Bucking the trend in children’s books at the Buckingham Literary Festival

St John & St James, Chackmore 1

Happy festivalling! With Year 6 teacher Mr Davidson

Two days ago I drove to Stowe for a school visit. No, not that school, the famous one set in the fabulous 18th century neoclassical Stowe House; rather, the delightful St James & St John Church of England Primary School at Chackmore, a small village nestling on land that slopes up to the glorious Stowe Landscape Gardens (owned by the National Trust). Now in its third year, the Buckingham Literary Festival is going from strength to strength and I was thrilled to be invited to be part of its schools outreach programme, enthusing young people with the joys of reading and writing.

St John & James 5

Presenting the original Doctor Faustus, or Joannes Faustus

If I have a bee in my bonnet, it’s about how often children are underestimated in the pleasure they can derive from complex ideas in books. I write stories inspired by great classical and historical themes, subjects often deemed ‘too difficult’ for children. But in my experience, as long as the story is clearly written, fast-paced and gripping, and the characters sympathetic and well-rounded, young readers can easily absorb ideas from the adult literary world and often grasp them more instinctively than people many years older.

Year 6 at St James & St John knew nothing about Elizabethan magic or the legend of Doctor Faustus but they listened attentively as I told them about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, and had no trouble understanding the dangers of a Faustian pact. Which will hopefully serve them well in their future lives, if ever they feel under pressure – like poor Henry – to enter into the Wrong Sort of Agreement….

St John & St James, Chackmore 4

And now for the book signing!

They were a super audience, enthusiastically taking part in my 7 Ingredients Every Story Needs workshop and coming up with some really interesting questions at the end. The one that struck me most was from a girl who asked, ‘Why did you choose writing?’ Almost the same question as the more usual, ‘What made you become a writer?’ except that the answer leapt out in a way that surprised even me.

St John & St James, Chackmore 2Because you don’t choose writing, do you? It chooses you.

Thank you, St James and St John and Buckingham Literary Festival, for inviting me and for your splendid organisation.  The festival proper begins TONIGHT with a fun Quiz, followed by 3 days of events featuring top authors, Friday 15th – Sunday 17th June.

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How to be a relaxed parent: read to your children.

Book House Summertown

The Book House, Summertown, closing in June 2018

Two weeks ago I had the melancholy task of collecting a book from the Book House, Summertown, Oxford.  Before I am deluged with outrage that I could ever describe a bookshop visit as melancholy, I’ll explain that this wonderful, deceptively spacious (as estate agents love to put it) jewel of a bookshop is closing in June 2018, and they’d asked me to take back the one copy of Ante’s Inferno still on their shelves.

Ante Passchendaele jacket

A younger sibling of the glorious Aladdin’s Cave that is the Book House in Thame, the Book House, Summertown, has been a fixture of this part of Oxford for nearly 30 years.

Book House Thame

Aladdin’s Cave – the Book House, Thame

 

During that time the Summertown shopping centre – as so many throughout the UK – underwent a sea change in character, with traditional stores giving way to coffee and charity shops. When I arrived in the 1980s, there were 3 butchers, 3 greengrocers, 2 newsagents, 2 off licences, a toyshop, a pet shop, a post office and, oh joy, a bookshop.

All have gone now, with the Book House holding out valiantly years longer than the others. Life has changed, our shopping habits have changed and – saddest of all – so have our reading habits. We are all reading less than we used to; according to the wonderful Book House manager Renee Holler (herself a prolific children’s author), sales are down even in children’s books, supposedly a growth area in the UK market.  Competition from ebooks, Amazon and supermarkets offering cut-price paperbacks add to the pressure and increasingly, it’s all too much for delightful independent bookshops like the Summertown Book House to withstand.

One reason for the decline in reading among children, according to the annual Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer survey from Nielsen Book Research, is that we are reading to them less than we used to. In 2013, 69% of preschool children were read to daily in 2013; five years later, only 51%. Parents of three to four-year-olds apparently ‘struggle to find energy at the end of the day.’

