Posted by: Elen C | July 29, 2011

In Boston by Nicola Davies

The last time I was in Boston was September 1979. I’d hitched down from Newfoundland where I’d been living in a tent for three months, watching humpbacked whales. Slick, arty, prosperous Boston and its academic suburb, Cambridge,  were not impressed by the ‘I haven’t had a bath since June’ look, and the oil stained oshkosh dungarees were two years too early to be gamine-chic. Despite the impeccable East Coast manners of my host city, I felt like a dirty blot on the clean, go-getting  landscape of expensive shops and bars. I was glad to get on the plane back to Blighty, where everything was a bit old and patched, and unemployment was becoming a kind of new career. I then spent the next 30 years slagging off everything about America, from burgers to Bushes, along with every other  lefty, yoghourt eating member of the chattering classes.

So when I flew in to Logan en route to lecture to American teachers at Leseley University in Cambridge Mass I was ready to find fault. The fact that the taxi driver needed a sat nav , that my hotel’s wifi  wouldn’t speak to my ipad and that it was  ninety seven effing degrees in the shade didn’t help. I dumped my stuff in my room and stomped out onto Massachusetts Avenue already swearing, already vowing I would never come back to this horrible, hideous, country ever again.

But as I walked grumpily down the street I noticed something: people smiled, they said hello. Not quite in the way that they do in the Caribbean where they ask ‘how are you?’ and expect a proper, detailed answer, but way more welcoming that the Tottenham Court Road on a Monday afternoon. I mooched into shops – mostly for the sake of the air conditioning – and found I was immediately engaged in easy, bantering conversations. It was like being at home in Wales, only with accents right off your favourite PBS series.

I bought a sandwich from a deli in Harvard Square with more ingredients than a Madhur Jaffery recipe and ate it listening to a Beatles cover band, and watching the kids in the Harry Potter queue. I wandered in through Harvard Gate, to the grassy quads between the buildings, where people lolled about on multicoloured chairs, obviously thinking Nobel prize winning thoughts (you could see the little bubbles full of equations above their heads).  My grumpiness melted and I began to enjoy the feeling of being in the culture that I’d been exposed to on films and TV for most of my adult life.

But Boston this time round was different from 1979. Things are not so bright and shiny as they were back then: the sidewalks are cracked, shopfronts need a makeover and a lick of paint; the malls are quiet and there is rather too little traffic on the roads. The recession has bitten hard into peoples lives and taken the brash edge off American confidence.  Kristie and Laura, Michelle and Patricia, some of the teachers I lectured to, had stories of life in small towns where seventy percent of the kids live in trailers. Hearing them, you’d think they were talking about Mozambique, not up state New York.  Woody, the receptionist at the gym I went to, had been made redundant two years back and now had two jobs one at the gym from 5.30am until lunchtime and then at a bar from 3pm until midnight.

“And you know, ” he told me, with a sardonic smile, “it doesn’t really pay the bills.”

Woody’s friend, Michael the composer hadn’t had a commission for a year.

Over the course of my four day stay I had conversations with all sorts of people: Somali taxi drivers, Israeli retailers,  Greek businessmen, Texan teachers, Dominican engineers, Persian composers, collectively embodying the idea of America as the rainbow nation, the land of opportunity for the whole world. Every one of them was feeling the cold wind of economic Winter, every one of them  had fallen out of love with the materialist promises of a market driven ecconomy. But what none of them had lost was the hope and positivity that still seems to be in the air in America. The teachers lit up with enthusiasm when we spoke about inspiring their kids to read; Michael said he had been able to take his work in a new direction because of the space the lack of commissions had given him. Woody summed it up

“We try to stay positive.”

When I came back from my first visit to America in 1977 I told my father

“In America they like to say yes, but in the UK the word is always no.”

