Tuesday 30 June 2015

Hope and Magic - An interview with Emma Carroll

I’m delighted today to be talking to Emma Carroll, author of ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ and ‘The Girl Who Walked on Air’ – and the soon to be released (and much anticipated!) ‘In Darkling Wood’.

Emma, I loved your first two books, they were wonderful stories and settings. In your latest book, ‘In Darkling Wood’, I’ve heard there will be fairies, the First World War and the magic of ancient woods. It sounds like just my kind of thing. Could you tell us a little bit more about it? Where did the idea for the book come from? Do you tend to start with a character or a setting or just an idea of a story?

‘In Darkling Wood’ is about two girls- one in the modern day, one in 1918 – who are anxiously awaiting news about their brothers. What connects them is Darkling Wood, a place where they find comfort in the magic that exists there. The idea came from the Cottingley Fairies photographs. In 1917, two cousins took fake pictures of what they claimed were real fairies. The pictures became famous when Arthur Conan Doyle publicly announced he believed them to be genuine, as did many other ‘experts’. It was this that fascinated me, this willingness for hope and magic to exist in a world full of misery and war.
‘Frost Hollow Hall’ started with a character and a setting. ‘Girl Who Walked On Air’ with an idea. So too did ‘In Darkling Wood’. I think that initial starting point changes from book to book, to be honest.

It does sound like a great starting point for a story. I‘ve always been drawn to the poetry and stories of the First World War. As you say, given the timing of the Cottingley Fairies story, the idea of that ‘willingness for hope and magic’ makes it all the more poignant. With one of your main characters set in 1918, did you find yourself doing a lot of research for this latest book? Do you sit with the idea for a long time and only start writing when you have something very well developed, or do you dive right in and see where it takes you?

There was quite a bit of research, yes. I read up on the Cottingley Fairies story, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s reactions to it. I read folklore and fairy myths, and the history surrounding the Armistice. I read accounts of heart transplant patients, medical websites, watched documentaries. And… I researched trees. So yes – lots of different stuff!
But no, I’m not a very big planner. I like to dive in and see what happens, though I tend to start with a scene, rather than at Chapter 1.

I’m always interested in the journey writers take to publication. When did you start writing and how long was it before you got published? Was Frost Hollow Hall the first book you had written?

I always wrote as a child, but as an adult didn’t get serious about it until June 2009 when I went on an Arvon course with students from my school (I’m an English teacher by trade). From there, I wrote a short book – teen, contemporary, not very good, but it was enough to get me a place on the brilliant Bath Spa MA in Writing For Young People. ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ started life as my MA work-in-progress. It wasn’t the first book I’d written, but it was the first decent thing I’d done. I met my agent through the MA course. She took me on a few months after I’d graduated in February 2012. ‘Frost Hollow Hall’ was sold to Faber in March 2012 and was published in October 2013. It felt as though it all happened very fast, but looking at those dates, it probably didn’t!

Three books in three years sounds pretty good going to me! Which part of the writing process do you like the most, dreaming up the idea, the frenzy of the first draft or the editing?

I like elements of all the stages. But the more I write the more I realise it’s the editing part I truly LOVE. My first drafts are clumsy and full of plot holes; what I really enjoy is getting stuck into the second/third/fourth draft and putting those problems right. This is when my creative brain really fires up. It wakes me in the night sometimes and I have to write things down before I forget them again!

Do you have any tips/techniques to keep yourself writing even on the tough days?

A big mug of tea. A dog walk. A ‘right Carroll, you’re going to do 300 words before supper’ pep talk. Leaving my phone downstairs under a cushion. The promise of prosecco and crisps if I hit my word limit. Knowing when to walk away when a break’s really what you need.

Knowing when to walk away - definitely good advice! (Tells self to listen up) What’s been the best thing about being a published writer?

Absolutely all of it. I wouldn’t change a thing. Nothing can prepare you for the moment you first see a finished copy of your book. Right now though I’m about to take a break from teaching to write full-time – a dream come true – so it’s being able to work from home, for myself and getting to be around people who love books like I do.

Wonderful! If you could go back and give your pre-published self some advice, what would it be?

Second and third books are HARD!

OK, moving swiftly on! I understand you’ve just been commissioned to write a version of Wuthering Heights for younger readers, how did you find that?

Great fun! It’s one of my all-time favourite books, so I leapt at the chance. It was quite hard to tone it down for a younger audience, but I really loved trying to understand Heathcliff’s motivations a bit more (the story is told from his perspective). And… all in under 5000 words. Now that part really was tough!

What appeals to you about writing for the age you write for?

I think it’s the best age to be. It’s when you’re starting to grapple with the real world, the deeper emotional and psychological issues of life. And yet you still believe in magic.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Just one?

I know - so mean!

Ok, my favourite series was the ‘Jinny at Finmory’ books, about a girl and her Arab horse having adventures in the Scottish Highlands. They were such brilliant books because they weren’t simply ‘gymkhanas and rosettes’ stories but actually explored the connection between animals and us. I still re-read them now.

So what book do you wish you could give your ten-year-old self and why?

In lieu of my last answer, it would have to be ‘The One Dollar Horse’ by Lauren St John. I adore this book now and would’ve devoured it then.

Thanks so much to Emma for taking the time to answer my questions. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of ‘In Darkling Wood’!

If you want to find out more about Emma and her books check out her blog.

Interview by Andy Shepherd

Monday 29 June 2015

Revisiting Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian

Review by Kate Mallinder

I’m always reluctant to re-read books which I loved as a child.  The potential that they don’t live up to my memories of it, or that it won’t give me the same feelings that I had when I first read it keep me wary.  There’s so many new books to read, I justify to myself, why go back?

So it was with trepidation that I started Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian.  I bought it as I’d borrowed it from a library as a child and when it arrived, I put it on one side.  A couple of days later I was cooking the tea and picked it up, only meaning to read the first paragraph or two.  Before I knew it, I had pans boiling over and I’d finished the first chapter.

It was wonderful – the memories were powerful, flinging me right back to when I was a kid.  I must have read it when I was nine or ten, and the feelings it invoked were huge.  I’d imagined Tom Oakley’s house, and I hadn’t been back there since, yet here I was, visiting his little house next to the Church again.

So that was it.  I don’t get much time for reading but if the book is right, I can find the time - sleep is overrated anyway!

I know it’s not very fashionable at the moment, but I enjoyed knowing what each of the characters was thinking.  Magorian dips in and out of the characters like brushes in paint, so that you know within the same scene what Mister Tom is thinking of Willie and also what Willie is feeling.  Personally I quite like that.  I know where I am with everyone.  With the lesser characters we are also given the odd insight to their thoughts which results in the reader having a huge empathy with many of the people.  Interestingly, there isn’t much given away about Mrs Beech’s thoughts.  Perhaps that is because she needed to puzzle and be unjustifiable to the reader.  Either way, this subtle distinction made reading the story all the more potent as she came across as pure evil.

The time when it is set, at the start of the Second World War, is brilliantly told.  People’s reactions to events are believable and as the war intensifies, you watch as viewpoints change.  Against this backdrop, the topics it covers are the biggies - child abuse and the effects of war, personally, emotionally and physically, but somehow through it all you feel safe in the writer’s hands.  I was dreading reading about Willie’s return home in the middle of the book, and this was the part that brought the biggest emotional memories for me.  Until I had read this book as a child, I didn’t know what child abuse was or its effects.  Magorian doesn’t shy away from it but neither does she glory in the details.  There’s just enough for the reader to know the horror.

The aspect I adore the most is that it’s a story filled with hope despite covering some of the darkest things a child can live through.  The instant I finished it, I tweeted about how much I’d loved it and Aoife Walsh tweeted back ‘The woman knows how to write hope and redemption, it’s like a masterclass.’  And it is for that reason alone that you should read it, either for the first time, or for the umpteenth time.  It truly is a classic that stands the test of being enjoyed by both children and adults.

A few facts:

  • Written in 1973, Goodnight Mister Tom wasn’t published until 1981.
  • It has won numerous awards and has been made into a TV drama, musical, stage play and radio play.
  • Goodnight Mister Tom started as a short story but Magorian wanted to know more about Willie and Tom, so wrote the book.
  • Willie and Tom are based on trees – Willie Beech on a young slim beech tree and Tom Oakley on a sturdy old oak tree.

Kate blogs at KateMallinder.co.uk and is on Twitter @KateMallinder

Sunday 28 June 2015

Imogen's Book of the Week - The Box and the Dragonfly by Ted Sanders, Hot Key Books

Hello! I’m a children’s book critic, writing mainly for the Guardian Online and the Metro – and I’m super-grateful to MG Strikes Back for allowing me to pop up on Sundays, to write about one book I’ve been particularly impressed by every week. I’m kicking off with the first in a new series called The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly by Ted Sanders, published by Hot Key Books in the UK (although it’s an American title.)

