Saturday, 10 December 2016

Ways to Find a Title by Jess Butterworth

My first novel, a middle grade adventure, started out as Fire Walker. I thought the title was punchy, enticing and reflected a theme in the story. My workshop tutors and peers liked it, as did everyone else I told about it. But then my agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, pitched the novel to editors and received feedback that the title made it sound like a fantasy, which it wasn’t.

So I went back to my notebook and brainstormed new ideas. I decided on Meet Me at the Vulture Tree. Sallyanne tested it on a few people and the response this time was that it sounded too grown up, like a book for adults and not for middle grade.

I felt unsure of where to go from there, so Sallyanne helped me pull lines from the story that could be potential titles. For one draft, the book was called How to be a Snow Lion. By the next draft it became When the Flames Roared, then Mapping the Stars, before On the Roof of the World.

It quickly felt like I had a different title every few days and I didn’t know how to choose between them. I sent Sallyanne a list of my favourites and she suggested adding a verb in front of On the Roof of the World. My main character opens the story running through fields on the Tibetan plateau, and Running on the Roof of the World suddenly felt like the perfect fit. It seemed as if it had always existed, fully formed and just waiting to be discovered.  
I’ve just finished my second book and am now searching for its title too. For anyone else also going through this process, these suggestions are helping me:

1.     Unless you know it’s perfect, try not to grow too attached to a title as the chances are it will change.  

2.     Wander around libraries and bookshops to get a feel for the titles that are out there. What hooks you? What doesn’t?

3.     Are there any lines/words/phrases from the story itself that would make a good title?

4.     What are the themes of the book? Are there any key words from them that could be incorporated into the title?

5.     Are there geographical landmarks, like mountains or deserts, that could be suggested by the title?

6.     Could it be a character? Or an antagonist’s trait?  

7.     Does your title reflect the genre of the book?

8.     Will it appeal to your intended readership?

Happy title hunting!  

Jess Butterworth

Friday, 9 December 2016

Normalise it!

Horse pulling the chariot of the Sun.
Note the horse also has wheels (National Museum, Denmark)
I was in Copenhagen recently and went to the National Museum. To get in, I had to pay 75 kroner (about £8.50). If I had been under 18, it would have been free. But if I had been me,  accompanied by a young person under 18, it would have cost me only 60 kroner. Isn't that a brilliant idea? Encouraging people to involve children with cultural or educational activities by making it not just free but profitable to do so - it's genius. And it works on a more subtle level, too. It shows that the entire country believes in the value of children learning about the world around them and becoming embedded in culture.

In the UK, entry to many museums is free at any age. But within the museums, there are often special exhibitions you have to pay to enter. Perhaps those should adopt this policy of a discount if you take a child. Maybe people would actually seek out children - nephews and nieces, grandchildren, children of friends - to take to a museum. 

Someone told me the other day that where he has his hair cut, children can have a free hair-cut as long as they read aloud while it happens.

Prehistoric trephined skull (hole
cut or drilled as medical
treatment), National Musuem
There must be lots of things we could do to encourage parents in getting their children reading and knowing and being involved in our shared culture. Maybe bookshops could offer a discount on a children's book when you buy an adult book (and vice versa) to encourage reading across the ages. It wouldn't cost them any more than the 3-for-2 deals. Maybe cafes could give a free drink to children who are reading (or being read to) while waiting for their meal. It wouldn't cost much and could increase footfall. I'd have chosen the cafe that did that over a cafe that didn't. Even just a cafe that had a box of children's books alongside the newspapers would be nice.

Treating reading and cultural engagement as something that is encouraged by society as a whole, and mirrored by society as a whole, so that it's not just associated with school, will surely raise levels of literacy and cultural understanding? Children reading or listening to books in cafes and hairdressers or on buses or whatever, making it visible to children who don't read for pleasure or aren't read to, would slowly have a wider impact, too, surely? At least, it wouldn't do any harm.

Have you heard of any other imaginative initiatives like these? Perhaps if we all share and encourage them, some might be replicated elsewhere.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Farewell, Jonny by Keren David

There was only one possible subject for me this month. The untimely death of a fellow member of the Scattered Authors' Society, the late, great Jonny Zucker.

