Travelling without moving: a child’s world-view.

The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

From The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

I can remember when I was too small to see over table-tops (except on tiptoe) and when drawer handles were at face level (I heaved myself up by them to see what was on the mysterious surface above).

I can remember the enormous trees along the road home from the bus stop (and how far that bus stop seemed from home. My legs ached and my feet made little progress.) They towered and flamed like trees from a dream.

I can remember having to stand on a chair to play with washing-up bubbles in the kitchen sink. It was a cut-down version of the wooden high chair that had been passed down through various children.

I can remember being afraid of the noise the bathwater made as the last of it screeched down the plughole.

I can remember the self-imposed superstition of having to get to the bottom of the stairs before the toilet (upstairs) finished flushing.

I think it’s important to be able to remember such things. Especially if you are writing for children.


P.S. Those trees on the route to the bus stop are still there. It’s a small suburban road and they are small suburban trees, even after decades of growth. They live side-by-side in my mind with the vast ones.




Reading Heaven?

This is such a wonderful letter, so atmospheric and full of love for that kind fall-into-a-book reading that I remember from childhood and long school holidays (and days when I was lying ill in bed or on the settee, but not too ill to read). And it brought back memories of miniature moss gardens, too! And of drawing pictures to go with the pictures in my head that reading conjured up – or at least trying to draw something that could come close what I pictured. And cats keeping you company while you read! (How many ‘ands’ can I include here??)

I think Joan Aiken had a very sympathetic style in writing to fans and readers of her books, if I’m to judge from this letter. It’s warm and personal, a great piece of writing in itself, and doesn’t talk down to the reader.

Joan Aiken

Reading Holiday

This was Joan’s idea of a Perfect Holiday… what about you?

Dear Person


Read the full letter from Joan at The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken

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What kind of writer are you? Gardener or architect?

I’m always interested in how other people write, so I loved this analogy from Ian Beck, illustrator and children’s author.  He was speaking at last weekend’s Federation of Children’s Book Groups Conference and I was lucky enough to be in the audience.

Ian Beck, author and illustrator, image David Bartlett/FCBG.

Ian Beck, image by David Bartlett/FCBG.

He spoke of writers as either gardeners or architects. An architect makes blueprints and models, and work proceeds from these. Everything is planned in advance, and in detail. The finished building is (fore)seen before construction begins.

A gardener, on the other hands, plants a seed, waters it and waits to see what happens. The seed grows, and changes as it does so. Hopefully, it flourishes.

Ian said that he is gardener, and only discovers what a book is about when he has written a draft.

I’m a writer and a gardener, literally. I’ve been doing both for most of my life, and learning all the time. I tend to think of the imagination as a compost heap. Stuff goes into my brain – all kinds of experience, first-hand and second-hand – and sinks down slowly, mixing and mulching away, turning into something rich and strange. When it’s ready, I can use it. But what comes out will not be easily recognisable as what went in.

Now I have another horticultural metaphor to use, thanks to Ian Beck. As a writer, I am definitely a gardener. I wouldn’t want to read a book where I knew exactly what was going to happen, chapter by chapter, so I wouldn’t be keen to write one either. It would take out much of the fun and all the mystery.

Getting a story idea is like planting a seed. You have to nurture it, but also give it time. What grows may surprise you. You certainly can’t guarantee the outcome from the start, irrespective of the picture on the seed packet.

Pansies vintage seed packet

‘There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.’

When We Were Very Young and loved jumping in puddles

Winnie-the-Pooh Day is celebrated today, on the birthday of his creator, A A Milne.

Teddy Bear, from When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

I think if you grew up with a book since babyhood and know it inside out, it’s almost impossible to look at it objectively. I’m like that with Pooh books, both the stories – The House At Pooh Corner, and Winnie The Pooh – and the little books of poems, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, which I am revisiting for this post.

Yes, there are twee aspects to them, and a distinct lack of female characters in the stories – though not so much in the poems. Mary Jane and Emmeline appear alongside boys who – often in curls and loose smocks over shorts in the distinctive drawings by E H Shepard – I’m sure I thought were girls, anyway. Yes, the poems feature children in buttoned gaiters, with nannies, and nurseries, and all that privileged pre-war clutter. But there are also plenty of animals – wild and domestic – and a good dose of imaginative transformation. It didn’t jar when I looked back at the books when I had small children to read to. Of course, I was selective, and I left out the sillier or rather aimless bucolic poems, but I suspect they got left out when the books were read to me too!

What I still really like about the strongest poems are their rhythms, which are so well-suited to being read – or recited – aloud. A poem that sticks in your mind is sure sign of a good bouncy rhythm (though I suppose that’s true of some doggerel, too – er, theory confounded, then.)  There are plenty of natural-feeling and satisfying rhyming words. But best of all – despite the buttoned gaiters – is that many of the situations are very simple and very child-centred, and are about gently defying adult expectations. The joy of just running madly around, of stepping in puddles, the pleasure and terror involved in avoiding the cracks in the pavement, and the hatred of being cajoled to be polite or eat up or hold hands.

Lines and Squares, Whene We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

There is the assumption that tiny children will understand when the opposite of what’s being said is true – always fun: they’re in on the joke. We know exactly what’s the matter with Mary Jane, even if the grown-ups are too dim to spot that’s it something to do with ‘lovely rice pudding’. Bullying Sir Brian Botany really isn’t ‘as bold as a lion’ and we love it when he gets his come-uppance,

‘They took him by the breeches and they hurled him into ditches’

and then we love it again when he has a change of heart. King John is ‘not a bad man, but he has his little ways’ – doesn’t he just? James James Morrison’s glamorous but wafty-looking mother is ‘LAST SEEN WANDERING VAGUELY’ – no wonder he has to pedal off on his trike and fetch her. All these grown-ups are being gently lampooned, just like the flawed and foolish adults in Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

It’s a world that was very real to me when I was little, a world of small daily activities and large imaginary ones. Looking at them again, I realise how much I like the space in some of the poems – how ordinary things like chairs, long curtains, and the famous ‘halfway down the stairs is the stair where I sit’ – are places where the imagination can roam free.

‘Where am I going? I don’t quite know…

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know…’

Halfway down the stairs, When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne