Thursday 27 November 2008

The Eleanor Farjeon Award and Meg Rosoff On Writers and Real Work

Yes, that is Meg Rosoff of Where I Live Now fame. No, Meg Rosoff is not praying. Actually her reverential head is bowed not over the good book but a sampling of her internet activity on a normal working day which includes Dog Drinking Water in Slow Motion and Obama Lama on YouTube.

This was just to make the point that some people do REAL work ... and that writers aren't those people. People who do real work are folks like Chris Brown, the head teacher who's made it his life's mission to get books and children together.

Chris Brown. The blurry pics from my mobile do seem to enhance the saintliness of this worthy winner.

Last night, Chris was awarded the 2008 Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished service to the world of children's books "given to someone whose commitment and contribution is deemed to be outstanding". The spirit of the award is "to recognise the unsung heroes who contribute so much to every aspect of children's books." In his acceptance speech, Chris read a story by Eleanor Farjeon to violin music. Achingly beautiful!

The nominees included Elizabeth Hammill and Mary Briggs (pictured right after the awards), a former bookseller and librarian respectively, who together launched the Northern Children's Festival and then proceeded to set up the Seven Stories Centre for Children's Books in Newcastle in 2005 - an incredible feat which proves that yes, it is possible for entire buildings to be built on foundations of love. Well, love and hardcore fundraising. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before Elizabeth and Mary collect their award from the Eleanor Farjeon Trust!

Other nominees were Michael Morpurgo for his work with children in the countryside, and David Wood who has written over 60 plays for children and was dubbed 'the national children's dramatist' by the Times.

And so, dripping with inspiration, let us end this blog post by revisiting one tiny corner of Meg Rosoff's work process:

If you can't see this video, here it is on YouTube

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Sherman Alexie on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and Why YA is So Cool

I just finished writing my chapter for the day and it's total rubbish but at least I've now hit 22,412 words.

That's good right? At least I've laid the bones down and tomorrow I can go over it again with humour and craft and care. So in anticipation, I try to prime my brain with something inspiring.

I thought, what about reading a few chapters from Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Then I thought, Sherman Alexie, what kind of name is that? Is he really Indian? So I thought, surely, there's a video of Sherman Alexie on YouTube. I wanna see if he's really an Indian.

And guess what, he really is. But the other thing he turns out to be is really funny. You've just got to watch him do this HILARIOUS reading of one of the funniest moments in the book. The Q&A afterwards is cool too. About the true stories behind the book, the differences between his adult and Young Adult writing and also his remarks on how supportive the YA reader/writer community is - which makes me smug because that is exactly the world I want to be in.

If you can't see the video click here to view it on YouTube

Tuesday 25 November 2008

John Green on Reading Ambition

Yes, I am not dead. I've just been busy.

But not too busy to share this wonderful speech by John Green (Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) delivered during his recent book tour, about literacy, teachers and our role as writers in nurturing the future lives of teenagers:
This is the business, right? It is not just reading for the sake of reading. Literacy is important. Literacy is vital, but literacy is not the finish line. Literature is not just in the business of See Jane Run. Literature is in the business of helping us to imagine ourselves and others more complexly, of connecting us to the ancient conversation about how to live as a person in a world full of other people. Read it all
My friend Felix (age 15) from across the road, spent this evening appearing and disappearing every thirty minutes, first to microwave some batter in my microwave; then, to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow on my daughter's ukulele and finally, to taste test the prawns, courgettes and egg rice that I'd made for dinner.

As he left the first time, he suddenly asked, "You got anything good to read?"

I wracked my brains. I had just finished Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness - but the news had spread quickly amongst the kids I knew that (Spoiler! Spoiler!) the best character in the book was going to die. Resistance to heartbreak had already gathered apace.

Luckily, that very afternoon, trying to inspire some humour into my own writing, I had dipped into Henry Tumour by Anthony McGowan. "How about a talking tumour?" I asked. Felix didn't look very excited. In fact he started examining the contents of my fridge. I try a bit of hard sell. "The tumour tells the kid what to do. There's a lot of swearing." Felix wanders away, obviously bored.

When Felix suddenly remembers that his mum might want him back across the road for supper, he rushes off. As he leaves, he yells over his shoulder. "I'm gonna read it!" "Read what?" "The Henry book!" I was so thrilled I had to encourage him with discouragement. "There's a lot of SWEARING. You've got to cover one eye!"

Which makes me like one of the people John Green talks about:
Too many times, we say to our young people, “Hey, read this. It’s a fun read. Not too serious, you know. None of that English stuff.” As if there is some kind of dichotomy between good and fun. As if Gatsby is oatmeal and vampires are Lucky Charms. Vampires, of course, ARE Lucky Charms—they are magical and delicious and just dangerous enough to excite me. I love vampires, and I love vampire books. And please know that I would never argue against putting books kids want to read in their hands. But I am arguing that we need to make space in our classes—no matter how advanced or remedial the students—for ambitious novels. Because good is not the opposite of fun. Smart is not the opposite of fun. Boring is the opposite of fun, and when we create the smart/fun dichotomy, what we end up implying is that Gatsby is boring.
But Gatsby is not boring. And Henry Tumour is really a lot more than a bit of swearing as Felix is soon going to find out. But I'm confident he won't put the book down once he's realised that it's not just a book with swearing in it. He won't put the book down because it's a good book.

Maybe I should have had more faith and recommended something even more taxing. Says John Green:
The best books are rarely easy, but teenagers love fun things that aren’t easy.
Yup. That's what makes teenagers so cool. And lucky that they've got all those brilliant books still to discover.

On Focusing and Dropping off the Face of the Net

Just got a text from a friend who was wondering if I'd died - I'd been so quiet on the blog and on Facebook.

The truth is, I've been a really good girl.

I have written 21,000 words of my new novel. Helped organize some SCBWI events. And given a talk at a conference. Tutored my daughter for the admissions exams. And sorted out the house.

Nope. Not dead. Yet.

Click on the picture to see enlarged

This is a cartoon I did for the Comixtravaganza online exhibition of British SCBWI - an offshoot of the wonderful Turning Pages conference I attended this weekend (more to report soon!)

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Economic blah-turn: 'My fellow book lovers ...'

The writing is on his forehead: oh how to lead them out of the Recession?

And so it has begun.

The other day, I received a rejection letter that actually mentioned the economic downturn. Here's an excerpt with bits deleted for discretion's sake:
... Alas, I feel this is something I could have published several years ago, but right now, with the troubles we are facing ... this would be a very tough sell here at ...
Dear old Nathan Bransford, the Curtis Brown agent-blogger, gets real in his most recent blog:
Now, first of all, we must remember the advice of the late Douglas Adams and Don't Panic. The book industry has been through worse times than this, people will always read books, books will still be published, and until that changes most of us will still be here.

But any illusions the industry might have had about escaping the recession are going the way of a Bachelor engagement. Read the whole piece to see some very real examples of what's going on
At this point, as all anxious authors and wannabe authors recoil in fear and horror, let me direct you to an inspirational post-election think by agent Sarah Davies of the Greenhouse Literary Agency:
Don’t tell me that words don’t matter. Yes, most words need actions to accompany them. But those little gems of language still rule. And they can change a life - and the world. Read the rest of it here - it's great writing from an agent!
Yes, words bring change.

And of course where can we find the best words? Books.

And that is one of the reasons why we've all got to help publishing through this.

Nathan Bransford proposes a stimulus package for the publishing industry:
My fellow book lovers, let me just second Moonrat and endorse her Publishing Industry Stimulus Package: buy books, and buy them often.

Most importantly: BUY NEW BOOKS
I third the motion.

Friday 7 November 2008

Book Trailers on My Mind

I've been giving book trailers some thought recently. I've just realised that I have two rather talented brothers in the film-making business (one does animation the other is a corporate film maker) ... I wonder if they would do a skills exchange and make me some videos?

While thinking, I was scanning the web of course and discovered that someone has already put up a book trailer website! goes by the catchline 'Know what to read next'. Check out this rather fabulous video for Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, voiced by the author:

While you're browsing the site, here's a geeky thing to notice - the videos from the video-sharing site Vimeo are much better quality than YouTube.

