Thursday, 30 April 2015

Countdown to 7th May: Interview with Martyn Ford

I was a big fan of Martyn Ford's The Imagination Box - in particular Phil, the talking finger monkey, who is an AMAZING character. I was really pleased to get the chance to ask him some questions as part of the Countdown to 7th May blog tour. (Thanks to Daphne for co-organising with me, and for the gorgeous button!)

When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

I see adult humans. Which might seem weird. But that's fine - they can give it to kids when they're done. Oddly it wasn't until very late in the process that I actually considered that what children think of the book would be quite important. There are no lines, hopefully everyone will enjoy it.

If you could send an imagination box as a present to someone, who would you send it to?

My partner. She would be grateful and I could have a go on it too. It'd be a very helpful household gadget.

Asking what you'd ask for yourself if you had an imagination box seems a really obvious question so I was going to avoid it, but EVERYONE who's read it is desperate to know, so I'm bowing to peer pressure here - what would you choose?

Well, honestly, what I would create is actually something Tim makes in the book, so it's a bit of a spoiler. But it's sort of the right answer. Anyone who ponders the concept for long enough should get there. However, as a second choice, maybe something altruistic - a compact fusion reactor? Cure for malaria? I don't know. This is hard.

Why a finger monkey?

The fact you have to ask is kind of the answer. They're such underrated animals, I'm yet to meet anyone who isn't at least a little bit enchanted when they first see one. I remember thinking when I was coming up with the idea, years ago, that Phil might be a mouse. I thought I couldn't possibly make him a finger monkey because no one has ever had a talking finger monkey in a story. And then, wide eyed, I thought, 'Hang on a minute...'

The book's being published on Election Day - if you were Prime Minister, which authors would you want as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Deputy PM?

Good question. Right, this might seem like cheating, but Winston Churchill for Home Secretary. He wrote books, so is eligible and this scenario is unlikely enough for me to assume that choosing dead people shouldn't be an issue. Generally he's well received, has held the position before and knows his way around a rousing speech.

Foreign Secretary would be Russell Brand. I half like him and think his heart is mostly in the right place. A senior cabinet position would help balance out his more outlandish, simplified ideas. Rein him in a bit.

Deputy Prime Minister would be Thomas Harris, because I like his work and he stays out of the public eye so it would be nice to learn more about him. However, I doubt he'd be up for it.
I feel the need to say that this government is going to be an absolute shambles though.

What books would you recommend to readers who enjoyed The Imagination Box?

Hard to say. But, without sounding too self-centred, it would make sense for them to read the sequel. I mean, thematically, it's so close. I literally cannot think of a book with more similarities.

What's next for Martyn Ford?

I'm working on an adult novel at the moment and have been for a while. Doing books takes ages. Long term though I'm just going to keep writing words and hopefully people will give me a bit of money for them. This, in turn, I will swap for things such as food, clothes and the like.

Jim blogs over at YA Yeah Yeah and can often be found on Twitter.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Granny by Anthony Horowitz

Granny by Anthony Horowitz

Illustrated by Tony Ross

Reissued with new illustrations by Walker Books

Joe Warden isn't happy. He has rich, uncaring parents and he’s virtually a prisoner in the huge family mansion, Thattlebee Hall. But his real problem is his granny. Not only is she physically repulsive and unbelievably mean, but she seems to have some secret plan – and that plan involves him. Can Joe thwart Granny’s evil scheme before he’s turned into neoplasmic slime?

‘There are so many ways to upset a grandchild,’ says Granny, to her gang of elderly cronies, swigging beer and whisky and chomping on cigars, over a game of poker. As young Joe eavesdrops from the landing, he hears them gleefully swapping stories of the terrible jumpers they've knitted, the wet kisses they've slapped on unwilling cheeks and the poking, patting and cuddling guaranteed to make children squirm.

But unfortunately for Joe, of this gruesome gaggle of grannies, his is the absolute worst. He knows only too well the boiling disappointment of a present willfully bought to be too young for him, and the horrors of a supper piled high with cottage cheese and slimy raw herring, which his (to everyone else, apparently sweet-natured) granny has made specially for him. Inflicting her own peculiar brand of tortures and disposing of his only allies, Granny seems to hold all the cards in more ways than one. It’s bad enough being trapped with her over the summer holidays when his parents are on holiday in France. But when Granny announces that they are going away together ‘on a little trip’ to a hotel in Bideford, where Joe discovers that all the residents and staff are over seventy-years-old, his problems really begin. Never has the prospect of sea air and ice creams cast such a frightening shadow.

Why is everybody so old?

Why are so many of the elderly guests carrying strange pieces of scientific equipment with them on arrival?

And what, exactly, are the mysterious Golden Granny Awards?

Horowitz makes no secret that the book was inspired by his own wretched grandmother – a woman, he tells us, devoid of the ability to do anything kind for anyone and this clearly underpins his venomous descriptions of the antagonist. And they are harsh:

There were no labels on her perfume bottles but this one might have been called “Decomposing Sheep”.


Granny wore a lot of make-up. Sometimes she put it on so thickly that you could have drawn a picture in it with your thumb-nail.

But worst of all was her skin. As well as kissing her grandson, Granny insisted on his kissing her and her skin was as withery as a punctured balloon. No words could describe the feel of her skin against his lips, actually flapping slightly between the upper and the lower lip at the moment of kissing.

However, taken in the context of this surreal, larger-than-life tale, they make Granny the ultimate antagonist.

Horowitz says that the idea for the book came to him whilst he was attending his grandmother’s funeral, and adds in his introduction, that whilst she never made anyone smile in life, she has certainly made children laugh in this book. Whether this was motivated by revenge or a desire to bring something good out of something so dreadful the end result is the same – a giggle-filled book with a truly wicked villain at its heart.

‘Granny’ brims with ridiculousness reminiscent of Dahl, and shares that author’s favourite themes of children standing up to the outrageously vile adults that bully them, as in ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and ‘The Witches’. Joe is very much on his own, young and vulnerable, and the reader immediately sympathises with him as he endures Granny’s dreadful machinations. As the peril rises for Joe, the story’s humour comes in many flavours.

