Monday, 26 January 2015

Stockpiling Books... Yes, I'm Guilty! by Savita Kalhan

Wycombe Library 1970

Ever since I was very young, I’ve loved books with a passion, though back then I couldn’t afford to buy them. Luckily there was a brilliant library that fed my needs (I’ve blogged about my wonderful library, Wycombe Library, here My Library and Me ).

The Cottage Bookshop in Penn

Later, when I was doing my A levels, I discovered the most amazing second hand bookshop in Penn, The Cottage Bookshop, (which I’ve blogged about here The Cottage Bookshop ) and bought my first books. I found a very old hardback copy of Our Mutual Friend in there once. I suspect the fact that it was the first proper book I owned had something to do with why I loved studying it for A Level English.

I returned many times to that bookshop and to the library, until the day finally arrived when I could actually afford to buy full priced books. Then I went to live in the Middle East and had to take a ton of books with me as there was only one bookshop in the city where I lived, and it sold a ridiculously limited number of books.

So began the stockpiling.

My work room - in the summer!
It’s continued over the years. I had to buy new bookcases every year until they lined most of the walls downstairs, and then the walls upstairs. A friend once joked that she was sure the bookcases were propping up the house. That’s an indication of how bad the stockpiling had become.

My book alley
In 2013 we had major work done on the house. In the planning of the loft conversion, I cut the proposed bathroom in half and created a book alley. I designed the book shelves so that the available space would take as many books as possible, and, fortunately, they can take a lot! There are still lots of bookcases with lots of books dotted around the house, and my new work room at the bottom of the garden houses all the children’s books, teen/YA books, and research books.

So the stockpiling never stopped.

Kindle and ebooks helped a little bit, but not that much. Like many people I still like to have real books in my house. I got out of the habit of using the library when I was living abroad, but I do use it a lot now, so that helps as at least those books don’t need permanent shelf space in my house.

The problem is that I love buying books – even though I know I don’t have the time to read as many as I buy (which probably makes me a hoarder!). When I was on Twitter the other day, a book blogger tweeted about her plan to read 20 books and 20 ebooks before allowing herself to buy any more books. So that’s what I’m going to do. Yes, I do have that many that I haven’t read yet...

My #TBR20
Here’s the hashtag if you’re interested, and if you like, you can post a picture of your 20 books #TBR20. I won’t be putting a time limit on when I should read my twenty books by, although one of the bloggers doing the #TBR20 is planning to have them all read by Easter! The fact that I’ve banned myself from any book purchases until these are read will be enough of an incentive, if I need one.

There is one place you are allowed to go where you can read other books without having to buy them, where stockpiling books is their business, and if they don’t happen to have a copy of the book you want they even order it in for you. My library is my saviour and I have to admit that I’m there once a week, returning books and borrowing more books. So my #TBR20 may take a while to get through at this rate, but at least it’s curbing my stockpiling, if only temporarily.

I can’t be the only stockpiler out there, can I??


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sorry, Do I Know You? - Tamsyn Murray

Author photos. We all have them - hi-res, 300 DPI, colour for preference, smile optional - for a whole range of things. It's one of the first things a new author is asked when they sign the contract: 'Have you got a photo we can use...?' So you might scurry around your hard drive or your camera, looking for something vaguely professional looking. Maybe you'll actually find one. Perhaps you're the kind of person who has an author photo taken every year, so you have a selection that you can send off. but I think it's more likely you won't even have one. Or if you do have one, it's from ten years ago,when the world of publishing seemed so bright and shiny. None of this matters to the harsh world of editors and Sales People. They're probably just after something bright and energetic to put on the AI sheet.

Dorian wondered why the school bookings weren't coming in like they used to...
At a party I attended recently, some of my fellow writers started discussing author photos. Did it matter if you didn't look exactly like the photo any more? Should it be a recent picture? How old can a picture be? Do I look better now or then? If you use your best photo are you just setting yourself up for disappointment when people meet you and discover you are not the suave\attractive\young version they expected?

I got very lucky with my photos - I happened to have had some taken in 2008 (well before I got my first book deal) and I happened to have paid for the copyright to use them where and when I wanted to. Without planning to, I ended up with a selection of pictures I could use on my website, on Twitter - anywhere, really. And those photos have stood me in good stead because I have used them a lot. The trouble is that they are seven years old and I've...well, I've changed a bit since then. The example mentioned at the party I went to cited a photo that was thirty years out of date. So my question to you is: Does it really matter if your author photo is old? How often should you get a new one? As authors, are we getting unfairly judged by our covers?

Tamsyn Murray's new book, Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius is out on 1st March 2015 (Usborne)

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Spring of Ideas - Liz Kessler

A while ago, I wrote a blog about the Seasons of Writing. It was an idea that my good friend Jen Alexander shared with me, and I’ve loved it and referred to it on countless occasions ever since. The idea is that the process of writing a book is very much like the calendar of seasons in a year.

Well, if that’s the case, it is definitely spring right now.

I’m at the very start of working on a new book. It’s an idea that has been patiently waiting underground for quite a few years, and its time has now come. Just as I’m beginning to see snowdrops appearing in the countryside, and tiny shoots starting to come through the ground in my own garden, my new story is beginning to show its head. Little tiny shoots coming up, one by one, all pretty and fresh and exciting.

For over a decade, writing has been my job, and there are times when I’m very aware of that. I make myself sit at my desk for a certain length of time; I set targets that involve writing a set number of words; I organize events, I attend book festivals, I do publicity, I write emails, blogs, articles; I reply to lovely letters from readers. All of these things are wonderful, and all make me feel glad that this is how I make my living. But a lot of the time, my job doesn’t feel especially creative.

But it does now.

A couple of months ago, I attended a writers’ retreat that I run with my author buddy Elen Caldecott. Four days where eighteen children’s authors come together to share thoughts, ideas, inspiration and workshops all about writing and creativity, set in beautiful countryside.

(I made a kind of slideshow of my photos while I was there. You can watch it here if you want to see why it’s such a lovely place.)

This was the fourth time we’ve run this retreat, and I have to say I think it was the best yet – especially in terms of creativity. But the point of this blog is to share what was, for me, the best thing to come out of this year’s retreat. And that was that my new book started to open up – yes, like a beautiful new crocus slowly unfurling its petals.

Part of the way that this happened was to do with my surroundings. Each morning of the retreat, I got up early and went out for a walk with my camera. The mornings were so quiet and the light was so soft, as a mist gradually lifted from the fields and trees. Something about the mornings felt right for my book, and started leading me towards the background mood and setting.

Then one evening, another writer buddy, Kelly McKain, and I had a wonderful couple of hours sharing music and downloading each other’s favourite songs. So on the final morning when I went out for my walk, I took my headphones and listened to these new songs at the same time – and the most amazing thing happened. As I walked, and watched the mist and the dew, and listened to the songs, I started almost seeing my book begin to take shape in front of me. I almost heard my characters singing lines from the songs as I listened to them. Almost felt their moods and their emotions, as I felt the mist rising on a storyline that was starting to take shape after five years of waiting in the shadows.

And it’s carried on like that for the months following the retreat. I’ve added more tunes and now have a playlist of about thirty songs. I play them when I walk the dog, trudging along a muddy coast path and hearing the characters singing the words. I play them in my study, writing away in my lovely new notebook, as I try to capture the feelings, the moods, the words and the moments in the same way as I saw them out on the cliff path.

I have written about fifteen books, and I can honestly say that I have never experienced anything quite like the process that is taking place with this book. It feels so creative, and such a journey of exploration. It’s intense, emotional, exciting and kind of magical. It reminds me that, after all, this isn’t just my job. It is my passion; it is one of the things that is at the heart of who I am, how I see the world and how I live my life.

The book is due to be delivered in September this year. I have two books coming out before then and a busy year ahead – but for now, I’m enjoying taking the time to nurture these seedlings of ideas that are popping up every day. 

So yes, this is work, and yes, sometimes it’s hard. But right here, right now, it feels like a privilege that I get to do such a magical, wonderful, creative thing and call it my day job. I hope that over the coming months, I can do my characters justice. I look forward to the rest of the spring, and am hoping for a summer filled with bright colours, delightful scents and a beautiful, blossoming story.

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Friday, 23 January 2015

The Great OUP Pig Scandal

I expect this is old news. The current affairs cycle has moved on, and the top story now is the fact that “Page 1: lies about poor people; Page 2: boring bit nobody reads; Page 3: woman in her pants” is still considered journalism in some circles.
However, before it all quietly fades from memory, I’d like to say a few words about The Great OUP Pig Scandal.
A pig, yesterday.
Image courtesy of
For those of you who didn’t catch the story - or in case it has in fact completely faded from memory already - here’s a summary. 
Early last week, during a discussion about free speech on Radio 4’s Today, presenter James Naughtie said the following:
"I’ve got a letter here which was sent out by Oxford University Press to an author doing something for young people.
“Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: ‘Pigs (plus anything else which could be perceived as pork’).

“Now, if a respectable publisher tied to an academic institution is saying you’ve got to write a book in which you cannot mention pigs because some people might be offended, it’s just ludicrous, it is just a joke.”

Some banned pigs, after the ban
Image from
I’ve got an awful lot of time for Mr Naughtie, especially since his unfortunate spoonerism involving the name and title of then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. However, on this occasion he got it badly wrong.
Firstly, I don’t think it was okay for him to name-and-shame an individual publisher like this, without asking for their side of the story first. The BBC can be quite stupidly cautious about putting both sides of a story, so for it to accuse a major publisher like this without immediate right to reply is quite bizarre.
Secondly, the wording as reported above (source: Huffington Post) doesn’t make it clear that these are not guidelines for general submissions to OUP. These are commissioning guidelines for their reading schemes which are sold across 200 countries. Such guidelines are quite common within the industry, and singling OUP out is simply unfair.
Thirdly, he jumps to the conclusion that the purpose of these guidelines is to avoid causing offence. This is quite simply wrong. Their purpose is to maximise sales. You will sell fewer books to, say, Saudi Arabia if they feature pigs or pork; and not just of the particular books that mention these subjects. Sales across the entire reading scheme will be affected, because who wants to buy a bit of a reading scheme?
An OUP book that contains no pigs,
but quite a lot of badgers.
 Fourthly - and in my view - this is where Mr Naughtie got it most wrong - he selectively mentions only the guidelines that refer to pigs and pork products. And, sure, they’re there. As are for instance, if I remember correctly, guidelines that request the author to steer clear of writing about witches or dinosaurs, because these subjects will affect sales in the good old bible-believing US of A. Where’s the outcry about “censoring” authors in order to not hurt the feelings of fundamentalist Christians? Mr Naughtie should have known that singling out a ‘ban’ on pigs like this would feed the subtle islamophobia that is currently much too common in our culture.
And finally: this ‘ban’ on pigs in books commissioned by the publisher is presented as some kind of assault on free speech. Can I just point out that the principle of free speech entitles a publisher to set their own commissioning guidelines? And also that nobody is stopping any author from writing whatever the hell they want, submitting to any publisher, and - if they can’t get a deal for it - publishing it themselves on the internet?
None of this, of course, stopped opportunistic attention-seekers like MP Philip Davies from calling for government intervention; The Independent reported him as saying, “The Secretary of State needs to get a grip over this and make sure this ridiculous ban is stopped at once.” I tried to engage Mr Davies on Twitter to ask how such government intervention would work, and how he could justify calling for legislation to stop a British business being allowed control over its own commissioning guidelines; but the only reply I got from him was an approving retweet of someone else saying that Mr Davies was not politically correct in any way. I think the word ‘politically’ may have been redundant there.
I suspect the remark that sums this whole issue up best was the one by Francis Maude MP on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. He began:
“Well, I hadn’t heard this story, and it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever come across.”
In other words: I know nothing about this issue and now I’m going to pontificate about how stupid these people are being.

Sadly, that’s been about the level of debate. 

John Dougherty's latest books, the Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, are published by OUP. They contain very few mentions of pigs, but could have lots more if he wanted them to. 
He has written reading scheme books for OUP and Harper Collins, and does not believe these books have ever been censored.
His first picture book, There's a Pig Up My Nose, will be published by Egmont next year.
For the first time in his life he phoned Any Answers last week, to talk about this issue, but didn't get on the air.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Why fund libraries when it's all online? - by Nicola Morgan

He was an intelligent man and he'd flown high in his career. I know that from the conversation we'd had up till that point. The point when he said, "But we don't need libraries, because it's all online now."

You can imagine the rattle of adrenaline through my veins. But I've learnt that in these situations a rant doesn't help matters. You have to go straight to the point.

"But how will you create readers," I asked, "Without libraries?"

"You can learn to read online," he suggested, clearly not having thought this through. But he's not alone in not having thought this through.

We're not winning the war to keep libraries (both public and school) valued and funded. We’re winning some battles but the enemy keeps popping up elsewhere, just as strong, blinkered and ignorant as before. We’re not winning it because of a fundamental misunderstanding by far too many people of what all libraries do. And what they do that nothing else can do, least of all the Internet. Unfortunately, many of these people are our elected politicians, entrusted with the education of our children and claiming to want a “fairer” society.

Libraries – and, crucially, their trained librarians – create readers. It’s that simple. Without the libraries you used as a young child, you would not be the reader you are now. I doubt any of us became a reader simply through the books our parents bought – even wealthy families wouldn’t choose to buy the quantity of books needed to feed a young reader. Young readers need, as James Patterson said recently, to be “inundated with books”, so they can find ones they like.

Liking books is not optional: it’s essential, if the child is to undertake the thousands of hours of practice necessary for the complicated process of becoming a reader. Teachers and parents, in different ways, teach children to read but that’s only the start of building a reader. Books do the rest and librarians curate the flood of books so that the child becomes a strong swimmer in ever deeper waters.

But that’s public libraries. What about school libraries? Why do we need those, too? Well, many families don’t use public libraries and, remember, we want a fairer society, where everyone can become a reader with a wide mind and big horizons, not just children with socioeconomic advantages. School librarians view each child, from whatever type of reading background or none, as a child who can, with help, have a richer reading life. They know better than anyone the full range of books, modern and classic, and how to make it enticing.

Too many elected politicians don’t understand any of this. Some, like the man I spoke to, believe libraries aren’t necessary because “It’s all on the Internet”. Oh yes, “it” is all on the Internet – all the words and knowledge you want, poems and stories, gems and sludge, recipes for bombes and bombs, facts and falsity, it’s all out there. And you can access it all (or the parts that Google throws to the top of the search results) and sift through it (eventually) and make good decisions about it (I hope) because you are readers. You are readers because as children you were inundated with books.

If politicians know this and still consider cutting funding, they must explain how they will create a fairer society when only the privileged can become real readers. Because that is what will happen where school library services are cut. Families who can afford to will fill the gap: they will buy as many books as they can and their children will have no limits to achievement. The children of other families will learn to read at school (I hope) but, lacking the necessary flood of book choice, will not become proficient enough to read widely for pleasure and so they will read much less. That would be fine if it was their choice. But they would have no choice.

Please help us win this war. CWIG (the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group of The Society of Authors) keeps fighting these battles, and so do loads of authors (particularly children's ones) such as Alan Gibbons, Cathy Cassidy and Malorie Blackman, and many ABBA bloggers and readers. But we need everyone to help spread the message that without a properly funded school library service and a dedicated librarian in every school, we cannot offer every child the power of reading. And without that, it’s just not a fair society.

Libraries are how people become readers.

Adapted from a piece for the Society of Authors in Scotland newsletter. 
Nicola Morgan is on the committee of CWIG, the Society of Authors’ Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group and is a former chair of the SOAIS. She is an Ambassador for Dyslexia Scotland and a specialist in adolescence, the science of reading and reading for pleasure. The Teenage Guide to Stress advocates reading for pleasure as a valuable anti-stress strategy.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

My first post - by Anne Booth

My First Post for an Awfully Big Blog Adventure

Hello! I can’t quite believe this is happening. It seems only yesterday when I was on an Arvon ‘Writing for Children’ course with Linda Strachan and Cathy MacPhail, but in fact it was back in 2010 - four and a half years ago.

Linda and Cathy can be seen discussing it here:

I was on that week. It was wonderful. It was great to learn from Linda and Cathy, and to hear the work of the other writers and to write some things myself. I knew already that I loved children’s books - I had an M.A. in Children’s Literature, had been a bookseller, and had four children of my own ranging from 13 to 10. However, the love I felt for children’s books, combined with the awe I felt for those who wrote them, meant that I hadn’t dared to think I could write any of my own stuff. It was ‘having a go’ that week, and the encouragement and detailed feedback Linda and Cathy gave us all, that gave me confidence. I felt at home in that world, where it was normal to discuss pirates and monsters, for example, and see events through children’s eyes! I remember Linda talking about the Scattered Authors’ Society and am so amazed and happy that I am a member now myself.

There were many wonderful writers on that week, and on another subsequent week run the next year by Joyce and Polly Dunbar at Lumb Bank. I hope that all of us get published eventually. My own breakthrough came in 2013, when Nosy Crow Publishers accepted my picture book text, which is now ‘The Fairiest Fairy’, due to be published in June this year.  I am overwhelmed by the loveliness of Rosalind Beardshaw’s illustrations!

2013 is also the year when my lovely agent,  Anne Clark , took me on. This transformed my life! It led to my novel ‘Girl with a White Dog’ being published by Catnip in March 2014, and me writing ‘Lucy’s Secret Reindeer’ for O.U.P. , published in October 2014. Now, in 2015, ‘Dog Ears’ will be published in April for Catnip, ‘The Fairiest Fairy’ (Nosy Crow) in June, and ‘Lucy’s Magic Snowglobe’ (O.U.P.) probably in October. There should be another Nosy Crow picture book for Christmas too, but perhaps that’s for 2016.

Next month I will be 50! This time last year I had no books published, and suddenly, by the end of this year I will have had 5, maybe 6! It feels like when you are waiting at a bus stop for ages, (in my case = years!) and then suddenly all the buses come at once!

So my message to anyone out there reading this, who loves reading children’s books so much that they do not not feel worthy to write them is - go on - have a go. It’s never too late. Sign up for a course with people as inspiring, encouraging and enthusiastic as Linda and Cathy, Joyce or Polly. Follow writers and  illustrators and agents and publishers you like on Twitter - I have had such lovely conversations with fellow enthusiasts - and found out about so many wonderful children’s books there. It was because of Twitter that, without an agent at that time, I submitted to the new publisher Nosy Crow in the first place. It is because of Twitter that I learnt that a new agent, Anne Clark, was looking for clients. There are THOUSANDS of amazing children’s books out there waiting to be discovered on all sorts of subjects, by all sorts of authors, for all different age groups, but there’s always room for more!  There’s a world of loveliness to enjoy as a reader AND as a writer, and if you’d like to combine the two - GO FOR IT! It’s the best job in the world!

And if you are an experienced writer like Linda or Cathy, please think about being a tutor. That course changed my life.

Anne Booth @Bridgeanne on twitter

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Celebrate the Ordinary - Joan Lennon

Last autumn Andrew Motion published an article titled Top 10 tips on being a successful poet - and this week I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to tidy up (i.e. cull) my file of "Oh - this is good - I might want to refer to this some time" and found it again.  And you know, the article is good, and though I don't remember particularly noticing number 4 the first time round, it's the one that speaks specially to me just now -

Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary. What we very badly need to remember is that the things right under our noses are extraordinary, fascinating, irreplaceable, profound and just kind of marvellous.

Look at the things in the foreground and relish stuff that can lose its glow by being familiar. In fact, re-estranging ourselves to familiar things seems to be a very important part of what poetry can do. 

I would change the words "poet" and "poetry" to "writer" and "writing".  And then I would say, "Yes."

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