Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The Books That Change Our Lives

A version of this piece was originally written for the CBC Diversity Blog.
=========================================================

I write children's books because I believe they're the books that change our lives.  

My favourite book as a child was Watership Down by Richard Adams.  I've re-read it more than once as an adult, trying to understand why I loved it so much.  As a child, I saw a thrilling adventure story about rabbits trying to survive in the wild.  But now I can see that it's 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? 


I think that's why it meant so much to me.  My family's roots are in the Middle East.  My ancestors were Iraqi, Egyptian, Turkic, Kurdish and Circassian Muslims.  I grew up in Britain in the 1970s, where such origins were unusual.  Negotiations around identity, difference and belonging were daily facts of my life.  

Even my name was an issue.  It's an ordinary Arabic name, but totally unpronounceable in English!  Whenever it came up, people would question it to such an extent that I ended up using initials, to make life easier for everyone.  


So when I read Watership Down and saw that the hero of the rabbits' myths was called El-Ahrairah, it struck a very deep chord.  The greatest rabbit who ever lived had an Arabic-sounding name?  That gave me what Junot Diaz has described as a feeling of seeing myself reflected; realising my background could be something more than a burden.

A children's book had given me a way to think about myself and my place in the world.  That's why I decided to put everything I have into writing children's books.  I put years and years of work into making each book the best it can possibly be; making them as thrilling as I can, but also filling them with those big questions.  Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where do we belong?  How should we live?


In my first book, Varjak Paw, these questions are explored through cats and dogs.  Varjak is a cat who's been told that dogs are monsters, and that cats and dogs can never even communicate, let alone be friends!  Yet he transcends these prejudices to make friends with a dog, and learns that a dog can actually be the best and most loyal friend a cat could ever have. 

My most recent book, Phoenix, is set in a galaxy where humans and aliens are at war with each other.  The humans have even built a spacewall to keep the aliens out.  The main characters are a human boy and an alien girl whose lives have both been damaged by the war.  They discover that they have much more in common than they thought possible – and together, perhaps they can even save the galaxy.


I didn't write Phoenix about any specific situation in the real world.  But I did want to explore those ideas of identity, difference and belonging that I've been living with all my life, and that I think lie at the roots of so many situations all over the world.  

Things have changed a lot since my childhood.  People are on the move as never before; hundreds of millions of us now live outside our countries of origin.  One response to that is to build walls.  But another is to build bridges of understanding, as my characters must do to survive.  

Young people everywhere are hungry for stories to help them navigate this world.  My highest hope is that a book like Varjak Paw or Phoenix might help them think about the world, their experiences of it, and other people's experiences, just as Watership Down helped me.  I love the idea that children's books can be bridges connecting people, showing them that however different someone else might seem, the things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.  And that difference can be a source of richness: something to be celebrated, not mocked or feared.


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, they seemed like they must have been part of the story all along.  And I was stunned to see how he used not just illustration but elements like layout, typography and white space to create the atmosphere of the book.


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:
https://www.penguin.co.uk/company/work-with-us/rights-and-permissions-/permissions/additional-guidelines.html

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!