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

Nurturing ideas

I’ve been digging through some of my favourite craft books recently to see if there’s a different way to begin my next project. Although nurture feels less daunting than begin.

My notebooks are full of messy thoughts, unanswered questions and wild possibilities. Eventually, if I’m lucky, the words coalesce into a kernel, something of an idea, a possible starting point.

My notebooks are full of messy thoughts, unanswered questions and wild possibilities. Eventually, if I’m lucky, the words coalesce into a kernel, something of an idea, a possible starting point.

The debate between plotting out your novel versus writing it by the seat of your pants is a personal one. But recently I heard a writer describe herself as a ‘reformed pantser’. (Find Jennifer Laughran’s brilliant podcast here : The 30,000 foot view, interview with Erin Dionne) which made me smile and also made me think. I wrote my first manuscript not only by the seat of my pants but in the dark, fully blindfolded whilst hanging upside down from that crumbly, precarious point at which the sidewalk actually ends. I had no idea what I was doing. I wrote the second one a few years later having attended lots of workshops, writers’ conferences, classes and read a number of invaluable books on technique and craft - but still by the seat of my pants.

As I start work on my third, I’m wondering if there’s a way to do both: to spend the time plotting and preparing whilst leaving plenty of space between the lines. It would be reassuringly PRACTICAL to have everything planned out before I begin, but then again there’s something MAGICAL about hanging upside down and stumbling upon the unexpected. We’ll see.

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Some of my favourite books on craft and writing in general:

  • A Sense of Wonder by Katherine Patterson

  • Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

  • How Fiction Works by James Woods

  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

  • On Writing by Stephen King

  • On Writing by Eudora Welty

  • Bird by Bird Annie Lamott

On my TBR list are:

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor, Outlining your Novel by K.M Wieland, The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass, The Magic Words by Cheryl B. Klein and This is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.

Plus a few links to favourite conferences and workshops that have been instrumental along the way:

Creating space

A few years ago a friend sent me a copy of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.  In it, one of the things she talks about is being open to stories; the idea that stories are told through you as opposed to being generated and owned by you.  This resonated with me and while I’m in the process of starting a new project, I'm simultaneously finding ways of opening myself up to the voices that want to be heard, the stories that need to be told, to whatever comes next.

One of my favourite ways to do this is by walking.  Sometimes I consciously listen to whatever's around me and literally stop to smell the flowers.  Sometimes I'll listen to a podcast or music or the news.  But it's a fine line, the balance between paying attention to what's going on, what's happening in the world versus the work of emptying out, of creating space, of being open.  

Dandelion, September hike. The path, noticing, where my foot falls along the way.

Dandelion, September hike. The path, noticing, where my foot falls along the way.

Leave room in your mind for stories to rise up in you. Don't constantly fill your mind with other people's stories, other people's thoughts. Leave space, and quiet, for your own.” - Nikki Grimes.

A trip to the UK

One of my favourite independent bookshops is called Octavia's and it's in the small market town of Cirencester, England.  I'm lucky enough to go in every summer and it's a trip we all look forward to.  I'm always keen to see what she has on display and ask about the middle grade books that have recently been published there.  Some are similar to what I might find at my local bookstore in the States, some are very different.  Either way, it's an inspiring visit and I leave grateful for the presence and passion of indie booksellers. 

A few of the titles we were excited to read, all published in the UK this year.

A few of the titles we were excited to read, all published in the UK this year.

Octavia's Book shop, 24 Black Jack Street, Cirencester GL7 2AA

Octavia's Book shop, 24 Black Jack Street, Cirencester GL7 2AA

All kinds of stories

Recently I read two books that speak directly to the power of story. They were set in different parts of the world, written at different times and driven by very different plot lines - but both brought me into the life and mind of another character so fully that I cried. I cried my heart out, an uncomfortable, messy cry.

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Story is the only means we have of being able to come close to inhabiting somebody else's life, of being able to feel somebody else's feelings or see the world from a different vantage point.  Both of these writers are master storytellers and I would urge everyone to read their work.  It's often assumed that children's literature is full of gnomes and giggles and sweet furry things.  Which is true of course, and thankfully so.  There is a place and a profound need for sweet furry things and giggles, often in the darkest of times.  But there is also a need for other kinds of stories, the ones that delve into the most challenging parts of being human, whether you're a child or not.  Perhaps especially if you're a child.

There is a place and a need for all kinds of stories.

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'The possibilities are endless because the stirring of the imagination never rests, and because we can never stop trying to make feeling felt.' - Eudora Welty.

Links to interviews with both writers:

Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes on The Children's Book Podcast by Matthew Winner

A Monster Calls unravelled by Colby Sharp on The Yarn

 

Do words get lost?

A while ago I read Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane and was struck by a passage about the disappearance of certain words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary for children.  Many of the words he cited as being dropped were related to the natural world, their empty spaces being filled by words that relate to technology.  It makes sense that dictionaries need to reflect practical and current usage but still, this was depressing news to me.

Illustration by Jackie Morris, taken from  The Lost Words

Illustration by Jackie Morris, taken from The Lost Words

 And yet.  A few weeks ago I read an article about a picture book he recently published called The Lost Words.  The gorgeous illustrations are by Jackie Morris.  It's beautiful, it's captivating, it's original.   Please read it, share it, gift it, because it would seem that yes, words do get lost.  They get lost because they stop being used.  But as this spellbinding book proves, words get lost but they may also be recovered, found and brought back to life.  

A portion of the books proceeds are being donated to Action for Conservation, for more information visit their website.

Badger or Bulbasaur? Have children lost touch with nature? by Robert Macfarlane

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