Sunday, 24 March 2013

Record Breaking Events

This weekend appears to be one for breaking records - the 'Spring' weather we are having is so wintry that it appears to be making this the coldest March for 50 years!

Add to this that this week as a new series of Dr Who launches, 50 years after it was first aired and here is another record.

A record number of cities and countries joined in with the WWF Earth Hour on Saturday 22nd March ... I could, go on.

So perhaps it is not just this weekend but this month which is a record breaking one, a lovely example of this is the Guinness World Record Breaking Penny Dreadful event which was held on World Book Day in Bath.  The attempt was aiming to create the biggest reading lesson in a single venue.  Whilst still awaiting the official confirmation I thought it was a wonderfully unusual event to report on in this most unusual of months! 

Such records are certainly a cause for celebrations and so it is with this in mind that now our Blog turns its attention to another record breaking celebration, the fantastic achievement of Barrington Stoke publishing who are celebrating 15 years of their specialist publishing.

Happy Birthday Barrington Stoke
It is the 15th anniversary of Barrington Stoke and to celebrate there are four new titles from their most popular authors: Keith Gray, Bali Rai, Pete Johnson and Robert Swindells.  These four great stories are intended for teenagers with text suited for reading ages of eight and seven.  Unfortunately I was unable to obtain a copy of Robert Swindells ‘The Deep End’ about Olympic hopeful Lisa Seal.  The other three however will definitely appeal to boys.

Bali Rai’s ‘Shivers’ and Keith Gray’s ‘You Killed Me!’ are two very different supernatural stories.  Bali Rai’s contribution is certainly not one to read late at night with a stomach-churning twist at the end.  His main character Sam makes a new friend, Cassie on the estate where he lives.  She helps him out with a local bully and Sam must return the favour, no questions asked!  The ending is brilliant, raising many questions about what Sam might do next.

Keith Gray’s story couldn’t be more different, using the accusations of a ghost ‘You Killed Me!’, to explore life’s unintended consequences.  Toby -- the killer -- has to find a way of unravelling the mystery and coming up with a solution in which he achieves the greatest good.  As a teacher interested in philosophy, it is a great story encouraging endless speculation about what is in everyone’s best interest.

Awesome by Pete Johnson is a fantastic critic of celebrity as Ben gets mistaken for THE famous actor, Ben Moore.  He is happy to play along, but the situation spirals out of control.  Ben must make the decision, but he risks losing his date with the gorgeous Jasmine.  It is a story examining what it means to live a life when everyone round you sees the celebrity and not the real you.

Barrington Stoke’s latest collection is a great birthday gift and certainly one to share with as many readers as possible.  Many happy returns Barrington Stoke!

Friday, 15 March 2013

Picture book bears with Lucy Coats

A brand new picture book from the lovely Lucy Coats Bears Best Friend, was published on Thursday 14th March.

I spoke to Lucy about her book and the full interview can be found in the Spring Edition of Armadillo Magazine along with a review of the book too - here is a taster to whet your appetite and a question for you too!

Lucy, you are taking the theme of Bears, obviously, for your story.  What made you choose a bear and why do you think the bear is such a popular character for children’s fiction? Bears have always held a fascination for me as an adult - especially since I came in contact with real ones in the wild when I was staying in Colorado.  As for this particular book, my wonderful illustrator, Sarah Dyer,  showed me an adorable Bear with snipping scissors in her sketch book, and the story idea just came from that. 
I suppose the whole bears-in-children's-fiction thing really took off after the advent of Teddy Bears in the early years of the twentieth century.  Before that there had been bears in folk tales, obviously, (Goldilocks, East of the Sun, West of the Moon etc), but as more and more children had bears as fluffy toys, I think they became less wild and scary and more of a ubiquitous symbol for a kind of friendly, cuddly bedtime comfort which has translated well into bearish picture book characters for younger readers ever since. 

How long, from developing the idea, did it actually take you to write a story with which you were happy?  With this book, it was quite quick from development to a text my agent and I were happy to send out to a publisher - say a month or so.  Then there were the publisher's edits, which fine-tuned it into its current form.  But every picture book is different. Some you have to wrestle with for months, some only come right after they've lain in the bottom drawer for years and then they appear in a totally different form to the one you first imagined.

If you could create a named bear character what name would you give your bear and why?  The bear I take round to schools with me happens to be called Podge, and he belongs to my daughter. I've no idea why he's called that, except that he is fairly rotund around the middle. I should probably be picking a noble name, like Arcturus, but nope. Podge it is. It's a comfortable sort of name for a bear.  I should like to write a story about him one day - I expect one will come knocking eventually.

