Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ten books which inspired me

 Candy Gourlay, wonderful author of Tall Story (what do you mean you haven't read it yet? Buy it now!) has written a fascinating post about the books which inspired her on her journey to becoming a children's author, a theme picked up by Nicky Schmidt and Kathryn Evans .
Thinking about what books I might choose brought on feelings of unworthiness. I had hardly read a contemporary YA book before I started to write one. I feel as though I've been on a big catch up in my reading ever since I got my publishing deal, but there are so many books I have still to read.
But still, there were books which encouraged, inspired and influenced me. Here are ten.

 Three books from childhood

I was always a big fan of Noel Streatfeild's books, but Wintle's Wonders (now retitled Dancing Shoes) was my favourite. Not only did it have a great setting - a dancing school which trained children to take part in musical shows, but also a main character Rachel whose  fierce love of her sister and loyalty to her dead mother were consistently misunderstood by the adults around her. I always felt misunderstood and I completely identified with Rachel. And I also loved the little glimpses of adult relationships given by the author, especially the seemingly mismatched artistic Uncle Tom and brassy Aunt Cora. Real people, real emotions, this book set my taste in fiction.

I've written elsewhere about my love of the books of Antonia Forest. The Marlow family series is my favourite series ever written and The Ready-Made Family  my pick of the series. I still can't read it without amazed admiration of how much Forest does in one book - juggling lots of characters, a thrilling plot, intriguing relationships and  making you believe you're reading about real people.

 S E Hinton's The Outsiders was probably the first book I read about boys fighting each other. Loved it then, love it now. It was a million miles away from my staid Home Counties upbringing, and yet I felt it was a book about me. I'm still not sure why.

Dutch literature

I've been a journalist for my entire adult life, and I'm very confident about writing as a journalist. But somehow I'd got a notion into my head that writing a novel would be somewhat different, that I would have to write in a poetic, complicated way to be taken seriously as a novelist. Then I went to live in the Netherlands, and started to read as much Dutch literature in translation as I could. Much of it was sparse and unfussy compared to the British literary fiction I'd been reading - partly because Dutch is a very unfrilly language. It gave me the confidence to think that I could write my own kind of literary fiction, that short sentences and apparent simplicity could be enormously effective. Probably the Dutch book that made the most impact on me was The Assault by Harry Mulisch, a devastating tale of  Holland in the Second World War. Harry Mulisch used to drink coffee in the cafe opposite our flat in Amsterdam, a tiny white-haired man with great style. He died in October 2010. Truly an inspiration.

Books by 'normal' people

How to put this? It was very helpful to read books that had been written by people whom I knew to be not so very different from me. It meant I couldn't hide behind  the feeling/excuse I nurtured that novelists are somehow different...
First of all, the very talented Melissa Nathan. Melissa's brother is married to my sister. Melissa, like me, was a journalist. She became an immensely successful writer of books which are very funny and satisfyingly romantic. My favourite is The Waitress, because it's about a girl who doesn't know what to do with her life, a common state that doesn't get much attention. Melissa wrote The Waitress while she was having treatment for the cancer which cruelly killed her at just 37. I can't write about her without being gripped by sheer disbelief that she was taken so young. She wrote her last book knowing that she was unlikely to see it published. It's as bouncy and fun, hopeful and life-enhancing as the others. Melissa inspired me in many ways, but most of all for her pure professional stamina.

Amanda Swift was my tutor when I did an evening course in writing for children at City University, and she was my mentor and guide as I wrote When I Was Joe (and still is now). As part of the course she shared with us the process she'd been through in writing her book Anna/Bella -  from outline to synopsis and beyond. She also worked with me on the original plot-planning exercise that became When I Was Joe and kindly donated her disabled athlete character who eventually became Ellie.  It was only much, much later that it occurred to me that Anna/Bella is about a girl who swaps between names and identities -  not so unlike When I was Joe as one might imagine, looking at the cover. Another teacher might have mentioned the overlap -  Amanda never did.

Books which made me brave.

 I knew I wanted to write about a boy. I wasn't sure I could do it. After all, I'd never been a boy. Then I thought 'What if JK Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter for the same reason? If she can write a boy, so can I.' And so I did. 

I read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight  in the spirit of enquiry, trying to find out what had captivated so many readers. I didn't like the writing style, the colourless heroine or the snickering hero. But I admired the feeling that Meyer had written from her heart, that she'd fearlessly poured her own emotions into her writing. I think that's what readers connect to.  A  better example of that kind of abandon is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which I devoured at the age of 13 and still love. I read a lot of books which are clever and beautifully written, but  there's something missing unless I get a sense that the author is somehow in love with the story she or he is telling. These books made me brave enough to try and do the same.

