Love reading…love writing?

I read about some research from the National Literacy Trust this week, which revealed some positive figures about children’s increasing love of reading. The trust surveyed 30,000 eight- to 16-year-olds and found that 53% of young people enjoy reading either “very much” or “quite a lot”. This surpasses the highest level of reading enjoyment the charity recorded eight years ago.

Only 10% of those surveyed said they didn’t enjoy reading at all, which is the lowest level recorded in four years. The gender gap in reading has decreased slightly, but is still significant, with more girls than boys saying that they enjoy reading very much (29% versus 20%).

So things are looking up, it seems, when it comes to the popularity of reading… but is this also the case with writing? I recently spoke to a friend who is a primary school teacher, and she told me that one of her major struggles in the classroom is getting children to enjoy creative writing. “I just don’t understand why they don’t like it,” she said, “You can literally write anything you want. What’s not to like?”

Well, what indeed? The first thing that occurred to me is that kids are increasingly bombarded with a world of exciting visual media so they would much rather play an interactive game than sit down and write something emotional or descriptive. So what could be done to improve the situation? Here are some ideas that we thought of:

Changing the order – The usual order of creation is a book followed by its film adaptation. But what if this was presented to kids the other way around? A fragment of a film could be played to them in the classroom, almost as a teaser, and they would be encouraged to find out the rest of the story by reading it. Then a lesson could focus on how well or badly, the film interpreted the written story.

Writing about experiences – We read on The Guardian Teacher network about a teacher who took her children out of the classroom so that they could experience a given event, and then immediately write down the emotions that they felt e.g. taking part in a race, trying new food…

A dramatic representation – This is the reverse of writing about experiences. It’s a case of writing a story with the aim of later bringing it to life on stage, or in front of the rest of the class. It sounds simple, but many children are likely to be put off creative writing if they think it’s just about getting a grade from their teacher.

Do you have any other ideas?

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On happy endings

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As a child, I had two favourite kinds of books: those that were funny and those that were sad but had happy endings. My favourite author until I was well into my teens was Jacqueline Wilson, who definitely fell into the second of these categories and I loved her for the gritty reality in which her characters lived. I remember progressing quite suddenly from Pippi Longstocking and Paddington Bear onto The Suitcase Kid and being under the distinct impression that I’d moved onto something that in a wonderful way was only semi-fiction.

In many ways the world that she wrote about was so close to real life that the backdrop wasn’t ‘fictional’ to me. I’ve often tried to pin down how she managed this and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the way that she portrays her characters’ emotions. In The Suitcase Kid, Andy spoke about her parents’ divorce, about feeling left out from her mum’s new family, about problems at school… Her life certainly improved towards the end of the book, but her parents didn’t magically get back together, and as such, there was no traditional happy ending.

Yesterday, Kevin Brooks was awarded the prestigious Carnegie Medal for The Bunker Diary, his fictional account of a boy who is kidnapped and held hostage in a bunker. He said: “There is a school of thought that no matter how dark or difficult a novel is, it should contain at least an element of hope. As readers, children – and teens in particular – don’t need to be cosseted with artificial hope that there will always be a happy ending. They want to be immersed in all aspects of life, not just the easy stuff.”

But what is most interesting is that Brooks also said that he felt he could have got his book published much earlier (It took ten years from when he first started) if he had changed the ending. The only reason why he didn’t was because he felt that it would have been dishonest. Jacqueline Wilson has frequently spoken about her initial difficulties in getting published back in the 1980s due to the difficult subject matter that she handled and the fact that her books didn’t have happy endings. In the three decades that have passed have things changed in this regard? What are your thoughts?

My favourite books without a happy ending:
– Malorie Blackman Noughts and Crosses
– Patrick Ness A Monster Calls
– John Boyne The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
– Jacqueline Wilson The Illustrated Mum
– John Green The Fault in our Stars

Children’s authors and the world of celebrity

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I recently read a review of Frank Lampard’s latest children’s book ‘Frankie’s Magic Football: Frankie and the World Cup Carnival’ and it got me thinking about other celebrities who have penned bestsellers for kids. When I was small, I had a shelf full of Budgie The Little Helicopter – the series authored by Sarah, Duchess of York. At the time, I had no idea who she was, but my mum came across a Budgie book stand at her local shopping centre and drawn in by a large photo of the duchess, proceeded to buy me the whole collection.

People have widely varying views about Sarah, but you couldn’t argue with the fact that her books sold – and in doing so, they promoted reading for children to people like my mum, who wasn’t the type of parent who would frequently take their child to their local library or bookshop.

A whole string of celebrity books followed Sarah’s – including those by Sting, Kylie and Geri Halliwell to name just a few. Some argue that these works steal shelf-space from worthwhile manuscripts which other unknown authors have spent years working on. It has to be accepted that the lure of celebrity is much more appealing to agents and publishers than taking on a new name in writing.

But when it comes to long term love for a book or an author, the child is the ultimate judge. No matter how famous the author, if their work doesn’t strike the magical note with the small reader, there will be a limit to their success. Personally, I believe that the best children’s writing by non-celebrities will never be pushed out. Yes, new writers may struggle just that bit harder to get onto the scene but agents will never be reliant on celebrity clients alone.

What parents need to watch out for is the quality of the writing. There are some amazing celebrity children’s authors – David Walliams is amongst my favourite – but there are others whose books are likely to be ghost-written and those with dubious English.

So yes, celebrity writers are important in a world in which reading for pleasure amongst children is becoming dangerously unpopular, but parents should be aware of the wider literary world available for their children to discover.

What are your thoughts on celebrity children’s authors?

Some top children’s books written by celebrities:
• Mr. Stink by David Walliams
• Budgie The Little Helicopter by Sarah, Duchess of York
• How Roland Rolls by Jim Carrey
• Mandy by Julie Andrews
• High in the Clouds by Paul McCartney

Books about Town

Today I read about a great scheme started up by The National Literacy Trust called ‘Books about Town’ which aims to use the power of London’s literary landscape to motivate children to read for pleasure outside of the classroom. One element of the project is the design of book-shaped benches in various parts of the capital in order to celebrate stories linked to London and to promote reading for enjoyment. I’m excited to see them being unveiled from this July!

Wind in the Willows BookBench

The scheme got me thinking about my favourite books for children with a London setting. The great thing about these stories is that they show the city in a refreshing and exciting light. As an adult, it’s all too easy to become disenchanted with the daily commute, the busy nature of the London streets and the usually bad weather. But I only need to re-read one of the below to regain a little bit of the enchantment that I had when walking around the streets of London as a child.

Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers (17 Cherry Tree Lane, London)
Mary Poppins, the magical nanny is blown by the East wind to Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane, London, and into the Banks’ household to care for their children. Encounters with chimney sweeps, shopkeepers and various adventures follow until Mary Poppins abruptly leaves, i.e., “pops-out”.

The BFG – Roald Dahl (Buckingham Palace)
The heroine, Sophie, persuades her friend, the BFG to approach the Queen of England with the aim of capturing dangerous man-eating giants. To this end, the BFG creates a nightmare, introducing knowledge of these giants to the Queen and leaves Sophie in the Queen’s bedroom to confirm it true. After considerable effort by the palace staff to create a table, chair, and cutlery of appropriate size for him to use, the BFG is given a lavish breakfast, and the Queen forms a plan to capture the other giants.

The Wombles – Elizabeth Beresford (Wimbledon)
The Wombles, fictional pointy-nosed, furry creatures aim to help the environment by collecting and recycling rubbish in creative ways. Although they supposedly live in every country in the world, Beresford’s stories are concerned with the lives of the inhabitants of the burrow on Wimbledon Common in London. The Womble motto is “Make Good Use of Bad Rubbish”. This environmentally friendly message was a reflection of the growing environmental movement of the 1970s.

Paddington Bear – Michael Bond (Paddington Station)
Paddington is found at Paddington Railway Station in London by the Brown family, sitting on his suitcase with a note attached to his coat which reads “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” He arrives as a stowaway coming from Peru, sent by his Aunt Lucy who has gone to live in the Home for Retired Bears in Lima. He claims, “I came all the way in a lifeboat, and ate marmalade. Bears like marmalade.” He tells them that no one can understand his Peruvian name, so the Browns decide to call him Paddington after the railway station in which he was found. They take him home to 32 Windsor Gardens, off Harrow Road.

Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night time – Mark Haddon (Willesden underground station)
Christopher Boone, the autistic 15-year-old autistic narrator is falsely accused of the crime of killing his neighbour’s dog and decides that track down the killer. As the mystery leads him to the secrets of his parents’ broken marriage, he runs away from home and travels independently on the train to London to see his mother who lives in Willesden.

World Book night and letters

Tonight is World Book Night, an annual event at the Southbank Centre about which I always read with interest. Next year, I plan to go further and actually research possibilities of attending. I’m particularly sad not to be there at tonight’s event as I read an article on The Guardian online which said that the focus would be letters.

I have always been interested in letters in the literary context. Last Xmas, I received Letters of Note, a book which includes some of the greatest letters across the ages from Virginia Woolf’s last note to her husband to a letter from a young reader to Roald Dahl. The latter is a favourite of mine. Seven year old Amy, inspired by a description in The BFG, send Dahl one of her dreams in a bottle. He responded with the following:

Dear Amy,

I must write a special letter and thank you for the dream in the bottle. You are the first person in the world who has sent me one of these and it intrigued me very much. I also liked the dream. Tonight I shall go down to the village and blow it through the bedroom window of some sleeping child and see if it works.

With love from,

Roald Dahl

Tonight, the Letters Live event will include a number of well-known authors, such as Philip Pullman reading extracts of famous letters. Pullman himself will read Kurt Vonnegut’s letter written in 1973 after 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five were burned by a head teacher in North Dakota because of the novel’s “obscene language.”

But arguably the best part of the night will be the book giveaway, which aims to spread the love of reading for pleasure – something which I have written about a fair amount in the past. 250,000 copies of 20 specially chosen books will be given away by volunteers and institutions to help spread the love of reading. The titles, which include a favourite of mine, John Boyne’s The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, have been chosen to appeal to the 35% of the population who don’t read for pleasure.

The event will be followed by 13 regional flagship events at public libraries countrywide. Check here to see if there will be one happening near to you!

Competitions for Children’s Book Writers

Several writers whom I met through SCBWI and at various author events, have got agent representation following a writing competition, which they either won or got shortlisted for. I thought it would be useful to have a record of all the competitions coming up over the next 12 months in the children’s book genre.

Feel free to share and add to!

Undiscovered Voices (SCBWI)
Undiscovered Voices is an initiative by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) British Isles to help fresh, new voices in children’s literature – both writers and illustrators – find agents, publishers and ultimately readers through its Undiscovered Voices project.
Website: http://www.undiscoveredvoices.com/
Deadline: July 2014

The Kelpies Prize
The Kelpies Prize was set up in 2004 to encourage and reward new Scottish writing for children. Winning authors receive a £2,000 cash prize and have their novel published in the Kelpies range.
Website: http://www.florisbooks.co.uk/kelpiesprize/index.html
Deadline: 28 Februrary 2015

The Times / Chickenhouse Competition
What Chicken House are looking for:
Original ideas, a fresh voice and a story that children will love! To enter, you must have written a completed full-length novel suitable for children aged somewhere between 7 and 18 years. By full-length we suggest a minimum of 30,000 words and ask that manuscripts entered do not exceed 80,000 words in length.
Website: http://doublecluck.com/submissions/
Deadline: October 2014

The Greenhouse Funny Prize
A competition for writers of comedy fiction for children. This year it will be for UK, Europe and Commonwealth writers only.
Website: http://greenhouseliterary.com/index.php/site/funny_prize
Deadline: Coming soon (check website)

The Academy of Children’s Writers short story competition
The competition is open only to previously unpublished (for profit) writers of children’s fiction over the age of 18.
The story must not exceed 2,000 words in length and may be suitable for children of any age group up to and including teenage. It may be a short story or the first 2,000 words of a novel/longer story.
Website: http://www.childrens-writers.co.uk/competition.htm#
Deadline: 30th April 2014

The Montegrappa Scholastic Prize
Competition for writers of fiction for children aged 7-12. The prize is an offer of a publishing contract with Scholastic with a literacy agency contact with LBA. It also includes a weekend trip to Italy to visit Venice and the Montegrappa factory at Bassano Del Grappa.
Website: http://www.scholastic.co.uk/montegrappa-terms
Deadline: 2nd June 2014

The High Sheriff’s Cheshire Prize for Literature
This annual contest, which is open only to writers with some connection to Cheshire, is for prose of up to 1.500 words and poems of up to 100 lines aimed at children aged between seven and fourteen. It is administered by the University of Chester’s Department of English and funded by Bank of America.
Website: http://www.chester.ac.uk/literatureprize
Deadline: 1st September 2014

ACW Stories for Children Competition
The competition is run by the Association of Christian Writers and is for children’s stories of up to 1,000 words on the theme of Encouragement. Stories need not be explicitly Christian but they must have a Christian worldview.
Website: http://www.christianwriters.org.uk/
Deadline: 5th May 2014

InclusiveWorks
An international children’s story competition for ages 1-3 and 4-6. The theme of the 2014 competition is “Grandad, grandma and I in our multicultural society”.
Website: http://www.inclusiveworks.eu/Our-expertise/Projects/Childrens-stories#.Uz0sgvl_uSo
Deadline: 31 August 2014

Creative writing courses – useless or essential?

A couple of weeks ago I came across Hanif Kureishi’s bold statement about creative writing classes.

Speaking at the Bath Literature Festival, he told his audience that such classes or courses are a waste of time, because most students just “can’t tell a story.” Beyond that, he seemed to imply that talent in writing is an innate skill and not something that can be taught: “It’s probably 99.9 per cent [of students] who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.”

All of this of course begs the question of why Kureishi continues to conduct creative writing classes, and whether indeed, following his Bath speech the numbers of budding authors attending his course will dwindle.

Nevertheless, his beliefs led me to question the usefulness of writing classes. Are they really a complete waste of money or can something be learnt from them that can be practically put to use?

Last weekend I attended a Guardian Masterclass run by Tim Lott, whose work I’m a big fan of. It was intended for those writers who had completed a full manuscript and wanted help with what to do next – i.e. how to effectively self-edit, how to polish their work to a standard at which it’s ready to pitch to agents, and finally – how to sell their manuscripts effectively.

The added appeal of this class was a session run by Clare Alexander of the Aitken Alexander literary agency, which was incredibly useful with that final stage of pitching. Clare spoke to us in detail about what puts her off in submissions. Her top tips were:

          Don’t oversell or undersell yourself. It’s good to give context to your writing, but never compare your work to that of an accomplished author, because you’re immediately setting yourself up for failure.

          Tell the agent about your background, particularly if it’s relevant to your writing, but make it brief. The agent is interested in your work rather than you as a person.

          Don’t include praise for your novel from other editors or literary consultants, as it will make you look desperate.

          Always take the time to research what a given agent within a given agency is looking for and explain why your work is relevant to them. As with job applications, there is nothing worse than a scatter-gun approach.

          If you are a first-time writer, it’s often a good idea to approach younger agencies/agents, who are just building up their lists and are particularly hungry to discover new talent.

But going back to our work with Tim – the course was spread across two days and was from 9am – 5pm. During this time, we went through a series of intense sessions including: plot and narrative arc, creating effective and believable characters, developing dialogue, building granular descriptions of characters and scenes and choosing an effective title.

Tim talked us through many ways in which he achieved the above in his own work, and showed us fragments of novels in which other authors had accomplished any one of these traits to a particularly high standard.

Towards the end of the second day he asked us to describe the theme or premise of our novel in one sentence, and later to develop this into a description or ‘blurb’ no longer than 25 words. If you’ve never done this, is an invaluable exercise, as it makes you boil down your work to its very barest form, which is incredibly helpful when you’re editing.

Tim said at the end that it’s likely that 90% of what we learnt over the weekend would be useless, but there will be an essential 10% that we will go away with and use in our own work. I can’t put an exact figure on these percentages in my case, but I certainly went away which a very definite idea of what I needed to work on in my manuscript. The class was also ideal for me at my current stage of writing.

So if you’re thinking about doing a class or course, the main piece of advice I would give is to do your research into its content and really think about whether it would be useful to you at that given moment. And one final piece of advice from Tim – never stop reading. The very best writers are first and foremost absolutely voracious readers!