Monday, 30 April 2012

Why Go to London Book Fair 2012?

The question I've been asked most constantly in the last month has been:
"Why does an author go to a bookfair?"
It's a fair enough query, and I tried to answer it in my last Awfully Big Blog Adventure post, where you can see the film I made of Bologna Book Fair.

I made another film, this time of London Book Fair,  which you can watch below.
This will give you a flavour of the event, but for me, London Book fair is about more than just wandering the aisles with an iPad camera.  For a start there are the seminars.  LBF has a really excellent series of children's book events, ranging this year from Julia Donaldson talking about picture books to Celia Rees and Nick Lake on teenage fiction.  The seminar I got most of, though, was the one Bali Rai organised.  He had arranged for a panel of teenagers from two London schools to come and talk to us about what they wanted to see in a novel.  These are the notes I took at the event.  They're longish, but they make instructive reading for YA authors.
  • @balirai wanted the panel to happen because his argument is that young people need to be involved in the industry debate. 
  • The panel said that:young people are not represented realistically - maybe because authors aren't in touch with their own inner child/teen.
  • Hoodies are misrepresented by the press. The panel asked: “What do the media think teens are going to do?” Stereotypes are all wrong & don't represent real kids. Real kids are not as brave & emotionally strong as kids in books. Books don't represent the world real see every day. 
  • On Twilight: they found Bella Swan's passivity insulting. They don't like the way authors focus on small issues. They find it can make a book a bit narrow & one track minded. They want more diversity & a wider focus. 
  • Authors weren't always 40 (*clearly this age counts as ‘really old!). So why can't we tap into our own teen experiences? We need to treat teens as real, and to get into teenage head – we need to immerse our authorselves in their culture, music etc, ask them what matters, talk to them, show work to teens for feedback. 
  • Voice: how can it be more authentic? Kids text in slang. YA authors have to ‘get’ how teen lingo works.Best way to get genuine teen voice is to listen. Create a writing exercise in schools? Keep current on slang. Doesn't matter if slang dates. If you love books just makes it more authentic & places it in period. eg: Small Island by Andrea Levy. 
  • The panel considered that you stop being 'a child' when you go to secondary school. YA is a transitional phase where you start building yourself & going forward into adulthood. Maturity depends on mindset. The older ones in the panel found they appreciated teen books more at 15 than 12 – they said that there is a gap in middle where something is missing from their reading choice. “It’s a weird age” where younger teens can feel overconfident when looking back as older teen. Don't underestimate 12-15 year olds though, as it’s the age where they feel most patronised by adults. 
  • Panel were asked whether teens want to read about teens or older characters? They said they were fine with both – and can relate to either. Older characters can be interesting, though.
  • Parents can be influential in teen reading choices. Teen characters in books can also help YA readers feel 'normal' by exploring shared experience. 
  • The debate on boys and reading was split. Some said that boys 'don't get what reading means'. But the opposing view is that boys do get it, but are more 'under the radar'. @balirai says boys are closet readers because it's not seen as cool. 
  • Teens panel were adamant that authors should ignore the ‘gatekeepers’ on sex and swearing in books. Authors should “tell it how it is”. Teens “know it all anyway” & prefer reality to sanitised versions. However, But issues like domestic violence etc should be treated responsibly by authors. Issues shouldn't be avoided, but they should be discussed in a way that shows wrong from right. 
  • Non-fiction: the panel said it was less likely to be read (by them at least) because teens don't feel it's aimed at them, or publicised to them. Not interesting. 
  • Reality vs fantasy novels? Doesn't matter. It's about stepping into someone else's shoes. The act of really getting into someone else's head and being ‘taken away from their own lives’ is what attracts them. 
  • Teens access books through libraries, friend recommendations and Amazon. If title/blurb is good enough, they will read the book ie Killing God by Kevin Brooks. They said covers were less important to them. 
For that seminar alone it was worth going, not to mention the parties, the tweetups, the serendipitous encounters and the Bologna follow-up meeting I had (which I can't talk about, but which I hope will turn into something exciting in due course).  Finally there was Nicolette Jones interviewing Patrick Ness, the Wednesday Author of the Day.  I filmed the whole thing, and will start putting it up on SCC (in manageable short segments) later on this week, I hope, so do come back and visit. 