I dearly love middle-grade quest fantasies, but I think the best ones refuse pure escapism, forcing their readers to face up to problems at home rather than skipping off through a portal to A.N.Otherworld and allowing the priorities of their new context to expunge those of the old. The quest stories I grew up with – Alan Garner’s bleak, terrifying Elidor, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence – and still remember most vividly now, interweave the imperatives of an unexpected new world of magic and fear with the workaday world’s still-present problems. To me, Ted Sanders’ The Box and the Dragonfly does this superlatively well, bringing my well-loved childhood stories bang up to date while preserving the timeless feeling of the magical-quest premise.

Horace F. Andrews is highly intelligent, rather reclusive, a bit on the large side, and very much given to scientific enquiry, seeing the world in a methodical, balanced way.  (I found him a particularly appealing protagonist because of this. Horace is a not hapless nerd – he enjoys using his brains, rather than feeling ashamed of them.)

When Horace is drawn into the mysterious House of Answers, he bonds with an extraordinary object called the Box of Promises – and becomes a Tan’ji, a Keeper and user of one of the magical artefacts that share the same name. But, by doing so, Horace runs afoul of a terrifying creature known as the Thin Man, who seeks to control the Tan’ji, and who will now pursue him with the relentlessness of a nightmare. When Horace meets Chloe, also a Keeper of a Tan’ji (the dragonfly of the title) and another of the Thin Man’s targets, they must learn rapidly about their powers, their limitations, and what they will do to save their Tan’ji – and each other.

This is a substantial, fat book, but fast-paced; full of challenge and compelling, cracking story. Sanders relishes words, and his prose is original and satisfying; the bins and shelves of objects in the House of Answers bear lists like ‘LOST BITS, MOSTLY INCOMPLETE, FOR THE WEARY, FOR THE WEE, TRUCULENT’. There’s plenty of delicious, belly-laugh, surreal humour throughout, too; a common, somewhat portentous phrase among Keepers, ‘Fear is the stone we push. May yours be light’ is satirised by Horace and Chloe (‘Fear is the pillow. May yours be fluffy’, ‘Fear is the eggplant. May yours be purple’) in a way that made me snort. The characters are superbly drawn – no stock heroes or cardboard cut-outs here – and the nuanced treatment of feelings and relationships give the book serious heft. Parents, and the protagonists’ relationship with them, for instance, are very much present – Chloe’s dad, an alcoholic who frequently lets his childrendown, incurs the Thin Man’s attention himself at one point, since his vulnerability makes him a potential gateway to his daughter. The Thin Man himself is an outstandingly nightmarish creation, tapping effortlessly into the reader’s lizard-brain fears and lingering darkly in their peripheral vision.

Notwithstanding the swift pace of the story and the subtlety, detail and intrigue of Sanders’ imagined world, the focus of The Box and the Keeper is the specific heroism of friendship, loyalty, and love – and it’s that, to me, which makes it so special. I hope it will be read and read and read – and I’m looking forward excitedly to the next in the series.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Building A Girl Out Of Books

Well, this is a big subject right now what with articles in the actual paper by YA stars like Louise O’Neill but I’m ignoring the pressure; this was always going to be taking my life in my hands somewhat. But I have a daughter who’s about to turn ten and I’m aware there are hard times a-comin’, so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about books which meant a lot to me around that age.

I would classify helpful-in-being-a-girl books in three broad ways.

One – the books which are just about being a person. Lots of these are great precisely because they are about courage or honesty or kindness or creativity and really gender is immaterial. I would like my daughter to know that there are lots of great ways and things to be which have nothing to do with being a girl. And yes, it’s nice as a girl when it happens to be a girl Getting Things Done, whether it’s Mary Lennox or Claudia Kincaid or Kizzy Lovell or Rosemary Brown. But any kid can also learn from Harry Potter or Charlie Bucket or Indigo Casson or, for that matter, Smokey the Cow Horse.

A kind of subsect of these ones are the very many books out there whose central friendship is between a boy and a girl and which treat this as completely normal. I don’t think I ever even noticed that Ramona Quimby’s best friend is a boy – Howie – as far as I recall the first time anyone makes a thing out of it is in Ramona Forever, the second-to-last book, and it’s an adult, Howie's annoying Uncle Hobart. Of course to be truthful the last book, Ramona’s World, sees Ramona go out and find herself a girl best friend but usually I ignore that because I didn’t read this book till I was an adult so as far as I’m concerned it’s not canon. 
Susie Day does this too. I don’t want to spoiler up this post but her first Pea book, the Book of Best Friends, is all about it: gender is plopped down for us all to take a look at but basically the tone is, yep, it’s there, and who cares when there are much more interesting things to think about. 