On that first visit I found the atmosphere of possibility intoxicating, invigorating. But by 1979 I’d had two years of University to knock my confidence back to zero, and the bright Polly-Anna optimism of Boston made me shrink, made me feel like the negative, failure prone Brit that I was. This time maybe we’d both changed. I’m stronger, more confident and I know my work has something to offer to American children.  Boston has grown up a little too; it no longer takes affluence, success, the future, for granted, but it still hopes and moves forward. Now I feel we’re both ready to say ‘yes’. So I’ll be going back, and soon.

Posted by: Elen C | July 23, 2011

On Writing – By Paul Manship

Apologies. These are not really my thoughts. They belong to some obscure writer called Stephen King. I still feel a bit exhausted from the summer term. It will  take a few days for my brain to be functioning as normal.

I read King’s book “On Writing” recently (recommended by Ruth Morgan) to see if I could pick up any tips. I noted down a few ideas I liked:

 Omit needless words.

 My editor, Viv, would completely agree with that sentiment. “If in doubt, cut it out,” is one of her mantras. Since working with her, I have learned to be more ruthless as a self-editor

Writing fiction can be a difficult, lonely job: it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt.

 I would disagree with this to some extent. Although writing is a solitary activity, you sort of create your own company (“friends”) with the characters and world you come up with. And, in any case, sometimes it’s quite relaxing and peaceful to be on your own.

I would agree with the self-doubt issue, especially in the days before you are fortunate enough to be published. Writing requires a huge investment in time and I remember thinking, while writing my first two books, ‘Am I wasting my time? Is this a hopeless dream? Should I be spending more time with my family?’

However, I would guess that we all possess a pretty strong element of self-belief to counter-act that self-doubt, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to persevere.

Stephen King points out that creating stories gives you an immense feeling of possibilities – as if you are ushered into a vast building filled with closed doors and are given leave to open any you like, more doors than you could possibly open in one life-time.

I’m a big fan of portal stories. They must have crept deep into my psyche as a child – C. S Lewis’s wardrobe, Lewis Carroll’s rabbit-hole, the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. My latest effort (“Just Imagine”, out next Spring, £5.99) is certainly influenced by the latter two books.

King believes that there is no Idea Dump, no Story Central. Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky (like the shoe that lands on Stanley Yelnats in”Holes”). Sometimes, two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. I know that Michael Morpurgo came up with “The Butterfly Lion” after meeting  Virginia McKenna in a lift, then seeing the Uffington white horse on a train journey.

When you write, you’re telling yourself the story.

When you re-write, your main job is taking out all the bits that are not the story. Sometimes the theme of our story is not obvious until that first draft is finished. Then we need to reinforce the elements of the story that support the theme and get rid of some parts that are surplus to requirements.

Writing is a type of telepathy. It’s a meeting of minds. The writer sits in his best transmitting place, whether that be study, bedroom or shed and the reader sits in his best receiving place. It’s telepathy not just over place but over time as well. Sometimes the meeting of minds takes place after one of the parties is deceased!

And finally…..

Writing is serious stuff. Do not approach the blank page lightly.


Posted by: Elen C | July 15, 2011

Top Five Book to Film Adaptations

Books are brilliant. They are my favourite form of escape. But films come a very close second. My love of the movies began with childhood outings to watch Children’s Film Foundation flicks at my local flea-pit in Wrexham. The big kids sat in the balcony throwing popcorn at us littlies below. We all cheered and whooped as be-flared children on choppers built space rockets in their grandad’s potting sheds. We ate slush puppies and hotdogs so big we could hardly hold them. Those Saturday morning outings were the start of a passion.  So, considering my two great loves, what could be better than a good film of a good book? It was agony to choose just five for this list, but in the end I managed. So, for those who like their stories to come in 24 frames a second, here’s my top five:

5. The Lord of the Rings, written by J.R.R. Tolkien, directed by Peter Jackson

One ring, forged in the fires of Mount Doom and so on and so forth, for hundreds of glorious pages. If you haven’t read it, and watched the films (the extended editions, mind) then you are missing a real cinematic treat. I know it might not be a children’s book, but I couldn’t choose The Hobbit as they haven’t finished making it yet.


