An invitation from Lewes Children’s Book Group –
Join 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.
‘When there is wind on the moon, you must be very careful how you behave. If it is an ill wind, and you behave badly, it will blow straight into your heart, and you will behave badly for a long time to come.’
As a child I was always reading and so was highly reliant on our local public library. It was situated on the ground floor of a big Edwardian villa, and the children’s section occupied what might once have been the drawing room. The fiction shelves were up one end and that was where I stayed. I don’t remember having any guidance from the librarians. As far as I knew, they were just there to stamp your books and take your library tickets – only two for children, and hey, a generous four for grown-ups. How times have changed!
So I just roamed the shelves and pulled out random books, or checked my favourite authors in the hope they had written something I hadn’t discovered before. This wasn’t so much to see if they had written a new book – the library stock was well-worn and a bit tired – but because that the something new might always have been out on loan to other readers before.
This meant that I often re-read books. Sometimes these were my favourites, left just long enough so that I’d forgotten most of the plot, and could enjoy them anew. Sometimes it was just that the book was familiar (therefore a safe read), and I was drawn again to the cover or the pictures inside.
One of these was The Wind On The Moon by Eric Linklater. I’ve just found it, reissued by Jane Nissen Books, complete with original illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. I was very struck by these pictures as a child, especially, I have to say, the one where Dinah and Dorinda take their clothes off and hide them in a tree. Naked people in a book? Perhaps that’s why I decided to borrow it! But there are lots of other strange pictures, many depicting mysterious night-time scenes, in Bentley’s rather simple yet sophisticated line drawings. Or maybe I chose it because I recognised his style from a humorous book we had at home, How To Be An Alien by George Mikes.
It’s a strange book altogether, long and full of bizarre episodes. Dinah and Dorinda are affected by an ill wind blowing on the moon, which makes their behaviour turn bad, and just at a time when their father is going away and leaving them for a year. It was published in 1944 and is marked by the attitudes of the era and the strangeness of wartime.
It wasn’t a book that I loved, but I did come back to it from time to time because something about it obsessed me. Of course, tales of children behaving badly are very attractive to child readers. There’s shape-shifting and talking animals, too. I wonder if it will seem as strange – or even more so – on re-reading as an adult?
By the way, Nicolas Bentley was a cartoonist and novelist as well as an illustrator of books. He was the son of E. Clerihew Bentley – inventor of the clerihew!
My new book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, will be out in six weeks. And it has a brand new cover. This is the da-da-daaah! moment. (It took me at least two minutes to decide how best to spell that.)
Beady-eyed readers will have spotted that there was already a cover image out and about for this book. It was red and flame-yellow. But the team at OUP Children’s had second thoughts and came up with something far more spectacular. The cover of a book is so important: it’s crucial to get it as right as it can be. There’s still a dog, a sinister baddie, and a hatchet involved. But now it’s a stunning night-time blue and there’s one helluva chase for my hero, Gully, an ordinary boy who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances.
When writing for adults I’ve been perfectly happy creating flawed, even unlikeable, main characters. I still like them! But it seems to me that in writing for children there’s a complex responsibility to writing heroes – and even more so heroines.
Much as I love quick-thinking smart-mouthed lead characters, I think most people are only smart-mouthed in their heads. Me included. That witty put-down, that perfect quick-fire response? Half an hour too late. Always.
Much as I love strong, skilful, intrepid heroines, I am not and never will be one of them. Me and most of us, I think. (I would love to write a thriller about someone who can’t drive and is useless at climbing over chain-link fences! But it may not even be possible…)
I have never like mimsy* good-girl heroines, particularly the needlessly self-sacrificing type, and I quickly tire of them being strikingly beautiful, too. I don’t think that’s a desirable role-model.
So, my choices about creating lead characters I, and I hope readers, can identify with – though not extensively and perfectly thought out – are going to be loaded with these thoughts, feelings, intuitions.
