‘Vile and dangerous': or, how to get our kids reading

Beware of the book road signCarnegie medal winner blasted as ‘vile and dangerous’. Could there be a better review for a YA author? Kevin Brookes (and his publishers) must be delighted.

Some background: on 23 June the Carnegie and Greenaway medals, the oldest and most prestigious awards given to children’s books, were announced. The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks won the Carnegie, and all power and congratulations to Kevin. I haven’t yet read the book, but even if I hadn’t already intended to that headline would send me straight to an online bookshop. As it will teenagers.

Oh Daily Telegraph, don’t you get it? Call a book for young adults (young adults, note, not young children) ‘vile and dangerous’ and every teenager in town will want to read it! It was ever thus: in 1997, Junk, Melvin Burgess’s story of teenage heroin addicts, won the Carnegie, and was predicted to herald an epidemic of copy-cat drug users. Back in my teenage day, Judy Blume’s Forever was banned by my school library from under-14s, presumably to prevent us from having sex. (What actually happened is that we got the older kids to take it out for us then passed it round the class, along with The Thorn Birds, Lace and James Herbert’s The Rats. Most of us didn’t have sex afterwards).

With all the brow-beating and hair-tearing going on in the UK at the moment about how to get our kids to read, why does our media get so hysterical about something that kids might want to read? Or should they only read what certain adults deem suitable for them to read? Young adults are exactly that – adults, who are young, and just like adults they can make choices and form opinions of their own. If they don’t like The Bunker Diary they’ll stop reading it, but, you know what Daily Telegraph? If you hadn’t branded it as unsuitable, more of them wouldn’t have bothered reading it in the first place.

Return to the blog

Shamefully, I wrote my previous blog post in September 2013. Not that I’ve had nothing to blog about – on the contrary, there is an ever-lengthening list of scribbled ideas in the back of my notebook. More it’s down to that common incurable condition known as the Day Job.  Aka paid work, kids, procrastination … blah blah enough excuses already.

Anyway, never having been one to use my kids or job as an excuse (ahem) here’s to freeing up more time to write this year: my novel, the half-conceived short stories and new ideas that endlessly buzz away in the back of my mind, and this blog. A couple of weeks ago I was emailed by a local writer friend, Jenny Heap. She writes stories and poems for children (for which I have great admiration, as I seem to have an aversion to writing in rhyme), and short stories for adults. She wanted me to take part in the ‘Writing Process Blog Tour’, where blogging writers answer the same four questions, then pass the baton on to other blogging writers, so creating a (hopefully) long and winding chain of writing-related blogs. What better way to kick me into getting started again – thank you Jenny.

So here’s my contribution, concluding with links to the blogs of the very mixed bag of writers who will follow me.

What am I working on? I’m working on and off on a young adult novel. Right now it’s more off than on, as I keep getting distracted by different (read: shorter) forms of writing, mainly non-fiction. For example, in the past three months I’ve written two pieces for the website welldoing.org, re-worked a couple of adult short stories that I drafted over a year ago and started a picture book text in four different ways. Part of my day job involves writing teaching activities for primary-aged children, including in the last couple of months a series of creative writing workshops. I’m helping a friend edit her website, and I’m also putting together a funding application for a school library. Hence the novel is gathering whatever computer documents gather when they’re left in an electronic folder for too long.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? I’ll talk about the novel for sake of argument. It’s not dystopia, it’s not steampunk, there are no spies, fairies or vampires. There is first love, racism, violence and secrets: is there an ‘Issues’ genre?

Why do I write what I do? I started writing this particular novel when I was teaching in a Leeds primary school where most of the kids were of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin. It struck me that there wasn’t much out there featuring them, and I wanted to address that. I also wanted to draw on things that I’d observed or experienced growing up. However, after 9/11 happened the book I had started to write wouldn’t have worked, which meant I needed to do some radical re-thinking. I’ve written about this in an earlier post ­here.

But if this question is about why I write for young adults, I can’t really explain why. I’ve just always wanted to – perhaps because I read so many brilliant YA novels growing up (although they weren’t called that then). I also find YA titles some of the most fascinating, challenging and well-written literature around. There are some ground-breaking YA authors out there and there always have been. And one day, if I can, I’d like to be one of them!

How does my writing process work? This is how it should work: I sit down at my computer the minute I’m home from the school run, work intensely until about 2pm when I remember that I haven’t had lunch but that this is mere detail as I’ve managed to write more than 1000 words every day for months and am nearly ready to send my draft manuscript to my (currently non-existent) agent.

