Anti-romantic romantics

The Town In Bloom by Dodie Smith

The Town In Bloom – Dodie Smith (1965)


I never got round to reading I Capture The CastleDodie Smith’s much-loved coming-of-age novel – until I’d been of age for many years. It was on my bookshelf, I’d even opened it a few times, but somehow was never in the mood for a story that began with the famous first line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

When I did get round to reading it properly, like many others I fell in love – with the book, the setting, with its 17-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain.

So I was delighted to find another Dodie Smith novel with a similarly young protagonist, The Town In Bloom. Not because I was looking for one, but because this reissue presented itself to me, on face-out display in my local library. That is the beauty of libraries – they give you gifts you didn’t even know you wanted. (The same with proper bookshops.)

Expecting the same sort of enchanting comfort read, I was, in a way, disappointed. It has a charmingly wayward heroine, nicknamed Mouse, and wonderful detail that makes her 1920s London come alive: the residential Club for ladies, the ‘brown dinners’, the penny-pinching, and the clothes! The bulk of the plot concerns Mouse’s adventures when she arrives in London, aged 18, hoping to make a career in the theatre. Despite being young, diminutive and provincial, Mouse is far from mousey. Brought up by a very forward-thinking aunt, she confounds many of our received ideas about just-post-World War I attitudes and morals. She meets three other young women inventing their own independent lives and the four become friends. So far, so good. But once Mouse falls in love things change.

As a (failed) actress and then successful playwright Dodie Smith was very familiar with this world. It’s a long way – in tone, at least – from the seedy theatre milieu Jean Rhys knew and wrote about, but it’s still not exactly a romp. All-too-adult compromise, subterfuge and manipulations abound.  There’s not much of the withheld – and then delivered – gratification for the reader that makes a romantic book, of whatever quality, satisfying to its reader. This is different, more realistic, anti-romantic in many ways. Independent young women don’t live fairy-tale lives after all.

I Capture The Castle may be shelved as a YA book these days, but I can’t see The Town In Bloom pleasing a similar readership. For one thing, the love interest. The men the four girls get involved with – all substantially older than them – are really not appealing, at least not to modern teens (I hope!) A philandering actor-manager, a career clergyman, a boring-but-decent chap – they’re thinly written and unsurprising. They’re pretty much all rotters, too. Another I’d pinned my hopes on only disappoints (as so often in real life, dear reader).

The second problem lies in the structure of the novel. Most of it revolves around Mouse’s first mad year in London, book-ended by two sections set in a later period, looking back. Three of the friends meet at five-year intervals (there’s a mystery with Zelle, the fourth). Looking back is fine – but how far? It turns out to be 45 years, which is huge stretch. Problematically, the women don’t seem to have changed much or feel like women in their late 60s – and in the 1960s, sixty wasn’t “the new forty”, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine my teenage self identifying with them and the paths their lives have taken.

But as a grown up reader I found this a fascinating if slightly unexpected period novel.


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.

Summer Reading 3: Islands of adventure…and growing up.

seaweed and limpets, Cornish beach

Recently I’ve been thinking, and blogging, about what kind of reading fits with summer days and I’ve finally got round to some children’s books. There’s still time! The weather may not be so summery right now but there are still weeks to go until…but let’s not think about that.

I’ve never been to the Scilly Isles but have long wanted to visit. Even more so now, after reading Breathing Underwater by Julia Green (2009), based on a fictionalised version of this archipelago off the tip of Cornwall. 14-year-old Freya returns for the first time in a year to the tiny island where her grandparents live and where her big brother drowned the summer before. It’s sad, but story and setting are beautifully evoked, as are the things that have changed and those which stay the same. I hate that lazy phrase ‘coming to terms with’, but I guess this is what the book is all about, and yet much more. Freya is growing up and stretching her wings. It also sums up wonderfully the way a holiday place can be somewhere you think of as your very own, more you than where you live most of your life – even when that’s painful, too.

Cornish cove

Cornish cove


Somewhere I have spent a lot of summertime in is mainland Cornwall, since my grandparents lived there and my mum grew up there. Also beautifully evoked, Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series (2006 onwards) mixes very convincing rocky coves, sandy beaches, caves, sun and sea-fog of the real Cornwall with a more mythical underwater strand which begins with a carved mermaid in Zennor church. Ingo is also about loss and longing; a little, too, about the economic difficulties of living in a remote, rural and seasonal county – but I expect grown-up readers will pick up more on this.  I’ve only read the first volume but have the second – The Tide Knot – lined up and can’t wait. Dunmore writes amazing novels for adults and is a poet, too – it shows.

In both these books children and young teens are testing their independence, and I love reading about their freedom to take risks and weigh up consequences.

