Thursday, 20 July 2017

Not Too Tidy by Joan Lennon

I've had two quotations kicking around in my mind.  The first is by Joan Aiken, on writing for children: 

"It is the writer's duty to demonstrate to children that the world is not a simple place.  The world is an infinitely rich, strange, confusing, wonderful, cruel, mysterious, beautiful, inexplicable riddle."  The Way to Write for Children.

And the second is from an article by Tim Lott in The Guardian:

"For if I am static as a fully grown adult, then I am doing something wrong. I am holding on to myself too tightly, just as some parents hold on to their children too tightly. Life, yes, is loss and letting go. But without that loss and letting go, it would be like a plastic flower. Indestructible, but ultimately valueless." Life is about loss and letting go.

I think these quotes have taken up residence in my head because a) I am in the process of writing a book with loss and letting go as inescapable aspects of the plot, and b) I am drawn to open-ended endings in my novels.  Riddles that have more to them than can be contained in one story.  I don't mean setting things up for a sequel.  I mean after the book is finished, the world of the story carries on, like Alec Guinness in the last moments of The Man in the White Suit. 

And then, coming as a third, I read this quote from Madeleine L'Engle:

"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe."  Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?

A tidy summing-up paragraph is called for, now, connecting these thoughts, but I don't know exactly what to put in it.  So perhaps I'll end by inviting conclusions, comments, resonances from you?   

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Walking Mountain.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Crying Game (or Books That Make You Weep) - Lucy Coats

I've been thinking a lot about Philip Pullman's work lately, probably triggered by all the debate about the discounting of the long-awaited La Belle Sauvage (coming this October) and its effect on indie booksellers (which Rowena House talked about in a post earlier this month). Not only thinking either -- I've just re-read the whole Northern Lights trilogy and associated novellas with immense pleasure. And, as usual, I dreaded getting to Chapter Fourteen in The Subtle Knife, entitled 'Alamo Gulch'.

There are parts of certain books which make me cry, every time I read them. And not just cry. It's the ugly sobbing kind of crying which leaves a hole in my heart. I know it's going to happen, but I love those particular books so much, that I would never not re-read them. So why does Lee Scoresby and Hester's end do me in? I've read so many books where characters I love die, with never a glimpse of a watery eye, so why that one? And why Chapter Twelve of The Darkest Road, the third book in Guy Gabriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry, the one where Diarmuid dan Ailell takes the long road home? Every time I get close, my heart rate goes up, and I have to steel myself to turn the page to where that particular battle to the death starts. (There are more too, but I won't list them all, to spare you!)

Trying to make sense of emotional reactions to books is always hard. My critical brain is asking me to discover what exactly it is in that piece of writing which pulls at my heartstrings, and how the writer did it, what trick they used, so I can use it too. My heart though, is saying 'it just is that way, don't try to analyse it'. But having thought about it for this piece, I think I do have some sort of answer. What pulls my heart apart is a character of great gallantry and wit, who sacrifices him or herself for others. It's as simple as that.

I'd love to know what books make you all cry every time (if you can admit that any do!) and why. Or am I alone in my recurrent weeping?

Monday, 17 July 2017


On Friday, 14th July 2017 I attended the Clippa as a guest. For those who haven’t heard about it, CLIPPA is the poetry award given by CLPE for published collections of poetry for children.

This year’s judge was Rachel Rooney, who herself won the CLIPPA in 2012 and was my Arvon tutor in 2015 when I dragged myself up to Yorkshire to immerse myself in the world of children’s poetry.

As a kid, I loved rhymes and still do. The songs and rhymes in Tamil which is my mother tongue were often rhyming ones. And the bulk of our popular music is from the movies – as you know most Indian cinema produces sing-alongs and musicals. Much of our poets make their living as lyricists for movies. As much as they publish poetry collections and recite poetry – the rice and lentils come from the movie industry.

Here is Vairamuthu - who writes amazing poetry in Tamil as well as being one of the most popular contemporary lyricists in the movie industry. I apologise ahead that this is in Tamil and of course would not make any sense if you don't speak the language. But I just wanted to demonstrate a little bit. This is his poem about his mother. 

So most of the songs I know growing up, and most of our poetic references to life, philosophy, friendships and heartbreaks are lyrics of movie songs not unlike the pop music lines folks in Britain quote to me (which I should admit goes over my head).

So it was no surprise that my first attempt at writing was poems that rhymed. I was eight I think, when the regional radio came for some recording in our children’s club – Mum had arranged all of us to perform something and as a 8-year old with an entourage of two – my sister and the sister of my neighbour – two 4 year olds were put on the spot. I made up a 4-line song (rhyming  of course) and they recited it with me and we were on radio! I still know the song and sing it for my nephews much to the amusement of my family.

Then when I was 13, I read a poem in a textbook and loved it. I ended up visiting the poet –literally landing on his doorstep and being inspired to write my own poems. You can read that story here. 

So I wrote all sorts of poems. Perhaps influenced by popular culture, I even wrote love poems even before I knew what love was. I still write love poems every time someone breaks my heart or makes it flutter. But I don’t usually share it with the world.

I still write poetry all the time but I rarely call myself a poet. I’m not sure whether that’s because I write more rhymes than not. I read a lot of poetry for sure – more now than before. I enjoy listening to spoken word performances but I never claim I’m a poet. For a while I wrote 1000s of haikus – I loved putting nature and life lessons together.

I had abandoned writing in my mother-tongue long before – I was more proficient in English than I was in my own language. The problem with rhymes for me was that they didn’t work when I wrote them especially in English.

It took me years to figure out that my stress, my accent and my pronunciation was not how native English speakers speak. And therefore what I thought rhymed didn’t rhyme or fit the beat for others.  Anyway many people kindly and often in an unkindly way pointed out that my rhymes don’t work. I wrote free verse, sent them out and even got a couple published here and there. But most came back.

And for a while I wrote poetry only in my notebook and focussed on picture books.  Which is a different kind of poetry anyway.

When I took the Arvon course taught by Rachel and Roger McGough in 2015, Rachel was not only patient with me, she even encouraged me to write both free verse and rhyme – except for rhyme of course I needed more work, more persistence, and perhaps another person to help. And she still remembers the poem about EATING SOAP that I wrote. 

Yes persistence does help. I can now proudly say that I’ve placed ONE poem in an anthology that’s coming out in 2018 and I have a rhyming picture book come out in 2018 too. So there’s no holding back anymore – I’m going to be writing poetry for a long time to come. But I doubt I would ever call myself a poet. At least not yet.

I digress. The reason I was at the Clippa was because Rachel had kindly invited her Arvon students to the ceremony. And what a lovely treat it was. The readings from the poets, the children’s performances and of course Chris Riddell live drawing the event – it was all brilliant. And I got to meet so many friends and made new friends too.

So to celebrate the Clippa and to encourage most of us to read poetry, here is a selection. 

Some of my favourite poems are simple, yet full of wisdom.

Here is one that’s so evocative. And every time I read it, it invokes perhaps a new meaning.

I also love the Thought Fox by Ted Hughes.

One of my favourite novel in verse is LOVE THAT DOG by Sharon Creech.

 From India, I’ve just started discovering many poets who write for adults. But for children, I love Ruskin Bond for sure. Read some of my recommendations here

Many of my friends are poets and a group of them showcase their work here. Do check them out. 

The list of contemporary poets I love is too long to list here. I have perhaps read all modern poets who write for children especially. Both from the UK and America. So instead of listing them I thought I’d share less than 10% of my list of poetry books I own.

Back to Clippa though! The winner of this year’s award is Moon Juice by Kate Wakeling, illustrated by Elīna Brasliņa and published by Emma Press.

If you have not read it yet, check it out!

Find out more about Chitra Soundar at or Follow her on Twitter @csoundar

Sunday, 16 July 2017

In the Grist - Heather Dyer

'Grist’ was the corn brought to a mill to be ground into flour. Today, if a thing  is ‘grist for the mill’ it still refers to something that’s a potential source of profit. For a writer, being ‘in the grist’ can mean that rare but lovely mode of being in which everything you see and do seems to relate somehow to the book you’re working on.

When I’m working on a novel, taking a day off makes me feel guilty. But if I don't take days off, where will I find grist for my writing mill?

Curiously, I often wind up doing as much work on a day off as I do on a working day by taking notes or writing random scenes. Days off seem to liberate the mind and allow us to take detours that are sometimes profitable.

At the moment I’m working on a time travel book for children aged 7-11. I am resistant to getting down to write – I can't see my characters clearly yet, and am in a state of slightly-discomforting uncertainty. So, I shut down my writing mill and took a couple of days off, waiting for grist for the mill to arrive.

Here's what provided grist for my mill:

A fashion blog I subscribe to featured ‘gentlewoman style’ (wide trousers, waistcoats, brogues and oversize shirts). Looking at one of the models, I realized that one of my characters was a ‘gentlewoman’! Now that I could ‘see’ her, suddenly I knew her much better.

