05 December 2008

The Traitor Game, B R Collins

Maybe I picked this up because I've been reading teen books centred about being gay and / or being bullied, but whatever the reason, I'm so glad I did... I'll be putting a proper recommendation in the next Teen UBG, but I have to mention it here, as it is a book that needs to be read. Yes, there are flaws, and yes, some of the emotions arc is simplistic, but it is still overwhelmingly powerful, with characters you love and situations you recognise. I can't remember when I last read a teen book I didn't want to end, and this one I didn't. In fact I'd happily read a sequel...

The one thing I'm curious about is whether B R Collins cut her writing teeth online, as there are elements in it that are closer to fanfiction than professional fiction - and this is in no way a criticism!

I have to go write the recommendation now. Hmm, maybe I'll need to re-read too...

23 November 2008

Simon Doonan's Beautiful People

I'm reading Simon Doonan's wonderful recollection of growing up queer in Reading (and doesn't that capital 'R' make a difference? I think I grew up very queer in my reading, but it was nowhere near Reading...) and it occurred to me that there are very few books where gay teens have an angst-free adolescence. I suspect that, along the lines of all misery memoirs, there's more money to be made from the less cheerful aspects. As a sales pitch queer-bashing undoubtedly wins over 'moment of enlightenment when faced with realisation that mood-lighting exists and there are other boys who like it too'. Not that I want all pink frothy delight or all doom and gloom, but many of the 'gay teen' books that I love most are really quite happy, or have the doom and gloom laden on by life, not specifically by the fact of the protagonist being homosexual: Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan; Strange Boy by Paul Magrs; Baby Be-Bop by Francesca Lia Block and New Boy by William Sutcliffe... but I do love Dance on my Grave and the other Aidan Chambers that deal with sexuality in a complex way, and Hero by Perry Moore which is funny and sad and terrifying too.

Actually, just making a list makes me realise how few books there are out there about the whole coming out experience. There's much more choice in America - apart from Magrs and Chambers those on my list are American and the Doonan is really written for adults - and the GLT Teen genre seems to be growing fast there. I particularly want to try Alex Sanchez's books, and some more David Levithan, they may not speak directly of the UK experience, but at least they address many of the issues so many sexually conflicted / sexually different teens face. I wonder if there'll be an upsurge of queer writing for teens here too? And if so whether we'll head down the misery memoir road, or try for something a little more positive and uplifting!

17 November 2008

what a month!

Danny and I've been deep in the depths (see, very, very deep depths) of putting the revised Teen Guide together, and all in all it's been just as harrowing as usual. Deadlines are always such fun... especially as Danny's laptop seems to have turned up its toes today. Which as you can imagine is dire news - so if anyone knows of any laptop gods, please to feel free to pass on suggestions for offerings etc..

However, I've come away from re-writing the read-ons with a mammoth list of books I want to read. And a mammoth list of books I know I should read but really, really, don't think I will. Twilight heads that list, and yes, I know I should, but... will I? Should I really? Will I be sucked into a desperate world where I need to read all the books, see the movie and wear black forever? (hmm, thinks, I do that a lot anyway)

What else? Oh, in school news I'm taking a group of kids up to Newcastle later this month to compete in the National Finals of the Kids' Lit Quiz. We had such fun last year, I hope it's as good this time around. I have NO expectation of winning - I'll be very happy if the boys just enjoy themselves!

I'm deeply in love with The Secret Life of Bees and have no idea how I missed it when it came out. It's the most lyrical, involving, uplifting book I've read in an age, and I'm only sorry that Sue Monk Kidd seems to have written so few other books. Well, only one other novel anyway. I've squrreled that away for Xmas - like treasure...

28 October 2008

We Are All Born Free & The Graveyard Book

Last night, courtesy of the lovely people at Bloomsbury, I attended the UK launch of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Very aptly the party was held in the crypt of St Martin's in the Field, and the atmosphere was completed by the presence of various 'ghosts' mingling amongst the guests. Mr Gaiman was, once again, a consumate professional, and signed endlessly for the various book people in attendance - and much to my delight the two illustrators (One book title, two versions, one illustrated for adults and one for children, one by Dave McKean and one by Chris Riddell) were there, and I managed to get my copies signed by them too!

Danny - who may comment later - and I had earlier in the evening been at Waterstone's on Piccadilly to attend the launch of another wonderful book, this time the launch of Amnesty International's celebration of 50 years of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights - We Are All Born Free. We watched the wonderful short video that's being shown in cinemas and looked at all the glorious illustations - each Right was assigned to a different illustator and so the book is a wonderful mix of styles, which somehow really keeps you focused and keyed in to the message. As an aside, my favourite is Jane Ray's - just because the style is so unlike the one she is famous for!

Anyway, Danny had also found an absolutely spot-on Shelley quote for The Graveyard Book, and I showed it to Neil Gaiman, who loved it. Now I simply have to email to Ian at Bloomsbury who, being a nice chap, will forward it for me. All in all? A lovely evening - though I am now very tired. I always forget at launches - don't drink the wine until AFTER the food!

27 October 2008


Last night it was Neil Gaiman talking as part of Jewish Book Week - and he as absolutely delightful. I adore his work, so to find him charming, relaxed, insightful, eloquent and just as intelligent as one could hope was lovely. I'm deeply indebted to Ian at Bloomsbury who has invited me to the official launch of The Graveyard Book tonight, so I get to fangirl Mr Gaiman all over again :)

My only quandry is - which version to buy? Chris Riddell or Dave McKean?

26 October 2008

City of Bones

Yay, I finally got to see Hamlet! Actually, I do know that Hamlet isn't quite a children's book - but I do have some excuse for mentioning it here as there were loads of kids (some very young) at the RSC's Courtyard theatre on Friday evening. So...a little aside here to say how much I enjoyed Mr Tennant's performance. And to marvel at how incredible skinny he is!

In my book world though I'm reading Cassandra Clare's City of Bones. It's a vast urban supernatural that leans heavily on past glories in the genre, but is nonetheless really enjoyable. It's one of the few books I've ever read that is wired securely into the online world. Many many references to the internets and its culture, from gaming to manga to blogs. It's really refreshing, as in so many books around now you'd think kids didn't have this alternative world that they disappear into...

eta: I'm now reading the online fuss about it - the Amazon comments are fascinating!

And tonight? Neil Gaiman talking at Jewish Book Week! Hurrah! I'm torn between just going, listening, then leaving, and going, listening and taking my copy of Coraline for him to sign (or possible one of this comics, though - which one of The Sandman? Or should it be The Wolves in the Wall? Oh, choices!)

20 October 2008


I spent the weekend with in-laws and their new baby (two months old and really far too cute). The awe-inspiring thing? They are actually reading the Ultimate First Book Guide and thinking seriously about books and reading. Amazing - and deeply touching. Why? Maybe as editor I feel almost as if the books slide off into a vague 'elsewhere', where they look pretty on shelves but don't get used. But this baby? Oh, no, his reading will be shaped by the book and the info inside it. Like I said, awe-inspiring indeed!

And as a 'leaving work for maternity leave' present, everyone at sister-in-law's workplace bought a copy of the book they remember loving most as a child. The whole collection was popped into a hamper with some pretty baby stuff and smellies for the mum. What a lovely idea...

16 October 2008

Cheltenham II

As Leonie said, a lovely Cheltenham weekend, with unaccustomed sunshine but everything else just as we'd left it after last year's festival (which doesn't feel a year away...). And yes, our event with Anne was really fun, a very frank discussion (I don't think Anne does any other kind, now that I think about it) ranging widely over books and reading and schools and bookshops and children and age ranging and libraries, to a lovely, engaged audience of parents, teachers and others...

As always, as Leonie suggested, there is for us a lovely social aspect to these festivals too - while the UBGs allow us to work with great people, it happens remotely and we very rarely actually get to meet them in person, so events like Cheltenham allow us to sit on a stage with some of our longest-serving contributors, to have coffee with Caroline in the Writers' Room, to have breakfast with Anne at the hotel, etc. Anne, incidentally, has been a great supporter of the UBGs since we first started talking about them all those years ago, and she's done us a new introduction for the revised edition of the 8-12 guide, which goes into production in eight days!

I also chaired a couple of other panels while I was there, which is always fun, and Jane always gives me some real treats. One event this year was on picture books, with three illustrators whose work I love - Emily Gravett (I've posted enthusiastically on her before), David Lucas (whose books include the delightful Halibut Jackson) and Polly Dunbar (creator of the enchanting Penguin); the second was on thrillers for teenagers, with Tim Bowler, Cathy MacPhail and Sophie McKenzie (UBG contributors all). I'd never read Sophie before this, but did read Girl, Missing in preparation for the event and it's excellent - gripping, sympathetic, moving, well plotted. Looking forward to reading her second (Blood Ties) before too long. Both have been recommended for the forthcoming revised edition of the U Teen B Guide, btw.

Currently reading and enjoying Tim's Frozen Fire, then moving on to a few other books for the new UTBG - Triskellion and Seventh Tide are next...


PS How exciting to hear that Neil Gaiman is coming to do some events in the UK! My friend Naomi Alderman (who is a huge fan of his) is interviewing him on stage on Sunday 26th in north London, and I've already booked my ticket. Saw him speak last year at Hay and he was very good, and anyway just to be in a room with the man who created Coraline... (Scary scary scary book...)

15 October 2008


What a week! Mad things at work (real work, in the actual library) and a mad weekend away at the Cheltenham Literary Festival for UBG work... I have to admit that Cheltenham was the best - the festival is always gorgeous (especially when the town is basking in unseasonally glorious sunshine - I didn't wear a coat all weekend), beautifully run (thank you Jane Churchill, wonderful organiser of the Book It! children's festival) and probably my favourite of the yearly book events. I even managed to sneak out to the racecourse theatre (yes, there is one) to see Russell T Davis and John Barrowman discussing Dr Who and Torchwood... laugh? I nearly fell off my seat!

Our event was on Monday, and somehow Jane had persuaded Anne Fine to share the stage with us. Yes, we felt totally not worthy, as Anne is not only one of the few truly great writers for children, but is one of the sharpest and most intelligent observers of the way reading is treated in this country. Luckily for us, she also happens to be a great person to share a stage with! We signed afterwards - and spent a while marvelling at the table that held Anne's back catalogue... can anyone else have written so much, so successfully and for so many ages?

It was all great fun, and afterwards Caroline Lawrence was in the green room too, so we spent a while catching up and being amazed that the Roman Mysteries series is almost reaching its end! What are kids going to do now? Let's hope Caroline's next series will be just as long and popular.

Once our event was over (and the adrenaline rush had faded) there was shopping to do and a train to catch. Danny and I shared an otherwise almost deserted carriage home, and read / dozed our way back to the real world.

01 October 2008

Sorry sorry sorry...

Two months without a post - shameful.

My excuse is that I've been away and busy, but it's not a great excuse, I realise...

(Susan has a much better excuse - since last posting she's had a baby - Emily - who arrived at the start of August! One more child to road-test books for the UBG, pleased to say...)

For me, August was spent in China, which included a few days at the International Translators' Federation congress in Shanghai - among other sessions I heard a few on children's books, including the Norwegian translator of Harry Potter, an academic from Turkey on Turkish versions of E. Nesbit (not something I ever in my life expected to know about), and a brilliant presentation by B.J.Epstein from the Univ of Swansea on translation of allusions in children's literature (with examples from Lemony Snicket). You can find out more about her and her work at her blog here.

Didn't read any Chinese children's books while in China, but there and since getting home have had a few great pleasures reading, among other things, Perrault's fairy tales (when did I last read those?) which are incredible - often very funny, and quite appalling sometimes and exciting and odd. What fun.

Also greatly enjoyed in the past weeks Ann Kelley's The Bower Bird, John van de Ruit's Spud, and currently onto Keith Gray's excellent Ostrich Boys. I like all Keith's books, but this is especially sensitive, funny, thoughtful - definitely worth a read. Next will be the latest books by Tim Bowler, Sophie McKenzie and Cathy MacPhail, for an event I have coming up (about which more below).

These three are all going into our new teen book guide, which we deliver to the publishers in a few months. Building on our 2006 UTBG, this has over a hundred new entries, and new contributors including Frances Hardinge, Joanne Harris, Grace Dent, Anthony McGowan, Tanya Landman, Patrick Ness, Jenny Downham, Chris Riddell, Jonathan Stroud, Jenny Valentine and many more. As ever, a great pleasure and privilege to be working with so many people whose own books we admire so much!

Some event dates for the diary, while I remember - Leonie and I have a morning at Worthing Library on November 28th, and an evening at the Lewes CBG on January 28th. But before that comes Cheltenham, of course (if it's October it must be...); I have two lovely events to chair:

--12th October, 2:30pm - Big Picture event: David Lucas, Polly Dunbar and Emily Gravett. Of these I've only met Emily a couple of times briefly (most recently at a great party at the Kensington Roof Gardens to launch Puffin Post), but looking forward to meeting them all properly there. If you read this blog regularly you'll have heard my enthusing about Emily's books in particular but they're all illustrators & writers I think are marvellous.

--12th October, 5:45pm - event for teenagers, with Tim Bowler, Catherine MacPhail and Sophie McKenzie (all, I'm pleased to say, UBG contributors!) talking about writing thrilling fiction for teens...

And then...

--13th October, 10:15am - Ultimate Book Guides event, with me and Leonie and Anne Fine, which will be loads of fun. Anne is one of the most stalwart of UBG supporters, and has just done a new introduction for the new edition of the 8-12 which is just about to go to press (hooray!).

That's it for now - won't leave it so long before the next post...


02 August 2008

The Kids' Lit Quiz

We won!

Amazing as it sounds, the team of boys from my school won the final of the world Kids' Lit Quiz! It was incredible hard-fought, with the Arnold House team winning by a narrow margin. All boys too - and I was sure the all girls or mixed teams would have the edge!

In case you don't know, as well as working on the UBGs I work three days a week as librarian in a small prep school in North London. It's fun, it pays the bills and I get to work with great kids. We're entered the quiz for the past few years, never getting any further than the London heats, but this time, we won the London ones, then won the UK finals in Newcastle and now we're the World Champions too! Am I proud? Goodness me, yes!

The whole event was great great, and though Oxford wasn't exactly at its best in the seemingly incessant pouring rain (we did our best to reassure the Chinese, New Zealand and South African teams, that yes, the sun did shine here sometimes - not sure they believed us though) the kids had a really good time, and got to do some really excellent things including having high tea on the High Table at Christchurch college - where they filmed the dining-hall scenes for Harry Potter. In all we were in Oxford for five days, staying in Keble College, with the final on the Thursday in the Oxford Playhouse and a gala dinner in the town hall afterwards. Friday was a tour around London and our boys stayed on home-ground while everyone else went back to Oxford for the weekend.

The quiz, which is organised by a New Zealand professor, Wayne Mills, is brilliant. It promotes reading, friendship and healthy competition. If you're at a school that doesn't take part - get your librarian interested. The finals next year will be in South Africa - what more incentive do you need!

15 July 2008

Past events

Just realised looking back that I didn't report back on the two events I trailed in my post a few weeks ago. Will be brief, just to say...

(1) Ilford. Rather than an audience of adults we had mostly under-5s, which is really pretty scary if it's not what you're prepared for. So after half an hour of valiantly shouting over all the crying, running around etc. we gave up and we (well, mainly Susan) resorted to 15 minutes of The Wheels on the Bus, Twinkle Twinkle, If You're Happy and You Know It, etc. Quite unexpected.