For less nuanced reading, here are a couple of other ideas.

islands of adventure

More islands, swimming, sailing, picnics, camping out and building fires feature in my next suggestion. A much more traditional one: Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1929). I confess I haven’t reread this since childhood and there may be some very uncomfortable attitudes lurking in it for modern-day readers. I know one of the characters has an embarrassing name that has not really stood the test of time. But there are ‘pirates’, intrepid and skilful girls, and plenty of adventures. It was in this book that I first came across a reference to pemmican – some kind of convenience-meal canned meat that, as a squeamish eater, I felt very nervous about – and because of my very literal young mind I just made the connection: pelican in a can. Obviously!

I’ve written elsewhere that I never read much Enid Blyton as a child, but I did enjoy a couple of the titles in the

The Island of Adventure by Enid BlytonAdventure’ seriesThe Island of Adventure being the only one I remember anything about! But Blyton is never short of picnics, boats, beaches and islands, and the kind of adventures that can only be had when responsible adults are right out of the picture and only the wicked, but easily outwitted by a handful of kids and a dog (or, in this instance, a parrot) type, are left.


Happy holidays (if only inside the pages of a book)!

Library longings

I love libraries. I ought to have the tee-shirt. If there is one. I hope there is. Like the Books Are My Bag bags of last autumn’s brilliant campaign, we are sorely in need of an I ♥ Libraries tee-shirt.

Books Are My Bag campaign bag image

As I write this, I realise I’ve been a library user all my life, whether it’s been public libraries in various states of blossom or decay, or the slightly intimidating – but also glorious – university library. That one was up the big steps and through an almost airport level of security. And still people managed to steal books! They were stated as available in the catalogue but not on the shelf when I needed them, too often to be a simple case of mis-shelving. Stealing books (like dropping litter) rates high on my list of unforgiveable deeds. (Am I sad?)

Stealing books from a library steals them from all the other people, present and future, who would read that book. I was going to put ‘use that book’ but that’s too utilitarian, too Gradgrindian, and we’re in a very Gradgrindian era at the moment. ‘Read’ encompasses more than ‘use’; it embraces ‘like’ and ‘love’ and ‘recommend to others’ and ‘find useful’ and ‘find frustrating’ and ‘cast aside because it’s not for you’ and ‘remember for ever and go out and buy your own copy so you can keep it all to yourself!’

But I digress…

My local library has a very inviting area for teenage readers. I’ve only recently discovered this, because I wanted to catch up on my YA reading. There was no such category as YA when I was the right age for it – I wish there had been. It might have been on its way in when my kids were at that stage but if so, it didn’t register with any of us. My sons were such committed non-readers in their early teens, and I was such a non-hothouse-mother that instead of kicking hopelessly at a solid brick wall I just let them get on with other things and sank back into the pleasure of my own reading choices, serious fiction for fully paid-up adults. No farts or vampires.

The YA reading area in my library is a separate space, sectioned off but not cut off from the main library – and not leading out of the children’s area – which probably feels quite grown up. There are shelves of exciting-looking books, posters on the walls, and a corner with squashy sofas where there are always a few people sitting, sometimes talking, sometimes reading. Ok, it might be a school day and in school hours, but maybe they’re doing a project, and if not, well, there are far worse places to hang out than a library. It’s brilliant to see a teenager with their nose in a book.

When I was a reader at that stage (I don’t suppose there is a fixed age for it) I’d read everything I wanted to read in what was then called the Junior Library but had no idea where to begin in the Senior Library. My mother recommended a few minor classics which I steadfastly tried, but I’ve never been much good at reading those – all those flimsy pages, all those tiny words! – and quickly but quietly gave up on. I never asked a librarian. They were only there to date-stamp your books. So, completely without guidance, I just pulled books off the adult shelves and sometimes, if they had a really racy cover, I rapidly stuffed them back. Not that I didn’t want to read a (possibly) racy book, I just didn’t want anyone to see me choosing it!

Somehow I discovered science fiction (it was a catch-all category then) and got stuck into that – John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Ira Levin: yes, they were all chaps. Probably I found the names of other books and other authors in the same stable on the dust jackets and took it from there. At home we had a handful of macho adventures by Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes so I read those and more of the same. It was interesting, but also a bit of a cul-de-sac. There was so many other kinds of writing out there I would have loved, if I’d only known about them.

I’m only just embarking on my catch-up of recent – and not so recent – books that are now categorised as YA. The themes and content are pretty challenging, but they have young adults, male and female, as protagonists, working through all sorts of adolescent stuff, as well as dystopian nightmares and life-or-death dramas. Not just old blokes doing blokey stuff. How I wish there had been a dedicated space for me as a reader emerging from the Junior Library cocoon, and a wide selection of books that just might, or might not, fit the bill.

And how I wish there had been squashy sofas, too.

University of Sussex library

Little Acts of Kindness: Author Interview with Anne Booth

I first met Anne Booth at a conference run by Nosy Crow Books last year. We had a lot in common, including debut novels for young readers, and a publisher (O.U.P.). Anne’s first book of several out this year is Girl With A White Dog (Catnip Books, published 1st March) so I asked her about it, and about her writing process.

