Thursday, 20 November 2014

Wilde Wisdom - Joan Lennon

I admit it - until now, I'd never read The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Oh, I knew, more or less, the plot.  But when I needed to read Oscar Wilde's horror story for a novel I'm just starting to write, there wasn't a handy copy in the house, so I got it (for free) as part of a kindle Penny Dreadful multi-pack - including The Horrors of Zindorf Castle AND Jack Harkaway and His Son's Adventures in Australia, which, co-incidentally, I also didn't own.

But did you know The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in this magazine in 1890?  

In full.  Plus a Preface.  Plus a whole bunch of other fiction and articles and biography and - I'd love to read this bit - 8 pages With the Wits (illustrated by leading artists).  How's that for 25 cents?  

But here's what I want to post about.  What Oscar Wilde said, in his Preface, about critics and criticism, because it is both a witticism and a balm.  He said:

"... the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.  Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.  This is a fault."

Is it merely an elegant way of saying, "Aw, poop, they're just jealous"?  I don't care.  Next bad review any of us gets, I recommend this as our mantra.  All together now ...

This is a fault.  

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Reading Trees - Lucy Coats

This is not a post about the OUP reading scheme. No. My reading trees are more of the green and leafy variety. As I sit now, watching the last leaves of autumn fall, I remember the sinking feeling I used to get as a child at this time of year, when I realised that my reading trees - a solace and refuge - would have to be left till the following spring. Naked and bare of foliage, they were no longer places I could hide with a book. 

Ingredients for the perfect reading tree:
1 climbable tree
1 cushion
1 comfortable fork with branch footstool and trunk backrest
1 unputdownable book
enough green leaves to hide under

In these less agile days of middle-age, I prefer a slung hammock, but when I was younger and bendier, climbing trees with a book was my perfect escape from weeding the strawberry beds, or lugging bales of straw and slopping buckets of water over countless fields, or any other undesirable job my parents could dream up for an idle, book-loving child.

My first climbing choice of inside the laurel clump made a springy green cave smelling of rich, rotting evergreen humus and was not terribly satisfactory as a perch, being rather unstable and drippy when it rained, as well as dark and bad for the eyes. 

The Victoria plum tree was good in the spring and early autumn but not in the summer when the wasps attacked the ripening plums and anything else in reach. It was also, latterly, near the bonfire, which meant that I read with smarting, smoke-filled eyes when the wind was in the wrong direction. 

The right hand of the twin chestnuts on the boundary had a wide horizontal and almost flat branch which was great for reading and also for lying and spying on the house (and on the next-door neighbours in their thatched cottage), hiding me from sight entirely. But when new neighbours moved in, less short-sighted and tolerant than old Mr and Mrs Smith, Complaints Were Made, and I was banned from climbing it on pain of dire punishment. A nosy child (I confess I did have a pair of binoculars on occasion) was not welcome, despite my protestations of innocence and the waving of books as proof.

It was the old cherry in the part of the garden where nobody went, just by the dogs' graves, which was best. That was where I stashed my rope ladder, and found a perfect snug fork just at the right angle for leaning against. It was there that I devoured R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island as well as Swiss Family Robinson, (the latter being especially suitable for treetop reading) among many others. The lullaby of the creaking branches, the wind, the rustle of pointed leaves, the occasional adventurous woodpigeon or little brown bird landing above my head, these were the sounds that informed my early reading life. Hammocks are good, but trees are the real thing. 

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

FUN with books and reading - it's the Kids' Lit Quiz - Linda Strachan

Every year around this time New Zealand Quizmaster the inexhaustible Wayne Mills arrives for the start of the UK heats of the Kids' Lit Quiz  - and he runs an amazing 18 heats in under 4 weeks.  The first heat this year was a new one in East Midlands, and today it will be the turn of the 8th UK heat at Yorkshire's King James School, Knaresborough.

KLQ Quizmaster Wayne Mills awarded
 Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit 
KLQ is a competition for children aged 10-13 with ten rounds of questions each with a different theme and a opportunity for the teams to choose one round as their joker (double points)  all the questions are book related and vary in difficulty.

Wayne writes all the questions himself, and when you consider there are 100 questions in each heat, it is quite a feat, as he never asks a question unless he has read the book!

In school teams of four and a max of two teams per school, they compete against other schools in their region. I am always amazed by what the teams can answer and having been on an author team myself many times, it can be taxing.  

I think the young competitors often surprise themselves by what they know, but most of all they have a great time.  I love having the chance to chat to the teams before it starts and during the break, when the competitors have a chance to buy books and come to get them signed by the authors who attend the quiz.