I met Jonny quite early on in my career as an author. We had a lot in common -  both Jewish, both living in Haringey, both published by Frances Lincoln Children's Books. We shared a lot of friends. But it wasn't this that made me immediately feel that I had a new friend. It was Jonny's warmth and humour, his wit and imagination and, when I heard him speak at an event organised by Haringey libraries, the way that children so obviously found him inspiring and infinitely entertaining. 

He met a lot of children. He was always visiting schools, working with children, making them laugh, encouraging them to read, inspiring them to write. His way of being an author wasn't about celebrity or making a fortune (although in Haringey schools he was famed for being a lot of children's favourite author). It was all about the readers. Who knows how many lives he changed?  It is certainly in the thousands. That, in the end, is the real measure of an author's success. 

When Frances Lincoln closed its children's fiction list, we authors had a meal with our wonderful editors to thank them for their hard work. I organised a collection to buy them gifts. But I didn't want to make a speech -  why would I, when I knew that Jonny would do it so much better than me? I only asked him that evening, and he rose to the occasion and made the perfect speech.

To get an idea of Jonny's style and wit, here's a tribute from the Hertford Literary Festival. Or read one of his many books -  there are more than 80, including the Striker Boy series. 

Over the last week I've spoken to a lot of people about Jonny, to fellow authors and to members of the Jewish community (in part because I am Features Editor of the Jewish Chronicle). These are some of the things that people have said.: 

My connection with Jonny was meeting him on the block or on the school run where he would approach me with a high five and big smile . We would chat about stories and publishing. He was kind, funny, generous and a warm hearted figure in this community. I once did an event with Jonny at our local library where he delighted the children by playing magic tricks while talking about his stories.. He was passionate about engaging the creative spirit in children and young people and was very successful in engaging boys in particular about becoming keen readers and writers. . His enthusiasm and playful nature was infectious and his passion for stories, reading and creativity has been communicated to so many.
Sita Brahmachari, author.

A memory of Jonny from me is of his tremendous warmth and friendliness and his generous enthusiasm towards other writers' work, including mine. I sat up late one night at Charney with him and another author, comparing notes on the difficulties of getting our books published and I'll always remember the hug he gave me, the day he left and him saying fiercely "It's a bloody good book, mate!" and wishing me luck. Jonny was an absolutely lovely guy. We're all going to miss him.
Kath Langrish, author.

Jonny was utterly fab - I did several joint author sessions with him over the years. His enthusiasm was infectious and kids who were lucky enough to be part of his events all ended up in stitches and totally adoring of him. 
 Karen McCombie, author

He never failed to make me laugh and astonish me with the prodigality of his story ideas - he once pitched ten ideas at me in one meeting. He always spoke of his work in schools promoting reading with great enthusiasm and he must have been a wonderful dad from the descriptions of rough and tumble with his boys. He loved to be cheekily ambitious in his expectations of his books and publishers but always did it with such great humour that you couldn’t help but love him for it. 
Maurice Lyon, editor

I've known Jonny Zucker since we were teenagers  and he was always the most talented in the room - funny, charismatic, a great mimic and wonderful storyteller. As an author, he was represented by my colleague, Stephanie Thwaites at Curtis Brown, and published fabulous books for kids, covering  a whole range of subjects from football to spies, from flea detectives to illustrated books for early readers. His Striker series and Monster Swap books were hugely popular. He will be sorely missed by the schools he regularly spoke at and the countless children he inspired to read and write. We have lost a great voice, educator and man
 Jonny Geller, CEO of his agency, Curtis Brown. 

 He was always interested in people and his ability to transcend age differences meant he was as close to his niece and nephew, young cousins and friends’ children as he was to their parents and grandparents. The loss of a man of such talent, warmth and personality has left a gaping chasm. His legacy is a significant body of work.  
Jonny's friends, Anne Joseph and James Libson who wrote his obituary in the Jewish Chronicle, published tomorrow. 

Jonny is mourned by his wife, Fiona, three sons, his parents and sister. I am sure I speak for the whole SAS in wishing them a long life, free from further pain and sorrow. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A Celebration of Christmas Annuals by Dawn Finch

It's a shorter post this month from me as the year has run away with me again and I'm determined to get everything done before 2017 arrives. This also means cramming in Christmas shopping. I was in a shop the other day and I heard two mothers talking about how Christmas annuals were "garbage" books. They both seemed annoyed that people so often give them to children. 

As you know, nothing gets me more annoyed than adults making sweeping negative book decisions for their children, and it started me thinking about how much I loved getting an annual when I was a child. I flicked through the comic Christmas annuals and was pleased to see that they are almost exactly the same as when I was a child.

When I was a very small person, the arrival of the Christmas Annual on the shelves of the paper shop was the first hint that Christmas was on its way. Long before the tinsel went up, the glossy covers of the Christmas annuals were grinning at me from the shelf above the grey universe of the newspapers. These were the books that kept me going over Christmas. When the adult world of Christmas closed in and drowned all concentration – these dip-in books were a marvel (pun intended). They were the hand-held games of their day and you could sneak off, find a spot to sit, and dip into comic adventures, short stories, puzzles, jokes, and things to make and do.

I have a particularly poignant relationship with them however, as I was blessed with an aunt who knew the value of money. This meant that most of my annuals were bought from jumble sales. There really is nothing more depressing than to spend a week looking at that A4 sized parcel under the tree wishing for the 1977 Monster Fun annual, but knowing it’s probably the 1973 Hotspur for Boys with all the dot-to-dots already done.

As a festive post I wanted to share a few of the annuals that gave me many festive quiet moments and escapes. So here’s to the Christmas annual. A much maligned and dismissed item, but something that for many was one of the first books they ever owned. A book that defied technology and sneakily kept reading at the heart of the season. I, for one, am glad they've survived.

Footnote - I did get the Monster Fun one, but had to wait for my dad to finish reading it first.
It was worth the wait.

Post by Dawn Finch
Children's Writer and Librarian

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tyler Family Christmas

Early in December I begin reading the annual round of much loved Christmas stories. Among them are the March girls delivering their Christmas breakfast to a hungry family and the Ingalls putting baked potatoes at their visitors feet to keep them from freezing on their sleigh ride home.

This year, I would like to give you the Tyler family Christmas as celebrated in 2010. I don't pretend we have the charm of the March or Ingalls families, but it is ours and I offer it to you with love.

There is nothing more magical than waking up to a world covered in snow. A reverential hush descends, footsteps are muted and activities are transformed to fit a new landscape of breath-taking beauty. But when show falls at Christmas, the world becomes a place of enchantment.

We live in the mountains and have been snowed in for some days. Mum, Dad and the dogs are trudging though the snow to meet the family. Cars cannot reach the farm and must be parked two miles down the hill. As people tumble out of their cars smiling and laughing, everyone is caught up in a bundle of hugs, kisses and happiness. We pile sledges high with luggage and presents and tramp back to the house singing Good King Wenceslas: the girls sing the part of the page and the boys take the King. As usual, we shout the last word in the line ‘heat was in the very sod’ and giggle like naughty children in a school assembly.

Eventually, we tumble into the house with cold noses and numb fingers, stamping life back into our feet. We stand in front of the wood burner and melted snow forms small pools on the rug.

The house has been transformed by Mum into a magical candle-lit wonderland with green boughs and twinkling tree lights. As we put the presents under the tree, Dad brings us mulled wine and Christmas has truly begun.

Christmas Eve ends with Mum reading aloud Lucy and Tom’s Christmas by the light of the Christmas tree. Then we watch The Snowman followed by Father Christmas and we give our annual toast of thanks to Raymond Briggs. As we climb the stairs to bed, we sing a slightly raucous version of Father Blooming Christmas.

Silent Night. Soundlessly, the snow falls outside. Mum lies in bed happy to have her family gathered under the same roof for three deliciously precious nights.

Christmas morning dawns and the snow is deeper still. ‘Happy Christmas!’ echoes round the kitchen as we eat breakfast in front of the Aga. Then we bundle ourselves up to head out into the snow. The dogs chase us as we toboggan down the hills witnessed only by a few startled sheep. The kids perfect the technique of standing on sledges as they career down the slopes. Mum falls off and we all laugh as she staggers to her feet covered in snow. The sun is big and red, just like Lucy and Tom’s, and the camera catches the boys jumping over it and flying through the air like winter super heroes.

Back in the house, the piano and guitars accompany our carol singing. The song sheets are falling apart with age, but they are another tradition. At every exclamation mark we slap our thighs; an unmerited capital letter has us standing up and quickly sitting again. What we lack in piety, we make up for with laughter. We finish, as we do every year, with Mum’s favourite, O Come all ye Faithful. As always, Mum sheds a tear of happiness.

Then, we put on our wellies and venture outside again to see who can pop the bubbly cork the furthest. This year one cork goes out of sight and we suspect it lands two fields away – a family record.

We hurry back into the house for present-opening. The youngest passes a present out from under the tree and the recipient opens it carefully – no paper-ripping in our home – while everyone watches and comments. It takes a while, but no one is in a hurry.

Lunch is mid afternoon. We all eat brussel sprouts not because we like them, but because it’s tradition. The wishbone is pulled and someone gets a wish. Afterwards the oldies are sent to doze by the fire while the youngsters clear away, and by the time they join Mum and Dad night has fallen.

Darkness once more transforms our home into a mystical wonderland and the games begin. They are noisy and boisterous and competitive. Merriment is the key component and we laugh until our sides ache.

Bed is late. Mum and Dad go first and youngsters stay downstairs savouring the company of their siblings. Games from their youth are played and no one notices what time they finally troop up to bed.

Boxing Day is quieter. We walk the snowy hills and try out a new camera. In the evening we watch a film, but it takes ages because we keep stopping to talk, tell a story or make a joke.

After a late and very long breakfast the following morning, we pile up the sledges with bags and suitcases and trudge back to the cars. Mum hides her tears as her children drive away. She watches and waves until they are long out of sight.

Mum, Dad and the dogs walk back to an empty house.

Christmas is over, but the memories remain.”

Monday, 5 December 2016

Creative Writing: Erasmus Plus in Paris

I was invited to the Lycee Maurice Genevoix, in Montrouge in Paris, at the end of November to run a few writing workshops based on my short story, The Death of Princess. It was going to be a two-day event - fifty French students from the school for a two hour workshop on the first day, and over sixty international students and twenty teachers, from the Erasmus Plus programme, for four hours the next day.

The school is part of the Erasmus Plus programme. Erasmus Plus is funded by the European Commission to support education, training, youth and sport in Europe. It has a budget of €14.7 billion to provide opportunities for over four million Europeans to study, train, gain experience, and volunteer abroad, and for co-operation in innovation and exchange of good practices in education and teaching.

The aim of the Erasmus Plus meet that I was part of at the Lycee Maurice Genevoix was to foster intercultural awareness and improve creativity and English Language skills amongst the participants. 

To that end, the kids were very well prepared by their teachers before arriving in Paris for their week of workshops, which included a host of activities, talks, workshops on urban farming and taking part in my writing workshop. The week of programmes was organised by an English teacher in the school - Sarah el Bouh, who co-ordinated all the international speakers invited for the week, the international pupils and teachers, and she did it amazingly well, enthusiastically supported by the staff from the school. 

For my international event, pupils and teachers from eight countries were involved: France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, Turkey, Latvia, and Italy. Their proficiency in English varied, but the pupils were engaged and lively when it came to discussing the short story, asking and answering questions and producing written work.

All the countries involved in my workshop had translated my story into their own language. One pupil from Lithuania even wrote out a passage from the story, illustrated it, and framed it before presenting it to me.

Carla Barbi, from the Italian team, presented me with a stunning book on her region of Italy - San Giorgio, Mantova.

The Turkish team came with beautiful drawings depicting different scenes from my story. I was presented with one that I could take home.

The French students from both days had prepared illustrations based on scenes in the short story that had impacted them most. Here's a collection of their work -

 And some more illustrations from the French students -

The kids broke up into smaller groups for discussion and the writing exercises. Each group was mixed in terms of English language ability, but also mixed in terms of nationality. The kids worked with each other, got an insight into each other's cultures and view points, and helped and supported each other in understanding the themes of the story, which was great to see.

Considering the mixed range of English ability amongst the 60 kids, I can honestly say that their level of interest and engagement far exceeded my expectations. It was fulfilling and rewarding, and from the feedback I've had from the teachers, the kids felt the same way too.


So, would I do something like this again? 

Yes, in a heartbeat!

A big thank you to Miriam Halahmy for putting me in touch with this project!

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