Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Author Visits: Beckford Primary School

I'd like to say a big thank you to everyone at Beckford Primary School in West Hampstead for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!

I first visited Beckford back in 2013, and it was a pleasure to return and be greeted by this inspiring tiger again.  (If you want to know why I'm inspired by tigers, see this blog post!)  Year 4 at Beckford are currently reading Varjak Paw, and Year 5 read it last year.  Many of them had also read The Outlaw Varjak Paw, but only a few had read Phoenix so far, so I showed them Dave McKean's fantastic Phoenix book trailer.

So many people wanted to read Phoenix after watching the trailer, the local bookseller West End Lane Books completely sold out of copies!  They said they would return with more copies the next day, and I signed book plates for everyone who said they wanted one – but if there's anyone at Beckford who wanted a signed book plate for their copy of Phoenix and didn't get one, just let me know and I'll send it over.

It was really inspiring for me to see so much enthusiasm for books and reading, and to be asked so many brilliant questions!  If anyone from Beckford has any more questions, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.  And if you'd like to see more pictures from the visit, there are lots more on this page on the school's website!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Author Visits: Springwell Junior School

I'd like to say a huge thank you to Dom Hughes and to everyone at Springwell Junior School for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!

Springwell have just opened a fantastic new school library, and it was an absolute honour and a pleasure for me to open it for them!

There's a wonderful video of the moment we opened the library, which you can see by clicking this link.  At that moment, and throughout the day as I talked to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about writing and books, it was inspiring for me as a writer to see the genuine excitement in that school around reading.

We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone from Springwell would like to ask me another question, or if you just want to say something about the visit or my books – leave me a message below!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

"Will There Ever Be A Third Varjak Paw Book?"

For everyone who wants to know the answer to this question, I've just written about it for The Guardian, as part of a feature in which they asked authors about their fictional characters growing up.  Here's the full text of what I wrote, with some additional illustrations...

When I first read Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, they were a trilogy about a hero in his prime. In A Wizard Of Earthsea (1968), The Tombs Of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972), she told the story of Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, as he grew from Gontish goat-herd to world-saving wizard: a classic children's book narrative.

That seemed to be the end of it. But then she found new stories to tell. In Tehanu (1990), she showed Ged living a life without magic, learning to take satisfaction in the pleasures and pains of an ordinary existence with Tenar, the priestess who shared his greatest adventure. The book follows her story as much as Ged's. 

Then in The Other Wind (2001), Le Guin showed Ged near the end of his days: still wise, but almost an absence now, reconciled to his irrelevance. The story was about other characters finding their way without him. 

Le Guin wrote a new story whenever she had something new to say. That seems to me exactly right. I've never wanted to give my own characters new adventures in which nothing changes. Repetition seems to me a much bigger risk than letting them grow. 

So in my first book, Varjak Paw (2003), Varjak is a kitten: a very young character who learns a secret martial art from very ancient cats. In The Outlaw Varjak Paw (2005), he is a grown-up cat, and the questions he faces are grown-up questions about law and justice, politics and morality.

I stopped there, because I didn't have another story to tell about him. And I had other things on my mind, such as my space epic, Phoenix (2013), and my current work in progress, Tyger, both of which are about young characters finding their way. But the one question I've heard more than any other since 2005 is: "Will there ever be a third Varjak Paw book?"

To my surprise, now a decade has gone by, I find myself thinking more and more about Varjak. He seems to be ageing with me. I now feel sure there will be a third book, in which the story comes full circle. Varjak will now be an old cat himself, teaching the secret martial art to much younger kittens: passing it on. That makes sense to me as the shape of a trilogy, and the shape of a life.

But to write a story about an old character, perhaps you should be old yourself, to know what it feels like. I'm getting there faster than I thought possible, but I'm not quite ready yet. I am keeping notes, though, making plans, gathering material for that time. 

It's comforting to know that far greater writers have made this journey. I look at Le Guin's example. As she recently said of Earthsea: "Authors and wizards learn to be patient while the magic works." I just hope readers can be patient too.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Years 7 & 8

I've been honoured and excited this year to take on a new role as Fortismere School's Patron Of Reading.  This is a scheme in which authors develop a special relationship with a school, and visit many times to help spread the love of reading.  I was invited to do this by Fortismere's fantastic librarian, Gill Ward, and our first year's activities came to a wonderful conclusion this month.

First of all, I spent an afternoon with Fortismere's Year 8 Carnegie Shadowers.  The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Medals run an amazing Shadowing scheme, in which young people all over the country are invited to read and review the shortlisted books every year.  As I was involved in judging the Amnesty CILIP Honour this year, which is connected to the Carnegie, I'd read the shortlisted books myself, so I thought it would be interesting to discuss them with Fortismere's Shadowers.

We had a very open and lively discussion about all eight books, in which one great truth became clear: everyone reads differently.  Everyone's experience of a book is unique.  Books are collaborations between writers and readers, and each reader brings as much to it as the writer does.  There was no single book that everyone loved, and there was no single book that everyone disliked.  Each book had supporters and detractors.  But there was a book for everyone in there, and as a writer, I found that incredibly inspiring.

A similar theme emerged in the evening, when I had the pleasure of attending the final of Fortismere's Inter-College Reading Competition.  This is an idea that Gill Ward and I developed this year, in which Year 7s were asked to make presentations championing their favourite books.  It was a fantastic occasion, attended by many parents and staff, as well as the brilliant young readers themselves!

They made presentations on an impressive range of books: RJ Palacio's Wonder, George Orwell's 1984, JK Rowling's Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, James Dashner's The Maze Runner, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, Philippa Pearce's Tom's Midnight Garden, and Sarah J Maas's Throne Of Glass.

It was fantastic to see such enthusiasm being expressed so eloquently.  These champions were genuinely passionate about their books, and again, for a writer, there is nothing more inspiring to witness.  I'm really looking forward to working with these Year 7s next year in Year 8 on their creative writing – and to welcoming a whole new intake of Year 7s into Fortismere School!

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Phoenix Wins Haringey Children's Book Of The Year!

Amazing news: Phoenix has won the Haringey Children's Book Of The Year Award!

This is a fantastic book prize organised by brilliant school librarians and voted for by young readers in schools all over Haringey, North London.  I was honoured when Phoenix was included on an incredibly strong shortlist with books by great writers like Shirley Hughes, Philip Womack, Polly Ho-Yen and Katherine Rundell.

Some stunning Phoenix-inspired artwork then appeared in the window of local bookshop, Pickled Pepper Books, created by some of the students who had read it for the prize!

The day itself was amazing.  It was hosted by Heartlands High School, whose fantastic librarian Helen Swinyard organised the awards.  First I did a creative writing workshop with Year 7s from Highgate Wood School, sponsored by local arts organisation Collage Arts.  The Year 7s produced some seriously brilliant work, like this short story; you can read more in this wonderful blog on their school website.

After the creative writing workshops, Philip Womack, Polly Ho-Yen and myself did a Q&A session with students from all the schools involved, and were joined on stage by local MP Catherine West.  I was particularly delighted to see some students there from Fortismere School, where I am Patron Of Reading, accompanied by their brilliant librarian Gillian Ward.

Then it was announced that Phoenix had won, and I was presented with the award by last year's winner, Gill Lewis!

You can see the moment itself in this video clip, posted by North Haringey School!  It was amazing to see all the enthusiasm for books out there.  It really meant a lot for me, especially because Phoenix was largely written in Haringey Libraries.  So a huge thank you to everyone involved – it took me seven years to write Phoenix, but moments like this make all the hard work worthwhile!

Photos from Jordan Kouame Hart of Collage Arts

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Author Visits: Watercliffe Meadow

I'd like to say a very big thank you to Steve Smith and all the brilliant pupils and teachers I met when I visited Watercliffe Meadow last month!

They gave me a fantastic welcome, and it was an absolute pleasure to talk to Years 4, 5 & 6 about reading and books.  Many of them had already read Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw and Phoenix, and a few had left me some wonderful messages on this site before the visit, so I knew they would be asking brilliant questions!

It was also a pleasure to do a creative writing workshop with Year 6.  In just an hour, they produced some absolutely fantastic stories.  I was blown away by some of the writing they produced.

There's a great blog about the visit on the school website, with some more photos and some examples of Year 6's creative writing.  Thanks again to everyone involved for an unforgettable day!

Friday, 1 April 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Year 7

On World Book Day, I had the great pleasure of visiting Fortismere School again, to talk to Year 7 as their Patron Of Reading.  Year 7 are taking part in an Inter-College Reading Competition, organised by their brilliant librarian Gill Ward, in which they are reading and championing some great books.  So I thought I'd talk to them about the many ways in which we can share our experiences of books.

The classic way is by writing a book review.  I showed them this review I wrote for The Guardian about Philip Reeve's book Railhead, which I very much enjoyed and would recommend to anyone who liked Phoenix!  I think the best book reviews do this; as the film critic Pauline Kael once wrote, the job of the critic is "to transmit knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others."

But what if words aren't your strongest suit?  What if you're more comfortable with pictures?  In that case, a blog might be a better form for you to talk about books.  I showed them an example of a blog that a brilliant book blogger called Tygertale had made about the same book; one that uses lots of pictures, as well as links, videos and even music to share his experience of Railhead.

Perhaps you'd rather be more spontaneous, and just talk about a book.  In which case, you might consider filming yourself talking about it straight to camera.  Many people now make video reviews of books and post them online; there's a whole BookTubing community out there on YouTube!  Here's one I showed them by booksandquills, of Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children.

Some people don't like to be on camera themselves, but still enjoy making videos. Such people might consider making a book trailer – a short film that gives a flavour of the book.  This is a form that has taken off in the last few years, and there are some fantastic book trailers out there for inspiration.  I showed them Dave McKean's brilliant Phoenix book trailer last term, so this time, I showed them a trailer for Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co:

The great thing about book trailers is that you can take any approach to them at all.  Here's a very different trailer that I showed them, for Lu Hersey's Deep Water:

In the end, all of these are just different ways of sharing our experiences of books.  And there is nothing nicer than sharing books with your friends!  So I'm really looking forward to coming back to Fortismere in June to see Year 7 championing their books.  In the meantime, if anyone has any questions or if there is anything I can help with, just leave me a comment below!

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Author Visits: Brecknock Primary

I'd like to say a very big thank you to Az Naeem and everyone I met at Brecknock Primary for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them to talk about my books!

It was brilliant to see so much enthusiasm for reading and books in Brecknock!  There were lots of fantastic questions, and I heard some truly inspiring stories from the children.

It was amazing to be presented at the end with some of the brilliant work they'd done with my books.  If anyone from Brecknock has a question that we didn't have time to cover during the visit, just leave me a comment below.  And if you'd like to see more about the visit, the school has written a lovely blog about it – with lots more pictures!

Monday, 7 March 2016

Varjak Paw at The Story Museum!

I am enormously excited to announce that Varjak Paw is part of the brilliant new Animal Exhibition at The Story Museum in Oxford!

The Story Museum is a wonderful place dedicated entirely to stories.  They have incredibly imaginative exhibitions which allow you to get right into the heart of a story.  Their Animal Exhibition is absolutely fantastic, and it's a huge honour for me to see Varjak Paw in there!

I was thrilled to be able to dress up as Varjak and take pictures of myself Shadow-Walking on the wall!  You can do this too – it's all part of the exhibition.

I'm particularly honoured because this Exhibition includes some of my own favourite stories.  There's a room dedicated to Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, and a room dedicated to Richard Adams's Watership Down, one of my greatest inspirations.  It's well worth visiting, wherever you live – you might even get to meet Gromit!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Author Visit: Baines Endowed VC School

I'd like to say a big thank you to Ben Leah and all the brilliant young readers I had the pleasure of meeting at Baines Endowed VC School last week!

Ben has been reading Varjak Paw to his classes for many years now, so all the children in Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 already knew quite a bit about my books.  It was amazing to see the work they'd been doing.  They'd even made a reading wall, with reading groups named after authors – and my name was one of them!  It was incredible to see it there between Michael Rosen and Philip Pullman, two of my own favourite authors.

It was brilliant to hear so many great questions and stories from everyone.  But if anyone has a question that we didn't have time to answer, or if anyone would like to say anything about the visit or my books – please just leave me a comment in the box below!  In the meantime, here's the Phoenix book trailer once again:

Friday, 26 February 2016

Author Visits: Lady Margaret Primary

I'd like to say a huge thank you too all the fantastic young readers I met when I visited Lady Margaret Primary School this month!

They gave me a brilliant welcome, and it was so inspiring for me to see their enthusiasm for reading.  It was a pleasure to talk to them about my books, and to hear about their favourites.  I think there are definitely some future writers out there!

We didn't quite have time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone would like to ask me a question or say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below!  In the meantime, here's Dave McKean's brilliant Phoenix book trailer again:

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Year 8

I was back in Fortismere School again recently as their Patron Of Reading.  This is a fantastic scheme where an author visits a school regularly over a period of time, working to spread a love of reading and books.  I agreed with the brilliant school librarian Gill Ward to work on reading with Year 7, and writing with Year 8.

