Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Competitions! - John Dougherty

I love chocolate, don't you? And especially, I love fairly traded chocolate.

I'm also very fond of poetry, so you can imagine how pleased I was when the splendidly-bearded Philip Ardagh suggested to those lovely people at Divine Chocolate that they might ask me to join the judging panel for this year's Divine Poetry Competition.

Before you get all excited - the closing date has passed, the judging has happened, and I've eaten quite a lot of free chocolate. But I thought you might like to see some videos of me reading the winning entries.

Here's the winner in the 7-11 category, by Connor Hellings:

Here's the 12-16 winner, by Lloyd Hunter: 

And here's the winner in the adult category, by Philip Howard:

If I seem a bit tired and emotional as I do any of the readings, it's partly because it was an INCREDIBLY hot day, and I filmed these videos straight after the judging process; and partly because one of the things I was looking for in the poetry was a bit of an emotional kick - and I found that. I was genuinely moved by some of what I read. The line in Connor's poem about riches being clean water and the chance of an education still makes my eyes water a little.

Anyway: I hope you enjoy the poetry - and though I don't normally advertise on ABBA, I hope you'll pop into your local Oxfam and buy some Divine chocolate, too. Not only is it extremely tasty; the company is owned by the farmers who grow the cocoa that goes into it, so it's an unusually fair form of fair trade.

Oh - and keep an eye out for next year's competition!

While we're on the subject of competitions - if you know any children who would like to be an actual character in a real book, I'm currently working on the fifth Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face, and we're running a competition with that as a prize! More details here:


John's first collection of poetry will be published by Otter-Barry Books next year.

His latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Bees of Stupidity, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, was published on July 2nd.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

On not trusting your future self - Clémentine Beauvais

I’m writing this thanks to Cold Turkey, my faithful Internet-blocking software. I’ve used it for many years, and would not have finished any novel nor my thesis without it. For years, at 9 o’clock every morning, I’d switch it on for three and a half hours, shutting down all the websites I didn’t want to go on - leaving JStor and suchlike accessible - and then switch it on again at 2pm for another four hours.

Recently, though, I’ve had to upgrade to the Pro version. You see, it was getting increasingly difficult to actually switch on Cold Turkey at 9 o’clock, or again at 2pm. I’d let 9am go past, and then suddenly it was 9.13, and then you might as well wait till 9.30 because it’s a round number.

Now, with Cold Turkey Pro, I can schedule my whole week, or indeed month, in advance, and lock that schedule into place. Tomorrow’s Clementine can’t cheat. Ha!

Yep, it’s ridiculous that I paid 14 quid to prevent my sly, lazy future self from going on the Internet instead of working. In a way, I’m doing her a service: the satisfaction of getting into a ‘flow’, of writing or reading for hours on end, is always there, faithfully. But it mostly shows that I absolutely don't trust her to wait for that elusive second marshmallow; I know it won't be present enough to her greedy mind when the first marshmallow is sitting there looking lonely on the table.

We’re engaged, it seems, in a exhausting arms race: the world is getting better at distracting us, and in response it’s also getting better at providing weapons against distraction. Self-discipline is now dependent on a heavy apparatus of self-binding devices and pieces of software; on temptation-bundling; on wilfully not-buying certain items.

Ever since I was a young teenager, I’ve felt this arms race slowly growing. I’ve always been pretty self-disciplined, having gone through a stringent educational system with stacks of homework and a holy terror of teachers. 

But of course at the time the world didn’t offer much resistance to my seriousness. When I was in high school, my Nokia 3410 was the only distraction in the library, apart from handsome boys who, unfortunately, didn’t find me an equivalent source of distraction at all. It wasn’t hard to focus; plus we were scared, and being scared makes one very self-disciplined.

Then at university, I wasn’t scared anymore because British education isn’t psychotic like French education and terrifying teenagers into doing work isn’t considered the right approach. There I signed up for Facebook, but I only had a few friends. Then more. It was becoming tricky to focus, but at least when I took my computer to the library there was no Internet.

Then wifi appeared, and gradually became available pretty much everywhere.

When I started my PhD, it had become unmanageable. I was far from the only one who struggled; in fact I was probably among the more self-disciplined, thanks to the aforementioned years of French torture education. Soon Cold Turkey and its equivalent for Mac, Self-Control, became talked-of among students as you would talk about some kind of miracle medicine.

Like me, my friends were engineering increasingly complex traps to commit their future selves to work. It’s interesting to see how normal these strategies of trapping-your-future-self has become. We’ve learnt to live in constant suspicion that tomorrow’s selves, next week’s selves, will betray our present selves. They’re not to be trusted. 

