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!