Wayne offers spot prizes for teams or for individual competitors, and there are also longer questions in between rounds, sometimes taken from the more difficult World Final questions of the year before.

The teams are often very close in points and it is hard to describe the level of enthusiasm for the quiz and the excitement in the room.  Teams of authors, teachers and librarians often compete for the fun of it, and it can become quite competitive!
Winning team at  KLQ NE - Hexham Middle School A 
This year I have been on two author teams, in Newcastle NE England heat which was once again organised by Trevor and Diane.
With fellow Author's team member Lucy Coats

Lucy Coats and I seconded the very knowledgeable Steve onto our team.
Steve was running the bookshop for Seven Stories, National Centre for Children's Books.
After a very competitive quiz we were beaten by the librarians ... by half a mark!

I was also delighted to be at the East of Scotland Heat which was held at Liberton High School in Edinburgh, organised by their excellent librarian, Christine Babbs.
I am Patron of Reading for Liberton High so it was great to be there to welcome the teams for the Quiz.

Fellow authors Matt Cartney and Keith Charters were on the author team and we were surprised but delighted to discover that we had beaten the teachers' team, but as always the kids were the real stars of the day!  

With matt Cartney and winners of KLQ Central Scotland - St Thomas of Aquins B
Already these and other winning teams from this year's heats are preparing for the trip to the UK final which will be held in Kings College School, London on 4th December 2014.

But the most exciting prize on offer, and any one of the competing teams can win it, is the trip to the World Final.

The winners of the UK national final will travel to the World final to be held in Connecticut USA in the summer of 2015.
There they will be taken about on a wonderful week of experiences as well as competing with and getting to know the other national teams from schools around the world.  New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, USA, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, all have teams competing for a chance to win the KLQ World Final.

If you are a teacher or librarian why not find out more about the quiz and how you and your school can get involved. Authors contact your local quiz organiser (all enthusiastic volunteers!) and come along and take part in this amazing quiz that has got hundreds of young people all over the world sharing their enthusiasm for books and reading!

You can follow the heats on Wayne's blog and find out all about the quiz and see sample questions on the website

The KLQ is a not for profit and is  run by volunteers. They are always looking for sponsors so if you think you would like to support it do get in touch.

Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children.

Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me  
she is Patron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh.

Her best selling series Hamish McHaggis is illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby

blog:  Bookwords 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Books For Bags: Celebrating Local Bookshops! by Emma Barnes

Recently on ABBA I posted about Book Festivals  - and how they are going from strength to strength.  It's not been so easy for bookshops.  Discounting in supermarkets, the decline of the high street, and the growth of online retailing have all made it much, much harder for bookshops to compete.

Last month, a national celebration of bookshops - Books Are My Bag - brought authors and bookshops together to try and do something about this.  Across the country, there were all kinds of festivities to help make the public more aware of the importance of local bookshops.

Here in Leeds, my fellow children's author Alison Brown (the author/illustrator of picture books Mighty Mo and Eddie and Dog) had the idea we should be part of this, and so on Saturday 11 November I was chuffed to be part of <i>Books for Bags</i> at Radish, the fantastic bookshop close to us in the high street in Chapel Allerton.

Me, Alison and Lisa at Radish

Radish is a great shop and the atmosphere, the selection of books, and the recommendations by knowledgeable staff provide something you cannot find online.

Bookshops are vital - part of the infrastructure of a reading culture.  Bookshop staff read the books they sell, can make recommendations, and know the kind of things their customers enjoy.

Many books have taken off not because of a mass marketing campaign by publishers, but because of grassroots recommendations and a slow spreading of word of mouth...often originating with the independent bookshops. 

We need to support them.  It really is a matter of Use Them - or Lose Them.

I just wish I'd had more time to browse the fantastic children's selection on the day.  Never mind.  The joy of local bookshop is you can pop in any time.


Emma's new series for 8+, Wild Thing, is about the naughtiest little sister ever.  Out now from Scholastic. 
"Hilarious and heart-warming" The Scotsman

 Wolfie is published by Strident.   Sometimes a Girl’s Best Friend is…a Wolf. 
"A real cracker of a book" Armadillo 
"Funny, clever and satisfying...thoroughly recommended" Books for Keeps

Emma's Website
Emma’s Facebook Fanpage
Emma on Twitter - @EmmaBarnesWrite

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Don’t Get It Right, Get It Written! - Tess Berry-Hart

“So how’s the writing going?” my well-meaning friend asks me cheerily over an all-too-rare cup of coffee. “Are you still working on your book? And how’s that play doing?”

