UKMGExtravaganza…coming soon. Very soon.

UKMGExtravaganza October 2015 Nottingham

It’s only a couple of days now until UKMGExtravaganza in Nottingham. Thirty-five  – yes, 35 – UK middle grade authors all in one place, perhaps the most ever seen in captivity! It follows on from UKYAX last week and is organised by the amazing Kerry Drewery, Emma Pass and Jo Cotterill. Authors will be talking, mingling, signing books, and eating cake.

I will be in Nottingham Central Library on Saturday afternoon, waving my books about, and giving away the gorgeous bookmarks for my new title, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection, which isn’t actually out until next year.

Julia Lee's books UKMGExtravaganza 2015

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BRIGHTON ROCKS BOOKS

Last minute reminder of this event tomorrow – and an update: Chris Riddell, the new Children’s Laureate, author of Goth Girl and much more, will be there!

GirlsHeartBooks

Do you fancy a summer’s day by the seaside with BOOKS? (Let’s face it, who doesn’t?) Do you live in the South East of England? Or have you got super-powers that enable you to travel huge distances in the blink of an eye? Because…

Brighton beach and Brighton PierOn Saturday July 11th at the Jubilee Library, in central Brighton, you can join a whole host of writers – including me – for an amazing day all about books. And what’s more, this is a free event. Woohoo!

The day pans out as follows:

11am: Action! Adventure! How writers keep stories exciting for younger readers, Middle Grade panel (suitable for ages 8+) featuring AF Harrold (THE IMAGINARY), Julia Lee (THE DANGEROUS DISCOVERIES OF GULLY POTCHARD), Tatum Flynn (THE D’EVIL DIARIES)
Noon: A World of Pure Imagination: Middle Grade (8+) workshop run by Cameron McAllister (THE TIN SNAIL)
Noon: Writing It…

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5 Important Things I have learned from Books

GirlsHeartBooks

…and by books, I mean classic fiction, not factual books.

I’m not even sure if this learning was conscious, they were just important lessons that are now embedded in my brain.

1. If you’re in deep snow and you start to feel all warm and sleepy YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE! So don’t succumb and lie down in it. (White Fang by Jack London)

White Fang by Jack London

2. If you need to make some quick money – ideally to save your family – you could cut off your hair and sell it. (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

3. Turkish Delight is the most delicious, enticing sweet in the world. This is TRUE. (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis.)

4. If you keep very still and try to look as if you are grass and trees, you will be able to tame wild animals. (The…

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The Complete Borrowers

Look what I just found in our delightful local secondhand bookshop:

The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton Puffin edition

More Borrowers than I even knew existed! The first tale – The Borrowers – was published in 1952, followed by The Borrowers Afield (1955), Afloat (1959), Aloft (1961). No wonder I never caught up with The Borrowers Avenged (sounds a bit violent?!) as it did not surface until 1982. By then I was more into Virago Modern Classics than classic children’s literature. There is also a Borrowers fragment called Poor Stainless, only a few pages long.

The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton (Puffin) back cover

The introduction is a letter from Mary Norton herself, describing how the Borrowers came to be.

There are lots of lovely atmospheric black-and-white illustrations by Diana Stanley.

Diana Stanley illustration for The Borrowers

Illustration by Diana Stanley

Those accompanying The Borrowers remind me of Maurice Sendak’s style: chunky figures and normal, non-beautiful faces. And they remind me a bit of gargoyles and other faces carved around old churches, based on the stone-carvers themselves or people in the local community which were probably quite recognisable to those in the know.

Diana Stanley died in 1975 and the final book is illustrated by Pauline Baynes, whose work is inseparable in my mind from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

I blogged about the perennial attraction of Borrower-sized people and other tiny things here at Girls Heart Books.