Here’s what the book is about: When Jessie’s gran gets a white Alsatian puppy, it’s the start of a downwards spiral of strange and worrying behaviour. But life at home is only half the problem. At school Jessie’s class is studying the Nazis’ rise to power and she’s learning some uncomfortable truths about the way people can treat those they see as different – and starts noticing worrying parallels around her. With one eye one the past and one on her ailing gran, Jessie starts to see a connection – something long-buried, troubling and somehow connected to another girl and another white dog…’

Girl With A Wg=hite Dog by Anne Both Catnip Books March 2014

J: I didn’t know anything about the Nazi policy targeting the pets belonging to Jewish families. This is a good theme for connecting with modern-day young readers. How early in your work on the book did you find out about this – was it a gift along the way, or the spark that started the whole thing off?

A: Lots of things happened at the same time and I’m not entirely sure what came first. I think it started with a book someone tweeted about and which I bought, Amazing Dogs by Jan Bondeson. I have two dogs of my own and I thought it looked great, so I treated myself to it. In it I read about a college for dogs in Nazi Germany. I thought this might be an interesting idea for a book. To find out more I did some research and came across the wonderful ‘Animals in the Third Reich’ by Boria Sax, and from there I read about the law saying that Jewish people were not allowed to have pets and how that felt for them. I started reading more social history books about Germany and growing up in the 1930s. I remembered my ‘A’ level History and wanted to work out more about what would make people accept Nazism. What I read really affected me. I read lots of social history and accounts of children growing up as members of the Hitler Youth, and I began to realise that if I had been born an Aryan German I might not have wanted to see how bad Nazism was either. I might have just wanted to go camping and singing and see myself as good and be happy to blame others for the problems in my country.

At the same time I was concerned at all the negative comments about immigrants and asylum seekers and disabled and unemployed people in our media. I couldn’t put on the TV or the radio without someone blaming one of those groups for being ‘scroungers’ or for wasting money. I found that very worrying, as the books I was reading were telling me the same things happened in Germany in the 1930s, and prepared the way for Nazism. I couldn’t remember ever having read a book putting that across, and thought I might have an idea for a children’s book.

There was also a lot in the media about Grimms’ Fairy tales and a report that a new fairytale had been found. I’d read about how the Nazis loved using fairytales to show themselves as the ‘goodies’ and others, like the Jews, as the ‘baddies’. I thought I might write a new fairytale about a child growing up in Nazi Germany. My original book started with the first paragraph of the very last chapter of ‘Girl with a White Dog’.

I started to write from the point of view of a little Nazi girl, but it was difficult to convey how attractive Nazism was for many in the Hitler Youth without seeming to condone or even promote it.

At the same time something else was happening in my life: my elderly mother was diagnosed with dementia and had a bad fall, ending up in hospital. There she kept talking about people marching down the corridors and was very distressed. I am glad to say that she stopped thinking this, but her reaction was so strong that I realised that for those days in hospital she was in a horrible nightmare I could not free her from. I read more about dementia, and came across stories of elderly people whose distress was found to be linked not with nightmares but with long-buried memories. I read about a man whose family were shocked to find that he lost his ability to speak English and could only speak Polish, the language of his childhood. When I read about elderly dementia patients in Germany talking about Hitler then I had the last bit of my story.

During all this time I read and re-read as many children’s novels about Nazi Germany and the Second World War as I could, just to make sure nobody else had approached it in the same way.

J: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

A: As a child I wanted to save children and animals – I’m not sure how – but it seemed to be by either being a saintly nun or a saintly nun who was a doctor. You have to know that I was brought up in a very religious family. Then I realised I didn’t want to be a nun, and I wasn’t good enough at science to be a doctor or a vet. I went to university and studied English which was bliss. I got my first job in a bookshop, which was wonderful, and I’ve worked at loads of different jobs – including being a tour guide, an English language teacher, a lecturer, doing arts & crafts in an old people’s home, washing up in a café and being a project assistant for a charity. The one consistent thing is that I have always written – in diaries, letters, prayer journals and notebooks.

The first story I remember writing was an epic bible story I wrote at school when I was 5 about Jesus bringing Jairus’ daughter back to life. I remember not being able to miss out any details, and drawing lots of pictures, and feeling very tired using my pencil but unable to stop! I still have the same feelings now when I write!

I never stopped reading children’s books alongside adult books. Long before I was married and had my own children I was buying and reading and enthusing over Shirley Hughes, for example. I went on to do an MA in Children’s Literature and I still didn’t try to write any. I think it was because I was in awe of them. I loved being a bookseller and recommending them but I did not write any children’s books until quite recently, helped by going on two Arvon Writing for Children courses. Instead I did an MA in Creative Writing in the evenings and wrote short stories and a novel for adults, and I do want to take those out and dust them off. I also really really love illustrations in children’s books and my big desire is to have enough confidence to have a go at illustrating, but I’m a bit shy about that.

J: Now, about your own writing methods – if you get stuck, is there any particular thing you do to get inspired again?

Walking into woods pic for Julia

A: I go for a walk with my dogs, sometimes alone, sometimes with my family. I read some books I love. I watch a film I think might inspire me – I have a cup – many cups – of tea. I sit quietly and pray. I talk to my dogs!

Wriyer Anne Both's dog sleeping

 This must have been a particularly boring idea! 

I write – often in my prayer journal – about how I can’t write, and most times that does the trick as I find that there are still lots of feelings and ideas out there, so I draw diagrams and write lists and sometimes – when no one is there apart from the dogs – I walk around the house talking to myself!

I have very recently 

Anne Booth's yurt jumper

found that in moments of despair sitting with my jumper over my head is surprisingly calming. There is one jumper that is particularly good – it is like having a little portable tent or yurt! I may mass produce it and sell it to writers! 

J: I really like the idea of a portable, wearable yurt. Please put me down for one when you go into production!

Next question – have your own children helped in any way with your writing?

A: I do find talking to and listening to my children very helpful. They make me laugh and are such good storytellers about their days that they give me lots of inspiration. They have been brilliantly patient at listening to me reading out scenes set in school and telling me if they are realistic or not.

J: We are so used to sassy, smart-mouthed main characters in teen fiction. Jessie, your narrator, is relatively unsophisticated in both behaviour and vocabulary. Can you tell me about your decisions behind creating her as she is?

A: I think there is a lot of me in Jessie. I wasn’t a very sophisticated teenager and I worried a lot. I did want to write about a teenager like that because I feel the way teenagers are portrayed in the media or in some fiction only shows one way of being a teenager – and there are as many different types of teenager as there are adults. I don’t drive, and if I catch the bus with school children you can hear and see so many different types of students – some sophisticated, some funny, some more innocent than others. I think it is only fair that we write about the less sassy ones too!

J: Jessie is a real ‘worrier’ – so was I as a child (still am!) How do you balance happy and sad stuff in a book for young readers?

A: I do believe in Goodness. I do worry about the bad things that happen in the world, and my own responsibility for them as a shared citizen of the planet, but I do have a religious faith in a God of Love, and I do actually believe (though I have to remind myself that I do) what I say in my own book – that we should not despair, and that little acts of kindness can transform things. So I hope I have left children with that message, and that they will feel empowered and hopeful rather than overwhelmed by the story. I hope that putting a puppy in helped!

J: What age group is this book aimed at? I can see it revolves around Year 9s (13-14 year olds) but it feels easy enough for younger children to read.

 A: I think it is for older Primary school upwards. I would like it to be read by children when they are studying Nazi Germany, and I know my children looked at Anne Frank’s Diary, for example, when they were still at Primary school, and again in Year 9.

J: Were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

A: Yes!

J : I won’t ask about ‘favourite books’, as I’m hopeless at deciding on favourites myself,  but were there any particular books that had a deep effect on you as child?

A: Anne of Green Gables. Paddington Bear. Just William. Jennings. Black Beauty. Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat. The Little Wooden Horse. Carbonel. A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley (wonderful!) Lots of Enid Blyton – particularly Mr Galliano’s Circus as I really wanted to be Jimmy Brown and tame lots of animals. What Katy Did. The Secret Garden. Books by Noel Streatfield. All the Narnia Books. The Land of Green Ginger by Noel Langley… I’m going to have to stop now but that is just a tiny tiny list and I know I will be so sad to have missed anything off. They made me cry and they made me laugh. Some of them – like Paddington – made me cry with laughter.

J: I have certain authors who I can rely on to inspire me in terms of style and content and the way they organise the story they are telling. Are there any writers who work for you in this way?

A: I know that Girl with a White Dog is nothing like this – but I have to say P.G. Wodehouse. I just love his comic timing. I would love to write some straight comedy.

J: What are you reading at the moment?

A: I’m waiting impatiently for a delivery of a secondhand copy of The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfield, one of my favourite childhood books. I am just about to start a book called Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson. I am reading non-fiction books for inspiration for some ideas I have – Playing at Home – The House in Contemporary Art by Gill Perry, Bonzo’s War – Animals under fire 1939-1945 and Imaginary Animals by Boria Sax. I am also dipping into lots of books about Lindisfarne or ‘Holy Island’ as I am very drawn to writing about it but am not sure what form the story will take yet.

J: You’ve got other books coming out this year. Can you tell us about them?

A: Lucy’s Secret Reindeer is for 5-8 year olds and is a magical Christmas story about a little girl who looks after a poorly reindeer for Santa. It’s being published by O.U.P. and has a beautiful cover and will have lots of lovely black and white illustrations inside by Sophy Williams. This will be out in October but is available for pre-order already!

I have two picture books coming out with Nosy Crow which will be gorgeous (I have seen the sketches for the first book’s illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw) but I am not sure when the first one will be out.

J: Tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing?

A: Tea!

J: And, finally, your Writerly Snack of Choice?

A: Chocolate. But I really must cut down…

Thanks to Anne for taking the time to reveal the secrets of her writing process, and for such great pictures.

Promoting a love of reading – Rotherham Children’s Book Awards

Rotherham Children's Book Awards 2014

Rotherham Children’s Book Awards 2014 were launched in February and I was delighted to learn that The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth is on the shortlist of four books in the Middle category, that is, books for years 4-5 (8-10 year olds).