4. Coraline, written by Neil Gaimen, directed by Henry Selick

Coraline’s parents are nice enough, but they just don’t seem very, well, interested. Coraline’s Other Mother seems to be an ideal alternative, until her intentions with the sewing needle become clear… The film adaptation revels in the grotesqueries: flyblown burlesque performers; dogs stuffed almost before they’re dead; the Beldam disintegrating like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. And all in 3D. This was my first new-generation 3D experience and it remains the best.


3. Alice in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, directed by ??

The classic story has been adapted for cinema and TV many times. So, which version to choose? If this article was about kids’ books inspiring films for grown-ups then it would have to be Jan Svankmajer’s version, with the taxidermied white rabbit. However, that’s not great family viewing. The 2010 version did have Johnny Depp, but it played too fast-and-loose with the text for my liking. I saw a French version when I was a small child and adored it, but can’t remember any of the details. So, my Best Alice Award goes to Disney’s 1949 version.


2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, written by J.K. Rowling, directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Convicted murderer, Sirius Black, has escaped from Azkaban and is coming after Harry in the third in the series. Of all the Harry Potter books, this one is my favourite. And the same goes for the film. It is tightly plotted and deliciously darker than its predecessors. The Dementors are actually scary and Azkaban, like the unholy child of a breeze-block and an oil rig, really is a monstrous prison. A proper family film that moves at a fantastic pace.


1. The Princess Bride, written by William Goldman, directed by Rob Reiner

The course of true love never did run smooth, especially when your true love is killed in the opening sequence by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Maybe the book isn’t really for children (though, in my defence, it is shelved in the YA section in many libraries. I checked.) But the film most certainly is. The adventure, the humour, the romance all combine to put it firmly at the top of my list. It’s a film the whole family can quote at each other for years to come (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die…” “Stop saying that.”).

Did I miss out your favourite? What else should have made my top five?

Posted by: grannyjen3 | July 8, 2011


I used to be a writer, once.  No, honestly, I did!  I have two books half-written plus one that needs a final edit and I just can’t seem to find the time to work on them.  I’m supposed to be retired from everything except writing, but I’ve never been so busy.

Why?  Well…

In late February I flew to Northern Ireland for two weeks with my daughter, son-in-law and little Catrin.  From there I flew to Heathrow to spend a couple of days with my other two daughters.  Somewhere along the way I picked up Ryanair flu, which turned to pleurisy.  Two weeks later (still coughing) I was in mid-Wales workshopping in schools in Penarth, Caerphilly, Chepstow, Machynlleth and Rhayader.  I love workshopping ~it’s the next best thing to writing.  I love the expectant buzz I get when I go into a classroom; love the great big smiles from the kids when they’ve produced something good ~ and they always do.  I love hamming it up telling stories to tinies and especially that “whool row of goldfish” effect I get from them.  Because I live in France and ferries and aeroplanes and hotels don’t come cheap I just about break even (though not aways) and can only afford to visit two or three times a year.  I used to visit schools two or three times a week and I miss it.  But it’s not writing.

May half-term I was in Epping with eldest daughter and grand-children Daisy, Tove and Dylan.  In June I was back in Wales, workshopping again, then off to Cornwall for a couple of days while Himself and middle daughter played with Rick Stein and a lot of fish.  In August middle daughter and her husband (and possibly a couple of her friends, too) arrive for a holiday.  In September I’m off again to Ireland, this time for a couple of days’ holiday in the south as well as visiting daughter in the north.

