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!

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Author Visits: New North Academy

I've had the pleasure of visiting New North Academy twice before: first when I met last year's Year 6s, and then when I attended their production of Varjak Paw: The Musical!  So I was delighted to come back and meet this year's Year 6s, and to find that they'd been reading my new book, Phoenix.

It was amazing to see all the work they'd done around Phoenix, and to hear all their thoughts about it.  When you spend seven years writing a book, it's wonderful to get such great feedback on it.  They also presented me with a beautiful bound book of reviews and artwork that they'd made!  Here are a few of them – click on the pictures to see them large:

So I'd just like to say a big thank you to Year 6, and to their teachers, Fiona Gunn-Stokes and Alexander Hall.  And if anyone at New North Academy has any more questions that they'd like to ask, or would like to say anything about the visit or my books, just leave me a comment below!

Monday 15 June 2015

Author Visits: WhitLit

Whitstable Literary Festival is only in its second year, but it's already established itself as one of the most exciting new book festivals in the UK.  A lot of great writers have been involved, so I was thrilled to be invited to come and talk about writing Varjak Paw and Phoenix!

It was an absolute pleasure to meet the young readers of Whitstable, who knocked me out with their enthusiasm for books and reading!  I heard some amazing stories, and some brilliant questions.

It was also a pleasure to sign books at the end.  But if there was anyone who wanted a book signed and didn't get one on the day, just get in touch with Harbour Books (21 Harbour Street), and we'll arrange for a signed bookplate to be sent to you.

Thanks again to everyone who was part of the day, especially Festival director Victoria Falconer and bookseller Liz Waller from Harbour Books (below), and everyone who came and made it such a great event.  And if you'd like to see more pictures from the day, here's a fantastic gallery on the Canterbury Times website!

Monday 25 May 2015

Author Visits: Wrexham Carnival Of Words

I'm a big fan of book festivals.  I love attending them myself, and seeing my favourite authors talk about their work.  So I'm thrilled whenever I'm invited to visit a festival.

The Wrexham Carnival Of Words is a new festival, but it's already establishing itself as a brilliant one.  It was a real honour to be invited by the organisers, Charlotte Jones and Shan Cooper, to talk to a festival audience about my books.

Many schools in and around Wrexham took part; there were more than 200 people there! It was fantastic to be able to meet so many young readers, and to see their enormous enthusiasm for books and writing.

We didn't have quite enough time to answer all the questions that everyone had, so if anyone in Wrexham would still like to ask me anything, or to make a comment about the event or about my books, this is the place to do it!

Thursday 7 May 2015

Author Visits: The Institute Of Education Library

I'm a huge fan of libraries.  I write my books in them, and I couldn't do my work without them.  So it was an absolute honour to be asked to open the new children's book corner in the Institute Of Education Library!

The Institute Of Education trains student teachers, who then go out and apply what they've learned in classrooms around the country.  This book corner offers them a brilliant resource, to help them learn how to bring books to life for young readers.

It supports the idea of reading for pleasure, which is something I believe in very strongly.  Reading should be fun, and books should be a great thing to display in classrooms, as this book corner shows!

It was also wonderful to hear about work that teachers have done with my books.  I'm always humbled and inspired to learn that Varjak Paw or Phoenix has been shared and enjoyed in a school.  So a huge thank you to the Institute Of Education, to the brilliant Sue McGonigle for inviting me – and to all teachers who have kept the Way alive!

Sunday 19 April 2015

Varjak Paw – The Musical!

Earlier this year, I had the enormous pleasure of visiting Mercenfeld Primary.  The brilliant teacher who invited me, Amber Rao, told me they were planning to stage a musical version of Varjak Paw.  And they did: it was staged at the end of last term!

I heard all about it on Twitter, where people were saying it was the best show they'd ever seen.  I was absolutely knocked out when I saw the pictures: it looks seriously brilliant.  So here are some of them, with huge thanks to Amber and everyone at Mercenfeld for making such a fantastic show from my book – I am so honoured!!!

PS! Mercenfeld have now posted a video of the Varjak Paw musical!

Thursday 2 April 2015

The Top 10 Children's Books Of All Time

I was asked to vote in a BBC poll to find the top 10 children's books of all time.  I found it impossible to pick 10; whatever I chose, brilliant books got left out!  So I know this list is problematic, and I might choose another 10 books on another day.  But I'm in favour of anything that celebrates children's books, and reminds us how many classics the field has produced.  So here's my list, in chronological order.  What would be on your top 10?

by Rudyard Kipling (1893-5)

by E Nesbit (1899)

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)

by CS Lewis (1950)

by Ursula Le Guin (1968)

by Penelope Farmer (1969)

by Richard Adams (1972)

by Roald Dahl (1988)

by Jacqueline Wilson (1991)

by Philip Pullman (1995-2000)