The Rotherham Children’s Book Awards are the culmination of a year-long process for schools to promote a love of reading, using the best books – from jolly picture books to edgy teen reads – from the thousands released that year. The great thing about it is that the shortlist is chosen by a group of students and people working in Rotherham’s schools and libraries.

This is the 14th year of the award and it ends in a day’s celebration in June attended by hundreds of children and teenagers from Rotherham schools. There are loads of book-related activities and displays of work created by the children, based on the books they have most enjoyed during the year. Authors who attended in previous years have blogged about it: you can read Jonathan Emmett and Teri Terry’s accounts of the day.

Find details of all the books up for the 2014 Awards here. It’s not just the usual suspects, either.

Wishful thinking: ‘Fly-By-Night’ by K M Peyton

In my recent post about my Top 5 Horses in the books I loved as a child I gave an honourable mention to K M Peyton’s Flambards series. I only read the first two books, and to be honest I can’t recall individual horses from them. K M Peyton is getting a gong in the New Year’s Honours List for services to children’s literature and was interviewed in the Guardian newspaper last weekend. She says that although Flambards and its sequels are the books best-loved and remembered by readers, and made her money, she doesn’t regard them as her best writing. Her favourites are the Pennington series, about a teenage boy pianist.

Flambards, with its burgeoning love interest and churning emotions, was slightly racy for its time. Peyton had not envisaged it as a book for young readers, but ‘made the mistake’ of featuring a 13-year-old heroine. It came out in 1967 when there was no such category as teen or YA fiction and I guess it was hoovered up by pony-mad girl readers, whether or not they were quite ready for it. Shocked mothers wrote her letters of complaint. I loved it!

Fly-By-Night by K M Peyton children's book

K M Peyton illustrated this book herself

She also mentioned Fly-By-Night, and suddenly a door in my memory passageways creaked open – a cobweb-encrusted door, but even so. And then I found a description of the plot of the website of Fidra, a small Edinburgh-based publisher dedicated to rescuing neglected but much-loved children’s books.

Fly-by-Night was not the best choice for an eleven-year-old girl who had never ridden before; but as soon as Ruth Hollis saw the sturdy, lively pony, she knew that he was the one she wanted. All her life Ruth had longed to own a pony and now that her family had moved from London to a new housing estate in East Anglia, she had persuaded her father to let her spend her savings on a pony. But having taken possession of Fly-by-Night, Ruth found that her troubles had only just begun.

I have, of course, read Fly-By-Night. I’d just forgotten. As a child of about the heroine’s age I remember writing – I think I actually finished this one – a book about a girl who moves to the country and finally gets her dream, a horse of her own! I must have shamelessly lifted the plot from K M Peyton’s story and then shucked that inconvenient detail from memory. I also wrote at least one lengthy hunting scene. I have never been hunting in my life, so I must have stolen all the salient information from Flambards. Like K M Peyton did for some of her books, I drew my own illustrations. I don’t suppose she used a biro, so there we do differ. Finally all my childish writing efforts were consigned to a big bonfire in the garden, probably just as well since I didn’t know the word ‘plagiarism’ at the time.

Ruth Hollis’s dream was my dream. It never came true for me, and I outgrew it. But the dream of becoming a writer did come true – persistence and hard work paid off. And sitting at a laptop making stuff up isn’t as cold and smelly and back-breaking as mucking out a horse in the soggy winter dawn.

You can read the full interview with K M Peyton here.

‘Let the back of your head do the work.’ Interview with YA author Nikki Sheehan.

My first guest author to be interviewed here is Nikki Sheehan, whose debut novel for 11-14 year olds, Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is out this week.

Here’s what it’s about: ‘Joseph is an ordinary boy in a world that’s losing the plot. Paranoia about the dangers of imaginary people have reached fever pitch and now Joseph’s association with Klaris has put him in the firing line. To save himself, Joseph turns detective, delving into the heart of family life and uncovering some painful home truths.’

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? by Nikki Sheehan OUP paperback

J:  Sorry, I know you will be asked this a lot, but I am really interested – where did the idea for this story spring from?

N: The idea came, as ideas often do for me, from a misheard fragment of conversation. In this case I had wandered into the kitchen, probably in search of coffee or marmite on toast, and someone on the radio appeared to say, ‘They killed his imaginary friend.’ Actually I had got it completely wrong, it was a conversation about football of fossils or something, but by then I was already thinking what if…

J:  Klaris gets into people’s heads and they don’t have much control over her. In my experience, imaginary friends are more often ‘friends of convenience’ – they were the one who scribbled on the bath, or who required their own helping of ice cream (“Oh, look, now it’s melted. I’ll just have to eat it, then.”) Have you had personal experience of imaginary friends? If so, what were they like?

N: Ha! Yes, they are particularly useful for such circumstances. I did have imaginary friends, three of them. Twins called Henny and Toddy (who only existed to bump me, as the youngest, up the family food chain) and a very alpha female older girl, Alfreece, who was big beautiful and very bossy, and an object of adulation for me while my own big sister was at school.