Who is your favourite literary bear and why?  But there are so many wonderful literary bears!  How can I pick just one?  Pooh Bear (the real one, NOT Disney's version) was an integral part of my childhood - so he'd be one, and then the icy Bear Prince from East of the Sun, West of the Moon would be another. I love the enquiring, ever innocent, slightly clumsy Pooh for his eternal optimism, love of hunny, and for his bravery in the matter of Heffalumps and Woozles. He is the perfect best friend for Piglet, and I love that generosity of spirit in him too.  The Bear Prince is another matter entirely - wild and free, and yet sad and noble. He'd probably be who my adult heart picked, especially having just read Jackie Morris's brilliant modern re-imagining of him.

I must admit to have a number of them – Alexander is big chief, then I have Albert and an unnamed one too!  Do you have a cuddly bear at home and if so what is his name?  My own beloved childhood teddy - Panda - was stolen by an errant dog and buried in the garden.  My mother never let me see the 'remains', and I still mourn her passing.  I've passed most of my other bears on to my children, all except for Edward, who is a large Steiff bear with worn ears and paws.  He still smells faintly of woodsmoke and home, even after all these years.

Finally, for children who do find story writing challenging do you have any useful tips?  First of all, I'd say, "Read read read read! Ask yourself what you like about your favourite stories.  What are the most exciting bits? What did the author do with the words to make you feel like that?" 
Then I'd say, "Ask yourself 'What if...'. Start off by imagining something extraordinary in your ordinary life. 'What if a giant came to my school? Is he a good giant? Is he an evil giant? Is he confused? Clumsy? What would happen if he nearly stepped on a classroom? My best friend? Me? Would I be brave? Would I be the hero? Would someone else be the hero? My teacher? Someone unexpected? Someone who's always been very quiet?'
Practice by making stories up in your head.  Let's say you're on a bus. Listen to the conversations around you. Look at passers-by. That man driving the digger - is he an alien? That lady discussing what she had for lunch - has she eaten a magic lettuce leaf which will make her hair grow down to her ankles? That kid with the dog - is he an orphan on an adventure, or is he part of a big noisy family with a mad uncle in the attic? Let yourself daydream - some of the best story ideas come up to the surface when you're daydreaming.
Most of all, though, don't try to force a story, and have fun writing it!

Now a question for you - my readers - do you have a favourite childhood bear and what is its name?  
Win a signed copy of Bear's Best Friend ...

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Reflections on Worlds of Books

World Book Day meant a busy week for me!  I know that sounds very odd but it is quite amazing how long it is possible to continue the celebrations for and this is also quite a wonderful thing for it means there can be a build up to the celebration and then a cementing of all the good it does as a result.

For me World Book Day was a visit to one of my school’s pre-preps and a morning spent with nursery children watching them parade in their costumes – their favourite book characters – reading stories, playing with finger puppets to bring the stories to life, and making character masks.  It was all great fun!
It was also a 'Big Book Swap'; children all donated one book in order to swap for another and to see the pleasure on their faces when they realised not only would they have freedom of choice but that the book they chose was then theirs to keep, was just priceless.

So World Book Day, thank you, for helping to create another buzz about reading and a renewed enthusiasm for the children, one that I hope will stay with them for the year to come.

I work hard to make sure there is a constant enthusiasm for books and reading the books that arrive in parcels for me each day of the week certainly help for the children are constantly curious about what lies within.  Being able to share with them, and with you through this Blog, the magazine and other social media outlets means that I can cover books from the mainstream publishers as well as those who are independent.  Hence today I bring you some short reviews of books from Blue Apple press.  These are charming, well produced and well-written books, one is a storybook the others are activity books, I recommend them all highly, each for a different reason, becoming clear as you read.

The Princess and the Peas and Carrots by Harriet Ziefert, illustrated by Travis Foster
For children who insist that things must be just so this is the perfect antidote!  Rosebud likes things to be just so and she is incredibly fussy – on the beach sand in her bathing suit means a change of clothes, snow in the snow boots? A change of shoes and so the story goes on.  When one night going to bed becomes a trial a fairy tale is called for... What will Rosebud learn as a result and will it make a difference?  A funny story with a strong message and a lovely version of a traditional fairy-tale too!

