Monday, 29 October 2018

We Need To Stretch Our Imaginations: An Interview With Peter Dickinson


Peter Dickinson (1927-2015) was a giant of children's literature, once described by Philip Pullman as "the greatest of us all". He won the Carnegie Medal twice and wrote more than 50 books in all, including The Changes trilogy, Blue Hawk, Tulku, City of Gold, Eva, AK, and The Kin – a series of four books about early humans, set in Africa 200,000 years ago.  The Kin is one of my favourite books of all time, a hugely ambitious attempt to make modern myth from evolutionary science, and I was lucky enough to interview Dickinson not long after its publication.


SFS: I think The Kin is a profound exploration of what it means to be human. How did the idea for it come about?

PD: I wrote a book about a very early hominid, called A Bone From A Dry Sea. An American publisher asked if I would write four shorter books for younger children on that theme. My brief was short sentences and an adventure in every chapter. I started on it as a pot-boiler but it got hot, and really took hold of me. Ideas can't help creeping in!

The first book is setting the thing up, and the second book and third book are meeting other peoples, and bringing out the question of what it is to be human. I wrote the last book in six weeks. It all came together.  It was all there, ready, waiting to be unpacked. I hadn't planned it that way, but it's got architecture and everything, it's extraordinary – it's not my doing! I feel as if it wasn't. It ends on the line: "It was people stuff." I thought of that line two pages before I got there. I said to myself, "God, that's where it's been going all this time!"

Some books are given and some are earned. My visual metaphor for this is that some books come freshly out of the mountain, all you've got to do is collect the water; other books you have to dig a well for. The Kin came out of the mountain.



   
SFS: The fact that the characters always speak in the present tense has interesting implications for human perceptions of time and memory, imagination and so on.

PD: Well, this is what I mean by ideas. They asked for prehistoric books. I realised that these people had to speak, therefore they had to be in the early stages of language.  So I thought, "This is interesting – I wonder what the early stages of language are like?"

I was working to a brief in that I was trying to simplify my sentence structure. I started writing very simple sentences. Then, after writing the first section, I thought to myself, "I'm not quite sure what the grammar of this is – what they can and can't do – so I'd better have some rules! So no inflections of verb to make time..." My publishers and I had to go back through the first volume, spotting the bits which were not in Kin-Speak.

Then, just to get the plot moving, I made one of the children a shaman, and found that I was dealing with the early stages of religion as well. I didn’t say to myself when I started, "OK, we’re going to have the early stages of religion and language!" But you cannot keep the ideas out.


SFS: Tell me about the myths that come between the main story.

PD: They were enormous fun! They were lovely to write. I particularly like the last story. It seemed to me to be a way of explaining what they believed. You get a feeling of depth; although this is early mankind, you get the feeling this has been going on for some time.

SFS: What kind of research did you do?

PD: I’d researched quite a lot on the early stages of language, and I knew about the research into mitochondrial DNA, which demonstrates statistically the point at which the first humans like us came into existence, and what a remarkably short time ago it was. I'd read a lot and talked to a lot of people about early hominids. But I tend to write a draft and then say, "What do I need to know?" and do the research at that stage. Because you can waste an awful lot of time doing research which turns out to be no use, and you can also misdirect the book by finding out something fascinating and thinking, "I must get that in!"


   
SFS: I often notice environmental and ecological elements in your books.

PD: Yes. My very first books, The Changes, they're ecological. I didn't write them to be ecological; I wrote them because I had a nightmare, which is the first chapter of The Weathermonger, and I told myself a story. And then you say to yourself, "If machines are wicked, what is the moral basis behind all this?" And it all just comes out. In the science fiction I used to read when I was a teenager, nearly always, the hero was the person who got the machines going and restored the march of progress. I think I'm instinctively much more ambivalent. The last line of The Weathermonger is: "The English air would soon be reeking of petrol."


SFS: How about AK – how did that book begin?

PD: It started with a programme on the World Service about child guerrillas, which included to my ear a hair-raising sentence: "Even a hardened government soldier will hesitate that crucial half second before gunning down a child." And I thought, "What can this be like?" I think it's probably my best book – though I always have to explain to children that there's no such thing as a best book. But I think it goes somewhere; does something.  It's alive and moving.

I'm told there were two judges who wanted it to win the overall Whitbread [now Costa Book Of The Year] in its year, and it was said that if ever a children's book was going to win it, that would. Immediately after that, they decided not to have children's books on the list. I think that was partly because the authorities were outraged at the possibility that a children's book might win. I happened to talk to one of the judges, a great grand-dame of letters, and it became clear to me that she had no intention of reading it. She misunderstood what the book was about, thought it was in praise of guns, and I could see from her face that she didn't intend to read it.


SFS: AK has a double ending; an open ending, really.

PD: Right. My original notion was that the boy would go and dig up his AK and smuggle it into the palace and he and his pals would create a diversion while Michael, his patron, shot his way out. And the more I got into it, the more I realised – not for aesthetic reasons but moral reasons – that I couldn't write yet another book in which physical force is undone by physical force. That is the obvious solution, and I had to find another solution. The solution I found involves a lot of wishful thinking – the OAU being in the capital at exactly the right moment – but on the other hand, it came together extremely well.

SFS: That kind of politics is unusual in children's books.

PD: I wanted to try and get readers to feel what it is like to be in that situation – not what should be done about it, but how people can behave like this. What are the passions and motives. This is what fiction is for. It is not to tell you what ought to be done or to preach messages, but it is about understanding, and this includes the understanding of how people can be so beastly to each other.

   
SFS: You've written across many genres in the course of your career.

PD: One of the beauties of writing for children is that you can try anything. There are quite a number of people working in children's books now who would have been writing adult stories a generation ago. I also write adult novels, and if I had to give a kind up, I would give up the adult books. There's more freedom in children's books. They're not easier to write, but from a writer's point of view, it's a lovely field to work in. I've written 50 books since 1968. Several of my books began as stories I started to tell my children in the car, to stop them fighting. Blue Hawk and Tulku were like that.


SFS: There's often a difference between what children like to read and what adults think they should read.

PD: You aren't allowed to bore children. You've got to keep the story cracking along, and you mustn't preach to them either. But children's books are enormously mediated by people for whom they're not primarily intended – librarians, teachers and so on. I myself have benefited very much from this; I've won the Carnegie Medal twice [for City of Gold and Tulku].  But I think there is a danger of Carnegie Medals being given to books which are good for you. I've won prizes which the kids would not have given me, because I write the sort of books which adults think children ought to read. This is certainly true with City of Gold and Tulku. With The Kin, for the first time in my life, I wrote the sort of book which children wanted to read.


SFS: What do you think of CS Lewis's Narnia books?

PD: I think there's an awful lot wrong with them, but they have great imaginative power. His capacity for finding strong visual symbols for particular states of moral dilemma is... I would say that the Narnia books and Pilgrim's Progress are the only things in our language of that kind. The Narnia books are a failed but very, very interesting attempt. Failed for a whole number of reasons, not merely the unpleasantness of his outlook on certain things, but also the uncertainty. I believe in his heart he was not a joyful Christian. His baddies are so much better than his goodies. There are some appalling lapses in tone, especially when Aslan comes onto the scene.

Peter Dickinson 1927-2015
   
SFS: Why do you think human beings have this endless need for stories?

PD: What distinguishes the giraffe as a creature is its long neck, which has evolved to make it a giraffe. What distinguishes us is our imagination. We need it for two purposes. You have this population of modified apes from a very warm country, spreading across the world, moving into new habitats, and they've got to learn to exploit those habitats. They can't afford to do it by trial and error; they've got to imagine what would happen in such and such circumstances, imagine futures and so on. Also, because they're a pack animal and they're adapting very fast, they cannot rely on pack instinct to keep the pack together.  They've got to imagine what other members of the pack are feeling, they've got to make allowances for each other, and so on.

You need to practice this. Fiction is practice. That's the reason why, when you put down a good book, you breathe a sigh of satisfaction. It's the same kind of satisfaction you feel after you've come in from a healthy walk, except it's an intellectual satisfaction rather than a physical satisfaction. The organism, the body, the mind needs this to stay healthy, and so nature gives you this reward of feeling, "Ah, that was good!" I seriously believe this is what we do – we give people exercise in something that is good for them, that stretches their evolutionary nature. In the same way that fox cubs playing outside their den are learning the skills they need in order to survive, we need to stretch our imaginations.

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If you're interested in reading The Kin, there will be a group reading on Twitter starting on Friday 2 November 2018, with one book a week being read through the month. Follow the hashtag #PeterDickinson to join in!

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Author Visits: Emmaus Primary

I'd like to say a very big THANK YOU to Simon Collis and everyone I met at Emmaus Primary School for a fantastic visit last month!


This is a school where they've been reading Varjak Paw for some time, so they had already done lots of brilliant work with it.  In fact, I thought their work was so brilliant, I decided to share some of it here!





It was a pleasure for me to meet these great young writers and readers.  I really enjoyed talking to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about writing and books.  There were many questions – more than we had time to answer – so if anyone from Emmaus would like to ask me another question, or to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below!




Monday, 15 October 2018

Author Visits: Kiveton Park Meadows Junior School

I'd like to say a very big THANK YOU to Jeanette Barber and all the brilliant students at Kiveton Park Meadows Junior School for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!



It was a pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 & 3 about writing and books, and to hear about their favourites.  There were some terrific young readers and writers in this school, and it was great to see that some had already read Varjak Paw or Phoenix!


There were many great questions – more than we had time to answer on the day!  So if anyone would like to ask me any more questions, or to say anything about the visit or my books – just leave me a comment below!


It was a pleasure to sign books at the end of the day for everyone who wanted one, and to see that people were already reading their books on the way home!  So thank you once again for a fantastic visit – and happy reading to you all!

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Author Visits: Christ Church Primary

I'd like to say a big thank you to Arabella Davies, Avis Hawkins and all the staff and students at Christ Church Primary School for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them last week – my first visit of the new school year!


It was a pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about writing and books.  This is a school where they read Varjak Paw in Year 5, so Year 6 had read it last year, and still remembered many of the Seven Skills! There were more questions than we had time to answer, so if anyone at Christ Church would like to ask another question, or to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below!


It was also a pleasure to sign books for everyone who wanted one!  But if anyone would like a signed book and didn't get one on the day, you can contact the brilliant booksellers Pea Green Boat Books through their website.  And for anyone who wants to see Dave McKean's amazing Phoenix book trailer again – here it is!


Monday, 27 August 2018

Author Visits: Walton-Le-Dale

I'd like to say a big thank you to Peter Richardson and all the students and staff I met at Walton-Le-Dale Primary School for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last term!



This is a school where they've been reading my books for a while now, so it was a total pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about reading and books – and then to have sessions with Year 3, and to see the amazing work they've been doing with Varjak Paw!


Here are some T-shirts they've printed with symbols inspired by the Way of Jalal!  I also heard some brilliant stories that they'd written; I was so impressed with their work, I decided to share some of it here.  So here's a link to the full text of a story called 'Life' by Dylan N – this is the first page:



And here's a link to the full text of a story called DJ Doggie, by Zoe L – here's the first page again:


So WELL DONE to everyone at Walton-Le-Dale – I hope you all keep reading, and keep writing!  And thanks again for a fantastic visit!

Friday, 13 July 2018

Author Visits: St John's Walham Green

I'd like to say a big thank you to Emma Richards and everyone I met at St John's Walham Green CE Primary School for the great welcome they gave me when I visited them this week!



I really enjoyed talking to Years 6, 5, 4 & 3 about reading and books.  I was delighted to learn that Year 6 & Year 5 had already read Varjak Paw in when they were in Year 4, and the current Year 4s had done some amazing work with my book.  I was so impressed, I decided to share some of it on my blog!


Here's a brilliant map of the book that one of the students created (above) – and some very accurate gang rules for Varjak's gang and Sally Bones's gang (below)!


It was a pleasure to answer questions and to sign books for everyone at the end of the day.  We didn't quite have enough time for all the questions, so if anyone from St John's 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 below!


Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Author Visits: Fortismere School

I'd like to say a very big thank you to brilliant librarian Gillian Ward and to everyone at Fortismere School for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I returned to visit them again last week!


I was Patron Of Reading at Fortismere for two years, from 2015-2017 – you can read all my blogs about everything we did here!  So it was a total pleasure to come back and meet the new Year 7s, and to talk to them about writing and books.  And then in the evening, I had the honour of meeting this year's Reading Champions.


Reading Champions involves young readers recommending their favourite books to each other in presentations.  This year, the finalists were championing a wonderful range of books: Pig Heart Boy by Malorie Blackman, Railhead by Philip Reeve, Wonder by RJ Palacio, The Enemy by Charlie Higson, Itch by Simon Mayo, Swallows And Amazons by Arthur Ransome, The Last Wild by Piers Torday, Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak – and, amazingly, Phoenix by me!

I was knocked out by these presentations, and by their passion for books and reading.  And I was especially delighted when Zaki's fantastic presentation on Phoenix was voted the winner!  So congratulations to Zaki – and thanks to everyone who made this such a memorable evening!

Friday, 22 June 2018

Author Visits: Rathfern Primary

I'd like to say a very big thank you to Rachel Waddoups and everyone I met at Rathfern Primary  School for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!


It was a pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5 and 4 about writing and books, and to hear all their favourites.  There were many great readers in this school.  Some of them had already been reading Varjak Paw, and they had some terrific questions for me!  We didn't quite have enough time to answer all the questions, so if anyone from Rathfern has any more questions, you can ask them here as a comment at the bottom of this page.


I was delighted to sign books at the end of the day for everyone who wanted one signed.  So I'd just like to end by wishing everyone HAPPY READING – and thanks again for a fantastic visit!