One of my colleagues asks his wife to go to work with his (smart)phone when he needs to spend the day writing an article. Another has never installed broadband in her new studio flat. Another has returned to pen and paper. My own self-binding strategy has been to resist buying a smartphone; I still don’t have one.

All of these strategies certainly work, but leave us with the nagging feeling that they only help self-discipline in the same way as stabilisers help you cycle. Taking away all of these layers of self-commitment, I could probably continue to function as if they were there for a while; just like I’d probably carry on for a bit if the stabilisers suddenly vanished.

But I’d do so with a vague, unpleasant hunch that it would be extremely easy to fall to the side. And here my future self might look back and ask: 'You idiot! Why the hell did you never actually teach me to cycle?'


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.

Monday, 27 July 2015

A place to write by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

It’s summer, and the long afternoons and change of routine for many of us leads us to read outside – by the pool on holiday maybe, or in the garden. What I like to do though is write outside. I have created several little nooks in my garden, and lurk there under trees, scribbling away in a notebook with a cup of tea on the table and a dog at my feet.

I love writing in my study, surrounded by my books, but there is something about being outside that makes me feel somehow more alive, and more connected with the world. I am very lucky – behind my garden, there is a field. Beyond the field is a huge forest. It is 360 hectares, and has been a woodland since ancient times. Most of the very old trees were felled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to build ships and for building bridges, but some still remain. Many conifers were planted for wood, and parts of the forest are dark and still, like fairy tale woods. I like to take my books and sit among the trees and write.

I also love writing on the beach. My favourite place is at Cullercoats Bay, on an outcrop of rocks overlooking the ocean. I am writing a story about a sea witch, and the spray of the waves and the taste of salt on my lips helps me to ‘enter’ the story.

I have always liked to write in places that inspire me. When I was writing Walking with Witches, I wrote in the fantastic library at The Literary and Philosophical Society, where part of the story is set; I also wrote at Newcastle Castle Keep where the women accused of witchcraft were imprisoned. When I was writing a ghost story set at a railway station, I rode round on the trains, taking in the atmosphere as I made notes.

If you like to write – and you probably do, if you are reading this blog – think about stepping away from your laptop. PC or tablet this week and taking an old-fashioned notebook into the Great Outdoors – you might just find yourself truly inspired!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

To the Lighthouse - Julie Sykes

I’ve always been inspired by places and Cornwall is one of my all time favourites. I try and visit at least twice a year.

I’ve recently come back from a fabulous week spent in St Ives. The weather was warm and sunny and there were lots of opportunities for long, inspirational walks. I particularly wanted to visit Gwithian and to walk along the beach opposite that lighthouse. You know, the one that inspired that book. I also wanted to go on the cliffs and watch the seals in their special place.

The National Trust owns the beach. It’s set at the far end of St Ives Bay. It’s a bit of a walk so you have to make an effort to visit. It’s well worth it. In the words of the National Trust, this is ‘a vast sandy beach, high cliffs and dramatic coves.’

Imagine my sense of fury and sadness when peering into a little cave I found this.

The people responsible for this mess must have intended to picnic here. I’m sure they came for the spectacular views, the peace and solitude.

I hope they had a good time.

But why did they leave the place in such a state? There’s no easy way to say this. People who left this mess, you are DIRTY.

Don’t tell me that there wasn’t a bin. Why put a bin in such a beautiful place? If you bring stuff with you then it’s your responsibility to take it home again. If you can’t be bothered then go some place else. Somewhere built up with bins.

Litter isn’t just an unsightly nuisance. It poses a real danger to the wildlife. Every year animals the world over suffer injuries and even death as a direct result of rubbish.

I wonder what sort of book Virginia would have written if she’d found this on her way to the lighthouse.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Girl Who Wanted to be a Rabbit by Tamsyn Murray

I want to tell you a story. It's a true story and it begins in 2010, the year the first Stunt Bunny book was published. I was in a Waterstones doing a book signing and I was approached by a young girl and her family. The girl picked up a copy of Showbiz Sensation and started to read. I chatted to her parents while she studied the cover and, when she'd finished reading, her mum nudged her. "Tell her what you want to be when you grow up."

I smiled, expecting the girl to say she wanted to be a writer. But she surprised me. "I want to be a rabbit," she said.

We chatted for a bit about how she might achieve that (eating lots of carrots, working on her hopping, growing her ears long) and then her dad took her off to look around the shop while her sister and mum secretly got me to dedicate a book to her. "It's her birthday soon," her mum said.

