Friday, 17 August 2018

My Life as the Token Male

By Nick Cross

Photomontage images by Candy Gourlay

As a white, middle-aged, middle class, heterosexual man, there are few situations to which I can add any kind of diversity. But on entering the world of children’s writing, I was surprised to find myself in the minority. I’m the only male blogger on the Notes from the Slushpile team, for instance, and at a recent SCBWI event, I looked around to see that I was the only man in the room. Not that any of this really bothers me, it’s just... interesting.

Of course, there are plenty of other male children’s writers, and significantly more male children’s illustrators. So I’m not claiming any kind of discrimination here! But I remember how at the first night of the recent Picture Book Retreat, all the men ended up together on the same table for dinner. I don’t think we meant for it to happen like that, and it felt quite weird, whereas a table that was all women wouldn’t have seemed remarkable at all.

The 2018 Picture Book Retreat gang. I count seven men here!

Growing up, all my friends were boys. I didn’t have a sister, and the idea of talking to girls was frankly terrifying. Even when I went to university, I chose a course (Computer Science) that was heavily male-dominated. But, through the house I lived in and the university society I joined, I began to move in mixed company. And I was surprised to find myself making actual, platonic, female friends. I began to realise that I was more comfortable in a room full of women than I was in a room full of men. Part of this was, no doubt, my disinterest in typically masculine interests like sport. But there was also an emotional honesty to being with a group of women that was near impossible to replicate with men of my generation (without the application of copious quantities of alcohol). And since fiction writing is very much the process of accessing and exploring our emotions, it made sense when all these interests began to dovetail.

Nowadays, I live in a house full of women (wife, two daughters, female cat) and the majority of my close friends are women too. I am (as far as I can tell) still a man, but undoubtedly with a strong female influence. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem said recently:

“I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

Photo by Gage Skidmore


This resonated with me, because I want to embody those “feminine” qualities she’s looking for in men. Qualities like kindness, empathy, vulnerability and respect. The generic advice to “man up” has become a terrible burden for the men of Generation X, who are struggling to adapt to a changed world of work and relationships. The Millennial generation are perhaps better off, but there are still many masculine stigmas to overcome.

When I began writing my latest novel, I wanted to bring some of my personal journey to bear on the finished result. But I was also beset by worries about my place in the world and the challenge of finding a fresh subject. What was there to write about that hadn’t been tackled a million times before by some other self-absorbed white male writer? In a time of cultural upheaval, #MeToo and being “woke”, did my privileged point of view have any relevance?

I don’t want to say too much about how I addressed these concerns, because I still have another round of edits to do on the novel. But, suffice to say that the book became a framework that helped me explore these questions, while also (hopefully) delivering a cracking story. From the outside, personal and social change looks easy, but it’s actually an incredibly messy and contradictory process. Human beings are an inherently flawed species, but while some people see that as a reason to try to genetically or technologically “improve” us, I see that as a reason to celebrate our glorious diversity.

Is the gender bias in children’s writing a problem? It’s something that was tackled recently as part of Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s scholarly article on diversity in British YA fiction. Melanie found that 64% of YA titles over the study period were written by women, and questioned whether this was having an impact by discouraging male teenage readers. As ever, it’s very difficult to draw any hard and fast conclusions, because the reading, writing and publishing experiences are so subjective. Undoubtedly, there are some teenage boys who are very happy to read a YA romance with a female protagonist, and some teenage girls who wouldn’t read a book if you paid them. Factor in the increasing fluidity of gender and sexual identity amongst young people, and generalisations become impossible.

I don’t have good answers to any of these issues. But what I can do is to keep asking questions, keep turning up to writing events and keep wearing my token male status with pride.

Nick.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Thoughts on writing poetry for children

by Addy Farmer



I've been thinking a lot about poetry recently. I don't know why, maybe because I'm writing something long with all the long thinking that involves (UPDATE - I'm nearly finished and the slog has been worth it). Maybe it's because I've been doing poetry workshops for children. Check out the awesome video I made (don't panic, it's only just over a minute long).