(2) St Albans. Nice dinner event organised by Jayne Truran of the St Albans CBG. I was speaking alongside Justin Somper, Meg Rosoff and Linzi Glass. My own talk was I think not good enough, in part as I was battling through a nasty headache the whole time, but by and large very glad to be there, and always nice to see Justin and Meg and Jayne and to meet lots of new people. Justin read a freshly written piece from the next Vampirates book, and Meg told an excellent story about a potato which I've been repeating at every opportunity.


Catching up...

My, but we've been a little quiet recently... Don't know where all the time's gone...

(Sorry about that.)

Leonie has had a particularly busy few days which were GREAT but I'll leave it to her to tell you why... And Susan and I have been busy as ever too, though rather delinquent on the UBG front - we all met up last weekend at the annual garden party but managed not to talk about UBGs, children's books etc. *at all*. We're supposed to be finishing up work on the revised teen guide very soon and we're not even nearly there, so we'll have to sort ourselves out pretty sharpish...

Meantime - while we haven't been doing UBG work - I've been falling behind on my reading too. But have in odd free moments been continuing the treat I started last month of re-reading the Narnia series, many books of which I haven't read since I was a kid. In fact, apart from Lion... and Magician's Nephew this is my first time returning to any of them. And it's thrilling to discover I still think they're so good. I don't know why I expected to be troubled by them, but so far (five of seven) I've just been loving it all - the writing, the imagination, the whole world of it is tremendous. It's full of details I'd forgotten, there's humour and all sorts of other unexpected things (none of them to do with bothersome religious analogies, etc.). Pure pleasure.

Also just read The Prince of Mists, the first in a YA fantasy series by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who wrote the vastly successful Shadow of the Wind (second most successful Spanish book of all time - first was Don Quixote) - it's really very good, reminding me at its best of Susan Cooper, though I haven't yet been able to work out why precisely... It's not available in English just yet, but the whole four-book series has been bought for Orion for publication from 2010, so something to look forward to. (Or to track down right now if you're a Spanish-language reader, of course.) Looking forward to the rest of the series. Am away all of August so packing lots of fun things like these in my suitcase. I wonder what else I should take...


Incidentally, I've been speaking lately to Jane Churchill - who runs the children's programme at the Cheltenham Festival - about this year's events; there's going to be one specifically UBG-related event which is going to be unusual and really fun, and many other exciting things besides. More details as soon as all confirmed...


PS New Emily Gravett in two weeks! Hooray!

23 June 2008

Puffin party time!

Tonight is the BIG Puffin party night. Tate Modern is the venue and I have to admit to being quite excited...

Mind you, I'll have to try and remember what children's books are - work has been so overwhelming that I've read nothing kiddish of late, just lots of things I KNOW I don't have to be critical of (currently The Lollipop Shoes!).

18 June 2008

Just got home from a mad day at work (writing reports, trying to control the making of a 2 minute video of the school by a Year 7 boy - who is doing his best despite the fact that none of the equipment seems to work - fending off ALL requests to get involved in end of term festivities and generally, you know, teaching!) to find an email from our editor at A&CBlack with mock-ups of the cover for the revised 8-12 book!

Amazingly, NOW it suddenly seems real...

12 June 2008

I'm just back from a school trip to the 1stWW battlefields around Ypres. It was an amazing trip in so many ways, from the fact that, quite horrifically, there are cemeteries everywhere - you drive along and almost every way you turn you can see the rows of neatly tended crosses, either close to the road or way distant in the fields, with the Cross of Sacrifice drawing your eye, to the fact that the boys came home laden with trophies - pieces of barbed wire, shell casings, pieces of shrapnel - all just picked up from anywhere the earth was disturbed. Ordinary life survives, houses are built and people live as people do anywhere, but with the knowledge that at any time a plough could turn up a body - or a bomb. The pretty Flemish houses and the rows of potatoes and corn are there skimming over a charnel house, washing dries flapping by tombs and I suspect that farmers try not to look when their ploughs dig deep furrows...

Lots of the boys asked me about books - they'd had a reading list as part of their pre-trip pack, but they ARE boys, so no one had looked at it - and there are a few to choose from about the 1stWW, from Morpurgo's Private Peaceful and War Horse to Biggles or Breslin's Remembrance (my own favourite is probably Lawrence's Lord of the Nutcracker Men, though I think that's now out of print) but in comparison to the wealth of poetry - or the amount of books about the 2ndWW - there's not that much. Is too difficult to write about? Or is that there's a perceived idea that no one will want to read about something that happened that long ago? Or, will it be that after the success of War Horse as a play as well as a book, there'll suddenly be a spate of Trench-based stories.

After all, there's so many stories to tell. One grave we visited was that of a boy, just 13 and three quarters when he was killed, another was of a Chinese boy, part of the Chinese Labour Corp. Toc-H and the respite it gave from the front line. The miners. So many stories. One grave we saw was that of Private Peaceful himself, the name that Michael Morpurgo saw and that sparked his imagination. Maybe we should bus writers out there - and just see what happens...

03 June 2008

Oh, no it isn't...

OK, Waterstone's Hampstead event cancelled again. (Yes, it's the third time.) Don't ask.

So the diary is clear for a couple of weeks.

Next, then, Susan and I will be speaking about why it's important to start your kids on books early, in an event (exact time to be confirmed) at Waterstone's in Ilford on Wednesday the 25th June.

And I'm speaking the following night (Thurs 26th) at a 'literary dinner' as part of the St Albans Festival, in St Albans Abbey. Will be me with Justin Somper and Meg Rosoff, both of whom I think are great, so should be fun!


PS In the meantime, this isn't a UBG-related thing, but it's one of mine nonetheless so I'm going to tell you about it... If you're free this Sunday evening and fancy such a thing (which you ought to), there are still some tickets left for the charity show I script every summer for Human Rights Watch. Sunday 8th June, 7pm, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. This year featuring actors Ian McKellen, Juliet Stevenson, Julie Christie, Antony Sher, Patrick Stewart, John Hurt, etc. Music from Patti Smith and Roger Waters. Writing (much of it being premiered) by Seamus Heaney, Colm Toibin, Derek Walcott, Ariel Dorfmann and Doris Lessing. Also George Alagiah and Rageh Omaar, and a filmed message from Desmond Tutu. And loads of other good stuff too. Tickets from £20, with more info here.

PPS Apologies for a couple of weeks off the blog - slipped a disc and so unable to do anything massively heroic like sit at a computer... But back now. Will write soon all about the wonderful reading treat I allowed myself while laid up...

02 June 2008

Hampstead event coming up

Just a reminder about our Hampstead Waterstone's event - it's this Thursday 5 June, at 7pm. Here's the information off the Waterstone's website:

What Kids Want to ReadSusan Reuben, Daniel Hahn, Leonie Flynn
The Ultimate First Book Guide: Over 500 Great Books for 0-7s
Thursday, 5 June 2008, 7:00PM - 8:00PM Tickets £3, available in advance and redeemable against the promoted title on the evening
Ever wondered what it takes to get your kid to read? Or has your little one already read everything you can think of? Come along to meet the three editors of the award-winning Ultimate First Book Guide, who will discuss the importance of reading for kids and guide you through the sometimes overwhelming choice of books for young children.
Further details: 02077941098

Also, take a look at the Supernanny website. It has a great piece from Nicola Morgan from the Ultimate First Book Guide about what to do if your child doesn't like reading. Go to www.supernanny.co.uk and scroll down to 'Top parenting tips - How do I persuade my child to read?'