They went away with the book. Time went by and I got an email from Rabbit Girl's mum. Stunt Bunny had been a ginormous hit and had become the first book the girl had read independently. A little while later,  I got another email: she'd gone up a reading level at school. Around Christmas, I received a Stunt Bunny cover design and heard she was writing a book to go with it. And then, in July 2011, I got another message: Rabbit Girl got her Key Stage 1 SATs results and her reading score had gone up one whole level in a year.

I can't tell you how proud I was, both for the small part Stunt Bunny and I had played in Rabbit Girl's achievement and for her own huge triumph. But mostly, I was over the moon that she had become a reader.

I swapped occassional tweets with Rabbit Girl's mum over the following four years, finding out what she was reading now and how the family were doing. A few weeks ago, I got a message from Rabbit Girl that made my heart sing. She'd taken her Key Stage 2 tests and she'd been given a Level 5a in Reading.

I think it's hard sometimes, when you're mired in the business of writing, to remember the eventual purpose of books: to be read. I know that as a Writing for Children teacher, I exhort my students to keep their reader in mind all the time. So Rabbit Girl's latest message served a double purpose. It reminded me of part of the reason I write - to entertain a reader - and also of the power of the right book, in the hands of the right child, at the right time. If I only get one message like Rabbit Girl's in my life, all those times I struggled and agonised and battled to find the right words will have been worth it.

Friday, 24 July 2015

If you have room for another bit of YALC love - Liz Kessler

Being an author is, amongst other things, an absolute privilege. Sometimes we forget this. The times we forget it are generally:
  • When we’re feeling completely stuck on a plot point that we can’t resolve.
  • When we’ve just received a huge email from our editor with all her notes on our manuscript and don’t know where to start.
  • When we have a deadline in three days and still have a third of the book to write.
  • When we keep seeing people’s posts on twitter about how many amazing five-star reviews they’ve had and we still haven't forgotten that one-star review from six years ago. 
Generally, though, we tick along quite nicely, being aware of how lucky we are to have a job that is about sitting looking out of the window staring into space and making up stories. Or at least I do.

But then there are the times that make us stop, look around and seriously ask how on earth we got to be so lucky that THIS is what we do for a JOB!

Last weekend’s YALC (Young Adult Literary Convention) was one of those times.

A typical moment of authors and bloggers getting together and behaving very sensibly 
The weekend was an opportunity for writers, readers, bloggers and anyone else with an interest in YA books to make contact with each other. Authors spoke on panels ranging from talks about feminism and LGBT issues to mental health and Minecraft. There were writing workshops, editing workshops, 1-1 sessions with agents. There was a Harry Potter party, a Hunger Games quiz, a bloggers’ breakfast. In short, it was an absolute feast of YA wonderfulness.

Here's me in a Double Laureate Sandwich with outgoing Malorie Blackman, and brand new Chris Riddell
I attended YALC last year as a paying customer. This year I was over the moon to be on one of the panels, and I felt genuinely honoured to be given the opportunity to talk to the audience of readers, teachers, librarians and – well, yes, a fair few Wonder Women and Spidermen, and possibly a Thor or two. Not to mention more hair colours than you get in a Caran D'ache pencil box.

The gorgeous and fabulous Yael Tischler, bookseller extraordinaire
I was on the LGBT panel, and was SO proud to be there and be openly talking about LGBT issues in YA books. Together with James Dawson, Lisa Williamson and Den Patrick, and beautifully hosted by Julia Bell, I like to think we rocked the place with LGBTQ fabulousness for an hour or so.

James and me in our Stonewall t. shirts
After our panel, I had possibly (who am I kidding? Definitely!) one the best experiences of book signing I’ve ever had. Not because it was the longest queue I’ve ever had. It wasn’t. Not because I got paid to sign books. I didn’t. Even if the actors in the other part of the convention downstairs did. (Publishers take note: we’re missing a trick here!) (Joking, by the way. I would never want to charge for signing books, and I’m sure no other authors would either.)

It was the best queue ever because of the utter warmth that spilled from it. Each person in the queue had a story. Most of them ended up with a hug as well. One girl told me that she’d found my book just as she’d started having feelings for another girl and it had helped her deal with what was happening. A mum told me that she was buying my book for her daughter who has anxiety issues and we talked about how tough this is. Two boys were still buzzing after their first Pride. A few older teenage girls told me how they had loved my Emily Windsnap books when they were younger and were excited that I was writing for their age group now. One of these had tears as well as a hug!

