Friday, 31 December 2010

Books - can we trust the government?

Hot on the heels of the library cuts debate came to threat to cut the government subsidy to three Booktrust bookgifting schemes: Bookstart, Booktime and Booked Up. This is spite of the fact that Booktrust generates £56m against the £13m given to them.

I have been busy writing letters to the press and MPs, including mine, the PM, for weeks it seems. But the absolute Yuletide biscuit has to go to Ross Clark (who he?), writing in the Times on 27th December. In case you missed it, and of course you can't read it online without being a Times subscriber, he had the nerve to say that children's writers speaking out in support of the Booktrust schemes, such as Philip Pullman, were just lamenting another chance to line their pockets.

Yes because writers for children are all as rich as JK Rowling, I suppose? It was a phenomenally ignorant column and I wrote a furious letter. They did publish it on 29th, but since they cut the last two sentences, I reproduce it in full here:

"What planet is Ross Clark living on? (Thunderer "Booktrust funding is just an enormous bung for authors" 27.12.2010) One where nurseries and schools are "awash with books" and children's authors "have grown fat" on proceeds of Booktrust's bookgifting schemes is much more of a fantasy than the world he posits where there are "fountains of free soup."

Mr Clark dares to impugn Philip Pullman's good faith in calling for the government not to cut funding to Booktrust's schemes (a decision which has fortunately been reversed). When I heard about the plan to cut the bookgifting schemes, I and many other children's authors wrote to the press to complain, with no idea whether my books were used in the schemes or not. I doubt that Philip Pullman checked on whether his books were included either because that is entirely not the point.

Doesn't Mr Clark know how many homes in the UK are without books? Or how many school and public libraries have been closed and are threatened to disappear under the coalition's proposed austerity measures? And how many librarians will lose their jobs?

Another fact he might have wanted to check on is how much on average children's authors earn per year. In the survey I published in 2006 and others carried out by the Society of Authors it was around £5K. Unless Mr Clark is similarly poorly rewarded for his writing, I suggest he donate his fee for that outrageous column to the Royal Literary Fund's benevolent scheme or, better still, use it to buy some books for his nearest poor school.

Though I suspect it will be a long taxi-ride away from Planet La-La".

Happy New Year!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Have yourselves a Merry little Christmas

This is my annual picture of what the front garden looks like but I promise this is not a recycled photo; it took it on Saturday .

exactly one week before Christmas. Who knows where we shall all be by then? Our own plans all involve driving: Winchester, Eastleigh, Eastbourne, Henfield then back here, so everything depends on the snow and the roads in Oxfordshire, Hampshire and Sussex.

But these are minor problems compared with families stranded at Heathrow and other airports or people in Scotland who have had it like this for weeks and are running out of oil.

If it looks too bad, we won't travel on 22nd (our Wedding Anniversary) but will hibernate here with log fires, cats reprieved from cattery, and the two crackers left over from last Christmas! There's plenty of food in the freezer, logs in the woodstore and wine in the garage.

And we have books! Boy, do we have books! I hope you do too, wherever you are and however improvised your Christmas ends up being. May your Amazon parcels arrive on time, may you make it to your local indy and cheer up their seasonal; sales figures, and if you have an e-reader I hope it has been well-laden with titles before you travel.

A very happy Christmas to all my followers, fellow-bloggers, writers and readers everywhere.

And to the Scrooges who want to close our libraries, may your baubles drop off!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Three great picture books - one publisher

It was only when I came to think about what were the loveliest picture books of the year that I realised they were all published by Macmillan. So stand up and take a bow, editors and art directors at Macmillan, alongside your hugely talented writers and artists, you have produced three of my favourite picture books of this year.

First up is The Wychwood Fairies. Anyone who knows me will be rather surprised by how much I like this book, given my propensity to rant against anything remotely "girly" or pink. But this book by "Harriet Everdene" and Faye Durston is an explorer's manual, not a soppy airy-fairy story about bland squirrel-stroking sprites.

Harriet is an Official Fairy Researcher at Wychwood, a magical area not far from where I live, as it happens. She sends letters and postcards to her niece and nephew, all of which you can read in this delightful feat of paper-engineering. The look is very reminiscent of a Templar "-ology" book and will bring just as much pleasure to anyone who unwraps it under a Christmas Tree.

Macmillan have put together two great talents in the persons of Julia Donaldson and Emily Gravett, who combine to make Cave Baby irresistible. Two cavepeople have an artistically-minded baby who wants to decorate the walls of their home. Cavemother does not appreciate his efforts, much like a more evolved parent, but a woolly mammoth captures the baby and takes him on an exhilarating and a bit frightening ride through the night to another cave.

There the baby happily splashes around with paint to produce some wall art that the mammoth family admire. There's a touch of Where the Wild Things Are about it as the contented baby dreams of primary-coloured wild creatures on the final spread. Lovely.

Emily Gravett strikes again with The Rabbit Problem. This paperback edition has a discreet hole through one side, which means you could hang it on your wall and use it as a calendar, but I don't imagine it would stay so out of reach for long. Lots and lots and lots of rabbits multiply through its gloriously drawn pages as one lonely rabbit in Fibonacci's (!) Field, finds a mate and the inevitable glut of bunnies ensues.

This perfect book for lagophiles, which even includes carrot recipes, ends with a heavenly pop-up explosion of rabbits leaping out of the last spread. Heavenly.

I hope lots of children get one of these in (eek!) less than two weeks' time. Preferably all three.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Are you sick of hearing about libraries yet?

If the answer is "yes,' then tough! I have a lot to say about libraries. The first one here is Lavender Hill, Battersea, and we lived up the opposite hill, St.John's, when I was a child. I went there every Saturday, with my father, to take out our quota for the week.

My dad, having been taken out of school at fourteen by his father, was an auto-didact and borrowed mainly non-fiction. My choices were Worzel Gummidge, Dr. Dolittle and Mary Poppins (libraries are perfect for books that come in series). Later there was The Lord of the Rings.

I loved Lavender Hill library because the cone-topped turret made me think it was a fairy castle, a belief I still think not far from the truth. We didn't have all that many books in our flat in St John's Hill. It was a "railway flat" because my dad worked for the Railways at Waterloo (no-one said British Rail in those days). We had the complete works of Dickens, which I later devoured.

I won an LCC scholarship to an independent girls' school, James Allen's in Dulwich, something that would not have happened if Lavender Hill hadn't encouraged me to be a bookworm. At JAGs there was a well-stocked library, where the qualified librarian turned a blind eye when I bunked off Games to read Greek Myths.

I wouldn't have moved on to my next library without the JAGs one.

This was at Newnham College, Cambridge. I was in Clough Hall where the library was. Every week I competed with nine other young women to borrow the texts and critical books needed for our weekly essays in English Literature. Recently I went back to that college to give a talk and a workshop. There is a new library, unrecognisable, which contains some of my own books. That would have been unimaginable when I was a student.

Spool forward ten years or more and I am living in Crouch End, raising young children. This less than beautiful building is Hornsey Library, where we took our little girls every week to get out their books, just as I used to with the grandfather they never knew.

They know this building as a friend, from teddy bear's tea parties when they were little till the oldest was taking out books on the Russian Revolution for her A level History.

Then in 1990 came a bombshell: Hornsey was scheduled for closure by Haringey council along with several other libraries. Yes, you didn't read the date wrong: I HAVE BEEN CAMPAIGNING TO KEEP LIBRARIES OPEN FOR TWENTY YEARS! No apologies for shouting. It makes me want to shout, nay, scream. It's not as if it's all been plain sailing since then either.

I was elected Chair of the Hornsey Library Campaign and ran successful events there for three years, supported by local celebs like Penelope Fitzgerald, Tim Pigott Smith and Buchi Emecheta. We kept all the libraries open. And again when Hornsey's music library was under threat, we saved that too. My little girls, bigger now, got used to marching on demos with placards saying "Save Our Libraries" and "Closed libraries = Closed Minds" which I see are being recycled now.

