Monday, 20 January 2020

Author Visits: The Grove Junior School

I'd like to say a very big THANK YOU to Tom Bolshaw and all the students and staff at The Grove Junior School for the fantastic welcome they gave me when I visited them at the end of last term!

It was a total pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about writing and books, and to answer all of their questions.  I then spent some time with Year 5, looking at the brilliant work they'd been doing with Varjak Paw.

I was so impressed with their work that I decided to share some of it here!  So here's some fantastic Varjak-based writing from Catherine (above) and Anahad (below).

It was a pleasure at the end of the day to sign books for everyone who wanted them.  If anyone at the Grove missed out on the day, you can still order a signed book from the brilliant Pea Green Boat Books – just click this link to see the options!

And finally, there was one more thing to do on the day: a video interview with Gabriel and Catherine for the school's YouTube channel, all about writing!  They asked me some fantastic questions, and I told them everything I know about the subject.  Please do have a watch of this – I think it's fantastic!

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Author Visits: Hamilton Primary

I'd like to say a huge THANK YOU to Sarah Wright, Sian Richardson, Nick Hutchings and all the staff and students of Hamilton Primary for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!

I had the pleasure of talking to Years 6, 5, 4 & 3 about reading and books, and was hugely impressed with the wide range of reading they'd been doing.  It was brilliant to see that the Year 5s & 6s already knew my work, as this is a school where they read Phoenix in Year 5 alongside their Space topic.

I was lucky enough to see some of the fantastic writing and artwork the current Year 5s were doing with Phoenix, and I thought it was so good, I decided to share some of it here!

It was brilliant to be able to sign books for everyone at the end of the day, thanks to Red Lion Books, and to answer a few more questions. There were so many terrific questions during the assembly, we didn't have time to answer them all.  So if anyone at Hamilton has any more questions, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a message below.  But in the meantime, THANK YOU all again for a wonderful visit!

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Author Visits: Clifton College

I'd like to say a very big THANK YOU to the brilliant librarian Jenny Jones and to everyone at Clifton College for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!

I had the pleasure of talking to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about reading and books.  There are some fantastic readers in this school, and it was inspiring to hear about their favourite stories.  Quite a few had already read Varjak Paw or Phoenix!

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

It was also a pleasure to sign books at the end of the day for everyone who wanted them, and to talk a bit more to the students.  Some of them told me about stories of their own that they were writing.  So if anyone at Clifton would like any writing advice, here's a link to a blog I made about writing, which compares an early draft of Phoenix to the final draft!  HAPPY WRITING – AND HAPPY READING!

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Author Visits: Wellington Primary

I'd like to say a big THANK YOU to Lucy Jones and everyone at Wellington Primary School for the wonderful welcome they gave me when I visited them last week – my first school visit of the new school year!

I had the pleasure to talking to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about reading and writing books.  They told me about their favourites, and in among a great selection, I was inspired to see that some of them had already read Varjak Paw and Phoenix! 

They had lots of fantastic questions for me – more than we had time to answer on the day.  So if anyone at Wellington has another question, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.  And in the meantime, I'd like to wish you all HAPPY READING – I hope you enjoy your new books!

Friday, 5 July 2019

Liverpool Children's Festival Of Reading

I'd like to say a huge and heartfelt THANK YOU to Jenny Holder for inviting me to the Liverpool Children's Festival Of Reading, to all the amazing teachers and children who came to my events yesterday, and to Wellesbourne Primary for hosting us all!

I had the pleasure of talking to around 400 young readers and writers, from a dozen schools around Liverpool.  It was inspiring to see so much enthusiasm for books and reading, and to hear all about their favourite stories!  Here are some of the tweets from the day.  If anyone from any of the schools would like to say anything about the visit or my books, or has any more questions for me – just leave me a comment below!

Monday, 17 June 2019

Author Visits: Putnoe Primary

I'd like to say a big THANK YOU to brilliant librarian Catherine Brugnoli and all the students and staff of Putnoe Primary School for the amazing welcome they gave me when I visited them last week!

This is a school where they read both Varjak Paw and Phoenix, so many of the students had already read at least one of my books.  It was a pleasure to talk to them about reading and writing, and to hear about their favourite books.  And it was a pleasure to answer their fantastic questions!  