The magnificent Nina Douglas, who, amongst the MANY wonderful things she did all weekend, organised Most Emotional Signing Queue Ever with her usual brand of brilliance
And then there were the two girls who had met in the queue and by the time they got to me, had asked each other out! This was a definite first for me. And an absolute privilege. (Don’t forget, ladies. I want a front row seat if there’s a wedding!)

The moment I realised Read Me Like A Book had brought together its first couple. Photo courtesy of Jo Cotterill
I can honestly say that I have never been at a festival where I have felt such an outpouring of love – for books, for authors, for the whole YA community. Even authors who were there as punters had readers coming up to them asking them to sign their books.

My partner in crime for much of the weekend, Keris Stainton, who got mobbed by someone wanting her to sign a book approximately once every five minutes!
And finally, there was silliness. Lots and lots of it. Here is my contribution to that aspect of the weekend, courtesy of the lovely Michelle from Fluttering Butterflies blog, and featuring a cameo performance from the somewhat bonkers but also lovely Jo Cotterill.

Whether I get invited to be on a panel again or not, I shall be putting YALC in the diary for as many years as it runs – and I would urge anyone who loves YA to do the same. A massive, massive thank you to Booktrust and all the organisers, and I hope that you all gave yourselves at least a day off and a large martini this week! 

See you next year!

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Thursday, 23 July 2015

I went to YALC and this is what I found out – Jess Vallance

If I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to YALC at all. (The Young Adult Literature Convention. More about what that is here if you don't know.)

Not because I didn’t think it would be well run or because the programme of speakers didn’t sound interesting or because I didn’t want to meet book fans and publishers and authors. But because like any self-respecting introvert, my natural impulse on a Saturday afternoon is to sit at home in my pants and watch MasterChef repeats, not to get up early to go and spend a day hanging out with strangers in odd clothes in a windowless conference room.

But I reasoned with myself that these things are usually better once you get there, so I sourced a last minute ticket and off I went.

And it WAS better than I thought. In fact, I had a brilliant day.

Lots of other people have done proper, detailed round-ups of the events – people who took part in more of the official programme than me – but this is what I took from it:

Book people work really bloody hard

All the people there in a professional or organisational capacity – I think they were mainly publicists and Book Trust people – were clearly working their absolute lanyards off.

It was the unrelenting cheerfulness and enthusiasm that really struck me.

‘So great to meet you!’ they’d say for the three thousandth time that day.

‘Oh my god, this book is so WONDERFUL!’ they’d say, about a hundred different books to a million different people, before delivering an articulate and engaging pitch – and without needing even a moment to think ‘Now which bloody book is this one again?’

But the smiles never fade. NEVER.

I prodded some of them – I was curious: ‘You’re tired, aren’t you? You’d rather be at home. You’d rather be in a pub garden with a nice dog. You don’t even like people. Or books.’

‘Oh no,’ they’d say. ‘I am a bit tired but we’re having a great time.’

That is a truly admirable level of professionalism.

Niceness probably did trump debate but that’s OK

I don’t think YALC is really about controversy or rigorous debate, but I don’t think it pretends – or wants – to be.

There was a bit of good-natured disagreement on a few of the panels but largely the conclusion was that we are all on the same side. I think this is for two reasons:

From what I’ve witnessed, people in children’s publishing just ARE on the same side a lot of the time, in terms of points of view.

But more importantly than that, I think people go to YALC to:

  1. Buy books
  2. Sell books
  3. Meet people – even make friends.

All of these activities tend to be rather more successful in a friendly, inclusive, non-confrontational atmosphere (especially as us bookish types tend to be a little on the shy side).

YALC’s got that atmosphere nailed. I’ve never been so friendly to so many strangers in one day. (Might’ve been the gin).

I think it could perhaps be exciting to see some truly divisive opinions being batted about at some point – I think there probably are some of those around, hiding somewhere – but probably not at YALC.

Twitter is a magnificent thing

I was sceptical about Twitter not that long ago – I thought it was a lot of noisy attention-seekers broadcasting pointless info (and that probably is true of all of us from time to time) – but I’ve got quite into it in the last six months or so because it is a genuinely nice way to talk to people with similar interests, who you just wouldn’t meet otherwise.

And I think Twitter makes all the difference to YALC. I don’t know how many times the words, ‘Oh yes, I know you from Twitter’ were used that weekend but I do know that straight away it makes a potentially awkward situation easier.

So thanks everyone who organised, appeared or had anything to do with it at all. I had fun. And so did everyone else judging by the number of exclamation marks in my Twitter feed this week.  

Twitter: @jessvallance1