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.

‘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.

No break in the sun: supporting child runaways

Happy New Year! I was going to do a writer’s resolutions-type post to welcome in 2013, but a more worthy cause than myself caught my eye.

The website Mumsnet is working with the charity Railway Children and Aviva to raise awareness of children running away from home in the UK. They’ve asked for blogs about any aspects of the issue, with the incentive that for each blog post Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children. They will also donate another £2 for each comment on the post, and for any tweets or mentions on Facebook. How could I (and you, oh reader) ignore a cause like that?

I have no direct experience of children (defined by Railway Children as young people under 16) running away. Growing up, any notions I had of ‘running away’ were based mostly around images of animals setting off from home with all their belongings wrapped in a red spotty handkerchief tied to the end of a stick. I once ran a hundred yards up the road on holiday after my dad got cross with me, which demonstrates the extent of my ignorance.

But when I started to think about this, I realised that there was a book that made a great impact on my understanding of children who might feel desperate enough to run away. This was Break in the Sun by Bernard Ashley. I first came across it as a serial on children’s television – a quick Google search shows me that this would have been in 1981, so I’d have been 10 or 11 years old. Annoyingly, I can’t find my copy of the book, which showed a still from the series of the heroine, Patsy Bligh, so I can’t remind myself of it properly.

From what I remember, the story centres around Patsy who is miserable at home with her worn out, stressed out mother (with new baby) and stepfather Eddy who spends his time watching TV and shouting at Patsy. Her anxiety reveals itself as she starts to wet the bed, and she decides to run away to Margate where she and her mother used to live with an old lady, Mrs Broadley. Patsy is convinced that if she can find the old lady again all her problems will be solved. En route she hooks up with a travelling theatre company who agree to help her out (she tells them some elaborate lies about, I think, meeting up with her grandmother), but her idyll is threatened when she discovers that Eddy is trying to find her and she must stay one step ahead of him.

Break in the Sun was and is an extraordinary book. It portrayed Patsy’s anxiety and unhappiness so vividly – I still remember feeling her terror when she wakes up in a wet bed and anticipates her stepfather finding out. It showed how much children become conditioned by the way adults treat them – Patsy believes that she is useless, a baby, pathetic, no good, because that’s what Eddy tells her – and how hard they find it to trust another adult who might be able to help. It also shows how fixated children become on one thing which they think will be the solution to everything (in Patsy’s case, finding Mrs Broadley), and how at an end they can feel their lives to be when reality shatters the dream.

The remarkable thing about Break in the Sun though, was that it not only gives the young reader an insight into Patsy’s life, but also into the motives, fears and experiences that drive adult behaviour. Through Patsy’s (and therefore our) eyes, Eddy is an angry, hard man. As the story unfolds, and its perspective shifts to follow Eddy, we discover a man brutalised by a childhood with a violent father (I can’t remember, but he may have been an alcoholic), who as a child valued his own life so little that he took literally life-threatening risks, embittered by the overwhelming responsibilities of a new wife, new baby and step-daughter. We come to understand Eddy a little better, and realise that he is a gentler, softer and kinder man than we, Patsy, and even he assume.

What a powerful book then, aimed at youngish readers (there wasn’t really a YA classification in those days, but as Patsy is 11 the book was certainly for pre-teens), that is nonetheless sophisticated enough to enable at least one reader (i.e. me), to understand the perspectives of the mistreated and the mistreater (the latter is the clumsiest of words, but I hesitate to use ‘abused and abuser’ as Patsy is not abused in the sense that we use the word today), and the complexities of emotions that lead to desperation and unhappiness.

In a sense, Break in the Sun belongs to a more apparently innocent age, and is aimed at younger readers. This means that there is little hint of the potential risks that a child runaway may face – sexual exploitation, drug and alcohol dependency and violence are just a few highlighted by Railway Children. It also has a happy ending – Eddy is given the opportunity to reflect on his own childhood as a result of Patsy running away, and of how this might have affected his treatment of Patsy and the two eventually develop a mutual respect of one another. I’m sure that the stories of some child runaways also end happily, or are at least resolved in a way that will make that child’s adult life an easier one. But of course there will also be those whose stories aren’t reconciled so easily and these are the children that need help and support.

Are there other children’s or YA books that you have read that you would also recommend to raise awareness? Do you have any experience, either directly or indirectly, of children running away?Remember that for every comment posted Aviva will donate £2 to Railway Children – here’s a breakdown of how comments could translate into help:

£1 could buy a warm drink for a vulnerable child on the streets (one comment)
£5 could buy a warm meal for a young person staying in a refuge (three comments)
£10 could fund resources for 30 young people at a runaway prevention workshop (five comments)
£25 could help keep one of our workers on the streets, seeking out children who may be at risk (13 comments)
£50 could pay for 1:1 support sessions to help a child work through their issues (25 comments)

Update on 17th January – I’ve started reading Break in the Sun again, and it’s even better than I remember.

On reading favourite childhood books to your children

Since the day my children first drew breath I have been waiting to read them my favourite childhood books. No, really. Patience is not a virtue I possess. It was fun with the picture books – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, Mog, The Hungry Caterpillar and the rest. But as we move through each phase of literacy and development and get closer to the big-hitters, I can hardly contain my excitement.

As you might have gathered if you read this blog regularly, books from my childhood and young adulthood are hugely important to me and who I am. Certain books have influenced my values and choices, formed some of my most influential memories, contributed to the person I’ve become. I love the idea of my kids getting older so I can introduce them to the authors who meant the most to me.

On the other hand there’s a real anxiety. What if they don’t like the books I loved, or don’t get them, or find them dated, or simply aren’t interested? Books can be pivotal in forming relationships – love the one I couldn’t live without and I love you. Love the one I threw across the room in disgust and our friendship is doomed. If my daughter felt no affection for Pippi Longstocking would this lessen our bond?

Well, we’ve done Pippi Longstocking and thankfully they loved it (despite my hasty editing out of some of the shockingly racist language). Roald Dahl is a guaranteed hit and luckily they appreciated my absolute favourite, Danny the Champion of the World (“Why are you crying?” my son asked in awe as I choked through the last line of the final chapter). We’ve done Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat (a lot wordier than I remember), and the little-known (but much loved by me) The Tale of Holly and Ivy which had my daughter transfixed. And now I’ve finally taken the plunge with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Yes, I know it’s not the first one in the series. Yes, I know The Magician’s Nephew is possibly better. But they’re only 6 and 4, and I’m honestly not sure they’d get all the nuances of the first book. It’s also quite frightening in places – Jadis with her bare arms and giant stature standing amid the ruins of a dead city terrified me 35 years ago. And anyway, this is the order in which I read them and it never did me any harm. It probably made me appreciate both books more, in fact – The Magician’s Nephew is almost like a prequel to the more famous Lion.

So I started the tale of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy at bedtime this evening, with, I’ll admit, some trepidation. The kids listened, they asked lots of questions about fauns, and about dryads, and about who would be next to go into the wardrobe. They were very specific about the children’s ages, and who had been my favourite when I was a little girl (Lucy, obviously). Strangely they didn’t ask what was meant by ‘Daughter of Eve’, so we’ll save that piece of theology for another day (I’d better brush up, as there’ll be plenty more as we proceed through). But most importantly they wanted another chapter, and when I kissed my son goodnight I noticed him eyeing up the wardrobe in the corner of his bedroom with a curiosity I’d not seen before….

Anyone out there read old favourites to their kids? How did they (and you) react?

Write what you know

I think that ‘write what you know’ is one of the most mis-interpreted pieces of creative writing advice there is. If all authors literally wrote ‘what they know’, it would lead to very introspective and unimaginative work (unless your life was wildly exciting, which mine really isn’t). I was reflecting on what it really means to ‘write what you know’, and realised that it’s more about the images and ideas which are part of your experiences in life generally, that become part of your writing in a more subconscious way.

Here’s a couple of examples. In my first children’s book, A Safe Place, the ‘booming bridge’ is a railway bridge over a busy road next to Finsbury Park station in London. It was very clear in my head as I was writing (perhaps partly because my future husband once gave me a hug underneath it while a train boomed overhead). The cooling towers that Kyla sees from the train window were part of the view on my termly train journey between home and university in York many (many) years ago. In my second book, Danny’s Adventure Bus, the traffic jam that Danny and mum are stuck in was the same jam I would sit in after a long day at work when I was too tired (or lazy) to walk the 20 minutes from the tube station home.

(By the way, the illustrators of these books had no idea what was in my head when they interpreted my text, so the illustrations aren’t necessarily those exact places. Although Paul Cemmick captures the high street pretty well…).

When I started writing my YA novel I set it in a small, unidentified town. It could be any small town in the UK – I had nowhere particular in mind. I was living in London when I started writing the book, so as far away from a small town as it was possible to get. Many years later we moved out of London, and after a few months I realised: the book’s setting, the town where Asif and Chloe live, despite me basing it on nowhere, is actually the small town in which I live now. This was a spooky realisation – perhaps writing ‘what you know’ can also be about writing what you don’t know yet but will know one day!