I idly opened a book I’d been meaning to read for ages: Take My Advice.

I opened it to an essay by Lucius Shepard on American politics. Written nearly 20 years ago, he says: 'The cornerstone of a successful democracy is an informed populace, and because we have let ourselves grow uninformed, we have licensed a dynasty of third-raters to govern our lives.'

He goes on to say that newspapers and media 'have become propaganda organs whose function is to manipulate, to soothe, to compose via the scripted dialogue of some blow-dried creep the government-sponsored view…’

I realized I could put similar words into one of my characters' mouths, and suddenly his motives became much clearer. There will be consequences for the plot.

Curious, I Googled ‘Lucius Shepard’ and discovered he was a science fiction writer. I immediately ordered one of his titles from the library and realized that the book I’m writing is also science fiction. My imagination feels strangely liberated.

That afternoon a Facebook post on recycling pictured an overflowing landfill. I envisaged the dystopian future that my characters will visit before they reach the utopian deep-future.

In my inbox was the latest email newsletter from Wait Not Why. It was all about Nerualink, a brain implant that can (and apparently already is) allowing us to communicate telepathically. I will put this in my book, too. I suddenly imagine how we will live in the deep future.

My bedtime reading is Mark Nepo’s Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. I decide that my political activist character is also as a dreadlocked Zen practitioner and homeless person. Perfect!

All these sources of inspiration are totally unrelated – yet my unconscious finds a way to weave them together in the world of my story. They are like missing pieces of a jigsaw. It’s as though my unconscious draws me to certain objects, images or lines of dialogue because they ‘fit’ an underlying theme or pattern that my unconscious already knows.

My desire to explore this storyline is driven by the same desire that draws me to gentlewoman style, the political essay, recycling, and Mark Nepo’s poetry. I suspect that this desire is driven by some lack in me, or something I want to understand or work through – and that, in following my yearnings in my life and in my storyline, this lack will be revealed if not resolved.

Carl Jung gave a talk once, in which a member of the audience asked: ‘What’s the quickest way to find my life’s true path?’ Jung said, ‘take a detour’. So, the moral of this story is: take a break, wander freely, pay attention, and who knows, maybe a clue is waiting out there, ready to be grist for the mill...

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow

Saturday, 15 July 2017

La Belle Sauvage, Amazon & the decline of Fleet Street – by Rowena House

I’m researching the First World War again at the moment, this time for a short companion piece for my traditionally-published debut novel out next year.