Then there are the books where it is an issue, and a character has to be brave to have a friendship across gender lines – whether they happen to be a boy, like lonesome Jess in Bridge to Terabithia, or a girl like Rusty in Back Home who nearly gets expelled just for having a word with a lad in the street, but who is fairly defiant about it, ending up shinning down three floors of scaffolding to meet him in a wood in the middle of the night. Both heroes who understand that having a proper friend is worth catching a bit of flak from morons.

Okay. Two – the books that rile you up on sexism, whether they mean to or not. I write this as somebody who was an absolutely raging feminist as an eight/nine/ten year old and I have to give full credit to (I think) the first person to make me aware of an issue worth getting this angry over – I’m looking at you, Enid.

Ah, George Kirrin. Who bests boys constantly in battles of boyishness – heck, the girl can throw a lasso – and yet gets told off by the virtually-never-wrong Julian for taking it all too far and not helping Anne with the washing up (I'd like to see Julian explain himself to Miley Cyrus). I don’t know quite what Enid Blyton was up to in her stories that feature boys – she didn’t even really assign any power to those traditional girl roles, unlike Arthur Ransome, who, besides writing the rollicking all-girl Amazon crew, was fairly clear on the fact that John might be the Swallows’ captain but Susan is the one who tells everyone what to do.

There were also the books which are explicitly about battling sexism, like Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change, by Louise Fitzhugh – all about a girl who wants to be a lawyer, her little brother who wants to be a dancer, and their parents who essentially think they’ve got their ambitions the wrong way round. This, together with Blyton and the more old-fashioned books on my shelf, pointed out to me what I might have missed otherwise till I was older: that some people think girls are so different from boys that they ought to be doing different things, most of the time. This is a hard lesson to learn about the world, but books are a pretty good place to learn it.

I believe though I’m not a fantasy expert that this debate over gender continues there today, with fierce advocates gunning for girls’ rights against knuckle-dragging authorial morons (sorry, was that not conciliatory?) – Alanna of Trebond was, again, a big character for me and I’ve got all four books lined up on my wardrobe floor waiting for summer holidays when I’m going to hand them reverently over to my daughter. Because she needs to read about a girl so determined to follow her own path that she spends eight years disguised as a boy tougher than all the other boys, comes out as a woman and makes everyone accept it and then just carries on duffing up men, sleeping with the ones she fancies and saving the world.

And then there is Three, the category into which I put books which are not necessarily feminist although they may be. These are the realistic books which accept that not every person can be a kickass warrior who doesn’t give a monkeys what her friends think, and that turning from a girl child into the beginnings of a girl adolescent can be extremely hard exactly because you don’t want to defy every convention and cliché and gender expectation, even if you could.

The other book I’ve just bought, for the upcoming tenth birthday (yes, okay, I buy her a lot of books and keep them in the wardrobe till she’s old enough/I’ve read them) is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Margaret was part of pre-adolescence for me, as for countless other kids since first being published in 1970. I notice that when talking about it nobody – not even me – mentions what I remember being the general consensus of my friends: that it was a massively embarrassing read. There is an hagiographical atmosphere round Judy Blume at the moment which I’m all for and I hope this doesn’t offend anybody, but at the time it was a bit like reading Just 17: you shrieked with laughter at the concept of girls doing chest-expanding exercises together (individually with the bedroom door locked, telling no one, would have been a different thing), and wondered if any girl ever really did look forward, with excitement, to getting her first period. And while you blushed and giggled you learned an awful, awful lot, not least that there were other girls out there who were insecure about how they looked and how they were and how messy everything was.

I also admire Judy for giving us Deenie, and a point of view I think is unusual in realistic MG fiction – that of the girl who’s so damn pretty she’s supposed to be the thick one. Generally we don’t like glamorous heroines in MG-land (I don’t think I’m speaking only for myself) – unless they are justified by starting out plain before a satisfying transformation, like Anne Shirley – homely as hell when she arrives at Green Gables; the second hottest chick on campus by the time she gets to university – or Harriet from Geek Girl who never dwells much on the aesthetic affirmation that the rest of us assume girls get from becoming models. What is more typical in an MG book is the suggestion that our MC has the raw material, the promise. Anastasia Krupnik and Meg from A Wrinkle In Time, both clearly set to turn into their better-looking mothers a bit further down the track – even old George Kirrin has those noteworthy blue eyes. Always a sign, like red hair (see almost all these pictures).

I seem to have descended into not-very-feminist territory here, suggesting that I am uncomfortable with gorgeous heroines. Let my daughter, and all our daughters, not dwell upon such matters, judging by looks whether in fiction or reality. Let them instead be kind and silly and loyal and independent and defiant and responsible and brave like Pippi Longstocking, Dicey Tillerman, Mina Smiths, Alanna of Trebond, Lesley Burke, Anastasia Krupnik, Meg Murry, Anne Shirley, Pea Llewellyn, Rusty Dickinson and all the rest of them, and plenty of boy characters too. When they struggle with changes and the hard bits of growing up, like Margaret Simon, let them not think they are the only ones struggling. And let them remember that books are a great place to go when you want to try out something different, or to be how you used to be, or when you need some joy in your life.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Why I'm going back to the classics...for a while


Over the past two years I've spent oodles of time  trying to read as many new books as possible, and review my favourites, mainly  to help me remember the details! As a slushpile writer on a mission to Get Somewhere, I've been very conscious of what agents and publishers are currently looking for. I've spent hours researching how to get to grips with the obligatory "Show, Don't Tell" and I've acquainted myself with the market's bestsellers. The  amazingly original and exciting books that I've read have brought me and my children lots of joy and fun. Thank goodness we have a constant supply of new ideas and authors coming through.

It is confusing though. I've read my own children every single one of David Walliams' thoroughly entertaining books. Somehow these bestsellers  have a really old-fashioned feel, but I love them! Walliams' style feels so warm and comforting and familiar, and in a  Dahl-esque manner  he whips us from the horrific to the absurd in the flick of a page turn. Tell the truth, I've missed that kind of story telling. They're so good to read aloud, and even better to listen to. So now I'm hankering for some proper Old Skool Classics that have stood the test of time. And by "classic" I don't necessarily mean old, I mean books that will be loved from generation to generation and stand the test of time.

Whenever I visit local bookshops, I'm struck by just how many books in the 8-12s section are largely the same books that I was plugging 15 years ago as a Year 6 teacher. I'm talking the likes of Harry Potter, Northern Lights, Kensuke's Kingdom and Matilda. A quick look at the British Libraries PLR listings reveals that the most borrowed children's authors Top 20 still includes Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, and in the Top 20  most borrowed classic authors you'll also find CS Lewis and Beatrix Potter.  There's a steady supply of new editions of the classics it seems- each new cover design seems to cause a stir!

One thing that bugs me as a teacher is that children tell me -all too often- that their parents won't let them read the books they want to, deeming them 'too easy', or 'not  good English'. I've overheard parents at the supermarket trying to persuade their children to buy books or magazines that "teach them something" rather than the ones the child is drawn to.  And I recently joined in a teacher's hashtag about reading, where  teachers were recounting the lack of time in the school day to read for pleasure.  'Up-levelling' is where it's at, and being able to prove a pupil's progress to Ofsted inspectors.  Fads and fashions in the publishing world may come and go, but teachers and parents often seek the confidence of known quantities when it comes to reading material. Not to mention guaranteed value for money. As adults we  love to share our own childhood favourites with the next generation, and these are often what we select as special gifts. For busy teachers there is a much greater wealth of resources for more established authors to enrich and support their lesson plans, so who can blame them for picking more classic texts to use in class?  Canny debut authors, I notice, are putting resources for teachers on their websites- a good move!

This set me thinking, as lately I've been reflecting upon what I want to achieve with the Middle Grade books that I'm currently writing, and indeed, what is at the heart of Middle Grade fiction. Is it the characters? The plot? The voice? I often wonder why I've focused on writing for this age group above all others, and always reach the conclusion that this was the age when I was happiest in my reading, and found stories most satisfying.

So, I've decided to embark on a journey back through time, and revisit the books I enjoyed as a junior reader (as we called it back in Ye Olden Days) . A couple of months ago I re-read Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" and it brought back the thrill and excitement of disappearing into a whole new imaginary world, just as when I'd read it as a youngster. But yes. The world is very different now with technology and social media, and kids being much more knowledgeable and worldly wise. On the other hand though, the relevance and importance of things like relationships with friends, siblings, parents, and the dull oppression of homework hasn't changed much. Kids still have days when they're gleeful, and days when they're sad.

This led me into thinking that if I re-read books from my school days, could it help me re-connect with my Middle Grade self?  Maybe, if I read my favourite books from childhood , I'll be able to resurrect long dismissed memories. Maybe  I'll hit upon a cerebral shortcut to the Land of Long Ago, which will magically help me write a more sparkly authentic voice for my intended audience.

Over the weekend I was looking out for interesting tweets from the Winchester Writer's Festival, and a lively selection kept popping up. One that caught my eye was a quote from Beverley Birch saying, "as an author do not bandwagon hop. Write what's in your heart ".

So, without apology I'm going back to my favourite characters: Ramona, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables, Mary Poppins. I'm going to scrutinise The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and Nothing to be Afraid of. I'll be analysing The Borrowers and Ballet Shoes and The BFG.  I admit that -unlike my younger self- I'll be tutting at the liberal sprinkling of adverbs, and the naughtiness of the lengthy backstories, but that will be part of the fun. Over the next few months (before I get back to reading all the latest bestsellers) I'll be seeking to pinpoint what  the essence of a truly great Middle Grade book is, so that I can bottle it and keep it close to my heart as I'm writing.

I just hope (with writerly wishfulness) that  I will discover the Holy Grail of what makes these evergreen books so endlessly appealing, and will one day be able to achieve a little of the classic magic in my own stories.

Pippa Wilson

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Humour and Heart: Q&A with Phil Earle, Author of Demolition Dad

By Miriam Craig

A new contestant has entered the arena of funny books for 8-12 year olds, and it is Demolition Dad by Phil Earle. Jake Biggs and his Dad George love watching the wrestling together on TV. Then one day Jake persuades his Dad to try wrestling in real life. He agrees, but only if they keep it a secret – he wouldn’t want his friends at work, where he demolishes buildings, to find out. Then George Biggs has the opportunity to make it big in wrestling – become a superstar and bring fame and fortune to the whole town. But all does not go to plan... 

I loved this book and was SUPER-excited to find out more about the background to it from Phil.

What are you up to today?
I’m chipping away at a mountain of emails. As well as writing, I work three days a week for David Fickling as the Sales and Marketing Director. Then I spend one day a week visiting schools, and in theory I write the other day. I say ‘in theory’ because it doesn’t always work out that way! Today is one of my David Fickling days.

What made you want to write Demolition Dad?
I’d written four young adult books, but always promised myself that if I didn’t have another idea that was really burning inside me to write, I wouldn’t write it. At that time I’d run out of things I was desperate to write about for young adults. I have three children and my oldest now is 9. We were reading Danny the Champion of the World and it had this quite profound effect on both of us. I don’t know whether it was because it’s about a father and son – it’s a much straighter book than some other Dahl. It’s just this beautifully-realised relationship between a father and a son. We fell in love with it, and a week or two after finishing it we were both a bit bereft. It sparked my head into thinking I would really love to write a father and a son – a son that thinks his dad is the greatest thing in the world.

Why wrestling?
It was one of my guilty pleasures when I was growing up. I used to fill rows of VHS cassettes with it. My Dad used to say, ‘Son, nothing good will ever come of you watching this stuff.’ But I loved the drama of it – all these big personalities. I realised it gave me a really effective vehicle to hang the story on. The Dad’s secret in the book is that he’s a wrestler. The wrestling in the book is a fictional version of the real thing, and it’s inspired by the British wrestling I used to watch on World of Sport every Saturday afternoon as a kid, where the wrestlers were all flabby and there were grannies in the audience.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Sara Ogilvie. How did she get involved?
I was lucky enough to work with Sara when we commissioned Dogs Don’t Do Ballet at Simon and Schuster. I fell in love with her work. I think she’s undoubtedly one of our most gifted illustrators. She can convey humour and more complex emotions in the same spread. We approached her when Orion took the book on. We said we didn’t want to be prescriptive about what she illustrated – we just sent her the text and asked her to choose which bits to illustrate.

You just mentioned one of the things I loved about the book – that it’s funny and moving at the same time. How do you balance those two things?
I really believe the two can run side by side – humour and heart. Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson have been doing it for years. For me what makes for a well-rounded character is seeing all facets of their life. But I try not to analyse it. I know when I set out what I want to say, and then I just let myself have fun with it.

Another thing I loved about the story was how quickly it moves. Any tips for writers on how to keep their stories pacy?
I write like that because that’s how I like to read. I’m not interested in the author’s views on the world – I just want someone to tell me a rollicking story. Short chapters help. Each chapter is like a television episode. If you look at Peppa Pig, there’s a whole story in a very short amount of time. Think about how you use cliffhangers – the end sentence has to be strong enough to make that reader want to read on immediately. And make your chapters an optimum length for a dad or mum reading for 10-15 minutes before bed. I also try to visualise my stories as a line graph. It’s not one continual line upwards or downwards – it’s peaks and troughs. Sometimes the character succeeds and sometimes they fail. Nothing makes a reader fall in love with a character as much as that!

What’s your writing process?
I have a vague story arc in my head but it really is a vague one. I have nothing but admiration for writers who map out their books – for me that’s not the process. I tried it and it stifled all the creativity for me. The joy comes out through me discovering that as I write. But then there’s the editing. I detest editing!

