Thursday, 30 June 2011

Where June went...

It seems to be July. How did that happen? I have sadly neglected this blog, sadly neglected my book and (they would claim) sadly neglected my children and husband.
In my defence, I have been busy. Here are just some of the things I've been doing.
Teenage judges with the shortlist for the Lancashire Book of the Year award. Pic by Sara Cuff, copyright LCC
1.   The Lancashire Book of the Year Award. 
The picture sums it up really - a fab event, really fun, where the teen readers and judges were centre stage, although we authors on the 10-book shortlist were treated like royalty.  There was a swish award ceremony and a celebratory dinner, lots of speeches and very honest reviews.
The award works like this: publishers are invited to nominate books for consideration, they send in free copies which participating schools make available to Y9 pupils. This year, 84 books were nominated. Pupils read, review and assess the books, they score them and the ten with the top scores make it onto the shortlist. Two pupils from each of 12 participating schools, representing every district in Lancashire then read the shortlist and meet to decide a winner, with writer Adele Geras chairing the meeting. So the entire process is decided by teenagers.
At the dinner, some of the previous year's judges spoke about the self-confidence they had gained from being involved. This award, which has been running for 25 years, emphasises critical thinking, and debating skills. I'd definitely say that being involved in something like this trumps everything my daughter did in English in Y9.
Anyway, the shortlist contained some great books and I got to meet people like Keris Stainton, Sam Mills and Hilary Freeman, who'd previously just been two-dimensional virtual pals. And I won! Which meant a cheque for £1,000, a beautiful artwork by Hayley Welsh (a piece of multi-media built from a book), and ...well, I felt very proud and a little bit tearful.
I also had to make a speech, so I told various stories about my spiritual links with Lancashire including the rather spooky coincidence that I went out with two classmates from the same Lancashire school. Read a fuller version here.
2. I visited Weston Favell School in Northampton, where they have a brilliant librarian who couldn't do more to enthuse the kids about reading. And I got asked my favourite question ever, which was 'Which hair products do you use?'
3. I spoke at the Hay Festival. Oh my word. Once upon a time I used to work on the comment pages of The Independent and spent my days phoning up eminent people asking them to write for me (and the stories I could tell! But probably shouldn't) Anyway, the Hay Festival greenroom had so many  good contacts in one place (Julian Assange! Howard Jacobson! Simon Schama!) that I felt like calling the Indy, asking for my old job back and scurrying around the room commissioning people.
Instead I sat back and listened to the fabulously pretentious interesting conversations going on around me.
Things got off to a bad start when I was so busy admiring the 'Artists Only' sign in the car park ('That's me! It's me!') that I stubbed my toe and fell flat on my face. Luckily my husband was at hand to haul me up and drag me away to a lovely cafe, where I bumped into Meg Rosoff, who actually knew who I was..cue sadly incoherent fan-girl burbling from me...then later, after she'd gone me to husband : 'That was Meg Rosoff! She knew my name!' Husband: 'Meg who?'
The actual event, with Peter Cocks author of the chilling London thriller Long Reach, went well. Reading Long Reach alongside When I Was Joe is a strange experience, because Peter and I had several similar ideas (teen takes new identity, teen gets involved with big gangster family) but we always veered off in different our books weirdly fill in eachother's gaps. Peter's especially great at the world of serious he used to write for Basil Brush. Respect.

4. I did an event at the Foundling Museum in London, for the Pop Up Festival. This is a new arrival in the world of children's books and I can only see it going from strength to strength. The main public events are taking place next weekend and the programme is here
The schools programme saw books distributed to schools, which then came to museums and other venues for events with the authors and education officers.
Tokens left with babies at the Foundling Hospital
 The Foundling Museum tells the story of London's Foundling Hospital, founded in the eighteenth century by Thomas Coram, and home to thousands of children until it closed in the 1950s. It has extraordianry artefacts - a letter from a woman condemned to be burned to death begging that her child should be looked after; an enamel plague labelled 'ale' left with a child as a keepsake from its mother - that build up the story of these children.
At my event, Y8 pupils from the City of London Academy in Islington spent a day doing activities and then wrote letters ether from a foundling to the parent who had given them up, or from a parent to a child. The letters were extraordinarily good, inspired by the permanent exhibition and by the temporary one (which you shouldn't miss) which tells the stories of the last of the foundlings, children in the 1950s, now growing old. I wish that exhibition could be made permanent, the stories told are so strong, so emotional, so important.
I was not at all surprised to hear that Jacqueline Wilson had been inspired to write her story of a foundling, Hetty Feather after sitting in on a session run by the museum's inspiring    Learning and Access Manager, Annette McCartney,I have rarely been to a more inspiring place. In fact there was so many links and echoes to When I was Joe and Almost True -  from the new names given to foundlings, to the quotes about the stigma of illegitemacy on the wall -  that I was thoroughly spooked..It felt as though I had been there before, been inspired by this place. The Pop Up organisers were responsible for matching writer, venue and school -  they made a perfect match this time...and the audience even had one member who was a girl called Ellie, who used a wheelchair and loved sport -  neither of us could believe the coincidence, when I told her about Ellie in When I Was Joe.
The Foundling Museum has now become one of my favourite London places ever, and I can see myself visiting there again and again for inspiration. 'This museum is all about empathy,' Annette told me -  and it does it so well.