Currently my children’s repertoire is historical, slightly over-the-top, adventure stories. However exaggerated some of it may be, this world must have its own logic. The emotions, strengths and weaknesses of the main players have to be convincing. (Ok, for the sake of my argument I’m selectively forgetting a sprinkling of psychic powers.) When I began writing The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth I had the set-up, some of the twists and turns, and I knew that it needed to turn out well in the end. Somehow. And of course it was up to me to make that happen.
So, how do you solve a problem like Clemency? She’s small, unworldly, and isn’t used to speaking up for herself. She’s had a conventional childhood in colonial India: brought up by servants, educated by English governesses, and pretty much ignored by her parents. Privileged, yet neglected. And she has never kicked against this system, partly because before the start of the book she’s never known anything else. Then – due to the dastardly interventions of the author – she finds herself parentless, penniless, and far from home.
Writers are advised not to create passive heroes. They’re much harder to prise out of their difficulties, and readers find them unsympathetic if they’re too pathetic. But Clemency was already Clemency in my mind, and besides, just how kick-ass would a typical middle-class Victorian girl be? I couldn’t make her a superhero or give her a personality transplant. How could I turn her around without breaking the bounds of the story’s internal logic?
As events progress Clemency finds herself in deep and perplexing danger. She needs help. But I felt very strongly that I didn’t want a heroine who simply got rescued. However much I rallied the cavalry (almost literally) on her behalf I still wanted her in some way to rescue herself. She doesn’t start out with much in the way of resourcefulness, unlike some of the other young characters who have had to be self-reliant, persistent, and cunning, just to get by in life. Yet the working title of the book was originally The Wrigglesworth Rebellion, because I knew that eventually she rebelled against all that had kept her a quiet, polite, obedient Victorian child.
What could I do with her? When she was trapped, cold, lonely and hopeless, what could she do? What would I have done as an 11-year old? Cried, of course. Fallen in a miserable heap, probably, and never got up again. Not heroic at all. But falling apart at the seams wouldn’t be exciting or uplifting to read about, and I needed hope.
My lifeline came when I began to think about injustice. Clemency has been treated very unjustly, and I believe that all children feel very strongly about this. It might be personal injustice – remember how incredibly frustrating it was when your whole class was punished because of something one person did and wouldn’t own up to? Or it might be witnessing someone else being treated unfairly and feeling furious on their behalf. Children burn with a sense of injustice. And it’s helpful for girls and women to make use of their anger, even though they may be trained not to, rather than turn it inwards and feel depressed. Clemency gets angry – she can’t do anything yet but her burning rage stops her from dissolving into a waterfall of tears and actually physically warms her up when she most needs it.
From there I had my key to getting her up and active, finding her voice and answering back, running risks. And then discovering that, although it’s often scary, taking matters into your own hands is energizing and sort of fun. It’s certainly fun to write about.
There’s also a kind grown-up who Clemency meets early on, an expert on how children’s minds work and how adults often discount them. In the edits I was able to plant some more positive thinking into Clemency’s head from the encouraging words Mrs Potchard says to her about having ‘inner resources’. Not super powers, or some kind of unjustifiable ninja skills, just inner resources. A growing self-belief.
Throw in an increasing circle of friends and supporters, a happy coincidence or two, and a weapon I hadn’t even realised I’d placed there, all ready. Clemency had definitely become an active part in her story’s resolution.
*Mimsy is not in my dictionary or thesaurus. Who cares? It’s a good word.
‘The “Christmas Special,” as the snailsome train was popularly called by the Rodale girls, moved slowly out from Lewes Platform. It would disgorge red-hatted girls at almost every station of any size between Brighton and its destination, Victoria.
“Merry Christmas! Ro-dale!”
The train was off.
Gerry and Delia, looking like two lost strays as they waved back vigorous salutations to twenty windowfuls of girls’ hats, turned to stare at each other as the last carriage disappeared.
“Seems – sort of silent without them, this station does,” remarked Delia.’
I never read school stories when I was a kid. Quite why is beyond me. I read about ballet and time-travel and sailing and acting and horses and ice-skating and ghosts and magic and being orphaned and solving mysteries and, constantly, the fight between Good and Evil. School stories – nope. Unless you count What Katy Did At School. I’d heard of the Chalet School series and Malory Towers, but somehow they never called me enough to pick one up. Maybe ‘The Four Marys’ in the Bunty comic was enough to put me off.
But I couldn’t resist this book, which I came across on a shelf in a charity shop, set in 1920s Sussex, especially since ‘Rodale’ seems suspiciously like Roedean, the girls’ boarding school that still sits rather forbiddingly on the cliffs above the English Channel just outside Brighton. It’s more than slightly foxed, and scribbled on, but it only cost me 20p.
It turns out that Between Two Terms is not a school story after all, but the adventures of sisters Gerry and Delia in the Christmas holidays – der, the clue’s in the title… There’s a breathless series of events – possible jewel heist, dog rescue, sprained ankle, mystery benefactress, sinister house – and I’m only 35 pages in. The two girls are awash with energy, gushing enthusiasms, firm opinions, and passion – anyone would think there were hormones in the mix. And the exclamation-mark count has to be seen to be believed!!! There’s a good sprinkling of now-risible language and interesting long-dead slang, some of which might be revived. ‘Chillsome’, anyone? If I keep going it will be because I’m enjoying the quaintness, not the bizarrely stretched plot.
Ethel Talbot was a prolific author of books for girls, many of them school stories, in the early decades of the 20th century, though I can’t find out much more than that.
Now I’m off to ‘quaff hot Bovril’ in the ‘refreshment room’ of Lewes station, though I have a suspicion I’m about 90 years too late.
I was delighted to discover that Jacqson Diego Story Emporium, a lovely independent children’s bookshop in Westcliff on Sea, Essex, chose to read The Mysterious Misadventures… with their Story Bites book club in October. Then they tweeted a picture of a work in progress – Clemency Wrigglesworth: The Game – which they were making over a couple of sessions.
The game invites players in with the banner: ‘Frightening Miss Claw is coming your way so roll high to get away’. ‘Make one step back if you meet a bad person.’ Yes, there are plenty of baddies to get in the way! I can see the ship at the start which Clemency has to board to come to England, the sweet shop where Gully learns something important, and The Great Hall where Clemency and her enemies – and friends – finally tangle up.
I can’t seem to include the picture but you can see it here – pic.twitter.com/qReWZ9XwUj
In the classic board game set-up, you progress along a path from start to finish, step-by-step, helped by bursts of good fortune and thwarted by setbacks just lurking in wait. Up the Ladder – hurrah! – but suddenly down a Snake. You might be ahead of your competitors with the end in sight, but suddenly you’re back far behind them. In games like Monopoly you even choose a ‘character’ to be – the top hat, the boot, the racing car. You come into money, then have to blow it all to Get Out of Jail. Something familiar here, isn’t there?…it’s just like a story.
This brilliant idea for making a children’s book come even more alive made me think that so many adventure stories, from Famous Five to His Dark Materials, are structured like a board game. A journey to be undertaken, a goal to be reached or someone to be rescued, snags and setbacks encountered on the way, enemies met, but also helpers. No matter how clever and brave the protagonists try to be, a sudden twist of fate can turn everything on its head. Two steps forward, one step back. Or more like ten steps back and down a dark chasm with no apparent route out. Now I’m wondering about my favourite stories and how they might be transformed into games. This would be such a wonderful rainy-day activity for children, with drawing and cutting and sticking, and remembering what came when and deciding what the key settings are. I feel like getting the colouring pens out right now!
Thanks to Jacqson Diego and their Story Biters for a great idea. I haven’t visited (yet) but it sounds like the perfect inspiring children’s bookshop, with so much going on to bring stories and children together and instil a lifelong love of books.