Monday 28 September 2015

An Interview with Lara Williamson by Tizzie Frankish

When you lose someone, goodbye isn’t the end...

As a reader of 'heartbreak and humour' stories, I am delighted to welcome Lara Williamson author of A Boy Called Hope and her new book The Boy who sailed the Ocean in an Armchair...

An extraordinary story of courage, dreams and finding your way.

So, pull up an armchair * and join us on our journey where we navigate the tricky waters of 'second story' syndrome, ride the waves of writing for Middle Grade and sail with the silent snail who has a starring role. 

* Jaffa Cakes optional

A Boy Called Hope epitomises the phrase ‘Humour and Heartbreak’. Can we expect the same emotional pulls from The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair?

I think you can. I’ve always thought humour and heartbreak are very close. One minute you’re laughing and the next crying. I’d like to think I take the character in the book on an emotional journey with lots of humour and highs followed by lows, moments where it’s hard to see the way forward and perhaps in some cases no way forward at all. Then by the ending I leave that character happy; knowing that they’ve grown in some way and they’re stronger for the experience.

How did Becket find you? Did he surf into your subconscious and appear fully formed or did he sail around the side lines for a while?

I was on a writing course and we were writing a piece that could be the beginnings of a new book. To be honest, I didn’t really have an actual book idea but what I did have was an image inside my head that would not go away. I could see an ocean and there was an armchair sailing on it with two brothers aboard. Each was comforting the other as they negotiated turbulent waters towards their destination. Instinctively, I knew that it wasn’t just about the destination but the journey. The title The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair came to me that day and never changed. Basically, I wrote the book around that image I had in my head.

I love Ninja Grace (Dan Hope’s word-witty sister) and Charles Scallybones (Dan’s chewing-spewing dog). What roles do Billy (Becket’s brother) and Brian (Billy’s pet snail) play in The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair?

Billy is Becket’s little brother and the relationship between them is important. As their mother has died Becket is trying to take over her role in looking after his little brother, in telling him stories to comfort him when things are hard. Family is everything to me and in both my books they end up being the glue that binds everything together. When I wrote the first draft of The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair I didn’t have any animals and I realised I missed having one. It would have been obvious to have a cat so I went for something completely random and ended up with a snail. And I actually love that snail because he says and does nothing but in the end he has an important role to play.

So far, the characters in your books (Dan in A Boy Called Hope and Becket in The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair) are boys. Where do you find inspiration for these authentic characters?

I think I tend to write stories from the heart whether the main character is a boy or a girl. Everyone knows what it feels like to be rejected or lonely or to suffer loss, sadness and happiness and that’s usually the starting point for me. From there the character grows and blossoms.

We often hear of the trials and tribulations of ‘second story syndrome’. Was writing The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair a difficult process for you and how much did it differ from writing your first published book?

Not that I’m an authority but I imagine each book can throw up its own set of problems. With the first you have the luxury of time and so you might spend years writing it and then still have the time to set it aside and come back later with fresh eyes. The second book is going to be to a deadline and so that is guaranteed to make it feel different. Also, you want the second to be as good, if not better, than the first. But I have enjoyed writing both books for different reasons and now I’m really looking forward to the third. Wait… is there a third story syndrome?

You will have to come back and let us know. Both your books are for the 8-12 age group. What is it about writing for this age that appeals to you?
To be honest, I’ve never really grown up and I’m still about 8-12 inside my head so it feels pretty natural to write for this age group. In fact, I have really strong memories of my childhood and it was a time when I felt like I had the whole world ahead of me, anything was possible. Not that everything was totally perfect, but it was magical to me in many ways and I want to hold on to that feeling for ever. Writing for this age group allows me to do that.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Panster! I have a beginning in my mind and I know the ending but I like to be surprised in the middle. For me, if I plotted everything with precision I might not enjoy any little twists and turns that unexpectedly come my way. That’s not to say that while I’m on the journey I don’t go to a dead end and have to back track and find another route and that takes up valuable time. I’ve realised I’m very much the same in real life. For example: if I’m on a motorway and there’s a jam I would rather turn off and get lost going around little villages in order to get to my destination. And I will reach the destination, it might take me longer, but the journey will have been all the more exciting.

You have talked about re-reading your diaries from when you were growing up (my toes are curling for you!). Do you think writing diaries was where your love for writing began?