Dinosaur bookCall me a dinosaur (ooh, yes please) but this statement puzzles me as much as it saddens. Do these parents not put their toddlers to bed? In my memory, amid the nightly chaos of trying to clear up toys (rarely succeeded), cajoling squalling youngsters upstairs, into and out of the bath and finally to their beds, that moment when at last we sat down together and read Janet and Allen Ahlberg’s Peepo Peepoor Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea was the gentlest, easiest and most relaxing of parental input.

So relaxing, in fact, that I’d frequently read myself to sleep, much to the annoyance of the child on my lap who’d turn and pinch my cheeks awake again. How do these parents, who lack the energy to read to their children, settle them into their beds without it?The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Now I have a 2 year-old grand-daughter, bedtime isn’t (yet) one of my tasks. But during the day she only has to set eyes on me to demand ‘Old King Cole’ (her current obsession, narrowly running ahead of Humpty Dumpty and the Grand Old Duke of York) before taking my hand and leading me to the sofa for a surfeit of nursery rhymes. I’m only too happy to comply, having always found reading aloud much less effort than creating imaginary games of Shops, or Lions and Zookeeper (to pick two of my daughter’s favourites when young). Their time will come, of course, along with the joys of television, ipads etc which for now the parents can control. But when it does, I’ll do all I can to keep alive this early love of books.

Meanwhile, a heartfelt plea: I totally get why Amazon is so successful. Online ordering is so convenient; I love having things delivered direct to my house instead of having to traipse round city centres trying to find them. So why not use the online ordering system operated by bookshops such as Blackwell’s and Waterstones? Often the prices match Amazon’s; you may have to wait a couple of days more for the delivery, that’s all. The difference is that you’re supporting not only the bookshops but also publishers, since while bookshops and wholesalers demand a 40 – 55% discount on the RRP of each title, Amazon is the greediest with its insistence of 60%.

And above all – as a little girl at Pegasus Primary School (part of the Blackbird Academy Trust) advised the Duchess of Cambridge on a recent visit – read to your children!

How books can save your life. Literally.

The Reading CureThere’s something about people all around me forgoing delicious things – like chocolate and wine – that has me thinking of food like never before. (I gave up giving anything up for New Year/Lent a long time ago. Life in winter is miserable enough.) How apt then, that Laura Freeman’s publishers, W & N, should have chosen mid-February to launch her memoir, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, in which she describes how the mouth-watering descriptions of food in the great classics saved her from the worst ravages of anorexia.  Siegfried Sassoon fortifying himself with boiled eggs and cocoa before a dawn hunt (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man);

siegfried_sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

Mrs Cratchit’s plum pudding – ‘a speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy’ (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) – these glorious images tempted her back to the warmth, nourishment and companionship of good things. For most of us, books are food for the soul; for Freeman, they turned out to be food for the body, too.

presenting-the-plum-pudding

Plum Pudding in A Christmas Carol

Reading her article in the Sunday Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/books-saved-me-from-starving-myself-to-death-ls2cd8c75, I wanted to punch the air. Anorexia is a terrible, relentless illness. Freeman describes the mental state it induces in terms of a library full of smashed book cases, in which the calm and order the sufferer longs for are reduced to splinters of glass and wood and rain spattered paper. The fact that books saved her, gave her ‘reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well,’ shows how much the senses are involved in the pleasure of reading, not just the mind.

For proof, I challenge you to read this list of provisions from St Agnes’s Eve by John Keats and not a) drool, or b) feel sick (depending on your sweetness of tooth).

‘…a heap

Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd

With jellies, soother than the creamy curd…’

Trifle

Not exactly Keats.

No prizes for guessing my reaction to these glorious lines. But then I always did like fruit jellies and cream, and my enjoyment of this poem harks back to some very early reading indeed. Aged 5, my favourite of the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards was the one where she and Bad Harry sneak into the larder and demolish a splendid trifle planned for his birthday party, beginning with the silver balls and jelly sweets on the top before diving into whipped cream, custard and sponge below. Ok, so it’s not exactly Keats… but it’s a fine example of the importance of food in children’s books.

Wind in the Willows picnicLaura Freeman cites glorious picnics in The Wind in the Willows, a theme also popular with Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five, Adventurous Four, Secret Seven – whatever – are sustained by freshly baked bread, new-laid eggs, delicious ham and – unforgettably – lashings of ginger beer.Famous Five

Delightful as these interludes are, their role in the plot shouldn’t be underrated, especially in adventure stories. If you’re going to thrust your characters into hair-raising situations, making them perform superhuman tasks, you’d better make sure you feed them. You’re already asking your readers to suspend a lot of disbelief; rendering your heroes immune to normal human needs is pushing it.

Ante Passchendaele jacketSending Ante with her companions, Gil and Florence, on a journey through Hell in Ante’s Inferno, I knew I had to allow them to stock up on energy and supplies to keep them going through all that heat and darkness. A break in Elysium, where Hector and Aeneas invite them to join in their cricket tea (er, you have to read the book) and Odysseus gives them water skins, did the trick:

‘Taking a strawberry, Ante allowed it to burst in her mouth, rolling its warmth and            sweetness on her tongue.’

My inspiration for calling up the sensuous pleasure of food was the scene in The Last Battle, where C S Lewis allows his characters a rest from all the fighting:

wild-strawberry‘Not far away from them rose a grove of trees, thickly leaved, but under every leaf there peeped out the gold or faint yellow or purple or glowing red of fruits such as no one has seen in our world… All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grape-fruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour.’

 

Just reading that again after all these years makes my mouth water.

How wonderful, then, that Laura Freeman’s delight in words has altered the balance of power between herself and her anorexia. It’s not a magic cure – she acknowledges the anorexia may never go away altogether – but it’s books that have brought her back to the idea of food and feasting with friends being something to enjoy, not dread.  Books can literally save your life.

But we knew that.

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

 

 

 

 

8 children’s names you won’t find in the Oxford Junior Dictionary

My bluebells Wytham

Do bluebells bloom in beech woods if there are no children to see them?

Here’s a nice bit of irony.  What do the following have in common?

Bluebell, Fern, Hazel, Heather, Ivy, Lark, Willow, Ash.

Capitalising these words for much-loved wild flowers, plants, trees and bird gives a clue: they are 8 of the most popular children’s names. They are also among a slew of natural terms omitted from the Oxford Junior Dictionary since 2007, on the grounds that they are no longer relevant to children’s lives.

ivy

The holly and the… um….

Together with beech, heron, kingfisher, buttercup, conker, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, and a number of other words brimming with bright colours, textures and the sheer, quivering life of the natural world, they’ve had to be junked to make way for the dreariness of blog, broadband, bullet point, chatroom and voicemail. If you can come up with anything else that so encapsulates how stuffy, sedentary, and stale is the environment in which we expect our children to thrive, I’ll eat my HTML.

Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the – what?

Oxford Dictionaries protest that making children aware of the natural world isn’t their job. Their task is to reflect the world that children now find themselves in, listing everyday, urban, familiar words, not ones that hark back to a more rural society. There simply isn’t room for both.  They may have a point, but it set me wondering as to what a dictionary is actually for.  Aren’t you supposed to use it to look up words you don’t know, not just the ones you do?  Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Nina Bawden, Eva Ibbotson and Katherine Rundell are widely read by children; all of the above words will appear in an amalgamation of their works. If it’s true that children’s lives are so impoverished they no longer know what a dandelion is, how can they find out?

Version 2

Christmas time – tum ti tum and wine

Actually, the answer is simple. As well as the space-limited Junior Dictionary (10,000 words, age 7 – 9 years) OUP publishes the Oxford Primary Dictionary (30,000 words, 8 – 10 years), which (I’m told) still contains these ‘archaic’ natural terms. Why bother with two reference works that practically overlap each other in their age range?  Forget the Junior Dictionary, OUP, and let children go straight from the Oxford First Dictionary (3,000 words, age 5 – 7) to the Primary one. Then everyone will be happy.