I feel my stomach plummet. “Um, yeah!” I grope for words. “The writing’s going well. Yes, really well. And ... uh ... how about you?”

The truth is, I haven’t written a word in days. I can go weeks, months – though admittedly not quite years – without writing a single sentence.

My astute friend sees the panic in my eyes. ““Ah, but you’re probably busy with the little ones, aren’t you?”

She’s throwing me a lifeline here. I could grab it and agree the obvious; with two young children under three, I have no time; what mother does? My day is segmented into bottles, breakfasts and nappies, nursery pick-ups and drop offs, the intricate calculations of naps and lunches.

And yet it’s amazing how I do make time to do non-essential rubbish. I manage to fill up the chinks of precious me-space with the garbage of social media discussions or watching YouTube videos. I make time to send indignant tweets on Twitter, text my friends or run out for yet another coffee.

This morning both my children were at nursery for a couple of hours, and instead of catching up on some much-needed research or throwing a couple of experimental paragraphs onto a blank computer screen, I spent the valuable time pottering. I washed up a bit and portioned up some food in the freezer! I did the stuff I HATE ... but didn’t prioritise what I wanted: write.


Because I didn’t have the “perfect setting.” A setting in which I would be simultaneously invigorated yet calm, in a tidy house with no chores to do, having bathed, dressed, eaten and washedup, with a strong latte and an unbroken length of time stretching before me.


All the while, writing seems like a huge mountain, looming reproachfully over me, a vast task too complicated to be attempted.

And yet –time spent writing makes me feel refreshed in a way that the Internet never can. It makes me feel like me again, not a lumbering food-stained, milk-encrusted mammoth, veering from domestic crisis to domestic crisis.

So why do I avoid it so much?

There’s lots of reasons why we procrastinate and these differ from person to person: lack of confidence, interest or motivation; rebellion or resistance against expectations; fear of failure or equally fear of success. But the kicker for me – and absolutely the most devastating – is that I fear that it won’t be good enough, so often I sabotage myself. In the words of David Burns, cognitive therapist and writer of “Feeling Good”:

The payoff for procrastinating is protecting ourselves from the possibility of perceived "real" failure ... You may often fill your schedule with busy-work so that you have a "legitimate" reason for not getting around to more important tasks.

Well that’s Tess to a T!

I’m not a perfectionist in the way some people might understand the term. I don’t colour-code my wardrobe or alphabetise my DVDs. Yet I am a perfectionist in terms of writing, which is hilarious because no single piece of writing can ever be deemed “perfect.” Quite simply, I fear I will never live up to my own standards.

This lovely article on Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect outlines my particular dilemma;

Our desire to “perfect” everything makes us overcomplicate a project. What’s actually a simple task may get blown out of proportion, to the extent it becomes subconsciously intimidating. This makes us procrastinate on it, waiting for the ever “perfect” moment before we get to it. This “perfect” moment never strikes until it is too late.

OK doctor, diagnosis delivered.

But what do I do about it? The most valuable piece of advice I ever had was from a tutor on my playwriting course at the Royal Court Theatre, who used James Thurber’s quote: “Don’t get it right, get it written” as a constant mantra. We were encouraged just to turn in the first draft. It didn’t MATTER if it was absolute rubbish. It didn’t MATTER if it veered off topic or was inconsistent or had typos or was badly formatted. The point was that we faced our fears and DID it and once it had been done, we could work on it. And very often, it wasn’t too bad at all.

But as fellow sufferers will attest; procrastination is a constant; you might beat it once, but it will always be there at your elbow. So this week I’m using a number of strategies to overcome it.

By far the most effective to get me started is the 5 minute rule. No matter HOW uninspired I am, if I sit down and work on my book or play for five minutes, very often I find that five minutes stretching into ten, and the ten into fifteen. Life coaches use this strategy to inspire people into a habit of exercise. Flexing that muscle builds muscle memory, and the good habit of plunging right in.

The second most effective is NOT CHECKING EMAIL before I’ve done my writing for the morning. Or Twitter, or Faceb

Thirdly, setting a time limit. Parkinson’s Law tells us that work expands to fit the time available. I can do some really good stuff in half an hour, and making it three hours won’t necessarily increase its quality.

Lastly, breaking down the task into small steps – useful if it’s something like planning and doing the publicity for a show or a book launch. All perfectionists enjoy the feeling of ticking something off a list. You just have to make it the right list.

