Friday 19 November 2004

What JK Rowling did (and didn't do) for us

Literary agent Rosemary Canter reports that JK Rowling has not catapulted children’s writing into the big time – yet.

From a talk at the SCBWI conference “Oceans Apart, United by Story” on 4-6 July 2003, in Madrid, Spain

Aspiring writers who think JK Rowling has opened the doors of the children’s book world to the big league should take a cold shower. The blip in children’s book sales is totally Harry Potter’s fault, reports Rosemary Canter. “(The sales figures) don’t necessarily mean that the market is expanding, though there is a hope that Harry Potter will make people buy more books.”

In truth, when you take Harry Potter out of the equation, you might even find that sales are down.

For the writer who has yet to invent the latest blockbuster, it is going to be the usual slog. Canter quotes Jacklyn Wilson, the prolific author of the Tracy Beaker books which have been adapted for television: “It took me 20 years to become an overnight success.”

The fact is, most authors can only expect advances of £1,500 to £3,000. “The only way to survive is quantity – except for licensing possibilities, there is no money to be made,” says Canter, “I deal with endless contracts for tiny amounts of money. I was not the most popular person in my agency.”

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that JK Rowling, though failing to bring plenty to aspiring children’s authors, has at least won some prestige for our industry.

“In 1997, children’s fiction was a publishing backwater – the sums of money to be made were not sexy,” says Canter. “And now our tiny world has been shaken awake!”

With the advent of Rowling, and the success of authors such as Garth Nix, Jonathan Stroud and Ian Hearn, “there are now serious financial expectations for the children’s department”, says Canter. Rowling has led the way to a sea change in the children’s book industry:

  • For the first time, good writers can command reasonable advances – instead of £3,000, a writer might get £5,000
  • There has been an explosion of formidable writing talent
  • Almost no editor in the world would dare to say they don’t like fantasy!

In an interview with SCBWI’s Bridget Strevens Marzo, Canter said: “I’ve been working in the children's book world for 24 years now, and I think this is the most exciting of times. Children’s writers have a higher status now, perhaps higher than they have ever had, and the real possibility of earning a good living. Historical fiction and fantasy are, once again, hugely popular, and there is a glorious vitality about fiction overall . . . it’s a wonderful time to be involved.”

Canter has this advice for aspiring writers for children:

  • Be clear about what your talent is. Don’t confuse the issue by showing a different area of your work
  • Copious amounts of research will stand you well – not for your manuscript, but on publishers who might buy your work. “Study the publishers’ catalogues closely”
  • Target a market.
  • A good title goes a long way
  • A good letter will show your personality, wit, style, lyricism – “I’d like to give one piece of advice to writers looking for an agent: the letter you send is also a piece of writing”.
  • Review and revise your manuscript before sending anything to an editor. “Authors need to make the best first impression possible.”

"I am always, always looking for new talent," Rosemary says. "Finding it is one of the most seductive aspects of a fascinating job."

Rosemary says she is always open to queries by mail rather than by email or phone. "I enjoy the many facets of being an agent. I like to help writers develop saleable material for publishers, but not get further involved in the editorial process. I think it's my job to be a businesswoman:to get the best possible deals and contracts for my clients, to help with legal advice, where necessary, to give strategic advice on careers, and to make suggestions on individual projects ." She was an editor for 17 years until she was offered the opportunity to build up a list of children's writers and illustrators for PFD, one of Europe's leading literary and talent agencies. Submission guidelines are posted on the website.

Monday 15 November 2004

Anne Fine on Writing

To become a writer, says Anne Fine, first of all, you have to write.

From the PEN Masterclass in Children’s Writing, at the London International Book Fair in Olympia, 17 March 2003

“Not being in the mood is no excuse,” Anne Fine says, quoting Bertrand Russell: “Nothing that you write is ever as bad as you fear or as good as you think.” She also likes to quote children’s author Allan Ahlberg: “The hardest bit about writing is getting your bum onto the seat.”

FINDING THE TIME. Says Fine: “It is important to decide what a reasonable amount of time for you to write is. Mothers might have to work around a baby’s naptimes or during school hours. But once you have decided on a realistic writing time, stick to it.”

NEVER SHOW YOUR WORK TO A FAMILY MEMBER. This is purely for self-preservation, Fine jokes. “Even if they say it is very good, there is still something about the way they say it that makes you want to kill them.”

WHAT TO WRITE. “Good writing is good writing whether for children or for adults,” says Fine. “But in adult writing you are seen as part of your audience.” “You can probably write about anything; but it is how you write about it and what you shine your spotlight on that matters.”

WHAT CHILDREN LIKE. “Children like to identify with something in the book,” says Fine. “We must write about emotions that a child can recognise.” In this sense, she says, “plots are over-rated because once a child has invested in a character, they will see a book through.” Be aware of the physicality of normal childish response, she warns. “Avoid processed adult reflection.”

BE AWARE OF YOUR AUDIENCE'S READING ABILITIES. Six to nine year olds may struggle with the mechanics of reading, and you should be careful to avoid flashbacks and the subtleties of time schemes” when writing for this age. For older readers, “you should write a book you yourself would like to read.” Having said that, “never overestimate the reader’s knowledge and never underestimate the reader’s intelligence”. “There is a fine line between being magical and being plain silly,” says Fine. “If it’s real, keep it real.”

This piece appeared in Words & Pictures, the newsletter of SCBWI British Isles Region, Autumn 2003

Anne Fine advises would-be writers to “read, read, read. The practice for writing (whatever teachers say!) is not writing, but reading. If you don't have a library card (and not in the teapot on the mantelpiece) you cannot be serious. Then as Philip Larkin says, write the book you yourself would most like to read”. She should know, she was the Children’s Laureate from 2001 to 2003, and is one of the most successful children’s writers in Britain today. Fine was awarded an OBE in the Queen's birthday honours list in 2003 for services to Literature. Her most well known book is Madam Doubtfire, which became a hit film. Other well known titles are The Tulip Touch, Flour Babies, and Bill's New Frock. She has also won a number of awards including the Carnegie Medal and the Publishing News' Children's Author of the Year in 1990 and 1993.

Sunday 14 November 2004

The Making of the Gruffalo

Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo bends all the rules for writing marketable picture books

‘How a picture book comes into being’, workshop during Writer’s Day 2004 ('Go Fish! Creating Stories that Really Hook)' of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators British Isles in Winchester, United Kingdom on 6 November 2004

Silly old fox
Doesn’t he know?
There’s no such thing as a –

And Julia Donaldson tried Snoog, Margle jing, Snargle, Snaple. But these were not easy to rhyme no matter how one twisted and turned the phrases. So it had to be something that rhymed with “know” – Gruffalo!

Thus was a children’s classic born – through the exigencies of rhyme. This despite the fact that children’s book publishers in the UK actively discourage rhyming texts to increase a book’s chances of translation. “A co-edition allows publishers to recoup costs on picture books, which are very expensive to produce,” says one editor.

And yet, and yet.

Donaldson’s engaging verses have recouped the publisher’s costs many times over, and almost all 28 translations across the world do rhyme.

Donaldson as a workshop speaker is as quirky and captivating as her books. She begins by taking up her guitar and singing a song, forgetting the lyrics, but never mind, and enjoining bemused attendees to join in the chorus. The room is littered with books and crumpled scraps of illustration that she rifles through to illustrate her talk before giving up, saying, “Ah well, it will turn up later.” Then she organises a play-acting session – recruiting the novelist Malorie Blackman to play the fox and various other would-be illustrators and writers to act out the roles of the snake, the owl and the gruffalo. She, of course, is the star of the production – the mouse, in all her squeaky glory, pattering up and down the aisles. At the end of the workshop, during the question and answer session, she holds a hand up and asks the audience to wait while she whips out her hearing aid. “I can’t really hear,” she apologises.

It may not be a straightforward lesson in the craft of picture books but one certainly can’t help falling in love with the charm of it all.

Indeed, Donaldson fell into writing rather by mistake. “I wasn’t trying to write a picture book,” she says of her first title A Squash and a Squeeze. “I was trying to write a song!” She wrote the song for children’s television and ten years later a publisher approached her to turn it into a picture book.

But that first book did not open the golden gates to children’s publishing. “I could paper the house with rejection letters,” she says ruefully.

Characteristically, The Gruffalo emerged out of a project that was not intended to become a picture book.

“I had been asked to write some little plays based on some regular tales,” says Donaldson. “When the children were little, we used to have a story tape about a Chinese girl and a tiger. The tiger follows her through the jungle and all the animals run away making the tiger think that they are afraid of the girl, when they are actually afraid of him.”

Donaldson began writing the play but soon changed her mind. “It was too good. I thought, this is the germ of a picture book. I don’t know why, but one day, eighteen months later, I decided to start the book.”

Originally the monster of the story was a tiger. “I had decided that the mouse would meet specific predators first and then trick them somehow, stop them from eating him, by saying he’s going to meet this tiger. I was writing away but then it became really hard when I had to think of words that rhymed with tiger.”

He ought to know
He really should
There are no tigers
In this wood

But this was as far as the rhyming went. “I thought if I created an imaginary creature, it would be easier to rhyme it.”

Once the gruffalo was created, she had to work out how the mouse manages to discourage all the predators from eating him. One of her children, reading a draught of the piece, asked, “Why didn’t they just eat him right away?”

Thus some of the most (literally) delicious moments in the story “came out of problems with the plot”. When the predators, not believing that the mouse had a monster friend, ask him: “Where are you meeting him?” The mouse quickly replies, “HERE – and his favourite food is … roasted fox, owl ice cream, snake …”

When Donaldson was ready to give up on the text – “I was sick of it, I thought I could never publish this book!” – one of her children gave her a gentle push. “Go on, Mum. I think it’s good.”

But once Donaldson finished the book, there was the problem of getting it published.

With the first publisher she approached, a year went by with no word. Her husband suggested that she send the text to Axel Scheffler, the well-known illustrator, “to see if what he thinks of it”. Though Donaldson’s name has now become inextricably tied to Scheffler, she did not meet him until much later.

“Literally a week after I wrote Axel, I got a letter from Alison Green, saying ‘This letter might take you a bit by surprise’ and asking for the right to publish it ‘even if Axel decides not to illustrate it’!” Donaldson remembers leaping about in the room with joy.

“The best bit of all,” she says, “was going nyaah nyaah to the other publishers!”

Interestingly, the editors did not change a single word of Donaldson’s rhyming text, the only memorable issue being whether the animals should be wearing clothes or not.

Says Donaldson, “I suppose the lesson to be learned is: don’t give up when someone is sitting on something!”

Julia Donadson’s writing career started when she was a penniless student in Paris and went busking. Busking led to song-writing which led to writing rhyming picture books. The Gruffalo and Room on a Broom have won many prizes and regularly top the UK picture book bestseller charts. Julia is also the author of the popular Princess Mirror-Belle stories and several short novels, including Giants and Joneses, which is to be made into film by Warner Brothers.

The Neither-Here-Nor-There Reader

Though race is a strong feature of multicultural writing, at the end of the day it’s all about the universal human need to belong

From the 11th Annual NCRCL/British IBBY Children’s Literature Conference on the theme East Meets West in Children’s Literature, 13 November 2004, Roehampton University, London

Tanuja Desai Hidier used to say she came from a “neither-here-nor-there” culture, growing up in the only South Asian family in a Masachussetts suburb. Until that is, she discovered the term ‘ABCD’ – American Born Confused Desi – which placed kids born of two cultures like herself firmly in a culture of their own.