Lark

What larks?

Meanwhile, I can’t think of many words more relevant to children’s lives than what they – or their friends – happen to be called.  In a literary world defined by high tech, internet forums and social media, children themselves will have to act as a living dictionary of living things – rather like the outlaws in Fahrenheit 451 who become the books that no longer exist in print.

Buttercup

Poor little buttercup.

All we have to do is wait for otter, conker, beech and newt to start appearing on birth certificates.

Newt

I name this baby newt, Newt.

 

 

 

 

Could be a long wait.

How to get girls and boys excited about Dante

Griselda HeppelStay me with cups of tea (eh?),my-cup-of-tea comfort me with flagons…  (Ha, that’s more like it.)

flagon

More restorative than tea?

Forgive the euphoria – I’ve just come to the end of the busiest week of school visits ever.  So, OK, four schools in seven days is nothing to the really seasoned children’s author; but with all the organisation involved, the much emailing to and fro between me and teachers who, let’s face it, are already up to their eyes in work and school activities, I count just fixing a day and format as a Major Achievement.  It’s wonderful, then, when a string of visits round a particular theme come together, as they did during this year’s season of Remembrance.

Ante Passchendaele jacketAnte’s Inferno has undergone a special Passchendaele Centenary (1917 – 2017) reprinting, with a redesigned jacket that brings out its WW1 theme more strongly than before. If you’re wondering what connects a children’s version of Dante’s Inferno with this most horrific of all battles, the clue lies in Siegfried Sassoon’s famous lines:

                    I died in Hell –

(They called it Passchendaele).

I’m happy to visit schools at any time, talking to 9 – 13 year-olds about Greek Mythology, Dante, and how I updated his 700 year old poem to create an exciting, scary, and at times amusing murder mystery story in its own right; but my emphasising the Passchendaele theme made it natural for schools to choose this week for my visit. I’ve had a wonderful time, in single sex – both girls’ and boys’ – and co-educational schools, with numbers ranging from a cosy 22 to a thoroughly daunting 300.

Dulwich hall

Magnificent hall at Dulwich College, ready for 300 boys. Gulp.  

All of these visits remind me why I love writing for this age – it’s the time when children’s imagination and enthusiasm for books can be at their highest, while their emotional development enables them to take on complex issues and depths of meaning in a way they’re not always given credit for.  CCCS signing 1

My switched on, sparky, and well-informed audiences at Wychwood, Dragon, Christ Church Cathedral Schools and Dulwich College proved this in spades – thank you, all!

Oh, and one final thing – all that stuff about girls reading books with a boy hero but boys refusing to do the same when the hero is a girl… it’s bunkum.  Give boys a chance, people!

 

 

How not to be boys and girls

No more boys and girls - BBC 2

Dr Javid Abdelmoneim with pupils from Lanesend School, Isle of Wight

If you missed BBC 2’s fascinating class room experiment with 7 year-olds, No More Boys and Girls; can our kids go gender free?, catch it on iPlayer while you can. It’s a revelation, and not in a good way. By challenging some of the silly stereotypes that children of this age have, sadly, already taken on board, the idea was to show all of them, whatever sex, that with regard to what they want to do in life, the sky’s the limit. ‘Everyone can choose to be anything they want,’ cried one boy after discovering that, just as girls can become car mechanics and architects, so can boys go in for ballet and make-up artistry.  Hurrah!

Good news though this is, I can’t help asking – why is it news? How, in the name of our children’s health, did we get to the point where 7 year-olds – interviewed before the experiment – have already decided that ‘girls are good at being pretty’ and ‘boys are better at being in charge’?  Nearly 100 years after women won the vote and with rafts of Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination legislation on the statute book, sexist stereotypes are aliver and weller than they have ever been.  I’m so cross I don’t even care that those aren’t words.