I’ve tried to think of a time when I didn’t write or draw and I can’t remember one.  Even from a young age I was writing little stories and illustrating them. My primary school had a shield for the best handwriting and winning it was one of my proudest moments. Still is. And when I wasn’t writing I was making up plays with my friends and putting them on. At the age of ten I started keeping a diary and kept one until I was twenty-one and I’m so happy I did. Now I realise, looking back, that there are things in my diary that inspired me to write both books. And they’re not life changing things either they’re just random things like the dog chewed my favourite rubber ball (does that remind you of a certain dog in A Boy Called Hope?).

Whatever happened to Julie and Jenny of Lakeview School? Will their story ever be finished?

Ah, lovely Julie and Jenny of Lakeview. This was the first book I ever wrote aged ten and I think I was inspired by St Clare’s and Malory Towers. Thing is, I didn’t have the first clue about lacrosse or boarding schools and so I eventually ran out of steam after a few chapters. Tempting as it is to bring back Julie and Jenny and their shenanigans at Lakeview I feel that they have served their purpose. That being they prepared me for writing a book later on in life and for that reason alone I shall always have a soft spot for the pair of them.

Finish these statements:

If I wasn’t a writer, I would be a dancer. As a child I imagined I was a ballerina despite never taking a ballet class. Now I tap dance and although I’m never going to set the world alight with my fancy footwork I imagine I’m on Strictly Come Dancing when I dance. Ah, isn’t imagination wonderful?

My favourite thing about being an author is everything. Writing allows me be anyone or anything, to live in any world of my own making. How lucky to be able to say that you can daydream and get paid for it. And then to have people read and connect with your words is amazing. I will never stop being excited about this.

I write best when I am at my desk by 9.30 with a cup of lemon and ginger tea (with biscuits nearby).

Growing up, I wanted to be a forensic scientist or a fashion designer.

My special talent is wiggling my ears, raising one eyebrow and flaring my nostrils. Yes, I have a very flexible face.

My favourite form of potato is chips.

My word of the day is serendipity. When you’re writing and you get a moment of serendipity it’s the best.

If I could be a character from any book, I would be Moon-Face from The Enchanted Wood.

The character in my next book is called… I’m going to leave you wanting more by saying you’ll have to wait and see.

Untill then... fill the wait by reading The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair, which is published by Usborne on 1st October. Paperback £5.99 or click on the link below.

Becket Rumsey is all at sea.
More than anything he needs to say goodbye to a loved one.
His dad has run away with him and his brother Billy in the middle of the night. And they’ve left everything behind, including their almost-mum Pearl. Becket has no idea what’s going on – it’s a mystery.
So with the help of Billy and a snail called Brian, Becket sets out on a journey of discovery. It’s not plain sailing but then what journeys ever are?
When you lose someone, goodbye isn’t the end. There is no full stop. It’s just the beginning of a new and different journey. Then again, that’s something Becket needs to discover for himself.

Thank Lara for taking the time to answer our questions. Happy writing!
Interview by Tizzie Frankish       @tizzief

Sunday 27 September 2015

Imogen's Book of the Week: The Iliad, retold by Gillian Cross, illustrated by Neil Packer

The Iliad, retold by Gillian Cross, illustrated by Neil Packer

Published by: Walker Books (1st October 2015)

My Sunday best this week is not a novel; instead, it’s a Homeric retelling by a renowned author, given yet more depth and meaning by superlative illustration.

Most kids who like reading delve at some point into the realms of Greek mythology; for the enduring popularity of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, you only have to look at Rick Riordan’s best-selling Percy Jackson series, featuring half-human kids with Olympian parentage and astonishing powers, as well as the library-loads of anthologies by luminaries such as Geraldine McCaughrean.  The Odyssey, with its variegated cast of monsters and marvels and its sly, indomitable hero, has frequently been retold for children, too (I remember a highly dubious televised version shown at primary school, which, at the time, I adored). But the Iliad, full of bloodshed, anger, and the gulf between men and gods, is a trickier proposition.

To me, Gillian Cross’ Iliad achieves the near-impossible; it conveys the complexities of mortal and immortal motivation within this great poem of glory and death in a clear, direct and memorable register, simple enough for children and sophisticated enough for classically-minded adults. And Neil Packer’s images, full of helmeted heads, towering gods and twining, interwoven Greek script, are breath-taking. The figures’ distorted scale gives the impression (wholly fitting to the source text) that the camera has ‘zoomed in’ on a significant moment on the battlefield, or that the disproportionate gods have taken a casual hand in the affairs of men. Packer’s black ships, his showers of spears, his flattened, twisting heroes and his colour scheme all suggest that the most vivid of black-figure pottery has come to life, transporting the reader deep into the rich, precarious world of the epic.

Cross’ elegant prose, meanwhile, frequently has the impact of poetry:
“Looking down from high Olympus, Zeus listened to Achilles’ prayer.
And he granted half of it”
and she is adept at giving the reader the essential flavour of Homeric similes (“as loyal and savage as mountain wolves”). This gorgeous, enticing volume provides an introduction to the goddesses’ feud over the golden apple before the opening of the Iliad proper, as well as a look at what happens afterwards – Achilles’ death and the Fall of Troy – and a thought-provoking epilogue, “Is The Iliad a true story?” But the retelling of the poem itself is undoubtedly the main event. From the poignant detail of Hector’s baby son, Astyanax, who cries with fear at the sight of his father’s helmet, to the heart-breaking moment when Priam ransoms Hector’s body from his killer (“I’ve done what no other father could bear – put my lips to the hand that killed my son”), this Iliad is spare, limpid and superb – the work of two masters, equally matched.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

The magic of children's books: how one good story can change your life

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a wrestler. I had it all planned out. I would be called Zero, and my finishing move would be the ULTIMATE ZERO, and naturally the commentators would shout it because it was just that awesome.

Then I wanted to make video games, before I found American football and dreamed of becoming an NFL player.

At no point did I want to be a writer. Books took too long to get through. They were boring. They felt like work at a time when all I wanted to do was play Grand Theft Auto or Final Fantasy VII.

And then Harry Potter happened. It was published when I was 11, right in the prime of my I-hate-books mentality, when I was running round in the playground acting out video games and sprinting home to spend hours playing them when the bell rang.

It was there in my room when I got home from school one day, as if (excuse me) by magic. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I took one look at it, and threw it aside. It looked rubbish. It had a train on the front. There were LOADS of words inside it. I went back to playing on the PlayStation.

But that evening, under the glow of the bedside light, I read the blurb on the back cover. I turned it over, and opened it up to the first line. I read the second line, and the third, and soon there was no stopping me. Like so many others – kids who hated reading, kids who loved it – J. K. Rowling took my hand and led me to Hogwarts, and it blew my mind.

One of my favourite posts on Middle Grade Strikes Back so far is S. F. Said’s piece on the best books of the 21st century. The BBC created a poll, and there were no children’s books on it – just one example among many of children’s books being neglected in the media.

S. F. Said argued that: “books like Watership Down and The Jungle Books, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials have proved again and again that children's literature is really just literature, transcending every kind of label.”

But I would go so far as to suggest that children’s books are more than just literature. They carry with them a unique magic: the ability to change your life; to redefine who you are and the kind of person you can become. I would never be an author if it wasn't for finding J. K. Rowling's story. I wouldn't even be a reader.

I’ve got a lot of friends who don’t read. They’re sportsmen and gamers and TV fans and movie lovers, and they just don’t get on with reading. The only difference between us is that I found the right book when I was a kid, and they didn’t.

Harry Potter opened the door onto a whole world of stories – books like Skellig, which I would never have read if not for Hogwarts; books like The Graveyard Book and the His Dark Materials series and Percy Jackson.

Every single book I’ve ever read for pleasure, every children’s story, every adult novel, is all because I found Harry Potter at precisely the right time. Hogwarts might not be for everyone, but if it’s not, then something else will be. It’s just a matter of finding it.

That’s the true magic of children’s books: kids read them at the most important time in their lives. The things they see, the things they watch, the things they experience when they’re progressing through Year Five and Six and through to Seven and Eight, they’re the things that define them.

No video game, for me, has ever been as good as Final Fantasy VII, which I played when I was 11. It carved out a glowing legacy and is the bar by which every game I play is measured against.

A game might be good, but is it FFVII good?

I can’t remember what I did at the weekend, but I can remember the delight I felt when my friends and I nailed the exact lyrics to a Spice Girls song, and killed it on the last day of Year Five.

You remember your school days forever. The best lessons, the teachers (good and bad), the friends, the enemies, they’re a highlight reel stapled to your soul – and the books you read then are remembered with the same fondness. They help make you you.

That’s not to say that children’s books are only for children. They’re not. The best children’s books are for adults too. Grown-ups can, and indeed should, read them. Not just as a way of getting their kids reading, but for their own enjoyment. Nowhere is literature more exciting.