‘The Dark Is Rising’ by Susan Cooper

I loved Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) when I was a child. At the time it was a stand-alone story. The rest of the books in the sequence weren’t written, or even conceived, until long after this first one was published. So I came to its sequel, The Dark Is Rising (1973), only this year, as an adult reader. I’ve forgotten all but the bare bones of the first book, except that it rapidly drew me in and introduced me to the legend of Arthur and the Grail quest.

I identified with Over Sea, Under Stone partly because it was set on the south coast of Cornwall in a landscape very familiar to me from summer holidays: my mother’s family live in that part of the world. The Drew children visit their great uncle Merriman Lyon for a holiday and stumble on a local mystery. So far, so children’s adventure…But then it gets deeper, turning very satisfactorily into a battle between the ancient powers of Light and Darkness.

I featured The Dark Is Rising on my recent wintry reads post and can’t imagine tackling it on a hot summer holiday. The action this time takes place over and around the winter solstice. Cooper grew up in Buckinghamshire, England – vividly depicted in The Dark Is Rising – but conceived the book while cross-country skiing through woods in Massachusetts, where she has lived for many years; and I think those surroundings make their mark on the novel, too.

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper Vintage Classics 2013

 

I do like this cover on my recent Vintage Classics edition, even with the slightly worrying South Park vibe of that orange-coated figure in the snow! It’s suitably chilly and the rearing horse and rider plus the sinister rooks hint at all the right story elements.

 

This time the family is the Stantons, with their rather unlikely ten children, partly because Will has to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a rare and chosen person. On the eve of his 11th birthday strange things begin to happen and Will’s ordinary, busy family preparations for Christmas turn so much murkier. The walls between his familiar world and a much older one grow thin and permeable. Shapes shift, Will travels in time and place, and meets The Old Ones who show him things and grant him knowledge almost overpowering to such a young boy. He discovers he has a key role – whether he wants it or not – in the endless fight between the forces of good and evil, light and dark. Merriman Lyon is again a vital figure, striding through the landscape full of ancient wisdom. Other Old Ones are strange versions of Will’s own neighbours, their own powers fiercely tested by the fight. Elements of British myth, like Herne the Hunter, are skilfully woven into the story to give it a wild, weird texture.

I know this is a very admired story, but coming to it now I found two problems with it, one large, one small.

Will is the kind of protagonist writers are warned against creating – he is very passive. (Passive protagonists can be annoying to identify with; the reader may just want to give them a kick up the pants.) The role of the Old Ones is to educate Will and, if they can, protect him. He is given visions. He is shown things, told things; when he’s unsure what to do next he’s told to wait and he will know, instinctively, or creatures will come out of the dark and the snow to lead him. And they do. He’s handed about like a parcel. Sure, sometimes he has to battle his utmost, but I never felt in doubt that he wouldn’t overcome, or have the right vision, or be saved by outward influence – even in the climactic fight. He doesn’t ever have to solve a problem himself, by his own ingenuity. Call me a cynical old adult, but I just didn’t engage with him enough as an active character to really worry for him. Perhaps if I’d read this book as a child I would have been swept along with Will’s journey and not felt the loss of narrative tension.

The only time he has any real agency, where I felt a charge of tension, is early on. Will has been shown he has to power to make fire, and like a typical young boy decides to test it out on a walk home down an out-of-the-way alley. His totally understandable experiment draws the attention of wicked forces, confusingly disguised as a local farm girl. This isn’t just wafting and drifting and going with the mythic flow. It’s Will making a unilateral decision and finding it’s a mistake. But then Merriman appears to save him and tell him a bit more useful stuff! And vanish again.

The other problem is a lesser one but niggling. It’s the girls.

Will has five brothers (another died as a baby) and three sisters, a big jolly household where dad works as a jeweller and mum keeps things going at home in their country cottage. Ten kids is pretty unusual for the early 1970s, and a non-Catholic family, but hey ho. The eldest, Stephen, Will’s hero, is away in the navy and sadly never does show up, though a significant gift arrives from him. All the boys, from adult Stephen down to Will as youngest, are lovingly drawn. They are talented: Paul plays the flute beautifully, James and Will are good singers, Robin’s mechanically-minded and ‘an excellent footballer’, Max fixes things. They willingly help with fetching the logs and the Christmas tree and sweeping snow. There’s jolly banter and sibling goodwill. They are described in a way that makes you think they’d look a rather attractive bunch to outsiders, and they’re unfailingly cheerful, charming and communicative.

Now, anyone who’s raised – or been – an adolescent boy – would you say that particularly those last three words are the first you’d pull out of the descriptive bag? Teenage boys can be charming, cheerful, helpful, and communicative, of course. But that’s truly not the default setting.

On to the girls. My feeling is that Cooper chucked in three girls just so that there weren’t only the seven necessary boy siblings – oh, and to give someone for Will to rescue. I found it hard to distinguish Gwen, Barbara and Mary. I found it hard to recall their names. We first meet them just before a noisy family mealtime, and how are they described? First sight of Gwen: patiently setting the table. Mary is ‘plump’, and listening to blasting pop music on the radio. She pouts when told to turn it off. Barbara is ‘sixteen and superior’ and tells someone to shut up. We learn that Gwen cooks whole meals for the family. Mary sniffs, and tosses her long hair. (She does this a lot, once described as being smug about it!) Already my resentment is building up. I don’t know about Will time-travelling, I feel as if I have time-travelled into the 1950s or some era when young women’s typical range of behaviour was seen as pouty, peevish, sulky, bossy, and shallow. The eldest’s natural role seems to be kitchen doormat. I’m really disappointed to find such lazy stereotyping from a woman author, writing this in the early 1970s. I was a teenager by then and I find this depiction very old-fashioned. Why can’t they be as skilful and talented as their glowing brothers?

I feel there is a real discrepancy in the way the boy and girl characters are treated. Even when they’re thinly drawn the boys are more positive. Big Max is ‘muscular’, practical, has an actual girlfriend in Southampton whom he writes to (basically he’s full of testosterone). Gwen, also interested in the opposite sex, rejects the carol singing trip to stay in and wash her hair, just in case she’ll see a certain boy the next day. We learn this from a catty remark of Mary’s. (It might be meant to be friendly teasing rather than catty, but since all that’s gone before is couched in terms of flouncy pouts and sniffs, I’m cued to think badly of her.) So poor Gwen, unlike manly Max, seems a bit vain and silly, and Mary’s always stirring it.

The girls don’t have much to do in the book, and little time to redeem (for me) those first slyly negative impressions. But Mary resurfaces to be put in jeopardy by the forces of darkness and Will’s tough task is to fight them for his sister’s life. Since he doesn’t seem to have a particularly significant relationship with her – he and Paul share much more page time and sympathies and some dramatic and lyrical scenes – I found this quite arbitrary. She’s a cipher Damsel in Distress. Is it because she’s female that Will feels even more the pressure to be heroic?? After her rescue she doesn’t recall a thing, is dismissively offhand about events, and is made to giggle twice in the space of a page. Great.

Which takes me back to Will’s passivity in the face of all the strange learning and ancient rites and battles. I just know he will triumph somehow. I didn’t worry about Will and I couldn’t bring myself to care about Mary, at all.

And yet in other children’s books, in the face of far less elemental pressures, I have worried in agony, holding my breath and clenching my hands, for characters who have to be brave and go that huge extra step to rescue a friend, or an animal, or even their enemy. I’ve fully engaged with their challenges and dilemmas. Why not with Will Stanton? Maybe Cooper’s mythic elements are too big for my tastes, and Will just washes along with it all like a branch in the thaw-flooded River Thames.

I have to say I did really enjoy the wonderful scene-setting, the dramatic weather and geography of the Thames Valley that Cooper obviously knows so well. Visually it works well. Some of my favourite scenes involved Will trekking through the brutish winter weather, harried by sinister birds or vague but looming threat; and, in contrast, those indoors in the firelight and candlelight with mysterious old Miss Greythorne at Huntercombe Manor. I like the layers of myth in the landscape and when we see how modern names and routes hark back to ancient ways and knowledge; because I love learning this sort of thing about little patches of English countryside and cityscape and it’s nice to see that detail in a children’s book.

But overall I was disappointed at not meeting Will Stanton as a convincing hero I could totally cheer for.

Win a pile of books!!

Quick, before 7 p.m. GMT on February 6th …!

GirlsHeartBooks

mg strikes back final1 copyI am DEAD excited to be able to tell you about the awesome new site MIDDLE GRADE STRIKES BACK, which is all about finding and promoting the best new books for 8-13s in the UK, hurrah!!

To celebrate their launch, they’re giving away a pile of books to one lucky winner – so don’t miss out! Go to THIS PAGE and enter your details to be in with a chance of winning!

(Hopefully this will also make up for the fact that we haven’t had an end-of-month giveaway for a little while here on GHB – never fear, they will return!!)

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Looking after The Books

If you have ever wondered what goes into looking after a famous writer’s literary estate – apart from nice liquid literary lunches and denying access to anyone you think might write an unflattering biography (or is it just me who got that impression??) – read Lizza Aiken’s account of reading, and wrangling, every single thing her mother ever wrote:

Joan Aiken

The Books

Looking after a Literary Estate sounds like a dream job, especially if you are a reading addict…the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…  I had the unbelievable good fortune to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and was brought up in her world of stories, but did for many years escape to travel the other world, and trained and worked as a mime – probably to avoid endlessly being asked when I was going to write a book myself!  But eventually Joan’s world caught up with me again; as she said when she was getting older, ‘Someone is going to have to look after the books when I go, and it will have to be you!’

I now realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of ten years and more since her death to understand why. …

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Wintry reads from classic children’s books

We’ve finally had some wintry weather. Nights are still long, evenings quickly dark.  It’s time to keep warm with the slipper-boots/duvet/sleeping furry animal of your choice, and sink into a good book.

In winter I like to read wintry books. I might enjoy sunshine and luxuriant leafiness on screen – it serves the same uplifting function as going for a walk in bright winter sunshine – but I really don’t want escapist summery books at this time of year.

So here are some recommended reads from classic children’s books. Snow definitely included:

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, Vintage paperbackWill Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and turns eleven on Midwinter Day. He always hopes for snow on his birthday. He gets his wish, along with a whole lot of strange and sometimes terrifying experiences, as this is time of the year when The Dark is very strong and the Old Ones who protect the world have to work hard to resist its evil forces. The setting in the rural Thames Valley that Cooper knows so well is stunning – snow, floods, Very Bad Stuff, all taking place over Christmas and New Year.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston (1951)

More snow, more floods, more magic, and dollops of heart-warming love, when amazingly-only-seven-years-old Tolly goes to stay with his grandmother for the Christmas holidays in her ancient haunted house. Magical illustrations, too, by the author’s son.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis (1950)

Snow is the default weather for Narnia as far as I’m concerned. Because how do we enter Narnia for the first time, in one of the most striking fictional openings ever? Pushing through a wardrobe stuffed, not with any old clothes but fur coats, and then into the wintry wood (snow-laden fir trees in Pauline Baynes’ iconic illustration) to find a faun in a red woollen muffler.The lamp post in Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes

‘What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping.’

Since in Narnia it’s always winter but never Christmas until the Pevensie children get involved, this makes a perfect winter read.