Because while we can all be guilty of following – instead of questioning – traditional lines of thought, the real villains are those creating traditions that were never there before.  Yup, the manufacturing companies. The people who tell us not just that boys wear blue and girls wear pink (yawn, yawn), but that boys’ shoes are Leaders, tough enough to run around in, climb trees and yes, be in charge, whereas girls must wear flimsy Dolly Babes (thank you, Clarkes, who until now I held in high esteem).

The Amazing Boys' Colouring BookThe divide goes further: that great universal building toy, Lego (remember when it was just red and white bricks?) now comes in sets with names like ‘Andrea’s and Stephanie’s Beach Holiday,’ ‘Emma’s Ice Cream Van,’ and ‘Willy’s Butte Speed Training.’ Even such a basic activity as colouring isn’t immune, with The Amazing Boys’ Colouring Book (‘This exciting colouring book contains fantastic illustrations to inspire budding young artists to create their own masterpieces. The Gorgeous Girls' Colouring Book

From wacky robots and machines to exciting space scenes, medieval knights, massive monsters, motor cars and much, much more’)  paired with one for  Gorgeous Girls’ (From dolls’ houses, flowers, cupcakes and quilts, to exotic fruit, feathers and fairytale carriages, there’s something for every girl in this book’).

When challenged, the standard response from toy/clothes/shoes/book/household goods manufacturers is that they are giving customers what they want – an outrageous claim, since by creating gender-based products they are removing all choice of buying universal ones. Sneaky, too, since the real reason is screamingly obvious: profit. Divide the market and you double it.

Paw Patrol wellies

The Paw Patrol – but where is Skye?

Buy pink wellies for your daughter and your son will refuse to wear them, so you can’t pass them on and will have to shell out for new blue/black/grey/spiderman etc ones for him. Indeed, when it comes to merchandising, the manufacturers go further: Skye, the only female character from the popular series, Paw Patrol, is inexplicably absent from ‘boys’ wellies and china,

Skye

Skye – just not blue enough.

while with Peppa Pig, Peppa herself is reserved for ‘girls’ items and the poor lads have to make do with George.

As a children’s writer, I find this very depressing.We are told all the time that girls will read stories about boys, while boys won’t read ones about girls. From my talks to boys in all kinds of schools, I’m convinced this needn’t be the case; but if the message feeding through from infancy is that adventure, excitement, climbing trees, fighting monsters, building space rockets and flying to the moon are for boys only, who can blame them for assuming that a book with girl characters won’t have any of this kind of stuff?

Peppa pig

Rocket & dinosaurs for George; beads & mirror for Peppa

Both hero and opponent of my first book, Ante’s Inferno, were girls, with a boy being the other main character. My next title, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, was peopled almost exclusively by boys; while the cast of my current wip, The Call of a Sparrow, is nearly all girls. I don’t do this deliberately, it just happens. In all of the books, much is demanded of the main characters: bravery, quick-thinking, endurance, survival, a willingness to risk injury – even death – in pursuit of their cause. I hope this is what will count when arranging school visits, not the sex of my characters; but I know from bestselling writer Robin Stevens’ experience that I may have a fight on my hands. The author of the brilliant detective series for children beginning with Murder Most Unladylike, in which 12 year-olds Daisy and Hazel solve crimes, has had to stipulate that while she will happily visit single-sex and mixed schools alike, she will not speak to an audience of only girls in a mixed sex school.IMG_0093

Of course boys and girls are different. But not as different, not so divided on strict gender lines as our commercially-based society is teaching them today. Baby boys used to wear dresses, for heaven’s sake. In Elizabethan times, they wore dresses until the age of 7, when they were ‘breached’. By offering our children from babyhood onward this riot of supposed choice, all we are doing is building shades of the prison house around both sexes. Which is incredibly sad.