Or maybe because writing poetry is a bit shorter than writing stories. Hem-hem.



I really do love writing poetry and find that it adds to my writerly range and incidentally to what I can offer in schools. 

Does it have to rhyme? 

Poetry in primary schools is sometimes regarded as something mysterious which can only be handled with RHYME. Whereas, poetry should mean the freedom to write what you feel and ...

if that involves rhyme,
at the end,
of a line
 then fine, 
but if not that is equally okay. 

There are so many different ways of presenting poetry from the simplest circle poetry where there is just an infinitely repeating pattern of words through mesostics and diamanté poems to poems based on the Fibonacci Sequence (I've not yet given that a go). Or why not just go freeform and write like the wind, about the wind and

t o s s
your
          WORDS
 ThIs WaY
                        and
 tHaT wAy

and see
how they
LAND

There is poetry in everything if you choose to find it. Here's one I wrote earlier.



I wrote a poem for, Look Out! The Teachers are Coming! It's short and fun and it goes like this:

Please check out who I'm next to ...

What is a poem exactly?

I think of poetry as the nearest I can get to being a visual artist. Poetry can be playful; lyrical or anything you like, so long as it speaks to a brilliant idea or an important occasion or a place you love  or the person you adore. Poetry is evocative. Poetry should leave a picture in your reader's mind (not literally for those with aphantasia) and a feeling in your reader's bones. At the risk of sounding a bit up myself, I quote the following from The Little Prince.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  

In other words, poetry need not be obvious but it should make the reader FEEL - giddy or angry-pants or sad or elated or yes! that's it! Or something

Don't by MICHAEL ROSEN 

If you want to read poetry defined, then read one of my absolute favourite picture books, 'This is a poem that heals fish' by Jean-Pierre Simeon and Oliver Sorman. 


It is unpretentiously beautiful and quietly profound. It offers a playful and profound answer to the question of what a poem is and what it does. And as it does that, it also answers  the larger question of what we most want in life and how we give it shape.




Or try Michael Rosen, he know a very great deal about poetry for children.


Want to write poetry for children and get it published? 

Me too.

As with writing stories for children, you MUST do your research! Read poetry and then read some more. You can do no better than starting with Em Lynas's wonderful resource funEverse poetry. Ooo, by the way I was a guest poet there!

Try the Poetry Foundation site for great poetry and inspiring articles.

Whist Interesting Literature this site advises 10 classic children's poems ... it is equally advisable to read up to date children's poetry and you MUST read Michael Rosen or let him read to you.



There are probably children's poets out there screeching at this blog and just crying out to give great advice along the lines of ...

You silly little poodle
Why don't you use your noodle
And jot down a little doodle
but do not make it rud-le
(we're writing for children after all).

Please published poets, show us the way! Any advice will be gratefully received - people may even write odes to you.

odenoun [ C ] poem expressing the writer's thoughts and feelings about a particular person or subject, usually written to that person or subject
"Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" are poems by Keats.
UK  /əʊd/ US  /oʊd/

Advice for getting your poetry published

  • Write stonkingly great poems. One would think this goes without saying. ...
  • Research markets.
  • Choose 3 to 5 of your best poems for submission.
  • Format and proofread your poems.
  • Write your cover letter.
  • Put your submission together. 
  • Keep track of where you send your poems. 
Get ready to do it all again.

I found a couple of places you might start.
The first is The Caterpillar magazine and another is a writing website with some great advice on writing poetry and getting it published. 

By the way, I do offer poetry workshops for primary schools both indoors and outdoors. 

Poetry workshops are fun
in the rain!
Except for ...
wet paper
which makes your words run
'til they wobble and wibble
and dribble 
sopping and drip-
ping 
off the s-o-g-g-y page 
and ...
it's nicer in the sun, really.

I wish you the very best of luck and hope you will share your thoughts and experience!














Saturday, 21 July 2018

Failing... and picking ourselves up again

by Paula Harrison
Budle Bay in Northumbria a good place for reflection


I recently posted on twitter that I was about to sign a contract that would take me (eventually) to being an author of forty books. The tweet got a lot of views and attention - maybe more than anything else I've tweeted - but I felt slightly fake as I posted it. You see I knew damn well that some of the books on the contract might never be published because I've had books cancelled before.

This got me thinking about how we curate our image on social media, presenting the shiny, smooth side of our lives and often hiding the reality. I use twitter mainly for work and a lot of other writers follow me, including those yet to be published. My writing life must appear so perfect to them. My profile says "million-selling author" which is true. It doesn't say "once had 3 books cancelled due to poor retailer response to previous books in that series". Also true. I don't talk about it, partly out of a wish not to look unprofessional, even though it was a huge blow at the time and I probably think about it just as often as I do about the million sales.

Then I found an article in The Guardian by Elizabeth Day The link is here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jul/15/divorce-miscarriage-jobs-learn-to-embrace-failure-elizabeth-day

This made me think about failure. How do we deal with it? Can we always learn from it? Does it mark us, like a painful scar, or does it make us stronger?

Maybe, if we can be honest about these things, we can find our way through them a little better especially in the early days when writing is such a tall mountain to climb. So I asked some fellow Slushies if they would share a failure.

Maureen Lynas, author of You Can't Make Me Go to Witch School! and Get Me Out of Witch School! wrote: 



My first novel 'The Blood Curdling Bug-Eyed Jawbreaker' didn't work because I didn't understand set up or the need for cause and effect so it was just one long string of silliness BUT there is a creature in it which is forming the basis of a book I'm writing now. The gurglefurter has waited in the wings for at least ten years but now it's centre stage.
Here is the proof that nothing is ever wasted! I have to admit that I have also re-used ideas I really like from my pre-published writings so now I know I am in good company!

Nick Cross, author of many stories including The Last Typewriter, wrote:

My biggest writing failure was having unrealistic expectations. Immediately following my Undiscovered Voices shortlisting, I was suddenly on the fast track to publishing success. Within months, I had rewritten almost my whole novel, gained an agent and had commissioning editors clamouring to read my work. When - after a protracted period of negotiation with a publisher - it all fell apart, so did I. Although I kept writing, it took me years to recover from that early taste of success. Eventually, I learned not to tie my entire sense of self-worth to my book. Once I recognised I had many other skills and achievements that were just as valid as a publishing deal, I began to rediscover the joy in my creative life.
I think, although we don't always talk about it, lots of us have had this experience. Getting close to our goal only to see hope of success evaporate is often more difficult than not getting close at all. To really enjoy our creative lives, we may need to separate our fulfilment from the minefield that is today's publishing business. 

Candy Gourlay, author of picture books and novels including the soon-to-be-published Bone Talk wrote:


One early writing failure for me was something I'll bet anyone who has attempted to write a novel has committed. Having finished my first ever novel, I immediately asked a novelist friend to read it. Weeks later, I met her at a cafe, excited to hear what she thought of my characters, my twists and turns and my wonderful sense of humour. Instead, I spent an hour discovering that my plot was thin and my characters poorly fleshed out. Not only that, the manuscript was riddled with simple typos, non-sequiturs and plot holes.

What did I do wrong?

• Vanity! I shared a manuscript because I was seeking praise, not wisdom

• I exposed myself to criticism before I was ready (I was so devastated, it took me months to start writing again)

• I shared the manuscript before it was fully developed (I didn't even know what a fully developed manuscript was)

• It was not my friend's fault that I chose her to read the manuscript. But later, I learned that I needed time to learn how to trust another person to critique my work
Candy also mentioned that she felt she'd had so many failures it was hard to choose one to write about. I'm sure all the fans of her books would disagree! I do know what she means though, with each new project I've undertaken there have been pitfalls and it sometimes seems to me that I'm always discovering new ones!

Of course there's a difference between failing by making mistakes in your story and failing because you've run headlong into the tough conditions in the publishing market. If you're unpublished it can be difficult to tell where the problem lies, especially if you are receiving form rejections. Does your book need more work or were publishers simply not looking for a story like yours? Sometimes a publisher or agent can have something very similar on their list already and for this reason they won't contemplate taking you on. If you're unsure it's useful to get feedback on your work. I would recommend joining a critique group through the SCBWI or taking part in a critique at their Winchester conference in November.

