Saturday, 22 September 2012

A weekend with mates

Photo by Helena Pielichaty

Don't we look as if we're having fun? And we really were, in spite of quite bad wine (which the bar ran out of after the first night), canteen food and miserable microphones. But we didn't go for any of those things; we went to meet each other and to talk. I am here flanked by Katherine Langrish and Anne Rooney, two writers who are among my favourite people to talk to.

We were at the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG) conference, held this month at Reading University. These conferences happen irregularly, about once every three years. I've been to them at Brighton, Leeds, Oxford (the year I was Chair, handily) and Cambridge. And now Reading. This one was called Joined-up Reading but I can't remember the names of any others.

It was opened by the marvellous Kevin Crossley-Holland, who is the new President of the Schools Library Association and closed by the equally marvellous Allan Ahlberg, of whom more anon. There were 130 of us for the whole weekend and 70 day delegates on the Saturday. All writers and illustrators, apart from a few speakers from publishing or the book trade. It was a gathering of published practitioners from Helen Craig to Sally Nicholls, Prizewinners to Midlisters, all eager to talk about the state of our very peculiar industry and our place in it.

Lots of us have already blooged about it: Helena Pielichaty, who is the current Chair of CWIG; Sarah Mackintyre, committee member and insanely good caricaturist; Ros Asquith, my mate and illustrator for The Great Big Books of ... and hugely talented artist, who gave a talk with Jane Ray, another good friend, with whom I've done two books; Celia Rees at The History Girls.

On the Saturday, because of a brain/diary malfunction, I had to go to London and my place was taken by my daughter Rhiannon Lassiter, who took copious notes and put them up here. There was a session on writers' websites and joint blogs, which I was sorry to miss. And the parallel session I had booked in for was What Shall I Write? Everyone is chasing the next Big Trend but as has been said before, if you write with one eye on the market, you will almost certainly be producing the last Big Trend.

Not for the last time, the message was "write what you want, what you feel passionate about."  I felt uneasy about this, as someone who needs to make a living from her books, and this has been more eloquently teased out by my friend Anne Rooney.

There was a panel on prequels and sequels with Patrick Ness, Geraldine McCaughrean and Charlie Higson. Trilogies, taking on another author's idea, Peter Pan and James Bond - just part of the eclecticism that is the children's book world.

Literary Festivals and Book Prizes - Robert McCrum talked about the "boom years" 1980-2010 (I would put the finish date a little earlier) and how it was really hard to see what the future would hold. Organisers of several festvals - Jane Churchill (Cheltenham), John McLay (Bath) and Tamsin Ace (Imagine Children's Festival on South Bank) - talked about how they organise theirs.

I went to the same parallel session as Celia Rees on the Sunday and also took a photo:

Gillian Cross and Liz Laird
These two wonderful writers are not only prizewinning and innovative but incredibly intrepid and courageous. They were talking about researching their books but along the way casually remarked on being arrested for murder in a foreign country and visiting a fashion designer in Paris (I know which would have scared me more).

There was a depressing panel on The State of the Industry, where Philippa Dickinson of Random House told us there was no going back to the Net Book Agreement and that royalty systems were fair to authors, Alan Gibbons, Library Campaigner, said that 10% of School Librarian posts had been cut, and that authors get no PLR from volunteer-run public libraries. Sam Husain said that Foyles was launching the UK Nook at Foyles and everyone seemed nervous about the dominance of Amazon and Kindle.

After that, it was very necessary to have some coffee and lovely to hear Allan Ahlberg:

(It's really hard to take photos and make notes at the same time and listen, hence the fuzziness; Allan is not really fuzzy.)

He gave us the sort of talk he does in schools, complete with props:

This one is Big Tom, who was quickly snaffled by Jane Ray and Sarah Mackintyre and dressed for winter weather. He is writing a sort of autobiography of bits and pieces, poems and reminiscences, which I predict will be a big seller.

I know what it's like to Chair one of these conferences and Helena Pielichaty did a splendid job:

The reason that Helena looks fuzzy is that she didn't stay still long enough to me to get a better picture of her. Although it might be close to "write what you want," I think my favourite quotation from the weekend is Patrick Ness's: "I don't think you should give the reader what they want, I think you should make them want what you give them."

Happy writing everyone!

Thursday, 13 September 2012

A happy ending and a new beginning

Just for once, I have a really lovely story to tell you about a library. Above, you see Eleanor Wheeler (nearly 16) and Amy Thomson (14), who are just two of the students at my local Secondary school who now have a library.

But to impress you with just how unusual this is, I need to take you back in time to January 2011. There was a meeting in Oxford Town Hall to gather support for defending Oxfordshire libraries against savage cuts proposed by Council Leader Keith Mitchell*. I was there and heard Philip Pullman give this rousing speech. Afterwards, in a  contribution from the floor, I mentioned that I had recently had a run-in with Mr Mitchell on Radio Oxford, because in his ignorance he had said that "all secondary school in the county have a library," which members of the public might use.

Now, I knew that my local Secondary school, Carterton Community College, had dispensed with its library and replaced the books with IT equipment so I wasn't going to let him get away with that. I mentioned this story at Oxford Town Hall and was approached afterwards by Rosemary Stables, the Head of English at CCC, who told me the wonderful news that under a new Headteacher, there was to be a new library there and she would be the Librarian.

On Monday I attended the opening of the excellent new library designed with the full involvement of students, and met Eleanor and Amy, both very keen readers. Headteacher Niall McWilliams said it was "the most important room in the school." And it was declared officially open by Professor Sir Tim Brighouse, who regularly ferries his grandson to the school from Oxford.

I looked round the bright and cheerful room, with its French windows opening on to a little patio garden, its cosy chairs, its stacking modular tables and its colour scheme (chosen by students) of purple white and green (shades of the Suffragists!). I looked at the well-stocked shelves of fiction and non-fiction. And I thought what a long way away it was from that dreadful time a few years ago when staff clambered into skips to save damp books.

So well done Carterton Community College, Niall McWilliams and his staff, especially Rosemary Stables, and well done all the parents and authors who have fund-raised or donated books. It all goes to show that stupid decisions can be reversed when there is a will to do so. I hope to be be visiting that library often.

* Keith Mitchell has since stood down as Leader of Oxfordshire Council.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Emily Windsnap is back!

When I first met Liz Kessler, over ten years ago, she was living on a boat. She has a proper house now but still lives near the water - the sea, where she swims and surfs whenever the weather allows. In fact I have a sneaking suspicion that Liz is a part-time mermaid herself.

Her official CV makes no mention of this:

LIZ KESSLER studied English at Loughborough University, has worked as a teacher and a journalist and has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University. After taking a year off to travel around Europe in a camper van, Liz now lives in St Ives, Cornwall. 

But Liz's first published work was The Tail of Emily Windsnap, the story of a girl whose legs fuse into a fish's tail every time she enters the water. Imagine how alarming this is when it first happens in a school swimming lesson!

The fifth Emily Windsnap title is out this month and I asked Liz some questions about the book, which she was kind enough to answer.

Book Maven: I remember reading the first Emily Windsnap when the book came out in 2003 the year after we met. She was a little girl then and now in Land of the Midnight Sun, she has a boyfriend! Do you think your readers have been growing up alongside Emily and she has been keeping pace with them?

Liz Kessler: In Emily’s timeline, there is just under a year from the start of the first book to the end of this one. (What a busy year that has been for her - and you! BM) Aaron first showed up in the third book, and ever since then my readers have been wanting to see more of him (and asking if he is Emily’s boyfriend!) So I hope this means that Emily and my readers are on the same wavelength. I do often get emails asking for particular things to happen in the next book. Quite a lot of the time, these are things which I have already decided are going to happen, and it’s always a great relief when that happens. So yes, I think my readers and Emily seem to be keeping pace with each other quite well up to now. Let’s hope it continues!