Added to that, I’m secretary to our church management committe (I told them I didn’t have time but there was no one else!).  This means I write minutes, agendas and the monthly newsletter;  I’ve set up a monthly creative writing group chez me for half a dozen UK expats.  I’ve also made 30 little Victorian waistcoats;  30 little Victorian pinafores; one Edwardian walking skirt;  one Edwardian walking jacket;  one Egyptian robe with long stole (both beaded ~ and I cut the paper pattern for that, too!) all for my youngest daughter’s Living History interpretation business “Time Steps” in Ireland.  Then I produced thirty stitched ribbons in various fabrics for my eldest daughter’s hand-made designer jewellery business (I enclosed a note in the parcel that said “hand made in France by exiled pensioner on starvation wages”).  She’s now requested an appliqued banner for the front of her stall…  My latest production was a Barbie-pink, big-fat-gypsy-wedding, totally OTT skirt festooned with pink and gold ribbons, lace, gold and pink chiffon and cerise rosettes for grand-daughter Daisy’s 5th birthday later this month.  Next project (after the appliqued banner, that is) will be 30 child-size Viking tunics, again for Time Steps.  I knew buying that sewing machine was a mistake.

I work best with a deadline to hit.  If I know I have to get something off to a publisher/newspaper/blog by Friday fortnight, I’ll have it done by Tuesday last week.  Without one, I’m easily distracted.  Even by ironing.  And I loathe ironing.

For the last month I’ve been saying, “Monday I’ll start editing” ~ but Mondays don’t last like they used to.  (I start diets on Mondays, too ~ and they don’t work, either ~ any more than I do!)

Perhaps what I need is a strict disciplinarian ~ but if I mention that to Himself he’ll get that gleam in his eye.  I’ll need to explain that he has to send me to my laptop and order me to work, wench, or else.  Trouble is, he’s horizontal with the Telegraph crossword clutched to his chest.  Snoring.

Perhaps if I have a bit of a lie down myself I can start work when I wake up…

Posted by: philsteele | June 30, 2011

Nuts and bolts

I love watching Dr Who, also any of those gloom-laden detective  thrillers currently on television  … The trouble is, I often fail to understand the plot, and have to ask my teenage daughter to explain. It may be  gaps in my grey matter, it may well be the increasing existential complexity of life in the Tardis, but it may also be the fact that I tend to fall asleep at crucial moments and miss the clues.  I was always a bit like that. I would never be able to identify with a Time Lord, let alone Philip Marlowe or Jackson Brodie, being far too dozy and unfit.

I often wonder how you fiction writers plan out your plots and scripts. Flow charts, index cards, Cluedo boards, spread sheets? For all I know there’s something clever on your Mac which ensures that continuity and logic hold your stories together. Mind you, Raymond Chandler never really mastered those skills, did he, yet he remains a genius.

The planning of children’s non-fiction is of course very different – which is not to say it shouldn’t include leaps of imagination. The key planning stage for any information book  is a detailed synopsis.  This is the element of the work that deserves to have  the most time spent on it, although nobody would guess that from the stage payments listed in our contracts. It  provides the nuts and bolts on which the whole edifice depends, so it is absolutely crucial that it works. What is more, the structuring can provide hours of  relatively wholesome fun!  Really!

The conundrum starts with the choice of a topic. Is the subject to be sliced vertically or horizontally? Is a history book best ordered by themes, by chronology, by locations, by artefacts or by personalities? Is a book on wildlife best ordered by species or by habitats? This is rather like the problem faced by us all when we put CDs on a shelf: do we order them by artist, by title, by date or by genre? (Being  a sad person, I find that quite enjoyable, too!).  There may be no ’correct’ answer, but any solution must be guided by a strictly logical progression if it is to fulfill  its objective – communication with the reader.

Published this month by Kingfisher (Macmillan Children's Books): Navigators Ancient Greece. Kick-off in Knossos.

The exposition may be shaped by other factors, too. Is the topic best explored in chapters or in a succession of discrete double-page spreads? How many pages are left to play with once the prelims and the ever burgeoning  end matter is taken into account? Could some of that information be better placed within the main section of the book? A picture list is generally part and parcel of the synopsis, because, for the children’s market, visuals are as important as text. Plan in pictures! And that’s fun too.

