Thursday, 30 April 2009

New Kid on the Block

Well, actually, David Teale is quite an "old kid" if he won't mind my saying so! He started the Red House Book Club thirty years ago and ran it for nearly twenty and now he's at it again. I met David in Bologna in March and he was telling me about his new website which has just gone live.

My School Book Club ( is dead easy to use. If you're a school, once you've registered, you'll have your own personalised website, e.g. and order books direct. If you're a parent, grandparent, you join and have the books sent straight to you. Either way the school benefits and gets 20% worth of orders extra in free books.

"The aim is to make reading pleasurable and help mental and personal development of children by guiding their reading," said David, who has four grown-up daughter and six grandchildren, stressing that this is all about pleasure and nothing to do with testing.

In time there will be all sorts of extra goodies like video clips and author interviews, games and so on. 15,000 schools have received a mailing about the new club, endorsed by former children's laureate, Michael Morpurgo, among others.

And the criteria for the books featured? "Nothing boring," says David Teale.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Old favourites

All the coverage I've seen and heard about the Children's laureates' favourite books has mentioned the absence of Harry Potter. This is just lazy journalism. Why would four writers and one author-illustrator who are "not in the first bloom of youth" as Anne Fine described them on Radio 4 this morning, pick such a Johnny-come-lately as HP?

What the headlines should have been were: "No Alice, no Pooh, no Peter Pan, no Wind in the Willows, no Tolkien or C S Lewis." For that is the case. You can read the full list of 35 books at

It is a funny list, as all such lists must be, with some of the usual suspects, like Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, John Masefield's Box of Delights and so on. Some are not children's books at all, like Oliver Twist, or only arguably so, like Treasure Island. It takes more than a child protagonist to make a children's book. I hated the Diary of Anne Frank (one of Mike Rosen's choices) when I was a child and felt moved by it only as an adult.

So here's my list of seven:

J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
OK, three books and not according to its author children's ones at that.

I read this as it came out, removing the volumes one by one from my older sister's hands as she finished them. And then I read them every year until I was 18 and doubts began to set in. I read them all to my three daughters in family reading and they loved them and we all, plus my sisiter, adored the Peter Jackson films.

But I can no longer read them as an adult with unalloyed pleasure. The storytelling, names and invented languages and cultures are superb but the language isn't good enough and the attitiudes to women and to "evil characters" totaly inadequate.

James Thurber's Thirteen Clocks
Many of the phrases from this are part of family vocabulary: "a blob of glup," "I'll slit you from your guggle to your zatch," plus the Gollux with his "perfectly indescribable hat" are just part of my mental furniture. The Wonderful O and The Great Quillow are equally good.

E. Nesbit's Five Children and It (one of Quentin Blake's choices)
One of the great classics. I loved the way the sand fairy was so grumpy. But I found I had to expurgate the appalling class attitudes towards the cook etc, when reading Nesbit aloud to my own children.

Rudyard Kipling's Just-So Stories (One of Michael Morpurgo's)
I adored these and so did the girls. My favourite is The Beginning of the Armadilloes

Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden
An almost perfect children's book. Other recent ones with this claim are Louis Sachar's Holes and Frank Cottrell Boyce's Cosmic.

Lewis Carrol's Alice Through the Looking-Glass
I had Adventures in Wonderland as a child but prefer this one, discovered in adulthood. I especially love the White Knight.

Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle
You need to be a 13-year-old girl for this, which I was when I read it first. And I thought the film, with Romola Garai and Bill Nighy, wasn't half bad either.

My omissions? Well I have never liked Peter Pan or Wind in the Willows. I read every word of Enid Blyton but can remember not one so haven't included anything of hers.(her husband did take my appendix out, though).

