Huge congratulations to the fantastic Malorie Blackman who has just been appointed as the eighth Waterstones Children’s Laureate. As you might know, I’m lucky enough to project manage the Children’s Laureate, so the last few weeks have been very busy ones for me, and I’m especially relieved I don’t have to keep the new Laureate’s identity a secret any longer!
Here’s a few of my favourite Laureate-related things from the last few days:
It was a delight to work with the brilliant Curved House on this fun animated film which we showed at the announcement event. Hopefully it captures how excited we all were about Malorie’s appointment!
It was also fascinating getting an insight into the making of the Laureate medal from jeweller Charmian Harris, who has been making them ever since the appointment of the first Children’s Laureate, Quentin Blake. (I had no idea that the original design was inspired by a label founder Ted Hughes designed for his bottles of Poet Laureate sherry!) Take a look behind the scenes in Charmian’s studio
I talked to the multi-talented Julie Mayhew – actress, writer of plays and short stories, and now novelist – about her debut book for young adults, Red Ink
‘Novels are like jigsaw puzzles. You have all these bits and pieces, and they suddenly start joining together, and you can’t work out where it all came from.’
I’ve come to meet Julie Mayhew at the Kings Arms in Berkhamsted, where in just a short time she’ll be celebrating the launch of her first novel, Red Ink, with a crowd of friends, fellow authors and publishing folk – not to mention a bit of Greek music and dancing and a melon-flavoured cocktail or two.
This is, of course, perfectly in keeping with Mayhew’s book – the story of 15-year-old Melon Fouraki, who has been raised on her mother’s magical stories of her halcyon childhood in Crete. When her mother is suddenly run down by a London bus, Melon is left suddenly alone in the world. Struggling to cope with her loss, Melon begins to confront her own childhood memories, and her quest to discover the truth takes her back to Crete, where she soon realises that the cherished family myths may not be all that she has been led to believe.
Challenging, uncompromising, and already attracting praise from critics, there’s no doubt Red Ink is a distinctly different young adult novel, so I’m keen to know how the idea came about. Mayhew explains: ‘The first spark for Red Ink came when I was in Crete. There was a truck in front of us with melons piled in a pyramid. There was no tarpaulin, and we were driving behind for ages thinking: “how aren’t those melons falling?”
‘Then, I was doing a writing course, and the teacher made us do this exercise where you wrote in a spiral. He told us to write down the first word that came into our heads, and weirdly, I wrote “melon” – I don’t know whether it was connected. I wrote the scene where Melon is trying on bras in M&S and her mum is having a cigarette in the changing room, and it became the second piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
‘I didn’t do anything with it for ages. The real spur was having my first son, and it made me think again about what it is to be a parent. You always think your own mum and dad are perfect: they do no wrong and almost they aren’t human. Then when you have your own children, you realise parents are utterly flawed and can make horrendous mistakes. That was what I was interested in – looking at that from both sides. Melon thinks her mum is just a nightmare, but actually Maria is doing her best in a bad situation, although it’s sometimes a bit misjudged.’
Central to Red Ink is ‘The Story’ – Melon’s mother’s semi-magical, mythological tales of the Fourakis family in Crete: ‘I’m really fascinated by the stories in families that get told time and time again. Details get changed, or slightly exaggerated. But does it matter if we tell the truth? I’m fascinated by that: is it even possible to tell the truth, or can you only tell your truth, your version?’
Writing the book called for a return to Crete to research the island and its traditions, although Mayhew acknowledges that this process had its pitfalls: ‘I wanted to put in lots of things that I had found out, but I ended up editing it a lot, because I realised I had forgotten to tell the story: the book was becoming a postcard from me about my trip to Greece. But there were some lovely things I found out about, like the root stock tree which is half lemons and half oranges. I even read a book about melon farming, so the descriptions of the bugs that attack the melons are accurate.’
Ultimately though, research was only part of the picture. ‘I embellished lots of things. For a while I got wrapped up in the truth, but then I realised that “The Story” could be a kind of fairy-tale, and that was much more liberating.’