So has failing made me stronger as a person - as a writer? I can honestly say that it didn't feel like it at the time (times!) but looking back over years of writing both as a passion and a career I can see that I am beginning to learn a little. So here's to failing... and then picking ourselves up again.

Friday, 6 July 2018

How to Keep Nostalgia in the Past

By Nick Cross

Source image by Crossett Library

I’ve just finished a teen novel set in the early 90s, and it’s been wonderful to step back into a world without mobile phones, where tactile, analogue technologies like cassette tapes and vinyl were all the rage. Each time Donald Trump tweeted, or Snapchat redesigned their app, or something like #MeToo happened, I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t trying to write a story about modern teenagers. But there’s a flipside to writing a tale set within my own lifetime - I found myself constantly battling the seductive allure of nostalgia. The last thing I wanted to do was spend the whole book saying stuff like “Ooh, do you remember this? Wasn’t it great!”

“What’s so bad about nostalgia?” you might be asking. “Isn’t it all just harmless fun?” Maybe in small doses. But taken too far, nostalgia can be shaped into a dangerous lie. Without the pernicious effect of nostalgia telling us that things were better in the old days, would we have ended up with Brexit or President Trump?

What I particularly dislike about the use of nostalgia in fiction writing, is that it allows the author to choose easy truths, and prevents them digging deeper into the reality of what life was really like. Seen in this way, nostalgia becomes another form of privilege: because we remember living through a period in a certain way, we assume our experience was universal. And more than that, human memory is notoriously fallible. As writers, we owe it to our readers to do the research, so we can represent the characters’ experiences as faithfully as possible.


I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of nostalgia for many years. Even as a young adult in the 1990s, I was surrounded by people reminiscing about the 60s and 70s. I can remember my university friends getting dewy-eyed about Mr Benn or Alberto Frog and His Amazing Animal Band (look it up - or better still, don’t). In the mid-nineties, my friend Stefan and I created The Encyclopedia of Cultural References, a sort of anti-Wikipedia filled with lies and falsehood. For months, we wrote bizarre articles in which Roald Dahl was a secret Marxist trying to write “the definitive radical existential socialist children’s book”, or the Golden Delicious “Le Crunch Bunch” were hapless pawns in a vicious trade war between France and England (sound familiar?) Over time, these jokey satires have been subsumed by real-life events - who could have possibly imagined the grim reality of Rolf Harris’s off-camera life?

This is just one of many examples that show things were not always rosy in the garden, even if they appeared that way to our childhood eyes. So how can we, as authors, overcome our own in-built sentimentality towards the recent past?

  1. Know your audience
    How many times have I typed those three words in a blog post like this one? A lot. But that doesn’t make it any less true. If your audience is a bunch of adults roughly your age, then carefully deployed nostalgia can be a good way of engaging with them. I myself used nostalgia to get a laugh in my video introduction for last year’s Crystal Kite Award. But if your audience is a group of fifteen-year-olds, tread carefully. You might get a reaction from referencing exactly the right Cbeebies show, but you also might fall flat on your face.




  2. Highlight the bad along with the good
    Nostalgia is all about slipping on those rose-tinted glasses and indulging in a major feat of selective memory. But here’s a newsflash - whenever and wherever you grew up, your teenage years basically sucked! You don’t have to write a 500 page misery memoir, but equally, don’t sugar-coat stuff. Teen readers can spot a faker a mile off.

  3. Tap into the feelings, but not necessarily the details
    If you’re writing a YA book, the chances are that you’re probably carrying a lot of angst around with you. That’s great - let it all out! But mapping your own feelings onto the experiences of a fictional character can help you maintain some distance, and make it easier to see what’s best for the story.

  4. Ask yourself: is this bit of writing for me, or for the reader?
    If it’s just for the reader, that’s fine.
    If it’s just for you, remove it.
    If it’s for both of you, then great!