It’s a marketing idea borrowed from independent authors: a cut-price short story or novella, promoted on social media via the five-day give-away option on Kindle Select, and designed to tempt readers to your Amazon page, where – hopefully – some will buy the novel too.
Whether it will have any impact on sales I’ve no idea (I’ll let you know next year) but the story is asking to be told, and I find historical research brings its own rewards, so I’m going for it anyway.
I am troubled by the assumption behind this strategy: that cheap is best when it comes to selling stories. After all, this discount culture is one of the main charges levelled against Amazon by traditional publishers and bookshops which do so much to promote authors.
The debate about aggressive discounting of children’s books became particularly impassioned last week following this blog by Tamsin Rosewell, bookseller at Kenilworth Bookshop in Warwickshire:
What provoked her to speak out were the heavy discounts being offered by the biggest names in book retailing on pre-orders for Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, volume one of The Book of Dust. At the time of writing Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith and Foyles were all offering hard copies for £10.00, half the recommended retail price.
As Ms Rosewell said in her blog: ‘To be part of the buzz, we would (as it looks at the moment) have to sell this book at a loss or for no profit at all, or we could consider not stocking it. But how can we possibly not have The Book of Dust in our stock and prominently on display in the shop? What kind of bookshop would not stock The Book of Dust?!’
Book people on Twitter reacted to her blog with shock and dismay. Philip Pullman himself joined the debate, saying he’s always been a strong supporter of the former Net Book Agreement, which once guaranteed retail prices. By the time Ms Rosewell had to open her shop at 9 a.m. she said she’d received hundreds of replies.
Coupled with her concern about the impact of discounting on author incomes (the lower the shop price, the lower the royalty) her pleas for fairer pricing made me think again about my responsibility towards bookshops like hers in the face of cut-price competition.
Now there’s nothing I can do about Waterstones or Foyles; the price of my novel will be set by my publisher and the stores. But what about Amazon? Should I avoid it altogether as some supporters of the physical book trade advocate? Am I helping to cut the throat of independent bookshops everywhere by giving away my novella, or selling it at the same price as a can of baked beans?
On the other hand, is there any point whatsoever fighting against one of the greatest revolutions in retailing ever? Amazon won’t notice our protests. And with average advances so low, how can authors afford to boycott this global marketplace?
I think my fatalism about Amazon has a lot to do with my early days as a journalist when (and I’ll say this in a whisper) I worked on Fleet Street at a time when vans stacked with the Evening Standard and Sun would roar out from the side streets with the newsprint literally hot off the presses. I even subbed on the ‘stone’ – a damn great granite worktable supporting the heavy frames for the broadsheets – with a compositor setting the city pages of the Financial Times in hot lead metal. It was another world, another time. The battles fought by the unions against Rupert Murdoch’s new computer technology now seem futile and doomed to failure.
Yes, I know that today there are figures ‘proving’ that e-books are on the wane in the UK and physical books in the ascendance, but I’m afraid that I don’t trust them. I think they’re partial statistics being used to make a case that traditionalists dearly wish to be true. As an investigative journalist, I want to dig down beneath the headlines into the real data to find out what’s actually going on. I suspect I’d find at least some of those lost adult fiction sales in the e-book market.
OK, I might also find that children’s books are the exception. But five year olds have phones these days. Why should they only play games on them and not read e-picture books? And what’s easier than giving your child or grandchild Apple Store or Amazon credit as a birthday present? Kids don’t need a bank card to shop for books online.
I worry that by resisting this online trend, by not aggressively seeking out e-sales, traditionally-published authors (and our publishers) risk missing out on a growth sector that should be central to our long-term economic planning.
So yes, I do think authors have to adapt to Amazon whether we want to or not, just as independent shops like Kenilworth Books have to shrug when the big High Street retailers discount the latest Wilbur Smith or Robert Harris, and accept there’s no point in them stocking it.
But like Ms Rosewell, I also think we have to shout out when a big launch like La Belle Sauvage could (possibly) be the Harry Potter for a new generation, and benefit the wider industry from an upsurge of interest in great children’s books.


Friday, 14 July 2017

A Bevy of B's by Lynne Benton

As I mentioned in my previous blog, on thinking of writers whose surnames began with successive letters, I realised how very many of them there were beginning with B!  So, rather than make this an extremely long blog, I’ve decided to share them between two blogs – so if your favourite doesn’t appear this time, it may well feature next month.

I have to start with the late, great MICHAEL BOND, who, sadly, has just died.  His Paddington Bear books have entertained children for years, as books, as a television series and more recently as a film.  Who doesn’t recognise the bear in a floppy hat and blue duffel coat carrying a suitcase?  Or know of his penchant for marmalade sandwiches and getting into mischief?  Truly this bear is something of a national treasure – and so is his author.

Next comes ENID BLYTON.  During the forties and fifties, as well as the early sixties, she too was counted as a national treasure, so prolific an author was she, and so well-loved by children.  But later in the sixties the powers-that-be decided she was not a good writer, and furthermore her books were sexist and racist, so for many years they were banned from schools and libraries, and she was much reviled.  Children, however, begged to differ, and continued to enjoy reading about the Famous Five, Noddy, The Faraway Tree and so on.  Now she is once again (almost) back in favour, and her Famous Five books are so well-known that there are many spoof versions on the market, (eg “Five go to Brexit Island”) though these are not for children.  Few authors have come close to her enormous output, and children still love her books.

J. M. Barrie invented Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.  His story of Peter, who visited the Darling children one night and flew with them to Neverland, where they met the jealous fairy Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys and the villainous Captain Hook has enthralled many children since it was first written.  He first wrote it as a play in 1904 (which is still performed) and then in 1911 as a book, and now the name of Peter Pan is famous all over the world, through the books, the play and various different films, not least the Disney version from 1953.

Bringing us up-to-date again is Malorie Blackman, who writes for teenagers and whose books are extremely popular.  Her first book, “Pig-Heart Boy” deals with the problems as well as the wonders of heart transplants, and her ground-breaking “Noughts and Crosses” series deals with racial prejudice from a different perspective.  She was Children’s Laureate from 2013-15.

Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote many books in the early 1900’s, her three most famous being “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (now rarely read, though his name is legendary), “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden”.  In the latter the heroine, a lonely and rather unlikeable girl, discovers a wonderful secret garden and two new friends.

