Monday 18 December 2006

New Yorker's 'Bah, humbug!' round-up of picture books

...why do we tell stories to our children? In my experience, mostly it is to get them to shut up.
A review so negative it manages sneery when it's trying to be complimentary

Ah, writers and children's book lovers, if you want to get really, really angry, read the New Yorker piece Goodnight Mush: The Year in Picture Books

Written by critic Elizabeth Kolbert, it describes the picture book as an "instrument of control" and then proceeds to demonstrate how some classic picture books — such as Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Madeleine by Ludwig Bemelmans, Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban — pretend that children have power only to bring them down in the end.

The tension, or, if you prefer, bad faith implicit in this arrangement is itself one of the great themes of bedtime literature, and many of the tales now regarded as classics celebrate children as artists (and artists as children), only, in the end, to sell them both out.

Meanwhile, picture books for today's "post-spanking set"tend to do just the opposite — "that the old order be uprooted and the fool become the king".

After a humourless discussion of scatological PBs — Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise by William Kotzwinkle and Glenn Murrey, (illustrator Audrey Colman),Gee Whiz! It's All ABout Pee by Susan E. Goodman (illustrator Elwood H. Smith) and The Truth About Poop by Goodman and Smith again — she proceeds to describe unsavory details of the beloved author Margaret Wise Brown, whose bedtime book Goodnight Moon celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

This is a review so negative it manages sneery even when it's trying to be complimentary. As Alice Pope, editor of the Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, commented in her blog:

Never have I read an article on children's books that sucked the joy out of them. Never have I read an article on children's books that made me want to cry.

Friday 15 December 2006

Christmas Book Lists

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, the agents and editors are now totally ignoring their slushpiles, so what is left for us slushpilers to do? We must shop.

And as future members of that industry, it is incumbent that our christmas lists be laden with books. So here are two lists to peruse:

The first is a compilation of recommendations from then annual Christmas Books Special on Radio 4’s Open Book programme (don’t you love the BBC?). Britain’s best beloved children’s authors Lauren Child (Clarice Bean), Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now), David McKee (Not Now Bernard) put forward their favourites from this year’s stock.

The second is the NestlĂ© Children’s Book Prize, administered by Booktrust, an independent charity which promotes books and reading.


Meg Rosoff’s choices

Mayfly Day - Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (Andersen Press)

Beauty and the Beast - Max Eilenberg and Angela Barrett (Walker Books)

A Swift Pure Cry - Siobhan Dowd (David Fickling Books)

David McKee’s choices

When We Lived In Uncle's Hat - Peter Stamm and Jutta Bauer (Winged Chariot Press)
here’s where you can look inside the book

Sophie and the Albino Camel - Stephen Davies (Andersen Press)

The Witch's Boy - Michael Gruber (Simon and Schuster

Lauren Child’s choices

When a Monster Is Born - Nick Sharratt and Sean Taylor (Orchard Books)

Jake Jellicoe and the Dread Pirate Redbeard - Joanna Nadin and David Roberts (Walker Books)

The Thirteen And A Half Lives Of Captain Bluebear - Walter Moers


9 to 11 age category

gold: The Diamond of Drury Lane - Julia Golding (Egmont Press)
silver: The Tide Knot - Helen Dunmore (HarperCollins Children’s Books)
bronze: The Pig Who Saved the World - Paul Shipton (Puffin)

6 to 8 age category

gold: Mouse Noses on Toast -Daren King – illustrated by David Roberts (Faber and Faber)
silver: Hugo Pepper - Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell (Doubleday)
bronze: The Adventures of The Dish and The Spoon - Mini Grey (Jonathan Cape)

5 & under age category

gold: That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown - Cressida Cowell & Neal Layton (Orchard Books)
silver: The Emperor of Absurdia - Chris Riddell (Macmillan Children’s Books)

Wednesday 13 December 2006

A Perfect Response to Rejection

First Lines that Hook: Are We Selling or Writing?

Sorry folks for taking such a long break from note-taking. What can I say? I was busy trying to get published.

Now back to wallowing in the slushpile.

Slushpile survivors spend a lot of brain time worrying about the hooking power of their first chapter, their first page, their first line. For the unpublished, the first chapter is the key to catching the attention of that elusive publisher/agent/editor.

If your first line doesn't hook, are you really doomed?
Hooking is all about the supplicant (you and me) getting the supplicantee (the publisher/editor/agent) to read your manuscript in its entirety and then, hopefully, taking it and you to published glory.

For many of us at this level, it’s not even about engaging the reader, turning on the engine of the story, and all that stuff published writers have the luxury of worrying about.

We just want the editor/publisher/agent to read our work.

I used to get a lot out of manuscript critiques at SCBWI conferences. But I don’t go for them anymore. Most manuscript critiques focus on the first chapter or first three pages of a manuscript. Which can be only so useful. Once you are writing the meat of your story, what you really need is a Middle-of-the-book Critique or even an Ending Critique.

I keep being told that the first line is absolutely crucial. I know people who have spent two hours in a workshop just reading first lines and saying whether or not they'd read on.

Is this really the state of the industry today? If my first line doesn't grab an agent by the throat, am I really doomed to failure?

This from one slushpile loyalist over at Miss Snark’s. The response of the stilleto-wielding literary agent was uncharacteristically kind:

you don't need a perfect first line. You just need a first line that doesn't make me think "this sux".

We (agents) set things down when they're bad, not when they're not good enough.

There's a big distinction. It's hard to describe. Two days in my slush pile and you'd see it clearly.

It's such a preoccupation amongst writers that The Writer's Life blog is offering feedback on first manuscript pages and Miss Snark's 'Crapometer' hooking competition — hugely popular amongst her masochistic followers — snarkily returns this Friday, 15 December, at 8pm (EST).

And yet Imogen Cooper, fiction editor at Chickenhouse, told writers at a SCBWI retreat last summer that first chapters were the first things changed by editors once a manuscript was accepted. She said she would rather writers submit their best chapters as samples rather than the traditional first chapter since, in her experience, this inevitably needed more editing than the rest. So why are we so hung up on first lines?

Published authors have big discussions about the balance that has to be struck between marketing one’s self and focusing on the writer’s job: to write. Check out the discussion about what a writer’s job involves at author Justine Larbalastier’s blog last spring.

I think there is a parallel to be struck between the marketing vs writing debate and the unpublished writer’s first line neurosis.

Selling is the point of writing first lines that hook - in the same way that selling is the point of self-promotion by a published author. You'll never get read if you don't sell.

So sell, sell, by all means. Hook them, land them, get those editors salivating for the rest of your manuscript.

But tread warily.

Does the rest of your manuscript live up to those perfectly honed first lines?

Saturday 7 October 2006

How to Hook a Children's Editor

Sarah Hughes, editorial director for children's books at Puffin, explains what she looks for in a manuscript submission at a SCBWI Professional Series evening, 25 May 2006 in London.

Text temporarily unavailable

Friday 6 October 2006

Great Reads from My Childhood

In the previous piece covering SCBWI’s What Makes a Children’s Book Great event, critic Julia Eccleshare said: "The great books are the ones that make readers."

Here is a list of the reads that made me a reader – and yes, I count comic books as good reading:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott– I identified with Jo March, writing and writing, all those hopes and dreams, the pretty older sister, the tomboyishness, the suppressed girlishness, and then, the desire to nurture all those homeless children. But what did Lawrence see in Amy?

Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – I wanted to smoke a corn cob pipe and sail away on the Mississippi which would have been a tough job given that I lived in the Philippines. Years later I found my own Huckleberry best friend in Mandy Navasero, a photographer who took me on unbelievable adventures and showed me how to eat a pineapple while driving. My Tom Sawyer was from a collection of Children's Classics and beautifully illustrated by Edward F. Cortese. My favourite illustration was of three boys stark naked smoking a corn cob pipe after Tom runs away and everyone thinks him dead.

