All there is to know

A friend recently recommended an online course called Masterclass. I’ve only just got around to looking it up. I was a bit suspicious to be honest, the idea of a pre-recorded, virtual teacher was not exactly appealing. I tend to like real-life teachers, very much. I am lucky in that most of mine were inspiring, selfless, passionate and made a significant impact on my life.

Image courtesy of Masterclass

Image courtesy of Masterclass

But I’m loving the class. It’s called ‘Storytelling’ and it’s given by Neil Gaiman. Yes, I would like it if I was sitting across from him, inside the picturesque writer’s cabin breathing in the bookish, woodland air, able to ask questions and interacting in real time, but I’m not. I’m on my daughter’s beanbag covered in dog hair with the lap top balanced on a pile of books. The thing is, it doesn’t matter as much as I thought it would. There’s real value in this for what it is. I’m still listening to him talk about the craft of writing and I’m still learning.

One of the many things I love about writing is that I’ll never know all there is to know, howsoever I try.


Masterclass link (I should add that it’s not free although for $185 you are allowed access to as many of the classes as you want for up to a year. I’m hoping to do Margaret Atwood’s on creative writing next. And then David Mamet and then Judy Blume… and then if I’m not square-eyed by the end of those, I’ll try something totally random, like French Pastry Fundamentals.)

Neil Gaiman interview in Vanity Fair: On His New Storytelling MasterClass, Good Omens, and the Upside of Twitter

An in depth review of Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass by the Write Practice

Podcast: Neil Gaiman interview with Tim Ferris 2019

An unexpected invitation

I was in LA recently and walked past a big board on the sidewalk. It looked like the kind of graffiti you might see in any city, any state in America. I didn’t even notice it. But then I walked past it again and something caught my eye. I looked more closely. The board had been divided into two panels. They were, in fact, invitations to respond to the following two prompts:

  1. THINGS THAT SCARE ME.

  2. WHAT I’M GOING TO DO ABOUT IT.

I was surprised by some of the entries, some of the things that people had shared. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s weird and rude but a lot of it was personal, moving and raw. If you look closely you’ll find thoughts like: not doing my best to change the world, missing my opportunity to do and be something I’m passionate about, being vulnerable, disappointing my family, speaking out, forgetting how to play piano. But the thing that really caught my eye, the thing that made me smile most is on the second panel, below.

Panel 1: Things that scare me

Panel 1: Things that scare me

It’s written in red. And it speaks to the power of storytelling. Maybe the person who wrote it is a writer, maybe they’re a musician, maybe a playwright or an actor. Or maybe none of those things. Maybe it was just a person, expressing their way of trying to make sense of things, of trying to engage with fear. Because that’s what storytelling can do. That’s how powerful it is.

Panel 2 : What I’m going to do about it

Panel 2 : What I’m going to do about it

World Book Day

There are lots of days in honour of different purposes, causes, reasons and needs. In fact there are so many now (there’s ‘a day’ for toasted marshmallows apparently) that it’s impossible to keep track of them all, even the significant ones.

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I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I’m not a big Halloween person. Halloween is not ‘a day in honour of’ so much as a cultural tradition, especially in the States. If I’m being honest - I’m that person who is genuinely freaked out by the murdered corpse fake vomiting blood into my child’s trick or treat basket. Honestly, it gives me nightmares. Yes, I know it’s fake. It still gives me nightmares. Plus the amount of sweets and candies they collect is indefensible. And my kids have food allergies. The whole thing is a nightmare EXCEPT for the dressing-up part. The children love thinking of costumes, of becoming somebody else for the day, making props, digging around the house and getting some glue and paints out. And because we are lucky to have a lot of books in our house, it’s become a family tradition for the kids to choose characters from some of their favourite stories.

The B.F.G, Sophie and Robin Hood

The B.F.G, Sophie and Robin Hood

Imagine my excitement when friends in England started telling me about World Book Day. World Book Day has become a thing in the UK. It is basically Halloween without dead bodies and candies. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s more than that. If you’re a reader of children’s literature or a writer of children’s literature and you’ve never heard of World Book Day (most of my American friends have not) then have a look at their website, link below. It’s brilliant.

There are interviews with writers like Malorie Blackman and Patrice Lawrence on connecting with your character, masterclasses on inspiration, poetry and world building, Jeff Kinney talking about writing funny, there are new releases for all ages on sale for $1 (actually it’s a pound, but I can’t find the pound symbol on my American laptop) quizzes, story ideas, writing prompts, book lists and resources for librarians and teachers.

Children all over the country go to school for the day in costume, read books and talk about books. It prompts important conversations about the immeasurable value of libraries, inclusivity, diversity and equity in children’s literature, books, writing and the importance of sharing stories, for fun. For fun.

World Book Day official website

World Book Day: Author and Illustrator Masterclasses

The Guardian: article on World Book Day Costumes

The Guardian: article by Julia Donaldson on call for diversity in children’s literature

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The story knows best

I’m currently reading this collection of essays by the beloved children’s writer, Philip Pullman. There are plenty of craft books I go back to again and again and I’m sure I’ll be adding this one to my collection.

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For now, here’s just one of the many extracts that resonated with me and it’s something that Kate DiCamillo talks about too - the idea that the story you are telling has a life of its own, that the story is in some way cleverer than its teller. Perhaps ‘cleverer’ isn’t the right word. ‘Bigger’, maybe.

“What I seem to be saying here, rather against my will, is that stories come from somewhere else. It’s hard to rationalise this, because I don’t believe in a somewhere else…It certainly feels as if the story comes to me, but perhaps it comes from me, from my unconscious mind - I just don’t know; and it wouldn’t make any difference to the responsibility either way. I still have to look after it. I still have to protect it from interference while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants. Yes, it wants. “ From Magic Carpets, an essay on the writer’s responsibilities, by Philip Pullman.

Fact and fiction

Many of the stories I write are imaginary, fantastical and completely made up. But the one I’m working on now is a little different.

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It’s about communication and how we try (and often fail) to understand one another. It’s also about our relationship with the natural world and the notion that everything speaks, just not the same language. All three of the main characters have come to me by way of real events, real stories and real people. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to write about any of them. Writers make things up all the time - that’s what we do, but this time it feels different. I need facts. It will not be a true story, but it needs to be a possible one. So I’ve been doing research. All sorts of research.

And last week I met a snow leopard.

I watched the way he moved, the expression in his pale grey eyes, the flick of his tail, the positioning of his ears, his whiskers, the way he licked his tongue, the texture and patterning of his coat. I listened to the timbre of his growl and the softness of his greeting or chuff - a surprisingly sweet combination of a sneeze and a snort. And I learned from him. It was an extraordinary encounter I’ll never forget. It’s not that now I know all there is to know about snow leopards, but spending time with him, being so close, gave me a little confidence. Perhaps I can do this magnificent creature justice after all. Perhaps.

I left feeling a potent mix of awe, gratitude and responsibility.

There is still a great deal of research for me to do - books to read, documentaries to watch, individuals to interview and so on, for all of the main characters.  But despite the fact-gathering there remains something about this process of storytelling, of fictionalising reality, that is hard to pin down. I sometimes feel as though the story is the one in charge, the story is choosing the writer, not the other way around. 

For a little more on snow leopards and the importance of their conservation see the following:

The Snow Leopard Trust

National Geographic: The Snow leopard

Disney Nature: Born in China wildlife documentary

Side note: Zoos in general spark mixed emotions in me. I have a hard time looking at wild creatures in captivity. But I came away from this particular zoo humbled by the knowledge and compassion of the keepers and grateful for their extraordinary and critical conservation work. Snow leopards are endangered and their population is decreasing, mainly due to careless human activity - poaching and loss of habitat. It struck me that here was a group of humans trying to do the opposite, in a considered, compassionate and thoughtful way.

The power of books

I recently drove past this library in southern Colorado. The second photograph below shows a sign that was hanging on one of the side walls. It says in all caps: READING IS POWER.

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Reading is power. Reading is empowering. Especially for children, be they readers or listeners. It is not surprising to me that history tells us of books burned by dictators, of writers, poets and artists imprisoned by despots, or of the banning of books and certain texts.

But it’s a complex notion. The power of books to connect, inspire, foster empathy and understanding is fierce but also fragile. In the wrong hands such power can equally be used to divide, manipulate, control and distort - sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. The issue of censorship is thorny and subjective.

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And there remains a great deal of work to be done, especially within the realm of children’s literature. Many libraries have a long way to go in ensuring their shelves contain a genuine range of inclusive and diverse stories for children of all backgrounds, races, religions and orientations of every kind - progress is being made but there is still so much to do.

Nonetheless, as I drove past this small, hand-painted building a long way from anywhere, my heart grew wings. Libraries matter to people, all over the world. Great big beautiful libraries, like the Bodleian in Oxford and the Public Library in New York are well attended and much loved, with their gargoyles and majestic lions. But so are the simple Little Libraries put up in wonky boxes on street corners, the classroom libraries full of dog-eared favourites and the less formal collections that find their way into shelters, refugee camps and hospitals. Libraries like this one in Antonito may be small but they are significant to the community. Somebody had taken time to put up that sign, to think of a message.

Libraries matter to people. They matter because a library speaks to our highest instincts - that everyone from any background and any age group should have access to a world beyond the one they know. We all have a responsibility to advocate for the continued care and funding of our libraries and beyond that, for the expansion of library services. There are still too many communities that don’t have access to books, too many libraries that are struggling for funds.

The astonishing power of reading works best when it’s free and open to all. So much depends on it, especially for the next generation of readers and writers.

“If books crowbar the world open for you, then libraries are a heist on the heart. If hope is a thing with feathers, then libraries are wings.” - Katherine Rundell.

More thinking:

Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell on Why We Need Libraries : an essay in pictures.

American Library Association: Advocacy

Official website: The Library Campaign in the UK

Kidlit women podcast: A conversation with Samira Ahmed about the recent controversy surrounding A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library.

Official website: We Need Diverse Books.

Magic

I was listening to an interview with the British children’s writer Abi Elphinstone a few days ago and she was asked: why do you think we still need magic in our lives?

Illustration from  A Child of Books  by Oliver Jeffers & Sam Winston

Illustration from A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers & Sam Winston

I’ve been thinking about this. Is magic a need? What would the world be like without magic? Does everyone agree on what ‘magic’ is? Is magic witchcraft and wizardry, white rabbits and top hats or is it more of a feeling, an emotion that arises when we’re faced with something in-credible, un-believable, wondrous? Is it real or imagined? Or is the definition more slippery than that, does the word mean different things to different people?

On the right of this page is a quote by Carl Sagan which ends with the line: ‘A book is proof that humans are capable of magic.’ To me, stories are able to transform the way we see each other, the way we see the world and our place within it. There is real magic in that. So if I were asked the question why do you think we still need magic in our lives? perhaps I would say this:

For all the suffering, cruelty, cynicism and fear that exists, there is also hope, sincerity, compassion and wonder. For me at least, storytelling, books and the human imagination are all magical and without them the world would be a far darker, lonelier place. Magic is part of the mystery of everything, it fuels so much of what is not yet, and may never be, fully understood. That’s why children find magic in everything, in the symmetrical spiral of a sea shell, the squelchiness of fresh mud, the spiked yellow fur of a caterpillar. Children sense the wonder in the most ordinary of encounters, they see it and feel it instinctively. Perhaps we as adults feel the need to keep such magic alive because it serves to warm and inspire years’ worth of experience, with the boundless, piercing light of innocence.

mag·ic

/ˈmajik/

noun: the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.

adjective: 1. used in magic or working by magic; having or apparently having supernatural powers.

2. INFORMAL

wonderful; exciting.

A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston

In the Reading Corner - Interview with Abi Elphinstone by Nikki Gamble

More about Abi Elphinstone