Friday, 27 April 2012


Scribble City Central's ninth Fantabulous Friday A-Z comes from John Dickinson.  I've been an admirer of John's work for years.  His Cup of the World trilogy is historical fantasy at its very best, and his last book, WE, convinced me to give science-fiction (not usually my reading material of choice) another chance.  Here's what I said about it:
"It's a book which made me think a lot, not least about how we modern humans relate to the other people around us, both near and far--and how our social communications patterns have already changed beyond recognition from, let us say, fifteen or twenty years ago. It wasn't particularly comfortable thinking, either. But although it is certainly bleak in both subject matter and setting, it's not a book without hope. I liked it very much indeed."

John's latest book (coming in August from David Fickling Books) is Muddle and Win, and I've been lucky enough to read an early copy.  It's somewhat of a departure for John, being for a younger reader than is his normal audience.  John is one of our finest writers today, I think, and this book is a deep, dark and many-layered work of the imagination as well as being very funny.  Yet again, he's made me ponder and wonder about the very personal conflicts between good and evil within ourselves.  He's also made me wish for my own personal Muddlespot devil (possibly without the addition of brass hammer and gloopy bloody bits).  Which seems like the perfect time to hand you over to John himself to tell you about:
John in Wizardly guise!

D for Devil
Power-Broker of Pandemonium

JD: The Devil has power. Many people believe he exists. Some say they have met him.

…an expression appeared on the patient’s face that could only be described as Satanic,” wrote M Scott Peck. “It was an incredibly contemptuous grin of utter hostile malevolence. I have spent many hours before a mirror trying to emulate it without the slightest success.”

M. Scott Peck , M.D People of the Lie 

Type the word ‘dragon’ or ‘vampire’ and you’ll get a thrill. But dragons and vampires don’t really exist. You know that. Type the word ‘devil’ and you’re playing with fire.

Writers like fire. We think we can handle it. The devil has appeared, in some form or other, in all my books. I like him not just because of the power, but because the threat he poses is more than physical. A dragon can fry you. A vampire will suck your blood. But the contest with the devil is fought in your own head. He’s inside your defences before you even start. And if you fall, then anything that is good about you is turned inside out. In that sense you are truly destroyed.

He’s an all-rounder. He can take many roles. He used to be big as the demon-lover until the vampires got that franchise (cheap East European labour pushing out an established brand). He’s also a rebel. Wherever there is stifling moral authority, the devil can don jeans and climb on a motorbike and lead us roaring away to glorious, dangerous freedom. Blake saw it in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Pullman cast him as Lord Asriel. Shaw invoked him in The Devil’s Disciple, where the hero is in revolt against the Puritan culture of his home town, and declares his house to be “The House of the Devil”, (before being forced by circumstances and his own nature to risk his life for others and ending up becoming a priest – Shaw liked a joke). In this guise we’re on his side, because he’s the underdog. He stands for freedom. And we’re still playing with fire.

In Muddle and Win the hero is a little devil called Muddlespot. He gets sent up from Hell by his bosses, like a secret agent into enemy territory. His mission is to get into the mind of a girl called Sally Jones and secure her ‘defection’. This proves a lot harder than he expects. Sally is top of her class, always does her homework, always keeps her room tidy, is liked by everybody and she knows who she is. And when he finally starts to make some headway, Heaven responds by sending an angel called Windleberry in against him. The story is about how the three of them get on together.

It’s a light-hearted little tale and it was great fun to write. The very worst that happens is that a tray of muffins gets over-cooked. But underneath it all, there’s fire.

SCC: Thank you so much for visiting, John, and for being so illuminating about the D-word!  John is also visiting the wonderful Seven Miles of Steel Thistles blog today, talking about Scheherezade and the Arabian Nights - well worth popping over there right now!

Next week: The inimitable Jonathan Stroud, author of the Bartimeus series, talks to us about D for Djinni.  See you then! 

Friday, 20 April 2012


Scribble City Central's  eighth Fantabulous Friday comes from John Dougherty, author of (among many other wonderful titles) the Bansi O' Hara books.  I'm always a sucker for Irish myths, and John has taken many elements from them here and woven his characters into two magically funny and exciting plots.

I absolutely loved these books (and secretly hope I can be Mrs Nora Maura Margaret Mullarkey when I grow up).  Bansi herself is feisty, engaging and brave - all things I require in a heroine - and the double act of Tam and Pogo charmed the socks off me and made me laugh.  I'm ashamed to say that I didn't know much about Cluricauns, so Flooter was a bit of a revelation to me.  I'm delighted that John chose this particular being to write about - one of the pleasures of this series for me is that it's turning out to be an education for me as well as my lovely blog readers.  I will therefore pass you over to John to tell you about:

C for Cluricaun
Haunter of Cellars

JD: One of the great shames of growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s-1980s was the way that everything cultural was politicised.

The effect of this on even fairly apolitical children like myself was enormous. I remember being told precisely one Irish folk tale during my entire schooling - that of Finn MacCool and the Giantʼs Causeway - and a couple of fairly innocuous folk songs managed to sneak their way into music lessons, but really that was about it. Any attempt beyond that to connect us with the folklore and traditions of Ireland would have been seen, in my home town at least, as tantamount to encouraging us to don balaclavas and bomb innocent people out of house and home.

As a result, the only creature from Irish legend I could identify - apart from the mighty Finn himself - was the leprechaun, or rather the horribly twee version of him beloved by cynical Tourist Boards, which came to typify for me all that was ghastly about stage and screen Oirishness (see Tommy Steele in Finianʼs Rainbow for a particularly gruesome example).

As I grew, though, and especially after my move to England in my early twenties, I became more and more aware of my own Irishness, and of an ancient culture of which that blooming leprechaun was at best an incredibly clumsy caricature. And as I began to experiment with writing for children, I began to want to write something with at least some reference to that culture.

The first half-finished draft of the story that was to become Bansi OʼHara and the Bloodline Prophecy played around with this idea. It included sly references to stories Iʼd begun to discover, such as The Children of Lir, and to ideas from Celtic mythology that had their parallels in other cultures, like skin-changers. But there were also, in that first draft, great big holes in the plot, and characterisation issues, and I put it aside for a few years, always meaning to come back to it.

When I eventually did, I switched the characters of Fionnula and Aed - named after two of Lirʼs children, but whose propensity for turning into swans was entirely voluntary - for a brownie (borrowed from Scots & English folklore) and a púca (very definitely Irish), ditched an extraneous character, and sent Bansi off on her adventures. And then came the point at which Pogo, the brownie, and Tam, the púca, lost Bansi and had a furious row about it, and I needed another character to defuse the situation and perhaps add a bit of light relief.

This was when the cluricaun first properly entered my life. The word had already caught my eye amidst the long lists of faery creatures Iʼd come across, largely because of its similarity to the name of the Cluracan, one of the cast of characters in Neil Gaimanʼs Sandman series, itself probably something of an influence on Bansiʼs world.

What appealed to me most was the cluricaunʼs reputation for drunkenness. Theyʼre always drunk. Itʼs their defining characteristic. In fact, some sources reckon the cluricaun is just a leprechaun on a bender after work - but not in my story, he wasnʼt. I even consciously went for the spelling without the ʻhʼ (it can also be rendered ʻclurichaunʼ) just to avoid any confusion with the green-jacketed little stereotype.

I was also drawn to what I saw as a devil-may-care attitude. The cluricaun is likely to hijack a dog or even a sheep, leap on its back, and go off for a wild and drunken ride in the moonlight. Iʼve known people with that sort of attitude, and frequently theyʼre infuriating and charming in equal measure.

Legends being what they are, a number of different - and sometimes contradictory - descriptions of the cluricaun are available, and so I felt rather at liberty to pick and choose. I gave my cluricaun the red cap that some sources describe as distinguishing him from the leprechaun, and ignored any portrayal that gave him a green jacket, silver-buckled shoes, or any item of clothing that might make a Tourist Board official sit up and take notice. Some accounts have him as surly, others jolly; this I put down to individual differences, and decided that my cluricaun would be something of a cheerful comedy drunk. He was small, of course (everyone seemed to agree that a cluricaun is one of the Little People) and a red nose was a fairly commonly described feature - to which I added cheerfully red cheeks over a greyish complexion.

Generally speaking, the cluricaun is said to occupy wine cellars - guarding them if youʼre good, drinking or spoiling them if youʼre not. There werenʼt any wine cellars in the story, but I managed to work in a sarcastic reference to them from Pogo, who at last agrees to continue working with Tam only because teaming up with a cluricaun would be even worse.

And that was my little cluricaunʼs job done. Flooter, as Iʼd named him, could wobble off into the sunset. But did he? Like heck he did. Once heʼd found his way into my story, I couldnʼt get rid of him. Every time I thought heʼd finally exited, there he was again, like the cheerfully persistent drunk who befriends you at the bar. And before I knew it, heʼd become essential.

So, as much as I love classical mythology, from now on you can keep your Bacchus and your Dionysus. Partly for Flooterʼs sake, and for the sake of my children who love him probably as much as they love any character Iʼve created; but partly because the little red- nosed man who lives in your wine cellar and goes on mad drunken rides on dogback speaks to me of real, human drunkenness and folly much more than any demigod - and, I realise as I write this, reminds me somehow of the friendly, pathetic drunks I used to sometimes see and puzzle over as a child.

SCC: Thank you, John. Cluricauns definitely trump leprechauns for me now - by a long way.  I reckon an evening out with Flooter would be an education...perhaps with Dionysus/Bacchus tagging along to pick up some drinking tips.

Next week: John Dickinson, author of WE and the upcoming Muddle and Win will be starting the Ds with D for Devil. 

Friday, 13 April 2012


Scribble City Central's seventh Fantabulous Friday creature comes all the way from the myths of Nepal. 

When I first saw a copy of John Jackson's Tales for Great Grandchildren I was blown away. It’s rare to come across a children’s book with the production values of a bygone era – John’s book is such a one. I'm not the only one who likes the stories either.  Jamila Gavin calls them "immaculate; timeless tales…that children will pore over time and time again." and she's quite right. The attention to detail is no less than marvellous – beautiful design throughout (including endpapers and exquisite chapter openers) – with original pictures by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini which have a touch of both Arthur Rackham and Anthony Browne. The stories themselves are told with a light touch and a fine sprinkle of wit, and I particularly liked The Magic Goat. As a reteller myself, I know how a quality book of myths should feel. This one ticks all the boxes, and (for me) has the added plus of introducing me to some wonderful new stories from Nepal and northern India. For those of you with an iPad, it's also available as an app, and I've had great pleasure looking at the animated pictures on that too. 

I'd never heard of Chhepu before, and I'm willing to bet most of you haven't either.  I'm therefore delighted to hand you over to John, who will tell you all about this delightful creature.

C for Chhepu
Guardian Against Evil

JJ: I encountered Chhepu whilst I was rummaging through the myths and legends of the Nepalis.

I arrived in Kathmandu at the end of the monsoon season, October 1978. At that time the Nepalese government had made it possible for the first time to trek around the Annapurna Himal, a section of the Himalayas in north central Nepal and one of the eight highest peaks in the world. I’d always wanted to go somewhere where Europeans had not been and I knew there would be people there, particularly children, who would be seeing Europeans for the first time.

Mike Cheney, a former Captain in the 10th Gurkha Rifles, who was now living in Kathmandu helped me prepare for my journey which would take four weeks and cover about 300 miles or 483 kilometres. Mike entertained me with little snips and scraps of Nepalese stories, including one about a particularly interesting character, that would feature in the first of my Tales for Great Grandchildren.

Chhepu is the central character in a legend about the creation of the valley in which the ancient city of Kathmandu stands. In that legend, one of a number that can be traced back to the 4th or 5th century AD, Chhepu lived first in the muddy bottom of the lake which filled the valley. And then, when the lake had emptied through a gap made in the surrounding hills by an inquisitive giant, deep under the valley’s floor.

I suspected that a boulder I observed, rounded by wind and rain and shaped like a head, which lay half buried in the earth near a temple in the oldest part of Kathmandu was all that remained of a statue erected long ago in Chhepu’s honour. Considered one of the bravest and most truthful of all creatures, his image can often be found above the main entrances of temples and shrines as a guardian against all things evil.

Other stories say that Chhepu was one among three brothers. One of them was the much better known, Garuda, king of the birds and enemy of snakes, who usually appears in human form with the head of an eagle; the other, Hitimanga, was probably a water god.

Their mother had begged her husband to help her have a son who would be ‘the bravest, the most truthful and endowed with all superiority.’ She was told to wait but being too impatient she looked in the nursery to discover whether he was born or not. She found Chhepu in a premature condition with only his head formed.

So, in the traditional image of Chhepu – a giant head eating nagas (snakes) with only his face, and sometimes his hands, visible – his unformed body is always concealed.

When she was researching him the illustrator of Tales for Great Grandchildren, Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini, had found this story of Chhepu’s creation. He is seen in his story, for the first time possibly, with a body. Daniela also studied his depiction in traditional paintings before adding her ‘little touch of rhinoceros.’ ‘The rhinoceros is an animal that I find incredibly fascinating in his strange mix of primordial, aggressive and cute at the same time,’ she says.

As envisaged by me, Chhepu was a large, hideous, scaly monster but with a gentle disposition. In all probability, I was influenced by ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ an awareness of the interplay between external beauty and hidden, internal beauty which lies deep in all of us. It is an example of how ‘knowledge’ buried in what Jung called the collective unconscious and what Freud called archaic remnants, both shared by all of us, surfaces and influences human perception and behaviour.

We do not need to be told by our parents that it is fundamentally wrong to tell untruths, however harmless, or even desirable, the consequences may seem to be. We ‘know’ it – instinctively. That is the theme of another one of my stories – The Lie. The same is true of our ‘knowledge’ that right is on the side of the small and courageous holding fast against the large and tyrannical. In my story, Vijaya, the brave little rabbit is David and the elephant is Goliath.

I believe that much of the pleasure gained by readers of such stories, of all ages, flows from the recognition of ‘truths’ that they have ‘known’ for a long time. Jung with his collective unconscious, Freud with his archaic remnants and those faiths which accept the notion of reincarnation, all say in their own way that we are born with an inheritance of ancient knowledge embedded in us. I think my book, Tales for Great Grandchildren, reflects that.

I don’t know yet whether Chhepu is going to appear in another one of my Tales but if he did shamble in I should be very glad to meet him and say ‘Namaskar,’ ‘I bless the divine in you.’ I am very, very fond of him. I feel that he and I started on the journey towards Tales for Great Grandchildren together.

SCC: Thank you so much for visiting, John.  That was a really interesting post, and I definitely want to hear more about Chhepu, so I hope he does shamble into your life again. 

Next week: John Dougherty spills the beans on C for Clurichaun

Friday, 6 April 2012


Scribble City Central's sixth Fantabulous Friday comes from Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles, which I made my Book of the Year for 2011.  Here's what I said about it:
This is one of the best retellings I've read in years (if not ever), and that's why I'm making it my Book of the Year. For a debut novel, it's extraordinary - and I think we may have a new Mary Renault on our hands here. Yes, she's really that good. Madeline Miller has brought alive the old story of Achilles and Patroclus (the book is told from Patroclus's point of view), and given it a fresh and interesting angle. She clearly knows her Homer and associated sources, but what I really appreciated was the deft, spare beauty of the writing itself. I hope Bloomsbury know what a treasure they've got here, and I'm hoping this one will win prizes in 2012. It surely deserves to. If you only buy a single book on this list, make it this one.
Madeline really knows her myths, which pleases me no end, and so I'm delighted to pass you over to her for her fascinating and informative piece on
Photographic credit: Nina Subin

C for Centaur
                           Hooligan of the Ancient World
MM: If Greek mythology had a villain, it would be centaurs. These savage creatures, with the torso of a man and the body of a horse, were the ancient embodiment of all the worst parts of human nature. As a child I found them much more frightening than monsters like the chimera or the hydra because unlike them, centaurs might be anywhere. In the ancient myths, they are constantly crashing into people’s lives, breaking up weddings, assaulting women, and murdering innocents.

Centaur misbehavior was so well known it was actually immortalized on the metopes, the marble panels that adorned the Parthenon. At the wedding of the Lapith King Pirithoos (a close companion of Theseus), the centaurs who had been invited got drunk and tried to carry off the bride and other women. A huge battle ensued, and eventually the centaurs were defeated. Such depictions of fights with centaurs became so popular that they actually had their own name—“centauromachies” (literally, centaur fights).
The barbaric behavior of centaurs (kentauroi) might be traced back to their ancestor, the wicked King Ixion. Ixion attempted to rape the goddess Hera, but was prevented at the last minute by Zeus, who substituted a nymph named Nephele instead. She bore a monstrous child, Kentaurus, who depending on the myth was either the first centaur, or who mated with horses and produced the first centaur.

Maybe the most famous centaur story is the one about Heracles and his wife Deianeira. The two arrive at the river Evenus, where the centaur Nessus has set himself up as the ferryman. Heracles boosts Deianeira onto Nessus’ back, but rather than taking her over the river, the centaur starts to run off with her. Heracles pulls out one of his hydra-poisoned arrows and shoots Nessus who, before dying, whispers to Deianeira his apologies and says that she should gather up a bit of his blood. Then, if she ever doubts her husband’s faithfulness, she can give him some of it, and it will make him love her again. Deianeira foolishly believes him and does indeed slip her husband some of the poisoned blood. Heracles dies in agony and Nessus, in death, has his revenge.

All of this might make you wonder what it is about centaurs that I find appealing. I can answer you in a single word: Chiron. This learned centaur has always been one of my absolute favorite characters in Greek mythology, as gentle, just and wise as his cousins are barbarous. In fact, vase painters would often depict him as having a full man’s body with only two horse feet behind, just to show how different he was.

Chiron’s name comes from the Greek “cheir” meaning hand, a reference to his skill at surgery, a word which itself comes from the Greek “cheirurgos,” literally “hand-worker.” He was also gifted in music, prophecy, hunting, and many other arts, and became the teacher and tutor of numerous ancient heroes. His charges would eventually include Jason, the great doctor Asclepius, and (most relevant for me) Achilles. He was one of the few ancient immortals who was always benevolent and generous to us messy humans.

Given that my book covers Achilles’ entire life, including his education at the hands (hooves?) of Chiron, I knew that I would be including him in my book. At first, I will admit, I was a bit daunted. But Chiron quickly became one of my favorite characters to imagine and write, and I particularly identified with him as a teacher, since that’s what I am. Here’s some of what Achilles and Patroclus learn from him:
That day, after we ate, we joined Chiron for his chores. It was easy, pleasurable work: collecting berries, catching fish for dinner, setting snares. The beginning of our studies, if it is possible to call them that. For Chiron liked to teach, not in set lessons, but in opportunities. When the goats that wandered the ridges took ill, we learned how to mix purgatives for their bad stomachs, and when they were well again, how to make a poultice that repelled their ticks. When I fell down a ravine, fracturing my arm and tearing open my knee, we learned how to set splints, clean wounds, and what herbs to give against infection.

On a hunting trip, after we had accidentally flushed a corncrake from its nest, he taught us how to move silently, and how to read the scuffles of tracks. And when we had found the animal, the best way to aim a bow or sling so that death was quick.

If we were thirsty and had no waterskin, he would teach us about the plants whose roots carried beads of moisture. When a mountain-ash fell, we learned carpentry, splitting off the bark, sanding and shaping the wood that was left. I made an axe handle, and Achilles the shaft of a spear; Chiron said that soon we would learn to forge the blades for such things.

Chiron has been a popular figure in both art and literature, and pops up in a number of modern works. John Updike’s “The Centaur” is based on the life of Chiron, and Chiron also features in Elizabeth Cook’s novel “Achilles.” He is a character in the Percy Jackson series, and I like to think that the Classics-loving J. K. Rowling was inspired by Chiron in her portrait of the wise centaurs (Firenze especially) in the “Harry Potter” series. Chiron even appears in astronomy and astrology, immortalized as the constellation Sagittarius.

So, yes, C is for Centaur. But, more importantly, it’s for CHIRON.

SCC: I've always loved Chiron too, Madeline, but you're right - centaurs are generally quite scary beings. Thank you so much for visiting Scribble City Central - and after reading that lovely extract,  I hope lots of people will now go and seek out your wonderful book. 

Next week: John Jackson, author of Tales for Great Grandchildren talks about C for Chhepu (and I bet you've never heard of one of those!)

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