J: Alfreece is such a great name. You’ll have to use it in another book!

Can you tell me what the route was from – ‘ping!’ – first idea to actually getting published?

N: I wrote the book over about a year while working as a journalist and doing all the washing and cooking and arguing that having three kids entails. Then I printed it out and put it, literally, in a drawer. A few months later a good friend asked me to go with her to an event at the Brighton Festival where an agent and a publisher were doing a ‘publishing bootcamp.’ I really liked the agent, Julia Churchill, and so I took the plunge and sent her my first three chapters as soon as I got home. As we all know it’s impossible, if not harder, to get an agent, so I was stunned when she emailed me the next day asking for the whole book. She read it while she was on holiday, then asked to meet. After some revisions and polishing Julia sent Klaris out into the world where it was picked up by Clare Whitston at OUP and the rest is history.

J:  Did your own children read the book as it was being written? If so, did they make any contribution to how it turned out?

N: My elder two children both read the book, and my son Eddie who was about 12 at the time was particularly helpful, rereading various drafts and telling me when I’d got it wrong and showing me, from the expression on his face, when I’d got it right.

J:  Hmm, what’s his percentage??

I know this is your debut children’s novel. What does it feel like to see your story turned into a real book? And appearing in real bookshops??

N: The book started to appear about a month before the official publication date, but the moment it felt real was when I went into a Waterstones last week and found it on the shelf next to Darren Shan. I thought, play it cool, and walk past, but obviously I didn’t. Instead I stroked it a bit, then asked the sales person if I could sign it (fortunately I think they’re used to this sort of behaviour from over-excited authors). Then I took a photo and posted it on Twitter.

J: Oh, I’ve done much the same. The bookseller was very kind, but I had to wait until there was no one else at the counter in case I sounded a complete twit!

Next, are you in the Love Editing or the Hate Editing camp?

N: A bit of both. I’ve just had some edit notes on my next top secret project and I find it daunting at first. But once I start and it begins to fall into place and look nice and shiny I find it very satisfying.

J:  You’re in the Love Editing camp, then, really. I recognise that cold sweat feeling as you read your editor’s notes, so like getting your school report and then quickly adjusting to the horror of it!

Have you done other sorts of writing, and if so, is writing for children a different process in any way?

N: I’ve always written for a living. My first job was as a subtitler, then as a copywriter, journalist and editor. But children’s fiction is a completely different process. In fact I feel like I’m using a different, unconscious part of my brain. Hilary Mantel likened it to being a medium, and I definitely experience it in the same way. If it feels too conscious it usually means it’s not working and I should go off and do something else instead.

J:  I wonder if you’ve read Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost ? There are lots of comments about writing in it which felt very true.

Do you know lots of other writers or is this a totally new world for you?

N: I was in a local writing group, then, about the time I got my agent I joined Twitter and met a lot of other people going through the same things. It’s been invaluable, both in terms of practical support and friendship, but also as a semi-valid way of wasting time when I should be writing.

J:  Ha! We met on Twitter. It’s a great writers’ resource for therapy and jokes, isn’t it? And daft picture of kittens, of course.

Moving on – what do you write in, on, and over? e.g. jimjams, i-pad, kitchen table…

N: It depends. The last book I wrote was written completely from my bed on a little netbook. Yes, often in my jimjams.

J:  Now I’m envisaging Barbara Cartland… I hope that’s jimjams and full pancake makeup, mascara and false lashes.

Next question – tea or coffee? What’s in the cup next to your writing? (I know it’s there.)

N: Lots of coffee in the morning, then I have to switch to redbush tea in the afternoons or I start shaking.

J: Writerly snack of choice?

N: Grapes, Wotsits and Marmite or stilton on toast.

J: You are definitely a savoury person! 

What is your typical displacement activity when you ought to be writing? Or are you going to say you are totally disciplined and never indulge this way?

N: Twitter is my displacement activity of choice. I prefer to write on my netbook because the internet connection is a bit dodgy so I don’t get too tempted. Also Hoovering, particularly when I get cold from sitting still too long.

J: Frozen Arse Syndrome –  know it well.  I have written in scarf, hat and fingerless gloves. Indoors. 

Next, if/when you get stuck in your writing, is there any one thing you do to get the imagination going again?

N: I have two big dogs, and walking them is vital in my process. In fact a very important element of Klaris came to me as a real eureka moment while walking my dogs. The other thing that often works is taking a long bath, or having a nap. I often get ideas in that space just before I wake up. They’re usually rubbish ideas, but not always. When I was very stuck on my Klaris edits my agent told me to let the back of my head do the work, which was great advice. For me, at least, trying not to force something always works better.

J: I felt that Annie and Henry, the dogs in Who Framed KLaris Cliff?, were really authentic dog characters. Now I see where this come from. And that’s a brilliant phrase of your agent’s. I am going to have to steal it. 