The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop. When the first Chinese brother swallowed the sea, his head swelled up to an enormous ball. Unforgettable. It’s a real shame that the politically correct brigade have deemed such a great story racist.

The Beverly Gray Mystery Stories by Claire Blank. I had a set that belonged to my grandmother who, not having attended high school or college, tried to improve herself by reading. I remember turning to a page at age four and realising that I could read! This mystery serial from the 1930s had heroine Beverly Gray struggling to become a journalist (which I’ve done), travelling the world (yup, me too), marrying an Englishman (uh huh), and struggling to get her book published (oh yeah). Every girl with ambition should read it.

The Prince and the Pauper by Samuel Clemens– For a long time, I didn’t make the connection between Samuel Clemens (author of The Prince and the Pauper) and Mark Twain (author of Tom Sawyer). But how many times have I read the chapter in which Miles Hendon discovers that his “prince of dreams of shadows” is truly the prince of England? Wonderful! This is probably the book I read the most number of times.

Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss – I do like the Cat in the Hat and all the other Seuss tales, but as a child it was Green Eggs and Ham that really made an impression. I do so like them Sam I am, I do so like Green Eggs and Ham!

Spiderman by Stan Lee – I was a devotee of the American comic book serial. Spiderman/Peter Parker seemed so vulnerable and alone, I identified with all the stuff about trying to belong. And I loved the muscular illustration. I learned to draw soles of feet by copying Spiderman cartoons.

Sergeant Rock by Robert Kanigher, illustrated by Joe Kubert – guns and German enemies and young, vulnerable soldiers being sent to the front line. I adored Sargeant Rock and spent all my spare pocket money on the DC comic book. I also wasted many hours copying Joe Kubert’s illustrations, and when Joe Kubert turned his hand to Tarzan for DC Comics, I turned my hand to Tarzan as well

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yeah, yeah, it was an American radio programme wasn’t it? But as a young person, I only knew it as a comic book serial and a cheap paperback series. Which I read avidly. And yes, I loved the Disney movie. And I read the Mars Series as well.

Charlie Brown by Charlie Schulz . I wished I could be there for Charlie Brown, give him a break from all the cruelty of the kids who populated his world. I loved Lucy though, who charged five cents for a psychiatric consultation, more lucrative than running a lemonade stand like the other kids. And Snoopy who had literary ambitions. And Schroeder who played Beethoven on a toy piano. And especially Linus who believed in the Great Pumpkin.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. Ah, the surprise ending. I could read O. Henry stories over and over again. And I did.

Oliver by Charles Dickens. I first heard of Charles Dickens when my father took me to the movie in a down town cinema in Manila. Watching Oliver! the musical, made me rush to the school library and take out Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations. That’s why I would never knock Hollywood. It introduced me to a world of reading I would never have accessed as a child in the third world.

The Book of Naughty Children by Enid Blyton. This led me to read everything else that Enid Blyton wrote. I especially loved the first two books of Noddy, when he discovers Toy Town and builds his own home/ Reading Enid Blyton now, I don’t get the same buzz she gave me in my childhood, but I will never forget. She gave me that feeling of “urgency” that Julia Eccleshare talks about, that ‘must read more’ feeling that children’s authors can only hope for in their audience.

Tintin in Tibet by Herge. Billions of blue blistering barnacles in ten thousand thundering typhoons! I read this one over and over … as well as the others. And I spent hours copying little details from the drawings – the way the waves in the sea had a foamy crest; the shape of the back of someone’s head; the peak of a mountain.

Thursday 5 October 2006

What Makes a Children’s Book Great?

Author Tony Bradman, critic Julia Eccleshare and teacher/critic Gwynneth Bailey discussed What Makes a Children’s Book Great at an event co-sponsored by SCBWI British Isles and the Society of Authors on 14 September 2006.

What makes a children’s book great has everything to do with who you are and little to do with tried and tested formulae.

Author Tony Bradman confesses that his favourite picture book choices is informed by the fact that his children were little in the 1980s – and so his favourites include many from that period: Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake, Not Now Bernard by David McKee, Avocado Baby by John Burningham, The Elephant and the Bad Baby by Elfrida Vipont.

The Guardian children’s book critic Julia Eccleshare harks back to her three childhood favourites: Children on the Oregon Trail by A. Rutger Van Der Loeff, The Swarm in May by William Mayne and Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce.

Teacher Gwynneth Bailey, who also writes for the Times Educational Supplement and reviews books for Books for Keeps and other review sites, struggled to list her five favourite books and settled for the following eleven:

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
All Afloat on Noah’s Boat by Tony Mitton
Cockatoos by Quentin Blake
Sophie and the Sea Wolf by Helen Cresswell
Tanka Tanka Skunk by Steve Webb
The Whale’s Song by Dyan Sheldon
Unwitting Wisdom: An Anthology of Aesop’s Fables by Helen Ward
The Cockerel and the Fox by Helen Ward
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
Catkin by Antonia Barber
Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

The Story or the Telling?

Julia polled “a gang of lanky, over-schooled 15 year olds” on what they believed made a children’s book great. Their answers read like a creative writing textbook:

  • It must have a great story.

  • There must be a battle between good and evil

  • You must like the characters

  • It must be set in a place you have never been to that you would like to visit
“I agree with all this but I would not say that is all,” says Julia. “What makes children’s books great? I don’t think it’s the story. How many kids finish reading a book and say that it was the narrative drive from A to B that kept them reading. What you tend to remember (from a great book) is not the story but the emotional intelligence. It’s the storytelling.”

Reading about three owl babies waiting for their mother in Owl Babies resonates with young readers. “Children really identify with Owl Babies,” says Gwynneth., “when mum goes off, is she going to come back?”

As a ten year old reading Children on the Oregon Trail, Julia felt connected with the travails of the pioneering American family at the heart of the story. “I could identify entirely with the family,” she says. “It had an emotional intelligence that somehow made you empathetic about other people in your life as well.”

For Tony, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe struck a similar empathetic chord. “My own dad left when I was very young and The Eagle of the Ninth, which was published the year I was born, was about a boy searching for the truth about his dad,” he says. “What makes books like these qualify (for greatness) is what makes Shakespeare great – the universality of their themes.”

It’s in the Writing

“What am I looking for in a picture book? I want the words to sing!” says Gwynneth, treating the audience to an energetic performance of the onomatopoeic Tanka Tanka Skunk by Steve Webb. Tanka the elephant and his friend Skunk drum to an infectious rhythm:

And this is caterpillar.
His name has four beats.
Sometimes great writing has little to do with words, says Tony. A Visit to the Doctor by Helen Oxenbury, a hilarious but wordless story is told only with simple drawings. And then there are great words with great pictures like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – “Its genius is that it is great art in the service of great storytelling.”

It is the writing that puts William Mayne’s The Swarm in May on Julia’s list. Julia, who as a Smarties Prize judge has just finished ploughing through 300 books, explains: “The thing that worries me most about writing today is the over-writing – too much tell and not enough show. I think we have lost sight of the fact that you can tell a story economically. The point about an author like Mayne is the spare writing … which has an almost poetic quality. There is a quality to his writing that is electrifying – it still electrifies me.”

Writing from Childhood

“Childhood is a very fashionable thing to write about at the moment but adult writers don’t know what it is to be a child,” says Julia.

“But Philippa Pearce (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is absolutely clear about how a child sees the world. The remarkable thing about her is that she never gets outside childhood. There is a kind of helplessness in her writing, a kind of not being in control. She captures the very essence of what it feels like to be a child.”

“Eye on the ball, children first,” says Tony. “People are sniffy about Jacky (Jacqueline Wilson) but in (books like) The Illustrated Mum she can really capture the child surviving adult mayhem, the way children are very sensitive, very aware of things.”

And yet the current glut of fantasy in the children’s market seems a rejection Jacqueline Wilson style reality-in-fiction.

Says Julia of fantasy, “We cannot possibly continue at the level we have at the moment. We don’t seem to be allowed to write about children in the real world perhaps because children (today) are more policed, monitored and controlled than at any other time. You cannot have reality in fiction when children are not allowed to do anything.”

