The Mystery of History

I found my old school report cards. There was a lot of ‘she must try harder’ and ‘if she spent more time studying than looking out the window she might get on a bit better’. Reader, it’s fair to say my procrastination skills are still just as bad but I like to think I’m definitely trying harder.

I remember being taught about the Highland Clearances, Bonnie Prince Charlie and all the other historic school curriculum topics our teachers repeated on their pupils year after year. I was bored. Through no fault of the teachers or the books provided, it just didn’t interest me.

The only topic I was interested in was English. The day the TV trolley was wheeled in was one of the highlights of my secondary education. Pressing play, the teacher smiled as the opening credits to the film based on the classic SE Hinton novel ‘The Outsiders’ were displayed on the screen, quickly followed by an audible gasp from the whole class. We had just finished the book that term and I’d received my highest ever mark for an essay on it. Thank you Ponyboy and all.

Fast forward mumble mumble years and my love of everything historic has increased ten-fold.

From Barbara Henderson’s wonderful novel about 12 year-old Janet, her village under threat during the Highland Clearances in Fir for Luck, to Alex Nye’s novel based on the letters from Mary Queen of Scots to her Lady-in-Wating in For My Sins, I have been devouring them all. I just wish all the books that are available now were available back then. Perhaps I would’ve listened more, been a bit more attentive and studied History beyond the obligatory 2nd year allocation in my timetable.

As a book reviewer for My Book Corner, I am very lucky to receive many advanced copies of books that are due to be released in the coming months. May has been no exception, from the fabulous YA novel Sonny & Me by Ross Sayers, taking me back to my misspent youth, to a plethora of picture books for those starting out in their reading journey.

The doorbell rings and I am greeted with a smile from Royal Mail’s finest. I grin back, take the parcel and close the door. This is the one I’ve been waiting for. Published by the phenomenal Cranachan Books, ‘Girl in the Cage’, (written by the legend and author of more than 365 titles) Jane Yolen along with Robert J Harris, has finally arrived.

For those unaware, Robert The Bruce had a daughter. She was kept in a cage by her captures. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some reading to do…

P.s you can read it too but not until 20th June! #launchday

Chicken Legs & Shortlists

There’s something quite magical about seeing a book you love appearing on shortlists within the literary world. When The House With Chicken Legs appeared on the shortlist for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, I was absolutely delighted for Sophie Anderson.

The House With Chicken Legs

I have always had an interest in folklore and fairy tales, so I asked Sophie if she would like to share some of her thoughts on the research and writing process for her amazing debut and beyond…

·  The House with Chicken Legs has stormed into our hearts, have you always wanted to write your take on this particular Russian tale? What research did you do on the houses themselves? 

My grandmother used to tell me Baba Yaga stories when I was young, so I’ve carried her tales in my heart and head for a long time, and often wondered about Baba Yaga’s character. I didn’t realise all that wondering would lead to me writing a reimagining, but when I started, it did feel like I had been preparing for it for a long time!

Research-wise, I read (and re-read) all the Baba Yaga tales I could find, non-fiction texts about her and Russian folklore, and I loved looking at artists’ visions of her and her house over the years.

·  Once a writer gets an agent or is published, their world can change forever. Doubts can creep in about their work and ‘Imposter Syndrome’ can take over debilitating many as they try to write their next novel. What can writers do to look after themselves, in particular, their mental health, as they navigate through the highs and lows of success?

The writing life is full of highs and lows. I think you just have to keep reminding yourself of that, and brace yourself for the ride. Sometimes you will feel low, and think your work is terrible, but other times you will be proud of your work and what you’ve achieved and feel on top of the world!

Throughout it all, I remember that I write because I love to write. And nothing else really matters.

·  With The Girl Who Speaks Bear coming out later this year, have you changed your writing and editing habits since your debut process? Did you have as much time to write your second novel compared to your debut?

I definitely felt the added pressure of deadlines and expectations! But once I lost myself in the world I’d created it wasn’t too different. I suspect (for me anyway!) every book will involve a slightly different process, but at its heart it’s all about falling in love with your story and working to make it the best it can be.

·  Are you a part of a writing or critique group? Do you use readers for your drafts or is your editor there to light the way?

My early drafts feel very fragile, and I wouldn’t like to have them critiqued in case they fell apart, or I was nudged in the wrong direction! I’m only ready for feedback once I’ve done a few drafts on my own. Then I use my agent, Gemma Cooper. She is an amazing editor, and always gives very thorough, very honest, feedback. I do a re-write after considering her feedback, and then it goes to my editor.

·  Procrastinator or planner?

Bit of both, but mostly I just dive in without too much thought!

·  Congratulations on the CILIP Carnegie Medal shortlist! Is this a dream come true for you? Having grown up reading many books that have gained the magnificent accolade, do you have a favourite winner from past years?

The House with Chicken Legs being shortlisted for the Carnegie is beyond anything I dared hope or dream! Last year’s winner, Where The World Ends by Geraldine McCaughrean is such a stunning, original book. It evoked incredible imagery in my mind and strong emotions in my soul. I still think about it often. Other favourite winners include Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Skellig by David Almond, andNorthern Lights by Philip Pullman.

·  If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be? And if you could only take four books with you, what would they be?

I love where I live now, in the beautiful Lake District, although I do miss the seaside sometimes (I grew up in Swansea). Four books? Today I’d choose Collected Narrative and Lyrical Poetry of Alexander Pushkin, translated by Walter Arndt; an omnibus edition of everything Tove Jansson ever wrote, and another of Maya Angelou’s work; and Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales. Tomorrow I might choose a different four!

Thank you for chatting with me, Sophie!

Sophie Anderson grew up with stories in her blood, from her mother, who is a writer, to her Prussian grandmother, whose own storytelling inspired The House with Chicken Legs.

photo courtesy of Sophie Anderson

Born in Swansea but now living in the Lake District with her family, Sophie loves walking, canoeing and daydreaming. Her dream is to create stories that help children to explore the world and fall in love with its beautiful diversity. Twitter: @sophieinspace

Can You Hear It?

When I begin to write a new story, regardless of what age range I am aiming for, there’s a voice I hear as I jot down the words.

Sometimes the voice is loud and clear and other times it whispers before disappearing from my mind until I work my way through each chapter. When the voice stays with me for long periods of time I know I’ve finally found what I’m looking for. My main character has arrived. They have found their place within the lines on my page and they are asserting their authority with dialect and humour and everything else they need to get their point across.

Once I’ve finished my first draft I leave it alone for a few weeks. I like to think it’s getting a holiday from my brain and all the ‘what ifs’ I throw its way as I wade through the first inkling of a plot.

Once rested and dusted off, my story and I haven’t seen each other for a while. It’s like an old friend. We just pick up where we left off and hope that we don’t fall out or go in a huff with each other when I change things about or delete an unnecessary character.

My latest story has a character who is 11. So I do what all fledgling writers do, I tap my heels three times and wish I was that age all over again (I don’t really as that’s the calm before the teenage hormone storm and no-one wants to go back there, do they!) I only wish I was 11 again so that the conversations I need my characters to have, are genuine and authentic.

I can only pass it on to those of that age once it’s ready to share and see what they say. I compare that part of the process to waiting in the queue on parents night, a short revelation of what’s good and what ‘needs to be worked on’ from those in know.

I want the quiet but firm voices that make a reader hold their breath as they read through a tension-filled scene or the robust, theatrical voices that sing as they bounce about the page turns. Dramatic, inviting and unforgettable. That’s what I’m aiming for anyway. Only time will tell if I’ve achieved that or not.

Voices need to be heard but only if they are the right ones for my story. The right tone and sentiment to bring my characters to life – snotty noses and all.

The Great Imposter

My imposter syndrome thoughts started a while ago, when I first put pen to paper and considered myself a writer. Back when I was changing nappies in between drafts and using snail mail because on-line forms and e-mails weren’t used much at the time.

Fast forward fourteen years and here I am. I was lucky enough to be selected to take part in The Hook. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s an event held every year at the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators annual conference.

For those of a nervous disposition, look away now.

The Hook is where six brave souls get the chance to pitch their work to four agents in a minuscule amount of talking time. No biggie, I thought, I speak in front of important people a lot, I’m sure this will be fine.

That’s what I thought to myself when I submitted my words, again when I received the e-mail that I was selected to appear and once more when I sat in my seat waiting my turn to go up on stage.

And then the event started. As my SCBWI colleagues-in-arms took to the floor for each of their pitches, I suddenly thought, this is huge. Olympic medal huge. Landing on the moon huge. Life-changing huge.

When the event was over and the results came in, not only had I come 2nd (yay but how on earth did that happen, stewards enquiry!), I got the chance to speak to gate-keepers who actually liked my pitch. They were interested in my main character and the life that had been thrown at him, they wanted to know more, to understand my thought processes behind who he is and how he came to be. I had to fight the urge to look over my shoulder, convinced they meant these encouraging words for someone else.

I came away from the conference this year with a huge confidence boost that my writing was more than I ever thought it could be. Even now when I talk to people about that day, I smile and remember the moment the auditorium went quiet and my SCBWI friends crossed their fingers and toes for me as I shared my work, live and on stage. I remember the moment I started to pitch, totally forgetting the words I knew inside and out and so I was extremely thankful for the homemade prompt my son made for me. Just in case, he said. Too right.

I am determined to see this through, to send my work out and see where it takes me. I still feel like an imposter when I find myself in the same room as Carnegie nominees and award-winning creatives as I recognise names from the books that fill my shelves at home. However, a quiet voice in me will say, that could be you one day.

And why not.

Don’t Darken my Eye Back Door Again

I met you by chance. Your mass of brown cells sat quietly behind my optical nerve before the light picked you up and made you visible.

Were you just waiting for your special moment to pounce or are you quite happy with your lot, sitting in the dark, silently evolving without a care in the world?

You may think you’re unassuming with your blob-like structure, but I’ve met your kind before. One minute you’re all ‘yay, look at how cute I am’ then with a flick of your cell structure you force us to wait to hear all about you and the plans you’ve made for me. Plans you had no intention of sharing, you just assumed I would be along for the ride.

I got the news today that you’re not so round and invasive as I first thought, you’re actually the perfect shape, flat and unchanged, the shape of hope. But that doesn’t change the way I feel about you.

I’ve got news for you my freckle friend. Beat it.

Don’t darken my eye back door again. You’re not welcome there or anywhere else on my being for that matter.

I know where you’re hiding now. I’m coming to get you.