Saturday, 20 December 2014

A Tiny Respite - Joan lennon

I know you're busy.  I expect you're stressed.  So here's a tiny gift to you.  Take a few moments to forget the faff and just look.  And breathe.  (Always a good idea but sometimes neglected at this time of year.)

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Thank you, Joan, for such wonderfully wintry pictures to close the Awfully Big Blog Adventure posts for 2014.

We'll be taking a short break but, meanwhile, huge thanks to the writers and illustrators who've shared their thoughts, ideas and experiences on ABBA - and additional thanks to all of you who read, comment and share our pages throughout the year.

Have a happy holiday, whether reading, writing, drawing, dreaming or more!
The Awfully Big Blog Adventure will be back on the first of January, 2015.

Seasons Greetings from the ABBA Team!

Friday, 19 December 2014

A Load of Old Myth - Lucy Coats

Last night I took part in the very excellent #UKMGchat on Twitter.  For those of you not well-versed in the Twitness of the Universe, this is a hour every month when authors and others - bloggers, teachers, librarians, readers - take part in a scheduled chat about middle-grade books and reading. It usually has a theme, and last night's was myths and legends, curated by Sarwat Chadda, who knows a thing or two about inserting ancient gods into modern life. It was fast, furious, wide-ranging, and asked such questions as where myths end and fairytales begin as well as discussing people's favourite MG books, why Zeus had such loose morals (and why Hera put up with him).

It also made me think about the MG series I've just written - Beasts of Olympus, (illustrated by the incredible David Roberts) - and try to define just why I enjoyed writing it so much. Essentially, the premise is simple. A boy called Pandemonius (Demon for short) is plucked from his life on earth, taken up to Olympus, and given the job of stable boy to the immortal beasts who live there. Of course, it's not as easy as that.  Poor Demon has to contend with vicious claws, stings and beaks - and angry goddesses who don't like their nighties smelling of poo, among other things.  He also has to contend with the bloodstained results of a certain 'hero's' animal-slaying antics - and this is where the fun came in for me.

When I teach my Guardian writing course - and when I do events in schools - I tell my students that there is one question above all they must ask: WHAT IF?  So I asked myself what if that well-known hero, Heracles, was actually a complete rotter? What if he was actually the baddie in the story? What if all those animals he killed down on earth were actually immortal? Who would treat their wounds and patch them up? What kind of person would he or she need to be? What qualities might they have? For me, asking those questions, deconstructing and refashioning the way I'd thought about certain mythical characters, was a refreshing change which made the whole myth canon come alive for me again.

I've worked with these myths for so long - retelling them in various forms - that I almost couldn't see them any more.  Taking them as the basis for something completely fictional of my own creating was a (literally) novel experience, and one I've enjoyed immensely. The Greek gods and goddesses have always been the most human of deities - they quarrel, are jealous, love, and have emotions just like us. But for me they were locked into their own myths. I knew them, but I didn't 'know' them. Now I do. I've had to delve deep into their characters, had to dig out their quirks and foibles, and visualise them from the point of view of a scared eleven-year-old boy who is terrified he'll be turned into a smoking pile of ash at any moment. I've also had to think about the beasts who are the whole raison d' être of the series. I suppose this is my nod to the animal rights movement - I've given the Hydra (also known as Doris), Kevin the flying horse, and Arnie the Griffin a voice so that they can make their feelings known. And boy, do they have feelings and opinions! Sometimes I have so much beastly clamour in my head that it's hard to disentangle it!

I hope Zeus and Hera and the rest of the Olympians will forgive me for revealing all their secrets - if not, and you hear of a lightning bolt striking a house in Northamptonshire out of a clear blue winter sky, you'll know what happened to me. Meanwhile, a very happy Christmas from me when it comes, and look out for some beastly and Demonic doings in the New Year! 

Coming in January 2015 from Piccadilly Press UK & Grosset and Dunlap USA: Beast Keeper and Hound of Hades (Beasts of Olympus)
"rippingly funny…offers food for thought on everything from absentee parenting to the mistreatment of animals (even immortal ones)." Publishers Weekly US starred review
Follow Lucy on Facebook 
Follow Lucy on Twitter

Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at The Sophie Hicks Agency

Thursday, 18 December 2014

ALMOST AT SEA: Penny Dolan

My local writer’s group holds a recitation evening at this time of year, when people seem drawn to old stories and songs and poems. The poem below, although not traditionally wintry, is my own favourite for this season. 

Almost a short story, the poem was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, who was the son of a lighthouse engineer, and appeared in 1888 after the publication of his Treasure Island.  Although the poem seems to be about danger at sea, the emotional conflict and longing seem to me a deeper part of the celebration itself, whether on land or sea. Please, if you have a moment, do read through to the end.

 Christmas at Sea

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor'wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But 'twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops'l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So's we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every 'long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother's silver spectacles, my father's silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
'All hands to loose top gallant sails,' I heard the captain call.
'By the Lord, she'll never stand it,' our first mate, Jackson, cried.
… 'It's the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,' he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter's day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

 * * * * *

The Awfully Big Blog posts are mostly about fiction, but there are poetry readers and writers too. 

What’s the title - and author - of your favourite poem at this time of year?

Penny Dolan

(The painting is by Aivasovsky Ivan Constantinovitch. 1899.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Favourite Children’s Books of 2015 (Just In Time For Christmas!) – by Emma Barnes

A while ago I compiled a list of my favourite Christmas-themed books.  This year I've been inspired by the newspapers which are full of “Favourite Books of the Year” . Here are some children’s books, published in 2015, that I have really enjoyed, some of them by ABBA bloggers. If, like me, you like to buy your Christmas gifts last minute, maybe one of these will fit the bill.

They are all more-or-less for middle grade or a little older and I've listed them roughly in age of readership.

The Pearl Quest by Gill Vickery

The final book in Vickery’s delightful Dragonchild series is just as compelling as the first. These books concern Tia, who has been raised by dragons, but is now on a quest to recover the jewels that protect the kingdom. It’s perfect for children drawn to epic fantasy, but pitched at a rather easier reading level than most fantasy, making it a great stepping stone to longer books like the Hobbit, the C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or Le Guin’s Earthsea.

Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers by John Dougherty

Earlier this year, John and I were both speaking at the launch of the Fantastic Books Awards in Lancashire, and I had the pleasure of listening to John read an extract from this wonderfully silly, funny book (I also heard him sing a song about having to cross your legs in class while waiting for the bell to go - that's another story). This book has made a big splash and is perfect for fans of the Mr Gum books.       (John has also written a list of favourite fictional badgers - now, there's something we've all been waiting for...)

Deep Amber – by CJ Busby

CJ Busby, like me, is a fan of the late, great fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones, and this funny, clever book is in the same tradition, blending two storylines, one concerning siblings Simon and Cat from our world, the other a fairytale world where Dora and Jem set out on a quest together. It culminates in a wonderfully funny and exciting episode in an old folks’ home.

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault

Graphic novels are one part of the book world which is booming – it’s all rather new to me, though, so I decided it was time to explore a little.  I really enjoyed this story in which Helene is being bullied by former friends at school in the most insiduous way - by making her feel bad about herself, as well as isolating her - and takes comfort from literature in the surprising form of Jane Eyre, meets a fox, and finally finds a new friend.

Jet Black Heart by Teresa Flavin

I’ll ‘fess up and say at once that Teresa is a friend of mine, and a fellow Yorkshire author too. I especially like that this story’s inspired by the coast around Whitby – a Yorkshire seaside town I also love – and its trade in jet jewellery. It’s part of the Barrington Stoke range of books, which are carefully designed for children and teenagers whose “reading” age may be lower than their actual age, but with no compromise on content or a first class story.

Daughters of Time - editor Mary Hoffman

This book is a collection of stories from writers over on The History Girls blog – and it’s a wonderful variety of different styles and voices, each story about a significant woman from British history from Aethelfled to Mary Wollstonecraft, Amy Johnson to Mary Anning. Perfect for teenagers and adults too – and in the tradition of the best historical fiction by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliffe and Barbara Willard.  I loved these stories, and wished that many of them could have been full length novels.

Emma's series for 8+ Wild Thing about the naughtiest little sister ever (and her bottom-biting ways) is published by Scholastic. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.  It is a story of wolves, magic and snowy woods...
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Greatest Story Ever Told by Tess Berry-Hart

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” - Phillip Pullman

“And what do you do?” asks the polite professional lawyer in the group of polite professional people at my polite professional neighbour’s Christmas party.

“Me?  Oh, I'm a writer,” I answer, equally politely.

“Oh, really?”  A wave of heads turn in my direction, polite smiles become suddenly more interested.  “What kind of writing?  Journalism?  Novels?”

“Well, I write stories for children and young adults,” I begin confidently, but oops, I'm losing them already.  Smiles have taken on a glazed quality and I'm starting to be relegated to the category in their minds that houses lolloping bunnies, plucky hobbits and talking lions.  I follow up quickly with a couple of my adult plays and novels but I can see in their eyes that my status has already been set.  Children’s stories! – how quaint.

“But we all tell stories, don’t we,” I begin jovially, in what my husband would term my instructively-speaking-to-a-three-year-old tone.  “Our reality, our economy, our social structures are all governed by stories, aren’t they?”

Deep nods and a strained kind of silence greet this; though a couple of people look a little as if they’re trying to work out if I'm insulting them in some covert fashion.

“And whether you subscribe to the idea that there’s only seven stories in the world or not, it’s amazing how these stories get replayed over and over in media and advertising isn't it?  The small company who fights back from the edge of extinction.  The underdog who wins through on the X Factor.”

Oh dear, the mention of X Factor – the professional version of Godwin’s Law after which any proponent can lose her credibility.  And I haven’t even watched it in years!

A chorus of agreement, though with no discernible words, follows this, and mercifully our hostess comes to our rescue with a tray of mince pies.  People break up into twos and turn to each other with noticeable relief.  “Have you heard about X?”

I take refuge in a mince pie, and think.  Why should we be afraid of confronting our stories?  We adults absorb stories as voraciously as if we were children.  The middle-aged lawyer creates a story to the judge and jury about why they should believe his client’s version of events.  The saleswoman on my left creates stories that we will look better, feel happier and be more successful if we buy her product.  And don’t even get me started on the advertising director opposite.

Stories are all around us, shaping our world and our outlook – and let’s face it, stories are not all capitalist cynicism.  Good stories are centuries old, and they’re around for a reason.  We NEED the story that we can succeed in whatever we do against insurmountable odds.  We NEED the story that the bad guys will get punished and the good guys triumph.

Stories are acutely important for learning.  They are the models by which children see the world and learn from it.  Telling my son a story to deliver a message is ten times more effective that merely telling him the message.  When I see him playing, I can see that games are stories in action.  He’s already channelling the “rescuing hero” story, the “quest” story and the “overcoming the monster” stories all by himself.

Where does the power of story come from?  As psychologists Melanie C Green and Timothy C. Brock note in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the mechanism of “transport” – using detail and emotional affect to involve the reader – is essential for a narrative.  Highly transported readers find fewer false notes in a story than less transported readers, they evaluate protagonists favourably and show many other similar story-consistent beliefs.  Interestingly, corresponding beliefs tend to be generally unaffected whether the reader knows a story is fact or fiction.  I can know that a cream will not make me look younger, but I’ll buy it anyway.

And we’re at a Christmas party after all.  Christmas is a great story.  Though I'm an avowed atheist, I love Christmas!  The human story of birth in humble adversity; the strong baddie that searches to kill the saviour of mankind, the call to adventure, the exiled and returning hero, the love that lays itself down for another; the elements are all there.  And beyond the advent of Christianity, I feel the pagan solstice of Yule as instinctively as one born in the Northern Hemisphere can; the affirmation of life in the midst of snow, the fire lit against the cold and darkness, the shadows on the wall of the cave that mystics interpret, making sense of the sun and the stars, winter and summer, life and death.

Along with other wonderful stories passed down from times immemorial –The Flood, the Apocalypse, the Exodus – the story means something to us because in a sense (whether you are a believer or not) stories ARE real.  Stories hold a deep psychological purpose, about our relationship to the universe and to Time. Stories give us hope, they give us meaning.  In my book, the greatest story ever told is that of life; that we exist, and we do.

Around me the conversation has moved on, and now they’re talking about the recovery. (Belief in the market’s one of the best stories around at the moment!)  I don’t have much to add to this so I gather my things together and start to slide unobtrusively towards the exit, when I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s the polite lawyer.

“I thought it was interesting,” he says breathlessly, “what you said about stories back there. It really made me think.”

My heart warms to him.  “Why thank you,” I say.

“I've got to get my niece a Christmas present, and your book sounds ideal.  Would I be able to get a signed copy?”

Monday, 15 December 2014

Quantum mechanics and becoming a writer : by Miriam Halahmy

I grew up in a house which lived and breathed mathematics. I was quick at numbers and happy with algebra as it contained letters and therefore writing. But maths was not my strength so it was nigh on impossible to participate in the family past time.
We lived in Hayes, Middlesex, in a small house, in an ordinary street. But inside our house, extraordinary stuff was going on.
I went back to visit this year and in the photo you can just see my old bedroom window, jutting out above the lawn behind me.

My older brother  and my father sat at the dinner table every night and talked maths for hours. I was reading on the floor in front of the fire. Words filtered down to me  - quantum mechanics, relativity, theorems ( I liked Pythagoras - history was my passion including history of maths), calculus, the atom, the splitting of the atom, anything really to do with the atom.

Then there were all the people - men really - Einstein, Newton, Archimedes - lots of history there. So without really understanding the maths, I was growing up in a home which would give me a backdrop to feed my imagination, my vocabulary, my world view and my thirst for knowledge. This has never left me and I believe it has been a huge influence on my writing.

Fast forward to 2007. My younger brother, Louis Berk, a keen amateur photographer,( who was much better at maths than me) tells me that we should visit Bletchley Park before it gets properly discovered. Louis reckons our Dad was receiving decoded messages from Bletchley when he drove his radio car around France after D-Day. For quite sometime he was the only link between the British and American lines and got a letter from Eisenhower. I think he's wearing his driving gloves in the photo. He never took a driving test. Just got told to drive round the parade ground until he got the hang of it and then off he went.

One of Dad's hobbies was designing circuits and after he died we framed one and hung it on the wall. He drew the circuits with pencils he sharpened with a Stanley knife. He loved sharpening pencils and I always had a box full of fiercely sharpened pencils for school every day. No wonder I became a writer!

Louis was absolutely right. Bletchley Park was practically empty. We wandered around the huts which looked like the code breakers had literally just walked out the door and took photos. It was like stepping back seventy years. These photos were taken by Louis.

These photos were taken by me - you can see the difference!

I was inspired to write this post after seeing the film The Imitation Game about the work of Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, cracking the German code and shortening the WW2 by two years. They saved 14 million lives. But everyone who worked there stayed silent for decades. This film is about mathematics at its most extreme.

I loved every minute of it. I had learnt at my father's knee, you don't have to know about maths to be inspired by it. My imagination might not have solved black holes but it can soar as far as I need it to and beyond. Growing up in quantum mechanics - what gorgeous words - taught me how to think outside the box and that's what every writer needs.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Being a Real Person Sheena Wilkinson

I’ve just become Ireland’s first Patron of Reading. Trinity Comprehensive School, Ballymun, is a north Dublin school in an area which was, in the past, a byword for deprivation. In recent years, Ballymun has been the subject of a huge regeneration programme, and it’s a place where I have been welcomed since I did my very first school visit there four years ago.

This was drawn by the principal, Ms Fran Neary.

where it all started 
In 2011, my first novel, Taking Flight, had just come out, and I’d only done a few local visits in Belfast schools. I was a fulltime teacher so I wasn’t nervous about talking to teenagers, but when the invitation from Trinity Comprehensive came in, it felt different. It was the first time I realised that readers outside Northern Ireland would connect with my characters. Joe Kelly, Trinity’s wonderful librarian, assured me that his pupils had liked Taking Flight ‘because it seemed so real to them.’

That was the first of many visits to the school. I’ve done lots of talks and workshops in the library which is, like all good school libraries, central to the school, promoting literacy in its widest sense. I think I kept being invited back because I’m unpretentious and realistic. Earlier this year Joe and I decided to formalise the relationship by designating me Trinity’s Patron of Reading. I’m sure readers of this blog are familiar with the PoR scheme. It’s an excellent way for schools to connect with writers, and for writers to connect with readers. When I attended a ceremony in Trinity last month to mark becoming its Patron, one of the things I promised to do was to use my December ABBA post to celebrate being Ireland’s first PoR.
me on a school visit -- unglamorous but real 

In the last week, however, my thoughts have also been exercised by the furore over ghost-writing, transparency, and celebrity culture. There’s been a lot of nonsense in the media, as well as a lot of good common sense – not least here on ABBA: thank you, Keren David.

How does this link with the PoR scheme, and with school visits in general? I think the most important thing about authors visiting schools is that they make things real for the pupils. As a child, I had little concept of my favourite writers as actual people. The books just sort of appeared in the library, as if by magic, though I gleaned every little snippet of biographical information I could from the dust flap. When I wrote to Antonia Forest and she wrote back it felt like the most exciting thing that had ever happened anyone – to have a letter written by the same hand that had written the Marlow novels. (And I should point out that I was 23 and a PhD student at the time.)

the book that drove me mad
What I always emphasise on school visits is that writing is a process, and often a fairly torturous one. I don’t pretend to write quickly and easily. I show the pupils the whole journey of a novel, from notebooks with rough planning, through printed-out and much scribbled over drafts, to the final book. I’m not precious – I tell them about the times when it’s been hard; I show them a six-page critique of an early draft of Taking Flight, and point out that there is a short paragraph of ‘Positives’ followed by five and half pages of ‘Issues to Consider’. I tell them about going to an editorial meeting to discuss Still Falling, and how my editors spent five minutes telling me what they liked about the novel and 55 minutes telling me what wasn’t working.

I’m not trying to put kids off. I always emphasise that making things up is magical, and seeing your ideas develop into actual stories that people read is the best thing in the world. But I do let them see that it involves a lot of hard work.

Nowadays I think that’s even more important. I once shared a platform with two children who had self-published. It was a ridiculous, uncomfortable event: there I was talking about hard work and rejection and editing and how hard it is to get published, and there were these two little pre-teen moppets with their shiny books. The primary school audience, who won’t have known the difference between self-publishing and commercial publishing, probably thought I was some kind of slow learner. But I least I told them the truth.

Honesty. I think we need more of it. I’m so proud to be Ireland’s first Patron of Reading, and I intend to keep on being honest about writing as a magical, but difficult craft.
Trinity Comprehensive School, Ballymun.