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!


@emlynas on twitter - follow me!

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

Friday 8 June 2018

Countdown to Launching Bone Talk

By Candy Gourlay

It is exactly 35 days until the launch party for my new book, Bone Talk, on the 13th of July. Which is 20 days until the book is officially available in the shops! If you've ever wondered what publishers did to promote their books, here is a behind the scenes taste of the work being done by my publisher, David Fickling Books, to pave the way for Bone Talk's launch.

*In the video I forgot to mention Thornhill by Pam Smy and Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans (I already had my own copies so I didn't put those in my bag – but now I wish I did, they would make good presents!)

Friday 1 June 2018

Highlighting The Heart of Your Story with Motifs

By Kathryn Evans

Motifs, metaphors, whatever you want to call them, those little beats in your story help highlight the heart of what you're trying to say. First though....


Why Does A Story Need A Heart?

A heart sets rhythm and it pulses life.  It's also why your story matters.   If you're writing for children, it will matter so much that it's probably the thing you'll talk about when you take your book into schools. It's what you hope your reader will take away from your story. Your story needs a heart, because without it,  the experience of reading is ultimately empty.

Take Wonder by R. J Palacio. On the surface, that's a story about a little boy with a badly disfigured face - but the heart of the story is actually about how other people respond to him. It's about society's acceptance, or not, of what's normal.

Or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  The surface story is about a woman who doesn't know how to make friends so lives a very structured life to 'just get through'. But the heart of that story is about loneliness, about how most of us are afraid of it and stay away,  fearing it may be contagious, without ever asking why someone behaves the way they do. The heart of the story is about the danger of isolation and the joy of friendship.

In Wonder, we care about August, not because he has a damaged face, but because of the way he interacts with people, because of they way they respond to him.  We care about Eleanor because we begin to  understand why she is the way she is and how that feels. Both of these books will change the way the reader looks at the world, will make the reader think about the heart of the story - acceptance and loneliness.

Using Themes and Motifs.

In Wonder, Auggie has a space helmet that he loves to wear.   It's about hiding his face but it's also about showing his adventurous spirit, the image he wants to project to the world - if it was a balaclava it would give an entirely different message. It was given to him by his sister's friend, a friend the sister thinks has betrayed her, but the connection of the helmet shows us this is not that case. His Dad gets rid of it, not because wearing the helmet looks weird, but because he wants to see Auggies face, a face he loves no matter what.  That helmet crops up  frequently, highlighting, explaining,  connecting. It's a perfect example of a motif used to demonstrate a theme,  its regular appearance pulses though the book

In Eleanor Oliphant,  there are a number of motifs. Alcohol is one - 2 bottles of vodka every weekend and then, when things get really dire, more. But it's also there as an offering to take to a party - a half drunk bottle , a bridge between Eleanor's old life and the new one that is beginning to flourish. Eleanor hasn't quite made it across the divide at that stage, so the bottle is only half full.

Clothing is also a motif, an appropriate one in some ways, it's the mask we use to represent us.  Not just the clothes we wear, but the clothes we dress our surroundings in - as Eleanor moves in confidence to a more connected human being, she changes what she wears and also changes the decor in her flat.

 The motif  that really effected me in Eleanor Oliphant, was physical contact - no one touches Eleanor. When she first goes to the hairdresser, a step into the new world, it's very sensual. When she has a bikini wax, the intimate contact is painful but welcome.  The lack of touch in her life is significant and highlighted by her developing relationship with Raymond,  who gently breaks through the boundaries with hugs. Real life hugs. Hugs are the antidote to loneliness. This is a scientific fact. It changed the way I behave, I now make sure I give my father-in-law a big old hug every time I see him.


Finding the Heart of Your Story.

Motifs are a technical way of highlighting the heart of your story, but what if you don't know what it is? It isn't always obvious, often we think we're writing a story about one thing, and it turns out there's something else going on altogether - you know, like when your characters do something entirely unexpected, when your subconcious takes hold and flips the story in a different direction - it's the same magic at work.

For ages, I thought  my new book was  about  how we build a family around us after we lose our own - and it is kind of about that, but it's a story set in two time zones and I didn't understand why I'd done that, why it mattered. It was only in editing the story that I realised having a story across decades, allows me to explore our perceptions of things like beauty and what's considered to be acceptable behaviour and how that effects people.

If you are struggling to find the heart of your story, take a look at the turning point in a significant character's emotional arc. There'll be something there that they change their mind about that leads to the satisfying conclusion of the story.

In Wonder,  Auggie and Jack get attacked on camp but Amos and other school children, who've previously been horrible to them, defend them, they see Auggie as one of them, not just a weird looking kid.  This moment is about acceptance. There's another  heartbeat when Auggie wins a medal at school and accepts it in front of everyone, no longer hiding, but fully emerged.

In Eleanor Oliphant, Eleanor admits to herself that the mother that dominates her life is only alive in her imagination. This is a point where she accepts the past has made her life a misery but that she can let it go and and have a better life, that she deserves a better life. There is no physical connection with the mother, but there is with Raymond, her friend, and her newly acquired cat.

Look at your story with different eyes, where are the turning points, what do they mean? Are they reflected through the story? Identify the heart of your story and then keep it in mind all the way through- have a whole editorial pass, just for this. It'll be worth it, I promise.


 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk.  

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