And if  relentless logic reduces your attack to a plod or a grind,  there are all sorts of clever ways of  varying the pace or upping the tempo. Take your pick of the tricks: practical activity panels, amazing fact boxes, in-your-face visuals or all those clever gimmicks such as pull-outs, pop-ups, or bees that really buzz. In a less showy book, a case study panel can bring the reader down to earth from a wider or more theoretical debate, changing the focus to a more personal one.

Spreads, panels, visual realism... The Greeks as colonists and traders.

Other wake-up devices can be nicked from the world of fiction, such as introducing narrative elements, or bringing an event out from its natural chronological order to provide a dramatic ‘hook’ at the beginning.

In the Jurassic era of  my schooling I  had an inspired teacher who would allow one ‘Red Herring’ question in class each week. This would send him off the curriculum into all kinds of perfectly irrelevant avenues of anecdote and inquiry – and I remember every one of them to this day, long after the proper lesson has been forgotten.  The web offers that wonderful kind of freedom, too – ­  but it should come with a health warning.

The symposium. Themes explored include daily life, food, dress, sport, theatre and science.

The general format of websites is rarely suited to a  thorough, logical exploration of a topic. The links tend to divert the reader along tangents, many of them leading to dead ends. And watch out, fiction will not be not immune from this tendency as it goes electronic. This week on Radio 4 the head of Penguin Books seemed to welcome the fact that in future readers would no longer read a Jane Austen novel straight through, but would be encouraged to digress into Jane Austen recipes or sharing the Jane Austen experience on social networking sites.

Nevertheless, I am  told that the future is electronic and that children’s non-fiction in paper format is doomed, so perhaps my wise words on structure are the equivalent of a monk telling Wiliam Caxton the best way to cut a goose feather. Should we be welcoming in the age of electronic incoherence more wholeheartedly and positively? The Time Lord may say, ‘Yes!’, but   I suppose I say, ‘Well OK, but please give us the chance to make it more coherent. Book writers do know how to present information in ways that work.’

If you listen to a wonderful piece of music, you don’t notice the nuts and bolts engineered by the composer.  If you listen to a great poem you don’t notice   intricacies of metre and structure –  until you sit down and study it. Children’s non-fiction may not aspire to such heights, but a lot of structural work must happen before a book works well enough, unobtrusively,  to communicate and inspire.

Before I shut up, may I briefly return to the plotting of fiction? I was watching a You Tube clip recently of good old Kurt Vonnegut discussing the ‘Shapes of Stories’. (Was it a Dragontongue member who recommended it orginally?) Vonnegut draws out graphs of standard plot progressions along the axes Beginning > End and Good Fortune > Ill Fortune. Have a watch! . Non-fiction books may not be concerned so much with the decline from good fortune to ill fortune, but alas such plots are read by their authors all too often – in their bank statements or on their royalty cheques!  How much does one earn for an episode of Dr Who, I wonder?  Tell me how it’s done!

Posted by: David Thorpe | June 24, 2011

Let’s celebrate a new library extension!

The new Foleshill library extension in Coventry

The new Foleshill library extension

Here’s some bright news in all the doom and gloom!

We’ve heard a lot about library closures – both in schools and in the community.

Earlier this month the outgoing Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne warned society “will pay the price in the long term” for closing school and public libraries.

In a letter to his successor, Browne urged them to campaign against their closure. Browne said: “Do everything you can to support libraries – God knows, they need every bit of help they can get nowadays. I find it incredible and outrageous that public and school libraries are being forced to close – we’ll all pay the price in the long term.”

And Philip Pullman has been telling Wales Online that it’s all due to the death of “post-war altruism” and everything being “measured and assessed by cost”. He said: “This approach is tearing apart the invisible bonds of duty and loyalty, belonging and togetherness in the name of an ideology that nothing is more important than money.”

He’s largely right – but there are always counter-examples, and here is one I love – not only a new library extension but an inspiring one. Although it’s not in Wales, it’s not too far away – Coventry!

Foleshill library was originally built in 1913 and sits in a residential suburb.

And it’s been renovated! Not only does it now have improved access for disabled visitors, the extension has created a meeting room and an events and activity room which means it can host story time and reader group sessions for children and be a base for activities hosted by a youth worker who is based at the library.

But what I really like is its curved back wall, designed to demonstrate the library’s core theme of ‘imagination’.

It uses multi-coloured glazed bricks that are vertically stack-bonded to simulate library books, and to represent the multicultural diversity of the community.

But the brilliant thing, which any kids interested in code will love, is that the bricks are positioned to spell a message in Morse code, with one white brick representing a dot and three coloured bricks representing a dash.

Can you work out what it is before I tell you?! Go on, have a go! The link above takes you to a page with Morse code spelled out! And if you click on the pics they will enlarge.

OK, here is comes…… See if you got it right!

The pattern of bricks repeatedly spells out the words ‘Supposing’, ‘I Wonder’ and ‘What If’!

Isn’t that great? Isn’t that how we all dream up our fictions, and what we hope we can inspire kids to do? Well, they do it automatically of course anyway!
Manfred Baker, a Partner at Rush Davis, the project’s architect, told me: “It was important that the design of the building reflected the vibrancy of this multi-cultural area. By using coloured glazed bricks we were able to create a design that had real meaning and represented what the library was all about – imagination.”

So remind me – why do we need libraries?

Posted by: francesthomas | June 21, 2011

On Being A Happy Bunny – Malachy Doyle



       The Dragontongue blog is a year old this week, so it’s nice to be able to celebrate with a guest blogger. Malachy Doyle lived in Wales for many years, and his books include the Tir Na nOg winning Georgie, Granny Sarah and the Last Red Kite,  and The Dancing Tiger  


Back in 2005, I came across an old Swedish proverb:
‘Fear less, hope more,
Whine less, breathe more,
Talk less, say more,
Hate less, love more
And all good things will be yours.’

I really liked both what it was saying and how it was saying it, and decided to play around the concept, with young children in mind, to see if I could come up with a picture book. 

I originally called it ‘Eat less, breathe more’ and here’s some of the lines I considered (and rejected!) along the way:
‘Be bossy less, listen more,
Shrivel up less, dance more,
Couch potato less, read more…’

But it didn’t have the rhythm I wanted.  I wanted it to sing.

So I tried rhyme:
‘Take less, make more,
Scare less, dare more…’

but that was too limiting. 

Then I noticed that a lot of the lines I’d come up with were starting with the same letter, so I decided to see how that would work.  Some that didn’t make the cut were:
‘Whine less, whistle more,
Hate less, hug more,
Pout less, paint more,
Boo-hoo less, beam more,
Zoom less, zig-zag more…’

But I found lots I did like.  And it tripped off the tongue well. 

I tried it out on people, and it seemed to strike a chord.  I gave copies to my writers group, meeting that month in my house in Aberdyfi, and one of them (well known to Dragontongue) told me some time later ‘It’s pinned up on my fridge, I read it every morning, try to live it every day, and my life’s improved no end!’   Or something like that. 

Then my daughter asked if she could have it read it at her wedding – a proud moment for a proud papa.
A friend, recently passed away, asked for it to be read at her memorial service. 

It took two years for The Happy Book to find a publisher, and another four to get it out there, but Caroline Uff’s illustrations are joyful, colourful, warm and vibrant.


And I’m a Happy Bunny.

                            posted by Frances Thomas  for Malachy Doyle

Posted by: Wendy Meddour | June 17, 2011

On Truth and Chins in an Extra-Moral Sense

“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then 
I can turn the world upside down.”  Friedrich Nietzsche

When asked if I would write a blog for Dragontongue later in the year, I readily agreed. That would give me plenty of time to come up with something clever. As a new and amateurish author, I could dazzle fellow writers with my astounding pontifications about the Nietzschean resistance to the ‘Truth’. But then the lovely Frances emailed: “We’ve had a cancellation,” she wrote. “Can you do next week?”

