Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Writing The Outlaw Varjak Paw

I never set out to write more than one Varjak Paw book.  I wrote the story of a powerless kitten who gradually comes into his power, and grows into a cat.  For me, that story ends at the end of Varjak Paw.

But writing Varjak Paw, I'd found all sorts of questions I didn't have room to answer in one book.  Take Sally Bones, boss of the meanest gang of streets cats in the city.  Varjak had made a terrible enemy there.  What was going to happen when he went back to the city and met her again?  It was clear that I was going to have to write a sequel to find out.

I have to be honest: I don't usually like sequels.  So often, they feel like a letdown, and as a reader, there's nothing I hate more than a sequel that lets me down.  There was no way I could let that happen with Varjak.  I promised myself there would only be a sequel if it was as good as the first one, if not better.  It needed to be a great book in its own right; a story that could stand alone, and take us somewhere new.

I didn't think it would be that hard.  I already had characters, situations, a world… all I had to do was find a new story.  How hard could it be?  Well, I can honestly say that writing The Outlaw Varjak Paw is the hardest thing I've ever done!  Here was my problem.  In the first book, a powerless kitten becomes a powerful cat.  That's an interesting story.  But a character who has power is just not that interesting.  He can fight his way out of any corner, so where's the story? 

I tried all kinds of things.  I explored the city, and discovered whole new areas I'd never known about.  I met some amazing new characters, like the Scratch Sisters, the Orrible Twins, and of course Buster and Bomballooloo, who I think have the best names of all my characters!  I found out a lot more about the stories of characters like Cludge.  But Varjak's own story just wasn't right.  Nothing felt as interesting as what had happened to him in the first book. 

Around draft eight, I remember losing hope.  I felt sure I'd never complete this book.  I thought I was finished as a writer.  The first book was a lucky accident, but now the truth was clear: I would never write anything else again.  I really, really wanted to give up.  These were very dark times indeed. 

But somehow… those feelings gave me the key to the story.  What if Varjak felt exactly like I did?  What if he believed he'd lost his power, and was finished as a fighter?  How would he survive without the skills he'd learned in the first book?  What would he fall back on then?  The moment I had that thought, the book came to life.  The story came into focus, sharp and clear.  It didn't take long from there to finish it.

The Outlaw Varjak Paw went on to win the Blue Peter Book Of The Year Award – one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.  It was recently picked as one of the ten best books ever to win that award, on a list with the likes of Harry Potter, Matilda and The Gruffalo.  So all the hard work was worth it in the end.  

But the experience taught me a very big lesson.  The story is the most important thing.  You should only write a book if you know what the story is, because without that to guide you, you'll get as lost and confused as I did.  So to answer a question I'm often asked: yes, there will be a third Varjak Paw book one day – but only when I'm absolutely sure what the story is! 

Monday, 8 June 2020

#PassTheBookplate – a bookselling boost on shifting ground

Independent bookshops have been quick to adapt to the extraordinary changes that have altered our landscape.  We’ve seen indies trading online, over social media, through newsletters, over the phone – basically continuing to do what they do best: being agile and imaginative!

Many are now planning to at least partially reopen their doors on Monday 15th June, and we wanted to come up with a plan to give them some support – at least in their first month of reopening.

So we’ve made a simple, low-cost plan that can happen fast!  Tamsin Rosewell from Kenilworth Books has used their bookshop network to ask high profile authors to sign bundles of bookplates for independent bookshops.  The last thing bookshops need right now is to have to take a risk on buying signed stock.  If we can instead send them signed bookplates, bookshops can order what they need, when they need it, and sell bookplated books in a steady stream.

If you’re a bookseller and you’d like to join in, let @IndieBookshopUK know – Stephen Baird has been helping us plan the simplest way to manage this.  We’ll be dividing up the bookplates as fairly as possible and posting them out as they come in.  Tamsin has envelopes and a whole load of large letter stamps to hand!

We’d love the help of other high profile authors who can help indies generate sales – so please contact us if you’d like to join in.  You can email tamsinrosewell@btinternet.com or contact your publisher and ask for bookplates!  Authors have used postcards and bookmarks too, so if you have anything like that to hand that can be signed, we’d love to use it!  Publishers, if you’d also like to offer your support, please also email Tamsin.

A huge thanks to Philip Pullman, Sophie Anderson, Nicola Davies, Liz Flanagan, Michael Palin, Laura Cumming, Elspeth and Kate at Penguin Random House and all at David Fickling Books, for their help in getting this started.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

Collaborating With Dave McKean

Dave McKean is one of my all-time favourite artists.  I love the work he's done on books and comics by writers like Neil Gaiman, David Almond and Ray Bradbury, as well as the books and comics he's created himself.  It was a cat he drew in one of these, Cages, that made me feel he would be the perfect illustrator for Varjak Paw.

I can't honestly describe Varjak Paw as a collaboration, as such.  I was just stunned to be working with one of my favourite artists!  The first time we met, I was too in awe to suggest anything to Dave; I just gave him the words, and a fully illustrated text came back.  But his illustrations were so perfect, so beautifully integrated, they seemed like they must have been part of the story all along.

By the time I was writing Phoenix, Dave and I were collaborating closely in the course of our adventures in Hollywood and beyond, where we were trying to make a Varjak Paw movie.  All that time, 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 of all the ancient mythologies, as imagined by aliens in the future.  Do you think you could draw that?"  

To my amazement and delight, he did.

Fortunately, Dave shares my love of both the most cutting-edge science of the stars, and the most ancient mythologies, which also tried to find meaning in the night sky.  So science and mythology inform the two strands of illustration that run through Phoenix. 

One of these strands is all about the stars.  All the time I was working on Phoenix, I was collecting images of stars.  I had a giant book of Hubble Space Telescope photography in front of me as I wrote Phoenix, and then I gave it to Dave, who had it in front of him as he illustrated it.  His images erupt into the text whenever the main character is dreaming of the stars or flying through them as he crosses the galaxy, using alien technology to follow the invisible dark matter connections that unite everything in the universe. 

It was Dave's idea to use fractal patterns to illustrate these connections.  What neither of us knew was that Dave's visualisation of dark matter would look astonishingly similar to the first images of a cosmic web of dark matter made by astronomers, not long after the book was published!

The other strand of illustration in Phoenix draws on mythology.  The aliens in Phoenix believe that all the mythological gods are really stars who come down from the sky to walk among us.  They take different forms in different times, but they're always the same immortal beings, returning again and again through history.  The aliens call them the Twelve Astraeus.

Originally, I wrote lots of material about the Twelve Astraeus, to explain this background.  But it was impossible to find words powerful enough to describe them.  After all, gods and stars should be mysterious and awe-inspiring beyond words! 

Then I came up with the idea of describing them through illustrations and song fragments, rather than prose.  I gave Dave a list of the Twelve Astraeus, with their names and attributes in different mythologies (Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and so on), and asked him to make a series of illustrations depicting each one in turn.

I wrote song fragments to go with the pictures, which give you little hints about them.  So when readers encounter the Astraeus of Love, for example, they can work out for themselves that she's been called Venus, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Astarte, and so on; and even if they don't, they'll feel who she is, without being told.  I find that more powerful than ordinary prose, and having seen what Dave could do on the Varjak Paw books, I designed the structure of Phoenix around this series of illustrations, which became an integral part of the narrative.

As a huge Dave McKean fan myself, it's been such a privilege to share this journey with him.  We once did an event together in London, talking about the process of collaborating to create illustrated books.  Someone in the audience asked him what his favourite work was of all the illustration he'd ever done.  Among the books he named was Phoenix!  Hearing him say that was one of the nicest things that's ever happened to me.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Reading Aloud During School Closures

Since the UK school closures, I've been getting messages from teachers asking if it's all right to read my books aloud online to their classes.  I am very happy to give my permission for teachers to do this – in fact, I think it's vital that we continue to read aloud at this time, and I'm honoured if people want to read my books!

My publishers have also given their permission for this to happen, and they have put some guidelines up here:

Happy reading everyone!

Friday, 6 March 2020

World Book Day 2020

Happy World Book Day 2020!  I'm in favour of anything that celebrates books & reading, whether it's dressing up as a character, making a potato, decorating a door, or any of the other activities I've seen people do with my books!  So here are some fantastic pictures I've been sent & tweeted this year:

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