We became adept at doorstepping councillors as they went into meetings at Wood Green Civic Centre and thrusting leaflets into their hands. We recognised them from their mugshots in the local papers.

In 1993 I added to my campaigning by starting CENTRAL, a support group for School Library Services, which I ran for six years.This task has now been ably taken up by Alan Gibbon's Campaign for the Book.

Write about what you know, some people say, so in 1997 I published a novel called Special Powers, in which the heroine, Emily fights to save her local library. She is helped by a family of extra-terrestrials who have a personal agenda for wanting to keep it open: it is a gateway to the other world they have come from and their route home.

We had no aliens with special powers to help us save Hornsey and the other libraries but sheer people power did it and it seems we will have to do it again. The government has announced it is withdrawing finance from 50% of the libraries in Oxfordshire, the county I live in, including ones in impoverished areas like Blackbird Leys. They think they can be kept running by volunteers, an example of David Cameron's Big Society.

Well, David Cameron is my local MP and he will be getting a letter, as will Ed Vaizey and the imaginatively re-named by James Naughtie this morning, Jeremy Hunt Culture Secretary. Re-phrasing their heroine's famous dictum, I shall tell them "there is no such thing as Big Society"!

When Emily in Special Powers hears that her library is under threat of closure, she thinks, "It was like someone saying there weren't going to be any more Fridays or that red had been outlawed."

That's how it feels when you hear something so impossible and wrong. I came from a lower middle class family where no-one had been to university but where books and learning were respected. I know for sure that I would not be a writer of nearly a hundred published books if it had not been for the libraries - and librarians - of Lavender Hill, JAGs, Newnham and Hornsey.

I salute them and I will do everything I can to make sure that generations of children to come have the opportunities - and delights - that I did. Please join me by writing to David Cameron, Ed Vaizey and Jeremy Hunt. They've had to re-think the school sports cuts; let's make them do the same for libraries.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

My YA Novels of the Year

These are the books I have already blogged about this year or have had guest posts for: When I was Joe, The Enchanted Glass, Castle of Shadows, Wasted, Dead Boy Talking & Almost True, City of Thieves, The Mourning Emporium.

What a year!  And that's with my having to take time out from reviewing YA fiction from May to September because I was a judge for the Booktrust Teenage Book Prize. Then, once I was reading books that fell outside that time period, I could write about novels again.

And there are others, that were part of our longlist or shortlist that I couldn't mention at the time, so I'm now going to rave about a few more! The Prize was given to Gregory Hughes' striking debut, Unhooking the Moon, but that were some other corkers on the shortlist.

I particularly liked Halo by Zizou Corder, an unusual story about an orphaned girl brought up by Centaurs in ancient Greece. I thought it full of unexpected events and plot developments and interesting characters. Sarra Manning's Nobody's Girl was a perhaps more usual teenage girl fare but I so loved the way the heroine got her revenge on the mean girls and their Queen Bee that it stood out for me.

There were several books on our longlist that I really rated too - Keren David's When I was Joe (see above), Tamsyn Murray's quirky black comedy My so-called Afterlife and Marie-Louise Jensen's Daughter of Fire and Ice, to name but three.

And since the judging ended I read, reviewed and drooled over Gillian Philip's Firebrand, which is my Book of the Year in this category. Published by a smallish independent, Strident (who also published Linda Strachan's Dead Boy Talking and her earlier Spider, which just won the Catalyst award) Firebrand has already re-printed and is moving off the bookshop shelves faster than you can say "paranormal romance."

I said in my review for the Guardian that I hadn't enjoy a book in this genre so much since Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake, which leads me to two pieces of good news: Firebrand is the first in a trilogy and - pause here for a roll of drums - Susan Price is well stuck in to a third novel about the Sterkarms.

I can't wait for all these and many other great books in the coming years. And I hope to review them all here.