I panicked. “But when blogging under pressure, my silly side comes out!” I typed.

“It’s about time we had a giggle,” replied Frances.

So here goes: my silly musings ‘On Truth and Chins in an Extra-Moral Sense’. You have been warned:

As children, we’re told that it’s wrong to tell lies: ‘You must always tell the truth,’ they say. This is a cruel piece of grown-up advice. You may as well ask a child to ‘jump off a cliff’ or ‘put their hand in a very hot oven.” But I was of a trusting disposition and reasoned that – as grown-ups were large, drove cars and sipped hot drinks without incident –  it wasn’t necessary to question the wisdom of their advice. This was the unfortunate result:

I was six years old and had spent the morning playing with the girl next door. She was an only child and her family were much wealthier than ours: Felicity had bows in her hair, a house full of toys, and a cupboard packed tight with impractical shoes. Going to her house was like visiting another world and I thought our morning had gone well. We’d clopped around in red high-heels and dined on biscuits and squash. But I was wrong. For that afternoon, there was a loud knock on our front door: it was Felicity and her red-faced mother Patricia:

Your daughter told my daughter that she’s got a double chin!” shrieked Patricia.

I held Mum’s hand very tight. “Is this true?” asked Mum. I nodded. Yes. I had told Felicity about her double chin.

“Oh Wendy!” said my mother, “How could you? What an awful thing to say.” I was confused. I looked at the double chin to check that it was still there.

“I’m so sorry about this,” said Mum. “I promise it won’t happen again.”

Felicity grinned and stuck out her tongue.

“I’m afraid that’s not good enough,” said Patricia. “I want your daughter to apologise to my daughter now.”

“Go on,” said Mum, pushing me forwards.

I really didn’t want to. But I had no choice. I remembered what I’d been told – about always telling the truth. So I took a deep breath and began: “I … I … I really am sorry that Felicity has a double chin,” I said.

I don’t remember what happened next.  It goes sort of black. But the forgotten memory still gives me goosebumps and I never got to wear Felicity’s bright red shoes again.  And now, as a grown-up (who’s not very large but drives a car and only sometimes spills hot drinks), I feel a twinge of guilt when I order my children to ‘always tell the truth’. For as we all know, the truth can be a dangerous thing!

(Important note:  I have CATEGORICALLY LIED about the names in this blog and anyone who recognises either themselves or their chins is COMPLETELY and UTTERLY MISTAKEN!!!!)

It is said that the book is dying, but as I sit in bright sunshine at Hay Festival looking around at thousands of book-lovers crammed into one tiny border town, I think its demise has been exaggerated.

As far as the eye can see people are talking about books. A group near the bar are loudly discussing the merits of one author over another. A middle-aged woman is becoming strident. Her friends allow her the floor for some minutes and then gently blow her out of the water. A man, possibly her husband, goes to buy another round.

A young man to the table to my left has his nose buried deep in a book. One hand is partly stretched towards a long-forgotten cup of coffee while he turns a page with the other, totally absorbed.

A child is enthusiastically telling his mother about meeting his hero who signed a book for him. The awe in the child’s voice is heart-warming. In a world where footballers, pop singers and celebrities seem to dominate children’s fantasies, it is good to know there are enough children clutching their treasured books to keep us in work a while longer.

Then there are those, god bless them, who don’t read, but think that they should. They turn up to festivals, nod off during the talks, but still buy the books. Earnestly, they queue up to have them signed and reverently display them on the bookshelf at home, unread.

