‘I died in Hell’

A stillness settled on the crowd. Gusts of wind shook raindrops from trees nearby and tugged at red poppies, loosely tucked into button holes. All eyes turned to the headmaster, standing on the other side of the tall stone cross from her, about to begin……

This week I visited two schools to talk about Ante’s Inferno. I always love doing this – the chance to communicate to young people my enthusiasm for Dante and the classical Underworld he drew on when constructing his idea of Hell is a great privilege. The students I talk to usually know very little, if anything, about Dante, but as soon as they recognise some element of Greek myth – Cerberus, the Minotaur, the Styx – they’re fascinated.

But this week, my author visits took on an extra significance: in the run up to Remembrance Day, and the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the plot of Ante’s Inferno is particularly poignant. World War One is a strong theme in the book: it opens with Ante waiting nervously to play the Last Post at her school’s Remembrance Ceremony, and the whole action of the story takes place on Armistice Day. And while the upper circles of Hell lend themselves to some comic moments (allowing me to invent suitable up-to-date punishments for the Seven Deadly Sins, for instance), I didn’t need to look far for inspiration for the utter misery, desolation and bleakness of the lowest part of Hell.

I had great fun visiting, first, Years 8 and 9 at Rye St Antony, then years 7 and 8 at Wychwood School. In both schools the girls listened well, asked questions and enjoyed the selection I showed them of wonderful illustrations of Dante by artists such as Botticelli and Blake. There was some chatter and even the odd giggle at one or two of the wilder suggestions of what Hell might be like.

But all laughter went when we got to the grainy, black and white photographs of seas of mud pock-marked with craters, soldiers carrying comrades along duckboard tracks, black stumps of trees standing out against grey wasteland. Instead, the girls sat utterly still, taking in the awful simplicity of Siegfried Sassoon’s

I died in hell— (They called it Passchendaele).

(First published 11th November 2014)DSCN1604 DSCN1608

Magical Enid Blyton

The news that Sam Mendes is to make a film based on Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree series http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-29706443 has led to much twittering. Great excitement from some grown-ups who remember it fondly; bafflement from others that anyone should be inspired by such outdated, poorly written, politically incorrectissimo stuff.

Blyton-bashing has always been with us. First it was her lazy characterisation (Boy 1: leader. Boy 2: always hungry. Girl 1: tomboy. Girl 2: very girlie) and trite writing style (Blyton weather: blazing hot sunshine punctuated at intervals by massive thunderstorms). Then the racist connotations of the baddies always looking ‘foreign’ and, in an increasingly feminist age, the strict traditional split of gender roles (boys do the detecting and chop wood; girls make lemonade and wash up. Sigh). These are all good reasons why Enid Blyton should by now be long out of print, superseded by all the far better authors that have come since.

But…. children adore her. How else to explain the millions of her books sold every year (500,000 copies of The Faraway Tree series in the UK alone)? Some on Twitter have suggested this is due to adults creating an artificial market by buying the books they loved for their children, and so on it goes… but if their children didn’t also love them the cycle would cease.

Like her or not, Enid Blyton was a stonkingly good story teller. Her tales of children outwitting adults and capturing miscreants are cleverly structured, designed to empower their young readers while making them feel safe at the same time.

As for The Faraway Tree series, I’d never even heard of it before my 7 year-old daughter discovered it, after which it became bedtime reading for all my children for years. Irritated as I was by all the usual Blyton flaws, I couldn’t help admiring the idea – a tree whose top hosts an alternating selection of magical lands, some wonderful (Land of Toys, Land of Sweets), some scary (Land of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe), so that you never know which one you’re in for.

I was glad when my children moved on to better writers – Anne Fine, Nina Bawden, J K Rowling, Norton Juster, Philip Pullman. But I’d never fault them for the excitement and pleasure they got from this traditionally frowned upon author.

There’s just something magical about Enid Blyton.

(First published 29th October 2014)

The First World War is Hell in Ante’s Inferno

When I set out to write a children’s version of Dante’s Inferno, I was certain about one thing: I wouldn’t follow Dante’s division of crimes and their punishments to the letter. Many of the latter are stomach-churningly nasty, while some actions considered sinful by the mediaeval church – suicide, being the obvious example – would nowadays be seen as a tragedy, deserving of pity, not condemnation.
At the same time, Hell in Ante’s Inferno wouldn’t just become a fantasy world but a place modelled on the spirit of Dante’s great poem, with updates to make it more recognisable (and more fun). The Lustful, for instance, instead of whirling on the wind, have to dance forever to cheesy music in the Nightclub of the Living Dead, while the Gluttons undergo a Tantaluslike torment of wandering among stalls serving fast food they are never able to eat.
So much for those being punished for what are, essentially, extremes of human weakness. How would I manage further down, where things get scarier and more serious? A striking aspect of the Inferno is that the deepest circle of Hell isn’t, as you’d expect, the biggest, hottest, fieriest furnace of them all, but a cold, harsh, empty landscape. A frozen lake where souls are imprisoned in ice, scoured by biting winds. It didn’t take me long to update this to an environment whose horrors Dante himself could never have imagined. Change the ice to mud, break the one large lake into thousands of craters brimming over with freezing cold water and you have the most hellish scene ever created by man. As Siegfried Sassoon put it in his searing poem, Memorial Tablet:

I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele)…. so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

So the heart of Hell became, in Ante’s Inferno, a permanent replay of a First World War battlefield – and I was about to send three 12 year-olds into it. It had to be a believable experience (within the confines of fiction) but just as important, it mustn’t cheapen the real suffering borne by the hundreds of thousands who took part in WW1. History books, documentaries and eye-witness accounts (Robert Graves, Sassoon again, Wilfred Owen and others) helped me imagine the scene, but describing what it felt like to be bombarded by different kinds of weapons which my characters couldn’t name and knew nothing about was a serious challenge.
Then I came across an extraordinary, less well-known (to me at any rate) book: The Patriot’s Progress by Henry Williamson. In this fictionalised account of an ordinary Tommy’s experience of trench warfare, the sounds, sights and smells of the Western Front are described as if in real time, with an incredible vividness:

Every soldier, every broken tree-stump, every stake and picket out in front had innumerable shadows blending and quivering, dissolving and recasting themselves elsewhere in sharp outline, dissolving again as new flares, new sprays of flares, hissed and popped and bloomed over the trench. A constellation of golden stars broke above No-man’s-land, followed by rocket-showers of red and green fire-balls. Soon the shriek and flash of whizz-bangs. The heavy rending crash of five-nines. (The Patriot’s Progress, Second Phase, p 69-70)

PIC 13 WW1PIC 12 WW1

Such graphic evocation proved an invaluable resource for recreating the battle of Passchendaele as the lowest circle in Hell (the Devil, in Ante’s Inferno, making cynical use of Sassoon’s insight). A daring, not to say crazy, thing to do in a children’s book. But it works. And in the wealth of material being published now in commemoration of the Great War, I hope Ante’s Inferno offers one way of bringing to life the hardship, pain, suffering and loss experienced by those who fought it, many only a few years older than the readers themselves.

(First published 27th July 2014)

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.)