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Down the Rabbit Hole

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Just a quick post about something rather exciting that’s coming up next week. I’ll be producing and hosting a special one-off radio programme all about children’s books on Resonance FM – Down the Rabbit Hole.

The programme features four brilliant panellists, who’ll be joining me to talk about some of the best new children’s and teenage books – Tanya Byrne, Laura Dockrill and Alex T Smith, plus Waterstones Children’s New Titles buyer (and all-round children’s book guru) Melissa Cox.

As well as talking about some great  books, the programme will also feature everything from author interviews to tips for aspiring children’s writers, to a peek behind the scenes in children’s publishing – and even hopefully a few Alice in Wonderland-themed songs along the way!

You can listen to the show on Tuesday 18 February at 8.00pm on 104.4FM or online at http://www.resonancefm.com and it will also be repeated on Wednesday 19 February at 9.00am.

If you do have a listen, I would love to hear what you think. We’re planning to continue the discussions on Twitter after the show so please do join in and tweet me your feedback using the hashtag #downtherabbithole.

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Busy days

I’ve not been very good at posting here regularly in recent months, but that’s no great surprise given that it’s been such a jam-packed autumn.

Things got off to a pretty good start at the end of August, when I was lucky enough to chair a great children’s book event at Waterstones Piccadilly – Seeing the World Differently. This panel discussion featured three incredible authors: Carnegie Medal winner Sally Gardner, acclaimed teen author Laura Jarratt, and R J Palacio, the author of the award-winning Wonder. Meeting them and chatting with them about their work – in particular how they’ve approached the subject of difference – was a real privilege. The event was written up by Sister Spooky and Armadillo Magazine.

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With Tanya Byrne and Lauren Kate at Waterstones Piccadilly

In fact, one way or another I seem to have spent quite a lot of time at Waterstones Piccadilly this autumn – and not just roaming the shelves to look at lovely new books I want to buy. It’s where I interviewed Queen of Teen Maureen Johnson for Booktrust, had the chance to meet one of my all-time author heroines, the legendary Susan Cooper; and attended an inspiring event with David Levithan. More recently I was back in front of the audience, trying not to fall off the  high stool and cracking bad jokes, chairing an event entitled UK vs US : is any subject taboo in YA literature? with young adult authors Tanya Byrne and Lauren Kate. The event was written up by a few bloggers, including Nosegraze (voila, le très unflattering photo) and Mira Ink.

In October I whizzed over to Bath for the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, where Malorie Blackman was appearing in her capacity as Children’s Laureate. I also went along to the autumn London Film and Comic Con for a special event to announce one of Malorie’s major Children’s Laureate projects – the UK’s first ever Young Adult Literature Convention, which will take place at London Film and Comic Con next year. It’s been really exciting working on plans for the YA Lit Con (follow #YALC on Twitter for all the latest) and I’m even more excited about the event itself, coming up in July 2014.

Children’s Book Week took place in October: I wrote and edited this year’s Booktrust Best Book Guide, which was sent to all UK schools in their Children’s Book Week packs. This year, to celebrate Children’s Book Week Booktrust also published their list of the 100 best children’s books from the last 100 years, and I blogged about just how excruciatingly difficult it was to take part in the selection process. Booktrust then invited people to vote on their favourite books on the list, and the winner (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) was announced on Monday. I made this EXTREMELY SILLY video to celebrate the top ten winners:

A real autumn highlight for me was a trip up to visit Seven Stories in Newcastle. Seven Stories is such an incredible place. I could happily spend hours in the bookshop alone, but on our trip we managed to fit in not only a tour of the fascinating Judith Kerr and Enid Blyton exhibitions, but also a trip to the Seven Stories archive, a short drive away, where we were lucky enough to be shown some original artwork and manuscripts from Seven Stories collections by the archivist – from Edward Ardizzone illustrations to manuscripts from the likes of Enid Blyton and Philip Pullman.

The Fantastic Five (and some strange woman introducing them)

The Fantastic Five (and some strange woman introducing them)

Another highlight of my autumn has been working with the inimitable Laura Dockrill, in her role as Booktrust’s writer in residence over the last six months. Laura’s Women on Top (WOT!) event which took place in September was hands down, the most fun book event I’ve ever organised. Laura wanted to do something to change perceptions of children’s books, and showcase just how dynamic, creative, innovative and exciting children’s literature can be, so we teamed up with Red Bull Studios to host an event with a difference. Laura was joined by Malorie, Caitlin Moran, Dawn O’Porter and Mel Giedroyc (she of Great British Bake Off fame) for an incredibly lively and inspirational panel discussion.

Afterwards, the audience of specially invited guests from the arts and media world had the chance to enjoy pizza and cocktails, look at books and hit the dancefloor to the sounds of a DJ set from BBC Radio One’s Gemma Cairney. I’m pretty proud that we managed to pull off a children’s book event which ended with the guests on the dancefloor throwing shapes to The Spice Girls’ Wannabe. It was a brilliant evening and I still can’t quite decide what my favourite part was, but I think it was Mel and Caitlin reciting the opening lines of Little Women

After all that I’m quite relieved December is here – roll on Christmas parties, mulled wine and (with any luck) time for a rest!

Interview with Sally Gardner: Winner of the 2013 Carnegie Medal

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This interview was first published on the Book Trust website http://www.booktrust.org.uk

Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon is the winner of the 2013 CILIP Carnegie Medal. I talked to her about winning this prestigious prize.

‘I really was amazingly surprised that it was published at all,’ confesses author Sally Gardner, of her Carnegie-winning book Maggot Moon. ‘I thought I had gone over the bar with it.’

Maggot Moon is certainly a powerful and unusual story: the tale of unlikely young hero Standish, who stands up to a sinister dictatorship whilst around him, his friends and family ‘disappear’. Dark, chilling and hard-hitting, the Carnegie judges described it as ‘a powerful depiction of an utterly convincing and frightening dystopia… a real tour de force, without a hint of sentimentality.’

Since it’s publication last autumn as one of the first titles from new children’s publisher Hot Key Books, Maggot Moon has been a phenomenal success, receiving widespread acclaim from reviewers, and scooping the children’s category of the Costa Book Awards. Yet Gardner is still taken aback by the book’s runaway success. ‘I really can’t believe it,’ she says, of joining a list of previous Carnegie winners that includes such greats as Noel Streatfeild, Arthur Ransome and CS Lewis. ‘I’m so thrilled. I always feel very insecure [as a writer] and this is the biggest endorsement you could have. It’s such a strong shortlist too: I looked at it, and I thought “that’s it, then – I won’t win.” I’m still slightly in shock.’

Gardner is not perhaps someone who grew up aspiring to win one of the UK’s most prestigious literary prizes. She attended numerous schools as a child, and was branded as ‘unteachable’ before eventually being diagnosed at the age of 12 as being severely dyslexic. Today, Gardner is an avid spokesperson for dyslexia, which she sees as a gift, not a learning disability.  Both her dyslexia and her background in visual arts – at 18 she won a scholarship to St. Martin’s Central School of Art – have profoundly influenced her writing: ‘When I see a story, I see it all in images. It’s usually wordless. Only when I start writing do I give it that layer,’ she explains.

After her time at St Martin’s, where she received a First Class degree, she went on to become a successful theatre designer and then an opera costume designer. Her time in theatre was particularly instructive: ‘It was the most stunning university to go to,’ she explains. ‘There’s nothing like seeing a play die, or seeing an audience get bored. I worked up north at Newcastle and I did a lot with a company called Stagecoach who took shows off to mining communities, where they’d never seen theatre before. If you had a bad show, you didn’t make it past bingo. I think lots more writers should see that happen: it makes you understand when you’re doing well with a story, and when you’re going to lose people.’

Gardner published her first book in 1993, beginning an impressive career as both writer and illustrator. Her first full-length novel, I, Coriander won the Nestle Children’s Book Prize Gold Award in 2005, and her next novel, The Red Necklace, was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize.  This year, she is unusual in having not one, but two books in the running for the Carnegie Medal – her young adult novel The Double Shadow also made the longlist.

Maggot Moon definitely has a relationship with The Double Shadow,’ Gardner explains. ‘I had done so much research into the history [of World War II] when I was writing The Double Shadow, and I became really fascinated by what happened in the Battle of Britain. Really, what saved London was not so much the unbearable bravery of its people, which is undeniable, but that the wind changed and Goering didn’t send over the last of the bomber boys – much to Hitler’s utter, utter fury. There’s no doubt in my mind – though I’m sure other people would disagree, because it’s one of those great arguments you can have as a historian – that London could have been a Dresden, but we were saved by the wind changing. The question I really wanted to ask is: if it hadn’t changed, if Goering did send over those bombers, would we finally have given up? And if we had capitulated, would we have been as bad as other countries? My sense of it was yes, we would have been.’