Here’s how it actually works: I drop the kids at school. I go for a run and think about what I’m writing. I spend a lot of time looking out of the window. I re-read chapters I’ve already written to remind myself that it’s not actually that bad and there’s still life in it. I work much more effectively when I have a deadline or a contract, and work best of all when I’m part of a writing group which requires me to have done some writing before we next meet. Yes, I was the kind of girl who always got their homework in on time.

So there we are. Hopefully you’ll be hearing a lot more from me from now on, in this blog if nowhere else. The writers I’ve got lined up for you are a contrasting lot, but all inspirational for me in different ways. They’ll be talking about their writing processes on March 24th, so be sure to go back and visit their blogs.

Becky SelmanBecky Selman is a secondary school English teacher in London who has published articles on medieval literature and Shakespeare and two resource packs for A Level teaching.  When she’s not marking essays or running on Hampstead Heath she enjoys cooking, and has just started blogging about her project to cook her way through English Literature. You can read about her experiences in her Page to Plate blog.

Emma GreenwoodEmma Greenwood is the green columnist at Liberti magazine and a writer of YA fiction. Her short stories have been published by Mslexia and Cinnamon Press and she guests on a number of writing blogs. She is currently working with Imogen Cooper at The Golden Egg Academy on her Brit Grime teen novel about arson and dangerous relationships. Emma uses ‘method writing’ to channel her characters, so can often be found in her husband’s boxers, wearing baggy jeans, listening to jungle and burning things. Find out more at www.emmajgreenwood.blogspot.com.

Megan KerrMegan Kerr is a writer and writing teacher in Oxford.  She writes in all forms and most genres, with a special love of magical realism, SFF, and literary fiction.  As The Writers’ Greenhouse, she runs writing courses in Oxford and creates downloadable writing games and activities.

And now, for something completely different

Steampunk

I’ve neglected this blog over the summer. This is partly because of my day job (the one that actually pays the bills, not the one I wish paid the bills), and partly because the UK had its best summer for seven years. Day after day of glorious sunshine and high temperatures, something our vitamin D-starved bodies couldn’t get enough of. Normal weather service has now resumed, so perhaps I’ll finally get more chapters written.

I’d not planned this blog post, but yesterday – in the serendipitous way that so often happens with writing – Twitter handed it to me on a plate. As part of the above-mentioned job I’m planning a series of short story writing activities, and for various reasons, needed a list of contemporary YA must-read gothic and steampunk novels.

Being a big fan of Victorian gothic novels (have I ever mentioned that I read Wuthering Heights at least once a year?)  I wouldn’t have found it hard to make a list of classics, but when it came to modern fiction I wasn’t even sure if Twilight counted as gothic. Moreover, I confess (and this may lose me some followers): I have never knowingly chosen to read a steampunk novel. This is for no better reason than taste – I’m not a big fan of sci-fi, and (I’m generalising here) many novels that would be classified as steampunk also fall into that category, so I don’t tend to pick them up. The obvious exception is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but I didn’t even know steampunk was a ‘thing’ when I read that.

I like to think I’ve got a good background knowledge of YA novels, but there’s nothing like a subculture to banish smug assumptions. I couldn’t name one steampunk novel (although a quick Google search did throw up a few that I’d actually heard of), and I only had a vague afterthought that Jules Verne and HG Wells might come into the category as forefathers. I didn’t want to randomly pick titles from a search engine – I wanted personal recommendations. So I asked the expert: Twitter. That is, I cheekily asked a few authors if they would retweet my request to their followers, which they kindly did.*

Within minutes, a whole airship-full of suggestions came steaming into my Twitter feed from librarians, writers and YA writing fans. I’ve never seen such passion and enthusiasm in 140 characters. I Googled every one, and made a selection from the most mentioned, the most appropriate-looking and the ones I most liked the look of. Then I blithely tweeted that I now had the definitive, hand-picked list of gothic and steampunk novels for young adults.

At this, Melvin Burgess (she types, breezily, as if his Junk isn’t one of my most admired YA novels of all time) asked if I could share. So here’s the list. Of course, fans of steampunk will argue that it isn’t definitive, and I’ve only read a small number so can’t vouch personally for most of them, but it’s been a lot of fun putting the list together. Best of all I have had my mind well and truly opened to the smoking chimneys and clanking cogs of steampunk, and can’t wait to get reading.