Mayhew readily admits that she had not originally envisaged Red Ink as being aimed at young adults, although it has a 15-year-old narrator. ‘I saw it as an adult book when I was writing it, but I can see that it crosses over… It’s interesting what makes a book “young adult” and what makes it “adult”. When I was a teenager, I actually read a lot of adult books because when you’re a teenager you don’t want to be talked down to. I read Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High too, but it was all very light and fluffy – if you wanted anything with grit or substance, you had to look elsewhere. I read a lot of Stephen King, and found all the dark, psychological stuff fascinating. I read Margaret Atwood as well – she had a really strong sense of what it was to be a woman that wasn’t just about chasing boys.’
Deciding that the book would be for young adults, however, did not limit the story, which deals with some difficult subjects and is shot through with black comedy. ‘I wrote about whatever I felt needed to happen. It does go to dark places, but it’s not written in a very direct way and it’s dealt with lyrically – you could almost pass over it and not know it’s happened at all. I’m not trying to shock.’
She thinks that her next book, Mother Tongue, will be for adults, although she admits that ‘my publisher is trying to persuade me that it might be “new adult”’. Like Red Ink, the book has a young female narrator and sets out to explore the limits of truth and fiction, but it is also primarily about language. ‘The main character can speak three languages by the end of the book, and it’s about how when you can’t express things in your language, they don’t really exist, because if you don’t talk about things, it’s almost as if they don’t exist anymore.’
Whilst Red Ink draws on Greek traditions, Mother Tongue has an 18-year-old Russian girl at its centre:
‘Red Ink had to be set in Greece, because Greece is all about myths and the islands have a fairy-tale quality. History goes back forever there. This book is about not speaking about things, and I was interested in the idea that in Russia you could get in trouble for saying the wrong thing or for speaking when you shouldn’t. There’s a lack of expression, a cold front that I don’t think is really coldness: it’s just a cultural difference – you don’t go round grinning at strangers there. That fitted the story, which is all about keeping things in.’
Writing this novel has required a very different kind of research: ‘I’ve got books and books of Russian idioms, and I’ve also been collecting untranslatable words – phrases for things like “being happy about beauty” that we don’t have a word for in English. There are lots of Russian words that are completely untranslatable. My character is also fascinated by proverbs, especially Yiddish proverbs. I’ve been trying to teach myself Russian too, but it’s hard – I’ve just about taught myself the numbers one to ten, but the Cyrillic alphabet is so difficult.’
Mayhew is very definitely a writer of many talents: having originally trained as a journalist, she went on to work as an actor, and to write critically-acclaimed plays, radio dramas and short stories before writing Red Ink. However, it’s clear that these different elements of her work are closely interconnected: ‘I became a journalist realising I wanted to write, but it didn’t feel quite right. Then I was acting and that didn’t feel quite right either. I realised that it’s quite nice being someone else, but when you’re acting, you don’t get to choose who you are. When you’re writing, you can choose to go and be someone else – it’s all consuming. At the moment, in my head I’m an 18-year-old Russian girl. You find yourself acting the part. ’ Her experience of writing plays and short stories also feeds into her novels. ‘I like each chapter to be a “scene” – you can see it happen and there’s a resolution. Each one is a self-contained story.’
Asked about the advice she would give to aspiring writers, Mayhew is very clear: ‘You only get better if you keep doing it. You become a more astute writer as you go. You can procrastinate so much, but in the end you just have to do it. I’m guilty of it myself, but I know if you just do it – even if you write rubbish – it’s good compost for something else to grow from. You go back to it later, and it’s got something in it, even if it’s just a little nugget – the first piece of the jigsaw.’
I talked to author Hayley Long about her Costa-shortlisted book What’s Up with Jody Barton? and her approach to writing for teens (warning – contains plot spoilers!)
‘Some books for teenagers don’t seem to have a point. I don’t want to sound like a teacher – even though I am one – but for me, I need more going on in a book than just “I fancy a boy”.’
Author Hayley Long is chatting to me about her latest novel What’s Up with Jody Barton? over a plate of chips in a South London pub. The book, which is one of four titles on this year’s prestigious Costa Children’s Book shortlist, is the story of teenage Jody and twin sister Jolene growing up above their Dad’s lively North London cafe. The two share everything, until a good-looking boy comes between them.
With a pink doodled cover and a humorous first-person narrative, at first sight it may seem like an archetypal teenage girl story of family, friends and first romance – but (and here comes the spoiler alert) Jody’s story has an unexpected twist. 100 pages in, the reader discovers that Jody isn’t a teenage girl as they will probably have assumed, but in fact a teenage boy, who has a crush on the same boy his sister likes, and is struggling to deal with what this means for his own sexuality and identity.