A box of books...slightly disturbing, all those severed limbs
So that was June -  and of course there was lots of other stuff too - school strikes, festivals, parties and homework, birthdays and barmitzvahs, dentists and supermarkets. I was reunited with my best friend from primary school -  yay for Facebook, once again - and my best friend from secondary school returned to live in London from California, hurray, hurray...
And right at the end of June the advance copies of Lia's Guide arrived, and I spent a whole evening signing copies for reviewers..they'll be posted today. 
July's going to be busy too...three award ceremonies in two weeks; meeting my son's teachers at the secondary school he's starting in September, watching him and his classmates graduate from primary school.

I remember this time last year (last year? It feels like a decade ago)  When I was Joe had come out six months before, it'd had a few reviews, I was working on the last edits of Almost True, struggling to finish Lia's Guide. I didn't feel I'd made much of an impact, I wondered if anyone was reading my book.
What a difference a year makes! But now ...sorry....I have another book to write. You may not hear much from me in July.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Too dark?

Imagine a mother choosing a book as a present for her 13-year-old daughter. The shelves in front of her are full of gloom and misery, graphic descriptions of suffering, dystopian visions of violence and death.
So cast down is she, that not only does she fail to buy a book, but also pours her heart out to her friend, who happens to be a children's book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal. Her friend doesn't point her in the direction of writers such as Meg Cabot, Louise Rennison or Sarah Dessen. Instead she writes this article, in which she asks whether YA literature has become too dark.
'Teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.' wrote Meghan Cox Gurden.
The angry response was articulate and immediate. Under the hashtag #yasaves, people tweeted about how they'd been helped by Young Adult fiction. Writers such as Maureen Johnson dissected  and dismissed Ms Gurden's arguments here, accusing her of under-estimating teenage readers' ability to process stories, wishing to ban darker themes.'Those books you so glibly dismiss...that's fine. But that may be a book that changes or even saves someone's life.'
Now, as a writer, I'm mostly on Maureen Johnson's side.I don't believe that books for teenagers should be censored or sanitised; bad things happen to teenagers and should be part of their books. If one looks at their entire cultural experience - films and television included - then why should books be tame in comparison?
I do believe that teens might be helped by reading about people with problems, in particular they might have more ideas about how to help a friend who has problems. Books promote empathy and understanding. Reading is a completely safe experience -  nothing could be safer -  and a reader is free to stop reading if they find something distressing.
However. This is all to do with the writer's experience, and the reader's. What about the gatekeepers..the editors, librarians, teachers and parents? What is their role? Should they stand back and allow writers complete freedom? Or are there roles to play in guidance, protection, setting boundaries? This, it seems to me, is the question that Meghan Cox Gurden is asking, and she goes about it in a more subtle and nuanced way than her critics allow.
On Facebook recently I read a conversation about rude words in a book for ten year olds. Could the writer get away with 'crap' and 'shit'? Surely it was unrealistic and old-fashioned to expect that modern youngsters would react to a big shock with anything softer?
In an instant, my anti-censorship writer's hat came off and my mother-of-a primary-age-kid-hat came on. I do not want my son coming home from school with books full of swearing, thank you very much. That can wait until he is at secondary school. I battle at home to teach him that some words are appropriate and some are not, I expect those writing for his age group to back me up. If not...fine...I'm not buying their books.
Secondary school is different. By that age you know your child will hear and probably use swearwords all the time -  in the playground. They won't hear them (one hopes) in the classroom. When I was writing When I Was Joe, I knew Ty would swear a lot, and I wondered how I could accurately reproduce his inner voice. In the end, I decided to imagine that he was telling his story to an adult he respected. The most taboo words would only slip through at times of great stress.
Some will be helped by graphic descriptions of  -  say -  self harm. Others might be tempted to give it a go. Others -  the majority, I imagine -  will find it curiously interesting and even exciting to find out about something that is mostly secret. (This voyeurism is something I touch on in When I Was Joe). That's normal, I imagine. Self harm is part of life, and all too often part of teenage life. I've heard  about people who haven't been able to read beyond this section of my book. I've even heard of someone who gave self-harming a go after reading it. I hope that neither reaction is widespread.
I completely accept that for some vulnerable teenagers, self-harming is probably not a great thing to read about. It may trigger an existing or dormant problem, it may be very upsetting, it may stir old memories. Those teens may encounter my book and others like it, and decide not to read it. Or they may be sensitively guided away by parents, librarians and teachers.That's what the gate-keepers are there for...not banning or censoring.
I'm less worried by graphic descriptions and profanity in YA than Meghan Cox Gurden. There are other things that worry me though, which she doesn't mention. I can't bear books which present death and an afterlife almost as lifestyle options, blurring the distinction between life and death with a range of cool 'undead' options. I don't like books which allow warnings about sex to obscure the fact that grls can enjoy a good sex and healthy sex life, which is not defined by men. Violence is a part of our lives -  but how far should a writer go before that violence is excessive and gratuitous?
As a writer, I tackle these things in my books. As a mother, I try and read the books my children read and am prepared to discuss them. As both I am grateful for the help I recive from the 'gatekeepers' in discussing where lines  -  if any -  should be drawn.
I'm also not so keen on traditional 'issue' books, in which one person has one problem, it is described and dissected, and eventually eliminated with the help of a wise counsellor. I fear that may serve to make kids feel as though most people are normal and only a few are 'suffering', and that help can only come from external and adult sources. My books try and reflect the muddle of 'issues' which make up life - and the diverse ways in which help may or may not arrive. Most of us are pretty resilient, and few meet the right cousellor at the right time.
Life as a teenager can be wonderful. It can also be tough beyond belief. Sometimes it's like a light, frothy romance, at other times the grittiest, gloomiest book cannot capture the sheer confusing screwed-up mess that teens can fall into. As a writer, I hope my books will help readers understand themselves, the world about them, and other people. As a mother buying a present for a daughter -  well, sometimes I'd turn away from those dark, dystopian shelves.
The book I'm writing at the moment contains some scenes of drug-taking. My reading group were unsure about those scenes. Could they give this book to their children? Would they be seen as endorsing drugs? I'm not going to censor myself in response to their worries. But nor do I think they are necessarily wrong. I think I tend to write books which teens will find for themselves, rather than be given to them by a parent.
I met a publicist for Walker Books at the Hay festival last week and she's just sent me two very different books -  Michelle Gayle's Pride and Premiership and Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd's A Monster Calls. One is light and funny and about the world of footballers' girlfriends. The other is a powerful, compelling modern-day fable about cancer, fear and loss. I'm delighted with both -  thank you so much, Ruth - and I look forward to reading them. And I know exactly which one my daughter needs this particular week.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Just do it

I was a bossy child. And I can be quite bossy now. My favourite job in journalism is news-editing, a job that legitimately allows you to boss around loads of people, including men and women far more talented and experienced than yourself. Oh, the joy of it. Four hundred words now, you lazy old hack, and if they are good enough I might put them in the paper.
According to my husband I am  'the world's softest parent', but my children know that if I say something loud and angrily, six or seven times, then I must be obeyed or something horrible will happen  - cricket practice will be cancelled say, or Heat magazine confiscated.
Mostly I try and curb my bossy side when writing this blog. I believe in the subtle soft sell, rather than yelling 'Buy my books! Review them on Amazon! Tell all your friends!' at my lovely readers. But it's half term, I have a book to write, children at home, a load of washing and ironing to do before heading for the Hay Festival (I'm speaking on Saturday along with Peter Cocks, tickets anyone going to be there? Not sure if I'm more nervous about a full auditorium or an empty one).
So, the mask has slipped. Today I'm being bossy and horrible and telling you what to do. Disobey me won't be watching Britain's Got Talent. I'll tell the guy who manages the cricket team that you are not allowed to try out as wicket keeper.More importantly, you may never achieve your dreams.
Right, here are your instructions. If you're someone who thinks that maybe, someday, sooner or later you want to write a book and get it  published, then buy Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan. Do it now. Click on this link  and place your order.
Done it? Why not? Do it now.  If you're looking for a present for someone who's an aspiring author, then buy it for them. And even if you've got no interest in being published (0.01% of the populations, as far as I can work out) then you may wish to buy it anyway, because it's an excellent read and you'll be able to throw it at anyone who tells you they're about to self-publish and become the next J K Rowling.
I can hear you muttering rebelliously (and that's quite enough of that cheeky behaviour). Why? Why should I buy this book just because you say so?  It's written by one of your mates, isn't it?
Well now. Write to be Published is written with wit, wisdom and immense authority. Nicola was herself an aspiring writer for  21 years, and since her first book came out in 1996 she has had 90 books published. She was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland. She has a writing consultancy, a well-read blog with a fanatical following, she has spoken at many workshops and festivals, she knows editors and agents and writers. She is the expert's expert. She knows her stuff.
But why do I have to buy her book, you whine. Why can't I get it all for free on her blog? I mean...I hardly pay for anything any more...
The blog is great. Follow it now. But the book is a different experience. You've got everything in one place, ordered, easy to find, up-dated and clear. Plus, actually buying the book, investing just over £7 (or just over £10 to get a signed copy from Nicola herself)  is a way of thanking Nicola for her generosity in sharing all this knowledge with you. There's a lot of  misleading old rubbish out there on the internet, and Nicola's pure gold.  She didn't have to give out good advice, she could have stamped on your dreams by telling you to write to agents in rhyme or send them toffees. She wants you to succeed. It's only fair enough to reciprocate.And you'd be daft to miss out.
Nicola cultivates a persona on her blog of beng a crabbit old bat -  a nasty, bossy, haranguing sort of person, who will shout at silly people who make mistakes until they see where they are going wrong. A Miss Jean Brodie kind of blog (Nicola is one of those sensible English people who has chosen to live in Scotland). In real life she's not bossy and horrible at all. She's lovely. Unlike me. What are you waiting for? It's for your own good.