Modern gothic

  • Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Dreaming of Amelia (The Ghosts of Ashbury High in the US)  by Jaclyn Moriarty
  • Black Spring by Alison Croggon
  • The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Sheppard
  • Ashes on the Waves by Mary Lindsey
  • Unspoken (The Lynburn Trilogy) by Sarah Rees Brennan
  • My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick
  • Heap House by Edward Carey (which was only published last week! Talk about an exclusive…)
  • The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding (looks like a good example of gothic/steampunk crossover)

Contemporary steampunk

  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • Artemis Fowl (and others) by Eoin Colfer
  • Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding
  • Steampunk! ed Kelly Link and Gavin J Grant (short stories)
  • Clockwork Angel (Infernal Devices series) by Cassie Clare
  • Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
  • Haywired by Alex Keller
  • The Peculiar by Steffan Bachmann

*I’m indebted to Patrick Ness, Fletcher Moss, Melvin Burgess and Tony Bradman for their (and their followers’) help.

‘Nothing that isn’t right': the slush pile of rejection

Peanuts, by Charles Schultz

Peanuts, by Charles Schultz

Rejection. Even typing the word makes my back slump. The quote in the title is an actual line from a rejection email I received today, and tomorrow I hope it will make me laugh rather than holding my head in frustration. Because if you’re genuinely serious about this writing lark, then you have to accept, even prepare for, the cold hard kick in the stomach that is rejection. And then wait for it to kick again. And most likely again and then again, because you have no idea what will make it stop.

Chin up! I hear you say, there’s plenty more publishers/agents/grant providers/competitions/short story magazines/blogs-that-won’t-actually-pay-you-for-your- work in the sea! Look at JK Rowling! Look at – well, look at this entire website devoted to 100 great writers who were initially rejected. I would love to take heart from looking at them, only I am no Harper Lee, Stephanie Meyer or, indeed, JK Rowling.

The despondency that a rejection brings never fails to surprise me. I’ve had my fair share of ‘Thank you for sending us your work but…’s, and I like to think I’m pretty good at dusting myself off, but there’s something about having your work flung back at you which carries a particular sting. Perhaps it’s the hours of work, perhaps it’s because being published means so much, or perhaps it’s just plain old human insecurity and the need to be noticed.

I will laugh tomorrow, mainly because this is the most obtuse rejection reason I’ve every received. Then I’ll go for a run to the rhythm of the rejected writer Samuel Beckett’s words: Fail again. Fail better.

The Seven Ages of Picture Books

I recently wrote a guest post for the wonderful Picture Book Den blog. If you’re an author, illustrator or reader of picture books the blog’s a great read, as some fantastic picture books authors write for it regularly. This post is an edited version of the one that appeared there.

A selection from the 'Seven Ages'

A selection from the ‘Seven Ages’

My daughter is almost seven, and takes any and every opportunity to read. She will happily get through a book a day, and we make weekly library visits to replenish her supply. Current favourites are anything by Holly Webb, the pervasive Rainbow Fairies, Mr Gum, and the first ‘Little House’ books. Regular readers of this blog will know that she’s flown in wishing chairs and climbed up faraway trees and that she and I are working our way through the Narnia series (almost done). Her reading is fluent and sophisticated; she’s done with picture books.

Or so I assumed. Yet when I read to my children, my daughter invariably chooses a picture book, and listens enraptured. She never says, “too babyish” or “picture books are boring”. She listens to the story and investigates the illustrations with as much fascination as her just-reading younger brother.  I watched her class listening to their teacher reading them a John Burningham book the other day, and I considered this enduring appeal of picture books to older, literate children, and their presence in my adult life. It’s almost as if there are seven ages of picture books.

First age

My daughter’s first ‘reading’ experience was My Bunny Book. It’s a cloth book in bright colours, containing different sound and touch effects – crinkly bunny ears, boingy bunny leaps, strokable bunny fur. It’s tactile, dribble- and rip-proof, designed for chewing, grabbing, scrunching and bashing. The first age is all about wonder, discovery and curiosity, laying the vital foundations for a book-reading life.

Second age

This is the golden age of picture books. Now it’s all about real pleasure and appreciation – sharing books, understanding and discovering the absolute joy that stories can give. It’s the age of “Again!” “Read it!” and “More!” when 12 pages of short sentences or even single words become embedded within a parents’ consciousness, and libraries come into their own. It’s when you don’t just read, but talk about stories, characters and illustrations together, and children delight in discovering that there are other children (human or animal) that are like them.

Third age

My son is learning to read, and loves spotting words when I’m reading to him. In this third age of picture book reading a new world opens up, where a child can take control of their reading, and become more independent in their enjoyment of stories. It also adds another layer of interaction between adult and child – when I read to my son now, we share the experience in a more active way, and he can start to make the telling his own by using a different voice to mine.