‘I didn’t want to write a book that was defined by that particular issue,’ says Hayley, whilst acknowledging that there are still very few books for teenagers that explore gay and lesbian relationships. ‘It wasn’t something I particularly felt I had to do. But the first book I wrote for teens was Lottie Biggs is (Not) Mad, and I wrote that in part because I’d been teaching in a high school in Cardiff, and I noticed that one of the few areas where there was a real taboo, where kids could be really cruel to each other, was mental health. There was a lot of name-calling and it wasn’t an uncommon experience to have kids that go off the register for a few weeks for depression. Similarly for younger teens, the lesbian and gay issue seemed to be the one thing they really couldn’t get over. Maybe they would be different individually, but in the group mentality of a classroom, it’s a sensitive issue, and it’s generally still really homophobic. I can remember at the time thinking about it, but thinking that I wouldn’t know how to go about approaching it, so I decided to focus on mental health.
‘After I wrote the Lottie Biggs books, I had to come up with something else. My editor said “think about your audience, think about the people who enjoyed Lottie, and write another girl character” but actually I felt quite drained because I’d put so much of myself, and what I could think of in terms of girl stories into Lottie. I didn’t want it to be a pale imitation of that. Then I thought “OK, right, let’s have twins who fancy the same boy” but I literally got to the end of page one, and I thought “this is boring”. How many other books must there be about girls who fancy the same boy?
‘Then I had this devilish little thought that really I wanted to write about a boy, and maybe I could to do it under the radar. But also, I wanted to write something that had some meaning.’
lthough it is about a young gay character, Hayley is keen to emphasise that What’s Up with Jody Barton? is also a broader story about growing up and identity. ‘A lot of reviewers haven’t mentioned the “g-word” in what they’ve written about the book, even though that’s essentially what the whole book is about – it’s a coming-of-age book and a coming out book. But I quite like that people are not talking about that, they are talking about Jody. Ultimately it’s just a book about a teenager.’
Making Jody’s gender a surprise that the reader wouldn’t discover until halfway through the book was a deliberate strategy. Hayley explains: ‘I thought about it, and I didn’t want teenagers to come to the book either with their own ideas of “I’m not reading that”, or deliberately picking it up because of the subject matter. I wanted them to read about the character, and hopefully get to like the character, and then have to deal with the twist.’
The idea of creating a story with an unexpected twist was particularly appealing to her. ‘I remember when I was about 14 I read Catcher in the Rye. It makes it clear at the beginning of the book that the main character is in hospital, but being 14 and reading it on my own, I missed that. I can remember reading all the way through thinking “this is boring – why does everyone go on about this book? It’s just all this minute detail of these three days in a boy’s life”. And then at the end it dawned on me that he’d had a breakdown. I had this feeling of “oh, that’s amazing” and the revelation made me want to go back and read the whole thing again with that knowledge. I hope that kids reading this will have something of the same feeling of, “oh, now I want to read it all again and see how that works”’.
Offering young readers something to surprise and challenge them is part of Hayley’s approach to writing. ‘Today there’s a massive amount of fiction for teens and young adults. If you wanted, you could read nothing else’ she says. ‘It’s great there are so many books, but it means that if you choose, you can be quite narrow in your reading tastes. Obviously I want to write to appeal to my audience, but also I want to challenge them a little bit.’
But creating a book which was structured around this revelation did present difficulties for Hayley as a writer. She explains: ‘The first half of the book was a challenge. There was a real sense of relief when it’s out and I could let that go. The first half of the book had to be much more restrained, but for the second half, there was a shift in the atmosphere – it was freer and faster and it felt much more like a “boys’ book”’
Hayley drew on her own adolescent experiences in writing the book, even making her own teen idols – River Phoenix and The Doors – also Jody’s heartthrobs. ‘Obviously I’ve never been a gay teenage boy, but I thought about how I could project the way your heart hurts because you’re so attracted to someone’ she explains.
The doodles and artwork that punctuate the text also help to create an authentic teenage voice and feel. ‘I like to have a visual,’ she says. ‘I did the Lottie Biggs drawings, and they are how I draw. I wanted these to look different, so for Jody it was about really carefully copying photographs. I like seeing something interesting as I turn the pages. I write what appeals to me, and I like visual things.’
