Never mind the story, what’s the theme?

Sometimes when submitting my work, I get a question that stumps me:

What’s the theme of your story?

It’s a story, I want to reply, it doesn’t have a theme. Which isn’t strictly true, but to expect a writer to sum up the complex interweaving of character, purpose and plot that makes up a novel in one word feels to me like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit down and decide to write a book about human relationships, or loneliness, or the abuse of power, bullying, courage in the face of danger, overcoming difficulties or redemption. A story forms itself in my mind which will have all these elements and more, but it won’t be about any single one of these.

 It will be about an unconfident, friendless 12 year-old girl who finds herself on a journey to the bottom of Hell (Ante’s Inferno), or a geeky 13 year-old boy, driven by desperation to make a pact with a demon (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst).
Or an angry 11 year-old sent away from home to a school where the only person who will speak to her is a weird, excitable 9 year-old boy that all the other girls pretend isn’t there (The Fall of a Sparrow, current wip). Other elements are woven into the story – Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno and WW1 in Ante’s Inferno, Elizabethan magic and the Faustus legend in Henry Fowst – but no single one of these becomes THE story’s theme and nor should it be. If you really want to boil my books down to a single theme, it’s about a young person who finds life and making friends difficult, who through a series of challenges and dangers gains experience, self-knowledge and a better relationship with the world around them.

Jane EyreNot a great sales pitch, is it? I mean, you could summarise just about any book that’s ever been written this way – Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Three Little Pigs, for heavens sake -and give no flavour of what they are really about.

Do we demand this of all works of literature, that each be identified by a single theme? How about:

Macbeth: the battle between Good and Evil.

The Lord of the Rings: the battle between Good and Evil (with hobbits).

Harry Potter: the battle between Good and Evil (with wizards).

The Narnia Chronicles: the battle between Good and Evil (with multiple mythological creatures).The Last Battle

His Dark Materials; the battle between Good and Evil (with daemons).

Um…

I realise I may be missing something here. Worse, that if I can’t summon up an original way to label my stories, then maybe they are just not strong enough to stand out. I hope not. But I also suspect a covert laziness on the part of the person demanding a theme, to find an easy way to sell my book to their colleagues or (more likely) reject it out of hand. Your hero has trouble making friends, do they? Ah, so that’s the Bullying Theme. We have enough of those on our list already, sorry.

This is my problem with themes. If you write children’s books, your main character is a child. They will have enemies or there would be no story. The enemies are not nice to them. This is called bullying. It is exactly what happens in books for adults, only there it’s called threatening, menacing, violent behavior etc, and the people who do it are Bad Guys, Villains, Psychos. Yet no publisher would dismiss a gripping, page-turning thriller just because yet again, it’s about Bad People Being Nasty to Good (or at least not so bad) People.

Bullying appears in my stories but they are not ‘about’ bullying. The behavior arises from clashes between the characters, conflicting goals, problems in their own lives, troubled back stories and secret fears. All the ingredients, in short, needed to build characters strong enough to drive an exciting, complex, satisfying story where the reader really cares what happens.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

 

 

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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 to win the People’s Book Prize (or come a close second)

Children's finalists PBP 2016

The 7th Peoples Book Prize award dinner took place last night in the splendid Worshipful Company of Stationers’ Hall in the City of London. With 36 finalists, publishers and guests, the atmosphere was happy and supportive – there is something liberating about a prize decided entirely by popular vote.  Every finalist called up to the stage was there because lots of people loved and voted for their book; good news for authors, publishers and above all, the public, who’ve shown that books and reading are things to get excited about.

It was great to meet up again with fellow former prize winner, Giles Paley Philips, whose entry, Little Bell and the Moon, is truly magical, with Giles’s beautifully cadenced poetry matched by Iris Deppe’s outstanding illustrations. In fact the standard of the finalists overall was so high, I’d prepared myself for a stiff competition and wasn’t too downhearted when Milky Moments by Ellie Stoneley scooped the prize.2-DSCN3115

A new category, Best Publisher, was introduced this year, for which I was delighted to discover that my publishers had been nominated.  Congratulations Sarah Taylor of Troubador, it was brilliant seeing you at the dinner, even if Troubador didn’t end up winning!

Which sums up my experience of the evening overall: it really wasn’t just about the winning. What mattered was being there at the finals, meeting other authors and publishers who’ve come from all over the world, and celebrating together.

Thank you, all you wonderful people who backed The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst,
IMG_6578 2enduring stoically my stream of PBP reminders over the last few months. Without your support the book would never have got as far as it did and if it didn’t quite equal Ante’s Inferno’s achievement of winning the People’s Book Prize 2013, being a Finalist in 2016 is a pretty close second.

We Need New Pigeon Holes

TooManyPigeons

I’m delighted to be asked by Writers’ and Artists’ Year book to write an article for their website.  Here it is: WANTED: A New Category in Children’s Books

My chance to air a subject close to my heart: the problem presented to children’s writers by pigeon holes imposed by the book trade (don’t say that with your mouth full).

Picture: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5c/TooManyPigeons.jpg/1024px-TooManyPigeons.jpg