A Struggle Between Story and Utilitarian Anxieties

Julia tells of her struggle every week to select children’s books to write about in the Guardian. “Let’s not give it all to the 12-pluses,” she sighs. “Every week, I have to decide in my mind what really constitutes children fiction.”

“There has always been a tension between what adults want from them (books) and what children get from them,” says Tony. “Either the story should teach a moral lesson, or somehow be educational. If a child enjoys a book, the parent instantly disagrees – it must be trash!”

Books targeted at five to eight year olds in particular have “always been a Cinderella group obsessed with literacy”. “You get educational publishing with dreadful reading schemes and books rebranded with national curriculum goals,” he says. “The market is full of anxious parents.”

Says Julia: “Publishing is only a business. (Children’s books) may be art but publishers will only publish what works.”

Authors owe a debt to J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), she says – “Whatever one thinks of J.K. her work has put us in an unthinkable position. She has shown that publishers can make money out of children’s books. Every author in the land should never forget their gratitude to her. Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo) has done the same for picture books. Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials) has given children’s books intellectual credibility.”

The Art of Urgency

“I read a phenomenal amount and for me, the acid test of a great book, is whether you want to give it to someone else to read,” says Julia. “What makes a book so amazing is the feeling that you cannot stop reading it. This is an urgent book, you say. Urgent is something a book has to be.”

Julia remembers reading Anne Fine’s Mrs Doubtfire – “hilarious and truly funny” – and handing it straight across to her husband and telling him to read it.

“The great books,” she says, “are the ones that make readers.”

Monday 4 September 2006

Think twice before pitching to children’s editors and publishers (in strange places)

Just before the editors and agents panel were rolled out at SCBWI’s pre-Bologna conference last April, organiser Lawrence Schimel made a little plea to attendees to remain calm and avoid the urge to grab an editor and pitch their manuscripts. “No sliding manuscripts under bathroom doors,” he cautioned.

Some attendees were a bit miffed by the warning, refusing to believe that wannabe children’s writers would do such a thing. Well, I recently checked out this Publisher’s Weekly link from Janet at the excellent Wordpool forum about how children’s editors get pitched ideas in the weirdest of places:

Beverly Horowitz, v-p and publisher, Bantam Delacorte Dell Books for Young Readers: My mother was close with her brother. He’d been seriously ill and finally died. Everyone from our family, of course, was at the funeral. We went from the service to the cemetery, and when it was over and people were starting to head back to their cars, I was walking with my mother when a woman she knew came up.

“I’m so sorry, I knew you were very close,” she said. Then she asked, “Is that your daughter, the one in publishing?”

When my mother said yes, it was, she said, “I thought I’d see her here with you. That’s why I have with me the manuscript I have always wanted to give to her.” She took it out of her purse and handed it to me.

I was totally taken aback. As she smiled at me I said, “Excuse me, I was just taking my mother to the car.” She held out an envelope.

I said, “I don’t really think I can take it. I might lose it.”

“No, you won’t,” she said. “You can fit it into your handbag.” At which point my mother said, “Just take it!”

After she left I told my mother, “I usually empathize with aspiring writers, but for this one, even if it’s Proust, I’m going to reject it!”

Read the article Weddings Funerals and Everywhere in Between by Diane Roback.

My father-in-law was a gynecologist, another occupation that invites unwanted attention. But he perfected a strategy for dealing with strangers seeking free medical advice.

"I am a doctor," he would admit. Then as the stranger prepared to launch into a detailed description of a medical problem, he would add: "I specialise in venereal disease."

Interestingly, from that point, you could always rely on all conversation of a medical nature to wither away.

Monday 21 August 2006

Why competition from the internet means children’s writers must get web savvy

My 15-year-old son read three novels last week. Perhaps no mean feat for some, but it sure gave me a warm feeling inside. Normally, the boy would rather be downloading iTunes than flicking through a wedge of bound paper.

What made this reading binge possible? We had no internet access while on holiday in a remote part of Ireland.

Comes the headline ‘Book sales a page turner’ in the Daily Telegraph:
Despite ever greater competition from television, the internet and iPods for people’s free time, book publishers are enjoying a resurgence in British sales.

Stephen Seawright
The Telegraph, 11 Aug 2006
It was a report on strong results for UK publishers, improvements that hopefully signal a recovery in the depressed book market. Cause for celebration? Oh yes, especially for us unpublished writers desperate for a break. But wait – it was not all good news.

Ofcom reported last week that young people (16 to 24 years old) were forsaking old media (books, landline telephones, TV, radio) in favour of a multitude of new technologies. You can read the relevant part of the Ofcom report under section 1.2.2 ‘Young people are moving away from old media’.

Broadband has been key to this sharp change of allegiance – with the number of connections increasing by a humongous 63 percent and the price of broadband falling from £41 a month to as little as £16 a month.

The Ofcom report only describes 16 to 24-year-old media use but we are all painfully aware of how precocious the younger members of this tribe can be. Know your reader, they say in all the How To books on getting published and writing for children. Well, for goodness sake, according to Ofcom, the kids are even switching off the TV – reading’s traditional rival – to get online!

Are writers for children losing their readers to the internet?

Know Your Enemy

Well, do you? Do you know why the internet is such a turn-on for kids? Or do you shuffle into a dark corner and mutter about the youf and bloody new technology? Do you mourn the days when it was enough to take a pen to paper?

But there is no time to moan.

The longer we delay, the further we will be left behind by the internet juggernaut that even now is evolving into something bigger and more pervasive than we ever could have imagined.

You only have to look at a few authors’ websites to figure it out. Most are merely flyers about the authors’ work or, worse, CVs that might as well be on a printed page for all the interactivity they offer. And sadly, a few are only out to impress their mothers, close friends and former associates looking them up on Google.

Now look at what our market is into. You may think you know Ebay and Amazon. The teenagers we write for are into blogging, Flickr, Friendster, Technorati,, wikis, podcasting, YouTube. No time to explain here what these sites are all about except to say it’s all about social networking. Their Web is not just about Google, email and newsgroup discussions, it’s about sharing not just words but images, sounds, videos and authorware programmes. They are not only literate but transliterate.
The transliterate person has the ability to read, write, create and interact across multiple platforms. A simple example might be understanding the variations between reading the print edition of The Guardian newspaper, and reading the online edition - each have their own physicality and navigability, to name but two of many features worthy of discussion. Or the difference between communicating a sequence of events by drawing in the sand with a stick versus oral storytelling versus hypertext.
These are our readers. And when it comes to How to Use the Web they really get it. If you write for younger readers, don’t worry, they will get it too.

So you – we, all of us – writers need to get with the Web or lose out.

Get with it

“If email once eclipsed the letter, it now sits in the shadow of the social Web,” writes Daniel Anderson a teacher at the University of North Carolina in his blog I Am Dan.

Anderson, in a blog addressing teachers of writing and their students, makes the point that “writing can be a social act”, citing blogging as evidence of a significant shift in the way people are writing. He quotes Pew Report figures showing that 12 to 19 year olds blog more than twice as much as older bloggers.

“Writing is moving into social Web space. And Web writers compose with multimedia,” Anderson says, offering a list of suggestions about “what you need to know and what you need to do to write today”.
To write today you need to:
  • Conceptualize networks,

  • Find and move materials,

  • Make rights decisions.

  • Edit images,

  • Edit sounds,

  • Use a movie or authorware program,

  • Compose prose,

  • And what else?

    You need to spatialize the net. Understand computing metaphors, established (desktop, server) and alternative (bus stop, kitchen sink). Know about files and applications. Understand and shape your computing environment. Find archives and databases. Compose searches. Get into the public domain. Know not to be thwarted. Capture. Screen shot. Exercise your fair use. Make decisions. Give credit. Know about layers. Resize. Crop. Add text. Move among media. Compose with a timeline. Fade in. Say something. Shape it. Fade out.

    But how?

    Here's how the Telegraph report said publishers were responding:
    Despite the recovery in British sales, publishers still realise they need to adapt to the internet. Penguin is starting to provide e-books and podcasts to compete as more people move online. In a recent interview, Random House chief executive Gail Rebuck said she was looking forward to the day when she could read a variety of titles in one e-book.
    So these publishers seem to think readers want to read books on the screens of their PDAs or listen to them on their iPods. But I would argue that our readers want much, much more.

    The good news is that for once we can do something about this problem – unlike scary stuff over which we lowly authors have no control like sinking book sales, publishers not publishing new authors, accountants dictating publishing decisions.

    I recently blogged a report YA Voice: Slang and Teen Vernacular based on a workshop by YA author Scott Westerfeld. I was amazed to very quickly get comments from Scott’s readers and, checking out Scott’s blog, I found that he was getting up to a hundred comments a day from teenagers who had discovered his books.

    How did he get such a following? Well, apart from the excellence of his prose (I thought Uglies was great!) Scott really knows how to talk to his readers. He publishes their drawings, links to their websites and comments on their comments. It’s a wonder that he gets any writing done at all.

    I’m no expert but it’s all new territory anyway – so here are some ideas on how to get with the Web game, with thanks to Scott for showing the way:

  • Published or unpublished, you can practice talking to your audience through a blog. Check out Scott’s blog to see how he does it. Or try developing a character by putting all his thoughts in a blog. Here's Wilf's blog - wilf being a fictitious boy who admires Buzz Aldrin and loves inventions. Here's another fictional blog by Atyllah the Hen, a chicken with Attitude from the planet Novapulse, here (a la Mork of Mork and Mindy) to research the human condition. Or why not go the whole hog and blog your novel - that is, if you can bear to be critiqued in public!

  • If you are setting up a website, think interactive – can you update it regularly? Ask your designer about designing for a CMS – Content Management System – an example is Macromedia Contribute which claims you only need word processing skills to update your website. But the quick, cheap and easy way to set up a website you can update is to set up a blog (see Blogger)- it's not hard if you've got the bandwidth.

  • It’s the social networking that young people enjoy. If you’ve got a website already, is there a space for your readers to publish their own drawings, photos, comments? Here is a teen video collage homage to Scott’s Uglies book and Scott’s homage to their homage.

  • Have your readers got a reason to return to your website?

  • Set up an entry for the lead character of your book in Friendster or MySpace. Check out the MySpace page for Scott Westerfeld fans Or how about a blog? Count Olaf (A Series of Unfortunate Events) had a short-lived blog as part of the marketing campaign for the movie version of the bestselling books. Not the most brilliant example but you get the idea.

  • You can learn a lot from looking at DVD bonus materials. When you’ve published your book, what will your ‘bonus materials’ be? Examples – podcasts, historical background, anecdotes about The Making Of, the true stories behind the fiction, roughs of illustrations, etc. etc.

  • If your book is still a work-in-progress, you can whet the appetites of readers with tantalising background stories about the process either by blogging or participating in relevant chatroom discussions. Here is Scott Westerfeld’s blog on the book he is currently writing And, taking a cue from the movieworld,
    this is the week by week production diary kept by director Peter Jackson while making King Kong. Hmm. We could use that idea.

  • Visit the newsgroups and chatrooms where your readers hang out. Post a notice when you’ve got new entries and not only will they come to check it out, you increase the ranking of your Google listing!

  • Good luck - we'll need it.

    Do write in if you've got more ideas on how to exploit the Web or links to more examples of authors using the Web to their advantage.

    Update! Publishing News (24 Aug 2006) reports that London-based independent publisher Gravity Publishing is developing a new e-reader that bypasses the internet. By cutting out the web, the e-reader overcomes the rights issues associated with the internet.
    The use of reading matter differs greatly from the iPod model of music consumption. When you realise the lack of rights security comes from expressly delivering texts into computers and computer-like machines that can talk to the Internet, all else follows.
    But doesn't all the talk of e-readers miss the point of the internet? Surely getting people to read off monitors and expensive little electronic devices is not the best use of the web. people are connecting to people, not to display formats.

    Monday 5 June 2006

    Radio Roundup on Children's Writing

    Here in the United Kingdom, radio is a wonderful resource for those interested in writing and books. BBC Radio broadcasts many programmes on books and reading – Open Book, A Good Read, Book Club, and Front Row are the main ones.

    My problem has always been that I tend to listen to radio only when driving or as I'm getting breakfast for the kids. These days, nobody sits down of an hour to listen to the radio. But it is so worth it, especially if you are an aspiring writer looking for inspiration.

    Here are some radio highlights so far this year on the subject of books for children – do have a listen ... they're all available online:
    • The picture book writer and illustrator Bridget Strevens Marzo and Penni Cotton, a specialist on children's literature, discuss how mothers are portrayed in picture books. This was a Mother's Day special on Woman's Hour – it opens with the voices of small children comparing their own mothers to the mothers in books like Dogger by Shirley Hughes, Goodbye Mog by Judith Kerr, The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin by David McKee and Really Really by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt. Listen to Mothers in Picture Books item, aired on 24 March 2006.
    • Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses was discussed by an audience that included teenagers on Book Club (click on 'Malorie Blackman April 2006' on the 'Listen Again' column on the right hand side). Blackman was in great form and it was touching to hear the thoughtful questions of teenagers.
    • Open Book interviewed illustrator Quentin Blake about the Lester stories he wrote in the seventies, which he read aloud and illustrated on the children's television programme Jackanory. Listen to the programme featuring Quentin Blake, aired on 30 April 2006.
    • Open Book also interviewed novelist Philip Reeve on completing his Mortal Engines quartet. Listen to the Philip Reeve interview, aired on the 12th of March 2006.
    • Chocolat author Joanne Harris is not a children's author, but I really identified with this Open Book programme where she talked about why Ray Bradbury, one of my favourite childhood authors, may have made his name in sci-fi but deserves a place in the pantheon of really great storytellers and wordcraft. Listen to the Joanne Harris feature, aired on the 26th of February 2006.
    • Front Row interviewed Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), who will be ending the highly successful Series of Unfortunate Events with the 13th book on Friday the 13th this October. Unfortunately, the programme will only be kept online until the 14th of June but if you read this before then, go to Front Row and click on Wednesday. If you don't catch this piece on time, here are some quotes from the interview:
      'I enjoyed writing for children's books .... you never love a book the way you love a book when you are 11. It's been exciting to meet so many 11 year olds who have my book in their heads.'

      'It is strange (writing adult novels again) because after writing so many children's books, one thinks of the audience a lot – not necessarily because of commercial success or that kind of expectation – but I myself kept returning to my own childhood memories again and again (to remember) what I liked to read and what kind of experiences I had ... what I thought was frightening.'

      '(Pleasing the audience) is something you don't hear a lot of adult novelists discuss. They often say, 'This was a story that was important for me to tell, or there was this historical detail that I found so fascinating or important ...'
    Stay tuned, as they say.

    Monday 29 May 2006

    Squeeze chain creates new routes to publishing

    Some of us would love to imagine that the book business was about reading, not selling.

    The Meg Ryan character in the film You’ve Got Mail sums it up beautifully when she talks about Shop Around the Corner, the children's bookshop her mother ran:
    The world is not driven by by discounting … it wasn’t that she was just selling books, she was helping people become who they were going to be. When you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading does.
    But how the world has changed!

    Independent booksellers are fighting to keep their customers in the face of competition from chain stores.
    With the behemoths able to secure huge discounts through bulk-buying, bestselling titles are now routinely sold at half their cover price, sometimes less. One independent I talked to reported finding the most recent Harry Potter (list price £16.99) at an absurd £2.99 in the local supermarket. Online, Amazon was yesterday offering it at £4.99. How does the small shop, which once looked forward eagerly to the annual Potter bonanza, compete with that? Are independents destined to follow second-hand bookshops, which have been all but obliterated by the internet, into oblivion?

    Stephen Moss, The Best Sellers
    The Guardian, 22 May 2006
    Among other pressures, big book chains feel squeezed by supermarkets muscling in on their territory – with more and more consumers buying their books from supermarkets (a 41 percent rise in 2005 over 2004, Publishing News reported in March). That's apart from competition from the internet, of course.

    So they’re discounting ferociously and squeezing the publishers by charging massive fees to put their titles on “recommended” lists and three for two offers – as described in a Sunday Times article yesterday:
    No authors appear on recommended lists unless their publishers pay the fees, and those refusing to pay may not even find their titles stocked … The most expensive is WH Smith’s “adult gold” scheme, which is currently being presented to publishers who are expected to pay £50,000 a week per book for a place.

    This guarantees a prominent position in the store’s 542 high street shops and inclusion in catalogues and other advertising. For the critical four-week Christmas sales period, it would cost a publisher at least £200,000 per book.

    Robert Winnett and Holly Watt, £50,000 to get a book on recommended list
    The Sunday Times, 28 May 2006
    This puts publishers on the defensive. With that kind of outlay, their books have to make money – sooner rather than later. And so resources are poured into building a buzz around a book through marketing and publicity because by no means can they risk failure. But they can only do so much.

    Which in turn puts the squeeze on us writers.

    Increasingly publishers must put their faith in the commercial acumen of literary agents to spot the writers who can maximise their investment. “Concept” series are on the rise – books developed by companies like Working Partners who employ writers to write to a brief (series like the Rainbow Fairies, Animal Ark, etc). Many publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts.

    With the door to getting published becoming narrower and narrower, it is no wonder that so many writers are turning to self-publishing (not to be mistaken for vanity publishing, in which the author pays a company to publish their book ). Self-publishing, it seems, is the new gateway to catching a publisher’s eye:

    Look at GP Taylor, author of the children's novel Shadowmancer, which was bought by Faber in 2003. He now has a £3.5m six-book deal, and a film deal worth millions. The American rights to Shadowmancer were sold for £314,000, rumoured to be more than three times JK Rowling's cheque for the American publication of the first Harry Potter story.

    Taylor, was a 43-year old vicar in Cloughton, North Yorkshire. He was advised that no publisher would touch his tale of good and evil set on the North-East coast in the 18th-century. So he sold his motorbike and published Shadowmancer himself for £3,500.

    After selling 2,500 copies in a month, largely through word-of-mouth, he was recommended to the agent who signed JK Rowling to Bloomsbury. The rest is a self-publishing dream come true.

    Jane Dowle, Scribblers are doing it for themselves
    Yorkshire Post Today, 5 Sept 2005

    (You can read Wall Street author Andy Kessler’s self-publishing success story)

    Interestingly, the venerable Arts Council has funded a website called You Write On
    The free website to help new writers develop, and to help talented writers get noticed and published.
    The website uses a structure similar to techy websites like Experts Exchange where users interact and collect points according to their input. Instead of points, You Write On trades in critiques – the more you critique, the more you get your worked critiqued, and the better your work gets, the higher your rankings get - with the ultimate prize being a critique from publishing professionals.

    The site has been online since January. In March, two reputable literary agencies, the Christopher Little Agency (representing J.K. Rowling) and Curtis Brown (representing Margaret Atwood), offered to consider the five highest rated works per month.

    A consistently top-rating book will be chosen as book of the year – the prize: You Write On will publish and distribute your book to Amazon and several book chains, with the author retaining all rights and royalties.

    Once upon a time, self-publishing was something of a last resort for aspiring authors. But in this new world where it is easier for a writer to squeeze through the eye of a needle than get published, self-publishing may become a respectable route to getting publishers to notice you.

    Wednesday 19 April 2006

    Biggest single co-edition deal signed! Are things looking up for picture books?

    This news item in Publishing News, 14 April 2006:

    Two weeks after a Bologna Children’s Book Fair at which it looked as if picture books had at last turned a corner, Simon & Schuster UK has confirmed its biggest single co-edition deal ever. Lectorum, part of Scholastic US, has taken 280,000 copies of a bilingual edition of If I Had a Dragon, by newcomers Tom and Amanda Ellery. The deal, negotiated by S&S Children’s Rights Director Alex Maramenides, is one of the largest quantities ever bought by Scholastic as a co-edition. The book will be published in the UK in January 2007.

    Can this signal better things for poor benighted picture book writers? Should we all start dusting off all those tear-stained PB manuscripts stuffed into desk drawers and start stending PB texts out again? What do you think?

    You can read my report Picture Book Market Warms Up ...

    Manga Comic Books on the Rise

    Here's an interesting tidbit from Publishing News a propos the rise and rise of graphic novels:

    OTTAKAR'S HAS DOUBLED its manga sales in the past month with the Manga Collector’s Club and manga-themed evenings in some of its stores. Loughborough store Manager Melanie Ball told PN: “Manga is doing fantastically well. It’s just been climbing and climbing, and the events also do brilliantly.” The chain’s Fiction Manager Janine Cook added: “It’s looking very good. We’re at least 100% up on the month before. It might be even more, but that’s the minimum impact.”
    At the chain’s manga evenings attendees are offered giveaways, discounts, and the chance to watch Japanese anime films. The Manga Collector’s Club allows customers to get a special card stamped every time they buy a title from either Gollancz Manga or Tokyopop, and be given a free manga title once they have three stamps

    Sunday 16 April 2006

    Illustrator Bridget Strevens-Marzo: Suffering in Translation

    “We don’t work out of a vacuum,” writer-illustrator Bridget Strevens-Marzo says. “We are working in culture of the moment in time.” She was speaking to an audience of writers and illustrators in London last September 2005 on the subject of character design.

    But which culture?

    This is the question that taxes publishers, editors, writers and illustrators of picture books in the increasingly competitive global market of children’s publishing. How does one publish across the world without suffering in translation?

    Toto in Paris, Bridget’s first published book, perfectly captures the wonder of discovering another culture.

    “I came up with Toto in Paris about a small boy sharing an adventure with a French friend and a runaway dog,” she says in an interview. “When I'd travelled to other countries as a child, I’d remembered the strangeness of small things – peculiar breakfasts, odd coins, different sweets – and I wanted to include these things in the story.”

    The diversity of cultural experience is a recurring theme in Bridget’s talks. She herself had an English father and a Spanish mother, and in her childhood had lived in the United States, England, Spain and France, where she now lives and works.

    Bridget called her talk ‘Mice, Mothers and Others in Children’s Books – a Long Hard Look at Character in Translation’. Jointly sponsored by the Association of Illustrators and SCBWI British Isles, the talk looked at fashions and conventions and the way faces and figures are depicted in different times and places.

    Why do some things travel and others don’t?

    “One of my hobbies is to get people 'armchair-travelling' via picture books," she said, before treating the audience to a feast of images from children’s books, criss-crossing the globe – Babar in New York by Laurent de Brunhoff, Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson, The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.

    “Within the illustrating world there is an obsessive search for style and yet style is often the bugbear of illustration,” Bridget said. For the children's book illustrator, she said, it is rare that style on its own guarantees a book’s success. Characterization is more important. Focusing on mothers, she demonstrated how different cultures saw women and mothers in particular, in different ways.

    How often do you see a woman getting dressed or breast feeding in a children's book? She showed one exception from New York-based illustrator Marc Simont. In The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, he shows women in a variety of comic contortions as they struggle to get into their black evening dresses to perform in a concert. Equally exceptional, though from a more surreal perspective, is an image taken from Maurice Sendak's I Saw Esau (“I one my mother, I two my mother, I three my mother … I ate my mother”). His breastfeeding mother is gradually gobbled up by her fat baby.

    Are mothers conditioned by their specific cultural expectations?