The book is set in and around the Willesden High Road, where Hayley lived during her time in London. ‘The area really came to life for me,’ Hayley explains. ‘It’s not like there’s anything much to recommend it, but when you live there, it is the most interestingly eye-popping place.’ Trying to create an authentic setting also presented challenges though. ‘Beginning to write it was scary and awful. I was thinking “I haven’t lived in London for 10 years, I can’t hear these kids’ voices.” But what made it all click was the two girls in the café, modeled on girls I used to hear in London. I read one review which said I was using a kind of “mockney” voice, but it is actually how a lot of teenagers in North West London speak. They aren’t all middle class. In fact, I toned it down, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to understand them.’ Although she doesn’t plan to write any further books about Jody, she says ‘I’d like to maybe use that setting again and maybe have Jody’s family in the background’.
Talking about her influences, Hayley cites Louis Sachar and Frank Cottrell Boyce as contemporary authors she particularly admires. ‘Holes is genius. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. The structure of it is so perfect. And Frank Cottrell Boyce is so funny. With Framed, there is really clever stuff going on. It’s talking about fine art and at the same time it’s suitable for 8 year olds. I admire books like that.’ Summing up (whilst graciously allowing me to finish the chips) Hayley thoughtfully concludes ‘I suppose I really think that as well as being funny, the whole point of books is to show you a different point of view.’
I was there to talk about writers’ websites, alongside Sarah Benton, Sales and Marketing Manager for Hot Key Books, the Guardian’s Julia Eccleshare and author and History Girls’ blogger, Celia Rees. The session was chaired by author John Dougherty, who’s also part of a group of writers blogging at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.
Check out illustrator Sarah McIntyre’s amazing illustration of our panel above – in which I look like I’m getting a bit overexcited!
Although it wasn’t perhaps quite as wild as Sarah’s illustration suggests, there’s no doubt that our session was quite a lively affair. There was lots to discuss and some great comments and input from the audience, who had plenty to contribute about their experience of developing their own websites and promoting their work online.
For those who weren’t there, here are some of the key areas we discussed – plus a few extra notes from me on some of the topics we didn’t have time to cover.
Authors do need a web presence
Everyone agreed that today, authors and illustrators are missing an opportunity if they don’t have a presence online. Whether it’s via a traditional author website, a blog, or a Facebook page, the web offers all kinds of ways to engage with your readers. As Hot Key’s Sarah Benton pointed out, by having your own website, you also keep control of the information about you and your books online. As a book reviewer, one of the first things I’ll do if I read a book I like by a new author is to Google them to find out more – so it’s important to make sure there’s up-to-date information about you and your books readily available.
Think about your audience
When planning what you want to do online, think about who you want to reach. If you write for teens or young adults, you might want to concentrate on content that will appeal to them. If you’re a picture book illustrator on the other hand, you might want to think more about ways to engage parents, teachers or librarians.
What platform is right for you?
Consider what sort of content you want to create, and how much time you have to commit. If you don’t think you’ll want to update your site often, you might want a more traditional ‘static’ site, which contains information about your work and how to contact you.
However, if you’re looking to build a relationship with your readers online, a blog might be a better option. You could use a simple, free web-based tool such as Blogger which is incredibly quick and easy to set up, or if you’d like a bit more control and flexibility over how your site works, you could explore WordPress, which offers you a range of different templates, some free or some which you’ll need to pay for.
There are other options too – if you’re an illustrator and want to share sketchbook pictures or images of work in progress, you might find a free platform such as Tumblr, which is specially designed for quickly and easily sharing images, would work well. Or maybe you’d like to share your visual inspirations for your books with your readers using Pinterest? Explore what’s out there and think about what would best suit your needs, as well as your audience’s.
Get help from your publisher
Don’t be afraid to ask your publisher for help or advice about setting up a blog or website. They may be able to offer helpful technical advice, whether it’s about how to get started with your own website, or how to use Twitter (all the publicists I know are expert users of social media!) They can also help promote your site by linking to you online and including it on any promotional material for your books.