 

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

The opening pages establish what a disagreeable, spoilt and emotionally-neglected child Mary Lennox is, full of colonial snobbery and certainties. She arrives at gloomy Misselthwaite Manor in a rainstorm. It’s the season for fires in the bedroom and porridge for breakfast but there doesn’t seem much room for hope. The moor stretches bare and dreary beyond the window. Mary ventures into the garden only to find it wintry and bleak. But gradually ‘the Magic’ unfreezes everyone. Spring follows winter. A thoroughly warming tale.The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

For a very quick wintry read, there’s always Pooh Builds A House, the first chapter in The House At Pooh Corner by A A Milne (1928). In which Eeyore is very polite – or is that passive-aggressive? – about mislaying one house and Pooh and Piglet try to do a good deed by building another. Eeyore sinking under the increasing weight of his coating of snow is a sight to behold. I think he should be beatified as the patron saint of sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

 

From inspiration to publication

An invitation from Lewes Children’s Book Group –

Jlewes childrens book groupoin us at our AGM on 28th January to find out more about writing for children and getting published.

 

 

Author Miriam Moss will be in discussion with a group of children’s writers talking about their journey from Inspiration to Publication. Dawn Casey and Leigh Hodgkinson write picture books and Leigh is also an illustrator. Julia Lee writes adventure stories aimed at 8-12 year olds and Jon Walter had his first teenage novel published last year.

The talk is on Wednesday 28th January, 7.30 for 8 p.m. start in the Lecture Room, upstairs in Lewes Town Hall, Lewes, East Sussex. There will be a chance to ask questions, chat to the authors and buy a book to get signed. Everyone is welcome – entrance is free.

Adventures in Writing

I haven’t posted here recently as I’ve been busy finishing a book and delivering it to my editor. And then recovering from finishing a book. And then doing all those tasks that I’d put off until after I’d finished the book. Including anything to do with Christmas.

But I did manage to fit in a few adventures.

Oldham Central Library Oldham Brilliant Books 2014

A warm welcome at Oldham Central Library

In November I went to Oldham for the Brilliant Books Awards. Thanks to Beverley Martin and her wonderful hard-working team at Oldham Council, we had a great day. The event took place in the spacious and inspiring Central Library, which is a fabulous place for any book-lover. Children and young people, teachers and parents, turned out in force. There were workshops and readings for each different age-group, followed by an award ceremony and book signings. Members of the Oldham Coliseum Theatre Young Rep Company performed mini-plays based on each shortlisted book, and then the awards were presented by keen volunteers from the audience who each got to keep a copy of the winning book.

What was so delightful was that lots of the shortlisted authors attended and I think all almost all the winners were there to accept their prize in person. This makes a lasting impression on the children who voted for their favourite books: they’d already met the author in one of the earlier sessions and could chat to them and get their autograph afterwards.

Book signing at Oldham Brilliant Books 2014

Although, sadly, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth did not win the 9-11 category, it was exciting to find out that the joint winners were Liz Kessler and Rebecca Lisle, who I’d got to know over dinner the night before and had just shared a workshop with. I met all the other fab authors, too, and renewed acquaintance with Helen Docherty. I first ran into her at the 2014 Booktrust Best Books Awards, and this time her brilliant picture book The Snatchabook was a winner!

 

Rebecca Lisle, Liz Kessler, winners Oldham Brilliant Books 2014

Rebecca and Liz with their prizes & prize-winning books

The coldest day of the year so far found me signing book in a pavilion outside(!) Wigwam, a wonderful independent toyshop in Brighton. I was dressed in so many layers I could hardly move, with red berries and a robin on my hat, and with a giant inflatable reindeer for company. I even had a Christmas tree signing pen with irritating/jolly jingle bells attached. Or should that be jolly irritating…?

Julia Lee signing books at Wigwam Toy Shop, Brighton

Last but not least, just before the Christmas holidays really kicked in I was off to the first day of the exciting 21st Century Author Training run by The National Literacy Trust and Author ProfileI tried not to get too distracted by the panoramic views of central London from the 14th floor of a glitzy office block. About 20 children’s authors from far and wide were prised out of our writing garrets/sheds/corners to brush up on our presentation skills and learn how to really engage with young audiences. It’s always good to meet other writers and share ideas, because we all spend far too long on our own with our keyboards and our imaginary friends.

More of this in the New Year.

And more about that new book, too…

 

Reindeer

‘Happy Christmas!’