Sometimes it’s surreal:

Mrs Warden was in a hurry. She threw a spoonful of coffee granules into her mouth and sipped some boiling water from the kettle. 

Sometimes it’s in bright word play. Joe’s parents’ house is called Thattlebee Hall whilst the seaside hotel to which he is unwillingly taken by Granny is The Stilton International.

And at other times it takes the form of corny jokes that would make even Basil Brush groan:

Mr Warden was at work. And Mrs Warden – who was now having lessons in Chinese cookery – was at wok.

The Daily Telegraph calls the book ‘wickedly funny’ and to me this highlights the sort of humour that I feel works best of all: where the laughs are mixed with horror.

For example, after the police dogs have attacked the unfortunate Mrs Jinks:

He saw Sherlock and Bones being led back to the police van, their heads hanging in disgrace, and saw, with a wave of despair, that they looked a lot fatter than they had been when they arrived.

Horowitz’s pitting a boy against wicked adults will appeal strongly to a child’s sense of justice: that villains meet with miserable ends. However, I would offer one word of caution. There is a strong sinister undercurrent throughout this book and despite the apparent victory over Granny, there is no happy ever after for Joe. Menace remains to the last page. Bad things happen to good people and I would not recommend this book for younger or more anxious children.

However, that aside, I have no doubt that many children will delight in the comic anarchy of this book, brilliantly illustrated by Tony Ross, and feel sure that its timely reissue will delight the many fans of Dahl and Walliams. 

Reviewer: Julia Wills

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Author to Author: Fleur Hitchcock Quizzes Anna Wilson

Anna, are you very disciplined about writing or can you spend all morning tidying a cupboard when you ought to be editing?

ME: I wouldn’t say I was VERY disciplined, but I try to have a routine. I began writing regularly once my kids started school, so I have been in the habit for a while now of sitting down once I have dropped them off and writing until pick-up time. I try to aim for 1000 words a day. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I manage more. I never used to work in the school holidays, but now the kids are teens, they don’t get up, so I have a blissful couple of hours to write while they are still snoring. I can still spend a whole morning tidying a cupboard or two when the fancy takes me, though…

I know you’re a keen runner – what’s the connection for you between running and writing?

ME: I think Haruki Murakami puts it best in his excellent book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

“No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act. As a writer then, as a runner […] Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation […] For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor.”

I find the two go hand in glove (or foot in shoe?) and that the one helps the other: when I am stuck on writing, running often unlocks things.

What do your children think about you writing.  Are they impressed?

They used to be! They used to let me read my WIP manuscripts aloud to them. They used to love it when I did school assemblies. They used to laugh at my jokes… I think they are still interested in what I do, but it’s all a bit embarrassing when you’re fourteen or sixteen. Let’s face it, everything is embarrassing at that age. And I am a bit mean because I draw on my family a lot for inspiration. It would be fair to say you might recognize a few of the characters in The Great Kitten Cake Off, for example: there is a mum who is mad on running, a son who is obsessed with filming everything and who worships a Mary Berry character, a rather moody daughter and a dad who tells appallingly bad jokes.

You used to work in publishing, how much do you think that insider knowledge helps you with your writing?   

I’m not sure it helps me that much these days. The industry has changed so much since I was in-house as an editor. It is much more commercial. Publishers used to have long editorial meetings where the key decisions were made on acquisitions, and editors had a vested interest in growing individual authors and ‘owning’ them. Now the sales teams have far more say and unless your last book has sold on well, you are not going to curry much favour with your editor for your Next Big Thing. I suppose that knowing how a publishing house is structured has helped me to understand the production side of things. And I hope I am more understanding to my editor, having been on that side of the desk myself.

Tell me about Cornwall?

How long have you got?! I have been going to a little place in West Penwith for the past twenty or so years – ever since my husband and I fell in love. (Cue slushy music…) I love the wildness of the landscape, the myths and legends surrounding the standing stones and Celtic heritage, the sea, the cliffs, the big skies, Ross Poldark--  (Whoops, sorry…)
Basically I have been writing notes about the place for so long in my diaries, it was inevitable that I would write a book set there eventually, hence Summer’s Shadow – a family mystery set in a ghostly granite mansion, high on the cliffs near Land’s End.

Is your house surrounded by animals?

Pretty much. We own a black Labrador called Kenna (named after my favourite place in Cornwall, Boskenna), we have two cats who think they own us, some chickens (the numbers change depending on predators) and a tortoise called Hercules who we adopted last year. We are surrounded by a rookery, deer, foxes and badgers (hence the head-count on the chickens being a literal moveable feast) and many beautiful wild birds including a pheasant who has recently taken up residence.

Were you an animal-focused child?

I was, but mostly in my head. My mother hates animals. I mounted a concerted campaign from as early as I can remember to be allowed a pet. She finally gave in to a tortoise who did not live long, (much to Mum’s delight and my deep grief). A few years later I somehow persuaded her to let me have a cat who was a fiend in feline form, but managed to win Mum over so successfully that Mum phoned me in tears at work when the cat died eighteen years on. Probably as a result of my deprived childhood, I am a complete push-over whenever my family asks for another animal…

When you were 10 what books were you reading?

Anything I could lay my hands on. I was a member of the Puffin Club and devoured the monthly magazine for tips on what to read next. I used the local library and the school library regularly. I adored mysteries such as Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Owl Service… I think these books informed Summer’s Shadow a little, as I found myself wanting to write the sort of book I was looking for in those final days of childhood when you are on the brink of adolescence and not ready for anything too adult, but you still want a good meaty story.

And what did you want to be when you grew up?

I’m not sure I have grown up yet, which is why I love writing for children. When I was at school, I really did want to be a writer. I kept that ambition a secret for a long time, as I was convinced I would not write anything good enough. But I spent all my spare time scrawling in notebooks and kept a diary all the way through university. (Still do.) Writers have always been the people I admire the most. There’s a part of me that doesn’t really believe I have made it yet.