It was also amazing to see some of the work that they'd been doing with my books.  Here's a superb Phoenix display from Year 5, who have some very talented artists and writers – some of whom I think will soon be writing their own books!

We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions, so if anyone at Putnoe has any more questions, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.  And if anyone missed out on getting a signed book on the day, and would like one now – you can always order one via Mrs Brugnoli and Rogan's Books.  I'm always happy to sign bookplates for readers!

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Jan Pieńkowski – BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award

I was hugely honoured to be one of the judges for the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award this year. The judging panel was chaired by Nicolette Jones, and the other judges were Lucy Mangan, Ed Vere, Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Diana Gerald. We decided to give the Award to the brilliant JanPieńkowski, and presented it to him today in a ceremony at the Barbican.  You can read about it on the BookTrust site and in this fantastic picture essay on The Guardian; but some people asked to see the text of the speech that I made at the ceremony, so here it is:

This is one of the books that made me: The Kingdom Under The Sea And Other Stories by Joan Aiken, Pictures by Jan Pieńkowski. I was given this copy of the book 30 years ago, in 1989, when I was university, trying to decide what to do with my life.

It was instantly familiar. I felt a deep shock of recognition when I saw those silhouetted wolves and horses; those stunning washes of dream-like colour. I was transported directly back to my childhood, and some of my earliest memories.

Because I'd had another copy of this book back then; a childhood copy, long since lost. I'd spent hours and hours looking at those pictures as a child. They weren't the kind of pictures you usually found in children's books. They were genuinely magical – the kind of wild, unpredictable, dangerous magic I wanted, which was seldom allowed into children's books, where things were more often safe, comfortable, and just a little bit dull.

But these pictures suggested that anything was possible; anything was allowed.  They seemed to take me seriously as a reader, as a viewer, and trusted that I could handle it.  They made no concession to the fact that I was a child.  They just opened doors to infinity, and invited me in. 

Well, encountering this book again at university, I remember thinking this was it: children's literature was the kind of literature I wanted to make myself!  Because this seemed to be a book beyond age, or time, or any categories at all. 

That, to my mind, is one of the hallmarks of great children's literature.  I believe children's books are really books for an audience that includes children, but excludes no-one.  They are books for everyone, and that is what Jan has dedicated his life to making.

But it was startling for me to realise that these images actually existed, out there in the world; that somebody else had made them.  Because looking at them as an adult felt rather like re-living a fever dream I'd had as a child.  I had taken them inside me so deeply, they'd become part of my inner life, helping to shape my imagination, and the way I saw the world. 

Again, I think that's a mark of great children's literature.  Because it's children's books, more than any others, that make us who are; that shape us, and stay with us forever.  And Jan's books have done that again and again and again. 

It was astonishing to think that the same person who made these pictures also made the pictures in Meg And Mog, Haunted House, Robot, so many classics.  I don't think I'd put that together, as a child.  But I do remember being fascinated by his name. 

As someone with an Arabic name that's so difficult to pronounce if you don't speak Arabic, I've ended up using initials, to make it easier - I felt something unusual, looking at that name.  I couldn't tell how to pronounce it, or where this person might have come from, or even what gender they were.  Was it JannYann?  But I knew immediately that they were different in some way; they were a little bit like me. 

And as I looked at that name again as an adult, trying to find my path in life, something lit up in my mind.  The idea that maybe you could be different, you could have an unpronounceable name, but you could still make books; books that might become part of people's lives.  It was so empowering and inspiring for me to think that someone who came from somewhere else could become an integral part of British culture. 

I think everyone here today feels that way about Jan's work.  It really is a vital part of British childhood; it's impossible to imagine it without him.  He has shaped our culture at the deepest levels.  And that ability to shape a whole culture, across multiple generations – that, I think, is something that only the very greatest children's literature can do. 

And because that is precisely what Jan Pieńkowski has been doing for over 50 years now, I can't think of a more worthy winner of the BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. 

And as I personally have spent most of the 30 years since I was given this book writing children's books, reading them, talking about them – I would like to thank Jan on behalf of all of us who love children's literature for his extraordinary lifetime of achievement, and for his extraordinary example; for showing me that a migrant child could do anything, and that a children's book could do anything, too – absolutely anything at all.

Thank you very much, Jan.

Lucy Mangan, Diana Gerald, Smriti Prasadam-Halls, Jan Pieńkowski, SF Said, Nicolette Jones & Ed Vere

Thursday, 7 March 2019

World Book Day 2019

I love World Book Day! I think anything that gets people excited about books is a good thing, and I really enjoy seeing all the different ways to celebrate books out there. I especially love it when people dress up as characters from my books! So here are some amazing tweets I've seen this year, with a huge THANK YOU to all the readers, parents, teachers and schools who've been part of it!

Friday, 8 February 2019

Author Visits: Radcliffe Primary

I'd like to say a very big THANK YOU to Sophie Jacques and everyone I met at Radcliffe Primary School when I visited them last week!

I'd like to say an especially big thank you for their amazing PHOENIX STEP (above)! I've never had a step before, and was totally blown away to see Phoenix there, along with Harry Potter, The Cat In The Hat, and many more of my own favourite books.  What a brilliant way to celebrate reading – I wish we'd had steps like this when I was at school!

Radcliffe is a school where they've been reading both Phoenix and Varjak Paw, so it was a real pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3 about writing and books.  There were many terrific questions – more than we had time to answer. So if anyone from Radcliffe would like to ask me another question, or to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below!

It was then inspiring to do a creative writing workshop with some Year 6 & 5 students.  They were full of brilliant ideas, and in just an hour, they produced such original, entertaining and well-written stories – this is clearly a school with great writers as well as readers!

Finally, it was a pleasure at the end of the day to sign books for everyone who wanted them.  But if anyone missed out on getting a signed book, and would like one now, you can order them from the brilliant Pea Green Boat Books, who did a fantastic job on the day.  Thanks again to them, and to everyone who made this such a memorable visit!

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Author Visits: Garston Primary & St Silas Primary

I'd like to say a massive THANK YOU to Mr Booth, Miss Wardle, Miss Flynn, Mr Power, Miss Wells, and all the wonderful students and staff I met when I visited Garston & St Silas Primary Schools yesterday!

I first met Mr Booth 4 years ago, when I visited another school where he was teaching at the time.  We've kept in touch through Twitter, and I was delighted when he invited me to visit St Silas, where he now works, as well as Garston, which is also part of the Rainbow Education Trust. The visit began at Garson, where I was honoured and amazed to see their sensational Phoenix door (see above)!

Year 6 at Garston were reading Phoenix, while Year 4 had been reading Varjak Paw, so they had many great questions for me. It was inspiring for me as an author to see so much enthusiasm for books; it was clear that this was a school that really valued and celebrated reading. Here's a wonderful blog about the visit on the Garston website, with many more pictures!

After visiting Garson, I went on to St Silas, where I talked to Years 6, 5, 4 & 3 in an assembly.  And it was immediately clear to me that this school valued and celebrated reading in just the same way. Many of the children at St Silas had read one of my books too, so they also had lots of great questions; more than we had time to answer! So if anyone from either school has more questions, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.

After the assembly, I did a creative writing workshop with Year 6 – Mr Booth's class – with the help of Miss Wardle.  I'd already heard about their work on Mr Booth's Twitter, so I knew they would be great readers and writers, but I was blown away by the quality, creativity and imagination of the stories they wrote.  I hope I might able to feature one or two of them on this blog, so watch this space! And in the meantime – THANK YOU again to everyone who made this such an enjoyable visit!

Monday, 19 November 2018

Author Visits: Butterstile Primary

I'd like to say a big THANK YOU to Mike Johnson and all the students and staff I met at Butterstile Primary for a fantastic visit last week!

It was a pleasure to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 & 3 about writing and books.  There are some fantastic readers at Butterstile, and there were many great questions – more than we had time to answer on the day.  So if anyone would like to ask any more questions, just leave me a comment at the bottom of this page!

It was then great to spend some time with Year 4, who have been reading Varjak Paw, and producing lots of brilliant work inspired by it.  Here's a news report on the Vanishings and a retelling of the beginning of the story, written by Butterstile Year 4s!

It was a pleasure at the end of the day to sign books for everyone who wanted one.  I hope everyone is enjoying their books – so I'd like to end by wishing you all HAPPY READING! and HAPPY WRITING!

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.


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!