Saturday 1 November 2008

Verna Wilkins and the Promise of Change in Our Own Lifetimes

BREAKING NEWS This morning Barack Obama was declared the next president of the United States and suddenly the world has changed irretrievably . Americans are celebrating, yes, but so are Africans and Indonesians - their connections to Obama may be tenuous, but in his victory, they can suddenly see possibility. And they are not the only ones. "I didn't think this would happen in my lifetime," says one pundit who was old enough to recall not being allowed to vote 40 years ago in America.

After today, In My Lifetime is possible for all our impossible dreams. Well done, America - and good luck.

So I was really really excited to blog this week because I attended the Patrick Hardy Lecture which featured one of my heroes, Verna Wilkins (pictured) of Tamarind Books. It just seemed so appropriate on the eve that some history might (might!) be made in the United States.

But unfortunately the sock monster (you know, the one who steals socks) must have escaped from the washing machine while I wasn't looking and nicked the notebook where I recorded almost every single word.

So all I have to do this without notes which doesn't do justice to this wonderful lady.

Verna says she woke up to her true calling when her then small son came home from school one day with a self portrait that he'd coloured in pink. Apparently the teacher only had pink crayons.

This reminds me of the day son number one (now 17) came back from nursery with a picture he'd drawn of our family. There was Dad, pink skin (which is almost true but sometimes he looks even milkier); there was my son, also pink (which was true at the time but no longer since he took up rugby and other outdoor bone-crushing pursuits). And then there was Mum, as in me - unmistakeable in my glasses ... but with bright blue skin.

Unlike Verna's son, my boy had solved the problem of the missing tint by grabbing the nearest other-colour.

What does it mean? We like to say that children are colour blind but they're not. Yes they are colour blind in the sense that they do not care to judge people on the basis of race like some adults do. But they are NOT colour blind in the sense that they can see!

They can see that they are a certain colour - unlike the teacher who couldn't see that her pupil was not pink-skinned. They notice that there are differences between people - like my son noticing that I was different skinned from him and his father.

And Verna's big point is that so many children in the UK - those with disability, and those with dual heritage like mine, and especially those on the more ochrey end of the colour scale - simply don't see themselves in the books they read.

It is as if they are invisible.

Verna set up Tamarind to redress the balance featuring children in many different hues, two-tone pairs of parents (like me and my husband), and wheelchairs and disability as part of the furniture. In Boots for the Bridesmaid, the brown-skinned little girl in the story has a white mum who also happens to use a wheelchair - but it's never mentioned in the text. The blurb on the cover of her catalogue is "In the Picture".

And Verna sets her rainbow kids in real kids situations.

No, not edgy stories about life on a gritty estate and racism and exclusion.

Situations that matter to REAL KIDS - like losing a tooth, birthdays, and learning to count.

Just because the images feature a range of skin tones doesn't mean they can only be read by children with permanent tans. "These books are for all children," Verna says. Its a mantra repeated over and over again in the Tamarind catalogue - "For ALL children in any environment".

Of course, 20 years on from when Verna started out, things are better. We have Malorie Blackman. And Benjamin Zephanaiah. And after years of Verna hand-selling her books from bookseller to bookseller with a bag of samples, Tamarind has become an imprint of Random House. (Verna, Malorie and Benjamin probably have a virtual monopoly of school visits during Black History Month - which in itself maybe says something about diversity in children's publishing)

After her talk, Verna took a few questions from the audience which were mainly writers, publishers and editors. One editor said, and I have to paraphrase because the sock monster took my notebook: part of the problem is that the submissions we receive do not often reflect the diversity we see in Tamarind.

Verna's response was that for there to be more submissions of this sort, more books had to be published.

As an imprint of Random House, Tamarind now has the resources to expand its rainbow:
Having established its reputation, Tamarind is ready to focus more on other cultures, including South-east Asia, and to develop more books 
for the fast-growing dual-heritage market. Read the whole Bookseller article
But in an ideal world, there would be no gap in the market; no burning need for a Tamarind Books - and no need for Black History Month.

P.S. Writers take note: Tamarind is actively looking for submissions in the area of young fiction and chapter books.

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