If you could give a single piece of advice to the 10-year-old Anna what would it be?

Go for it! Believe you have something to say. Keep on writing and don’t give up. (Actually I’m going to print that out and stick it above my desk for the 45-year-old Anna. She just might take a bit of notice if I do that.)

Monday, 27 April 2015

Review: Demolition Dad by Phil Earle

Demolition Dad is the story of Jake Biggs, a young boy who loves wrestling, and his dad George, whose day job is knocking down buildings but who secretly pulls on the Lycra at weekends to wrestle as the Demolition Man. Jake is his dad's biggest fan, and has his own hidden plans - he wants the Demolition Man to go from British wrestler to international superstar. Could it be possible?

I grew up watching British wrestling whenever I got the chance - sadly not often enough! - and had a huge amount of admiration for men like Drew McDonald, who sadly passed away a few months ago. McDonald, a talented performer who wrestled on ITV's World of Sport for much of the 1980s, would go on to reinvent himself as the Ultimate Chippendale -  a massive man who would claim to be the peak of physical perfection and taunt audiences for being out of shape compared to him, drawing huge amounts of boos. Demolition Dad is packed full of weird and wonderful characters like this but the same heart and love of wrestling that shone through Drew's in-ring performances is also clearly to be found in this hugely enjoyable book.

Earle sends up both the British wrestling scene I grew up loving, and the American sports entertainment which will be at least vaguely familiar to most people, with warmth and affection here, and I think there's an awful lot to tempt you in whether you're a fan of the squared circle or not. In particular, the family relationship between George and Jake is fantastic; I love the way they both help each other, and it's very reminiscent of Roald Dahl's classic Danny: The Champion of the World (probably my favourite Dahl!) There's a plot which packs in numerous surprises, and the tension towards the end is brilliantly done. As well, it's massively funny, and Sara Ogilvie's striking illustrations add a lot to the book, perfectly complementing Phil Earle's writing. I've always been admired Phil Earle and his superb characterisation, but his early YA books were ones that I personally found too dark for me. The Bubble-Wrap Boy, his most recent YA, was definitely far more in my comfort zone, and this is even more so - I'm certainly looking forward to more MG from him!

A massive recommendation as an excellent read.

Jim blogs over at YA Yeah Yeah and can often be found on Twitter.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Rings, Wardrobes and Magic Mushrooms

Magical Objects in Middle Grade Fiction

I am lucky enough to be spending quite a bit of time in schools at the moment, talking to children about creating magic in writing. One of the first things I ask them to do is to shout out their favourite magical object in any book they’ve read. I stand poised to write the answers on the whiteboard and often there’s a hesitation – not because no one can think of an answer, but because they’re wondering where to start. A fraction of a second later, when I hear that first cry of “Harry’s wand!” or "the Wishing Chair!" the flood gates open and the workshop is carried away on a tide of fantastical artifacts.

Often the first in that flood are those from the titles of the classics, like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the ring of The Lord of the Rings and the Faraway Tree in, well, The Magic Faraway Tree. Sometimes there are other iconic objects from the classics like the magic mushroom in Alice in Wonderland, the grandfather clock in Tom’s Midnight Garden and the book in The Neverending Story. Usually there are more recent ones like the Alethiometer in His Dark Materials or Percy Jackson’s sword, Riptide. Sometimes we get lost in the wondrous inventory of a single title, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I’ll be kept busy at the whiteboard with chocolate waterfalls, Television Chocolate, Everlasting Gobstoppers and the like. Of course one title – or set of titles – offers the best hunting ground, and normally the session contains a deluge of objects from the pages of Harry Potter, from the Invisibility Cloak and broomsticks, to the Marauder’s Map and Horcruxes. Very soon I am running out of whiteboard space, and I call for mercy.

And then we look at my scrawl, and congratulate ourselves on knowing an awful lot of magic. I try to make my fledgling magicians feel even more chuffed with themselves by telling them that if I had done the same thing with a room full of adults, the list would be no longer (perhaps shorter), and it would contain many of the same artifacts. Why? Because literature for this age group – our very own Middle Grade – excels at magical objects. Middle Grade is the heartland of the fantastical Thing. This is where we find the looking glasses and glass elevators and boxes of Turkish delight that fire our imaginations and refuse to leave us, that create an impression so vivid and fond that they enter our very definition of magic. Try it on your parents, I tell them, try it on your teacher! Ask them to name their favourite magical objects, and I wager that many if not most of them will come from books written for you.
Isn’t that exciting, I say, that it is the books written for you that create some of the most powerful magic. What does that say about your imaginations? Your capacity to create magic in your minds?

And isn’t that exciting for us, we who write some of these books, and work with them, and teach them, and read them with our children. Of course all this raises the question, why is Middle Grade so good at creating these magical objects? And how does it do it?

Well, I’m not sure there are definitive answers to those questions, and I wouldn’t presume to try to offer any, but I do of course have some thoughts on the subject. I have to have some thoughts – I’m still only half way through my workshop. It strikes me that Middle Grade occupies that happy and fertile ground between the unfettered imagination of young literature and the more sophisticated and realistic stories of YA and adult literature. Middle Grade can do imaginative – our lists prove that beyond a doubt – but the genre marries the richly imagined with sophistication and realism. Let me give some very quick examples.

Consider the moment Lucy first enters Narnia in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lucy’s journey through the wardrobe is simply but carefully described so that it is immersive and real. As she enters the wardrobe, Lucy uses almost all of her senses, feeling the furs against her skin, smelling the mothballs, hearing the crump of snow under her feet, seeing the light of day somewhere up ahead. The whole episode is skillfully created to feel plausible, so that the magic itself is almost undeniable. It is an example of how even here, towards the younger end of Middle Grade, a more sophisticated narrative and a healthy dose of realism lift the magic to new heights.  

While we’re here in the wardrobe, it’s worth reflecting on the types of object that make the best magical artifacts. The wardrobe is a very good example of how something very everyday and real can be developed into something of extraordinary power, both in terms of magic and literary importance. It may be harder to make a wardrobe seem magical – and that’s where the skillful writing is very important – but when done as brilliantly as Lewis did it, it places a portal to another world in every house across the land. The wardrobe made Narnia seem close and accessible to us all. It is the very humdrum realism of wardrobes, mushrooms, rings, rabbit holes, looking glasses, peaches and train platforms that make them the ideal starting point for immersive magic. If the writing is good enough – and in Middle Grade it really can be – these real things make the magic immediate, tangible and very nearly true.

Realism can be achieved in other ways, of course. Take, for instance, the Alethiometer of His Dark Materials. Here the object is superficially ordinary: it is described as “very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial”. But in every other way, it is peculiar and extraordinary. The hands reveal the truth to the bearer by pointing to symbols around the dial, each of which has several meanings. The symbols are reminiscent of those from the Tarot and other cultural and historical sources – and so in combination they give the impression of the authority and wisdom of the ages. In this way the Alethiometer commands a very powerful and compelling magic not only for Lyra but also for the reader. In its sophistication and sense of heritage, it feels as though it really could be telling the truth. Other Middle Grade writers use complexity and heritage to give the sense of realism. Take for instance the construction and history of the Elder Wand in Harry Potter, or the very long and involved history of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Again, the wonder of these objects is not only in what they can do, but also how in real they seem. And with such a rich and seamless history, how could they not be real?

And so, back in the workshop, we have talked about all this for a while, and it’s the kids’ turn to make some magic. This is where I bring out my prop: a box of Things. Now this is no ordinary box, it is a box from The Shop of Things, a creation of my own book The Bell Between Worlds. As such, the shop isn’t actually real, but those powerful imaginations are already hard at work and when I produce my old crate overflowing with straw, it hardly matters whether the shop is real or not, or indeed whether or not the class has read my book! They’re ready to believe. And then they come and take out their strange objects (which my family and I have collected from around the world), take them back to their tables and get to work. What do they have to do? Well yes, they have to imagine its magic, think about what it might do if spoken to, rubbed, sniffed, blown, dropped or thrown. But when they come to write this down, they also have to make it real. They write down what it looks like, sounds like, smells like – all those things – but they also capture its heritage, its story. They ask themselves who made it? Where? Why is it dangerous? Who is trying to steal it? Whose life has it saved? And suddenly, right there beneath the tip of their pen, the magical Thing starts to come to life.

It has been such a privilege to see what those imaginations are capable of – creations conceived so quickly and effortlessly, and yet many of which are worthy of the best Middle Grade fiction. As a writer in the field, it’s a reminder of how hard I need to work to be worthy of this inspired readership. The next time I sit down to create my own magical Things, I know they need to be very, very good.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Never Ignore A Possible

Andy Shepherd interviews Katherine Rundell

I have to admit to being a little late to the party when it comes to Katherine Rundell. Despite all of the buzz, I only read ‘Rooftoppers’ and ‘The Girl Savage’ at the beginning of this year. I have however made up for lost time by becoming a bit of a Superfan. I think the scream when my advance copy of 'The Wolf Wilder' arrived went supersonic.

So I was over the moon when Katherine agreed to do this interview and many thanks to her for her wonderful answers.

‘Rooftoppers’ was such a success, how did it feel embarking on your next book? Did you get the dreaded follow-up book fear and, if so, how did you overcome it?

I did! But perhaps not so much follow-up book fear as just plain writing-fear: I always swerve between thinking it’s working and thinking it’s so bad that my own mother will cease to love me in disgust. I haven’t found a way round it, except keeping going and telling myself I can edit later. An editor said to me, once: ‘you have to get to the end in order to begin.’

That sounds like great advice, I may have to stick that to my desk!

In 'Rooftoppers', Charles often says to Sophie ‘Never ignore a possible’, and it’s become a favourite phrase in our house. Can you name the best or most interesting ‘possible’, which you never ignored? Did it lead to something as exciting as it did for Sophie? 

That’s lovely to hear! Thank you. I guess the biggest possible was writing my first book - which I wrote never believing it would be published, because I needed to see if I could do it. Mostly, though, in adult life, I meant it to be about living boldly – speaking love, taking risks.

It’s not at all obvious but part of the inspiration for Rooftoppers came from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which is about a mother thought dead and re-discovered, and the base-note of that gorgeous play is: bequeath to death your doubt and indecision, live.

Oh! And night-climbing, one of my favourite things, is all about wagering your safety against the promise of beauty – that’s part of what possibles are about.

There is already a huge buzz about your new book ‘The Wolf Wilder’. Can you tell us a little bit about the new story? Where did the inspiration for it come from? 

It’s about wolves, in Russia around the time of the two revolutions. It’s a bit darker than ‘Rooftoppers’ - I wanted to write about a child opening her eyes and learning that the world is huge, and worth fighting for, which is why it’s set in a big landscape. And I love wolves – I met one and she was electric.

Talking of landscapes, the settings in your books are incredibly evocative, do you rely on imagination and research or do you like to visit the places you write about?

I visit them whenever I can. I think there’s so much that you won’t discover unless you go. For instance, the next one will be about the Amazon, and I spent my Waterstones prize money on going there, and there was so much I wouldn’t have known otherwise – for instance, what the river water tastes like when you accidentally inhale it, what the floating petrol stations look like, how to catch a piranha. My grandfather used to live in St Petersburg; my uncle and cousins still do, so I know Russia a little. I love its immense and wintry beauty.

What surprised you most about writing the book?

I wanted to write a mother and child interacting, which I’d never done before – ‘Rooftoppers’ is technically about mother-hunting, but for me it’s all about Charles – and I found mother-daughter much harder to write than father-daughter dynamics: despite admiring my own mum more than anyone else in the world, so it was an interesting challenge.

And, also - I’m always surprised by how hard it is! I loved writing it but I always think it will be easier and quicker than it is. My editor at Bloomsbury, Ellen Holgate, is a mixture of a fairy godmother and a straight-up saint, to put up with me.

So do you prefer to write stand-alone books or do you have ideas for books that may have sequels or become series?

My favourites as a kid were mostly stand-alones, so that was what I gravitated towards – someday I’d love to try a series, but not yet.

As writers we read because we love stories, but also because through reading we can become better writers. Which writer or books have you learned the most about writing from?

Ooh – difficult question! I had access to a wonderful, crumbly and old-fashioned library in Harare as a kid – some of the books were taken out so rarely that the fines were listed in shillings - and I just read my way around the children’s section and then into the adults’ - so I was walking always alongside the lives of books and I think it was those books en masse, rather than individually, that taught me about how sentences work. But specifically, I think I learnt a lot from E Nesbit, Eva Ibbotson, and from Philip Pullman. I am miles and miles from them, though. I still find my writing very shaky and limping.

Well I may have to disagree with you there! But following on from that, what book do you wish you had written?

Ah - there are so many! Alice in Wonderland, most of all. The Moomins. Five Children and It, Pullman’s Northern Lights, Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s Millions, or Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life. Or, for an adult’s book – Emma, or Nabokov’s Pale Fire, books with huge brains and huge love for the world under their satire.

What character from any book would you most like to be and why?

I’d like to be Phileas Fog, and see the whole world in 80 days. And I’d quite like to be Feo, in The Wolf Wilder. I’d like to be tough down to my bones, and to ride wolves.

If you weren’t a writer what could you see yourself doing?

I think, realistically, I’d be an academic, which is technically my day job – I teach Shakespeare at Oxford. But I’d have loved to be an acrobat, or fly a bush plane through Southern Africa.

And finally, a couple of questions from my sons! 

Which character in your books do you like the most? 

In “The Girl Savage’, I love Will, who is based on a mixture of people I love and is also the me I wish I was; and in ‘Rooftoppers’, I love Charles, for reasons that are not suitable for children.

If you could have a super power what would it be? 

I would fly! I would see the whole Amazon jungle from the sky, and fly through storm clouds, and skim above the river with my feet in the water.

Thanks so much, Katherine. I’ve loved hearing your thoughts and after being lucky enough to get an early copy of ‘The Wolf Wilder’, I can safely say this Superfan is here to stay!

The Wolf Wilder is due to be released in September by Bloomsbury. Click here to find out more about it.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Review of Abi Elphinstone's "The Dreamsnatcher"

A review of Abi Elphinstone's 

"The Dream Snatcher" 

by Pippa Wilson

Cover art by Thomas Flintham

Here's what Simon and Schuster's website has to say:

"Twelve-year-old Molly Pecksniff wakes one night in the middle of the forest, lured there by a recurring nightmare - the one with the drums and the rattles and the masks. The Dreamsnatcher is waiting. He has already taken her dreams and now he wants her life. 
Because Moll is more important than she knows… The Oracle Bones foretold that she and Gryff, a wildcat that has always been by her side, are the only ones who can fight back against the Dreamsnatcher's dark magic. Suddenly everything is at stake, and Moll is drawn into a world full of secrets, magic and adventure."

So what did I think?

Endorsed on the front cover by Piers Torday as "Fast paced and full of charm", and further endorsed on the back cover by Katherine Rundell as "An outstanding debut packed with suspense, adventure and heart", you know straight away that "The Dream Snatcher" is going to be more than a bit special. In all truthfulness, it was the gorgeous cover by Thomas Flintham that reeled me in. Before I'd even read the blurb, the irresistible colours grabbed my attention, and I was intrigued by the woodland scene depicted (with Moll's catapult peeking out of her pocket).

The dark and chilling prologue sets a supernatural tone that pervades the whole book. The first thing I noticed at the start of the book is the energy and pace of Abi Elphinstone's storytelling. I felt as if I were whirling through a fast and heady dance; almost floating through the action. As Moll awakens in the "knotted and wild" forest, her recurring nightmare and reality become one, and we are there with her. As a reader the words fell from the page and I quickly became immersed in Moll's world, and immediately cared about her destiny.

As the story unfolded I particularly enjoyed the world of the Romany gypsies, especially the superstitions and folklore, and the traditions that are upheld by the folk in Moll's people. The details of the talismans, old magic, and ceremonies  are robust and convincing, and contribute to the rich and vivid portrayal of Moll's world. What becomes clear is that this book has been written by an author who really values, prizes, the natural world;  Moll's people are closely entwined with the land and wildlife. 

Moll herself is a satisfyingly feisty and flawed protagonist who has always sensed that she is different to the others in her camp. "Wish I didn't have so many cracks...I'm like a smashed-up eggshell, me", she declares near the start of the story. During the course of her adventures she discovers startling new information about her "beginning" and discovers that she has a special path to follow. She travels with a catapult, and isn't afraid to use it. Moll has a particularly imaginative line in insults too. 

She has a close and unique bond with her wildcat guardian, Gryff. Along the way we get to know a colourful cast of fresh characters, my personal favourite being Hard-Times Bob who is "great at dislocating his limbs", yet prone to hiccups. Moll's trusty friend Siddy, who "combined a hopelessly misdirected enthusiasm with very little common sense", has a particular fondness for earthworms, and is a delightfully entertaining character. And Skull the suitably vile and scary villain, is one to fear with his 'mask that looks like bone'. We are intrigued by how Moll can possibly take on this mighty enemy.

Throughout the story the clever balance of magic, lucky charms and folklore form a world where anything can happen, and we are left wondering what will happen next with every step of Moll's journey. I found that it had reminiscent hints of Northern Lights, Harry Potter and the Narnia stories, which may well indicate that this is set to become a modern classic.

As an aspiring author I've  treasured Abi Elphinstone's clarity of her descriptions of the woods and her characters, and the way in which the story unfolds with such unrelenting momentum. In fact, as soon as I had finished reading it, I resolved to start annotating it, and analyse every word in order to pinpoint her magical winning formula! I love the way she depicts each scene so vividly and cinematically to the point that you literally see the story unfolding very visually in your imagination.

My only criticism,however, is that the ending begs an immediate reading of the next book...but we have to wait. How irritating!

And as a bit of a postscript, I'd just like to add that the Acknowledgements at the end are very moving- heartwarming and inspiring stuff!

I hope you all enjoy it too, tell us what you think!

By Pippa Wilson @hellopipski

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Teachers in Middle Grade Fiction: The Trunchbull-Honey Scale

I’ve always wanted to be a primary school teacher and part of my motivation for this was the wonderful Miss Honey from Matilda. She was young (only 23), pretty and just so kind. Her wonderful teacher fashion sense of simple tops, pencil skirts and lovely flowing scarves probably influences my work style even now. I absolutely wanted to be her- not just for the thrifty but stylish wardrobe, but mainly for her sheer enthusiasm for teaching and encouraging children.
Now, as a grown woman, I realise that Miss Honey is not necessarily a realistic role-model for a young teacher. First of all, she didn’t really need to use any behaviour management strategies because the children behaved so well simply because she was just a lovely person. Ah, if only! It just doesn’t work like this. Also, if the story was written these days Miss Honey’s actions towards Matilda (taking her home, getting involved in family disputes) would definitely be contrary to safeguarding guidelines. If the story was written nowadays it would probably involve Miss Honey ringing social services and ensuring that the correct authorities took control.
I realise that Miss Honey was not necessarily meant to be a realistic model of a teacher but instead an idealistic view of what a child’s dream teacher would be- kind, encouraging, pretty, interested in you as a person. In fact, when I looked again at the representation of both Miss Honey and Miss Trunchbull I realised that these characters are the personification of teacher behaviours (albeit teacher behaviours with the volume turned up to the max). Dahl presents us with the shouty, scary, strict, borderline-evil Miss Trunchbull as a diametric opposite to the lovely, kind, soft-spoken Miss Honey. In these two characters we have the idealised teacher and the demonised teacher- basically as a young child would see a teacher (good/bad... very little grey area).
 In the real world, no teacher could be exactly like Miss Honey. We need to have both reward and sanction systems, we need to have procedures in place for when children are rude/naughty. However, that doesn’t include chucking those children out of the window by their pigtails. From a child’s point of view though, the portrayal of the two teachers does borrow from their sense of realism.  To kids, teachers are judged on two different scales- whether we can manage the class and whether we are kind or mean to them.  It's a simplistic view which changes as they get older to include more grey areas and allows for a combination of behaviour management and temperament. 

When I think of Mr Hawtrey in The Boy in the Dress I would plot him as high on the aggressive behaviour management side (not as high as Miss Trunchbull) but mean (and hypocritical) whilst Rory's class teacher isn't particularly effectual (Rory ends up pushed in the river) and isn't particularly understanding or kind towards him. 
Middle Grade fiction depicts teachers from the child's point of view... so in honour of this I give you The Trunchbull-Honey Quadrant Scale.

So... who would be your dream MG-fiction teacher and who would be your nightmare?
Where would you plot them on the scale?

Mrs Holpepper: Bookworm

Monday, 20 April 2015

Modern Myths by Jason Rohan

Last year's Summer Reading Challenge used the theme of fantastic creatures from legend and myth. 

As an author lucky enough to have a novel on the official booklist, I visited my local libraries to talk to kids about the scheme, and one of the things we discussed was how myths and legends are still very much a part of our lives in the modern age, even if we don't realise it.

For example, Greco-Roman gods provide not only the names of all of the planets in our solar system but also five months of the year - January, March, April, May and June. 

Moreover, Viking gods are also remembered via four days of the week - Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Wodin's Day

Thor's Day

Freya's Day

These simple examples show how centuries-old myths have stayed with us and got me thinking as to which of today's gods and myths might be remembered in the distant future.

Regular readers will know that I'm a comics buff and I've always thought that the modern day super-hero is very much an analogue to ancient heroes of myth, such as Achilles or Perseus. 

Just as the ancient Egyptians drew pictures of their gods in action, so too the modern comic book depicts our updated versions of these archetypes (literally, in the case of Thor). As you can expect, I had children scratching their heads at this - until I showed them the following examples of Then versus Now.

Then:a being with abilities far beyond those of mortal men, including flight and super strength, who derives his power from the sun.

Now: a being with abilities far beyond those of mortal men, including flight and super strength, who derives his power from the sun.

Then: a bat-like creature associated with darkness, sacrifice and death who hunts evil-doers.

Camazotz, a Mayan bat god

Now: a bat-like creature associated with darkness, sacrifice and death who hunts evil-doers.

Then: a ruler of the oceans who wears golden armour and rides upon a hybrid sea creature.

Varuna, a Hindu God
Now: a ruler of the oceans who wears golden armour and rides upon a hybrid sea creature.


The beauty of this is that I doubt that the creators of these super-heroes had any idea of the mythological counterparts to their four-colour characters, but the coincidences are striking and I'm sure Jung would have something to say about this.

And, of course, we have our own modern day monsters from around the world such as the chupacabra, Slender Man and the kuchisake-onna. Clearly, there's a part of the human psyche that clings to the idea of monsters among us.

It isn't hard to imagine people 2,000 years from now looking back upon our century with amusement at the gods we worship in our popular culture.

Jason is the author of The Sword of Kuromori, a tale of monsters and myth set entirely in modern Japan. He has also worked for Marvel Comics.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Here Be Dragons...

There's something about dragons - those mythical beats that inhabit the farthest reaches of the map, that lurk in deep caverns, snoozing on piles of golden armbands and glittering jewels, that flit across the night sky roaring flames.

Dragons are cool.

Their appeal works for all ages - from picture books to the epic world of  G.R.R. Martin - but their true home, I think, is in children's books - the Narnia stories, The Hobbit, Cressida Cowell's How to Train Your Dragon, the Harry Potter series, Dragon Rider, Chris d'Lacey's The Fire Within and sequels, Rosemary Manning's Green Smoke, Kenneth Graham's The Reluctant Dragon, the Earthsea books, Templar's fabulous Dragonology books.... the list could go on and on.

Dragons are fascinating to read about (and to write about) partly because they are strongly embedded in our culture, with a long history and endless stories attached to them. They have deep cultural resonances which writers can draw on, yet they are also capable of endless reinvention - as friendly, as foolish, as young and inexperienced, as old and worldly-wise, as powerful or as helpless.

