Sunday, 12 October 2014

Talking books...

It was pouring with rain last Saturday and I wasn't really in the mood to get out of my warm bed and walk into town in the miserable weather. I was glad I did, though. I went to hear Malorie Blackman talking to Michael Rosen about writing for teenagers. And they were both incredibly - effortlessly - entertaining! 

That's the Inkpot. It's a big tent, but there wasn't a single empty seat. Thankfully, it was also warm and dry without being stuffy - and I couldn't even hear the downpour once I was inside. I recognised a few Cheltonians in the audience - mostly mums with their teenage daughters - and I instantly resented my own children for being boys. Because boys are not interested in books - only Minecraft.

Malorie Blackman spoke in praise of libraries. She talked of writerly determination. She hoped for more diversity in books - and YA in particular. She said, "To be honest, I write for children and teenagers because they're so much more intelligent than adults!"
In spite of the way she was recently misquoted by Sky journalists and in spite of the ensuing racist abuse from Twitter trolls, Malorie Blackman really seems to like people. I think it's one of the things that makes her such an entertaining person to go and see if you get the chance. Even better to go if you're a writer, since you'll get the sense that Malorie Blackman also really loves writing.
Michael Rosen is endlessly likeable too. Every time Malorie said something that made me want to ask her a question, Michael Rosen jumped in and asked it for me. They're both just so good at this kind of thing!

When she was asked about the hardest part of her writing career, Malorie said the greatest struggle had been to get published at all. By her 67th or 68th rejection letter, she came close to thinking about giving up. In the end she decided to keep going until the 1000th rejection...and would then definitely have to think about it even more seriously. How's that for determination?
Malorie also admitted to so much self-doubt that she dutifully re-reads each of her finished books all the way through - just once - to look for typos etc, and then never reads them again because her inner-critic is so relentlessly critical. In contrast, Michael Rosen described himself as 'a spoiled brat' whose 'Jewish mother' had been so uncritical of him that he never had any doubts about anything he did - 'even when it was awful'. He then apologised for this not being a translatable technique since it requires you to have been brought up by a Jewish mother from 0-35 years.

This Saturday, I went to see two Chicken House authors - Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen talking about their YA book, Lobsters. Although it's a romance, it's also hilarious and excrutiatingly realistic. They were on stage with fellow YA author, James Dawson (This Book is Gay, Say her Name etc.) and the discussion ended up being about teenagers - when and how they discovered their sexuality, found themselves partners and lost their virginity. Both James and Lucy have worked in schools - as PSHE teachers - and quickly confirmed there was still a tortuous amount of pressure on teenagers when it came to sex (and sexual bullying). After a while, I found myself listening less as a reader and writer, and more as a parent of boys who are nearing their teens. Scary stuff. 
It was funny too, of course, but somehow less playful than Malorie Blackman's event. Because all three authors knew teenagers so well, I don't think they could bring themselves to be flippant about the struggles they faced with sexuality and life in general. So although we were warned beforehand that the discussion would be frank - possibly even filthy - it ended up being quite touchingly respectful.

This event was in The Studio, which is a much smaller tent than The Inkpot, so another difference between this discussion and the first one I went to, was that there were fewer people in the audience and we were all much closer to the authors on the stage. As a result, people joined in more. The passage from Lobsters that was read by Lucy and Tom contained the words 'knobhead' and 'minge'  - and both authors admitted they had no idea how the teenage jargon of the UK would be received by an American audience. Tom suggested 'douchebag' could be used for 'knobhead', but couldn't come up with a substitute for 'minge'. Whereupon, a woman in the audience called out, 'Keep it! Make them learn it!' and everyone giggled. Lucy Ivison liked the idea of 'standing up for her minge' and including a glossary in the back of the book.
The atmosphere was so friendly, I even asked a question myself - which I wouldn't have been brave enough to do in the bigger event. (And - no, it wasn't about minges.)

It was a thoroughly Chicken Housey day, as it happened. Before the Lobsters event, I took the whole family to see James Dashner's Maze Runner at the cinema - and sat through both, feeling proud and excited to be in the same coop as so many talented writers.

As soon as we stepped into the cinema, Eleven-year-old was greeted by two boys he had been at primary school with. Only they didn't mention schools or any of the other big changes they've been going through lately - because the first boy was too eager to make it clear that he'd already read the Maze Runner book and knew everything that was about to happen in the film. Second boy was keen to make it clear that he was about to borrow the book - and would soon know everything too. A very small part of me hoped that Eleven-year-old would respond with something like, 'Yeah, well my mum has the same publisher as James Dashner, so I win!' But he didn't, because he's eleven and he couldn't care less.
It was great to hear so much enthusiasm for a book from eleven year old boys. I'm sure they're one of the hardest groups for writers to reach, as it takes really good story to lure them away from bloody Minecraft.

The Maze Runner was exciting all the way through - very character driven too. Husband and oldest son really enjoyed it. They both agreed that it was a much better film (and story) than the Hunger Games - and probably made for a fraction of the cost. Eight-year-old whimpered with terror for much of the way through, but refused to leave his seat when I offered to take him out for ice-cream. So I suppose he must've been enjoying the film too, in his own (exceptionally wussy) way.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the first boy who greeted my son, retook his seat and waited for the lights to go down before slipping an enormous woolly hat onto the back of his head. Aw! Eleven year old boys who are just beginning to discover style - and are having a tentative go at it themselves - are adorable!