Doodle tom.  A Space Doodle Odyssey, illustrated by Elsie Gravel
Packed with more than 100 intergalactic drawing games, fun facts and even space stickers this is a book for the activity loving curious child.
Doodle Tom and Astrocat are on a mission; a space mission.  You can go too, with a pencil being all you need.  Start with the spaceship which you can trace, learn about how to boost in into space, and colour it in before you then turn over to find out some fascinating facts about flight and balloons the space race and even space exploration. 
Fly out to the planets, learn some amazing facts – did you know for example that Mercury was the closest planet to the moon or that the Earth moves at 66,700 miles per hour?
So much to learn and so many things to do ... I for one was captivated and sad that I had to leave the book for the children to enjoy!

Kokeshi Dolls, illustrated by Jessica Secheret
Ever heard of Kokeshi Dolls?  No nor had I until today ... Originating in Japan 200 years ago they are lucky charm dolls and nine of them are waiting in this book to be decorated by you!  Each doll has three pages of associated colouring scenes and there are four pages of stickers to use too!

Red Cat, Blue Cat by Jenni Desmond
Red Cat Blue Cat, two cats, jealous cats.  Helping children to recoginze the pitfalls of jealousy and the importance of being yourself this is a funny, clever story book for readers to share with parents or friends and family members.  Cat-lovers will love it, fans of humour will love it, I loved it, I think you will love it too!

These books are just a few examples of some of the many I receive but I wanted to share them with you as part of my consideration of world book day.  Remember to come back regularly for more thoughts on more new books and above all else remember to continue to be inspired by World Book Day, making each and every day a Book day!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

More Tales from Lovecraft Middle School please!

It’s great to be able to report another new series from an independent publisher which is really, seriously, good, and great fun!  Charles Gilman’s first two short novels about Lovecraft Middle School, a brand-new school built on the site of a creepy old mansion in Dunwich New England, will tempt fans of Potteresque supernatural school-based fiction and Lemony Snickett’s Unfortunate Events alike, and their hard-back format, easily-accessible prose, plentiful illustrations and astonishing morphing covers add immeasurably to their appeal.

Seventh-grader Robert Arthur has been assigned to Lovecraft Middle, and arrives to find that the boy who bullied him at his previous school is the only person he knows there. Robert discovers the terrible secret behind the fa├žade of the new school, and the first two books in the series Professor Gargoyle and The Slither Sisters, begin to reveal the horrors that lie in store for the world.  It’s not all horror though, and Gilman underlies his story with some serious stuff around bullying, friendship, disability and loyalty.

UK readers will probably not be familiar with Howard Philip (H P) Lovecraft, an American writer largely ignored in his lifetime, whose weird, sci-fi horror short stories are embedded in a tradition from the Gothic to Edgar Allan Poe, and which became a cult after Lovecraft’s own short early-twentieth-century life.  While you can read Gilman’s Tales from Lovecraft Middle series (Quirk Books) without any knowledge of the works of Lovecraft (the author), recognising the allusions adds a lot to your reading of the adventures of Robert and his friends.  Many of the places in Gilman’s books appeared originally in H P Lovecraft’s work, as did many of the monsters, and the curious cthulhu creatures who are introduced to us in the second book.  A number of horror films have been based on H P Lovecraft’s work, and we might well see further re-imaginings appear if Tales from Lovecraft Middle School makes it to the silver screen. 
In the meantime, be sure to read the books, and pray it’s a lengthy series!

Plenty more about Lovecraft Middle School at:

Keen students (and adults) may like to investigate H P Lovecraft’s work at:

Picturebook Roundup

There’s something of Dick Bruna meets Mr Benn meets The Boy from Space (remember him?) about This is Dobbo (Alien Boy World).  Tim Pitt has created a tiny alien philosopher, and placed him up among the clouds, where he ponders on his life in a totally random manner, as ‘he dreams his thoughts and thinks his dreams’.  There’s no story, merely loosely rhymed statements placed on the bright, clear, attractive illustrations.  The publicity material indicates more to come…

‘Whimsically illustrated’ by Melinda Beavers says the publicity, and curiously contorted into poetry, The Zoo’s Annual Piggyback Race (Hedgebury), written by Matt Harrigan, is a sort of re-telling of the old fable of the tortoise and the hare, but set in a zoo, where pairs of animals all try to win the race but never quite make it.  Somehow it all manages to look a bit freaky, as the piggybacked animals look like two-headed creatures, but it’s somehow also in the tradition of the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland.