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:

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School, Year 8

I was excited to do my second event as Fortismere School's new Patron Of Reading last week!  Patron Of Reading is a brilliant scheme where an author visits a school regularly over a period of time, working to spread a love of reading and books. Last month, I was invited by the fantastic school librarian Gillian Ward to talk to Year 7, which you can read all about here.  This month, I talked to Year 8.

While I talked to Year 7 about reading, the focus for Year 8 was writing.  I asked the Year 8s to think of an idea for a story that they really wanted to read themselves.  Then we went through the process of writing a first draft, getting distance on it, and reading it through critically to get ideas for how to improve it on the next draft.

They worked really hard at all the stages of the process, and there was lots of excellent writing going on.  Some of the Year 8s read out their second drafts at the end of the session, and I was hugely impressed with the range and quality of stories that they'd produced in only an hour!

I'll be coming back to Fortismere in January to do another session with the same Year 8 classes.  This time, I've asked them to bring a piece of writing that they've already been working on – perhaps the stories they began last week, or perhaps something different.  We'll be looking at some common problems with writing, and how to go about fixing them.  In the meantime, here's a link to some writing tips that I've done on this blog – I hope they're useful!  And if anyone from Year 8 has any questions or would like to leave me a comment, this is the place to do it!

Monday, 16 November 2015

Author Visits: Newton Prep

I met some fantastic young readers and writers last week at Newton Prep.  I was invited by the brilliant school librarian Nelia Beyers to talk to Years 6, 5, 4 and 3, and I was delighted to see what a wide range of reading they'd been doing, and what interesting questions they had for me.

I was particularly excited to find these beautiful pictures inspired by William Blake's poem The Tyger in the school library.  This is one of my own favourite poems, and it's one of the inspirations behind TYGER: the new book that I'm currently writing!  

Some very thoughtful young writers were asking me after the event for writing tips.  I've done a series of tips on this blog, and you can find them all by clicking this link.  We didn't quite have enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone from Newton Prep would like to ask me another question, or to say anything about the visit or my books, this is the place to do it!

Author Visits: Ixworth Free School

Last month, I had the great pleasure of visiting Ixworth Free School as part of a visit to schools in Suffolk organised by reading champion Philip Daws.  I talked to children from Years 7, 8 and 9 about writing and books, and I read to them from my new book Phoenix.

I always enjoy visiting schools and meeting readers.  However, when someone says that one of your books changed their lives, that means more than anything!  So I'd like to say a huge thank you to everyone at Ixworth for the wonderful welcome – and I'd like to wish you all good luck with your reading, and your writing!

We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, but if anyone would like to ask another question, or to leave me a comment about the visit or about my books, this is the place to do it!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School

I am absolutely delighted to be Fortismere School's new Patron Of Reading!  Patron Of Reading is a brilliant new scheme that started a few years ago.  The aim is for an author not just to visit a school once, but to form an ongoing relationship with the school, and to spread a love of reading and books through the school.

Fortismere have been lucky to have Sita Brahmachari as their Patron Of Reading for the past few years.  Sita wrote about her experiences in this great blog post.  I was totally honoured to be asked by Fortismere's fantastic librarian Gillian Ward to take over from her.

For my first event at Fortismere, I had the pleasure of meeting the whole of Year 7 last week.  I was inspired to discover what terrific readers they already are.  When I asked what people's favourite books were, I heard an amazingly broad variety of responses – everything from classics like The Lord Of The Rings, to recent books like RJ Palacio's Wonder.  I think this kind of variety shows a real love of reading, and a fantastic openness to all the different kinds of books out there.

It was also amazing to find quite a few fans of Varjak Paw, The Outlaw Varjak Paw and Phoenix!  There were some great questions in the Q&A, and it was a complete pleasure to sign books for readers at the end.  I'd like to thank everyone for the wonderful welcome they gave me.

I'll be visiting Fortismere again next month to see Year 8 – and then I'll be back again next term to talk some more about people's favourite books.  In the meantime, if anyone would like to leave me a comment or ask me a question, this is the place to do it.  Just leave your comment below, and I'll do my best to answer it!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Phoenix selected for the IBBY Honour List!

I'm amazed and delighted to announce that Phoenix has been selected for the 2016 IBBY Honour List!

IBBY is a fantastic international children's literature organisation.  It brings together writers, illustrators, publishers, academics, librarians, teachers, literacy workers, booksellers and parents from over 70 countries around the world – from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.  And every two years, IBBY's Honour List selects outstanding recent books from each of its member countries.

Previous UK Honour List books include Frank Cottrell-Boyce's The Unforgotten Coat, Marcus Sedgwick's Revolver, Linda Newberry's The Sandfather, and Philip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur.  It's incredible to see Phoenix in that kind of company, because those books show how dedicated IBBY is to supporting the very best writing for young people.

I love the fact that IBBY's work aims to develop international understanding through children's books.  That's a goal that means a lot to me personally, so I am particularly honoured that the IBBY UK Committee said this about Phoenix:
Phoenix skilfully integrates comments about our contemporary world - on war and peace, prejudice, borders and barriers to migration, political and moral questions - into a fast-paced and exciting science fiction narrative.
I'd like to say a massive thank you to everyone at IBBY.  Phoenix took me seven long, hard years to write – but at a moment like this, all that work feels totally worthwhile!

And here's a link to a piece I wrote for the Guardian all about IBBY, and how children's books can help to build a better world!