What inspires you?
TV and movies definitely inspire me. I still class myself as a reluctant reader. I don’t read many adults books – mainly crime thrillers. Growing up in Hull I was influenced by theatre a lot too. I saw plays about ordinary people, and realised there was great drama in the everyday. I never read fantasy books when I was younger – a lot of those big fantasy books are really long. I didn’t have the staying power to read those. I love something like Holes, which I think is one of the most perfect books ever written, and is set in the real world.

Which children’s writers do you love today?
I think Keith Gray is the most underrated writer for YA. I also love Kevin Brooks, Marcus Sedgwick, David Almond. They craft their books like sculptors. And Sarah Crossan – her new book One is just extraordinary.

How old are you inside your head?
When I was writing YA I felt I was stuck at the mental age of being a teenager. But now writing these books, I’m wondering if I’m just 10. I’ve always struggled to feel like an adult. I’ve got three kids and a mortgage – there isn’t much more adult responsibility than that – but I do absolutely feel like a child still. People ask if I think about a reader while I’m writing and I don’t – I think about me.

What challenges do you face in your writing life?
Deadlines. The editorial process! Also the biggest challenge for a writer is the constant fear of when it’s going to end. What if a publisher decides I’ve had enough chances? That’s the biggest fear, because I love it.

Do you think it helps if writers pay attention to what’s selling?
All good writers are aware of that and need to be aware of that, but I still stick by the mantra that if it’s not burning a hole inside of you, then don’t write it. It’s not a formula. It’s an artistic process. You have to create the book that you’re desperate write.

What’s next?
I want to tell a story for every child that lives on Storey Street (where this book is set). Mouse was an almost peripheral character in Demolition Dad, but now I’ve written his story. He’s superhero obsessed, and one day his Mum, who is a lollipop lady, inadvertently foils a bank robbery. As a result, everyone lauds her as a new breed of superhero and Mouse becomes her sidekick, by default. But then things start to go a little bit wrong. I grew up reading a lot of graphic novels and I liked playing with that idea of what makes someone a hero. That comes out in February, called Superhero Street. And now I’m writing book three, which is about Masher Milner (who is cast as a baddie in Demolition Dad). I love the idea that no kid is born bad. I’m trying to give Masher a heart, albeit one that’s hidden far, far, far away...

There you go again Phil, even giving your baddies a heart. Thank you so much for talking to me about Demolition Dad – I look forward to reading about all the other characters of Storey Street.

For more info about Phil visit his lovely website, including this video where he shares his Tips for Writing Great Dialogue.

By Miriam Craig
Twitter: @miriamhcraig
Instagram: @miriamhcraig

Sunday 21 June 2015

Father's Day: The Best Dads in Middle Grade Fiction

Today is Father's Day in the UK, and a number of our wonderful team have each selected their favourite father from middle grade fiction (no prizes for guessing which fab dad might appear twice on our list).

Sophie Reid: Mr Weasley from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling 

It would be hard for me to complete any list like this without a Mr Weasley mention and he was the first MG dad who came to mind. We don't meet Mr Weasley until the second book, but we already know a bit about him - namely that he has enchanted a muggle car to fly. Mr Weasley's reaction to this is hysterically different to Mrs Weasley's, and we soon learn how different the pair are. Mr Weasley is obsessed with Muggle technology and gadgets, desperate to learn the function of a rubber duck, and how planes stay up. Although he is the easier going of the Weasley parents, he still cares deeply for all his children - and Harry, and treats them all just the same, no matter what. I am grateful that J.K. Rowling decided to save Mr Weasley from his death!

Twitter: @sophs_3

Aoife Walsh: Mr Bagthorpe from The Bagthorpe Saga by Helen Cresswell

I don't even know what to say about Mr Bagthorpe. He's the best character in this series, which genuinely makes him one of the best characters in books anywhere. He's pretty much explicitly bipolar which is interesting, but also egotistical, aggressive, frustrating, anything but affectionate to his family, and yet the one you more or less end up gunning for against all the others. He describes himself as 'the Archetypal Can-Carrier of All Time.' I would love to think that one day I might write someone as funny as Henry Bagthorpe.

Kieran Fanning: Mr Hughes from Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce

The opening lines of Dylan's diary are: 'My dad, right - ask anyone this, they'll all say the same - my dad can fix anything. Toyota. Hyundai. Ford.' But later Dylan admits, 'it's not just cars.' And how right he is. While on holidays, Mr Hughes rushes back to the caravan for a kettle of boiling water to warm up the sea for his children. When renowned local Ninja Turtles fan, Daft Tom holds up the Hughes' filling station in a balaclava and Ninja Turtles bicycle helmet, Mr Hughes doesn't call the police but offers Tom sweets and eventually a job. As a result, Tom turns his life around. 'So that's another thing Dad fixed - he fixed daft Tom.' Mr Hughes biggest challenge comes when the family face a financial crisis, but with the help of his kids, Mr Hughes does what it takes to make things right. Frank Cottrell Boyce does the father/son relationship brilliantly in Millions and Cosmic, but Mr Hughes will always be my favourite of Boyce's literary dads.

Helen Clark Jones: Mr Horten from Small Change for Stuart and Big Change for Stuart, by Lissa Evans

Stuart Horten’s dad is ‘quite old’, outlandishly tall and permanently distracted by his job of writing difficult crosswords. And he’s incapable of using simple language - going for a walk is a brief perambulation and breakfast is a morning repast – all delivered at full volume. Stuart’s dad is frankly embarrassing.

Stuart’s struggles to understand his dad and his flowery language are a source of much humour and the wordplay is rich and interesting. But when Stuart and his dad find themselves trapped inside a magical maze, it’s only by teaching his dad to speak words of one syllable that will get them out. It’s a clever and funny scene where Stuart’s frustrations are replaced with the understanding that his dad’s over the top language is a part of who he is; panic when it looks like this trait might have gone forever and finally relief when Mr. Horten returns to ‘the usual mad long stuff’ that Stuart doesn’t understand. It’s an empathetic and gentle moment in a fast paced adventure that shows funny books aren’t only for laughs.

Tatum Flynn: William, in Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

As Dahl famously declared, all children deserve a parent who is SPARKY - and William is certainly that. Many MG books sideline adults, so DANNY, which is really a tale of a boy and his dad's loving and fun relationship, makes a lovely change. These days, taking your child along on larcenous expeditions to poach peasants would probably get you called out by Child Protective Services, but this book is a delight, and as a child I adored how furious William was with Danny's nasty teacher, how they shared midnight feasts, and how they got one over on the dastardly Mr Hazell.

Piers Torday - Mr. Brown in the Paddington Bear series by Michael Bond

Henry Brown isn't Paddington's dad and in fact is at first the most resistant to taking the Peruvian orphan in. His status as serious bowler hatted city bread earner of the family is undercut from then on, delightfully and charmingly, by the marmalade chomping newcomer's antics. But although he is teased, and Paddington himself often"saves the day" after causing the chaos to begin with, the ponderous and bumbling but ever tolerant Mr Brown is always there as the ultimate safety net for our hero's adventures.

Sophie Plowden - Caractacus Pott in the Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang series by Ian Fleming

Best dad? I’d have to say Commander Caractacus Pott, charismatic inventor of what also happens to be the best car in children’s literature, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. Ian Fleming wrote the book for his son, so I like to think of the Commander (with his cool gadgets and high speed getaways in his astonishingly versatile vehicle) as James Bond’s eccentric relation. He’s since had a make-over by Roald Dahl and Frank Cottrell Boyce, but for me he lives on through his fatherly advice: ‘Never say 'no' to adventures. Always say 'yes', otherwise you'll lead a very dull life.’ 

Ruth Fitzgerald - Dizzy's Dad in Dizzy by Cathy Cassidy

Cathy Cassidy writes great dads. I love Daizy Starr's mad dad in the Daizy Starr series, he jacks in his teaching job and follows his dreams, one crazy scheme after another, none of which ever work out successfully. Or Scarlett's lovely dad, who tries so hard to stay patient and suppotive in the face of her rebellion. However my favourite Cathy C. dad is Dizzy's. He is a single parent looking after his daughter while her mum goes AWOL for eight years. He makes her cheese on toast and milkshake for her birthday breakfast and worries about school and swimming galas. Without spoiling the plot, he really doesn't desereve all the anguish he's put through!

Kate Mallinder - Big Dave from A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson

Big Dave isn't Dan's biological father, but throughout Dan's journey to understand why his dad left, Big Dave is there and the bond the two form by the end of the story is incredibly moving.  It is brilliant at showing how families can work when they've got step-mums and step-dads.  It also makes it crystal clear to children that their family, which may feel like a bits and pieces family, is perfect for them, and if they are having problems, never to give up hope.

Harry Oulton - Danny's dad from Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

He has got to be the best dad ever. He's loving, he's just irresponsible enough that Danny feels grown up, and he's a modern day Robin Hood. Perfect dad. Poachers are way sexier than Gamekeepers, and when Danny devises the perfect way to poach, his dad is really proud of him. He made me want to be a dad.