So – were you the sort of kid who always had their head in a book?

N: Yes, always. I spent all my pocket money on books. I still do.

J:  Were there any books that had a deep effect on you as child? And which writers particularly inspire you?

N: As a child I really loved the slightly creepy period books with extraordinary, but not fantasy events, such as A Little Princess and Tom’s Midnight Garden. So many authors inspire me, but at the moment I’m particularly into Sally Gardner.

J: How much of your reading is children’s fiction?

N: Over half of my reading matter is YA or MG.

J:  What are you reading right now?

N: I usually have a few books on the go, so at the moment I’m reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher, and a wonderful debut MG by Emma Carroll, Frost Hollow Hall. Funnily enough it reminds me of all the spooky stuff I loved as a kid.

J:  What next? And how long do we have to wait?

N: Well, as well as all the launch madness I’m doing edits on the next project. I can’t say too much but I LOVE it, and I hope everyone else will too.

J:  Looking forward to it. Thank you for revealing the dark secrets of your writing process!

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is published on 6th February 2014 by OUP.

nikki sheehan author

Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist. She went to a convent school in   Cambridge where she was taught by nuns. Her writing was first published when she was seven and   her teacher submitted a poem she had written to a magazine. She always loved English, but has a degree in linguistics. After university Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then studied psychology, retrained as a journalist, and wrote features for parenting magazines and the national press. She now writes mainly about property and is co-founder of an award-winning, slightly subversive, property blog. She is married and lives in Brighton with her husband, three children, two dogs, a cat, and an ever-fluctuating numbers of hamsters.

Marchpane, Queen Mary, and Adventures in Time

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley

I have really fond memories of this book, which I read when I was about 11 or 12, but hunting for it decades later I got distracted by several similar titles and themes. No, it wasn’t Daughter of Time – a 1951 detective novel by Josephine Tey with a historical puzzle: that’s about Richard III and the book I was after concerned Mary Queen of Scots. Nor was it A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976). She might be a well-known British author and it involves time travel, but back to the Victorian era. And it certainly wasn’t A Wrinkle In Time (1962) by American writer Madeleine l’Engle, although this one is incredibly widely-known – though not by me before I began this search!

Then I lighted on A Traveller in Time and it turned out to be by Alison Uttley, famous for writing the Little Grey Rabbit books for younger children. My copy has a cover in a horrible shade of beige and a girl who looks as if she’s dressed in early-era droopy Princess Di, but inside are much more classic and appropriate illustrations by Faith Jaques.

A Traveler In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

The magic I loved as a child turning into a teen was still there. Fey young Penelope, along with her older brother and sister, goes to stay with Great Aunt Tissie and Great Uncle Barnabus on their farm in a remote Derbyshire valley. They are London children and the winter has been bad; in true Edwardian style they are sent to the country to get the roses back in their cheeks. The idyllic countryside and the sensible rural ways of Tissie and Barnabus are a strong reminder of the charms of Little Grey Rabbit, but this is a book for an older audience. It didn’t stop me wallowing during the early chapters – as Penelope does – in the slow and gentle farm and kitchen life that has hardly changed in generations. Uttley has based it on the farm she grew up on and seems to remember everything. She delves into sensory detail, bringing back every touch and taste and smell.

But then an odd thing happens: Penelope steps through a door and into another time, the era her aunt and uncle hark back to often, without being aware just how long ago it was – the dangerous times when Elizabeth held the throne and Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned nearby. The farm is the remains of Thackers, an old manor house owned by the Babington family, Catholics and passionate supporters of Mary. Penelope knows from history that their plans are doomed but gets caught up in their lives and dare not say too much. Her watch stops whenever she slips back to the 1580s and, try as she might, she can’t control when her time-trips happen. In the past, everyone accepts her as Penelope Taberner, niece of Mistress Cicely, the housekeeper (an Elizabethan dead-ringer for Aunt Tissie) and her strange ways and garb are put down to being a Londoner. Everyone, that is, except the dogs who slink and shiver as if at a ghost, and a deaf-and-dumb servant-boy who watches her in terror.

A Traveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin Classics paperback

Faith Jaques’ depiction of Thackers farmhouse

So far, so typical of time-slip fiction, but since this was first published in 1939, I imagine it’s an early template and Uttley handles it deftly. A locket lost in the past and found in the present cannot be returned to its own time and serves as a poignant reminder to Penelope that she can do nothing with her knowledge to help those she comes to love. The author links both eras through implements that still exist in the farm kitchen: the ancient warming pan was a new-fangled gadget in the Babington household, the bread oven has been turned into a cupboard, yet the kitchen fireplace and the great best bed are the same. Springs, barns, and views are familiar, and the fields still bear their old names which feature in Anthony Babington’s will: Westwood, Squirrels, Meadow Doles. I loved the details of both early 20th century and Elizabethan rural life – it was rather like an episode of Tudor Monastery Farm!