This third age is also about stories taking on deeper meanings and enabling children to deal with life challenges and concepts. Of course such issues can be approached using picture books when they’re younger, but it seems that during this third age picture books offer a safe, non-threatening way to explore concepts and feelings that children can’t articulate. Recently, I read my children The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside, and I have rarely seen my daughter sit so completely still. I could almost feel the intensity of her interest in it, and it made me realise that perhaps there were anxieties that she felt unable to share which were being addressed by the book.

Fourth age

Now comes the pleasure of picking up a favourite picture book and actually being able to read it to yourself, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for you. The book is there to discover or re-discover for yourself, completely on your own. A child in this fourth age of picture-book reading has moved into that wonderful and everlasting realm of I’m Reading My Book.

Fifth age

This is where my daughter is now, a fluent, voracious reader, working her way through the middle-grade bookshelf. And yet she returns again and again to picture books, perhaps to re-create that security and comfort she felt as a baby or toddler being held close by a parent, when she didn’t have the responsibilities or requirements of school or friendships to manage and negotiate. She enjoys me telling her that Dear Zoo was one of her favourites, or that she loved the Blue Kangaroo books, in the same way as she loves looking at her baby photos.

Sixth and seventh ages

These are the adult ages. The sixth is all about nostalgia – I have shelves full of books that I owned as a child, the oldest being One Morning in Maine, which was given to me in 1973 on my third birthday. Many I have read to my own children, all three of us feeling the specialness of ‘mummy’s books when she was a little girl’. I have my own childhood memories and feelings bound up in them – I often find that memories are triggered by illustrations in a favourite picture book. Which leads me on to the seventh age – the reading of picture books to one’s own children, re-experiencing old ones, and discovering new ones.

I have written picture books, blogged about them, and read them to my children every day of their lives so far. And yet I have underestimated their power. Picture books lay the foundations of our future and become a constant in our lives, as enduring as the seven ages of life itself.

‘We couldn’t wait to get into bed!’ Dads reading to their children

My dad reading to my kids, just as he read to me when I was their age

My dad reading to my kids, just as he read to me when I was their age

Sometimes when I’m planning a blog post, life has a strange way of tossing me a hook. ‘What book have you been read aloud that you loved?’ tweeted the Library as Incubator Project, and I was instantly taken back to evenings lying in bed sucking my fingers, listening to my dad reading his way through the Narnia series, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It must have taken him months to get through that lot – in my memory it took pretty much my entire childhood, as the only other book I remember him reading to me is Watership Down. I should write a post about this, I thought.

The very next day, the reading and writing charity Booktrust announced their campaign to get dads reading more to their children. Apparently only one in eight dads take the lead in reading to their kids, 25% of whom blame working late for not reading stories at bedtime. Thank you Booktrust, for the perfect hook!

What benefits do children get from their dads reading to them? I can only speak for myself, but I hardly know where to start my list. Dad introduced me to some of the literary greats from a very young age – I was only six when he read the Narnia books, and barely seven when he read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He brought those stories alive for me by virtually acting them out, giving every character his or her own accent and characteristics – when I re-read those books as an adult my dad’s voices were in my head.

It gave me time alone with him, which was rare in our house – I usually had to share him with two brothers and a 60 hour-a-week job. As a result there are tiny memories that are exclusive to the two of us, which brought us closer and that over the years have helped deepen our relationship. By reading me books which some would consider too complex at my age, he widened my vocabulary, my love of language and my confidence in what I was capable of reading and understanding. He gave me an experience that I remember with absolute pleasure.

I did a straw poll among Facebook friends and Twitter contacts about their experiences of dads reading to them, and people broadly echoed Booktrust’s findings – many said that their dads didn’t read to them because of commutes to work or long working days (we are mostly children of the 80s after all). But I also elicited some beautifully-expressed andn obviously fondly-held memories. Books that were mentioned included some stalwart classics – Black BeautyThe JumbliesTom Sawyer, Treasure Island, The Princess and Curdie and The Midnight Folk, plus an American author I’d not heard of called Holling Clancy Holling. Slightly surreally, my sister-in-law’s unreligious and Jewish father read her and her sister the Old Testament…

Those whose dads did read to them used words such as ‘safe and secure’ and ‘comforting and reassuring’ to describe their memories. One talked about feeling scared (hers read ‘Little Suck-a-Thumb’), but that it was ‘ok to be scared with a dad there’. A few remembered the exciting, hilarious or crazy stories their dads would make up for them. One image I especially loved was a dad sitting on the end of the bed each night with a book, glass of whisky in hand. A memory for all the senses!

