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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The People’s Book Prize – Spring Collection – Children – “The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst” By Griselda Heppel

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst By Griselda Heppel

Published by Matador ISBN 9781784623043   The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVERSpring 2016

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst has reached the FINALS of the People’s Book Prize. Follow the link below to read more and VOTE!  The winner of each category is decided entirely by public vote so it’s up to you. Closing date: 10 July.

Thank you!

Synopsis:  In the shadows of Walton Hall a demon lurks. His name: Mephistopheles. In 1586,…

Source: The People’s Book Prize – Spring Collection – Children – “The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst” By Griselda Heppel

The lost library of Dr Dee

SLIDE 9   John Dee

John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

SLIDE 9   John Dee

John Dee (1527 – 1609). Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee is the title of a wonderful exhibition now on at the Royal College of Physicians, Regents Park, London. For a show dedicated to the most famous magician and alchemist England has ever produced, the RCP doesn’t strike one as the obvious venue. Yes, John Dee was a doctor but not that kind of doctor – unless you count drawing a patient’s astrological chart as an aid to diagnosis. Which in John Dee’s day – the Sixteenth Century – it would have been.

John Dee (1527 – 1609) was an extraordinarily gifted mathematician, engineer, navigational expert and astronomer. He was also an astrologer, magician and alchemist who devoted much of his life (and a considerable fortune) to discovering what he thought would be the key to the universe: the language God used to talk to Adam in the garden of Eden, the ‘Enochian alphabet’.

John Dee performing magic before Elizabeth 1

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth 1. By Henry Gillard Glindoni. Wellcome library, London

Cracking this language, he reasoned, would open up to him the secrets of nature, God’s creation. Bonkers, yes, but what I love about Dee’s fantastical ideas is the spirit of enquiry they sprang from; at heart he was a scientist, using – as other natural philosophers did – magic and alchemy as tools of discovery alongside more factual disciplines like mathematics and astronomy. In my research into Elizabethan magic for my children’s book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, John Dee provided the perfect example of a conjurer using spells and charms in a positive – as opposed to a destructive – way.

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De Septem Secundeis by Johannes Trithemius, published in Cologne 1567. Royal College of Physicians.

A great scholar, Dee amassed 3.000 books in his house in Mortlake.  Unfortunately judgement of other people’s trustworthiness doesn’t seem to have been one of his strengths and in 1583 his own brother-in-law, left in charge while Dee travelled abroad, allowed the library to be plundered. Around 100 of the missing books were stolen by a man called Nicholas Saunders, and these were eventually bequeathed to the RCP, giving the college possession of the biggest portion of Dee’s original library still in one piece. This exhibition offers a fabulous chance to see 50 of them, together with a number of Dee’s own magical implements such as his obsidian mirror and crystal ball (useful for showing angelic spirits with whom he tried to converse).

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John Dee’s crystal ball. British museum.

Doodles in the margins – astrological tables, geometric shapes, human profiles and in one case, a splendid ship in full sail – give a delightful sense of the man who originally owned and loved these books. Go see! You have until 29th July, 2016.

https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/scholar-courtier-magician-lost-library-john-dee

How to be a great children’s books illustrator

Not only is Bananagirl of Mango Bubbles Books a perceptive reviewer, she’s an artist!  I love this drawing of Henry Fowst alone in his bedroom reading John Striven’s diary of 1586, with shape-changing demon Mephistopheles hovering over him…brrrr.

‘It was sooo gripping, I read the book in one week, one day, one hour, so there! (smiley face)’. For Bananagirl’s full review of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, go to Mango Bubbles Books.

Henry drawing

10 things I want my readers to know about me…

… as told to Female First.  This wonderful website invited me to make a list and after some scratching of head and counting of fingers (I have ten, which helps the arithmetical aspect no end), I got there.

If you want to know (course you do) what made me become a writer instead of a giraffe

Sunset-Free-Giraffe-Wallpaper
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

 

 

and find out about the inspiration behind my books, go to http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/the-tragickall-history-of-henry-fowst-griselda-heppel-902169.html

Ante thumbnail

3 schools, 2 hundred miles, 1 tired author

But a very happy one.

Last week I drove the many-roundabouted way from Oxford to Cambridgeshire, visiting first Stretham Primary, a lovely village school near Ely. The Year 5/6 teacher had bought a dozen copies of Ante’s Inferno for her class – would I come and talk to the children about it?

Stretham Primary School

Stretham Primary School

You bet I would. I love sharing the backgrounds to my books, in this case Dante’s Inferno, Greek mythology and the First World War. And don’t let anyone tell you that those subjects are beyond the understanding of the average 10 year-old. With the aid of some dark, atmospheric illustrations by Botticelli, Blake and Dore projected on a screen, the children at Stretham easily grasped the idea of Dante’s Hell being based on the Ante thumbnailclassical Underworld, complete with Styx, Charon, Cerberus, Minotaur etc.  I asked them lots of questions as I went along and – as happens every time – the children were delighted to find they know more than they think they do, both about classical mythology and how to write a story. Some had already read Ante’s Inferno but most hadn’t, which is what I normally expect – much more fun to leave them desperate to read the book once I’m gone.