Says Hidier: “It was the first time it occurred to me that what I saw as a neither-here-nor-there culture was a new culture – the culture of diaspora”.

The Culture of Diaspora: this was the underlying theme of a panel discussion titled “How East Meets West in Their Work” at the 2004 Children’s Literature Conference at Roehampton university. In the panel were Hidier, whose first novel Born Confused touches on the ABCD subculture in America; the children’s author Tony Bradman who edited Skin Deep, a collection of stories about racism; and Bali Rai, the award-winning author of contemporary young adult novels.

Born Confused evolved from Hidier’s discovery of that she belonged to this third culture, members of which, she says, “as far as I could see did not seem confused”. Hidier took pains to make sure that non-English words in the text were not italicised. “I did not want the words to be screaming off the page because I should just be part of the language since the character has a hyphenated identity in the first place.”

In 1990s America, the ABCD culture was giving birth to a great flourishing of South Asian departments in universities, with young people developing a unique vocabulary to express themselves. Pop culture embraced Asian Cool with fervour – from Madonna taking up yoga to Starbucks serving chai.

In Britain, Asian Cool is a trendy turntable that has its swings and roundabouts, says Bali Rai, a young Leicester author who is “proud to call myself British Asian than Indian”.

“Asian culture gets popular every few years and you have to jump on when you can!” says Rai.
The Asianness of Rai’s writing is not incidental, but neither is it central to his narratives. He writes about what he knows, and by doing so explores the realities of being British of Asian origin – and all the issues of identity that come with.

“Up until the age of 15, I didn’t think I could call myself British,” Rai says. “Yet when I go to India, my cousins called me English boy. (In India) I called myself an outsider with a head-start simply because my mother was born there. For a while, I had real trouble working out where I belonged. It made me think perhaps I just belonged in the plane. It was only when I was 15 to 16 years old that I discovered that it is okay to have brown skin and call yourself English.”

The only multicultural text he knew was Come to Mecca by Farrukh Dhondy (1978) “foisted on me by my well-meaning teacher”. He began writing because he wanted to read “about the kind of kids I sat next to in school”.

Rai wrote (un)arranged Marriage based on the experiences of people he knew, viewing the issue of forced marriage from a male perspective. His short story, Beaten – published in a collection of Asian short stories Walking a Tightrope, edited by Rehana Ahmed – emerged from his outrage at the treatment of a woman who was imprisoned for killing her abusive husband.

Tony Bradman, joking that he was the panel’s “token white liberal” , described growing up in a working class family where racist comments and attitudes were acceptable. “I grew up with racism, but I did not experience racism directly so I could not write about it myself,” he says. “The idea of Skin Deep came out of that. I also realised that there was very little writing about these experiences coming from the communities where this was a day to day problem.”

Bradman sought to include stories that “went beyond BNP nasties” – although this was the subject of one of the stories – The Fever by Allan Gibbons.

The writing of Rai and Hidier are attracting an audience of the “Hey, that’s me” variety – Rai says he receives hundreds of letters from Asian kids saying, “That’s exactly how I feel” “That’s what happened to me”. But such work is also of much value to a non-ethnic audience.

“I still believe that part of what a book like (Skin Deep) does is to inform a white audience,” says Bradman. “I wanted it to be read by the widest possible group of people.”

Having just returned from a trip to Scotland where he visited seven schools – amongst which there was only one non-white pupil – Rai agrees. “It gives (children) insight into a kind of Britishness that they wouldn’t have experienced before.”

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier won the Larry King and Sunday Times Book of the Week, and ALA BBYA Book of the Year. (un) arranged Marriage by Bali Rai won the 2002 Angus Book Award. Tony Bradman has been writing for children for 20 years. He is chair of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group of the Society of Authors.