As C. S. Lewis once said, “a children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

Thursday 17 September 2015

The Zombie with a Heart of Anti-Bacterial Soap – a Q&A with his creator, Jeff Norton

By Miriam Craig

After you’ve written the story of a boy who wakes up from his grave and finds that he’s a zombie, where do you take the story next? In Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie (Book 1), Adam Meltzer has already faced his new, patchy-skinned reality, and tracked down the shady culprits behind his own death. He's also made friends with two other outsiders – Corina, a cynical vampire, and Ernesto, a constantly-hungry chupacabra.*

In the second book in the series (Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie: Escape From Camp - which is out today), Jeff Norton takes a closer look at Corina’s vampire background, and sends all three friends on a summer camp adventure in the scariest of all scary places: Canada.

I very much enjoyed both books, especially the deepening friendship between Adam, Corina and Ernesto, and the death-defying (well, a zombie doesn’t have much to lose…) run-in with Niagara Falls.

I asked Jeff Norton a bit more about his writing and how the books came to be.

*A chupacabra is a were-lizard. Obviously.

What do you spend most of your working day doing?

I do the school run in the mornings, so I have to mentally switch from getting two little boys out of the house to writing prose. I’m most productive in the morning, so I reserve the first few hours for writing. I start at a café near my house and try to get down as many “words on paper” (Syd Field’s phrase) as I can that advances a manuscript forward. After about three hours, the manager of the café starts to give me the “you’re taking up a table” look and I go back to my home office.

There, I’ll switch onto something new, like drafting or dreaming up a new project. I enjoy creating something and then co-writing with another author, so I’ll spend a few hours working on a concept – outlining characters, stories, and world. Then, lunch. In the afternoon, I put on my TV hat and get into producing mode. It’s a different, but related muscle to writing, and is much more collaborative. I’ve just wrapped 80 episodes of pre-school animation called Trucktown ( based on the wonderful books by my friend Jon Scieszka, and I’m now in development on two more shows.

If I can motivate myself, I’ll then head out for a run on Hampstead Heath. After looking at a screen or paper all day, it’s nice to get some distance view.

What’s your writing process?

I like to know the ending before I begin. On this new Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie book, I changed the nuance of the ending, but had the general structure in place before I sat down to write. I take my motivation from Michael Arndt, who’s the screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, and he’s huge on endings. He believes, as I do, that a story is in service to its ending and you owe the audience/reader an (in his words) insanely great ending. 

Adam is VERY concerned with staying clean and hygienic, which is a constant source of humour in the books. How did you come to write him like that?

There’s a part of me that’s a bit OCD, and I took that notion to its extreme. I like to play with opposites in characters, so the idea of a zombie (who’s dealing with his flesh falling off) being obsessed with hygiene just felt like a character I couldn’t refuse to play with. 

Did you draw on your own experiences of summer camp?

I attended day camp one summer (we couldn't afford sleep-away camp) which featured one overnight stay. It was a total disaster! We slept under the stars during Burlington’s (in Ontario, Canada) storm of the century. We all took shelter in a church overnight and awoke to discover our belongings had washed downstream. I’ve always kept that memory and I really wanted to do a camp book because it gets the young protagonists out from under the parents (as opposed to killing them off, which is often the norm in kids books), so I channeled my one and only overnight camp experience and turned it into something far more frightening.

There’s a fun reveal in the book (that we won’t give away). Any tips for writers on how to create those ‘aha’ moments?

I call it the “rug pull,” that moment a writer turns the story in a totally different direction that you didn’t expect. Some readers love it, others hate it, but I have to tell you, it’s a lot of fun to write.
For me, the key to pulling it off is to set out subtle clues that seem obvious in retrospect, but not so obvious that the reader figures it all out too early. It’s an art and a science and I’m still playing with it as a technique and it takes patience. In MetaWars, the big rug pull happens in the fourth book, paying off incredibly subtle hints dropped into the first three books. It takes almost everyone by surprise. I love hearing from readers who say, “whoa, I didn’t see that coming!” I feel like I’ve surprised and delighted the reader.

You mention in your acknowledgements that this story probably breaks all the rules of children’s books. Which rules do you think it breaks?