I did question how Penelope’s Elizabethan friends so happily accept her odd coming and going – not easy for a young girl to pop back to London in those days – and get to know and trust her so thoroughly, but Uttley addresses this. Penelope has some idea that she visits more often and for longer than she is conscious of, perhaps in her sleep. And there is a dreamlike quality to the visits: she can hardly remember her present-day life when she goes back in time. Sometimes in her ‘real’ life she sees or hears figures from the past alongside the present, like an overlay, as they and she inhabit the same spaces but in different yet parallel times. And she’s shattered to find a ruin when she is taken to visit nearby Wingfield, another old manor house she first encounters in its heyday when Queen Mary was kept there.

As someone who always tries to pick up the atmosphere when visiting historical sites, longing to know what it was ‘really’ like way-back-when (Get out of the way, tourists!), I liked this meditation on old houses which have seen a great deal of history pass by. And I do enjoy novels which use objects to link different eras and characters.

When I read this book as young teen I found the budding friendship between Penelope and young Francis Babington much more romantic than this time round. In fact, for the first half of the book Penelope is quite a young child. It’s only on her return visit to Thackers several years later that a different kind of friendship blossoms, and it is very low-key. The droopy frock featured in the cover illustration is meant to be Penelope’s best dress of green taffeta: Francis sings ‘Greensleeves’ to her because of it.

A Traveller In Time visits all the seasons, but ends at Christmas in the snow, making it a great book to read at this time of year. Amidst the tense drama of the ending Uttley describes the yuletide preparations, feasts, and carol-singing of both Tudor and Edwardian eras. Penelope even gets to make a version of Thackers in marzipan, and it was here I first learned its lovely old-fashioned name – marchpane.

The Marchpane Thackers, A TRaveller In Time by Alison Uttley Puffin paperback

Penelope fashions the farmhouse out of marzipan for the Christmas feast

Teenagers in the Blitz: ‘Fireweed’

Fireweed by Jill Paton-Walsh cover image paperback Hot Key Books

Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh

I picked this up in a bookshop because of its lovely graphic cover – in just three colours – and bought it because of the introduction by Lucy Mangan. I used to follow her column about classic children’s books in The Guardian but I’d never come across Fireweed. I’d heard of Jill Paton Walsh’s fiction for grown-ups but the fact that she was a winner of prestigious children’s book prizes had passed me by. Lucy Mangan loved this book when it was a class read at school – despite this scenario being enough to ruin most set books for her – and that was enough for me.

After the first page I was careful not to read the rest of the introduction until after I’d finished the book. I suspected it might give away more about the ending than I wanted to know, and that was true.

Bill and Julie are teenagers adrift in London during the Blitz. 15-year-old Bill has escaped his isolated evacuee placement in Wales and come back to London, virtually penniless and now – due to a bomb – homeless. His family life is rather bleak, and he seems a little detached from his emotions. Julie’s background is more mysterious – partly because it is Bill who narrates their tale and she keeps as much back from him as he does from her (but not from the reader). For example, neither Bill nor Julie are their real names. But she’s got more ready cash and the two team up, trying to evade both the bombs and anyone official – or just officious – who might question them and end their brief spell of utter freedom. For a few weeks in the autumn of 1940 while London and its inhabitants reel under constant bombardment, they play at surviving in the cracks of a dangerous city.

The author was only three in the year of which she writes, and thanks ‘everyone I know who is old enough to remember 1940’. Fireweed was first published in 1969. My parents were young teens during those war years, and when I was a child ‘The War’ was a frequent topic of conversation amongst  all the adults I knew, as a relatively recent and still very vivid set of experiences for them. I’ve read fictionalised accounts of civilians at home or abroad, from authors who lived through it (e.g. Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Elizabeth-Jane Howard) to more recent representations of the era by younger writers (Sarah Waters, Jill Dawson). Paton Walsh’s depiction of London in the Blitz is outstanding, perhaps because she was able to draw on very real contemporary memories. Fireweed is full of practical details, sometimes gruesome, without getting bogged down. I’ve never read such an evocative description of the tube stations that served as shelters for crowds of Londoners every night, while still working as a form of transport. Or of newly-bombed streets, and the fragile bits of buildings still standing. The Blitz was smelly! Filthy! The food was pretty rubbish, especially when you couldn’t use your ration card. The organisation of keeping a city going, and mopping up the debris, human and otherwise, is amazing, but still looks, from this distance, amateurish and based on good luck and goodwill and a very British propensity for ‘mucking in’.

And maybe the picture of the Blitz is so vivid because Bill and Julie aren’t quite adults yet, and have that mix of fearlessness and naïveté of those just emerging from childhood. They roam London, looking at everything, not only seeing but feeling and smelling and tasting, too. Yes, they get tired and anxious and frightened, cold and hungry, but they also show nerves of steel, ingenuity, and a weary determination to keep up the fantasy for a little longer.

Lucy Mangan reread the book many times, always getting more from it. She says that Jill Paton Walsh dismissed it later in her career, but it still feels a worthwhile read to me. Two young teens, not always compatible, fending for themselves in a frightening world, but a world full of strange opportunities: sounds a perfect modern YA read.