Now have I mentioned Minecraft yet?

It's the one LitFest event that both my boys were happy to attend, so of course it sold out before the tickets had been on sale for an hour. But Matt and Phil from FyreUK were persuaded to put on an extra Minecraft session this morning, so we went along to hear it. 
And it was weird. All the most successful children's authors have been using props, costumes, wacky voices, silly faces - anything to hold the children's attention for more than three minutes. But not Matt and Phil. They droned on in interchangeable monotones, made no eye-contact with the audience, and were (to me) largely incomprehensible. But my boys sat there and listened, nodding occasionally as if to say, 'Yes, I would've used redstone for that build too.' or 'Yes, I find those mods very buggy as well.' It was like a different language. An entire tentful of  4-12 year olds just sat there and listened. They even asked their own, unintelligible questions at the end. Matt and Phil gave long and detailed answers. I got the impression that Matt and Phil could've gone on talking about Minecraft for another twenty-four hours. And most of the children would've sat there listening and nodding. Personally, I was more than ready to swap that Minecraft tent for the Cafe Rouge and a Croque Monsieur!

'Wanna go outside and get some fresh air today, Matt?'
'Fresh air? What on earth's that, Phil?'
'No idea, Matt, but I overheard a non-gamer mention it once...' 

So...what else have I been reading? Well, Lobsters, of course. Which made me laugh and then compare my own teenage characters with Lucy and Tom's to make sure they were as realistically drawn. I think they are...mine are just more unpleasant, that's all!

I've also started Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and I'm already shocked at how harrowing a YA book can be. A young woman is being tortured by the Nazis and I have an uncomfortable feeling that I haven't read the worst of it yet. It's too good for me to have a hope of putting it down, though. It's especially impressive because it's written by an American, but feels entirely English. I haven't read anything quite this clever in ages!

I'm still reading the Famous Five series to the boys, although we're underwhelmed with book number six - 'Five On Kirrin Island Again'. Very early on, Alf the fisher-boy from the previous stories is renamed 'James', and the boys didn't like it. They made me say 'Alf' every time I read 'James', which of course means he's mostly known as 'Ja-alf' now. Shortly after this, the Famous Five went into the little dark room (with the two slits of windows) in one of the ruined towers of the castle on Kirrin Island. The room was intact in spite of the fact that its ceiling collapsed in book number three. I know Enid Blyton was prolific, but surely she had editors and proof-readers to help her. Perhaps they thought that children wouldn't care. They do, though - vociferously!
When I was reading it yesterday, Uncle Quentin asked George if she would leave Timmy on the island with him and then go home. George didn't want to, since she prefers her dog to her father (not unreasonably) and Aunt Fanny made an impassioned speech from the dog's point-of-view. My husband came into the room to get changed while I was trying to read this bit. Although his back was turned to me and the boys, I could see his shoulders starting to shake and there was a bulge in his cheek from a massive grin. I carried on, but it got harder and harder to keep a straight face...

'Now George, be unselfish. If it were left to Tim to decide, you know perfectly well that he would stay here - and stay without you. He would say to himself, "I'm needed here - my eyes are needed to spy out enemies, my ears to hear a quiet footfall - and maybe my teeth to protect my master. I shall be parted from George for a few days - but she, like me, is big enough to put up with that!" That's what Timmy would say, George, if it were left to him.'
As soon as Aunt Fanny has finished this speech, Timmy gets up, walks over to George's father and lays down beside him. He does not follow George... 'No - he meant to stay by her father now, even though he would much rather be with his mistress. He was sorry that George was unhappy - but sometimes it was better to do a hard thing and be unhappy about it, than try to be happy without doing it.
Oh God! This is a DOG! The world's noblest, most philosophical dog. By the time I'd finished, we were all in hysterics.

Even the cover would've benefited from having the eye of an editor cast over it. George, who is an expert sailor and general outdoorsy- type, is looking at Kirrin Island through the wrong end of a telescope. On the plus side, however, Julian's eyelashes are divine.  

'Gracious, Ju! Kirrin Island looks tiny today.'
'Sorry, George, I'm too busy looking fabulous to care.'


  1. Oh my, that brought back some Famous Five memories from our house! Hubby used to read them to the girls at bedtime and then they would discuss the merits of said book and give them a score - just like their own little book club! I was rarely invited to join in but I did listen outside the door on numerous occasions!

    Reading Maze Runner myself at the moment, as soon as I've finished I plan to go and see the film. Hopefully later this week. Lots of good reviews out there.

    Festival sounds wonderful, so wish I could go along to one myself. Penzance have started doing a (small) festival but I was working the whole time there was anything interesting going on! Hey ho, maybe I'll have to try and squeeze in a weekend somewhere next year.

  2. My children are far too old for the Famous Five now. I think it's a reaction to the oldest one going off to senior school (he's already talking about exams and girls!) so we're tucking up and regressing a bit at bedtime.
    It would be brilliant if you came here for a day at the LitFest - I could meet you for lunch and maybe a tour of the shops! Make sure you let me know xx