Thursday, 24 May 2018

Author Visits: Burlington Junior School

I'd like to say a big thank you to Natalie Smith, Matthew West, and all the students and staff I met when I visited Burlington Junior School last week!


It was exciting for me to see that many of the students had already come across my work, and that they were currently reading The Outlaw Varjak Paw in Year 4!  So it was a pleasure to talk to Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 about reading and writing, and to hear about their favourite books.  There were many great readers in this school, and it was brilliant to see how many people wanted to have a book signed at the end of the day!


It was a pleasure to sign books for everyone, but if there's anyone who didn't manage to get a book on the day and would like one, you can always order signed books through Pea Green Boat Books, who did the brilliant bookselling.  And if anyone at Burlington would like to ask me any more questions, or to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below!

Friday, 18 May 2018

Author Visits: Acorns Primary School / ChipLitFest

I'd like to say a big thank you to Milly Weaver and ChipLitFest, and to everyone at Acorns Primary School for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last month!


My visit was part of the ChipLitFest schools programme, which takes authors into local schools; I also had the pleasure of being part of it two years ago.  I very much enjoyed meeting Years 3-6 in Acorns, and talking to them about books and writing.  There were some great young readers in this school, with some terrific favourite books!


They had lots of questions about the writing process, and so I told them all about how Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw and Phoenix were really written.  If anyone from Acorns would like any more writing tips, you can find some here; and if anyone has any more questions, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below!


After the visit, this lovely piece appeared in the school's newsletter – you can read it in full here.  Many thanks to Acorns, and thanks to ChipLitFest photographer Jenny Aston for the fantastic photographs!

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Author Visits: Willow Brook Primary

I'd like to say a big thank you to Anoara Mughal, Graham Clifford and all the staff and students I met at Willow Brook Primary for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them on World Book Day!


There was a snowstorm raging outside, but it was great to see so many people had still come to school in their costumes!  It was a pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3, and to celebrate books with them.  I heard about their favourite stories, and I told them about the ones I have written so far: Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, and Phoenix


They asked me lots of great questions, and we didn't quite have enough time to answer them all, so if anyone from Willow Brook has any more questions, just leave me a comment below!  And in the meantime, I'd just like to thank you all again – and to wish you happy reading!




Thursday, 1 March 2018

World Book Day 2018

I'd like to say a massive THANK YOU to everyone who braved the snow to spread the love of books on World Book Day this year – and especially to everyone who dressed up as a character from one of my books, or made special artwork and displays!  I know there's been a lot of debate about World Book Day recently, but I have to say, I'm in favour of anything that builds a buzz around reading.  So here are some of the amazing pictures I've seen this year, with huge thanks to all teachers, parents, schools – and most importantly, readers!
































Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Author Visits: Filton Hill

I'd like to say a massive THANK YOU to Laura Walker and everyone I met from Filton Hill Primary, St Michael's Primary, Holy Trinity Primary, Baileys Court Primary and Charborough Road Primary for the amazing welcome they gave me when I visited them all last week!


This was a really special visit, because it brought together around 360 children from five different schools in Bristol.  Many of them had read or were reading Varjak Paw, and the level of excitement around the room was just fantastic.  Some of them could just not stop reading!


I loved talking to them about reading, writing and books, and hearing all their inspiring dreams and ambitions.  They had many brilliant questions too!  We didn't have quite enough time to answer them all, so if anyone would like to ask another question, or to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.


It was a total pleasure to sign books for everyone who wanted them at the end of the day; you could really feel the buzz that the visit had created around reading!  There was even a journalist from the Filton Voice covering it; here's his piece about it.  And finally – THANK YOU again to everyone who made this such a special day!




Sunday, 4 February 2018

Author Visits: Moorlands Primary

I'd like to say a very big THANK YOU to all the staff and students at Moorlands Primary for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited last week!  This is a school that really believes in the power of reading for pleasure.  Everywhere you go in Moorlands, you see books being celebrated and talked about; on the door of every classroom, there's an update telling you what the teacher is currently reading.  And in the classrooms, there are amazing displays about books – like this one!


So I really enjoyed talking to Years 6, 5, 4 & 3 about books and reading.  They had a very wide selection of favourite books, which shows just how deep the reading culture is at this school.  It was wonderful to hear some people say Varjak Paw was their favourite – things like that make all the hard work of writing feel worthwhile!


There were lots of excellent questions too, though we didn't have quite enough time to answer them all, so if anyone at Moorlands would like to ask another question, or to say anything about my visit or the books, just leave me a comment below!


At the end of the day, it was a pleasure to sign books for everyone who wanted one.  And it was absolutely amazing to see responses like this one afterwards on Twitter - so thanks again to Mr Lee, Mr Ruddick, Mr Biddle, Miss Eyles, and everyone else who made this such a special and memorable day!