17 May 2008


What a week! I've been reading Hero by Perry Moore, and though I've loved it, I've also been deeply frustrated by its shallowness. Yes, I know it's a comic book in text, but I'd like more than just moving from set-piece to set-piece with the emotions running blatantly across the top. I keep wondering how someone like, say, Paul Magrs would have dealt with the idea... Not that I'm not enjoying Hero, not at all. It could just have been more. The author is really someone more at home with the movie world than the teen / YA book one, so it's not surprising that the book reads like a film - and one is apparently in the early stages of production. Which in turn makes me wonder which young actor will be brave enough to play Thom! Anyway, Hero is different, interesting and fairly racy - definitely not for younger readers, but great for older teens interested in either heroic stereotypes or gay protagonists.

Perry Moore's website is fascinating - perrymoorestories.com - and he says that he had the idea for Hero after making a list of all the gay superheroes who had met appalling fates in their Marvel / DC / etc. worlds (WHO CARES ABOUT THE DEATH OF A GAY SUPERHERO ANYWAY?: A HISTORY OF GAYS IN COMIC BOOKS). His site has a list - one that I found quite eye-opening. I mean, did I expect the comic world to be more liberal? Yes! I suspect that my exposure to less mainstream comics and manga had made me sanguine about the genre's openness. Oh well. Wrong again.


The other teen book part of my week was attending the launch of Just Henry - Michelle Magorian was there in person, and she read from the book, wonderfully. She was pretty wonderful herself, and I had a lovely evening. I took a 13 year old fan with me, and MM was delightful to him. He came along as he'd read my proof copy of the book, pouncing on it as soon he saw it was about movies, which are his passion. He loved the book too, so was able to enthuse muchly to MM, which I hope pleased her. A thoroughly good evening all round.

Some recent recommendations

A few books read in the last couple of weeks to recommend (apart from the two referred to in the last post, which I won't name just now) -

Cosmic, by Frank Cottrell Boyce - like FCB's Millions and Framed, it's charming, warm and funny. Not quite unique in the way Millions is, I think, but highly recommended nonetheless.

Hazel's Phantasmagoria, by Leander Deeny - started this last month but had to put it to one side for other things, but have read it now and it's a weird, weird, weird book. Some of it is very funny indeed - the opening pages are brilliant - but in other parts it's really macabre and dark and just a little disturbing. Worth a read (and tell me what you think about this one!), but whatever you expect, this won't be quite it...

And I'm about two thirds of the way through Toby Alone, by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone. So far I'm loving it - a powerful fable, beautifully written by de Fombelle and translated by Sarah. Will post at greater length about this when I'm done as it's very thought-provoking (and thus blog-provoking), but highly recommended too.

And then I'm re-reading Narnia! What fun!


16 May 2008


Well, this is odd.

Let me tell you about the book I've just finished reading. It's about one boy (let's just call him 'A') coming to terms with his relationship to another, 'B'; and when B is suddenly taken away from him, A chooses to assume his (B's) identity. The climax, in the closing pages, comes when A introduces himself to someone by B's name. There is an important drowning episode, and lots of walks to and fro across a causeway (which you can only cross to the other side when the tide is low). It is a wonderful book.

What is odd, is that by chance that's also an exact description of the previous book I read - drowning, identity-assuming, watery causeway and all.

Yes, while that's odd enough, of course if there are really only seven plots in the world you're bound to start overlapping. But more peculiar still, is that the boy whose identity is assumed at the end - B, that is - has the same name in the two books, and it's not a common name. (To give you an idea, while I'm familiar with the name I've never met anyone by that name in my life as far as I can recall.) So when A at the climax of the book introduces himself "I'm B", it's precisely the same.

[I'm not telling you the titles of the books or the names of the characters, as both books depend on your not knowing and I don't want to spoil it for you - but let me know if you've worked them out, of course...]

While these parallels are striking, they really are utterly different books - the key narrative, the setting, the tone and mood, the prose, all utterly different. (And one far superior to the other, I think, incidentally.) They're for different sorts of ages and different sorts of readers, and they're both pretty new so it can't be a case of one having read and been accidentally influenced by the other - and besides, as I say, they're altogether unlike each other in every way that matters. And since they're so different, it leads me to think about what are the elements that actually do define a book uniquely - given that my one-para description above would seem to tell you a lot about that book, and yet serves just as well to précy another that's in no way like it.

(It's often hard writing entries for the UBG trying to find a way of describing a book that's sufficiently particular that it couldn't be used to describe many others. Yes, this picture book has "Bright and bold illustrations.", but so do 75% of all picture books...)

Prose is either spare or rich or limpid or... In the plot there's a boy or a girl, or two, and they go to school or they don't there's family (probably) and friends (or just a best friend - or is our hero a loner?) and someone else either dies or doesn't and something funny might happen at some point; and the characters are well drawn and warm or they aren't and the whole thing probably makes you want to read on and find out what happens next, in this great/charming adventure-romance-comedy-spy-detective-horror story with or without a heartbreaking/surprising twist at the end. Sometimes I feel we ought to produce a computer programme that'll spit out all the possibilities, and we can just choose the closest and drop in the character names (and a couple of atypical details - a causeway, say...) and save ourselves a lot of time...


05 May 2008

Susan's birthday

It's today!

Happy birthday, Susan!

Age ranging

A rather belated post to report on something almost a week old, with apologies for the delay in getting to it…

Last Tuesday I went to a really interesting event organised by the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group of the Society of Authors, to discuss the proposals to put age guidance on books for children. (An area we've struggled with throughout the life of the UBGs, for obvious reasons.) This followed some research that the Publishers’ Association had been carrying out over the past couple of years, some of which was presented at the meeting by Elaine McQuade of Scholastic and Mary Vacher of Random House, and Martin (whose surname I didn’t catch and will have to check…) from Acacia Avenue, the consultants who carried out the research exercise.

With hindsight it’s probably not surprising that this subject attracted such a large attendance, nor that everyone who turned up had such passion behind their views. Nor indeed that the view of the publishers and the views of the writers/illustrators should have been in such contrast. Authors who joined in the discussion included Eleanor Updale, Gillian Cross, Elizabeth Laird and Shoo Rayner and many others, and most seemed united in their distrust of the conclusions which were presented to us. In brief, then…

The research comprised both qualitative and quantitative surveys of adults, some of them regular book-buyers and others only very irregular book buyers. The results suggested pretty conclusively that (1) people get greater pleasure buying gifts that they’d invested in personally, thoughtfully etc.; (2) people think books are a good sort of thing to buy as presents; (3) it would be easier to buy books as gifts if there was some sort of age guidance on them (less so of course when buying for children you know well, whose tastes and abilities you know well, but when buying for your kids’ friends, your nieces / nephews / grandchildren and others more distant it would help). Guidance would, in other words, make it easier for you to buy a book as a gift, and not default to an easier but less satisfying (for the giver) gift like a game, which ‘does the job’ but isn’t special or thoughtful.

Age ranging, in other words, will make more people buy books more frequently. (And for those who didn’t need it, no harm would be done.) The evidence on this was pretty comprehensive.


As was pointed out, this research seemed to prove that age guidance of some kind would increase sales (no one seemed to be disputing this), but it didn’t take into account the effect on reading, and whether it’d be increasing copy-sales to the detriment of the reading itself. Would it be limiting to children to classify books in this way?

The worry, of course, is the following:

-- Children with reading difficulties will be stigmatised – if you’re ten and all of your friends are reading books labelled ‘10+’, do you want to be seen reading something labelled ‘7+’?
-- Advanced readers will be held back – while some pushy parents might like the idea of their ten year old reading a ‘12+’ book, others will see the guidance as prescriptive, so children will be held back from approaching books that are a challenge for them. You’re not reading it till you’re twelve and that’s that.
-- All children read at different levels, and there’s no reason why you should feel you should no longer be allowed to read Asterix just because it’s not in your age category. (You often see parents keeping books away from their children when they feel they’re ‘too easy’, and this makes that attitude easier to solidify.)
-- All children are different, so how do you determine what’s supposed to be for a certain age?
-- Who is going to decide on what age is assigned to which book? (Many authors present had had experiences of publishers as they saw it mis-categorising their books which led to their target/expected readers being put off them.) And how?

The answer was that there had been research done with the readers too, though we didn’t get to see this. (That’s something that’d be interesting – I wonder if we could get hold of that document too…) Apparently it suggested no adverse effects on children (who are of course used to age ratings given for games, films, etc.). Without having seen this research, though, it’s hard to gauge how much the concerns above still remain real concerns. (Though it’s hard to imagine even this research proving all that much – a child saying to an adult in a focus group setting that they know what they want to read and wouldn’t be put off by x, y or z evidently isn’t the same as that child in conditions where s/he is surrounded by peers.)

Elaine and Mary did point out that they too had been sceptical of the idea of age guidance on books in the first place, and like everyone else had assumed it was a bad idea, and that over the past couple of years’ research they’ve been turned around to the opposite view and are now fully convinced that it is only a good thing – that someone buying a book rather than not buying a book can surely only be good. But there remained more than a little scepticism among the audience even at the end of the long discussion (I felt rather sorry for Elaine who had a lot of brickbats to dodge, sometimes a little aggressive); but the fact was lost on no one that whether we were convinced or not mattered little, as the decision to go ahead with the scheme had already been taken, and it will be launched later this year. Some annoyance at not having been consulted was in evidence too…

The final question, I suppose, is if this is definitely going ahead, how do you standardise it across the industry, so that what Egmont consider a 9+ is comparable to what Scholastic consider a 9+? (They seem pretty errant at times, going by the catalogues...) A set of guidelines, constant monitoring and moderating, etc. - more complicated than one might anticipate, I suspect, if it's to be done with any kind of rigour...

So... The plan, then, is for some publishers to begin in the autumn marking guidance on new titles; for guidance to be given on suitable age (interest age? reading age?), but not content warnings, and that the ages should be given not as a fixed band (9-11) but just setting a lower limit: 7+, 9+, 11+, etc. (this is the approach adopted in the UTeenBG, incidentally); and the age will be given in black-&-white, quite discreetly, at the bottom of the back cover. These choices mitigate the decision a little for me, and so I suppose I’m not as anti- as I might have been (had the books had ‘FOR NINE-AND-A-HALF-YEAR-OLDS ONLY!!’ in big screaming sparkly red letters in the middle of the front jacket, for example), but I’m yet to be convinced. I hope at least since it's being done it'll be done well. Though importantly, I thought, it wasn’t clear how the success of this will be measured, but we shall see; the only easy measure is sales, but as we know that tells us less about reading than about shopping, and some more reader-centred feedback would be appreciated, if only someone could think how to do that usefully.

And talking about feedback, what do you think?


PS On a quite different matter, having neglected the blog for a fortnight I've not yet said how much I enjoyed my event organised by the Ipswich CBG at Waterstone's Ipswich the other day - thanks to Jayne and everyone in the group who invited me and looked after me!

23 April 2008

We're currently adding some last-minute titles to our revised edition of the 8-12 guide, in an attempt to make it as up to date as possible before it goes to press. To this end, I've started reading The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, and unfortunately am now falling asleep at my desk, having stayed up long after lights out last night to read just one more page... and just one more.

Which might explain why I just inexpicably forgot I was in the middle of writing a blog entry, and instead started searching the Internet for Thomas the Tank Engine trains for my son's birthday...

I think I'll go now.

22 April 2008

Waterstone's Hampstead

OK - third time lucky.

Our event in Waterstone's Hampstead is now confirmed for 7pm on Thursday June 5th.

Looking forward to it.


Brighton Children's Book Festival

Brighton must have the country's highest concentration of brilliant illustrators and writers for children outside of London - there's an amazing collection of people living and working in and around the city. So it's a perfect place for a children's book festival, which was launched last year and had its second outing this past weekend.

Festival director Laura Atkins (a UFBG contributor, of course...) again brought together a wonderful array of writers and illustrators and others to talk and run workshops on the theme of 'Leaping from the page', exploring the various ways in which children's books can be manifested in other media - film, theatre, etc. - as well as other ways in which books can be brought to life (pop-ups, comic-strip illustration, etc.).

I was there for most of the day on Saturday; the day began with Kitty Taylor, who directed Charlie and Lola for CBeebies, talking about the process of bringing the books to the screen, working with Lauren etc. And we got to see a bit of the results which were typically charming; I don't know a child who's seen C&L on TV and hasn't loved them, and I do think they're really delightful too.

Next up came Nicky Singer - she was talking about three examples of her work being re-imagined in other genres - TV/film, musical theatre and opera. Nicky's always a good speaker (I introduced her when she had a BCBF slot last year) and I'm a fan of her books. Feather Boy is the best known, of course, but Doll, Innocent's Story and Gem X are, while very different, all very good bits of writing. (Glad there was a question from the audience about Gem X - it's a book I liked a lot, and as Nicky said, there aren't many of us who've read it...)

She also talked a little about her new book, just completed a couple of weeks ago,
The Knight Crew, a reimagining of the Arthur story into modern gang culture (you can see how it'd work thematically - honour, rivalry, justice/mercy...). When she and I had coffee about this time last year she'd started working on it and I remember thinking what an interesting idea and what a good fit it probably was, and hearing her in her talk this weekend give examples of particular moments in the book and how they worked I'm all the more excited about reading it. I bullied her into e-mailing me the manuscript, so look forward to settling down to it soon.

One of the workshops allowed children to work on a scene from Feather Boy, the musical, which after lunch they presented to the audience - with, I thought, amazing confidence - lines learned, all blocked and singing - very impressive!

A Q&A with Dakota Blue Richards, the star of The Golden Compass, and the forthcoming film of The Little White Horse, was next; she comes across as reassuringly normal - part confident, part shy, very personable and generous with her attention and happy to talk. But no, she still doesn't know whether there will be more His Dark Materials films made; and no, the movie of Little White Horse is nothing at all like the book so don't get your hopes up...

Then the biggest treat for me - a David Almond double-bill. First David himself speaking (about stories - utterly wonderful), followed by a screening of the recent TV adaptation of Clay, introduced by adapter Peter Tabern (responsible also for the TV Feather Boy adaptation). David is one of my favourite writers around - for teenagers, possibly my very favourite of all; and so of course it's wonderful to hear him speaking with intelligence and enthusiasm and warmth etc. He's one of the very few writers working in this field today - can I think of any others at all? - who clearly sees the world a little differently from everyone else, and whose writing makes you see it like that too; all his books do truly do that. Kit's Wilderness is my favourite of his to date, and I think the most inexplicably magical thing I've read of his. but they really do all have that odd, wonderful quality, of changing how you see the world, making it richer somehow.

And David Almond is also - apart from being a wonderful creative writer, delightful man and all-round genius - the person who wrote the introduction to our teen guide; seeing him talk on Saturday reminded how very proud indeed and lucky we are to have him.

Sorry not to have been able to stay for the Sunday events - Michelle Magorian! - but have no doubt it was another great day. Many congratulations to Laura and everyone else who worked on making it such a good event and looking forward to next year and BCBF3.


18 April 2008

CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway 2008

Like the arrival of the first swallows, the arrival of the Carnegie/Greenaway prize shortlist is a sure sign that Spring is springing...

An this year, yet again, the Carnegie list is fascinating, with more than a few top-end titles in the mix. Well, actually there's only two books that are really general children's books - as opposed to 12+/teen:

CRUSADE by Elizabeth Laird
GATTY'S TALE by Kevin Crossley-Holland
RUBY RED by Linzi Glass (12+)
APACHE by Tanya Landman (12+)
HERE LIES ARTHUR by Philip Reeve (12+)
WHAT I WAS by Meg Rosoff (12+)
FINDING VIOLET PARK by Jenny Valentine (12+)

The Greenaway list is far less contentious:

SILLY BILLY by Anthony Browne
PENGUIN by Polly Dunbar
MONKEY AND ME by Emily Gravett
THE LOST HAPPY ENDINGS by Carol Ann Duffy, illustrated by Jane Ray
BANANA! by Ed Vere

The link to the CILIP pages with all the info is http://www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/2008awards/carnegie_shortlist.php

My personal vote? For the Carnegie, Crusade by Elizabeth Laird and for the Greenaway Penguin by Polly Dunbar (though Little Mouse's Big Book of Fears would be a close second!)

16 April 2008


Sorry to say, the Waterstone's Hampstead event has had to be postponed (yes, again...), but we hope it'll be rescheduled before too long and we'll post the date. Meantime, next event is Ipswich - me and Leonie - on Thursday of next week, 24th April, 7pm at the local Waterstone's.


Exeter, Inkheart, Quercus, Siblings

As Leonie said, the FCBG conference at Exeter was brilliant - many congratulations to all the organisers, and thanks for having us as a part of it. The UBG seminar which Leonie and Susan ran was very well attended and full of people eager to share their own experiences, learn from each other's ideas, etc. (And I just sat quietly in a corner and resisted the temptation to interfere, and did very well, I thought...) And I then chaired an event with four lovely writers - Justin Somper, Julia Golding, Ally Kennen and David Gilman. Always a bit tricky with that many people trying to be part of a single conversation, but it was fun, I thought, and good to see Justin (as ever) and to meet the other three. And on top of that there was the UFBG cake (picture to follow, I hope - it was quite something), and other events with great writers and illustrators such as the lovely David Roberts (mentioned by Leonie below) and many others...

Since then the finishing touches have been put onto the manuscript for the revised UBG for 8-12s, including the final selection of final last absolutely final books for inclusion; the PA children's books supplement has gone out with the Guardian including our picture-book recommendations and a UBG read-on map; and the National Year of Reading sampler has come out too, meaning that now any young person in the country joining a library (the next 250,000 of them, at least) will be given a free mini-UBG. So as Leonie said, a busy couple of weeks... And tomorrow we start commissioning for the updated teen guide...

I finally managed to get time to return to Inkheart, which reluctantly I had had to put aside mid-read a few weeks ago when I just didn't have the time, but delighted to have been able to sit down with it properly now and finished it over the weekend. Very highly recommended. What a thrilling imagination Cornelia Funke has, and such a good story-teller (with the assistance of her translator, the great Anthea Bell); a book I hesitated to pick up (it's long, it's fantasy, and all sorts of other prejudices against it...) but I'm very pleased I did, and the characters and setting have really stayed me in the days since I finished. I'm holding off reading the second book in the series, but only because the third isn't out yet and I want to pace myself so I don't have too long to wait for that - Inkspell is no. 2, and Inkdeath the third, published in October.

Just noticed, incidentally, having mentioned Anthea Bell, that The UBG doesn't credit translators, which is very bad indeed - don't know how we/I let that happen. We have to fix that.

Started Hazel's Phantasmagoria, by Leander Deeny, also this weekend, which made me laugh out loud several times in the opening three or four pages; I'm going to enjoy this one. It comes from a publisher - Quercus - who're launching a new children's list; and while I'm a little bitter because I can't get them to answer my mail, I'm pleased to have found such a strong debut in their launch list - bodes very well.

Incidentally, looking for good books to give to two/three year olds about to be afflicted with a new baby in the family. I've just read Minty and Tink, which is one possibility; any other thoughts, anyone? Help!


10 April 2008


Well, it's been a mad two weeks - and I've been to Devon twice! The FCBG conference went really well. The organisers did a fabulous job and I can say, from what I saw and heard, that everyone had a really good time! The sessions that Susan, Danny and I were involved in seemed to go well and I thoroughly enjoyed all the talks etc. that I went along to listen to. Andy Stanton? Wow! He has to be one of the most hilarious speakers around. Mal Peet? Articulate, intelligent, funny - love him! Oh, and David Roberts - who can draw, speak AND have great hair, all at the same time... what's not to love?

There were so many other speakers, both on and off stage, who entertained, enlightened and generally made the whole trip more than worthwhile. The only downside was the weather, as it poured and poured all weekend, so we couldn't make the most of the university's gorgeous grounds. Maybe next time?

Since then I've been back to Devon for a week's holiday... and this time the weather was on our side, and I spent many a happy hour sitting on a bench in the garden, listening to the birds and reading. Best of the bunch? M.G. Harris's The Joshua Files, Invisible City, which is a fast-paced adventure that rips you from Oxford to the Mexican jungle and scarcely lets you take breath!

28 March 2008

See - Previously...

Or you could all tell Susan in person (presuming you all know what sort of user you are...) at the FCBG conference at Exeter Uni this weekend! We'll all be there, either in a panel of our own (Susan and Leonie), chairing one (Danny) or eating UBG cake at the Ultimate Book Guide tea!

Do come along and say hi - we only bite if asked.

23 March 2008

Visitor demographics

Susan wants to know, but apparently is too shy to ask, how many of our blog visitors are turkeys, how many are giants and how many are some other kind og visitor. (Trust me - just don't ask.) If you fit one of those categories of visitor, do get in touch with her.


22 March 2008

Oxford CBG

To Oxford on Thursday night with Leonie and Rebecca, for an event with the Oxford Children's Book Group (part of the FCBG). Wasn't a huge turn-out, partly perhaps because it was the eve of the long weekend and it was a very, very cold (VERY COLD!) night, but it was a really good group of people. In some respects close to the perfect size for a proper discussion, actually - with twenty or so there it meant that everyone felt they could chip in and ask questions and challenge us on things right the way through, which would have been quite different in a bigger group, I think; so it was informal and fun. We were meant to be talking about the UFBG mainly, though drifted quite a lot onto Darren Shan and horror, onto age ranging, onto the lemming-like qualities of publishers (always a favourite), on how important it is to promote reading as a pleasurable thing and how frustrating that the government and those who draw up curricula seem not to have grasped this...

Anyway, the hour and a half flew by (at least, it did for me and Leonie, and we hope it did for the others). Thanks to Rebecca for sorting it out at our end and to the Oxford group for inviting us and looking after us there; and to the Botley Children's Centre and Nursery School (really nice!) for hosting it. Always hugely heartening to see people excited and passionate about the same things we are, working hard to promote the same things we're trying to promote, and the room was quite clearly full of people like that on Thursday night.


20 March 2008

Just been reading an astonishing new sci-fi/fantasy book called The Roar by Emma Clayton. It publishes this summer. I dislike much fantasy and nearly all sci-fi, so I don't know what made me start it. I made myself just open it and start reading, because I knew that if I read the back cover first I would be immediately put off and not give it a go.

Anyway, after a few pages I was intrigued, and after a few more I was hooked.

It's set in a dystopian future where an animal plague has forced human beings to retreat to a tiny area of the world. They hide behind a high wall, and the majority live in squalid, minute 'fold down' apartments which are so small that you have to fold away the kitchen in order to use the bedroom, and fold away the bed so you can then have dinner... Mika and his family live in one such place, and Mika's twin sister Ellie has mysteriously disappeared. Everyone but Mika believes that she's dead...

I think this is this author's first book, and it's a really superb piece of writing. It's so self-assured and doesn't feel first-novelish at all.

Back again

Apologies for the silence this week. It's not because of a lack of UBG-related activity, but quite the contrary - so much running around doing stuff, that there's not been a lot of time left to write about it. (Still less to sit around in a leisurely manner doing luxurious things like reading...)

We've all been going through the second submission version of our new UBG, preparing a title list for additions to the new edition of the UTBG (the teen guide - any suggestions?); Leonie and I are talking in Oxford tomorrow and St Alban's next week, and we're all doing events in Exeter next week too, and the week after there's the launch of the National Year of Reading book and the children's books supplement in the Guardian and I'm doing Oxford again, etc.

And we do all have quite a few day jobs too, of course...

So, excuses over. Now, one bit of reading highly recommended for anyone with very little time but fancying a quick dose of something lovely and interesting, is Hilary McKay's The Story of Bear, which somehow I must have missed last year and just found new in paperback yesterday. It's an early reader, so for those of you who are grown-ups it's a 10-minute read, but like everything by Hilary McKay it's warm and quirky and more than worthwhile for any age. (Her Casson family books are among my favourites of recent years.) This is a peculiar story full of odd side-steps that even adults will have to look at twice before you're quite sure what's going on, but she's such a delightful writer she can get away with practically anything, truth be told; she's one of those everything-she-touches-turns-to-gold writers, and you can tell just how good she is even in this funny little piece. Should mention I quite like the pictures too, by an illustator I'd not come across before called Serena Riglietti - will look out for her again.


10 March 2008

Waterstone's Hampstead

Just a quick note to say that our Waterstone's Hampstead event we trailed in earlier posts has had to be rescheduled, so will not be happening tonight; the new date (probably late April) will go up here as soon as confirmed. Apologies for the last-minute change.


09 March 2008

Justin Somper

Firstly - Danny, that last post of yours is faintly terrifying!!!

Book news for me this last week was all about Vampirates. The totally delightful Justin Somper came to school and spoke to (and with) Years 5-8 about his books, reading, writing and publishing. He was a great speaker - very amusing, deliberately cheesy (sea shanties and swords have rarely been used to such good crowd-silencing effect before), fascinating on all topics and patient when the line of would-be signees (or some word like that!) stretched around three school corridors.

Before he came, Vampirates books were a little looked down on by the older boys - their perceived themselves above such childish matter. But, now - as if by magic - whole chunks of Year 8 are wandering around reading the books. I did tell them, but clearly I'm not grown-up enough to warrant them believing me about a book's worthiness for Young Adults to read. Hah!

National Year of Reading

2008 is the National Year of Reading - you might have picked up on that already? - and there's to be a UBG angle now (which is exciting for us, since promoting reading isn't after all too far distanced from what we've been trying to do all this time...).

So the three Guides have been digested into a single slim volume - a sort of 128-page sampler, a preliminary reading guide for all ages birth to teen, as a sort of first hit, for negotiating your way around the many exciting choices in an unfamiliar library. The little book will be given away free to everyone who joins a library in the UK, starting in April when NYR launch their big library membership drive. An alarming 250,000 copies are being printed as I write...



05 March 2008


Well, I survived the Education Show! I have to say that the NEC has to be my least favourite venue - once you've actually found the hall you want (three miles of corridors later) and then found the stand you want and survived the air-conditioning from Hell, well... all you want is a nice cup of tea and a sit down NOT to be talking to 100 people about Learning Through Reading!

But, despite my grouching, it went well (at least, Rebecca, our delightful publicist, told me it went well, I wouldn't presume to think such things all on my own). Er, apart from the fact that I spent a good ten minutes wittering on about how rubbish some publishers are and how they're all a load of lemmings - and then later did a show of hands to see who were teachers / librarians / publishers, and most of those in the audience were, um, publishers!

It amused me for ages...

03 March 2008

As I write, I'm really dying to get back to reading The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. For some irrational reason I've been avoiding reading this for years. I keep looking at it and thinking I ought to read it because it's such an important book. But of course, we tend to read things either because we want to or because we have to - but rarely because we ought to.

Anyway, last week I overcame my irrational reluctance (I think I thought it was full-on fantasy which isn't my cup of tea) and opened it up. And it is just lovely and brilliant. It's set in the modern day though it has a rather timeless feel about it, despite the mention of television, cinema and so forth. It's about a group of runaway children who make their home in an abandoned Venetian cinema, and are able to buy food and clothes because of the 'Thief Lord' - a mysterious boy barely older than themselves with an incredibly talent for stealing, who visits them late at night with his spoils.

An element of fantasy is creeping in as I read, and I'm dying to get to the end and see how that is going to develop, and whether I think it's a good or bad thing.

I am still a bit perplexed by the software for this blog, so I hope this entry registers as being written by me. Susan, that is...

01 March 2008

Forth Bridge

As is often the case with reference books (as I fail to remember each time I agree to take on a new one) the job of putting the book together is only the beginning of an endless task of updating and revising, which ends only when the book goes out of print or you drop dead, whichever comes sooner. Hence, for example, my mention on this blog a couple of days ago of our first 'second edition', the updated UBG for 8-12s. This will be followed by a second edition of book two, and then presumably a second edition of book three; and then quite possibly by a third edition of book one (which by then will again be frustratingly out of date) and so on. You see how it works.

Publishers will insist on publishing new books (a moratorium, anyone?), and as long as they do, we'll have to keep running just to stay in the same spot. Hence our frequent allusions to the painting of the Forth Bridge - that proverbial task that you finish only to discover that it's time to start from the beginning all over again. Updating the UBGs is now our lifelong 'painting the Forth Bridge' job. It's a nice metaphor.

So you can imagine my distress to read the anouncement last week on the BBC site that the FB painting job is scheduled to end in 2012. To end! Yes, the Forth Bridge will be painted, and not just in a perpetual state of being in the process of being painted. 2012, around which time by my estimate we'll be publishing UFBG2 and delivering UBG3 and contemplating UTBG3. So yes, even The Proverbially Endless Job will be done before we are. Next we will see headlines announcing the imminent freezing over of hell, the forthcoming blue moon and the expected arrival of those homecoming cows. Leonie, Susan and I, meanwhile, will still be at it. And while there's something to be said for job security, when people talk about a 'job for life' this isn't perhaps quite what they mean.


Reading Habits

To Roehampton this morning (after some trouble starting the car - with apologies again to Viv to whom I'd promised a lift...) for a half-day conference looking at the results of a major survey of reading habits conducted by the NCRCL in 2005, for children in Key Stages 1-4.

In the results themselves there was pretty little that was surprising, though that was interesting too - to have got those things we always refer to as a kind of received wisdom confirmed by some pretty robust statistics. So yes, it's true - boys won't read books about girls, and girls are less likely to read books about boys but aren't quite as determined in their prejudice; yes, boys are more likely to read about machines, monsters, cartoon characters, to read comics and non-fiction; lots of children like series books; etc.

It wasn't a study about reading abilities, but about reading habits - what children are reading (books, magazines, fiction, genres, non-fiction, comics, favourite authors, series...), how they choose their reading (influencers, sources), and so on. Little wonder - but again good to know, given our work on the UBGuides - that on the whole those with the best choosing skills are also those who get the greatest satisfaction from their reading.

The range of reading cited by respondents was depressingly predictable. Though even those who're well familiar (and who isn't?) with the massive, blanket-appeal of Harry Potter will surely be impressed that these books are the most popular in all four key stages, 1-4. In other words, from ages 5 to 16. Just stop and think about that for a moment...

Meanwhile overall favourite authors at KS2 were (in order) Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling; the list for KS3&4 was (in order) Wilson, Rowling, Dahl. A comparable survey carried out in 1996 saw Dahl topping both of these lists (in the company of Blyton - second in both groups - and Dick King-Smith / Stephen King in third places). No great surprises there either.

But one thing rather more surprising, and pretty heartening: since 1996 the amount of library book-borrowing has actually gone up. (Would you have expected that?) One possible factor posited today is the existence of the relatively recent Bookstart scheme, which has affected several years' worth of children who've since grown into the survey age-groups. This may indeed be one of what's surely a number of factors, but whatever is having this effect it's something to be grateful for - it's certainly not the kind of news we're used to hearing on this subject...

Lots of food for thought today. Thanks to Laura Atkins (UFBG contributor, I'm proud to say) who organised it, and the four interesting, engaging speakers. Will be ordering a copy of the full report in the coming days to look more closely. Fascinating stuff.


26 February 2008

First book update, and JBW

Well, two things to report today...

One is that we delivered our first UBG 'new edition' last night. It's an updated version of our first guide (for 8-12s, published way back in 2004). It's got well over a hundred new entries (we had to lose some of the old ones to make room, but not too many!) new read-ons, etc. Turned out to be much more work than we'd anticipated, but I think more interesting too. It's been nearly five years since we delivered the first edition and it's startling quite how much has changed. Hope we've done justice to all the new exciting things... The manuscript is now with Susila, our editor, who has the unenviable jigsaw-like task of working out how to fit our 168,000 words (you're crazy if you think we didn't count) into a book... Publication early 2009.

And Susan and I did a fun event at Jewish Book Week this morning - 90 year six kids from a few different schools, and a good lively group. Lots of questions and lots of comments on what we had to say, and particularly a large number who wanted to discuss the relative greatness of books vs films. Books won. People said nice things about the event so seemed to have gone well. Best compliment was probably the organiser, Mekella, saying she assumed we'd done this sort of school event loads of times... Actually this was our first, but do hope to do more...


22 February 2008


Lawks, put like that (as in the previous post) it sounds quite a lot! Still, I'm looking forward to it all - even The Education Show, which I'll now be doing solo as Danny (poor him) has a funeral to go to. I swear the ES is jinxed for me, as last time I went I was scheduled to appear with Karen Wallace - we had the whole thing planned - and then she got snowed in and couldn't attend at all...

Other than that life has been a little chaotic. Justin Somper is coming to the school I work at next week, so I've been busy setting that up, and trying to get as many boys (not a sexist thing, just that only boys attend the school - Vampirates are good for anyone of any sex, or age!) as possible to read his books so they can ask intelligent questions. Hah!

My own reading? A little Judith Tarr. Teen, at a pinch - but possibly not even *my* sort of thing.

18 February 2008


A few events now confirmed, for anyone interested and in the area:

26 February: 11:35am
Jewish Book Week; Royal National Hotel, Bloomsbury.
Susan and I will be talking to primary school pupils about "Storytelling Histories"

28 February: 11:30am
The Education Show, BIrmingham NEC
Leonie and I will be talking to teachers about "promoting reading for pleasure"

10 March: 7pm
Waterstone’s Hampstead
All three of us in an event for the general public - parents, kids, teachers, librarians...

20 March: 7:30pm
Oxford Children’s Book Group
Leonie and I speaking on 'inspiring children to read'

29 & 30 March
The Federation of Children's Book Groups Conference
A UBG workshop on the Saturday with Leonie and Susan; and I'm chairing a discussion on "new fiction" on the Sunday

2 April: 10:30
Oxford Literary Festival
Not a UBG-related event, but thought I'd include it anyway - I'm on a panel with a couple of great Oxford-based writers talking about "A Literary Guide to Oxford"

Further UBG dates for Hay, Reading, St Albans, Brighton & others to follow as soon as confirmed.

(Tiring just thinking about it...)


16 February 2008


Oh, why didn't I know about this when I was a kid? I'd SO have wanted a raven all of my own...

Joan Aiken is a genius - this slight, light, hilarious story is a great read. I'm on volume 2 already (Mortimer's Bread Bin) and plotting the acquisition of the rest. Of course, Quentin Blake's illustrations add a certain something - he clearly liked Mortimer too!

Mortimer is a raven, Arabel is a little girl. Mortimer eats things. Arabel sorts things out. The two of them have adventures. There, told you it was simple! But... the language is fabulous (and any young child today would have trouble with a lot of the words, so would need a little help, I think) and the adults just hilarious - I'm particularly fond of the policemen.

A huge thank you to Barn Owl books for re-issuing these.

15 February 2008


Last week I read Cathy Cassidy's Lucky Star, and I had an awful feeling that I was growing out of love with her books, as well, I didn't really enjoy it and neither of the characters (Cat and Mouse) felt that real to me... But, this is another week, and thank goodness I tried Scarlett, because I adored it!

The whole issue of childhood anger and loathing (both of self and of everyone else) is well pitched, as is the fairy-tale ending, that just might be a little too much, but only in retrospect, as when you're reading it, it's just right.

The story is about Scarlett - angry, hair dyed the colour of tomato-ketcup, pierced tongue (though she's only 12) - who lives with her workaholic mum and hates everything. She's kicked out of school and ends up in Ireland, having to live with her dad and step-family in an idyllic cottage in the middle of nowhere. Which really doesn't make her happy... But, there's a wild boy and a black horse, a sweet, kind step-mum and time enough for Scarlett to see that some of the things wrong in her life are actually caused by herself - however much she wants to blame everyone else for it all.

There's wishes, wild mint and a happy ending. Really, this is a curl-up-on-the-sofa read, and not any the worse for that.

12 February 2008

Meanderings on a Tuesday

Oh dear - I keep forgetting what colour I'm supposed to write in. Is it pink?

The live webchat Leonie and I did on Mumsnet was a lot of fun - really interesting to correspond with a whole variety of parents and hear directly about the kind of questions and worries they've got as far as reading with their children goes.

I've recently started reading Black Rabbit Summer by Kevin Brooks. I'm a big fan of his, though I wasn't too taken with Road of the Dead, which is the most recent title I read. This one is creating a fantastic sense of menace. It's certainly not something I'd give to a pre-teen, but I'm hooked.

11 February 2008


Not about a children’s book this time, but a book nonetheless…

This weekend I read a proof of Blackmoor, first novel by Edward Hogan, out from Simon and Schuster at the start of May. A superb book. I should mention in the interests of etc. that Ed is a friend, but those of you who know me should know that I’m not in the habit of indiscriminately praising books just because they’re by mates of mine. So I do mean it – this one is great. It’s a gripping, dark and looming sort of book, about a doomed village and buried secrets; about grudges and generational blame and superstition and rifts in a small (ex-) mining community. It’s not, though, a heavy read at all, nor – somehow – a depressing one. It’s a really lovely piece of writing, for one thing, pitch perfect and a pleasure to read, which certainly helps, and thematically really robust; and you’re sustained too by some great characterisation – properly living characters, which gives you that feeling (all too rare) that you’ve been reading about something real, that some real people are having these real experiences somewhere. That if I were to wonder into the right house in Derbyshire I might find Vincent and his dad there, or stumble over Leila buzzard-watching from her tent. It’s that sort of thorough and sustained imagining of characters’ lives that remind me (as I’m reminded every time I read a novel this good) of why I could never begin to write a novel myself. Baffled how people like Ed do it. And so (at the risk of adding a tiny fraction to the already substantial pressure for The Second Book), I’d like him to write another one soon now please. Thanks.

Blackmoor is plugged in The Bookseller’s Buyers’ Guide, for anyone in the trade, on page 30; and another little bit in this week’s Bookseller too, which also says there’s to be an ‘author tour’. Don’t know where they’ll be sending him, but if he’s anywhere near you do go and see him and be nice. Oh, and read the book… Pub. date May 6th, S&S, trade paperback.

And talking about author tours… We’re confirming our UBG events in the coming days, but can give you a few to be getting on with: Susan and I are talking at Jewish Book Week on the morning of Feb 26th (central London); Leonie and I are talking at the National Education Show on Feb 28th (Birmingham – this one still tbc), and Leonie and Susan are doing a workshop at the FCBG conference in Exeter on March 29th. Also at the FCBG conference I’m chairing an event with Justin Somper, Julia Golding, Ally Kennan and David Gilman; and I’m also down to do a non-children’s-books event at the Oxford Festival on April 2nd, and while the full line-up for that event isn’t announced yet but I can tell you it’s very exciting!

More diary dates – I think Newcastle, St Albans, Brighton, London inter al. – to follow shortly.

Trying to keep away from reading for a few days as I won’t get any Real Work done otherwise, but next time I succumb it’ll be The Princess and the Captain, for the updated 8-12 guide. Will report back.