And CS Lewis is a mystery to me. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a wonderful title and Narnia a magical invention but I find the books such a sloppy unsatisfactory mishmash that they could never be a favourite.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

We want him to be handsome

I heard Professor Stanley Wells discussing the Cobbe portrait with Sir Roy "codswallop" Strong on the radio this morning. Wells is convinced that the portrait is not only Shakespeare but painted from life; not sure who Strong thinks it is but another Shakespeare critic, Katherine Duncan-Jones, thinks it is Sir Thomas Overy.

Now Katie Duncan-Jones taught me a bit at Cambridge when she was a research student and I was an undergraduate. I daresay we have both come on a lot since then.

But what interests me is why so many people, including me, want this to be what the great writer looks like, rather than the Martin Droeshout engraving in the Folio. I'm reading Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare at present and he says he reckons the bust in Stratford church, which has been described as "looking like a pork butcher" is probably closer than even the Chandos portrait (the swarthy one with the gold earring). He says "why shouldn't a great writer look like a pork butcher?" which is a fair question. (Mind you, if you look at PA's author photo, you might consider it special pleading)

The thing is, we DO want people to look like their books. I'm sure Shakespeare's intelligence, subtlety and wit would have illuminated even the stodgiest of countenances but, since we'll never know, we hope he might have been objectively as attractive as his writing.

Why else are author photos on jacket flaps or back covers usually at least ten years old and taken from the writer's best side?

Happy birthday, Will. Handsome is as handsome does, which makes you a stunner in my book.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Caviare to the general

The first book for children I enjoyed this year was Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island ( Macmillan), which came out in January. It took some getting into and runs to around 500 pages but it was thrilling to see this very unusual writer begin to command her talent.

The first Hardinge title, Fly by Night, won the Branford Boase award. Reviewing it in the Guardian, the late Jan Mark greeted Hardinge as a "hugely talented writer of tireless invention and vivid prose" and Jan was hard to please.

But she also added: "Every incident and description is so embellished with similes and dependent clauses that the narrative is left hanging about like a disconsolate bloke in Miss Selfridge, abandoned outside the fitting rooms while the style lingers to admire itself in the mirror."

That was it: a great natural talent that needed an editor with a ferocious blue pencil - or at least a dab hand for Track Changes. There wasn't much sign that she'd found one in the second novel, Verdigris Deep. which took us out of the parallel world of Mosca Nye in Fly by Night and into a sort of Diana Wynne Jonesy world of meanacing shopping trolleys and hedges and a spirit trapped deep in a well.

But with Gullstruck Island, it seems as if Hardinge is at last learning to sit the wild horse of her imagination; it might still be going at a hell of a lick and over more miles than many will be able to travel with her but there's a stronger sense of a controlling hand on the reins.

This isn't a book review - the Book Maven probably isn't going to do those - so I won't summarise the plot. Besides, I reviewed the novel for Armadillo ( Spring 2009). But it gave me pause for thought and the thought was this: who is going to read a book like this?

Fly by Night sold well in the US, where Hardinge has done signing tours. And her next novel will be a sequel to that, so should build on her success. But a book like this requires stamina. Not the 500 pages thing. As Patrick Ness mentioned in his Guardian review, JK Rowling has set the bar looong for fantasy fiction (Ness's own The Knife of Never Letting go has 496 pages, by the way).

No - it's the ability to hold all the plot threads in the reader's mind and cope with the incidental spirallings of imagination along the way. The invention is just too prolific. It seems churlish to complain about that though, when so many books just have the one idea that they bash you over the head with till the plot is over.

And I'm not complaining. I'm really interested in the kind of reader that likes non-obvious books. I think there are enough of them across different countries and over time to create a respectable audience for demanding fiction and unuusual prose. but today's market wants a mass appeal now, in the first few months of a book's life. It wants synchronic not diachronic readerships, if you like.