  5. Pick an area that you don’t know much about
    This is what I did in my book, although it wasn’t a deliberate strategy to avoid nostalgia, but more because that was what I wanted to write about! However, incorporating some unfamiliar settings, characters or themes will stretch you as a writer and force you to do additional research into the period.

  6. Don’t assume the good times are behind you
    We all fear getting older, and because the past is set in stone, it’s easy to imagine that our lives were better then. But the truth is that we have a huge capacity to grow and change, which is a big part of why we became writers in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’m 46 years old, as fit and healthy as I’ve ever been, and I just wrote a kick-ass novel that I’m incredibly proud of. I’d say life is pretty good right here in 2018 :-)

So there you have it, six simple steps to banish nostalgia forever. But before you go, could you answer me just one question? Don’t you think my blog posts were better in the old days?

Nick.


Nick Cross is a children's writer/illustrator and Undiscovered Voices winner. He received a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award, for his short story The Last Typewriter.
Nick is also the Blog Network Editor for SCBWI Words & Pictures magazine. His Blog Break column appears fortnightly on W&P.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Do not interrupt.




One of the notices I have on the wall above my laptop says:

DO NOT INTERRUPT!

It's not a message aimed at the writer's usual domestic distractors – pets, spouses, children, chores – but at myself.

Because the truth is, it is not the outside world but my own weak will that is the greatest barrier to good wordage.

I am not even talking about the internet, Facebook and obsessive inbox checking.

I am talking about interrupting story. My own story.

Something is happening in the story. It's compelling, exciting. The reader is transfixed. As the something happens, a character is triggered to remember something else. The Something Else is relevant to the something actually happening on stage. The Something Else explains stuff about the main something. Sometimes the Something Else triggers another something else that triggers yet another something else.

Only when all is explained does the story circle back to deliver the pay-off promised by the first something.

By that time, the reader's mind has already wandered to whether or not to put another load in the washing machine.

We novel writers do this self interrupting all the time in our first drafts, when we are still trying to figure out our stories. The interruptions are us explaining our stories to ourselves. But this sort of jumping around has no place in the final draft.

Go on, re-read the first chapter of your manuscript. Are you cutting away to explain tiny bits of background? Then you have work to do.

The screenwriting guru Robert McKee defines story structure thus:

STRUCTURE is a selection of events from the characters' life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.
Admittedly, the first time I read that dense sentence – which was before I'd ever written a novel –  it compelled me to go and put another load into the washing machine.

I only appreciated McKee's meaning after I had experienced the labyrinthine problem-solving involved in novel writing.

"SELECTION OF EVENTS"

... meaning, don't include events that only serve to bore your reader.

My favourite explanation of this comes from Kathleen Duey, author of the astonishing Resurrection of Magic books. Duey says writing a scene is like shining a spotlight on a stage. The world of you story is all there, on the platform, but you, the author, chooses what the reader should know, at every single moment.

So interrupting your story is akin to the spotlight going dark on the hero and an extra four or five spotlights suddenly picking out actors on different parts of the stage, performing scenes from different parts of the story.



It is harder to avoid this than it sounds. When I was beginning to write novels, I was constantly trying to explain background, afraid that the lack of information will drive the reader away. It took nerve to accept that it is this lack that keeps the reader reading.

Says the author Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides): '... I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food or drink because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.'

But we can't help being driven to explain our story – in big, clumpy info-dumps and in tiny darting asides. The craft of writing a novel that can possess a reader, that can create that thirst to know what happens next is to know when and how to reveal this information.

"STRATEGIC SEQUENCE TO AROUSE SPECIFIC EMOTIONS"

Have you ever verbally told a story to a friends, then realised it would get a better reaction if you set it up a little bit better, and interrupted yourself saying, 'Oh wait, before I tell you that, I have to tell you this!'

This is why we interrupt ourselves.

We realise that the story would be better told – nay, better experienced by the audience – by laying more groundwork.

This is what we are doing when we interrupt a scene to cut away to some information.

But unlike a story told in conversation, we novelists don't have to interrupt ourselves. We have time to take that nugget out and put it where it belongs.

When critiquing opening chapters and I suggest to a fellow writer that cut-away information should be separated out and written up properly as a scene, the suggestion is often met with resistance.

The most common reason to resist is that the opening chapter is an explosion – it has been written specifically to hook the reader. The writer is only following advice to be found in countless places on the internet and in writing books. So if they insert a set up chapter before their exploding chapter, wouldn't they be missing the chance to hook the reader?

I think this misunderstands the idea behind hooking a reader.

What hooks the reader? Emotion.

An explosion can do it, causing fear, excitement, the desire to find out why ... but re-read your work carefully. Explosions can be humdrum too. Like the ones that come at the end of every superhero movie, the ones that you don't have to watch because you've seen it before.

So hooking the reader is about strategy. About finding the emotion that will keep him turning the pages. Sometimes, that emotion can be had without an explosion.

INTERRUPTING EMOTION


The first time you write your novel,your only strategy is getting to The End.

But once you've got it down, and you have time to examine the scenes you chose to lay down on paper, your strategy should shift from satisfying your own need to tell the story to mapping your reader's emotional experience of your book.

Revising with our reader's emotional arc in mind is a good way to weed out those tiny interruptions that we all seed into our chapters.

I wrote about it in detail back in 2016: Exposition: it's about emotion not information – in which I quote film editor Tony Zhou:

"Emotions take time ... Editors have to decide how much time to give an emotion."

Actually, Tony was talking about character emotions. But when you're revising your manuscript and strategising about how much time to give a scene on stage, spare a thought for the reader.

If you keep cutting away to fill in information, you are dampening the emotional impact of your scene.

And no, don't just cut it out. You put it in because you knew it was necessary. Now you need to craft a place for it in your narrative. This is not a nuisance but an opportunity to deepen and enrich your story.

Good luck.



Candy will be joining Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal) and her editor Bella Pearson in a discussion of Writing Other Lives on 3 July 2018. Book your place here. Candy's third novel Bone Talk will be published in August. Find out more.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Why we (writers especially) should all love the Moomins


It's the 22nd June which is officially just gone the middle of Summer which in turn means that we'll be on the countdown to Christmas pretty soon. Naturally, I cannot let this time slip by without referring to the Moomins - those adorable, testy, life enhancing, tough and bold characters dreamed up by the brilliant, Tove Jansson.

Image result for tove jansson
Tove Jansson
Anyone who knows me, knows that I am very fond of these books and characters. In fact, the very lovely, Jo Wyton, bought me this book for my birthday...




which was as generous and awesome a gift as any moomin would give (I think that makes you an honorary moomin, Jo, Moomintroll?). It is a wonderful reference guide by the very bearded, Philip Ardagh, to all things Moomin.




Hers is a unique world; a unique vision. It is a world of magic and melancholy, of friendship and family and love, all told with a simplicity and clarity that belies Jansson's remarkable insight into even the smallest creature's hopes, fears and dreams ... And it is peopled with a most heart-warming array of living, breathing funny and lovable characters to be found between the pages of any book. Philip Ardagh (The Ancestor?)


What's so great about the Moomins? Where they live!

They live in a house, which sits in a valley, near to the sea

Image result for moomin's house
does the charm of this setting need explaining? If so, do NOT read on

When one of the many extraordinary-ordinary characters, the free-spirit, Snufkin, returns from his travels, he sees:
There below him lay the Valley of the Moomins. And in the middle amongst the plum and poplar trees, stood a blue Moominhouse, as blue and as peaceful and wonderful as when he had left it.
The Moomin house is central to the stories. It is a home to anyone who needs it, including a reader who can settle in and recognise family loves and woes, the comings and goings and food; yes, they drink coffee. Everybody knows about the Moomin house, even those who live far away. Even if they know nothing of the Moomins, visitors to the valley will drift towards the house and make themselves at home in this most welcoming of places with that most accepting and welcoming of mothers, Moominmama - the roundest, most comfortable and sensible of Moomins.


Plus, who can't love someone who has a beloved handbag which was once taken by Thingumy and Bob because they liked sleeping in 'pittle lockets'.




What reader could not want someone like her in vague charge. She usually always knows what to do and you really, really need that in a world where magic and change and difficult characters, live side by side.


What's so great about the Moomins? The characters!

Which brings me to my next reason for loving the Moomins. If you have never read a Moomin book you may think that these are mere cuddly, wuddly, characters who have nothing much to say. Wrong.

Moominvalley characters may be different and yet we all know them! Tove Jansson gives us every facet of human nature and makes them familiar even in their strangeness to the reader. The immediate Moomintroll family is a tiny bit dysfunctional. Moominpapa has an adventuring heart and always wants to be off in the boat without proper reference to the feelings of Moominmama or Moomintroll in these matters. On the plus side, his family does go with him and have great adventures which only sometimes end in disaster. And Moomintroll has inherited this thirst for adventure, his curiousity

"I think it's very adventurous to float down a winding river," said Moomintroll. "You never know what you'll meet around the next corner." Comet in Moominland

The batty but wise older relation comes in the form of the Moomins' Ancestor who lives in the stove and is incredibly old. He's even older than Grandpa Grumble, who likes a moan. And definitely hairier.


I don't think the Moomins are related to Little My but she spends a lot of time at their house being either, 'glad or angry'.
'Little My is used to taking care of herself ... I'm more worried about the people who happen to cross her path." Moominsummer Madness 
The Hemulens are very fond of rules and can get quite upset when people refuse to take them seriously.


We have the calm thinker, Too-ticky



The child-like, Sniff who wants adventures but when they arrive doesn't know what to do with them.


"Sniff lay under his blanket and screamed." is a fairly typical reaction


Yeah - we've all been there.


Oh, so many minor, brilliant characters. Like The Woodies; 24 tiny children who were lost or abandoned in a park but don't worry they were later rescued by brave Snufkin (although he came to slightly regret it what with all their crying and arguing). Or the Niblings who had the bad habit of chewing off noses if they're too long. And then there's the curious Hattifatteners

".... the little white creatures who are for ever wandering restlessly from place to place in their aimless quest for nobody knows what." Comet in Moominland
And why not.

What's so great? Exciting stuff happens!

This is no sleepy valley where nothing the weather and land stays quiet. There are actual disasters to overcome. When a volcano erupts, Moominmama is quite put out:

"Oh dear me," she said. "What a terribly hot and sooty day. Volcanoes are such a nuisance." Moominsummer Madness
Then there was the tornado which blew the roof of the Fillyjonk's house and the flood which sent the Moomins packing. Only for them to take shelter in an abandoned theatre where the only thing to do was to put on a play for everybody - of course.



Catastrophes happen but the Moomins are never defeated; they simply make the best of it because that's really all you can do.

What so great about the Moomins? There's magic in the air!

The Hobgoblins Hat brings chaos. Midsummer Eve brings a time for wishing. Moominpapa has his very own crystal ball. There are even ghosts. And then there's one of my favourite characters, the invsible Child or Ninny who was so scared that became 'misty and difficult to see'. Don't worry, she nearly recovers eventually.



Why should writers love the Moomins? 

They are cuddly (not all of them - Hattifateners *shudder* but I want to hug lots of them).

They eat proper food, even coffee (I do have a Moomin recipe book)

There is always dark and light in the stories

They have Big Ideas which sometimes don't work but they're not afraid to try them out.

They are sometimes sad. And that's okay.

They make the best of testing situations

They do not judge

Apart from being HUGELY entertaining, the Moomins and all their friends and relations, exist inside the sort of world you never want to end. Tove Jansson also offers an alternative philosophy. Don’t fear the unexplainable or waste time worrying about things that can’t be solved or changed. If your house floods, make the best of that upside-down-view of your kitchen. Live like a Moomin… unless there’s ever a volcano that’s about to erupt near your house. Then maybe it would be better to leave.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Author School Visits - Tip 1


by Em Lynas

I haven't done many school visits yet as my books You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School and Get Me Out of Witch School haven't even been out a year yet and I've been busy writing Help! I'm Trapped At Witch School! until this month.