(From an article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.uk)

PS  Some good news: the repercussions are beginning, with John Lewis leading the way. If only all the other manufacturers would follow suit…. John Lewis is removing gender labelling from boys’ and girls’ clothes.

‘I died in Hell (They called it Passchendaele)’

hellfireWhat’s it like to be at the heart of Hell?  Very hot, in most people’s minds. Unbearably hot. The hottest and fieriest part of a mythical world in which the wicked are burnt forever in punishment for their misdeeds.

PIC 2 Dante portrait

Dante Alighieri

Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong, according to Dante Alighieri, whose first part of The Divine Comedy, the Inferno, is an imaginary descent through all the nine circles of Hell. Not about the wicked being punished – that’s non-negotiable – nor about the parts of Hell that do rage with fire (hence the modern use of Inferno to describe such terrible disasters as Grenfell Tower); but about the centre of Hell itself, the lowest circle in which the wickedest souls of all are punished. They are the traitors, betrayers of family, country, guests, benefactors and finally, God himself. There is no heat of passion in their crimes, only cold, ruthless calculation; their punishment is to be frozen forever in a vast, desolate, treeless plain, an outside manifestation of the ice in their own hearts.

gustave-dore-illustration-for-the-divine-comedy1

Hell freezing over for Dante and Virgil (Gustav Dore)

The depiction of Dante and Virgil stumbling among these immobile figures, trying not to kick at the heads just poking above ground, in the teeth of a bitter wind, is one of the most chilling episodes of the whole Inferno. Not only that: the Hell created here has an immediacy of detail that brings it horribly close to human experience. Take away the moral judgement aspect, pockmark the plain with craters and jab it with barbed wire fences, scatter millions of cartridge cases and pieces of shrapnel, add bursts of machine gun and shellfire, relieve the darkness sporadically with flares and waterlog the ground with steady, unceasing rain – and you have Siegfried Sassoon’s famous line: I died in Hell – (They called it Passchendaele).

Passchendaele Canadian War Museum

Passchendaele – Hell on earth. (Photo courtesy of IWM)

This is why, when updating Dante’s Hell for my children’s version of his story, Ante’s Inferno, I could think of no better way to try to match the horror of his ninth circle than to follow Sassoon’s lead. An accident at school sends 12 year-old Ante (Antonia) on a journey through the Underworld, accompanied by her worst enemy, Florence, and Gil, a boy who died 100 years before the story begins, on the eve of the First World War. At first, the three of them have to deal merely (!) with creatures and monsters from classical legend – Cerberus, Charon, harpies, the minotaur.

Dante & Vergil on Styx copy

Charon ferries Dante and Virgil across the Styx. (Gustav Dore)

It’s lower down that man-made instruments of destruction come into their own, culminating in the bottom of Hell consisting of a recreation of the battle of Passchendaele, arguably the most terrible of the whole war. From its beginning on 31 July until the capture of Passchendaele ridge by the Canadian Corps on 10 November, 1917, the casualties on both sides came to well over half a million: shot, blown up, gassed and even drowned, as vast areas of the ground had been churned into liquid mud many feet deep. Siegfried Sassoon wasn’t wrong. Even in light of so many other appalling WW1 battles, Passchendaele stands out.

IWM pic of Passchendaele E_AUS_001220 copy

Australian troops at Passchendaele. (photo courtesy of IWM)

This year marks 100 years since the battle took place, an anniversary I’ll be bringing out on a number of school visits I have booked around Remembrance Day in November (I have room for more, any Year 5 – 8 teachers out there!). In honour of the Centenary, Ante’s Inferno has undergone a special reprint, the jacket updated by the addition of a haunting photograph from the Imperial War Museum.

Looking at that flat, grey, desolate wasteland of mud and stagnant water, its only features the shorn trunks of trees where once a forest had been, I think Dante would have understood.

Ante Inferno Passchendaele copy

Always assuming he’d forgive my cheek in reimagining his masterpiece in the first place…

(From a blogpost on Authors Electric  )