The classic dragon, of course, is the one defeated by St George (and that's a story that has been jubilantly reinvented in numerous picture books, like The Paper-Bag Princess or George and the Dragon). In the legend, of course, he doesn't get much more than a walk-on part as the embodiment of evil, just ripe for a kicking by the noblest knight in the land. His direct descendant, Smaug, gets a chance to show what evil looks like up close and personal: sarcastic, vain, clever and ruthless, playing lazily with his hobbit visitor before setting out to scorch and level the whole of Lake Town.

But although evil dragons have their place, we're much more fascinated by the idea of good ones - particularly dragons as companions and helpers. Wise dragons. Magical dragons.

Much of the appeal of Eragon, for example, is in the thrill of imagining what it would be like to have your very own dragon - all that power, beauty and danger, yours to command. Cressida Cowell gives us the same thrill in the more light-hearted How to Train Your Dragon and its sequels. Both these books enjoy creating esoteric dragon lore - species and typologies, feeding habits, how to approach and bond with dragons, how (ideally) not to die...

Of course, any Harry Potter afficionado knows their Welsh Green from their Hungarian Horntail, but Templar's brilliant Dragonology books create a set of resources on the wildlife and science of raising or studying dragons to gladden the heart of any would-be student of these magnificent creatures. Dr Ernest Drake gives us all manner of fascinating details on habitats, temperaments and training regimes, which play into that greatest of desires for children (and let's be honest, many adults too) - that dragons might really exist.

One of my favourite dragons from children's literature is not really a dragon at all - it's the hapless Eustace Scrubb, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who is turned into a dragon when he puts on an enchanted gold armband from a dragon's hoard. Eustace's greed and fascination with gold traps him in the body of the creature most associated with those moral failings - and it's not until he learns to be humble, brave and selfless that he's turned back into a boy. But never mind the moral lesson (and I didn't much mind it as a child) - Eustace soon realises the power he has as a huge creature with great wings and claws, and as a dragon he has a considerably more interesting time than he did as a reluctant sailor. I was glad for Eustace when he was returned to his old self, but sad, too, that he had to give up that amazing other life.

When I wrote my own Arthurian fantasy for younger readers, Frogspell, I included a dragon pet for my protagonists almost as an afterthought - yet Adolphus the dragon quickly grew into one of my favourite characters. Adolphus has no magic, and is rather small and clumsy - he's in the tradition of dragons we need to look after rather than ones who look after us (or indeed, eat us...) Yet I've lost count of the number of children and parents who told me how much they love the dim-witted but enthusiastic Adolphus. Dragons, it seems, even the really un-dragon-like, touch a chord in all of us.

Adolphus with his mistress, Olivia Pendragon - illustration by David Wyatt
Long may dragons continue to inhabit children's stories. They are creatures that, just as they inhabit the edges of maps, also inhabit the edges of our subconscious. They can mean many things and take on many roles. They are the monsters who turn out to be friends, the huge fears that can be tamed or defeated, the powers that we can find in ourselves when we need to stand up for what's true or right, the magical, strange other we need to find our way to if we want to escape our everyday constraints and find ourselves in the world of imagination. They are, as anthropologists might put it, 'good to think with'.

So hurrah for dragons in all their forms!

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Childhood Friends by Paula Harrison

As a child, I couldn't imagine closer friends than Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Anne arrives in Avonlea longing to find a "kindred spirit" and in Diana she finds one. Re-reading it as an adult, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Anne, with her wild imagination, is the one who gets the pair of them into scrapes. As a child though, I longed for a friendship as uncomplicated as theirs. They never seem to argue and the only thing that comes between them is the disapproval of Diana's mother when she believes that Anne has intentionally given Diana alcohol. At this age, a close friendship can seem even more important than family and her separation from Diana is particularly painful for Anne, especially as she is wrongly accused.

I recently came across the modern equivalent of this close and almost-perfect friendship when I read The Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. Ade is an introverted character and is on the periphery at school. He finds a kindred spirit in Gaia, a girl who loves nature and likes to stand with her face turned upwards in the rain so that raindrops splash over her face. This time it is external circumstances in the form of the Bluchers that separate them. Ade holds on to a diagram that Gaia lent him - it's all he has to remember her by for most of the book.

Another memorable friendship in middle grade fiction is Bonnie and Sylvia in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. These girls come across as opposites, one impulsive and the other reflective. The strength of the writing reveals them as fully rounded characters without needing to fall back on a stereotyped portrayal of feisty or shy. They are very much brought together by the adversity they face both inside and outside Willoughby Chase.

It's a hard thing for a writer to depict the breakdown of a close friendship whilst maintaining the reader's sympathy and understanding for both characters, especially when one character is essentially at fault. The breakdown in the relationship between Auggie and Jack Will was the moment R.J. Palacio's Wonder came alive for me. I was reading it aloud to a child at bedtime and that was the point where they became keen on the story too. Palacio's use of different narrators is a huge advantage here, allowing us into both Jack and Auggie's thoughts.

So, what are your most memorable childhood friendships in fiction?

Paula Harrison is the author of Red Moon Rising, which is set in our everyday world with a fantasy twist. In the story, Laney Rivers finds an unusual friend in Claudia, a girl with very different gifts from her own.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Kaye’s World – Puffin Club Forever!

by Jake Hayes

A colleague said to me the other day, ‘Jake, you’re an expert in children’s books.’ I raised an eyebrow. 'Why exactly did Harry Potter become such a phenomenon?' 

'Well that's the billion dollar question.’ I replied, quite stumped for a proper answer.

The inspired combination of boarding school stories and fantasy was certainly a part of it, but Rowling was hardly the first to do this. The films? She was already a superstar by the time they came along. The narrative genius? Yes, but again she was hardly alone… My expertise seriously challenged I retreated to think some more. Then I began to write this entirely unconnected article and it hit me, there was another extremely important factor that I hadn’t considered; one that had nothing to do with Rowling’s talents whatsoever and everything to do with the achievements of a woman who retired over three decades ago.

Harry Potter was born into a world where children felt a connection not just with the stories they read, but with the writers themselves. Through author events, internet forums and the like readers could continue to revel in the life of a book and its creator beyond the printed page, and Rowling benefited from this hugely. For this she had one woman to thank: Kaye Webb, the legendary editor whose name appeared inside every single Puffin paperback published between 1961 and 1979 and whose Puffin Club tore down the barriers between author and reader.

Following six astonishingly successful years at Puffin, Kaye launched the Puffin Post and its attendant Club in 1967. This groundbreaking venture for the first time gave children a direct link to their favourite authors. Lizza Aiken, whose mother Joan Aiken was published by Puffin believes that Kaye offered authors something quite new. ‘She was a one-woman PR team for so many of the up and coming writers of the sixties in a way that publishers had never been before.’

Puffin parties sprang up all over the country, followed by Puffin holidays and the annual Puffin exhibition. Valerie Groves, writing in her biography of Kaye Webb, ‘So Much to Tell’ remembers these spectaculars. ‘Noel Streatfield and later Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, caused queues of children to line the street outside. Spike Milligan would stand at the door with a stick of chalk, making a white squiggle on every child who came in.’

There had been nothing like this before and it was a phenomenon. In just two months 20,000 children had signed up, rising to 200,000 over the club’s life time. Philippa Dickinson who worked for the club in the 70s says its success was entirely due to Kaye Webb. 'Kaye was the Puffin club. It was her vision, her baby. She knew how children's literature fired kids' imaginations and provided an outlet for and celebration of that creativity.'

Kaye’s great ability was her gift of persuasion. Authors, who had previously been left to live and work in isolation from their readers, were now being dragged out of their garrets and garden sheds to meet their young readers. Joan Aiken was one such reluctant author. ‘Joan Aiken was a very shy and retiring person, and was at first aghast at Kaye's expectations that she would turn out and be jolly on all occasions’ Lizza Aiken remembers. ‘But she loved meeting her readers, and hearing their feedback, and after a year or so was happily dressing up as “Madame Arkana” and telling fortunes, or joining picnics and treasure hunts all over the country.’

Not all writers were such naturals with their audience. Alan Garner, the author of intense fantasies The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service was torn away from his beloved Cheshire countryside and summoned by Kaye for tea at the Ritz at with a club member, the future theatre critic Kate Kellaway. Talking to Valerie Groves she remembers Garner as ‘a little morose’ and ‘unreadable.’ Luckily Kaye was there to chivvy things along. ‘Kaye was charm itself and took me under her wing.’ she remembers. ‘I felt safe, flattered and cherished, as if I’d been admitted to a writerly fairyland, which involved tea at the Ritz! The Puffin Club did that for many children. All my friends read Puffin Post avidly. And the magic came from Kaye, the sense that good things would grow out of it, like sunflowers.’

The Puffin club was a gateway for many people to a career in publishing. Philippa Dickinson became Terry Pratchett’s editor and helped launch the Fighting Fantasy game book series. She recently retired as Managing Director of Random House children’s books but is still grateful for her break. ‘The job Kaye offered me was a bit vague – I remember being told that tidying up the storeroom was a large part of the role and I was sufficiently wet behind the ears not to consider this a bit odd.’ Before long she was travelling the country in a bright pink tabard organising party games for eager readers.

As Joan Aiken and Kaye became good friends Lizza Aiken was also inducted into Kaye’s circle. ‘One of my jobs was to send replies to Puffin members who wrote in - we had multiple-choice postcards designed by the wonderful Jill McDonald (Puffin Post’s main illustrator). You only had to tick or cross, so every child got an answer. The office was total chaos, quite a small room in the enormous Penguin warehouse out at Harmondsworth. Kaye was always getting people in to help, and quite often leaving them in the lurch or handing them on to someone else. One day when everyone was out I tidied up - not a good idea - the response was general horror.’

Crucially the club wasn’t simply about being sold books; members were encouraged to get involved in and write themselves. A young Emma Thompson contributed this wonderful two line couplet to the Puffin Post, entitled ‘Lines Written by an Aphid Landing on a Rose’:

‘Too pink,
I think.’

A screen writing Oscar beckoned.

The Puffin club changed children’s books forever. Kaye Webb helped create the world our children are now lucky enough to inhabit, with its laureates, festivals, book days and never ending magic roundabout of author events. Lizza Aiken puts her achievement succinctly. ‘She made reading cool, and the club a whole social world for its members.’

Would the Puffin Club work now I wonder? Philippa Dickinson isn’t sure it’s necessary, or even possible. ‘There are so many other potential outlets for kids’ creativity these days. online, school, World Book Day, Children’s Laureate projects… Running a club for kids is incredibly time-consuming and resource hungry. Kids expect a reply to every letter or message they send - and a pretty quick one, too. You would need to have a serious amount of financial backing from people who would not expect much return on their investment for a good long time (if ever).’

But just imagine something that brought the authors and readers of this new golden age of children’s books all together in one place. Something that gave children who love books an identity and a comradeship; which, for all its wonders, the internet can never provide. I think it would be utterly amazing and Lizza Aiken agrees. ‘I'm sure it would be very welcome - an extension of some of the social media/ book blogging sites that exist now, but for younger readers and contributors. It could use the input of someone like Jill McDonald to give it a visual identity - and someone like Kaye to enthuse and keep everyone on their toes!’

Would any potential candidates be willing to step up? There are certainly plenty of charismatic people working in publishing right now. Kate Wilson from Nosy Crow maybe, or Chicken House’s Barry Cunningham for example. Perhaps Oliver Jeffers or Sarah McIntyre could be called upon to provide the illustrations? And as for J.K. Rowling – they’d be queuing around the block to meet her.

Many thanks to Philippa and Lizza for the words and pictures. You can read more of their thoughts on the Puffin Club over at
Thanks also to the Puffin Club Archive for additional images.
Valerie Grove’s So Much to Tell is published by Viking.