Sunday 7 November 2004

The Challenge for Multicultural Writing

The realities of post 9/11 means multicultural writers may have to abandon the comfort of the culture clash cliché, says FARRUKH DHONDY

This talk was delivered at the 11th Annual NCRCL/British IBBY Children’s Literature Conference on the theme 'East Meets West in Children’s Literature', 13 November 2004, Roehampton University, London

The way he tells it, Farrukh Dhondy got his first book published for all the wrong reasons.

At the time, Dhondy was contributing 500 to 600-word short stories to one of the angry migrant newsletters circulating in the seventies – mainly vignettes of life he witnessed as a South London school teacher. The stories attracted the attention of an editor from MacMillan, who tracked him down at his school.

“He said, would you like to write a book? I said, are you from the police? No? Then how much?” Dhondy laughs.

The result of the meeting was East End at Your Feet, a collection of stories from a Britain of many hues. “It caused quite a stir which was good for the sales of the book,” says Dhondy, with characteristic humour. “The BNP (British National Party) tried to ban it. The Telegraph wrote an editorial about it.”

But Dhondy was under no illusions about the reasons behind the publication of his first book.

“Looking back at it now, I think the book was born out of the wrong impulse. (The editor) came to that school to find somebody who had a certain amount of intimacy with the immigrant community. He said, ‘An audience exists for this book.’ So the book came out of the liberal impulse of British people wanting to know who the people in their midst were … It was born of an anti-racist impulse; of a let’s-find-out-about-these-strange-creatures-they-might-become-troublesome impulse.”

Dhondy does not debate the rightness or wrongness of these so-called impulses. “I think these misguided impulses were perhaps the motivation for the great writers of multi-cultural literature.”

His examples of multicultural writers are something of a surprise because there is nothing of the East in them: Mark Twain for Huckleberry Finn; Rudyard Kipling for Kim; JD Salinger for Catcher in the Rye.

In effect, Dhondy says, multicultural writing is about journeys: “They are books of discovery, books of travel … escape. (Other) writers have felt the necessity to use that picaresque form and take a character to a country not yet discovered by that person or needing discovery by fresh eyes.”

Dhondy’s most recent novel for young people, Run!, may be a case in point, though he is careful not to rank himself up there with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. “Possibly I have taken my character Rashid through modern Britain on a sort of journey.”

The task now for multicultural writers, he says, is to resist the clichés of diversity and multiculturalism.

“My first book was published out of a deviant impulse. I feel that multicultural writers should go beyond these impulses. Such writers have got stuck in trying to explain one culture to another. We are still producing anti-racists books without examining the nuances of racism in a country … we are still writing books that are basically written for a white audience, published by publishers because they are liberal enough to want to publish it. (So Clichés) have become the currency of multicultural literature – the I-am-so-unhappy-you-have-a-green-card story, the daughter-father-patriarchal-relationship story, the charming-tale-of-a-childhood-in-India.”

One of the challenges for multicultural writers today is leave behind the discovery template and use their narratives to respond to the realities of the post 9/11 era. “Our society is producing the Karamazovs, the Raskolnikovs, who go off after university to take flying lessons in order to blow up American buildings. What is going on? What is giving rise to this? … I want literature not to tell me about magical realism in a certain caste in India. I want somebody to explain to me what the hell is going on in our societies to produces this clash of civilisations. And I want the answer told in the tradition of European literature.”

The point of multicultural writing today, Dhondi concludes, is not “never the twain shall meet” but that “we live under the same human law and that ultimately we live in a multicultural world where the things that ultimately matter are the same”.

Farrukh Dhondy was born in Poona, India in 1944. He came to England in the 1960s and studied English Literature at Cambridge University. He became a political activist working with the Indian Workers Association, the Black Panther Movement, and Race Today. He has adapted some of his short stories for television and has written screenplays for the BBC. He was Commissioning Editor for Mulitcultural Programmes for Channel 4 until 1997.

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