EPOS won't wait, the way a nurturing publishing house and skilled editor used to. Fortunately, Hardinge's work isn't that much of niche taste to put her in danger of losing her public. But this latest book does make me wonder about writers who don't look for the lowest common denominator. I hope there will always be a place for them in a world where young readers are offered so much that is ersatz and formulaic.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Methods of Writing 1

I have been a MSLEXIA subsciber since 2000 and one of the many things I enjoy about it is the "100 Ways to write a book" feature which follows their interview with a successful novelist. Last quarter's issue and the 40th "Way" was Isabel Allende, which featured odd advice like "Start every book on 8th January" and sane precepts like "Weekends are for family and friends."

The current one is Nicola Barker's "Way," which advocates early rising, meditation, and watching a lot of television. Some of suggestions I could not possibly follow ("Try to avoid reading fiction when you're writing") even though I understand why she makes them.

The fact is that if a would-be writer reading Mslexia followed all the 41 Ways already printed, or even stuck to just one published writer's method, it would not necessarily, for them, result in a satisfying and publishable novel.

But whether they are quirky or sensible, ritualistic or practical, the Ways are always fascinating. As was the very different interview with James Patterson in last Sunday's Observer, which describes an altogether different Way. You can read the interview here:

Patterson is introduced as the world's leading bestselling author, which I've no reason to doubt (And top PLR earner too). What interests me is that he now does it by using 'collaborators.' "He comes up with the plot, they write the sentences, he reviews draft after draft," says interviewer Gaby Wood.

This is eerily reminiscent of an interview with Jordan last year in which her PR person told a journalist that Katie Price came up with the plots and her ghost-writer "put them into book words." This delighted me and my writer friends, who have often been heard to mutter since then that we were having trouble with "the book words."

And it raises the question again of what makes a novel a good book, as opposed to just a good read. Patterson is evidently very hard-working, in that he is at his desk by 5.30 or 6am every day, after around six hours' sleep. I certainly don't work those hours myself. And although he uses seven or eight 'collaborators' these days, his books were successfully published for twenty years before he adopted this method.

He used to be chief executive at J Walter Thompson advertising agency and probably knows more than any other writer about marketing himself as a brand, even though he works in more than one genre.

He didn't come across as at all a bad guy but I just kept thinking how much I would hate to write in this way. And how much the plot is only one part, albeit a vital one, in my books. Though sometimes writing them is tough and one daily experiences what Eliot called "the intolerable wrestle with words and meaning" the thought of delegating someone else to write the book words, no matter how much I revised them afterwards, fills me with horror. Even if it brought with it the No 1 bestseller spot every week and top PLR every year.

Call it superstitious or oddball, my Way involves doing every bit of it myself and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

A fair bit more

Bologna follow-up takes a while for publishers and even for writers but a nice part of the aftermath was this photo from Japan. It shows Rhiannon Lassiter (L) and me (R) on either side of our editor Kyoko from Shogakukan. It was taken with Kyoko's camera after a very good meal hosted by Frances Lincoln on the Tuesday night. A lot of "business" is done over dinners, lunches, drinks and coffees at the Fair. It's easy to dismiss it as expense-account schmoozing but actually the one-to-one human interaction is worth a forest of letters and e-mails.

As literary agent David Miller puts it in the current issue of the London Library Magazine, "Frankly, at the moment we should lunch more." Miller, who works at Rogers, Coleridge and White - my agents, adds "- but cheaply." His piece is accompanied by a Martin Rowson cartoon of a large agent reaching over to slice 10% off the steak on his skinny client's plate, though Miller is thinking more of a "£4 bacon sandwich at the local pub." I've never met David Miller for lunch or anything else and as a vegetarian wouldn't eat a steak or a bacon sandwich, but I agree in principle.

Writing in the Bookseller, Katie Coyne said the fair was looking for the Holy Grail - fiction for girls. She quoted Julia Wells, Faber's head of children's fiction, as saying, "I think horror will be around for a while" and that most publishers, even if a bit saturated with vampire romances, were still taking werewolves or angels.