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Animal Tales at the British Library

I was incredibly honoured to open the fantastic new Animal Tales exhibition at the British Library last week – and to see Varjak Paw there as one of the exhibits!  

It's a terrific exhibition, covering animal stories from Aesop and Ovid through classics like The Jungle Books and Watership Down, and onto the present day.  As someone who loves books and libraries, it was very emotional for me to see Varjak Paw there among all those classics.  So I'd like to thank the British Library, and curators Matthew Shaw, Alison Bailey and Barbara Hawes – and here's a transcript of the speech I made, with some thoughts about animal stories:

It's a great honour to be here at the British Library to open this wonderful exhibition of Animal Tales - and an even greater honour to see my book Varjak Paw as one of the exhibits!  It's particularly thrilling for me because many of the books in the exhibition had a profound influence on me as I was growing up, and then later, as an adult working on my own writing.  Books such as Watership Down and The Jungle Books are among the most formative and important that I have ever read.

But then, I think that animal tales have had a profound influence upon most of us.  The earliest known human art is all about animals.  They dominate the human imagination from the moment that paintings appear in the caves of Chauvet and Lascaux and Altamira.  

Animals are also visible in the oldest surviving sculptures, such as the 40,000 year old Lion Man who mesmerised crowds at the recent exhibition of Ice Age art at the British Museum.  That exhibition showed just how deeply animals were embedded in the early human imagination – both as subjects of what appear to be closely observed nature studies, and as the focus a seemingly more magical kind of thinking, in which animals shade into the human, and the divine.

The exhibition that we're opening tonight shows us that animals are just as deeply embedded in human storytelling traditions as in visual arts.  They are ubiquitous in ancient mythologies, and remain present in so many traditional fairytales and folk tales from around the world.  And at the very moment that animals began to disappear from most people's daily lives, in the 19th Century, there was an extraordinary explosion of animal literature which continues to the present day, and is beautifully represented here. 

Why is this?  Why have animals not disappeared from our imaginations; but if anything, become a larger presence there than ever?

Perhaps because, as Claude Lévi-Strauss once observed, "animals are not chosen because they are good to eat, but because they are good to think".   

I love this idea that animals are good to think.  John Berger, in essay his 'Why Look At Animals?', takes it even further: "It is not unreasonable to suppose that the first metaphor was animal."  For animals give us so many ways to think about the world, and our experience of being in it.   

There is no one single form of the Animal Tale.  There are many kinds, and they use animals in many different ways. 

Anna Sewell's Black Beauty is widely seen as beginning the modern preoccupation with animal welfare, by crediting animals with subjectivity, agency, sentience – encapsulated in that marvellous author credit, "Translated from the original equine by Anna Sewell."  But this is a tradition that runs from the anthropomorphic tales of Beatrix Potter to the rigorously observed nature writing of Henry Williamson's Tarka The Otter; from the magical talking animals of CS Lewis's Narnia books to the political allegory of Orwell's Animal Farm or Art Speigelman's Maus. 

Animal writing and art are such broad and diverse traditions; every writer and artist brings something new, something of their own to it.

For my part – I have to admit, I didn't set out to write an animal story as such when I wrote Varjak Paw.  The story began when I got a new kitten.  He was very young when we first got him, and had never been outside in his whole life.  I will never forget the first time he went outside.  He went out into the garden, and at the bottom of the garden was a high stone wall, a hundred times bigger than he was.  But before anyone could stop him, this tiny kitten ran straight up the face of the wall, until he was sitting on the very top, looking out at the whole world, for the first time ever.

I thought this was incredible, and had to write a story about it.  Who among us hasn't at some point in their lives felt like someone very small, facing a very big world for the first time, all alone?  That, for me, is what Varjak Paw is really about, more than cats, as such.  And yet – the cattier I made it, the more powerful it seemed as metaphor.  The more specifically feline my story became, the more universally human it seemed, too.

The same was true with the illustration of Varjak Paw.  Again, I remember wanting my cats to look like real cats, not cute fluffy cartoon cats.  And Dave McKean had drawn the cattiest cats I'd ever seen in his comic Cages, and that was why I thought he would be perfect for Varjak Paw – as well as the fact that he's my favourite artist!  But again: the cattier Dave made the cats, the more universal they became.  To the point where Varjak Paw has now travelled the world, been read by hundreds of thousands of people, and now finds itself here, tonight, in this extraordinary company.

I can't explain or unpick all that.  I can't tell you why animal stories are still so popular, so powerful, so compelling.  I can't even tell you why my new book, Phoenix, has a Phoenix in it - or why the next book, that I'm writing right now – TYGER – is all about a tiger! 

What I can tell you is that this animal stuff goes very deep.  It touches something powerful and profound for children and adults alike; and it is an enormous honour to see my work as part of this tradition, and this exhibition.  Thank you very much.  

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Author Visits: Haberdashers' School For Girls

Last week, I had the great pleasure of visiting Haberdashers' School For Girls as part of their Literature Festival.  Other speakers at the Festival included the brilliant authors Linda Newbery, Sita Brahmachari and Meg Rosoff, so it was an honour to be invited!  I'd like to say a very big thank you to everyone I met there for giving me such a wonderful welcome.

I talked to Years 4 and 5 about writing and books, and discovered that they were fantastic readers.  It was amazing for me to meet so many fans of both Varjak Paw and Phoenix, and to hear so many inspiring stories!

I answered lots of terrific questions on the day, but we didn't have quite enough time to answer them all.  So if anyone from Haberdashers' would like to ask another question, or would like to say anything about the visit or about books and writing, just leave me a comment below!