So by employing a mix of the above strategies, this blog post is now finally finished and I’m off to reward myself with a coffee and five minutes on Twitter!

But how about all you other procrastinators and perfectionists out there? What strategies do you use to get things done?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

"I'm going to raise my voice for peace from now on..." by Miriam Halahmy

Take around seventy students from France, Germany, Spain and Turkey, put them in a room and tell them to speak English, think English, read English and write English about Peace and Tolerance.     What happens?
"Everyone wrote, said and did something about peace, they were creative, honest and nice." Gulsah, 14 years,Turkey.
"I learn sisterhood." Fatma, 16 yrs, Turkey.
 "I enjoyed the teamwork." Sami, 18 yrs, Syria

In October, 2014, I was invited for a second time to the Lycee Maurice Genevoix in Paris  to lead workshops on Peace and Tolerance. The school is part of an EU project and this time the partner schools from Germany, Turkey and Spain were joining us.

All the students were divided into two groups and each group would have a two hour workshop with me.
 How could I make sure that this mix of students with such varied abilities in English, whom I had never met before, had a positive and meaningful experience and gained some insight into working for peace and tolerance?

I need not have worried. The students came prepared to struggle with their English, listen, debate, question, laugh, say things out loud which are really quite difficult to admit to ...."I do not feel I can say that I am proud to be Jewish in France today".... and meet the Other from another country with an open heart and an open mind. It was a privilege to work with them.

I started with a poem by a boy who was an asylum seeker from Bosnia. Unfortunately his name is not known.


Sorry, that we are here
Désolé d’être là
                                Verzeiht, dass wir hier sind

That we take your time
De prendre de vôtre temps
Dass wir eure Zeit stehlen


Sorry that we breathe your air
Désolé de respirer vôtre air
Das wir eure Luft atmen,

That we walk on your ground
De fouler vôtre sol
Dass wir auf eurem Boden gehen,

That we stand in your view
D’être dans vôtre champ de vision
Dass wir in eurem Blickfeld stehen


This the opening of the poem and we had it translated into French, German, Spanish and Turkish. Then students came forward to read the entire poem in all five languages. It was a very moving experience.

After the reading, we discussed the poem and then I asked the students to write a piece showing how they might respond to the boy. Here are examples of their writing :-

Even unhappy stories have to be listened, so raise your voice, tell it to everyone. The only ones to blame are those who refuse to pay attention.   Alex, 17, Spain.

I'm sorry that we look away, feel ashamed if we see you and that we hate ourselves afterwards. For this there is no apologise, for this I can't find any words. Ina, 15, Germany

You said sorry but you're not the only one. I know you suffered and I did too. But we're still here, in this world, maybe as strangers, but as humans. So raise your hands above the waves of sorrow and burn the sadness away. Sami Hazbon, 18, from Syria now living in Paris

I met Sami Hazbon for the first time earlier this year on my first visit to the Lycee. He had only recently arrived with his sister, escaping the war in Homs, Syria.  Sami speaks excellent English. It was lovely to see the progress he is making and how well he is settling into his new life, even though it has been very hard for him.
Sami has read my novel HIDDEN and commented on how he related to this story of asylum seekers.

For this visit I wrote a poem specifically for the students, which I hoped they could access easily and use as a model for writing their own pieces. The poem is called, 'Light a Candle' and there are five stanzas. You can read the full poem on  my website.   Here are the last two stanzas:-

Light a candle
when you are afraid
lonely, angry, sad
without words
and in despair

Light a candle
light another one
light seven billion candles
for Peace

The students then talked in groups before writing their own poems.

Here are some extracts from their writing :-

Light a candle for freedom/ for a free men, for prosperity/ light a candle for humanity/ light a candle for no war in the world/ light a candle to light way of peace. Mustapha, France.

Yes, light a candle/ because bad things only happen in darkness. Pablo, 17. Spain.

Light a candle and you have a way/ light a candle to help. Felix and Paula, Germany.

Light a candle for respect/... light a candle for the animals.   Rima, 15, France.

Peace is a necessary and we light a candle for peace. Thank you Miriam. It is good.  Fatma, 16, Turkey.

Light a candle for all the people who come from Adam and Eve, to understand that we are all brothers and sisters/ Why not light a candle for brotherhood and the peace of humanity?  Ahmet Murat, Teacher, Turkish Team.
On the feedback form at the end of the session, the students give us a sense of what they feel they gained from working together and writing together.

I'm going to raise my voice for peace from now on. Gulsah, 14, Turkey
The project is really great. You must keep doing this. Rima, 16, France
I enjoyed work with a group, communicate our ideas. Mehaddi, 16, France
It is great to talk with people who lives away of France and to listen to what they thought. Deradji, 17, France.
I learn words in English, tolerance and respect. Sedraoui, 15, France
I learn more about the issues in other countries. Pereira, 16, France
It was great to have a real author here and I thought about how I could change something in this world. Good job! Sebastian, 16, Germany
I learnt it is ok if you don't know what you would do in a situation. Elisabeth, Germany
I like when we must speak with our team and the not easy questions. Hannah, 15, Germany.
Be who you are, you are never alone! Sofie, 15, Germany.
I share the same way to think as the writer so I enjoy this a lot. David, 17, Spain
The conference help us to think about people who haven't our opportunities. Pablo, 17, Spain.
Great to have different points of view from different countries about peace. I really enjoyed it. Pablo Costas, 17, Spain.
We are better collaborating than we think. Raquel, 17, Spain
I'd like to thank Miriam for her amazing work and for the chance to be in her workshop again. Sami Hazbon, 18, Syria/ France

The pleasure was all mine. I could write much more about the sessions but I feel that the students words are more valuable.

I also had the chance to meet up with a group of older students I had first worked with on my previous visit. They particularly liked a poem of mine called, Corner Shop. The poem is set in my local shop just as the first Gulf War broke out. Standing in the queue were orthodox Jews, young children, Hindu aunties and the Japanese hairdresser from opposite. Someone said something about the war and there was a silence. Then the Muslim shopkeeper said,"We won't let that come between us."
 "No! Quite right!" everyone agreed.

It was an amazing moment.  To me it felt like peace had just broken out. I went home and wrote the poem.The last stanza reads :-

We are the peace process
the mother, the brother.
We are the news, the ceasefire
pressed like coriander in a wrinkled palm.
We are the voice, the banner,
the handshake, brown on white on olive.
We are the ear, the eye, the promise,
prisoner released, girl unharmed, bomber stilled.

Two of the girls translated this stanza into French and Arabic. We were filmed as we read out the stanza in all three languages.

You are the peace process!  Hania, 16, France.
Continue to do this workshop for peace. Lucas, 17, France.
The debate on HIDDEN was interesting. It make us think more deeply concerning world peace. Like it! Dora, 16, France.
The debate about Muslim and Jewish people was interesting. Thank you to Miriam for coming, she is an interesting woman. Dea, 17, France.
I learnt about the organisation English PEN and to be more open-minded. Keep doing that, it's awesome for you and the pupils. Chloe, 17, France.

I learnt about the very interesting motto of English PEN and Miriam's actions for peace and her meaning of peace.
My poem :-
We are the peace process
The Christians, the Muslims, the Jews,
We are the future, the hope,
We are citizens of a peaceful world.
Maxime, 17, France.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Taking it Slowly Anne Cassidy

In this month of November with NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) going on this post might seem like a dissenting voice. It isn’t meant to be that. I think this project – impetuous and mad as it is – is a great way for a new writer to hurl themselves into the business of writing a long piece. Too often I met writers who said they had a ‘great idea for a novel’. Have you written any of it? I’d ask. Not yet, they’d say. And that Not yet is a problem.

So NaNoWriMo is the perfect way to leap into the deep end and force that ‘great idea’ into a 50,000 word novel.

But it wouldn’t work for me.

I take six months to write a novel. 

You might think that during that ‘six months’  I get up and sit at my desk every day, all day long , until I have the finished piece. No, I write in short bursts with long gaps in between. I might write a few pages and then go out or do something else. I leave the work to ‘ferment’.

The gaps in time between my working (typing) hours are important because it distances me from what I’ve written and allows my mind to tinker away with the story/characters/settings. When I return to the work I am no longer so emotionally attached to it. It doesn’t have the blood, sweat and tears I put into writing it. So I can read it over with a dispassionate eye and alter it, re-order it, get rid of it. 

The same goes for the plot. I don’t plan (much) in advance. I have an idea and a direction and I hope for the best. This works well because it allows the story to take its own shape and form. So on week thirteen (for example) of writing I may completely change the plot direction. Because I’ve written the piece over a long time, thought and thought about it, tinkered with it, thrown out some earlier stuff then I don’t mind that it’s changing from the book I first thought of.

Time is the very thing I need to make a plot work. No, NaNoWriMo would not work for me.
But I wish lots of luck for all those involved in it this year.