But I have done a few and I'm learning what works and what doesn't work for me and so I thought I'd share because it might be helpful to all you authors out there who aren't ex-teachers and are feeling the fear of the school visit.

I've just been appearing at the West End Festival in Glasgow as part of their schools programme and it's got me thinking about the importance of dialogue to establish character from the outset for mg readers and how that helps in the creation of events.

Pre-published misconception - children coming along with their school to talks/workshops/performances will be familiar with the book.

The truth - This is unlikely. If there's been time, an organised teacher, and an available book then, yes they may have read some but mostly - not. They're coming along for many reasons, it might be a free visit organised by a festival, it might be they've picked me at random or because I'm local. Or because they need to tick the - we've seen an author box. Or it may be they are huge fans and can't wait to hear what I have to say. I just don't know what situation I'm walking in to.

So, as I'm planning I'm thinking - How do I engage the children (and teachers) and interact with them about a book they probably know nothing about? How do I talk about it without giving away any spoilers? How do I make that fun?

Well, luckily, You Can't make me Go To Witch School has illustrations by the fabulous Jamie Littler and so I based my event around them and talked about character creation with the aid of a simple Power Point slide show. This has a become even simpler with each event. I think I started at 25 slides and now I'm down to 8. It was also interactive for the first event - Noooooooo!

The slideshow is a sort of Who's Who at Toadspit Towers.
Here's a few characters with the relevant dialogue I read from the book.

Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book
Daisy Wart

Reluctant Witch and Awesome Actress.

“Granny.” I say it with firmness. This is definitely a hands-on-hips moment, so I put them there. “Chocolate, currently in my backpack, is a birthday treat. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare with pictures, also currently in my backpack, is a birthday treat. Money, in the backpack, is a birthday treat. Dumping me at witch school is NOT a birthday treat. I absolutely refuse to enter a dilapidated building named Toadspit Towers because I am NOT a witch!”
Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book



Ms Thorn

Lover of Strictness and Conformity

“Is you the headmistress?” asks Granny. “Is you Ms Toadspit?”
“I am not,” says the woman. “I am Ms Constance Thorn. Senior Teacher of Toadspit Towers. You may speak.”



Dominique Laffitte 
Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book

Thinks She Is The Best and Brightest Witch at Toadspit Towers
“Ms Thorn has appointed I dormitory monitor for I am the Best and Brightest Witch.” She points at the rosette on her cauldron as proof. “I have knowledge of everything in this school. If there is anything you want to know then ask I. And if there is anything you should know then I shall tell you. And if there is anything you do wrong, I shall tell you that too. You are lucky to be sharing the dormitory of the youngest Best and Brightest Witch in the history of Toadspit Towers.

Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book




Jessica Moss
Feeling The Fun And Loving Her Life!

“What’s happen— Hey, a new girl,” she says, spotting me. Her eyes light up at the sight of the cake. “Ooh, cake. My mam can’t bake cakes. They go flat in the middle and come out like biscuits. But that’s OK because I like biscuits. And pie.”





Once the children had been introduced to the characters we chatted about who was going to be for or against Daisy. Who was going to help her to escape from Witch School and who was going to get in the way.

That's when I realised how important first impressions are to children in mg and why the first words spoken are so important. They completely 'got' each character from the way they spoke, the words they used and the attitude. It was a light bulb moment even though I really should have known that all along but as I was writing the books I was just writing for me, creating individuals who I wanted to spend time with. I wasn't always thinking about the reader and how quickly I need to establish personality. I will now though.

We were able to go  deeper into the characters but I'll blog about that another time. This could end up being a series.

So I learned something on that visit as well as having a ball with the kids making up new characters. I'm already trimming and adjusting ready for the next one and I'm sure I'll learn something on that too.

If you don't have illustrations you can still use images. You could find three images for each character and ask the children to choose the one that was the most likely to say the dialogue. That could be fun!

Em

@emlynas on twitter - follow me!

Em is published by Nosy Crow and rep'd by Amber Caraveo

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