I did a creative writing workshop with Year 8 last term, in which they came up with ideas for a story.  This term, I asked them to bring in some writing they were already working on, and to look at ways of improving it.  We talked about elements of stories including characters and places, and what you can do to get to know them better.

We also talked about research, and I showed them some images that I'd found useful while writing Phoenix, including this one of an Astrolabe:

There was lots of great writing going on, and I'm looking forward to working with Year 8 again next term!  In the meantime, here's a link to some writing tips I've done on this blog, which I hope will be helpful.  And I'm looking forward to returning to Fortismere on World Book Day (March 3rd), when I'll be talking to Year 7 again about reading!

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Tyger Update!

I had an amazing message from a reader recently.  He asked me some questions that I thought might interest other readers too, so I'm making this blog to answer them.  The questions came from Victor Wang in China – you can read his full comment here.  He says:
"I have always loved your books, ever since Varjak Paw caught me and dragged me into the world of the "kung-fu cats", when I was 10. I could tell that I finally found the right author. Afterwards, I continued with The Outlaw Varjak Paw, then, Phoenix. I remember you recommending me to read Phoenix whilst waiting for your next book to come out. I have indeed read it, and many times, and could read it thousands of times without getting bored, but I just simply can't wait for your next book to pop out!
As you have said, Phoenix is indeed your best book - yet - and I sincerely loved it, it's one of the best books I've ever known... But I've been told Tyger would be even better…  If your best book is yet to come, could you please tell us about it? We'd love to hear more about it, even several sentences about where you are, and how long you think it might still take would please me, and your fans enormously!"
So first of all, I want to say a huge THANK YOU to Victor!  Phoenix took me seven years to write, but all the hard work feels worthwhile when I hear things like that.  I do think Phoenix is the best book I've written so far, and I hope that anyone who's enjoyed Varjak Paw will enjoy it too.  It might sound very different, but it comes from the same place!

I do also think that one day, Tyger will be even better.  The only problem is, I have no idea at all when that day will be!  The reason for this is that with every book, my ambition is to make the book as good as I can possibly make it.  I don't want to look at one of my books in a couple of years, and think, "I wish I'd done that differently!" because you can never change a book once it's published. 

But it takes a lot of time, and lots of trial and error, to make a book as good as you can possibly make it.  You have to get it wrong a lot before you get it right.  That's how my process worked with Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, and Phoenix – and that's why those books took me 5 years, 3 years, and 7 years respectively.  It's a difficult way to write, but I've always found that it's worth it in the end. 

What I can tell you about Tyger is this.  I've been working on it for 3 years now.  For the first year, it was a single book.  Around a year in, I realised it was part of a trilogy.  At that point, I continued writing the first book, and kept notes about the other two books (there's a picture of my notebook below).  Around two and a half years in, I decided to start writing the second book of the trilogy, and see what happened.  I immediately discovered things that meant almost everything I'd written on the first book would have to change!

I'm currently working on that second book, which I think will now be the first book of the trilogy, while the book I originally started with will probably be the third book.  It's entirely possible, though, that there will only ever be one book – the book I'm writing right now – but that in order to write it, I have to imagine the others... 

If that sounds confusing, that's because it is!  My writing process is often mysterious to me, and that's why I find it hard to talk about.  But I do know that my other books went through similar processes.  So I can only ask my readers to be patient – Tyger will be ready when it's ready!  I've promised to show my agent a draft this year, so I hope to be able to say more about it in the not-too-distant future.  Please do keep checking in here from time to time; I will certainly blog and tweet about it as soon as I have any news!  In the meantime, here's a Tyger who's been keeping me company as I write.  I hope you like him too.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Author Visits: Dundonald Primary

I had the great pleasure of visiting Dundonald Primary School last week, and meeting Years 4, 5 and 6.  We talked about reading and books, and it was inspiring for me to see how excited everyone was about their favourite stories.

Year 4 had been studying Varjak Paw, and they had some fantastic questions about how the book was written.  Years 5 & 6 had some terrific questions for me too, and it was a total pleasure to sign books for everyone at the end – thanks to the brilliant Pea Green Boat booksellers!

We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone has any more questions they'd like to ask, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment in the box below!  In the meantime, here's Dave McKean's amazing Phoenix book trailer for anyone who would like to se it again: