Friday 30 October 2015

Top 10 Weird Japanese Monsters by Jason Rohan

Tomorrow night is Hallowe'en, the celebration of All Hallows' Eve, which has now become a great excuse for trick-or-treating, costume parties and macabre monsters - fun for children of all ages.

In honour of this, MGSB asked me to do a Hallowe'en special and I thought I'd go with, "Things that go どた* in the night.

Since there are hundreds of yokai - weird and wonderful Japanese monsters - but they remain relatively unknown on our shores, I thought I'd list some of the strangest ones. Perhaps these might give you inspiration, or just plain nightmares, ahead of tomorrow's ghoul-fest. Enjoy!


1. Rokuro-kubi - This is the ultimate rubber-necker, or Peeping Jane. Cursed in stories, the poor human afflicted with this stretchy neck is often unaware of their condition. Once they go to sleep, the head sets off on its own business, taking the neck with it. One explanation for a crick in the neck the next morning?

Wind your neck in, love!

2. Sagari - A dismembered horse's head that hangs from a tree and waits for an unsuspecting passer-by before letting out a frantic neigh. Supposedly, the ghost of a horse that died by the roadside and got caught up in the trees while leaving its body. Also featured in The Godfather.

They even made a statue out of it

3. Mouryou - Well before Monty Python and The Holy Grail, Japan had its own version of a killer rabbit. A type of ghoul, this child-sized bunny is able to walk on its hind legs and inhabits graveyards where it digs up corpses for a snack. Not the best choice for a petting zoo.

Hell bunny

4. Kurokamikiri - Literally, the "black hair cutter." In old Japan, women took pride in long, glossy black hair, so a creature that sneaks up on you, grabs you from behind and lops off your hair with its scissor hands was one to be feared. Quite what it does with all those shorn locks is anyone's guess.

Hair today, gone tomorrow

5. Karakasa obake - One of the better known yokai, this is a demonic paper umbrella. In Japanese folklore, an object which has reached its hundredth birthday can come to life and become sentient. Popularly depicted with one eye, one leg and a long tongue, this poor chap failed his audition for Disney.

A jolly brolly

6. Oari - If the previous yokai aren't weird enough for you, how about this one? Oari is the dead spirit of a giant ant. Who carries around a big, wooden hammer to bop you with.

Not quite Thor

7. Basan - Oriental dragons don't emit flame but if you are looking for a giant creature that haunts the mountains and breathes fire, then you're in luck, because instead of Smaug Japan has a giant chicken. Supposedly harmless, you can imagine Colonel Sanders getting excited at the prospect of a self-roasting bird.

Head in the clouds, this one

8. Nuppeppo - A useless, stinking lump of decaying flesh. No, not a politician or banker, this yokai guards sacred places and absorbs the flesh of evil-doers. Allegedly, eating the flesh of a nuppeppo can grant eternal youth but who wants to find out?

Humpty Dumpty on a bad day

9. Katakirauwa - As we get progressively weirder, this is a one-eyed, one-eared, three-legged pig on fire. It casts no shadow, in case you want to verify its monster status, and it will try and run between your legs in order to steal your soul.

They call me Mister Pig!

10. Atsuuikakura - And the winner for weirdest monster is this: a giant, flesh-eating sea cucumber that grows from a pair of discarded knickers! 

"Knickers out here? That's weird."

*どた - This reads as "dota" and is a Japanese equivalent of "bump". Onomatopoeia varies hugely from language to language and one man's "woof" is another's "wan."


If you liked this survey of Japanese monsters, be sure to check out Jason's Kuromori series which has even more weird creatures, plus action, humour and lots of tips on life in modern Japan.

Friday 23 October 2015

"The Name's Bond..." by Jason Rohan

Three iconic words that almost anyone can finish, and a promise of action, intrigue and adventure.

It's been estimated that over half the world's population has seen a Bond film and, with 24 official movies going back 54 years, that's probably not an exaggeration.

With the release this week of the latest film, Spectre, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about the esteemed franchise.

For me, the essential question is "What make a Bond movie a Bond movie?" as opposed to any other genre. There are lots of interesting articles laying out the minutiae of the Bond formula, but the key elements I remember from my impressionable childhood are mind-blowing stunts, world-threatening plots, a sense of humour, and larger-than-life villains. If you've read any of my books, you'll see all these child-friendly motifs at work.

However, since the late 80's, there's been a conscious move away from the traditional Connery/Moore world-saving exploits to more parochial storylines featuring drug lords, disgruntled former spies and stock market manipulation. 

With the end of the Cold War and the changing political climate I can understand the need to modernise but there's a part of me that yearns for the more innocent fun of the earlier films. This might make me sound like an old fogey but the last Bond film I truly enjoyed - warts and all - was Goldeneye.

Mercifully, I won't go into all of the things that grate with me from the recent, hugely successful films but if I distil them down into one gripe, it's the move to ape the Bourne films, even down to hiring the same fight director. I'm sorry but if I wanted James Bond to gouge eyes and choke people I'd stick to the books.

The funny thing is, though, that while Bond has moved away from his traditional escapist formula and gone into darker and grittier territory, other film franchises have gleefully adopted the old formula and are having a blast with it. Kingsman, out earlier this year, even made a nostalgic joke out of it. Tom Cruise's Mission:Impossible series is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from a Bond movie and even Fast & Furious is cashing in with Bond-style stunts, plot lines and escapades.

As with Doctor Who - that other perennial British favourite featuring a changing actor in the lead role - there is plenty of scope for Bond to reinvent himself when ready. I, for one, would have no issue with an Idris Elba James Bond just as I would love to see Emma Watson play Doctor Who.

We see many times in children's literature how a familiar story can be retold in fresh, exciting and original ways. Tweaking such a successful and popular formula, as others have done, would be easy and I don't see it as accidental that heavyweight MG authors Anthony Horowitz and Steve Cole have been asked to write the last two James Bond novels. Gritty doesn't have to mean grim.


Like with any long-standing institution, everyone will have their own strong opinions and many Daniel Craig fans will no doubt disagree with me. Please feel free to post your own thoughts below in the Comments section.

Thursday 22 October 2015

The MG Extravaganza - 32 authors, a whole room of readers - and cake! by C.J. Busby

On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be at the MG Extravaganza in Nottingham - a gathering of MG authors, bloggers, teachers, librarians, families and above all child readers - and it was awesome! Last year, bloggers Emma Pass and Kerry Drewery organised a highly successful gathering of UKYA authors - the UKYA extravaganza. This year they did it again but decided to also honour and celebrate the younger age range too, with an MG extravaganza - and what an event it was!

There were thirty-two amazing authors, a room full of enthusiastic audience members, the wonderful Paula Rawsthorne as compere, and a whole lot of cake. With there being so many, everyone was restricted to two minutes each - and we had some great timekeepers in charge of the big orange egg timer to make sure we stuck to it!

Two minutes is a very short time when you're trying to give a  flavour of who you are and what your books are about - but in fact, it worked brilliantly. People picked out the important, funny, interesting bits, and the energy stayed high.

Some of us (all right, one of us!) sang songs...

John Dougherty
Some of us (all right, one of us!) came as witches...

Maudie Smith
And some of us - well, you know that means one of us, right? - waved a sword around to keep everyone on their toes...

And that would be me...
Then there were tales of hunting with eagles from Abi Elphinstone; tales of growing up on a farm from Helen Peters; Joanna Nadin read a brief extract from her new book, Joe All Alone; Teresa Flavin wowed everyone with her bright blue hair and tales of what's really going on behind the paintings on the wall.

The audience seemed to enjoy it - and no one was allowed to be boring with Paula ready to step in and gently nudge them to sit down and shut up now!

Whenever we started to feel fidgety, there was tea and cake, and after that more stories: Huw Powell and S.F. Said, both with tales of outer space; Tamsyn Murray and Linda Chapman with tales of friendship, and baking (more cakes!); stories of losers - Tim Collins and Dorkius Maximus, Jackie Marchant with Dougal Trump. There were even a few superheroes in the books on offer - including Electrigirl, by Jo Cotteril (who came suitably attired!)

Joe Cotteril as Electrigirl
There were issues of identity and race in books by Emma Shevah, Rosemary Hayes and Candy Gourlay; and there were rip-roaring or funny adventures from Allan Boroughs, Dan Metcalf, Fleur Hitchcock, Cas Lester and many others. It was whirl of imagined places, people and plots - and showed just how vibrant the world of MG books is.

Here's the lot of us -and here's Emma and Kerry advertising the next round of UKYA and UKMG extravaganzas - in Newcastle! Book your tickets now...

(Photos all by Candy Gourlay, except the one of Jo Cotteril, which was taken by Chelley Toy - thanks to them for documenting and contributing to such a  great day!)

C.J. Busby writes fantasy for ages 7-12. Her latest book, The Amber Crown, is out with Templar.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Imogen's Book of the Week: Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman, published by Walker Books

My Sunday Best today is perhaps more of a teen than an 8-12 title – but I can easily imagine it setting light to the imagination of an able MG reader, just as it compelled me last week to devour it in a single sitting. The latest in a line of brilliant books by this year’s Carnegie winner Tanya Landman, Hell and High Water is the gripping tale of Caleb Chappell, a biracial boy whose high-born English father now makes his living as the master of a Punch and Judy show. When Joseph Chappell is falsely accused of theft and transported, however, Caleb must make his own way in a world instinctively hostile to those of his colour. Seeking out his last remaining relatives in the tiny coastal village of Fishpool, Caleb swears to clear his father’s name, no matter what it takes. But to do so will bring him face to face with corruption, violence and ceaseless, demeaning prejudice. Does Caleb have the strength to survive, and to succeed in his quest?

Landman’s characteristic combination of fast-paced plot with clear-sighted foregrounding of those usually forgotten by history is very much in evidence here, drawing the reader inexorably into the book from its first pages. She evokes what it might feel like to be brown in eighteenth-century England with a delicately stinging, totally believable touch; Caleb is constantly treated as an exotic, reaping familiar comments on the texture of his hair from a flower-seller who sends him on his way ‘with a bruising pinch on the arse’.  When travelling alone, he is hyperaware that he may be seen as ambulant goods, one notch above livestock, by the first man to lay claim to him as a runaway slave. Caleb's vulnerability, as a visible, perpetual outsider, leads him to create a defensive carapace - and he's instantly at daggers drawn with Letty, the stepdaughter of the aunt with whom he takes refuge, as a result. (Tough, gorgeous Letty is another superb character; the 'flame-haired, feisty heroine' of fantasy cliche reinvigorated and reborn in Landman's writing.)

Belting plot, perfect period detail and nuanced characterisation aren't the book's only strengths.  The treatment of grief - for lost fathers, lost loves, ideals and dreams - throughout the book will bring a lump to the throat of anyone who has ever suffered such a loss. Punches are felt, not pulled; violence leaves its mark, inside and out. But there is hope, bright colour and subversion here, even in drab, monochrome, fear-governed Fishpool; in the craftsmanship of Joseph Chappell's puppets, in the rude delights of their show, and in the love that grows irrepressibly in the unlikeliest quarters, green shoots to crack grey stones. Simultaneously salt and sweet, bitterly cold and glowing with warmth, Hell and High Water is an unforgettable novel from a writer at the pinnacle of her powers.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

UKMG Extravaganza Blog Tour: Guest Post by Rosemary Hayes

‘How do you fancy writing some books about Travellers?’ said my publisher. ‘There are lots of Travelling children in schools and we want stories which will be of interest to them. Stories about their lives.’

‘Umm. Not sure.’

‘Oh, and they should be interesting to non-travelling children, too.’

‘Even harder, then.’

I don’t usually write to commission and this seemed a really tall order. But the idea wouldn’t go away and as I thought about it, I began to see how it might work if I integrated the lives of gypsy and non gypsy children and subtly explored discrimination and misconceptions from both viewpoints, exploding a few myths along the way.

‘I’d need to do a lot of research.’

‘Go on. You’ll enjoy it!’

The Romany Museum in Spalding, Lincolnshire, seemed a good place to start and although I’d phoned to say I was coming I really had no idea what to expect. I drove through the flat Lincolnshire countryside on a golden Autumn afternoon. As I got deeper into the fens I spied some gypsy camps at the end of droves - and then there was a sign to the museum. I turned off, down a rutted track and past a scrapyard and came to a huge barn.

Gordon Boswell, the museum owner, is a gypsy. He is illiterate, as many of his generation are, but he’d obviously done very well in the scrap business and was now able to indulge his passion for collecting and restoring ‘Vardos’ the old gypsy bow topped vans.

The place was an Aladdin’s Cave, full of beautifully decorated and restored vardos, milk churns, carts and other artifacts and surrounded by old photographs of gypsy folk, cooking by their camp fires, tending their horses, singing and dancing, working in the fields and so on. The vibrancy in those photos was palpable.

Gordon spent a long time talking to me, telling me about his own background – as a youngster on the road and later as a settled traveller.

The Romany Museum, Spalding, Lincolnshire

But I needed to talk to families and get a feel for how they live now. I’m based near Cambridge and I knew there were traveller sites around the city but I couldn’t just front up and start asking questions, so I approached the head of Traveller Education at the Council and asked her to help me.

I was lucky. She and her colleagues embraced the project from the outset, immediately seeing the value of such books, and they went with me to traveller sites and took me to see settled travellers in their houses.

Without exception, everyone I interviewed (young and old) was welcoming and forthcoming. Older travellers spoke of the lives they’d led when they were young, when they could still travel freely and park on verges or on farmers’ fields and about the freedom, the fun and the hardships of travelling round the country following agricultural work. They spoke of customs surrounding birth, marriage and death and of the importance, above everything else, of family. They told me how things have changed, how the agricultural work has virtually dried up and how the vast majority of gypsies now live either on council sites or on their own land.

Inside a modern caravan

And outside

A modern day travelling family

I found out that there are distinct differences between the Roma gypsies who came to this country around 500 years ago and the Irish gypsies who arrived much later.  How ‘showmen’ gypsies have the highest social status and how the travelling community earn their living now – mostly working for family in the scrap metal business, garden maintenance, paving, tarmacking - and horse trading.

As horses were going to play a large part in my stories, I went to a gypsy horse fair to watch the men and boys showing off their horses’ paces, trotting and bareback riding up and down the streets.

At the horse fair

All the travellers I met were friendly and very proud of their rich heritage. However, it is still a largely male dominated society and there is still illiteracy, even among the younger generation – and travellers are still discriminated against both in schools and in the wider community.


So, armed with all this information and having met and spoken to many travellers, I set about writing my stories. About Tess, who is pony mad and, until she’s banned from the site by her mum, secretly visits the travellers’ horses and makes friends with some of the gypsy families. About Mike, a gypsy boy who, through no fault of his own, gets into trouble with the law, about Lizzie, his sister, who is a talented artist and dreams of getting to art college but has to leave school and mind the kids on the site. And finally, of Ben, Tess’s football mad older brother and gypsy hater who gets into all sorts of trouble until help comes from Mike, the gypsy boy he’s always despised.

The lives of all these young people are interlinked and what I hope is that these stories will play a small part in helping to break down discrimination and foster understanding between gypsy and non-gypsy ‘gorger’ children.

Huge thanks to Rosemary for taking the time to write this for Middle Grade Strikes Back. As for the UKMG Extravaganza, you can find out more about this awesome sounding event (and it's sister event, the UKYA Extravaganza) over at its Facebook page:

The blog tour continues tomorrow over at Rebecca Mascull's Tumblr blog and then on through October until its final stop on the 16th. Full details below: