Saturday, 26 October 2013

Meeting your heroes...

…can be a dangerous thing.

I remember as a child and young(er) adult that sense of disappointment and betrayal when you meet someone you idolise, either in person or through a biography, only to discover your hero has feet of clay. Is rude, arrogant, or otherwise obnoxious. How can this be!? you ask yourself. How can the person that made something I love not be lovely themselves?

That seems to be the heart of the betrayal. If you love a band, or a piece of music, and the composer turns out to be a racist bigot, it betrays your understanding of why you liked it in the first place, perhaps even who you are yourself. That's even more true with writing I think - books are full of the personality who wrote them, something some people seem to find hard to believe. So if you have thought the same way as the words that floated off the page and into your head, it seems impossible that you would not like the author who wrote them.

Which brings me to Thursday, when I met the very first writing hero who entered my life: Susan Cooper. I am not alone in people of my generation of having had my imagination fired and shaped and moulded by Susan's Dark Is Rising sequence. It's an absolute classic of children's fiction and remains quite rightly in print today, and still as revered as ever.

On Thursday I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan about her new book, Ghost Hawk, in front of a live audience at Waterstones, Piccadilly in London. Around 100 ardent fans arrived to hear what she had to say, and I was in seventh heaven, for the very first hero I ever had in writing turned out also to be charming, funny, modest, generous, deeply intelligent and, that thing I prize more highly than anything else: kind.

Over the course of the evening I only had this opinion reinforced, for Susan is a fascinating lady with a wonderful life story to tell. Furthermore, her new book, Ghost Hawk, is brilliant, and I urge you to go and buy a copy. A real physical one, because it's beautiful.

So sometimes, meeting your heroes turns out to be a very wonderful thing indeed.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Jane Austen, fantasy fiction and the morals of our children

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared in The Independent.

The children of Britain are sliding into a terrifying quagmire of moral abandon. Or so certain commentators would have us believe. Joanna Trollope’s remarks that fantasy stories give children little moral guidance (Sunday Times, 6.10.13) echo those of Michael Gove back in May, when he declared "You come home to find your 17-year-old daughter engrossed in a book. Which would delight you more... Twilight or Middlemarch?”

Along with Twilight, Trollope singles out The Hunger Games as books that should be ‘countered’ by teaching more classic fiction in schools, and goes on to say: “fantasy doesn’t really relate to the real world.”

Aside from the issue of a writer who hasn’t understood the concept of metaphor – no fiction, fantasy or otherwise, means anything to us unless it relates to the experience of being human – Trollope seems to be unaware of what is actually going on in children’s publishing. It’s hard to imagine an industry that thinks more, knows more and cares more about the quality of what it puts before its customers.

The central power of The Hunger Games is precisely the fact that Katniss is put in a terrible moral conundrum – should she kill in order to survive? Readers would not be gripped in their millions by these books if that question meant nothing to them. The fact they are shows that they have healthy morals, even if they’re (rightly) horrified by what Katniss goes through.  It’s ironic that Trollope picks on Twilight; simply because Stephanie Meyer’s books are Austen’s. Twilight is full of morals (which you may or may not like depending how closely your views are to Mormon Meyer’s) but its power for readers comes in returning modern teenage protagonists to the tension-laden salons of Austen’s heroines. By introducing the danger of the vampire, Meyer reboots the loaded sentence and the aching glance, and puts them into the school canteen. ‘Gosh, did Edward/Mr Darcy just look at me? I wonder what his intentions might be to poor little me,’ says Bella/Elizabeth Bennet.

Trollope’s remarks support the publication of her modern reworking of Sense and Sensibility, one of 6 titles in The Austen Project. She states that Austen’s book tackles “love, money and class”, and has messages that make it relevant today, and argues that modern reworking of texts should be used in schools if children find the original language difficult. This very assertion seems to imply there is something ‘wrong’ with the classics – if you want to teach them, teach them as they are, with their original text and un-bowdlerized power.

And they are being taught: it seems Trollope may also be unaware of what actually goes on in our schools. One of the main pleasures of my job is the opportunity I have to visit schools across the land; state and private, city and country. If you were only ever to watch disappointing things like Educating Wherevershire, you could be forgiven for believing that our children are wild, abandoned monsters. My experience teaches me something different: every week I am delighted, though not surprised, to meet hundreds of our country’s engaging young people, reading all sorts of things, from Twilight to Wild Swans to Captain Underpants to, yes, shock of all shocks, Jane Austen. Personally, I believe the main thing is that they’re reading, and enjoying what they’re reading, for that opens the doorway not only to the vast world of literature; it can also lead to the desire to embrace diversity, something Joanna Trollope seems unwilling to do.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Read for RNIB

Less than 1% of books are published in Braille. No more than 7% of books are published in some format which makes them accessible to blind or visually impaired readers; formats such as audiobooks, Daisy readers, large or giant print, and even if a book appears in one of these formats; it may be months after the publication of the traditional format or e-book version.

Yes, it is possible for e-readers to 'speak' a digital copy of a book to the blind, but text-to-speech systems typically offer an unrealistic electronic voice. If you think you'd wouldn't mind having a full-length book read to you by something like that, you should try five minutes of it to see...

I am therefore extremely proud that my newly published book, She Is Not Invisible, is available in a wide range of accessible formats, and from day one of its life.

The book is about a 16-year-old girl whose father is a writer. He's a writer obsessed with the question of coincidences, and when he goes missing, Laureth decides to follow clues left behind in his notebook to try to find him. This is somewhat harder than it would be for most 16-year-olds, because Laureth has been blind from birth. That’s what made me convinced the book should be published in accessible formats from the start, and I’m delighted that my publisher, Orion, agreed.

The book is part of RNIB’s Read for RNIB Day, and is one of six titles that have blind protagonists which have been chosen as suggested books for reading groups to read, in the Reading Group Challenge. This is a wonderful scheme aimed at raising money for the RNIB so they can continue their work of enabling the blind to have a better reading experience. The mere existence of certain charities in our society has always appalled me. The RNLI, the RNIB: aren't these services which any wealthy, civilised country ought to provide from central government? But they don't, so in the meantime, it's up to the rest of us to fund them, and help blind and VI people have an equal share in our country's culture.

It was, of course, an enormous challenge to write a book with a blind protagonist, not least because I chose to write from her point of view, in the first person. I had no idea just how great the challenge was until I started my research. Over the last two years I've made a series of trips to New College, Worcester, where I spoke at length with blind and VI students. Every single one of them was open, honest, generous and patient with me, and slowly, I began to get a little understanding of what life is like for them. How it is different, of course, but just as importantly, how it is the same. I cannot begin to pretend I know what it's like to be blind from birth, as Laureth is in the book. How could you ever forget what colour is, to give just one example? If I have achieved anything at all in this book, however, it's thanks to the help I received from the students there. I literally could not have written this book without them. It is their book, and I am grateful beyond words for the kindness they showed me.

Here's a short film made the RNIB about the day I went back to New College, with a finished copy of the book in my hands. And yes, I was really nervous.

Patron of Reading: aka, I must have grown up somewhere along the way

I just made the first visit to a brand new school, Cambourne Village College, just outside Cambridge. I accepted their offer to become 'Patron of Reading' for this academic year, a title which makes me think I must have become a grown-up somewhere along my journey. Not that I noticed.

I was delighted to receive this invitation because Cambourne is a very rare thing - a brand new school. It's expanded out of Comberton Village College: Cambridge parents have obviously been busy and there is a bit of a population explosion going on.

So here's the front of the new building.

It's really beautiful, and inside are some great new teaching facilities, a sports hall, IT rooms etc etc and most importantly of all, a brand new library. It was Alison Tarrant, the librarian at the school, who had the idea to appoint a Patron of Reading, and she got in touch last summer to ask if I'd take on the role, the purpose of which is to champion reading through the school. Cambourne have a great plan - get this first year of students really into their reading and hopefully that will set the tone in future years. Their Head of School is former English teacher, and that helps a lot I think, but all the staff seem to be right behind this great initiative.

The idea is that I will have contact with this very first intake (150 year 7s) throughout their first year at the school. We'll meet, either for real or virtually in some way, once per half term from now till the summer before they head up to year 8. Todays, by way of introduction, I gave a talk to the whole year group in their shiny new hall, with possibly the largest projection screen I've ever seen :-0

The students were wonderful, had some great questions. I signed a load of books and really enjoyed our first session together, so thanks to Cambourne for the welcome.

And since this was reported today, it feels like my visit could not have come at a more appopriate time. Not that there was any evidence of children being embarrassed to be seen with a book here! The enthusiasm for reading was plain to see - the challenge is to keep children reading as the move up through the school system. I think Cambourne are well on the way to achieving that.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


Or, to give them their proper name, coincidences...

Co-inky-dinks is what they get re-christened by 7-year-old Benjamin, brother to Laureth, the heroine of my new book, She Is Not Invisible. Laureth and Benjamin's dad is a writer, a writer who's obssessed by two things: coincidences, and the number 354. He's been trying, and failing, to write a book about coincidence for years, and as the book opens, he's gone missing. Always a little away with the fairies, when his notebook turns up in New York when he was last heard of in Switzerland (or was it Austria), Laureth knows something is seriously wrong.

I also love coincidences, and coincidentally, have also been trying to write a novel about them for a very long while. I'm glad I've finished, now, so I can get obsessed about something else, but before I leave them alone for good, I just wanted to record a further coincidence that happened this week.

I've had some pretty weird ones happen to me over the years, and this is not the most spectacular, but it amused me a lot. Since in She Is Not Invisible, Laureth and Benjamin's dad is obsessed with the number 354, I thought I would work it into the text in as many ways as possible. It's there, sometimes deeply hidden in various ways, at other times very obvious.

Here are a few examples: each chapter title is composed of three words: three, then five, then four letters long. 'Two Dried Mice', for example. With one exception; the chapter which is simply called '354'. One chapter, 'The Final Clue', is comprised of a sequence of words that are 3,5,4 letters long in turn, and furthermore, there are exactly 354 words in that chapter. The page count of the book is 354 pages. The blurb conforms to a 354 structure. The word Dad is used 354 times in the book. The 354th word of the book is 'coincidence'. There are dozens more, but you get the idea.

So, the latest coincidence: Last week, a wonderful actress called Anna Cannings recorded the audiobook version. Last night, I got an email from the editor of the audio, saying he'd just finished the final cut of the reading, which, without him being aware of it as he was working, has ended up at 354 minutes long...

So, what coincidences do you have to share? I'd love to read about all and any in the comments, so feel free...