Finally, there are the writers. Some have written long manuscripts that will never be read by anyone but themselves, while others will tell anyone who stands still long enough that they have written ‘a book’. There was one man who stood up after Phillip Pullman’s talk and offered to co-write a book with him! I’m not joking. When Mr Pullman did not jump at the chance, the man coyly admitted that he had written ‘a book’ and offered it to Mr Pullman to read. To quote Noel Coward, ‘The sheer bloody audacity of it!’

Yesterday, while I sat at my table, tapping away at my ipad, a white-haired, straight-faced woman struck up a conversation and quickly dropped in that she was a ‘published author’. She told me the name of her book and explained the plot at great length, but omitted to mention the publisher. When I asked, she couldn’t remember, but her friend supplied the name of one of the more virulent self-publishing schemes. ‘The sheer bloody audacity of it!’

I am one of the hundred thousand people attending the festival. I bought my tickets and am enjoying the talks. I even queued up for Maureen Lipman to sign my newly acquired book and, I’m embarrassed to admit, asked her to pose with me for a photo. I sit and failed to drink my tea while my nose is stuck in a book. I talk to friends, old and newly-made, about the merit of one writer over another. I do not admit to being a very, very minor author. Instead, I sit in the Telegraph tent when it is chilly, or outside when it is warm, drink in the atmosphere and write.

I am pleased to report that the book industry, as far as this book festival is concerned, is alive and well.

Posted by: francesthomas | June 2, 2011

Dear Reader…

I was reading David Copperfield the other day, and couldn’t help noticing the aplomb with which Charles Dickens addresses his reader – confident that the reader is out there, and hanging on to his every word. And it’s not just a reader, but A Reader. Sometimes he even seems to be a personal friend of this Reader, talking to him or her as he’d talk to his own family: (I am in danger of wearying the reader whom I love, with personal confidences and private emotions…) Charlotte Bronte, speaking as Jane Eyre, had no compunction in addressing her Reader directly, in that famous announcement of the marriage. Victorian writers were quite happy about doing this, it seems- typical of the confidence – the intellectual confidence, anyway of the age in which they lived.

We’re not nearly so comfortable about that, these days. You very seldom find a modern writer addressing his or her Dear Reader – we aren’t even sure that this personage exists, by the time the Publishing Industry with its marketing strategies and sales figures and projections has finished with our poor little offerings. Are our books there to be read, or to be marketed? Do we have to jump up and down and wave our hands to grab our reader’s attention, rather than just sitting quietly at our desks, quill-pen in hand, in a pool of lamplight, knowing the reader is out there waiting for us?

I found myself thinking about this the other day ; wondering who I’m writing for, and who my Ideal Reader is . Am I writing for a multitude of readers, or just a single, sympathetic soul? When I write for children, do I really imagine a classroom of thirteen year olds devouring my prose? (Scary!) Or do I write for my thirteen year old self? Sometimes, I know I do, and I have to stop myself, or my characters start exclaiming ‘Gosh’ and ‘Crikey’ and other words from my long-ago youth. Great mistake.

I suspect that though we might be telling ourselves that we’re just writing for ourselves, we’ve always got in our mind that Ideal Reader, adult or child, who is longing to read what we’ve written, will share our ideas, who understands. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why bad reviews are so painful: who are you anyway? You aren’t my Ideal Reader! How dare you say such things! No matter how our book will be sold, or who it will be sold to, the image of the Ideal Reader stays in our mind, even though he or she might be just a figment of our imagination. But….

Some years ago, I gave a talk at a Literary Festival. Things didn’t start off well. Rain was bucketing down from an angry black sky. Someone had got the timing of my talk wrong – the children who were supposed to make up my audience had mostly gone back to school the day before. I noticed a small boy, brought along by his mother and I felt bad on his behalf, because my book was really aimed at small girls. Still, I gave my talk and in spite of my misgivings, all went quite well.
Later, as I left the Festival ground, I was pleased to see the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. And there, also leaving the ground with his mother was the small boy. In his hands he held a copy of my book, and as he walked along, he read and read, transfixed, unable to stop … That small boy, Dear Reader, was my ideal reader…..

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