Anthony Buckeridge is perhaps not so well-known these days, but his very funny “Jennings” series first appeared on radio Children’s Hour in the fifties and became instantly popular.  Set in a boys’ preparatory school, despite being a world unfamiliar to most children listening the stories dealt with universal themes of school and friendship, and the often unintentional havoc wrought by Jennings and his friend Darbishire.  Anthony Buckeridge subsequently wrote several more books about the pair. 

Another classic – Charlotte Bronte, although not specifically a children’s author, is nevertheless often introduced to children in their early teens via her most famous book, “Jane Eyre”.  The orphaned Jane’s childhood is miserable, but she grows up to become a governess to the young niece of Mr Rochester at Thornfield Hall, and for a while her future looks more promising.  However, there are many bumps in the road before Jane finds her destiny.

Nina Bawden’s most famous book is probably “Carrie’s War”, set during WW2 when Carrie and her young brother are evacuated to Wales.  This book has been dramatized several times for television and theatre and is perennially popular.

Frank Baum is the author of the unforgettable “Wizard of Oz”.  Although it is the film which is best-known, Baum wrote 14 books in all in the Oz series.  He was born in America in 1856, where the books are rather more famous than they are in the UK, but the film, and the story, will never be forgotten.

The last of my Bevy of B's for this blog is Raymond Briggs, author/illustrator of “The Snowman,”  “Father Christmas”, “Fungus the Bogeyman” and many others.  The film of “The Snowman”, with music by Howard Blake, is now a part of every Christmas television viewing, and is a deceptively simple tale of a small boy who builds a snowman which comes to life and takes him on a magical journey.

However, before I close, since my surname also begins with B, I’d just like to add a small puff for my latest book, “The Centurion’s Son”, which is now available on Amazon.  In Roman Britain a boy’s search for his missing father reveals corruption and murder affecting the whole Legion. 

More B’s next time…

Thursday, 13 July 2017

May the circle be unbroken by Sheena Wilkinson

Thirteenth of the month, and I’m at Arvon for the thirteenth time. Spooky! 

I’ve written about Arvon for this blog before, and it’s possible I will again, because it’s such a big part of my writing life. This time, for the fourth time, I’m here (Totleigh Barton) with the group of young writers I run in Belfast. There are fifteen of them, from nine different schools or colleges, ranging in age from 15 -21. They are all committed writers who attend my monthly workshops and this week is the highlight of our writing year together. We’re so grateful that Arvon, through the generosity of the Harvey McGrath Trust, continue to support the group. The young writers are raring to go, just as I was exactly ten years ago when I first went to Arvon as a student.

Totleigh Barton
In 2007 I was unpublished, full of nerves and hope and bad habits (writing habits, not the other kind, for which I haven’t the time or energy.) If I’d known then that ten years later I’d be writing fulltime, bringing young people to Arvon and sometimes tutoring there myself, I’d have been thrilled. I didn’t know; I only hoped, and that first week at Arvon, with Lee Weatherly and Malorie Blackman as tutors, was the first time I dared to hope a bit harder.

I’ve just come back from the Scattered Authors summer retreat at Charney Manor, which, for the third year, I co-organised with that same Lee Weatherly. And Lee herself has twice tutored my young writers here at Totleigh. It all feels very – circular and right. One of the tutors, Louise Wallwein, and mid-week guest Catherine Johnson, are writers I have got to know through Arvon too.

And of course books are part of the circle, not just people. I’m typing this post at the same desk where, just over three years ago, I typed the first chapter of Street Song. I hadn’t intended to: I thought I wasn’t ready to start, but Arvon had other ideas.
started at Arvon!

This time a year ago, here as a student, I was sent my cover for Street Song. You have to walk for some time to get a wee bit of 3G signal, so the picture downloaded very…very…slowly. My heart was in my mouth as I saw the cover unfold – luckily I loved it. Today I have a copy of the book to give to the library here, in recognition of the part Arvon played in the book’s creation.

And today, very, very slowly, the cover for my next novel, Star By Star, downloaded unto my phone. How neat and fitting, especially as it was here last year, daydreaming lazily after finishing the short radio play I was here to write, that the story for that very novel seemed to download itself – much faster than the picture – into my mind. 
A great place to daydream a story into existence

I don’t have anything very pithy to end with. I just feel very much, here in this beautiful place and at this particular time, that the last ten years have given me so much, and Arvon has been a huge part of it. Another writer at Charney last week spoke of the importance of being grateful, and I’m very, very grateful for Arvon.

I have a new notebook with me, labelled New Novel Plans. I can't think of a better place to begin...