If Jon Malinowski has his way, there will be a chance in the future to acquire and sell rights in a kind of virtual Bologna. I met him on the American Combined Book Exhibition Stand, where he was launching I know it sounds like Quiz Night at your Local but it's a very good idea - a website to put writers, artists, publishers and agents in touch with one another in cyberspace. It will certainly beat lugging your portfolio round on the off chance of a meeting, if you are an illustrator.

Mind you, it's not easy to register. Like so many other sites, it asks you for all your information and then stalls at the last hurdle. But I succeeded. It took me several goes to register with and many e-mails between me and redroom support before it worked. I hope it will be worth it; it's another cyber meetingplace for writers and bloggers.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Bologna 2009

Vampires are still with us -"Bitelit" as Jane Churchill called it in the Bookseller (should that be "bitlit" Jane, or is it all the anticipation?). I saw a book called Swoon, on the Simon & Schuster stand, which says it all about the Meyer effect.

But the word among scouts and film agents was that they were all vampired out; even werewolves are a bit passé. That's the trouble with fairs; they show you what's there and what will come out soon but that is often very like what has just been successfully published.

So we saw lots of princesses, pirates, mermaids, ghosts, dragons and fairies - and girl gangs. Or teams, as publishers prefer to call them. The first person we met at the Fair on Monday was a pretty dark-haired young woman in a red vaguely medieval outfit, handing out dagger-shaped bookmarks to publicise a book called Graceling by Kristin Cashore. She was soon joined by a Daniel Radcliffe lookalike in a black velvet cloak and a knight in armour.

Published by Harcourt in the US last year and this year by Orion in the UK, Graceling is Cashore's first book and the first in a series about characters who all have a special gift. This heroine's one is that she has been able to kill with her bare hands since the age of 8 - nice! What was being celebrated was its publication in Italian by de Agostini.

Another kick-ass heroine in an indigenous Italian series is Licia Troisi's La Ragazza Draco (The dragon girl). Troisi, who is big in Europe but not yet published in the UK is the author of the million-selling Mondo Emerso (emerged world) trilogies, all published by Mondadori.

The covers look a bit Xena-like with skimpy and revealing armour but at least the women are having adventures, rather than swooning.

The word from Germany is that fantasy is as strong as ever but now moving away from "High Fantasy" towards the Urban variety. I suppose Cassandra Clare would be an example of that, though I don't care for her books myself.

I was once told that English and American fantasy is so popular in Germany that even German fantasy writers adopt Anglo-sounding names to improve their publishing chances - can this be true?

Gothic is also big; good news for Marcus Sedgwick, whose Raven Mysteries were being well promoted by Orion. And for followers of Neil Gaiman, whose book Coraline has just been released as a film in the US by the American film company Laika Entertainment, who seem to have found their niche, under UK producer Fiona Kenshole's vision, in animated movies with a Gothic flavour.

I bumped into my old friend Knister, a German author (published there, like me, by Arena) who has sold 17 million copies worldwide of his Lili-Hexe (Lily the witch) stories, without finding a UK or US publisher so far. But Lili has just been made into a film and Disney are interested (though she has to be "Magic Lili" to them since witches are out for the US (along with wardrobes, hedgehogs, badgers, guns - that's a subject for another post.)

There were several British writers at the Fair including Francesca Simon and David Almond, but our paths didn't cross. Almond was one of six British writers nominated for the ALMA (Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award), the most lucrative prize in the children's book world, at €445,000. But in the end the Award went to an institution: The Tamer Institute for Community Education which works in Gaza to encourage reading and a love of books and creativity in Palestinian children. A long way from a zany little girl in pigtails but a popular choice.

The book of the fair for me was sitting unobtrusively on a French stand, Albin-Michel. "Sick of Pink" said the poster, which caught my eye, but the book is called Marre du Rose in French and is by Nathalie Hense, illustrated by Ilya Green. It is a perfect story of a little girl who prefers to wear black and is teased for it. Act quickly British publishers; I've already enthused about it to two of you!