Consider group blogging
If you don’t think you have time to blog regularly, but want to have a go, one approach would be to explore group blogging. Group blogs are a great way to share the work of maintaining a blog, whilst also widening your audience, helping new readers to discover you through the work of other authors in the group and vice-versa. There are some great collaborative blogs out there already, such as Girls Heart Books, Trapped by Monsters, Picture Book Den, Authors Electric, The Edge, The History Girls and The Awfully Big Blog Adventure,, some of which might be interested in a guest post. Alternatively you could set up your own group blog with some other authors or illustrators in your field.
Be personal – and be yourself
Your website or blog doesn’t have to be just about promoting your books and providing factual information. Readers tend to be bored by straight ‘self-promotion’, but from working on the Book Trust online writer in residence scheme, one thing that I’ve learned is that they are fascinated by the creative process. They love knowing all the details of how your work comes together, right down to what biscuits you’re eating or what music you’re listening to as you work (Book Trust’s current online writer in residence, Hannah Berry, shares her ‘song du jour’ in each of her blog posts). Aspiring writers and illustrators will love your tips and advice on how to get started too.
Don’t be afraid to be personal and have fun online. Having said that, as one of the writers in the audience pointed out, it can be difficult to know what your online ‘persona’ should be. If you write for younger readers, for example, filling your Twitter timeline with swearing might not go down well with some parents. Set some sensible guidelines that you feel comfortable with, and then just be yourself.
… But don’t allow your website to take over the real business at hand!
Let’s be honest, we all know how much of a distraction the internet can be, whether it’s discussing the line-up for Strictly on Twitter or looking at pictures of kittens. Lots of the authors and illustrators in our session were frank about how the web can become a procrastination tool which stopped them from getting on with the business of writing and illustrating. Our advice? Set yourself some boundaries and avoid spreading yourself too thin. Consider whether you really need to be on every social media platform, or update your blog every day – maybe once a week is enough. Remember you don’t need to write reams – research shows that people read differently online, and actually prefer lots of small pieces to huge blocks of text. You could just write a couple of paragraphs – or even share a photo instead.
For some different approaches to author blogging, check out Sarah McIntyre’s blog, check out Sarah McIntyre’s blog, which is full of photos and illustrations of her doings or Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrated blog written from the point of view of her dog, Plum. Hot Key’s Sarah Benton has also written up some useful tips from our discussion, which you can read here.
I was delighted to be invited to go along to the launch of a fantastic new book from Chicken House, The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable.
The Wolf Princess is an enchanting and magical story, in the style of classic children’s book authors such as Eva Ibbotson.Lonely schoolgirl Sophie has always had a strange yearning to visit Russia, but never expects her dreams to come true, until an encounter with a mysterious visitor to her humdrum boarding school leads to a chance for she and two of her friends to travel their on a school trip.
But on arrival in St Petersburg, the three friends find themselves alone on the wrong train, and are soon lost in an unknown wilderness. They are rescued by the beautiful Princess Anna Volkonskaya, who takes them away to her crumbling yet beautiful winter palace, and intrigues them with tales of lost diamonds and her family’s tragic past. But what is really going on at the winter palace? As wolves howl in the forests outside, Sophie finds herself drawn into a remarkable adventure.
What could be more appropriate then, than to celebrate the new book with a traditional Russian afternoon tea? The beautiful Mari Vanna restaurant in Knightsbridge made the perfect venue for the launch party, organised by Riot Communications.
The restaurant is richly decorated with a wealth of fascinating and idiosyncratic Russian artefacts, from framed photographs to china ornaments to elaborate samovars to beautifully patterned tiles. Chandeliers gleamed everywhere, and tables were spread with an enticing array of Russian delicacies, from tiny squares of black bread served with herring to perfect little honey cakes and fresh raspberry juice.
Tea with jam!
Barry Cunningham, Publisher of Chicken House, introduced the book and its author, describing The Wolf Princess as ‘a book you want to hug’. Cathryn Constable spoke briefly about what motivated her to write the book, citing her long-standing love of Russian folk-tales and literature as her inspiration, before reading a tantalising extract from the book itself, in which the girls first arrive at the winter palace and meet the mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya.
Afterwards we were all given the chance to try a Russian speciality – black tea served with jam to stir into it, just as Sophie and her friends drink it in the book!
Thanks Riot Communications and Chicken House for a wonderful celebration.