The ultimate book

I suppose we all have a book which we'd love to have written. Mine is Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. Virtually every line makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  She takes the most difficult subject - how bereaved parents go on living after their only son is murdered -  and makes it into something constantly unexpected yet utterly true. And funny -  it's so funny.
  I don't think I could ever write anything one-millionth as good. But I'll go on trying.


Thursday, 23 December 2010


I'm sure Michael Gove, Britain's Education Secretary doesn't want to be known as the Booksnatcher.
Teaching Michael Gove about reading
I'm sure he passionately believes in  supporting children and encouraging them to love books - regardless of family background or wealth. He's just got a strange way of showing it.
Unfortunately Mr Gove is part of a government which believes that huge spending cuts are the best way to assure this country's economic future. These cuts mean that local schools and councils are contemplating how to save millions from their budgets. Libraries are particularly vulnerable to these cuts, as they are seen as 'soft' targets. So libraries are closing, school and public librarians are sacked, and children lose a source of free books, the chance to spend time in a place dedicated to reading, the chance to meet and learn from people who know about books.
 Michael Gove assures us that he does care about reading. He is spending our money to devise a new test for Y1 pupils, a phonics based test which will identify children who cannot 'decode' words at the level they are expected to. Mr Gove says: 'Parents want to know how their children are reading and this will tell them.'
No, Mr Gove, a phonics test will not tell parents very much. It will not tell them if their children understand the words they read. Still less will it tell them if they enjoy reading, if they pick up a book out of interest, if they care about stories. It may even be that being drilled in phonics might be stressful for some children, and it may put actually them off reading.  One of the 12-year-old boys I help as a volunteer reading helper is great at sounding out difficult words -  but he hasn't a clue what they mean, and the pronounciation isn't usually correct, despite his painstaking effort, because English doesn't work phonetically.
Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister says:'There is more to reading than phonics – but there is also a weight of evidence that systematic synthetic phonics, taught in the first years of a child’s education, gives children key building blocks they need to understand words, underpins children’s attainment of a good standard of reading and can inspire a lifetime love of reading.
 'The Government is determined to raise the standard of reading in the first years of primary school so that children can master the basic decoding skills of reading early and then spend the rest of primary school reading to learn.
 'The fact is that alternative methods have left too many young people with poor literacy levels, especially among children of more disadvantaged families, and we are determined that every child can read to their full potential.'
 Well, leaving aside the question of how anyone can possibly say what a child's full reading potential is, one of the alternative methods the government seem to have decided is worthless, is the Booktrust's book giving scheme. Bookstart is a national programme that gives a free pack of books to babies, and guidance materials to parents and carers. Booktime promotes reading aloud with children, and Booked Up aims to give a free book to every child starting secondary school in England.£13million of government money is used to generate £56 million-worth of private sponsorship. Mr Gove didn't just decide to half the grant, or discuss the scheme's future with Booktrust. No, he informed Booktrust with no warning, just before Christmas, season of giving, that the government funding would entirely cease.
Ed Miliband.the new Labour leader, accused the Conservative government of 'knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.' I think the current government is truly only interested in things they can measure. In this they follow Labour's lead -  but in a far more brutal and philistine fashion.
Discussing this on Facebook this week, the writer Ellen Renner said:'They all view teaching children as some sort of factory system; managerialism gone mad .'  It's not just managerialism gone mad -  it's bad managerialism gone mad. It takes joy and pleasure and creativity out of learning and replaces it with decoding. It's a mindset which says that the humanities are useless and unworthy of funding. It makes 'culture' into something for a rich elite. It's profoundly un-British, I believe, and I don't think the government has a mandate to change our society like this.
Mr Gove might argue that the universality of the bookgiving scheme was wasteful -  that children whose families could afford to buy them books end up with free ones. But he should listen to author MG Harris, whose book Invisible City was part of the Booked Up scheme this year. She met children in Derry and said :
'The universality was the appeal to many, who don't want to feel they are being singled out for being 'poor' or 'low achieving'. When I did the Booked Up launch event in Derry I had kids from posh grammars and from comprehensives in poor estates in the audience.But they all got excited about the free books.'
And he should listen to this little girl, reading her Bookstart book.  The excitement in her voice isn't something that can be measured in a phonics test. But if I were her parent it would tell me what I needed to know.
What can we do about this decision? Get those squillionaire novelists to bridge the gap, is one suggestion I've seen, although I'd suggest that they do that by paying their taxes. It maybe that the enterprising people at Booktrust can find alternative funding. But why shouldn't taxes support a scheme like this? You can blog and tweet about the decision, using #bookgifting and @booktrust and @savebookstart. You can email Booktrust on bookgifting@booktrust.org.uk to support their efforts to keep the scheme going. You can write to Mr Gove and to your local MP.
Michael Gove has already had to make a significant  U-turn when he threatened school sport funding. Perhaps he can be persuaded to think a little more about books.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Five books

This is the time of year when newspapers are full of ‘Books of the Year’ round ups, generally derided as being full of the usual suspects, and old mates bigging each other up.
I can see the problemfrom the other side now. As a writer, one does acquire quite a lot of writerly mates, and they do write remarkably good books.
So I’m not even going to try to pick my books of the year (and to be completely honest, for 2010, I wrote my books of the year). Instead, here are some recent highlights.
Two YA books I loved so much that I reread them immediately.
Taking Flight by Sheena Wilkinson. Liam’s an under-achieving troubled teen from the backstreets of Belfast, his show-jumping cousin Vicky is spoiled and snobbish. When Liam has to go and stay with Vicky and her mum, and discovers a talent for and a love of horses, Vicky isn’t too pleased. I loved everything about this book, the people are so real and the story immensely satisfying. I loved the idea of splicing two genres – gritty crime and a pony book – and kudos to Sheena Wilkinson for the way she makes it work. It’s dramatic and funny, heart-warming and sad. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.
Firebrand by Gillian Philip. So, I’m Gillian Philip's biggest squeeingest fangirl anyway, and now she’s written a book so fab that everyone is raving about it and saying it’s the fantasy book of the year and it’s going to be the next big thing. And they are completely correct, because Firebrand is wonderful (and I don’t even especially like fantasy. So it must be good.) Set in the world of the Sidhe, Scottish faeries separated from the human word by a Veil, living for hundreds of years, Firebrand has a moody and irresistible anti-hero, the glorious Seth; a kind and noble hero, his half-brother Conal, and a story which is so compelling that I hardly stopped reading to breathe. First in a series, buy it for everyone.

Two sequels that are even better than the books they follow.

There are three of us who had very similar years last year. Ellen Renner, Tamsyn Murray and I all brought out our first books at the beginning of the year and the sequels in August/September. I loved their first two books and I thought both sequels were even better(I think  Almost True is better than When I Was Joe as well, maybe there's something about sequels that give new authors a boost of confidence).

Tamsyn’s My So-called Haunting (a sequel to My So-Called Afterlife) is a sweet and funny romantic comedy, set in a world of ghosts, with a new main character, Skye, a teenage girl who has enough to worry about - new home, new school - without the additional complication of seeing the dead. And then there’s Nico, the tall, dark, handsome mysterious boy at school who definitely has something of the night about him. Tamsyn deftly blends comedy, suspense and romance,and there’s an especially funny ghost called Mary whose admonition ‘Thou resembleth a strumpet’ has become one of my catchphrases of the year.
Ellen Renner’s City of Thieves is a follow up to Castle of Shadows, set in an imagined nineteenth century almost-England, with a feisty young queen Charlie and a dastardly (but rather attractive) Prime Minister. In City of Thieves the focus shifts to Charlie’s ally and friend Tobias who suffers terrible trials, physical and emotional as he seeks to right a wrong, but is kidnapped by a family of thieves. Tobias, brave, defiant and impetuous, is just my sort of boy, and I loved Ellen’s positively Dickensian imagining of a thieves’ den complete with climbing wall and evil uncle. And that twisted, fascinating Alistair Windlass is back too.

And a great book for adults:

Dog Boy by Eva Hornung knocked me out. It’s about a six year old Russian boy who is adopted by a pack of feral dogs, it’s entirely believable, horrific and touching and upsetting. You think you're learning about the nature of dogs, and then you realise that Eva Hornung is teaching you about humans. It's extraordinary and deeply troubling.  Anyone who’s into fluffy werewolf tales should read this for a reality check about pack life. Stunning.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Crime and punishment

David Cameron with Brooke Kinsella, knife crime campaigner
Right at the end of When I Was Joe, Ty watches a television programme about knife crime. He sees a politician 'a posh one. The one my mum likes - he talks a lot of sense, she says.' A man with a 'smooth, certain face' who says that everyone who carries a knife should be locked up.
This makes Ty laugh out loud, as he imagines the hundreds and hundreds of prisons that would be needed. It was pretty much the response I had, when I heard David Cameron -  yes, it was he -  make this particular suggestion, which turned into an election pledge.
Anyway, now David Cameron is Prime Minister, thanks in part to people like Ty's mum (although thanks even more to Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg) and Ken Clarke is his  Justice Secretary. And Ken Clarke has just been on the BBC news explaining that prison doesn't work, and it creates repeat offenders, and there needs to be other ways of punishing offenders.  The BBC showed him debating the matter with prisoners, who thoroughly agreed with him. His green paper on sentencing is due to be published tomorrow.
In the last few years since I wrote When I Was Joe  I've watched different policies used to try and counter knife crime in London. My daughter has come home from school telling me about films and speakers -  the mother of a murdered boy, a police officer. All of the anti-knife education they have had has been underpinned by a strong message that carrying a knife is enough to put you in jail. Now it seems that message is far from the truth.
I'm not a supporter of the current government, but I agree with most of what Ken Clarke has to say about prisons. I believe prison sentences should address future offending, and try and help offenders reflect on their actions and prepare for a better life, an expensive over-crowded system isn't going to make this happen.  Attempts to help addicted and mentally ill offenders make perfect sense.
But I wonder how I'd feel if a child of mine had been killed by a stupid boy armed with a knife? If I was part of the Kinsella family, whose son Ben was murdered by thugs for nothing, and who have campigned for knife  attacks to be treated as seriously as gun crimes. I wonder if this new policy -  coupled with savage cuts to policing - will make us feel safer? And why didn't the BBC suggest that Ken Clarke put his ideas to victims and their families?
I'm like Ty, I don't have any answers. Just a feeling of cynical confusion. And quite a lot of fear.
Update: Had Ken Clarke been filmed with the families of victims of crime, this is what he might have been told

Friday, 3 December 2010

Who uses libraries?

People who are poor.
People who are rich
and people in the middle, squeezed or not

People without computers, who don't know what the internet is,
People with laptops and wiis and Playstations and ipods.
People without homes.
People with second homes.
People without many books.
People with shelves overspilling.
People with lots of time and
too little time
with not much quiet
or too much quiet.
People whose homes are chilly
and lonely
and dull.

Parents and carers and babies and toddlers.
Children who don't know what books are.
Children, magically turning letters into words and words into stories.
Children who want to read every book a particular author ever wrote. Because she wrote it just for them.
Or there's just one book they read again and again and again.
(I still remember my special book, the one that I read week after week after week, till it became part of who I am now and then and forever)

Children and adults who don't find it easy to learn by jumping
from website to website.
Children who want to find out what and why and how and when and who.
And read the ideas of others for real...
not bite-sized and  bullet-pointed on websites and worksheets.
Teenagers with homework to do
Teenagers with nothing to do
Teenagers whose home is empty
Teenagers with no home at all

People who like to browse among books
People who like to discover new writers. Even if those writers were new years ago.
People who want the latest must-read best-selling hit.
Dan Brown, Jacqueline Wilson, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
People who want something else
Something obscure and unpopular and - gasp - uncommercial.
People who don't like Horrid Henry
or horror
or Horowitz, and who don't find much else
 in WH Smith.

People who hate vampires, werewolves and angels
People who dream
of a dark, dangerous stranger
with a loving, tortured soul
a strange, sweet scent
and gleaming, pointed, uncontrollable

People who don't trust the internet
Who don't have a kindle, an iphone, an ipad.
Who like the feel and smell of a book, the print on the page, the pages turning
the pictures glowing.
People who want help
and advice
and recommendations from experts
(not volunteers, however well-meaning)
and company,
and education
and someone to notice that they're alive that day. Everyday.
Writing groups and
reading groups and
story-telling sessions and
slimming clubs and
visiting authors and
community noticeboards offering music and cleaning and clubs and anything you need.

Writers who can't work in a cafe, even though J K Rowling did.
Writers without a Room of their Own.
People who like to think.

Labour voters and
Conservative voters
Liberal Democrats
and people who don't know who the hell to vote for
 because they're all as bad as each other.

People with a sense
of history
and the future,
of community
of a shared culture
of equality and opportunity hand in hand
of a Big-hearted Society -
where a homeless kid has the same access
to books and warmth, internet  and silence as they do at
(just a random comparison there).
People who complain and mutter and might write a letter or two,
but don't riot.
Not about libraries.
Not about books.

But then there are
Government ministers who won't protect libraries
and local councillors trying to cut budgets
Because budgets are easier to cut than bankers' bonuses. And it's getting a bit fuzzy, isn't it? About who was to blame. For the mess we're all in together.
That's all of us.
But especially some of us.

And those who think that libraries are a soft target
and out-dated
and unpopular
and could easily be run by volunteers
 - because, after all, there will be lots of people with time on their hands -
 - not to mention the workshy -
 -  and the fake disabled, don't forget them.

And  after all, libraries don't need to buy more books
because everything's available on the internet
and books are so cheap nowadays
and  how much do you have to pay to rent books from a library anyway?
and where is the local library?
and why isn't it open when I need it to be open?
and why are there so few books?
and isn't it disgraceful how children leave school unable to read?
What they need are Phonics and Literacy and Extracts and
testing testing testing
testing testing testing
because the economy demands literate workers
who've studied relevant subjects
so they can earn money and pay
graduate taxes
because that's what  Britain needs
Isn't it?

This is happening now.
Libraries are being closed and cut
Librarians are being sacked
In shires and cities and towns

If we allow it.

For more information  see here  and here  and most importantly Alan Gibbons' Campaign for the Book here