What I wasn’t expecting though (although it perhaps should have been obvious), was the number of people who said that their dads now read or tell the same stories to their grandchildren, or didn’t read to them but do now read to the grandkids. And of course there are those of us (myself included) who now read their children the books that their dads read them. There is clearly a strong and vital legacy of the ongoing cycle of dads reading, and passing on that sense of safety and security to the next generation. The photo above is my dad doing just that for my kids last spring. What more compelling reason could there be for all you dads out there to read to your kids at bedtime tonight!

Which books do you remember your dads reading to you? And dads – do you read to your children now?

What has the library ever done for us?

Lego library

Even lego figures go to the library.

There’s a lot of anxiety about libraries here in the UK. Like all the most valuable social resources in this country, they are under threat of closure through ever-decreasing lack of funding and the current vicious cuts in public spending. Library closure is rarely off the agenda, but it’s usually in a local context – now closures are becoming a national reality. In advance celebration of National Libraries Day on February 9th, I wanted to add my voice to the clamour of dismayed outrage, and relate how a library literally (ho ho) helped save my sanity.

It was only when I started to plan this post that I realised how consistent a backdrop to my life libraries have been. I still have a special pull-out from the Boston Globe in 1973 about  Boston Public Library, which features a photo of ‘child receiving individual attention’ – that child being me! (Incidentally Boston Public Library was on my ‘to do’ list while on holiday in New England last summer, and my heart actually started to beat faster when I stood in their incredible children’s section, 38 years after that photo was taken).

Exterior shot of Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library, July 2011

Libraries are about borrowing books (for free! That bit still floors me with its glorious embodiment of socialism), but they are about so much more. I have revised for and sat exams in libraries; I have written assignments, dissertations and Important Documents in libraries. Pre-internet I searched newspapers in libraries for job vacancies, and saved on heating bills by writing job applications in libraries. As a writer I have read my books to groups of children in libraries – I feel a personal affection for the libraries which have played their roles in the story of my life so far (with the possible exception of my university library, which was absolutely freezing, even in the summer, and where I would work wearing fingerless gloves and a large scarf).

Now I know the library has a role beyond providing books (free ones – did I mention that?), large tables and eager small children. Three years ago we moved out of London to a small town where I knew not a soul. I was on maternity leave with a baby and a toddler, I had left my closest friends, my support network of other mums, my work, my house, the last ten years of my life, the city that I loved. My brother was seriously ill. As if trying to increase my feelings of isolation, the phone company seemed completely unable to synchronise technology so that a phone and the internet worked in our home for a month after we moved in.

Long days alone with tiny children have defeated tougher women than me. By 10am I had been up for over four hours and had exhausted every ounce of creative play in my body. We’d done snacks, we’d done DVDs, we’d covered the entire bottom floor in jigsaws. I felt like Leia in the Star Wars scene where the walls of the rubbish chute start closing together, except there was no R2D2 to stop the walls squashing the brain cells out of my body. So every day at 10.30am we went to the playground, and then to the library. The library shimmered on the far side of the park like Oz, waiting to give me back my brain. Stepping through the doors was like walking into a huge hug. After an hour we would return, my brain restored, clutching new books to take us through the afternoon.

In the evenings I returned to the library alone, this time making my way upstairs to the computers and free (there’s that word again) internet. I would stay there until closing time, emailing my friends and re-connecting with the world I had left behind. Then I would cycle home, calmer and satisfied and able to face the next, year-long day.

I honestly believe that at a lonely and stressful time of my life, knowing that I could go to the library whenever I wanted for however long I wanted, with children and by myself, helped me cope without succumbing to depression. It helped me establish a routine in a new place. It became the familiar, the constant. It gave me a connection; to my old life and to my new one: after six weeks of daily visits, I met the person who became my first friend in this new town, and we – and our children – remain friends today.

Libraries are our nation’s collective sanity. They are therapy when you can’t afford therapy. They are the most accessible and non-judgemental institutions in existence. If we lose our libraries we don’t just lose potential knowledge, we lose the future of our country’s mental good health.

Me being read to, Boston Public Library 1973

‘Child receives individual attention’.     Boston Public Library, 1973

Update: there was such a tremendous amount of interest in this post! As a result you can read another piece by me about writing in libraries, published by the very lovely people at the Library as Incubator Project.