When Gardner first started writing Maggot Moon, it was more closely related to the events of World War II, but she later decided to make it deliberately less specific and more open-ended. ‘I realised that all these wars are universal stories of struggle. It sounds really pompous – and I don’t want to be pompous – but I wanted it to be a story about any conflict, in any part of the world.’

Asked about why she thinks this book has captured so many readers, Gardner suggests that it’s hero Standish that is really the key: ‘I think it’s Standish’s voice that makes it stand out. It’s really like how I think, so I thought it might not be up anyone else’s street. I just wrote him as he came – I never thought he was dyslexic, I just thought he saw the world like I see the world. I think it’s about using very simple language to convey, underneath, very complex ideas. It has a sort of lullaby quality, like a nursery rhyme. The language stays light and simple, but actually what he’s saying is dark and profoundly difficult.’ Gardner adds: ‘there’s this thing that happens sometimes with books – they hit the moment. And I think I’ve just been immensely lucky to have hit the moment with Maggot Moon.’

Although the book has frequently been described as a dystopia, Gardner herself doesn’t see it as such. ‘I see it as a sort of “what if?” history,’ she explains. ‘I see it as a question. But it does have what a lot of dystopias have at their heart – fairy story. It’s about going into the dark, dark wood. It doesn’t have a happy ever after.’

For Gardner, the book is ultimately about making readers think: ‘I wanted it to be a story about how we must be vigilant, and ask questions, and not accept lies… A kid at a school asked me if there’s a message in the book, and I said: “NO! There’s absolutely no message at all!” You can smell messages a mile off. I don’t want the book to give you a message: I want you to do the thinking.’

Asking provocative questions is central to Gardner’s conception of what young adult writing should be. ‘For me, with YA, the “Y” stands for “why are you doing this?” and the “A” is for “attempted answer. Adults often think they know the answers, but with young adults, it’s about asking the questions, and looking for different possibilities.’

At the announcement event at the National History Museum, Gardner gave a passionate and inspiring speech about the importance of such opportunities to ask questions and think imaginatively within education. She explains: ‘I’d like to see us not testing children into failure. I’m sick to death of it. Our greatest resource is the imagination of our young people, and we seem to crush it before it even begins to flower. I find that so heartbreaking. I believe teachers and librarians should be free to instill a life-long love of learning without being policed by an outdated curriculum.’

Gardner is hugely enthusiastic about the role of the Carnegie Greenaway shadowing scheme in providing such opportunities for imagination and debate amongst young readers. The scheme sees children in schools all over the country read the shortlisted books, following the judging process. ‘It’s amazing – utterly gobsmacking,’ she says. ‘My book is like Marmite, which I love – some of the reviews say “I loathe this book! It’s stupid…” or others “I love this book!”

She admits that she was at first worried that many of the children said they were confused by the story, but ultimately came to feel that provoking discussion could only be a positive outcome. ‘A boy came up to me and said “I’ve been arguing with my friend about the end – I think there should be a sequel, but he says there can’t be, because they’re dead,”’ she relates with relish. ‘”And I don’t think they are, and I want to know which of us is right. You could put an end to this argument because you wrote the book.” I said: “I can’t put an end to your argument. It’s up to you to work out what happened, not me to tell you.” And he went: “Oh Miss! We’re going to be going round forever, then!”’

Having won the Carnegie Medal, what is next for Sally Gardner? ‘I’ve got another book coming out in November with Orion, called Tinder,’ she tells me. ‘It’si’m based on the Hans Christian Andersen Tinder Box story, but it’s young adult. It’s being illustrated by David Roberts, with wonderful, dark drawings. I’m also doing two more books in the Wings and Co series and I’m going to do another book for Hot Key – I’m keeping quiet about it at the moment, but I’m very excited about it. It isn’t anything like Maggot Moon, but then hopefully I’ve never done a repeat of something I’ve done before. I always want to create something new.’

Interview with Levi Pinfold: Winner of the 2013 Kate Greenaway Medal

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This interview was first published on the Book Trust website http://www.booktrust.org.uk

Levi Pinfold’s Black Dog is the winner of the 2013 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. I spoke to Levi about how it feels to win this prestigious prize.

‘I’m feeling great!’ Even though we’re only talking on the phone, it’s impossible to miss the fact that Levi Pinfold has a beaming smile on his face. He’s been named the 2013 winner of the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal, which recognises excellence in illustration, for his second picture book Black Dog,  joining a list of winning illustrators that include Sir Quentin Blake, John Burningham, Helen Oxenbury, Shirley Hughes and Anthony Browne, to name but a few.