BM:  Can you explain what happens to Emily’s (and Aaron’s) clothes when they dive into the sea and adopt their Mer-forms? And are they then topless?

LK: It’s only ever adults who ask things like this! There are actually quite a few references to the ‘changing’ process throughout the series. I shall use your question as an excuse to quote one of them as an answer, taken from The Tail of Emily Windsnap.

‘So there I was, swimming like – well, like a fish! And in a way, I was a fish. My top half was the same as usual; skinny little arms, my fringe plastered to my forehead with seawater, black Speedo cozzy.

But then, just below the white line that goes across my tummy, I was someone else; something else. My costume melted away and, instead, I had shiny scales. My legs narrowed into a long, gleaming purple and green tail, waving gracefully as I skimmed along in the water.’ (Thank you for answering so patiently what I'm sure must be a very FAQ - at least from adults. BM)

BM: Neptune is in such a bad mood at the beginning of the story that he brings bad weather to the UK. You must have written this last year though. How did you KNOW we were going to have this awful summer?

LK: I know! Actually, I was reading from the first chapter at an event in Edinburgh last week and I could hear the rain pouring down around me as I read. I’ll try to write about beautiful sunny weather next time and see if that helps.

BM: There are five Emily Windsnap books now. Will there be more?

LK: I’ve actually stopped answering this question with any confidence. I was positive that there would only be three books, and then I was fairly sure that there would only be four. Now there are five – who knows? If people carry on wanting to read Emily’s stories, I’ll always be willing to write them. It’s such fun going on adventures with Emily. The research trips alone have given me some amazing times!

BM:  Where did that lovely poem at the beginning come from? Did you write it yourself?

LK: Yes, I wrote it. (And thank you for saying it’s lovely.) It was at a workshop given by Lucy Coats at a Scattered Authors’ Society get together. She took us on a bardic journey, banging a drum and setting up a visualisation and then giving us a writing task. By the time I’d finished the visualisation, I completely ignored the task we were meant to do because all I wanted to do was write this poem. It was quite early on in my working out of the plot and was a pivotal and very exciting moment for me. (I envy you that experience. I too have tried Lucy's bardic journey but nothing happened to me. BM)

BM: And is Neptune’s brother Njord your own invention?

LK: Yes he is. I wanted to have this particular character in my book, and whilst thinking about names, I came across a Norse God called Njord. I knew instantly that he was the one. I tried to think of different names, as I knew that ‘Njord’ could be tricky for readers to know how to pronounce – but Njord was insistent that that was his name!

BM:  Tell us a bit about researching this book. I think you took a ship to the Norwegian fjords. I wonder how many writers of fantasy for 8+ readers would be this thorough?

LK: I have this thing about my books. I always feel the need to go to the place where they are set – or as near to it as I can get. It feels like the only way to get right under the skin of the setting – and to get the best ideas for the plot. So I knew that I would have to see the Midnight Sun. A friend told me about a company called Hurtigruten, whose fleet of ships carry cargo, mail – and passengers – all around the northern coast of Norway. I looked into it and knew that I would have to do it.

It was one of the best research trips of my life – and one of the most beautiful experiences of my life too. Not only that, but it gave me absolutely loads of ideas for the book. If you’d like to see more about this inspiring trip, check out this slideshow I made on You Tube…

Thank you for having me on your lovely blog!

Thank you for coming, Liz!

If you know, or are a big Emily Windsnap fan, you can enter a competition to win a special Sleepover pack by going to Liz's website and clicking on The Emily Windsnap Friendship Festival.

And just to confirm my suspicions about Liz's dual nature, here is a link to another clip.

What other children's writer would be surrounded by a huge pod of dolphins who are obviously saying, "Jump in and find your tail - we want to take you on a magical sea adventure"?