DSCN1436 DSCN1430

Oxford Children’s Book Group Ways Into Reading Conference, Saturday 12 October

Amazing, what one tweet can do. That was all it took to alert me to this super event that took place at the Oxford University Press last Saturday. Thank you, Anne-Marie, aka @Childledchaos! If, as I opened a bleary eye that morning, I hadn’t spotted that you were on your way there I’d have missed out on a truly exciting gathering of authors, publishers, librarians, literary consultants and many others who take delight, as I do, in all kinds of children’s books.

No time to register. Gatecrasher that I was, I arrived too late to hear much of the first speaker, Victor Watson (A room full of friends – the appeal of series fiction) but not too late to hear about his own books. Setting his Paradise Barn series in the Second World War, Watson uses the evacuee experience as a marvellous springboard for adventure stories.

Next came Andrea Quincey of OUP, who spoke about OUP’s current reading scheme, Project X, which features four main characters who can shrink to microscopic size simply by twiddling their watches. Illustrated in animation style (think Toy Story) the series looks fun and clearly goes down well with children. This is all right and good, but I was a little sad to witness the usual bashing of poor Biff, Chip and Kipper of The Oxford Reading Tree. It seems it’s now de rigeur to sneer at this scheme – why? It was funny, well-drawn, with great characters and wonderful adventures, and it was what taught my sons to read (ironically I had to borrow the books from a friend, as my sons’ school didn’t catch up with the scheme until after they’d left).

Tracy Corderoy’s ingenious ways of making her stories come alive with face paints, crafts, mermaids tails and other costumes bowled me over. She exudes creativity and fun and her dedication to her audience is tremendous – even to the point of learning magic tricks because someone had booked her to do them! I hope for her sake that particular bookshop doesn’t move on to trapeze and highwire acts.

Last event before lunch: a fabulous presentation of The Phoenix by Tom and Caro Fickling. This wonderful comic fills a huge gap in children’s reading and I am only sorry that my family grew up in the desolate Post Look and Learn, June & Schoolfriend, Princess (no one remembers that one, the best of all) Era, and before the dawn of The DFC and its offspring, The Phoenix. They have so missed out. Tom and Caro explained how a good comic not only develops a child’s reading and imagination, but can also, through games and stories, help them with arithmetic, general knowledge and so on without the child even being aware of it. Clever, eh? Ooh yes and we each got a FREE copy to take home. Huzzah! All I need is a packet of jelly babies and a quiet spot and I’ll be in heaven.

The afternoon held an interesting examination of children’s use of language by Vineeta Gupta of OUP, and a jolly romp through stories ranging from picture books to W Somerset Maugham by Bill Laar, Education and Literacy Consultant.

But what made the whole day for me was a talk on Dangerous Books by a writer till now I’ve only been dimly aware of: Andy Mulligan. Writing as I do for age 9 years and above, Mulligan’s analysis of the darker side of human nature, and how to portray it in children’s books, was invaluable for me to hear. Speaking without any notes, he came across as a wise, thoughtful, utterly likeable man with a wonderful, understated sense of humour; his account of being forced, at a recent literary festival, to bend his talk about his current book The Boy With Two Heads into a classical framework as the organisers had advertised it as ‘adding to our knowledge of Ancient Greece’ had me in stitches. As the conference ended, my biggest fear was that he’d leave before I could buy his books from the bookstall run by the excellent Mostly Books of Abingdon and get him to sign them.

I needn’t have worried. I now have The Boy with Two Heads and Mulligan’s first Ribblestrop book to move on to once I’ve finished The Phoenix.

Just one problem: I might run out of jellybabies.

THANK YOU, Oxford Children’s Book Group, for welcoming me despite my lateness and non-membership status. I’m delighted to have put those things right (well, not the lateness – the Time Lords are very strict about that sort of thing) but at least now, as a fully paid up member, I’ll hear about any future conferences in plenty of time.

For excellent coverage in more detail of this conference, go to http://childledchaos.me.uk/2013/10/14/oxford-children-s-book-group-conference-2013/

(First published 14th October 2013.)

Books are my bag at Blackwell’s

They certainly are. And luckily, a lot of other people’s too, judging by the buzz in bookshops up and down the land on Saturday, 14th September. Actually, with all their creativity and enthusiasm, I think Booksellers Are My Bag as well. Or indeed Blackwell’s Are My Bag as book. Er, perhaps I’d better stop there…

…except to say that I had a BRILLIANT time, taking part in the Author Signing at Blackwell’s along with authors Caroline Shenton, T E Shepherd and Julia Chambers.

Not to mention Harry Potter, Charlie Chaplin, Mrs Dino, Germs, Rabbit and other furry creatures who appeared to be running the shop. Just like any other day really.

(First published September 2013.)books are my bag

BBC Radio Oxford interview with Kat Orman

I really enjoyed chatting to Kat Orman on BBC Radio Oxford last week. Starting with the exciting news about Ante’s Inferno’s winning the Children’s People’s Book Prize, our conversation ranged round all kinds of topics: what inspired me to write, how the characters are formed, did my children help me get inside the world of a 12 year-old (yes, indirectly), how one emerges from being deep in the book to reengage with the family and real life (with difficulty, sometimes), what books we’d both read as children and what I was working on now (a quick mention for The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst!).

Thank you Kat, you are a lovely interviewer.

First published 29th June, 2013BBC R Oxford, G Heppel

Dante – the man of the moment?

Suddenly Dante is everywhere. From the lofty realms of academic study, the great Italian poet is about to descend into the murky underworld of the thriller, in the form of Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, Inferno. By a happy stroke of timing, anyone inspired by this book to turn to the source material can bury themselves in Clive James’s new verse translation of the whole Divine Comedy, to be published, like Brown’s Inferno, in May. And for a deliciously irreverent – but impressively accurate – version of Dante’s Hell, look no further than the cartoon version by Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson.

Some might find such modern treatments of Dante shocking. But anything that brings him to a wider audience must surely be a good thing. After all, as well as being a great poet, he is a stonkingly good story teller. My first reaction on reading the Inferno was to wonder why, given the marvellous retellings by top writers of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Bible, the Morte D’Arthur and other world epics for young people, no one has ever produced one drawn from Dante’s most famous work. Even Paradise Lost – not usually thought of as suitable for children – has been skilfully reinterpreted for them by Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials trilogy.

So why not the Inferno? A scary story in which the hero, Dante, is guided by Virgil through ever darker circles of Hell, having to deal with Charon, Cerberus, Harpies, Minotaur, Furies – how could that not make a brilliant children’s book? Is Dante just thought to be too difficult for a child to understand?

Only one thing to do: I had to write it myself. Dante became 12 year-old Ante, and her journey through Hell, Ante’s Inferno. On the run from her enemy, Florence, who makes her life a misery, Ante causes an accident that plunges them both into the Underworld. There they meet Gil (Virgil), a mysterious boy who died 100 years before the story begins, and the three of them journey to the bottom of Hell to resolve the riddle of Gil’s death. His classical education makes Gil the perfect guide to Hades with all its mythical creatures. Until, that is, the group is separated and things go disastrously wrong….

An exciting story unfolds, full of dark passages and tunnels, blood-sucking monsters and rivers of fire and ice. Children have lapped it up, proving that it is possible to create a gripping version of Dante’s Inferno for young people (and older ones) without cheapening the original. Anyone doubting this should see the reactions of the 9 – 13 year-olds I talk to in schools about why I wrote the book. None of them has heard of Dante before. All are fascinated by the idea of someone dreaming up a carefully ordered Hell largely structured on something they recognise – the Hades of Greek myth.

In his Inferno, Dan Brown has promised ‘to take readers on a journey deep into this mysterious realm, a landscape of codes, symbols, and more than a few secret passageways.’ We’ll have to wait until publication on 14th May to find out exactly how he does it but one thing we can be sure of: the book will be a fast-paced, page-turning, hold-your-breath kind of read like all his others. It will bring Dante to the attention of millions of adults who may never even have heard of him, just as Ante’s Inferno introduces children to a masterpiece no one has offered them before. If later, some of them are inspired to tackle The Divine Comedy – as hopefully some of Dan Brown’s and Emerson’s and Jackson’s readers will be – so much the better. Clive James’s is the latest in a long line of translations ready and waiting for them.

(First published 30 April, 2013)PIC 2 Dante portrait

Do not adjust your set

Yup, it’s still me.  To celebrate this shiny new, IMPROVED version of my website, I’ve changed to a wordpress blog which allows me to have an archive.  An ARCHIVE.  How exciting is that?  (Perhaps I should get out more.)

Anyway I can’t wait to get going, both with new posts and transferring some of the old ones.  Well, I do have an archive. (Did I mention that already?)

Watch this space!