‘It’s a real honour,’ Pinfold tells me. ‘It’s a hugely personal thing for me. I worked for a very long year on Black Dog and it was very hard work – but very rewarding. It’s just amazing for someone to tell me that it’s good. It’s a real honour to be listed alongside all those fantastic illustrators… it’s really quite humbling.’

Pinfold takes a characteristically modest attitude to his book, which the judges identified as a ‘true modern classic’ that ‘will be read and enjoyed by generations to come.’ ‘I usually tend to downplay my work a little bit,’ he confesses. ‘I’ve looked at it for so long, but I hope maybe the judges could see the commitment that I put into it, and how hard I think about things…. You do put a lot of your personal feelings into books – subconsciously, it just trickles in there.’

Black Dog, which Pinfold wrote and illustrated, is story of a little girl called Small Hope who faces fear head-on in the form of a monstrous giant black dog – but she soon realises that it isn’t quite as frightening as everyone else seems to think.  Pinfold explains: ‘I wanted to write a ghost story: a spooky story for kids, with a gothic element. I was sitting in the library, reading a book about the spectral hounds of England, and I found this legend of the black dog, which is a recurrent myth in different counties of England, although in different areas it’s called different things. Usually it was this horrible thing that appears on the moors, and if you see it, something terrible will happen to you. Then I discovered one in Somerset that’s just called the “Gurt Dog” and the description was “he is a nice dog”. I thought that was quite a funny idea, and then I thought “what if he’s just been misunderstood in these other places? Maybe he’s just a lonely dog, wandering around.”’ His next book will also put a new spin on traditional legends. ‘I’m working on a book which should be out next year, which is about vegetables! It sounds very simple, but it’s actually about the Green Man myth, putting a little twist on the legend, and using those symbols in a new way.’

It is Pinfold’s distinctive illustrations which really set Black Dog apart – the Greenaway judges described as a ‘visual treat, full of mood and atmosphere’. Talking about his approach to illustration, he explains: ‘I take a long-term view of illustration and painting. I like to look at very old stuff as well as the most contemporary work. I’m hugely influenced by people like Brueghel as well as people like Shaun Tan and Anthony Browne – I have a very wide sphere of influence’. Thinking about why his style differs from that of many other contemporary picture book creators, he ponders: ‘I think perhaps the other thing is that I spend a lot of time locked up painting, so I don’t spend a lot of time going out and meeting other illustrators, so I don’t tend to get influenced by them. I just love painting and I love children’s books.’

Creating the beautiful, richly-detailed spreads in his picture books is something of a labour of love for Pinfold. ‘My process of creating illustrations is quite lengthy,’ he explains. ‘As for a lot of illustrators, it tends to begin in sketch form, then you produce a fairly detailed rough for your publisher. After that, what I do is I paint the illustration by hand. In Black Dog I used tempera – a kind of old-fashioned paint where you mix egg yolk with pigment. You layer up your painting over weeks. I don’t get bored… when I’m painting, when I’m exploring that world that I’m creating, that’s the moment when I think “this is what I’m meant to be doing”. I’m looking through the piece of paper, looking into it, and that’s what I enjoy.’ Thinking about this for a moment, he adds:  ‘It’s a nightmare for my publisher, I imagine – I’m busy “exploring the interior space” and they just want a book!’

Pinfold is not a newcomer to winning accolades for his work: Black Dog has already been awarded the Children’s Book Award in the AOI Illustration Awards 2013. His first picture book The Django won a Booktrust Early Years Award for Best Emerging Illustrator in 2010 and in the following year he was selected as one of ten Booktrust Best New Illustrators.  ‘It can be tremendously difficult when you’re starting out as an illustrator and trying to make a mark, and it really helped with awareness of my work, and the relationship with my publisher,’ he reflects. ‘Plus I got to meet the other illustrators – it’s great to see them doing stuff now. Winning those two awards was incredible for me. It’s been a wild ride ever since.’

Pinfold is using his Kate Greenaway Medal win as an opportunity to celebrate libraries and librarians across the country. ‘I’m honoured that my work has been recognised by CILIP on behalf of librarians, for whom I have nothing but respect. I am always amazed at the passion for reading, looking and understanding that libraries inspire in everyone. The availability of a whole universe of knowledge and inspiration in one place is something highly underrated, as is the importance of encouraging minds, young and old, on the pathway to discovery. I think we all have a lot to learn from libraries.’