28 reasons for following Authors Electric

…Starting with No. 1.  Me.

Before I am justifiably deluged by an electric storm of outrage at such hubris, I should clarify: I am only No 1 in the sense that I’ve joined the wonderfully diverse and fascinating band of writers that is Authors Electric and have been allotted the 1st day of every month. The other 27/28/29/30 days belong to my 27 fellow sparks, with the remainder going to guest writers. I’m honoured to be in this company. The only brief is to write about anything and everything to do with books and writing and already I’ve discovered, through reading other Electric Authors, writers I hadn’t heard of, and enjoyed discussions of all kinds, ranging from playwriting to indie publishing to the Rise of Donald Trump.  Actually, delete ‘enjoyed’ for that last topic.

Here’s my blog for 1 November:

Good Halloween reading

Today I’m posting my First Ever blog for Authors Electric. It comes the day after a somewhat strenuous school visit, in which my aim was to persuade 40 Halloween fixated Years 7 and 8 that stories of pacts with demons, crystal balls, charms, spells and alchemy, all dating back hundreds of years, are at least as exciting as pointy hats, plastic orange pumpkins and wriggly worms. I’m pretty sure I succeeded. Mostly.

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More exciting than a pumpkin

Even more important – and this is why I love school visits – is the chance to enthuse children with the sheer magic of books themselves. Some will be keen readers already. Others, not yet, but give them a glimpse into other worlds and you never know when they may follow it up. My favourite books as a child were either retellings of great myths and legends – T H White’s The Once and Future King, Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy – or stories that recreated a classical world of monsters and magical creatures, such as C S Lewis’s The Narnia Chronicles. These were all terrific stories in their own right: I didn’t need to know anything about Malory or Homer or Ovid to enjoy them. Only much later, encountering those authors at university, the feeling of coming home I experienced filled me with an even stronger appreciation of the writers I’d loved as a child. They really, really knew their stuff. More, they were determined that children should have the chance to know it too.

So when, at the end of my talk (sometimes during, which can be distracting but hats off for enthusiasm), somebody asks, ‘What made you become a writer?’, the answer is easy. I had to. Because while you’ll find hundreds of books by excellent children’s authors based on King Arthur and the Greek and Roman gods and heroes, some of the world’s greatest literary works have been ignored in this respect.

    Dante’s Inferno, for instance. A brilliant, grotesque imagining by the poet of descending through 9 circles of Hell, based on the classical underworld, complete with Cerberus, harpies, furies, Minotaur, rivers of blood and fire – surely it could only be a matter of time before somebody made this into a cracking children’s adventure story? Well, I waited… And my own children grew up a bit and gave me more space to think… And one day I decided enough was enough and sat down to write about a girl called Ante (Antonia) who finds herself plunged on a dark journey to the heart of Hell, guided by a mysterious boy called Gil.  I wrote the kind of book I’d have loved aged 12 and when Ante’s Inferno (Matador, 2012) came out, was delighted to find plenty of 9 – 12 year olds out there who feel the same (enough to vote Ante’s Inferno to win the Peoples Book Prize).

Why did no one do it before? My guess is that people assume that Dante, a 14th century Italian poet studied by theologians and academics, must be too difficult for children. In my experience young people are often underestimated in the kind of ideas they can grasp and enjoy. In my school visits, I sketch in a few details about Dante and the purpose of the Divine Comedy. I invariably find the audience fascinated by the idea of a Hell based on myths of the underworld (some of which they know), arranged into individual circles for different kinds of wrongdoing. Many of them want to read Ante’s Inferno as a result (hurrah!) but more importantly, they’ve been given a taste of the great wealth of literature and legend that’s out there.

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Seven deadly sins – popular with children

Which brings me to the topic occupying my current school visits. Not Greek legend and the Seven Deadly Sins – also very popular with children, incidentally – but Elizabethan magic and devilish bargains.  Perhaps you can guess the inspiration behind my latest book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, in which a 13 year old boy, finding himself in a spot of bother at school, hits on the brilliant idea of summoning supernatural aid.

Unfortunately, entering into a pact with a helpful fellow called Mephistopheles lands Henry in rather more trouble than he’d bargained for….

Follow me and my fellow electric authors here!

How to make an author happy

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How often does an author make a school visit – and find that every child in the room has read her book?

Not often, I bet.

But that was my experience visiting Year 6 at Pegasus School in Oxford last week. The inspirational Jill Hudson, head teacher of Pegasus before taking on the overall headship of the Blackbird Academy Trust, to which Pegasus belongs, liked Ante’s Inferno so much when it came out in 2012 that she chose it for the Year 6 Reading Groups, effectively making it part of the curriculum. Now children read it all together as they move into Year 6 and discuss its themes of bullying and self-knowledge against the story’s background of classical mythology, fantasy adventure and the First World War.

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This meant that for the first time ever, my task wasn’t to introduce my audience to Ante’s Inferno, but to delve more deeply with them into characters, story and the inspiration behind them.  My standard talk describing Dante’s imagined journey through Hell (with lots of dark, scary images by the great illustrators) always grabs children’s interest but this time it was even more exciting as they recognised the shape of the Underworld into which Ante, Florence and Gil descend, together with the monsters and mythological creatures they meet. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm in their faces and hear it in the questions and comments that flowed throughout the talk and after – not just because it showed how much they loved the book, but also that they understood it.  A story that interweaves such rich and apparently unconnected themes as Dante, classical mythology and the First World War isn’t – as I was warned by numerous adults – far too difficult for primary school children to grasp.

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How would they respond to my new book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst (out 28 August 2015), with its equally ‘demanding’ themes of Elizabethan magic and pacts with demons? Well, here was the chance to try it out. I finished my visit by reading an extract from the book, half-wondering if it would be more appropriate for Years 7 and 8.

I needn’t have worried. ‘Ooh, I really want to read that!’ cried a curly-haired boy at the end before leading the group in spontaneous clapping.

Pegasus, you are awesome.