Monday, 20 February 2017

One Day Without Us

My family is originally from the Middle East.  I came to Britain at the age of 2.  I don't remember living anywhere else, and I've been a British citizen for a long time – but I will always be a migrant, and if I have children, they will be second-generation migrants.

If you look carefully, you'll see that my books all tend to be about migrants.  In Varjak Paw, Varjak's family came from Mesopotamia; in Phoenix, Bixa's family are refugees from a war.  I wrote more about my background and how it shaped my writing in this Guardian article.

Today, February 20 2017, One Day Without Us asks us to celebrate contributions made to the UK by migrants and people descended from migrants.  So today, I'd like to celebrate British children's writers and illustrators who came from migrant backgrounds.  It's an incomplete list – but look how many wonderful books it includes.  How different would British childhood be without their contributions?

Roald Dahl (1916-1990)

Judith Kerr (born 1923)

Eva Ibbotson (1925-2010)

Jan PieĊ„kowski (born 1936)

Jamila Gavin (born 1941)

Michael Rosen (born 1946)

Floella Benjamin (born 1949)

John Agard (born 1949)

Grace Nichols (born 1950)

Francesca Simon (born 1955)

Meg Rosoff (born 1956)

Axel Scheffler (born 1957)

Benjamin Zephaniah (born 1958)

Malorie Blackman (born 1962)

Catherine Johnson (born 1962)

Candy Gourlay (born 1962)

Alex Wheatle (born 1963)

Sita Brahmachari (born 1966)

SF Said (born 1967)

Patrice Lawrence
 (born 1967)

Sara Fanelli (born 1969)

GR Gemin

Sarwat Chadda

Bali Rai (born 1971)

Patrick Ness (born 1971)

Sarah McIntyre (born 1975)

Na'ima B. Robert (born 1977)

Joseph Coelho

Kiran Millwood Hargrave (born 1990)

Taran Matharu (born 1990)

Monday, 30 January 2017

Three Steps To Writing

Last year, I was asked to give some writing tips by the fantastic Little Star Writing.  You can read my original blog on their website, but I thought my readers might enjoy it too, so here it is!

I like to break writing down into three steps. The first step is HAVING AN IDEA. People often ask me how to get ideas. The truth is that we all have ideas, all the time. Just think of yourself as a reader rather than a writer – and then write the story you would most love to read yourself!

That's how I had the idea of writing Phoenix. I’ve always loved space stories. The stars have always filled me with a sense of wonder. I love the thought of other life; other worlds, out there in the universe… Yet there aren’t many books set in space for younger readers. So I had to sit down and write my own!

The second step is WRITING A DRAFT, in which you tell yourself the story you want to read. Do a bit of it every day, until you reach the end. But remember that no-one can write a great book in just one draft. I've never met a single writer who could do that; a book is too big and complicated. You need to build it over a number of drafts.

The way you do this is the third step: EDITING. Once you've written a draft, try to read it as if someone else had written it. Stop being the writer, and become the reader again. And then, as the reader, ask yourself all the questions you ask of every other story you read. What works? What doesn't? What should there be more of? And less of? Then go back to being the writer, and do everything you can to make it more like the story you want to read. Keep doing this, again and again, until it's the best version of the story you can possibly write.

To illustrate how much things can change in this process, I'm going to show you an early draft of Phoenix. First of all, for comparison, have a good look at the extract above. It's the opening of the final, published draft. Once you know it well, have a look at the opening of my early draft:

Can you see how much has changed? It's gone from first person to third person. From present tense to past. It's become a dream. The setting has completely changed. The only thing that's the same is a character gazing up at the stars. That's the heart of it; but everything around it is different!

That process took me 13 drafts. It was long and hard – but it was worth it, because Phoenix is the book I wanted to read; a book that didn't exist before I wrote it. And you will feel the same about the stories that you write. So I'd like to wish you all happy writing, and happy reading – because in the end, the key to being a writer is really just being a reader!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Richard Adams Interview

I was very sad to learn that the great Richard Adams passed away recently. Watership Down was a book that changed my life; as I've written before, there would be no Varjak Paw without Watership Down.

I had the pleasure of meeting Adams in 2002, to interview him for an article I was writing. When I heard he'd passed away, I re-read the transcript of our interview, and found some fascinating material I hadn't been able to use at the time. We talked about how inspiring he found the work of mythology scholar Joseph Campbell; discovered an unexpected connection between Watership Down and Star Wars (another big influence for me); and discussed his views on writers including Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman. So as a tribute to Richard Adams, I've decided to publish this material now.


SFS: How did the idea of the rabbits having a mythology begin?

RA: Well, one of the happiest things that has happened to me is my friendship with Joseph Campbell. I think it was the proudest moment in my life when I was invited to New York to speak at Joseph's 80th birthday. That really chuffed me. I had a lot of talks with him; sometimes he would take me to the Museum of Mankind and show me war canoes and totem poles.

SFS: How did you meet him? One of the epigraphs in Watership Down quotes his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces; had you met him already when you wrote it?

RA: I'd bought The Hero With A Thousand Faces when it came out in 1949, and I read it straight through twice, and on and off ever since. Then, when I was in New York and had a day or two to spare, I discovered Joseph Campbell's address; he lived in Greenwich. I just went and rang the doorbell and told him who I was. He couldn't have been more friendly. We spent the whole day together, although he'd never met me before, and we had a splendid dinner at his club at the end of the day. I told him how much I'd enjoyed it, and I told him all about Watership Down.

SFS: What did he think of it?

RA: Of course it's very like some of Joseph Campbell's stories; it was very much up his street. He thought it was marvellous! What he specialised in was folk tales, he knew all about folk tales. There's a 3-volume work, The Masks Of God, it's wonderful. He was by far the most interesting person I think that I've met in the course of my life.

SFS: Campbell was also a mentor for George Lucas, who made Star Wars.

RA: I know. Well, there were three speakers at that dinner, and they put me first. So I thought, "I'll do something special." And I did, although I say it myself! I gave a marvellous speech; I was in tears when I sat down, and so were several other people. I finished up by saying, "That's why I've travelled 5,000 miles to be here tonight, and that's why I'm enormously glad to be speaking at this dinner. Really, there's only one thing that I've come to say, and I say it now with all the force at my command and all the sincerity of which I'm capable: thank you, Joseph, thank you." And with that I sat down.

SFS: Who were the other speakers?

RA: One was a lady teacher at a university. But the third speaker, and very bad he was, was the director of Star Wars.

SFS: George Lucas?!

RA: Yes. He obviously hadn't prepared a speech at all – it was full of ers and ums. My speech was much the best, if I say it myself.

SFS: Watership Down and Star Wars were two of the biggest phenomena of their time – and they were both made by people who were avid Joseph Campbell readers.

RA: Yes, I suppose so. Well, The Hero With A Thousand Faces hit me like a bomb when I read it. I was in a great muddle at the time about my religious ideas, and trying to make sense of the cosmos. The Hero just sorted that out for me. Religious ideas made sense now; you could see how they occurred in similar format in all nations and all races. And the conception of the cosmos for the first time in my life made sense. Oh, it was a wonderful thing to know Joseph Campbell, and I re-read that book every now and then.

SFS: Did it also influence the main narrative of Watership Down – the way in which Hazel becomes a rabbit hero; the way Fiver is really a shaman?

RA: Yes, of course, it's closely modelled on the ideas of The Hero. Hazel, and Bigwig of course becomes very important as the book goes on – well they all do, Blackberry, Dandelion… Yes, I certainly owe that to Joseph Campbell.

SFS: Around the same time that you were writing Watership Down, in the 1960s, writers like Alan Garner were also using mythology in their work.

RA: I've got a great respect for Alan Garner. I think he's a marvellous writer. I've got all his books.

SFS: There was a whole wave of children's literature that was very ambitious in that way – Ursula Le Guin, too.

RA: Ursula Le Guin is a great friend of mine. I've got all her books, and I've corresponded with her frequently all along. I've got a very high opinion of Ursula Le Guin. The Left Hand of Darkness: I think that's marvellous work. And the Earthsea trilogy. Another big influence is Mary Renault. The Mask of Apollo, The Last of The Wine. The best one I think is the one about Theseus: The King Must Die. Although she is not widely known and popular as she ought to be.

SFS: How about more recent authors? I heard you'd enjoyed Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife? They have that mythic feel, too.

RA: Yes, they certainly do. The highest ability that a novelist can show, in my opinion, is quite simply the power of invention. A novelist who can invent things like you'd never think of for yourself – and carry the story along because you become so fixed on the marvellous powers of invention – well, that's one reason why I'm so much in favour of Ursula Le Guin. Her power of invention is very strong.

SFS: How about JK Rowling – have you read any Harry Potter?

RA: I've never read a Harry Potter book. I ought to have, oughtn't I? I haven't really had the time for Harry Potter, but I wish the lady well. Anybody who can get a book published, I wish them well!

Richard Adams, 1920-2016

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

New blogs by SF Said!

I've been writing some blogs to go with the publication of PHOENIX in North America by Candlewick Press.  I thought my readers might be interested in them.

The first blog I wrote was for KidsReads, and it was about collaborating with my brilliant illustrator, Dave McKean.  Dave and I have been working together since he illustrated Varjak Paw, nearly a decade and a half ago, and for me, his artwork is a vital part of my books.  Here's a little bit of the blog:
"By the time I was working on PHOENIX, we'd become friends and collaborators.  We'd spent a lot of time together trying to make a VARJAK PAW movie, with many adventures in Hollywood and beyond.  As I was writing PHOENIX, I was telling him things like: "I'm writing a great big space epic about a human boy and an alien girl who have to save the galaxy!  It's full of stars, black holes, dark matter – and also all the gods and goddesses of all the ancient mythological pantheons!"

The next blog was for the Children's Book Council Diversity Blog, and it was about how I think the books we read when we're young are the most important books of all.  Here's a little bit of that blog:
"I write children’s books because I believe they’re the books that change people’s lives.  My favorite book as a child was Watership Down by Richard Adams.  I re-read it as an adult, trying to understand why I’d loved it so much.  More than a thrilling adventure story about rabbits, I saw it was a story about the big questions of human life: Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where do we belong?  How should we live?" 

And the most recent blog, which I wrote for KidLitFrenzy, was all about my love of science fiction, and how seeing the first Star Wars film as a wide-eyed 10 year-old eventually led me to write Phoenix.  Here's a little bit of that blog:
"I was 10 years old when the first Star Wars film came out.  It was a life-changing moment for me, as for many of my generation.  As I looked up in awe at that first starship filling the screen, I remember thinking that I wanted to write a story as big as that one day.  I wanted to see a sci-fi space epic for young readers – so I finally sat down and wrote one myself."

I hope you enjoy reading these blogs – and I hope you enjoy the Candlewick edition of Phoenix too!  I'd love to hear from readers in the US and Canada – so if you have already read Phoenix, please leave me a comment below!

You can also WIN A FREE COPY OF PHOENIX – there's a giveaway on YA Books Central this month that anyone in the US can enter!  

Sunday, 27 November 2016


I am absolutely delighted to announce that my new book PHOENIX is now available in North America!

It's published by the wonderful Candlewick Press, who have produced a beautiful edition that uses all of Dave McKean's fantastic original artwork for the book.  You can order it from them, or from any good bookshop or website.  You can find the publishers' page for Phoenix by clicking this link, and you can watch a special US version of Dave McKean's Phoenix book trailer right here:

You can also WIN A FREE COPY OF PHOENIX!  There's a giveaway on YA Books Central this month that anyone in the US can enter.  I've written a piece to go with it all about the book's inspirations.  