From one extreme to another – the mixed 5/6 Year group at Stretham Primary numbered 30 children. The next day I found myself in a hall at the King’s School, Ely, watching 160 students file in: the whole of Years 7 and 8, come to hear me talk about my new book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst. OK, I’ve talked to large groups before but this was definitely the largest; a challenge to the lungs on my side and to concentration on theirs. Luckily both held up. Sinister Faustian pacts and Elizabethan magic intrigued the students, and while I am (fairly) certain that none of them will be tempted to call up a demon, it was very exciting to find a long line of 12 and 13 year-olds waiting for me in the library afterwards, eager to buy a copy.

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The King’s School, Ely

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst COVER

 

 

Third visit was on Monday, back in Oxford, to Year 7 at Leckford Place – a school I have a particularly soft spot for, as it hosted one of my first Ante’s Inferno talks. Here the teacher had prepared the students beforehand. While not strictly necessary, it does mean they get even more out of the talk; for the first time, everyone in the room knew what a Faustian pact was.  Lots of hands went up to answer my questions and even more to quiz me afterwards – and at least two thirds of the group clustered round me at the end for copies of the book.

And all without recourse to any charms, incantations, spells, astrological forecasts or even the tinsy-winsiest Faustian pact. Honest.

5 top pacts with the devil in literature

The Faustian pact – we all know what it means. The idea of selling your soul to the devil in return for great wealth and power holds a powerful grip on the imagination; it can be applied to all kinds of dubious bargains, the whiff of danger adding excitement to the fantastic amount of money/power/enjoyment you expect to get out of the deal. How can that not make a good story?

To celebrate the imminent publication of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, here are five top devilish pacts in literature:

  1. To begin at the beginning… the Bible. You expected Marlowe, didn’t you? Nope. God got there first.  The Book of Job is the story of a good, faithful, man being put through terrible suffering, and all because God
    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    has a bet with Satan (seriously) over Job’s soul. Pointing out that Job is only good because he has an easy life, Satan gets God to agree that Satan can test Job’s faith by piling calamities on him. ‘ “All right, the Lord said to Satan, “everything he has is in your power, but you must not hurt Job himself.”’ (Job 1, v 12, Good News Bible). Job comes through with flying colours (all the more amazing since Satan interprets ‘not hurting Job himself’ pretty loosely, killing his whole family and covering him with boils) and God wins the bet.

  1. Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. For the English-speaking world at least, this is the great setting of the myth that grew round Dr Johannes Faust, a sinister alchemist and magician who lived in SLIDE 4          Doctor FaustusGermany in the early 16th Marlowe has Faustus offer the demon, Mephistopheles, his soul in exchange for 24 years in which he might

Live in all voluptuousness;

            Having thee ever to attend on me;

            To give me whatsoever I shall ask

            To tell me whatsoever I demand,

            To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,

            And always be obedient to my will.

            (Doctor Faustus, Scene III)

Heady stuff – but you’d have to have tapioca for brains not to see that 24 years is hardly a good deal. Faustus fools himself by not really believing in damnation – ‘Come, I think hell’s a fable.’ (Doctor Faustus, Scene IV).  Big mistake.

  1. Goethe, Faust. The great 18th century German poet and dramatist took the Faust story and rooted it firmly in the Book of Job, making Faust’s soul the stake of a wager between God and Mephistopheles. Faust has a thirst for knowledge, a scientific curiosity impossible to satisfy because there are more secrets in the universe than he can ever discover. SLIDE 6 Goethe-Faust-Mephistopheles promises to fulfil his every wish in return for his soul; but just as God bets the demon that Faust will ultimately return to Him, so Faust bets Mephistopheles that the demon can’t win his soul because Faust knows he will never be satisfied:

When, to the moment then, I say:

Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!

Then you can grasp me.http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIScene IVtoVI.htm

In league with the devil, Faust now enjoys himself immensely and does some terrible things but his mind remains ever restless, striving to know and experience more. And paradoxically, it is this striving that saves him in the end because ‘Whoever strives,’ say the angels, ‘can be redeemed.’  Faust II, Line 11936

  1. Peter SchlemihlAdalbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemihl. This children’s story written in 1814 adds a new twist: Peter Schlemihl sells the devil not his soul, but
    his shadow, in return for a bottomless wallet. The loss of his shadow makes Peter an outcast but when the devil offers to return the shadow in exchange for his soul, Peter is wise enough to resist him.
  1. The Devil and Homer Simpson (Treehouse of Horror IV).  OK, not literature as such but how could I not include Homer selling 250px-Glazed-Donuthis soul to the devil in exchange for a doughnut? Fortunately for Homer it turns out that his soul wasn’t his to sell in the first place, having given it away to Marge on their wedding day. Ahhhhhhhh.

From the sublime to the ridiculous – but then folk legend has always been packed with stories of simple people tricking the devil. And what unites Homer Simpson, Faust, Schlemiel and all those colourful literary characters who bargain with the devil is an urgent need they can find no other way of meeting. So when plotting my children’s version of the Faust story, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, the one question I had to answer was, what great need would drive 13 year-old Henry Fowst – and his 16th century counterpart, 12 year-old John Striven – to make a pact with a demon?

Well, I’ll give you a clue.

It isn’t a doughnut.