    “In British books, there seem to be an unusual number of tired, put-upon mothers” Bridget said as we came to an exhausted mother in Bye Bye Baby illustrated by Janet Ahlberg and another in tears in Burningham's Avocado Baby. In contrast, the chirpy and brightly-dressed French mother in Le Pantalon de Gaston by Marie Delafon seems to be having quite a party from her bed with her family. Certainly not tired and in fact downright menacing, is the mother in a modern French picture book classic, Le Chien Bleu by Nadja. She sits in tight-fitting black velvet and high heels on the edge of a bath telling her pleading daughter that she won't allow her to have a dog. Highly acclaimed in France since it came out in 1989, this psycho-charged story with surreal overtones has been published in Spain and Germany but remains unpublished in English.

    Different cultures have different attitudes. Mon Amis Crocodile by Fred Bernard is about a shy boy who imagines how his life would improve if he could have a crocodile as a friend to take to school. In one illustration is a woman, incidental to the story, walks past toting a bag made of crocodile skin. “I don’t think a British or American publisher would go for that somehow,” says Bridget.

    Bridget attributes the French laissez faire in picture book imagery to its strong children’s publishing market – attributable to the big budgets of its libraries which makes it less dependent on sales in other markets. “Increasingly British publishers have needed to sell elsewhere to survive,” she said. “French publishers don’t see foreign rights to books as a priority.”

    Indeed most picture book writers and illustrators working in the UK know the rules of co-edition publishing – no rhyming text for fear that it cannot be translated, no culturally-specific images like red London buses, or black London taxi cabs. A book must be saleable within any cultural context. That's one reason why animal stories in natural habitats are so popular internationally and why Margaret Wild's book Kiss, kiss! which Bridget illustrated for Little Hare, has sold well internationally. “Any child anywhere can identify with the character of little hippo exploring the natural world around him,” says Bridget, “and a hippo mum can be your mum, once you've identified with the main character!”

    The brutal fact remains that co-editions (more about co-editions) are where the money is in most children’s markets, and publishers cannot afford to publish books that suffer in translation.

    “America, historically an important ally here, has cut back significantly on its UK imports,” explains the Arts Council England, in a consultation paper on children’s literature, “In consequence… for writers and illustrators alike, there is increasing pressure on the possibility of difference and diversity, experimentation and risk.”

    Bridget counts herself lucky to be working for American, Australian and French publishers as well as for France’s dynamic children’s press. She works regularly for monthly magazines including Bayard's Pomme d’api.

    “In the UK, the few magazines there are seem to be dominated by TV and merchandising,” Bridget said. “But the variety of visual representation, the quality and range of illustrators in French kid's magazines, is remarkable – they use a lot of illustrators from Britain and Spain too. What’s great about magazine work is that you can develop a repertoire with quicker feedback than for book publishers. You can experiment with approaches and have more freedom to develop within different constraints.”

    Kiss, kiss! by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Bridget Strevens-Marzo has been published in nine countries and is being re-issued by Little Hare in the UK as a boxed set for Mother's Day 2006. Knock, knock by David Bedford and Bridget Strevens-Marzo was published by Little Hare in 2005. Bridget's latest French book is a colouring book with a difference, Les Petites Mains Dessinent, published by Bayard in March 2006.

    What do you think? Is there more to be gained than lost by publishing picture books that do not suffer in translation?

    Friday 7 April 2006

    The Picture Book Markets Warms Up - as a Buzz Grows Around Another Kind of Picture Book

    The picture book market has been tough – as can be attested to by anyone who’s spent the last few years licking stamps and sending off picture book manuscripts only to have them returned to their letterboxes with a thump.

    But at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair last month, there was a glimmer of something good about the picture book market.

    “Picture Books are doing a little bit better, easing up a little,” Barry Goldblatt told aspiring authors at SCBWI’s Before-Bologna agents panel. (Read Barry's blog).

    Now Graham Marks of Publishing News reports (cautiously, I might add) it might be better than a glimmer. If you caught this early you can read the whole report. But since Publishing News wipes its web pages regularly, anyone who catches this too late will be interested in the key passage from Graham’s report:

    By Wednesday there was a definite feeling of consensus amongst publishers. It will, of course, take a few more weeks before everything has been sifted to see what gold remains in the pan, but it does look as if at least some of the bright, shiny bits are going to be picture books, and that the market may have turned a corner at long last.
    Bloomsbury’s Sarah Odedina (who edited Witch Child by Celia Rees and that wonderful book A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly) is quoted as saying that “the most exciting thing is how strong colour is – co-editions are back for us”.
    Co-editions are what make picture books worth publishing for many publishers. For those who haven’t heard of co-editions before, co-editions are re-publishings of books in other countries.

    Without co-editions, smaller markets like the United Kingdom would not be able to make a profit on expensive-to-print picture books. "Picture books are expensive to originate and, unless the publisher can find international co-edition partners, impossible to publish successfully," explains the Writers Services report from Bologna. Unlike Publishing News, the Writers Services report is less optimistic about the prospects of picture books:

    The focus at the world’s biggest children’s book fair has shifted from co-editions to fiction and film deals, with film scouts much in evidence. Barry Cunningham of Chicken House said: ‘The market is still very good for fiction and still extremely sticky for picture books. Although the right picture book still does OK in the US and Australia, it’s curtains on the co-edition front.’ Perhaps this is because of international publishers focusing more on home-grown material which they hope to sell to the co-edition market, rather than buying in as they have done in the past.
    But the Publishing News coverage lists picture book successes that suggest things might be getting better.

    Odedina was happy about pan-European co-edition sales of The Mysterious Parcel by Francesca Chessa and Milo Mouse and the Scary Monster by Louis Baum and Sue Hellard.

    Oxford University Press’s Liz Cross was thrilled by coedition sales of I Love My Cloth by Amber Stewardt and Laya Marlow. And Walker’s Jane Winterbotham reported “huge co-edition interest” for Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen and Kevin Hawkes.

    Hodder had The Story of Everything and Scholastic had Tiddler by Julia ‘Gruffalo’ Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

    It could, noted Graham Marks in his Publishing News report, be the “tipping point” – “the unexpected does happen, because, two weeks ago, no one had any expectations at all for picture books.”

    Speaking of picture books, the other picture book that has been attracting a lot of attention is the graphic novel.

    Graphic Novels have come a long way from when the only successful graphic novels had to have heroes wearing their underpants over brightly coloured tights. These days, the graphic novel is closer to the YA novel, except its storyboard style is closer to film than to the printed word – makes a lot of sense when you think that the modern teenager is brought up on cinematic storytelling (some people might see this as more bad news about young people, but hey, it just goes to show nothing can beat a good story).

    Goldblatt has already sold six of them this year and Scholastic is about to relaunch the popular Babysitter Club as graphic novel books. “Graphic novels are the hottest buzzword at the moment. A lot of stuff is going to come out in the next year. A lot of it is going to be great and a lot of it is going to be crap,” he said. “Graphic novels have the excitement of a picture book but they are full novels. It is a wholly new and different thing.”

    Graphic novels are such new territory in the United States (Europe’s had a small but loyal market for ages, and of course there’s Japan’s manga comic books) that “there are no fixed rules yet”, says Goldblatt. “We agents are not sure how far to push and publishers are not sure how much to offer!”

    Like picture books graphic novels trigger a sense of unease in publishers because of the time and effort that go into producing one. But for kids raised on TV and rock and roll, it makes perfect sense.

    Here's a relevant news item on manga graphic novels sales in the UK from Publishing News (posted 14 April 2006:)

    OTTAKAR'S HAS DOUBLED its manga sales in the past month with the Manga Collector’s Club and manga-themed evenings in some of its stores. Loughborough store Manager Melanie Ball told PN: “Manga is doing fantastically well. It’s just been climbing and climbing, and the events also do brilliantly.” The chain’s Fiction Manager Janine Cook added: “It’s looking very good. We’re at least 100% up on the month before. It might be even more, but that’s the minimum impact.”

    At the chain’s manga evenings attendees are offered giveaways, discounts, and the chance to watch Japanese anime films. The Manga Collector’s Club allows customers to get a special card stamped every time they buy a title from either Gollancz Manga or Tokyopop, and be given a free manga title once they have three stamps

    Wednesday 5 April 2006

    YA Voice: Slang and Teen Vernacular

    Scott Westerfeld likes the idea of language so much that, as a child, he learned Braille, the tactile code used by blind people, as well as Esperanto, the artificial language based as far as possible on words common to all the European languages.

    Language is the reason why Scott writes young adult (YA) novels. “When you are a teenager you are still in the act of acquiring language ,” he says. “One of the reasons I really like YA is that teenagers are more interested in voice than adults.”

    Teenagers, he says, write more poetry per capita. They play more word games. They memorise more song lyrics. They like to spell things creatively. And a high percentage are in fact learning a language in school.

    Slang is necessary to capture the teenage voice – in the teen domain, slang is often a factor that determines acceptance or exclusion, “you talk like me, you are like me”.

    Slang as euphemism can turn embarrassment into amusement – why mention sex when you can describe two people “banging boots”? And admitting to playing “tonsil hockey” doesn’t sound as gross as saying you “tongue kissed” someone. Slang can define the previously undefined – a chubby girl wearing a midriff exposes her “muffin roll”.

    “Teens are saying: I care about language, I am having fun with language; (slang) is pure emphasis on the joy and expansiveness of language. And that’s a perfectly good reason for slang.”

    But YA writers beware. Today’s slang can be tomorrow’s embarrassment.

    “Slang is like a fish,” Scott says. “Good when its fresh or when its old, a fossil. But in between is a nasty period, something you don’t want at all. I would never use anything from this year’s slang dictionary, your writing will be passĂ© before it goes into print. Don’t listen to your teenager and reproduce what they say – and don’t try to talk like them either, that’s the worst mistake in the world.”

    But slang is necessary to YA literature. “One of the most important things you need to know is that YA is voice and a voice is good when you get the feeling of being inside a world and being inside someone’s head. When you are a kid, there is less caution about verbal hygiene than in adult literature.”

    What the YA author must do is generate his or her own slang – “Slang from 20 minutes in the future from the next town over; slang that’s a little bit off but hangs together.”

    How to Generate Slang

    Use the classics – “cool” and “lame”, believe it or not, have become classics, they’ve been around for so long. “You cannot go wrong if you use the classics,” says Scott.

    Steal it from really far away. For a book set 300 years in the future, Scott used slang from 1920s Evelyn Waugh to create “future slang”. “Bogus” began life in the 1700s to refer to counterfeit coins before Waugh used it to mean “no good”, a meaning that persists to this century which Scott used to good effect through the mouths of his teenagers of the future.

    Make it up yourself. In his Uglies trilogy (Uglies, Pretties, Specials), Scott describes a future world where everyone has to have an operation when they turn sixteen to become supermodel beautiful. Everybody is beautiful therefore everybody is equal. Except of course for the Uglies, a bunch of radical teens who want to keep their own faces. In the series, a “new surge” is someone who’s just had the operation. If you “surge”, you’re getting something fixed.

    How to Make It Stick

    Allan Metcalf wrote Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, chronicling the origins of a fascinating list of words and phrases. In the process he developed the FUDGE factor – a way to measure the potential success of a word. Scott subverts the FUDGE paradigm into a means for authors to create convincing slang for YA readers.

    F stands for Frequency of use. “You have to use something more than once. Use it in context and then define it three paragraphs later.”

    U is for unobtrusiveness. “It might look familiar, but it doesn’t stand out. It’s so unobtrusive that when you see it the Microsoft spell checker in the brain takes less time to reload.”

    D is for diversity of use and situations. And G is for Generate other forms and meanings. “Don’t just use something one way, use it as a verb or noun. Meanings will start to support each other in the text. That’s the way language works.” Eg. “Did you surge last week?” “He was a new surge.” “Surgeless” “Resurgent”.

    E is for the endurance of the concept. Can you make it stick? At the end of the day, says Scott, “Slang is like reading Shakespeare – you eventually figure out what they are saying.”

    Slang Mechanisms

    Just substituting words for words will not convince your reader. “More interesting is to produce slang out of familiar language.”

    Retronyms are “words you didn’t have to say, but you have to say now.” You didn’t have to say acoustic guitar in the 1920s because all guitars were acoustic. You didn’t have to say broadcast TV, optical telescopes, pocket watch, biological parent, heterosexual parent, first wife, World War I – “all these imply huge change”.

    So if your story is set in the future, and a character complains, “Dad was late picking me up in the ground car” implies that cars can fly. It creates a feeling of anticipation in the reader. What should one expect?

    “A retronym can indicate a lot about the character. You learn a whole bunch of things about how that character moves … ‘I don’t know, she wants to hang out with me in meetspace’ indicates that we are not in cyberspace. The character is someone who hangs out a lot online.”

    You can divine rules in slang just by trawling through synonyms in a dictionary. Notice for example how certain suffixes – eg. head – are associated with stupidity. Bakehead, ballooonhead, chucklehead. There is also a preponderence of food – bananahead, chowderhead, melonhead, cabbage head. This frees you to create your own: nappyhead, turniphead. The suffix –oid indicates something geeky, scientific – mathoid, cretinoid, humanoid. Then there’s –land as in Disneyland or Wonderland – ditherland, slumberland, wankerland. Fake high culture can be evoked by du jour – boy du jour, pain du jour, failure du jour.

    Ungrammar and backformations can fill an idiom dictionary:

    “It wasn’t much fun?” “No, it was much fun.”
    “How much fun is this?” “Lots of much.”
    Teenagers are often uncomfortable with things which is why they like generating euphemisms – an “unboyfriend” could be someone you hang out with but don’t have sex with; or maybe someone you have sex with but don’t hang out with.

    “Build yourself a grid of the prefixes and the suffixes and you will end up with something you like,” Scott says. “You are gaining your reader’s trust – something that doesn’t happen when you are using your reader’s slang because you look like you are trying too hard. Make it up as you go along – if you make it up it will never go out of date”

    Scott Westerfeld was speaking on ‘Slanguage: Teen Voices and Teen Vernaculars’ at the SCBWI Before Bologna Conference in Bologna, Italy on 25 March 2006

    Tuesday 4 April 2006

    Illustrator Bee Willey

    This article has just been published in British SCBWI's Words & Pictures Newsletter, available as a free download to SCBWI BI members.

    When Bee Willey told friends in the children’s publishing industry that she was illustrating Bob Robber and Dancing Jane, she was amazed to discover that the picture book text had been doing the rounds of editorial submission desks for years.

    “It transpired that Bob had been going round and round for eight years,” Bee says. “It had a whole life before I was asked to illustrate it. All the people who had seen the text had wanted to publish it and it hadn’t been the right time or the right place!”

    Bob Robber put Bee on the shortlist of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal 2003, along with such illustrating luminaries as Anthony Browne (The Shape Game), Mini Grey (The Pea and the Princess) and Shirley Hughes (Ella’s Big Chance), who won that year’s medal. In 2004, Bee was also shortlisted for illustrating The Wooden Dragon, written by Joan Aitken.

    Bob Robber and Dancing Jane was Bee’s first attempt at using computers after a long and accomplished career in illustration (mixed media) that included 20 children’s books and clients as varied as Conran Design, The Wine Society, the Royal Mail and Halifax Building Society.

    “Part of the reason I went into computer was because fixative was having an effect on my eyes – paralysing the pupil,” she explains. Although she uses a digital pen and tablet, Bee still paints the main figures in every work by hand. She scans the painting, and then uses the digital pen and Adobe Photoshop to work on the background.

    Photoshop’s use of layers for compositing – in which layers of images can be stacked, rearranged, added to or subtracted from to create a complex work – revolutionises the illustrator’s work process, though as in any technology, there are those who resist it.

    “I do millions of layers – sometimes up to forty, before I can get an image right. But you have to be careful how you use Photoshop because you can end up making your picture too air brushy,” Bee says. “It’s great when you are pushed for time. And there are no smudges – I used to get smudges on my work no matter how hard I tried to keep them clean. Best of all you can work on the smallest detail.”
    But Bee cautions would-be illustrators to remember that the computer is not the only tool. “You can make computers do things for you but it still needs you to push it beyond what it can do.”

    Bob Robber and Dancing Jane was about a compulsive thief who steals the shadow of the ethereal beauty he has fallen in love with. The challenge was to juxtapose the darkness of Bob Robber, who steals under cover of darkness, with the luminosity of Dancing Jane, in whom eventually finds redemption.

    Bee fleshed out the book’s spreads in storyboards – pencil sketches of how each page would look: “You show the various routes you might take – or not and along the way, your character appears out of the scribble. At one point, I realised I was going down the German gothic route and had to change!”

    Bee worked closely with the editor and book designer. “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing,” she laughs. “I like that sort of thing. We had such a lovely time making it. At one stage, we were all sitting on the floor and looking through the drawings. There was a christmassy feeling about it. I think I spilled my coffee three times!”
    Bee has kept samples of each stage in the process, a creative roadmap she can take out once in a while to review – from the pile of sketches, embroidered all over with notes from the editor and Bee’s own reminders to herself, to the actual colour proofs of the book.

    The designer’s input was invaluable. “She spent ages getting the typeface right. She tried and tried to be sure that the typeface held itself well, she wanted it to flow. She managed to convey a gothicky sort of feeling. It was a fantastic design. So many books flounder in the market because the design is so repulsive.”
    Would Bee ever considering writing her own text?

    “I did try,” she laughs. “I sent it to a friend, saying, ‘I am counting on you not to be polite’ – and she wasn’t!”

    Forthcoming is Celebrity Cat by Meredith Hooper, published by Frances Lincoln. Bee Willey was speaking at a Professional Series Evening for SCBWI BI.

    BOLOGNA 2006!!! What was it all about?

    Unpublished writers wandering around the Bologna Children's Book Fair will be hard pressed to make sense of it all. Why were all those people sitting around tables? Who were they? What did it mean? How is this supposed to help me get published?

    Well, for one, it was humbling to see all of children's publishing in one vast space. This is the universe you aspire to join. Oh how insignificant one feels.

    Later, things became clearer as publishing reports about the fair emerged. Publishing News Children's Editor Graham Marks, himself an author (Zoo, Tokyo) reported a megadeal for Finding the Summer Queen by Melissa Marr, about a teenage girl who can see faeries walking amon humans - not so much fantasy as "chick-lit for goth girls" according to Michael Stearns of HarperCollins US. "A 12 to 13+ Tim Burtonesque novel of urban faeries - supernatural romances seem to be the coming thing," Stearns' UK counterpart, Gillie Russell told Publishing News.

    The other big news was Whitbread and Carnegie winner David Almond (Skellig, Clay) signing to do two picture books for Walker plus a novel for younger children.

    The author Scott Westerfield (Uglies, Pretties, So Yesterday) travelled from Australia to speak at the pre-Bologna conference and then spent the week at the fair. Here was what he wrote in his blog:

    It was a great week. I love hanging out with book people, who are smart and dedicated and interested in the world. Surrounded by 8,000 experts, these are the things I learned about children publishing:

    - The history, economics, and mechanics of pop-up books is endlessly fascinating.
    - Sweden likes hardbacks; Brazil prefers trade paperbacks.
    - Translators in France earn 8-10 cents per word (US cents), plus 1% royalties.
    - The children’s picture book market tanked about ten years ago.
    - Scouts are like reverse agents: matchmakers, but paid by publishers instead of authors.
    - Gossip Girl, the successful teen series, is published in 29 territories.
    - The Italian kids/YA market is 75% books in translation.
    - The Dutch throw the best parties

    Scott's wife, author Justine Larbalestier (Magic Lessons) took up the report in her own blog:
    But you all want to know about the book fair, right? It’s totally geared to business. Unlike Book Expo America where you’re overwhelmed by how many books there are—and more particularly how many free books there are—at Bologna I was overwhelmed by how many meetings were going on. Every single stall, no matter how small, was set up with lots of desks, at every single one two people sat across from each other earnestly waving books around, consulting their notes, doing everything they could to sell and/or buy rights to books.

    It’s very very intense. I now feel like I know more about the business than ever before. I finally understand what it is that scouts do and how they’re paid! It’s amazing how many middle men there are out there. I also learned all about how they make pop-up books—it takes a whole village in China. I learned that the publishing wisdom that short story collections don’t sell holds everywhere, that everyone—even the French—reckon that French YA books are too preachy and boring, that hardbacks are big in Sweden and non-existent in Brazil. I am dizzy with everything I have learnt!

    There were hardly any other authors. I met one the whole time I was there. (Hello, Isobel!) There’s not a lot for us to do at the Fair except be taken out by our publishers and agents.

    Not being published, I didn't have anybody to take me out, but it was a good education in the ways of the world I wish to join.

    Friday 31 March 2006

    BOLOGNA 2006!!! Hungarian Showcase

    Every year the Bologna Book Fair showcases the illustrators from one country. This year's honoured Hungary – "30 illustrators 30 books" (pictured above). The exhibition explored the work of 30 artists, each of whom exhibited about fifteen illustrations and an ”illustrated book model” made up of some of the selected works. This was a terrific exhibition marred only by an odd presentation design in which some work was reduced and presented on low tables so that you had to get a crick in the neck to get a good look. The work on the tables were in perspex cubes - which made viewing even more awkward. But the inspirational exhibition made one quickly forget the pain in the neck ...

    This is by Bekes Rozi -

    These are by Karpati Tibor -

    And this is Stark Attila -

    Apologies for the quality of the images which were taken by a very low-pixel camera phone!

    Tuesday 28 March 2006

    BOLOGNA 2006!!! Illustrator Kana Yamada

    Illustrator Kana Yamada
    I loved these images posted by Illustrator Kana Yamada with her business cards, somewhere on the lower regions of the Illustrator's message board at the Bologna Book Fair. The little girl wanders around the beach, the woods, the streets with a small white elephant. I'd love to read the story behind the images!

    Illustrator Kana Yamada
    Illustrator Kana Yamada
    Illustrator Kana Yamada
    Illustrator Kana Yamada
    Illustrator Kana Yamada

    Apologies for the poor quality of the images which are from my rather low pixel mobile phone.

    BOLOGNA 2006!!! The Illustrators' Message Board

    The 2006 Bologna Book Fair would have been no fun without the illustrators, easy to identify with their unwieldy portfolios and a rather more bohemian approach to fashion than the suits who run the stalls. Indeed, amidst the splendour of the official exhibitions, the anarchic Illustrators' message board – a mass (mess?) of gaudy business cards and home-made enticements for the powers that be in publishing.

    Here are some shots of ingenious calling cards on display:

    Bologna's Illustrator's Message Board

    Apologies for the low quality of the images which were from my low-pixel mobile phone.

    BOLOGNA 2006!!! Illustrator Jimmy Liao

    I've just returned from my first Bologna Children's Book Fair, the biggest children's book fair in the world – and I shall be stealing time from work to post reports on the wonderful SCBWI pre-Bologna Conference I attended.

    Meanwhile, i shall be posting illustrations that caught my attention at the fair. Just a warning: there was so much to see and I only had time to visit three warehouses of publishers' stalls, unfortunately having to miss out on the Italian exhibitions so that I wouldn't miss my train to the airport. And I hope the illustrators will forgive the quality of the images - they are after all only mobile phone shots from a very low pixel phone.

    These magical illustrations by Jimmy Liao of Taiwan show the world from the point of view of a blind girl. I just couldn't take my eyes off his drawings.

    Illustrated by Jimmy Liao
    Illustrated by Jimmy Liao
    Illustrated by Jimmy Liao

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