I deal with some pretty big ideas and serious themes, but approach them from a position of comedy in order to lull the reader into a sense of safety in order that they process the themes on their own. Like science fiction, comedy is a great tool to deal with things that trouble us…and this book is filled with some gruesome stuff that’s reminiscent of humanity’s most horrific recent history. I can’t say too much more without causing spoilers, but my hope is that the book makes people think about the nature of complicity, separation, and racism.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on Adam Meltzer’s next adventure. It takes place just a few weeks later as Adam enters his final year of middle-school (8th grade) and wrestles with whether he should come out into the open about being unnatural. There’s a big rug pull moment, turning the tables on Adam and his friends, and it forces him to decide what kind of after-life he wants to have. Also, there are poo jokes.

I’m also writing a really exciting middle-grade science fiction adventure called Star Pressed. It’s a real love letter to sci-fi, and is about five teens and three adults who form a surrogate family aboard a decrepit space ship. Think, ‘Lost In Space’ meets ‘Party of Five.’

What inspires you?

I take inspiration from everywhere; there are so many amazing writers working today that it inspires me to up my game creatively, but I find motivation in the idea that my work can change someone’s life. All of my books are about being your best self. They may range from OCD zombies to tech thrillers to princess ponies (unexpected confession: I created and co-wrote, with Julie Sykes, the Princess Ponies series) but ultimately the stories are about characters figuring out who they really are.

Would you rather be a zombie, a chupacabra or a vampire?

Ooh, that’s a great question! I think it’d be hard to be a zombie, especially today in our era of The Walking Dead where the public has really been brainwashed to think of zombies as people-eating monsters. Corina has it tough as a vampire too, and I think I’d struggle with all of the expectations that vampires have for themselves. So, I think I’d go for chupacabra. It’s not an immortal monster, and with a good flossing regime, I feel certain I could remove any remnants of road kill from my teeth. Yeah, I’d go chup!

It looks like Jeff isn't too bad at flossing, so he'll probably be OK.

A very sensible and well-thought-out decision, Jeff. I wish I’d been as thorough before I put my name down to be turned into a sea-goat.

Thanks for letting us behind the scenes on your writing life. I look forward to finding out what twists and turns you’ve created for Adam in the next installment.

In the meantime, readers can find the beginning of Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie and Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie: Escape From Camp up on Wattpad, here and here.

Miriam Craig is a children's writer and copywriter.

Twitter: @miriamhcraig

Instagram: @miriamhcraig

Sunday 13 September 2015

Imogen's Book of the Week: The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

Imogen's Book of the Week: The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud, published by Random House 

Ptolemy's Gate

My Sunday Best this week is a super-creepy third instalment in a series that has held me transfixed since the first book came out two years ago. If you’re in the market to have your pants scared off this Halloween, this atmospheric tale, finely balanced between horror and humour, will definitely do the trick.

Jonathan Stroud’s The Hollow Boy follows The Screaming Staircase and The Whispering Skull in a superlative series of alternate history-cum-ghost-stories, chronicling the misadventures of London’s smallest ghost-hunting agency in a capital city ravaged by a supernatural Problem. The members of Lockwood and Co consist of Lucy Carlyle, the narrator, whose ability to hear ghosts renders her both brilliant and vulnerable in the field; George Cubbins, plump and puffa-clad, with a gift for in-depth research and excessive jammy-doughnut consumption; and the eponymous Anthony Lockwood, charismatic, mysterious and the object of Lucy’s unacknowledged fascination. In Book Three, however, all that is about to change.

Throughout the series, Stroud has foregrounded relationships – and the complex and intriguing bonds of irritated fondness, bone-deep loyalty and surreptitious fascination between Lucy, George and Lockwood are a big part of what makes it so compelling.  In The Hollow Boy, however, the overstretched agency has hired an extra member, the sleek, efficient and well-turned out Holly Munro - and Lucy’s nose is out of joint as a result. The ease and comfort with which the three ghost-hunters used to work is under strain. Will they find their camaraderie again – or has the agency been fatally compromised?

It’s still the superbly-evoked suspense and scariness, however, which are the main event. Another haunted flight follows the earlier Screaming Staircase, this one ‘a great oval cavity cut right up through the house…an inward-looking space, heavy and silent and turned towards the past’, up which bloody footprints run nightly, just after midnight. There is a wave of hideous hauntings, all through Chelsea, which have stretched all London’s agencies to their limits. And there is an old department store, riddled with ghosts, hiding a horrific secret in its foundations. Few writers can imbue an object with the cold-breathing menace Stroud manages to impart to a small stone tape-dispenser – and there are few writers whose work I look forward to more.