I hope you enjoy it, and I would love to hear from readers in North America – so if you've read Phoenix, please leave me a comment below and let me know how you enjoyed flying among the stars with Lucky and Bixa!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Year 8

I believe all writers are readers, and all readers can be writers – something I've written about elsewhere recently.  So as Patron Of Reading at Fortismere School, I decided with brilliant librarian Gillian Ward to focus on reading with Year 7, and writing with Year 8.  And it was a pleasure last week to spend time working with two Year 8 classes on creative writing.

I talked them through the three main stages of the writing process: getting an idea, writing a first draft, and then editing it to make it as good as it can be.  I asked them to think of ideas for stories they would want to read themselves, and then to write drafts and edit them.  We only had an hour, but in that time, they produced some amazing work, and I'm delighted to share some of it here:

The sun shone through the windows, the light bouncing off the plastic coated covers and labels. The book sat on the shelf, the top shelf, above the others. The book had been there all day. All week. Before the sun arrived on the shelf, there had been darkness; a cramped, dusty darkness that had shadowed its pages and words and story. A story that had been told to the first person to open the book. And the second. And the third.

He woke up in a frivolous mood and clambered up to the deck of the ship. He saw the moon’s pockmarked surface through the plexiglass windows and sighed to himself. Back on Jupiter he knew his family would be moving to the secret base in the ocean in preparation for the war. He stood, gazing out at the atmosphere studded with giant balls of blazing gas and wondered if he would make it back to his home planet alive. Silently behind him, Will shuffled out of the sleeping quarters and made himself tea: rooibos, a rare plant scavenged from the remains of earth.

Sam loves books. He spends all his breaks in the school library. This separates him from the others. Even though the librarians praise him, his friends don’t. Well, he can’t really call them friends now. He started to prefer books to his mates and one by one they left him. Now, the only friends he has are books. He’s even become friends with Harry Potter!

It was a pleasure working with these students – some of their ideas just blew me away.  I hope they continue to work on their writing, because if they do, before too long, I think they'll be publishing books of their own!  Here's a link to some writing tips I've done on this blog that might be helpful with that – and if anyone from Year 8 has any questions or would like to leave me a comment, this is the place to do it!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Patron Of Reading: Fortismere School Year 7

I was delighted to return to Fortismere School last week for the start of my second year as their Patron Of Reading.  Patron Of Reading is a brilliant scheme in which authors don't just visit a school once, but return several times to help spread the love of reading.  I was invited to do this last year by Fortimsere's fantastic librarian Gill Ward, and you can read about all the things we did last year in these blog posts.

We started my second year's activities with the new Year 7, who I had the pleasure of meeting last week.  They gave me a wonderful welcome, and I was excited to see that they're already brilliant readers.  When I asked what their favourite books were, it was great to hear so many different favourites, from classics like The Lord Of The Rings to books like this year's Carnegie Medal winner, Sarah Crossan's One.

I talked to them about the books that were my favourites when I was at school, like Watership Down by Richard Adams.  (If anyone would like to know more about that book, I wrote a whole blog post about it here.)  I also talked to them about my favourite films, like the original Star Wars (and I've just written a blog about seeing that film back when I was 10!)

We went on to talk about how you go from being a reader to being a writer, and how stories like Watership Down influenced Varjak Paw, and how Star Wars influenced Phoenix.  I really do believe that every writer is a reader, and every reader can be a writer.  A writer is really just a reader who's taken the next step, and decided to write the story they want to read themselves!

We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone at Fortimsere has another question, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below.  And I look forward to returning to Fortismere next week to talk to Year 8 about creative writing, and then returning next term to talk more about our favourite books with Year 7!