Tag Archives: children’s books

#CoverKidsBooks

The writer S.F. Said, who I hugely admire both as an author and a general all-round nice person, recently kicked off a campaign aimed at encouraging journalists, bloggers, other writers and any interested parties to #CoverKidsBooks – in other words, to afford kids’ books the same media coverage offered to books written for adults.

Why, you might ask? Well. Why not?

In the UK, kids’ books occupy 30% of the total book sales market yet they attract only 3% of the media coverage, and that is largely in specialist supplements and publications aimed at people interested in the field. Since S.F.’s campaign began this has started to change, but there is still much to do.

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Image credit: S.J. O’Hart

It can be hard to find the ‘right’ book in the torrent of published titles. Children themselves may be attracted to popular books, ones their friends or classmates are reading, or ones written by famous authors. Some books, not always the right ones for a particular child, will always rise to the top of the pile and some – among which may be neglected gems – will unfairly sink without trace. A story which might have changed a life or given a child something to strive for, or indeed simply something to laugh at, might be missed. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and godparents and family friends who wisely choose to give books as gifts to the little people in their lives, might be utterly lost as to where to look for inspiration. I can’t count how often I’m asked for my advice – and while I love helping out, not everyone knows a person like me, who has some vague knowledge of the broad and wondrous world of children’s literature.

So.What’s the answer?

Reviews of kids’ books in major newspapers, for one. Interviews with authors, features on children’s literature and issues relating to the important topics covered in the ‘Books of the Week’ would also be good. And proper coverage of award-winning books, like the mighty Frances Hardinge and her Costa Book of the Year 2016, The Lie Tree – the first children’s author to win since Philip Pullman, many years before. The coverage I saw of this momentous win was more like bemused, polite wonderment, slightly patronising praise, and some downright rude questioning of how on earth such a thing came to pass, rather than a celebration of a great book justly rewarded.

I wonder how many of these journalists and commenters had even read the book.

We need to #CoverKidsBooks on the radio, on social media, in traditional media, on the television, and get it going as a topic of conversation. An adult looking for a gift should know straight away where to find advice and recommendations. A child looking for their next read should have no problem finding just the right book for their needs, and should be able to access a library (with knowledgeable staff) and/or a bookshop (also with knowledgeable staff) without trouble. Children’s books are so important, and within their covers they contain multitudes; worlds full of magic, imagination, heart and intelligence, tightly plotted and expertly written stories of love, loss, adventure, danger, exploration, and discovery – to name just a fraction of the treasures you’ll find if you look – and they deserve to be respected.

There are just as many talented and hard-working people writing children’s books as adult titles, and as well as that, children’s books are most definitely not just for children. Children’s books, and books for young adults, also have a largely undeserved reputation for being simplistic and unchallenging, which is maddening to me and anyone familiar with the field. They cover every topic you’ll find in the ‘classics’, and in the adult books which hog all the attention, and in most cases they’re written with more flair and verve and – frankly – excitement than even the best stories for grown-ups. There are some duds out there, of course, but the very best children’s books shine with an incandescence that very few adult books can match.

It’s time for children’s books to step into the spotlight, and claim their rightful laurels. We can all help by following the #CoverKidsBooks hashtag, asking our local librarians and booksellers to help make children’s books more visible, and asking for greater kidlit coverage in newspapers, radio and online – and creating our own content when we can. Let’s all do our bit, and enjoy watching children’s literature soar.

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Black Lotus: The Samurai Wars Book 1’

With thanks to the publisher, Chicken House Books, and the author, Kieran Fanning, for organising a complimentary copy of this book for me in exchange for a review. Cheers, big eyes (as Ghost would probably say)!

Image: chickenhousebooks.com

T Image: chickenhousebooks.com

I’ve never read a book quite like The Black Lotus before, which is a fantastic thing to be able to say of a debut novel. It’s really a story which has something to offer everyone, and which takes in so much, imaginatively, that it has a cinematic quality which adds hugely to the enjoyment of reading it. The action is fast, the dialogue is fun, the characters are great and the settings are diverse, interesting and well-imagined.

The first character we meet is the one who turned out to be my favourite – Ghost. He is a thirteen-year-old boy living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro – or, at least, a version of Rio de Janeiro which exists in a reimagined future, one in which a villainous Empire has spread across most of the world. The realities of life under this regime are skilfully expressed, particularly when Ghost speaks of the giant statue of Jesus which used to loom over the city; this gently sad reference to the Christ the Redeemer statue, immediately familiar to every reader, helps to site the story and also underline the dangerous new world we’ve entered. Ghost, we soon learn, is a boy uniquely well equipped to deal with his hardscrabble life. As well as his innate intelligence and courage, he also has a talent; given the right conditions, Ghost can become invisible. He calls this Bleaching, but he doesn’t quite know how he manages to do it. As the book opens, he is involved in a robbery, experiencing a close brush with the long arm of the law, until he encounters a mysterious man with a patch over one eye. He thinks he has shaken off this new pursuer, only to find he will not be evaded quite so easily.

We then switch to an Irish setting, meeting another teenage boy named Cormac who is on the run from bullies. In his attempt to escape, he demonstrates that he, also, possesses a superpower – one which allows him to run so fast that he can scale walls, or overtake almost anything on the flat. He, too, encounters the strange one-eyed man, who – as he’d done to Ghost, back in the favela – gives him a black flower. The final teenager is a young girl named Kate who lives on the streets of New York, alone since losing her family to the Empire. Her special ability is that of communication; she can speak to animals, and she also has a remarkable facility with human languages. As we might expect by now, Kate also encounters Makoto, the one-eyed man, who also recruits her into the Black Lotus by giving her the strange dark flower and telling her she, and her skill, will prove indispensable to their struggle.

But what is this struggle, and who is behind it?

Makoto is a member of the Black Lotus, a resistance movement which has struggled for centuries to keep the power of the Japanese Empire at bay. Its members guard the Moon Sword, an object of immense power, and have done for over five hundred years, keeping it from the clutches of anyone who would wish to use it to do harm. The youngsters learn gradually about the movement and their roles within it, training as ninjas (or ‘shinobi’), coming into contact with all manner of cool technology and equipment as they explore their new home of Renkondo, the underground HQ of the Black Lotus. All is progressing smoothly, until the Moon Sword is stolen from the heart of Renkondo and taken somewhere that nobody can follow – nobody but Ghost, Cormac and Kate, at least…

The story leaps through time, from city to city, utilising technology and equipment from sixteenth-century Japan and modern-day America, as the children race to recover the stolen sword. They each make use of their ability, but far from being a ‘get-out-of-all-situations’ card, the plot clearly shows the limitations of each teen’s power, whether it’s the toll it takes on their body or the sheer near-impossibility of what they’re trying to do. Throughout, they must rely on their friendship, learning to rebuild trust when it shakes (as it inevitably does), looking past the obvious, putting together clues and figuring out which adults are on their side and which are not, all the while keeping one step ahead of the Empire and its fearsome leaders. The showdown in New York is great, with unexpected help coming from a fantastic source, and the book finishes on a high note, with plenty of plot threads tied up perfectly – but leaving enough unanswered to whet the reader’s appetite for a sequel, all the same.

I particularly enjoyed Ghost’s verbal ‘tics’, or his tendency to misunderstand English phrases, which means he often mangles his words. I also felt he had the most interesting and emotional backstory, which was used to great effect through the book. He is naturally hilarious, and several scenes with him had me giggling aloud. I thought Kate was a strong and interesting character, though it did bother me slightly that her looks and figure are dwelt on at several junctures in the book; she is only thirteen, after all, and this sort of description, to me, feels unnecessary. As well as that, she is capable of being an anchor character without also needing to be ‘blonde and beautiful’ – the boys’ looks aren’t considered important to their roles! Cormac is a typical Irish teenager, and I enjoyed his fiery temper and courage. I also thought his special ability was wonderfully utilised and well described. The story also makes great use of incidental and more minor characters, particularly Savage, who stole my heart – but I’m not saying any more about him. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.

This is a great read from an Irish author, and one I’d recommend for anyone of perhaps 10+ looking for a fresh, unexpected and exciting adventure story which takes in multiple settings and voices, showcasing diversity and great storytelling. And if you’re still not sure, why not check out this interview with Kieran Fanning for an insight into the book, its background and the process of writing – I hope you’ll soon be as big a fan of Ghost as I am.

Branford Boase, and the Magic of Books for Young Readers

Today (Tube strikes and other Acts of God bedamned!) the results of the 2015 Branford Boase Award will be announced. The Branford Boase is an amazing thing: an award presented to the best debut novel written for children/YA published in a particular year, which also recognises the vital role the editor/s have in bringing stories to their fullest life, and which always attracts a stellar long- and shortlist.

This year – even though I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist! – I have no idea how the judges are going to choose. It’s a job I’d simultaneously love and loathe – love, because you’d get to read so many incredible books, but loathe because I’d love all of them equally and choosing would be impossible. (But I’d give it a shot, just in case anyone’s listening).

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

As this article (from which the image is drawn) makes clear, the shortlist this year is extremely strong indeed. Every single book on the list deserves, in one way or another, to be rewarded, and certainly they all deserve to be read. Lest anyone think for a minute that books aimed at readers who are teens, or younger, aren’t worth bothering with, shall we consider the sort of subject matter these books deal with?

Yes. Yes, I think we shall.

To kick off, we have a book (Bone Jack, written by Sara Crowe, edited by Charlie Sheppard and Eloise Wilson) which deals with PTSD and alienation, loneliness and confusion, ancient pagan ritual and blood-soaked legend, where forces older than humanity are seen to still have sway over modern life and the power of the land is still strong. So Alan Garner-esque. So spine-chillingly amazing.

We also have a book (Trouble, written by Non Pratt and edited by Annalie Granger and Denise Johnstone-Burt) which deals with teenage pregnancy, the bonds of friendship, and the difficulties of growing up a little bit more quickly than you’d intended, as well as family complication, bodily autonomy and the travails of having to go through the most challenging thing you’ve ever experienced while still having to deal with school, and all its stresses

Then there’s a book (Half Bad, written by Sally Green and edited by Ben Horslen) which is an excellent, pacy, gripping read about a boy who is half White Witch and half Black Witch, in a world like our own but in which magic is an accepted part of everyday life. Hated and mistrusted because of who his father was, can he overcome his genetics and magical inheritance – and does he want to?

As if that wasn’t enough, we have a book (Cowgirl, written by Giancarlo Gemin and edited by Kirsty Stansfield) which takes a look at life on an underprivileged housing estate in Wales, and one girl’s attempt to break free of the misery she sees all around her through connecting with an ‘ideal’. These attempts bring her into the sphere of the legendary Cowgirl, and embroils her in the fate of a doomed herd of cattle – if she can save them, can she save herself?

There’s also the deeply moving Year of the Rat, written by Claire Furniss and edited by Jane Griffiths, in which a young girl named Pearl must deal with feelings she can hardly process in the aftermath of her mother’s death in childbirth. Her baby sister (whom she refers to as the Rat) comes into the world as their mother leaves it, and Pearl lashes out, keeps secrets, has ‘visions’ of her deceased mother, and eventually breaks down. Here is a book about love and grief which doesn’t hide from the darkness.

I’m not so familiar with the final two shortlstees, but they sound incredible too:

Leopold Blue by Rosie Rowell, edited by Emily Thomas, is set in South Africa during apartheid, and tells the story of a friendship which crosses the divide. Taking in the social issues of the day, including the scourge of HIV/AIDS, this is a realistic and significant book dealing with turbulent recent history.

The Dark Inside by Rupert Wallis, edited again by Jane Griffiths, is a story about two wounded people finding their way forward together, both dealing with the after-effects of abuse and trauma, and of the dark ‘curse’ which haunts their steps. Sounding a lot like a work of magical realism, this is one I need to read at my first available opportunity – but then I say that to all the books.

If these sketchy synopses aren’t enough to demonstrate that the world of children’s and YA books is about so much more than angsty love triangles and sulky heroines with floppy hair, then I’ll eat my hat. The breadth of imagination here, the wealth of story, the accomplishment in this shortlist alone is enough to make me want to do a joyful jig (but don’t worry, I won’t) that the world of writing for young readers is so vibrant, diverse, imaginative and simply brilliant. It’s where it’s at, people. Get on board.

And stay tuned to the Branford Boase Twitter account later today to find out who wins…

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Black Book of Secrets’

The Black Book of Secrets, F.E. Higgins’ debut novel (first published in 2007 by Macmillan Children’s Books) is a strange beast. It’s one of those books which grips the reader so hard at the start that you read on in a frenzy, desperate to find out what happens – but then, things sort of lose their momentum three-quarters of the way through. This is a real shame, because the book is so richly imagined and written – Higgins’ style reminded me of Frances Hardinge’s, in several places, and it’s unsurprising that they share a publisher – but for all that, I found myself vaguely disappointed with it, overall.

Image: inismagazine.ie

Image: inismagazine.ie

There’s a lot to love about the book’s opening. We meet Ludlow Fitch, a street urchin who lives with the most horrendous ‘Ma’ and ‘Pa’ imaginable, gin-fiends who think nothing of attempting to sell their son’s teeth (ripped unwillingly from his head!) to fund their drinking habits. Ludlow is accosted by his parents, dragged into a cellar, and faced with a terrifying ‘dentist’ bearing a large pliers, who is ready to relieve him of his chewing equipment – until, of course, he bravely fights his way to freedom, desperately clinging to the side of a passing stagecoach as it leaves the City in which he has lived his whole, miserable life. The coach brings him to the town of Pagus Parvus, where he fortuitously meets a mysterious man named Joe Zabbidou (the names of the characters and places in this book are a delicious, word-lovers’ marvel), and he soon falls under Zabbidou’s wing, becoming his assistant.

But what, exactly, does Zabbidou do? (Sorry – I couldn’t resist. Zabbidou-do-do!)

Ahem. Well, it appears that Joe Zabbidou makes his ‘living’ (if you can call it that) by buying people’s secrets. He is a Secret Pawnbroker, which is to say not a pawnbroker whose shop is hard to find, but a pawnbroker who pays good money for the deepest, darkest shreds of guilt in every human conscience. He asks people to tell him their secrets, and then Ludlow writes them down in the eponymous Black Book. What for? We don’t know. Where does he get the money to pay for all these secrets? We have to wait (a long time) to find out. How does a half-literate Ludlow suddenly become Zabbidou’s scribe, faithfully and quickly transcribing everything he hears? Er… well. Next question!

And this is the problem – or, one of them – with the book; too many unanswered questions. There’s a nifty conceit behind the story, which is this: Higgins inserts herself into her own novel, pretending to be a person who came across the fragmentary remains of Ludlow Fitch’s memoirs (she does, in all fairness, say that she corrected Ludlow’s dreadful spelling throughout, but I still don’t think this explains his ability to write so accurately), filling in the gaps with her own imagination to tell his and Joe Zabbidou’s story, but I wondered if this was necessary. We’re left wondering why Ludlow wrote his memoirs, for what purpose, why they ended up in a hollow wooden leg (the significance of which isn’t explained, but there is a sequel to this book, so it may well appear there), and what on earth made him so attractive as an apprentice to Joe Zabbidou. For one of the things I didn’t enjoy about this book was the fact that I didn’t have strong feelings, either way, about Ludlow himself. He’s an observer throughout, who – at least, to my mind – could have been lifted out of the plot without any discernible effect. He doesn’t do much (besides his breathtaking, and brilliant, escape at the beginning), and he sounds like an elderly Dickensian character throughout. Having said that, the language is fantastic, and the imagery is memorable, and the rhythm of the sentences is perfect, and the dialogue is sharp and witty, and I couldn’t fault the way this book was written – it gladdened my word-loving heart.

But, at one point, Ludlow makes an observation that he, Zabbidou and Polly (the maid to the local landlord-cum-oppressor, the baddie of the piece, Jeremiah Ratchet) were simply sitting at home, waiting for something to happen. That’s how I felt, at times, reading this book. Zabbidou was the hero, around whom the action was centred; Ludlow, our narrator and focus, was sidelined within his own story. The explanation at the end was comprehensive, certainly, and things fell into place, but I was still left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’

F.E. Higgins is certainly a great writer. I loved the way this book was written, and the world it created. I loved the descriptions of the City and Pagus Parvus, the houses and the foodstuffs and the clothes and the cobbles in the streets. I loved the details lifted from history – the Resurrectionists, the suspicion about where the meat in your pies was coming from, the fear of being buried alive – and I even liked the overall point behind the plot, that of the ineluctability of fate itself and how the smallest decision, or the smallest character, can be an instrument of Destiny. But because I couldn’t warm to Ludlow (he didn’t give me a lot to warm to), and the plot was somewhat meandering, and the religious symbolism was a little overdone, I think this book would be a middle-ranker, for me. Certainly, it’s worth reading for the richness of the language alone, and it’s a masterclass in subtle but effective description – but I can’t help feeling it could have been more. I’ve read synopses of Higgins’ newer series, The Phenomenals, which sounds, well, phenomenal, and so I think I might be inclined to try those next. Certainly, I don’t think the sequels to The Black Book of Secrets are for me, but I haven’t given up hope yet!

Heartsong

This morning, as I lay approximately one-eighth awake wishing I didn’t have to get up and face a cold, dark day, I found myself thinking about a picture book idea. It involved a witch with an itch and a crooked wand, and it was (at least, to me) very funny. I created the story as I went, imagining the illustrations and enjoying how my witchy character grew more and more exasperated as things went on – and it was huge fun, even if I had to get up before I finished it.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

I’m not a person who wants to write picture books, particularly. Besides the classics, I haven’t even read very many picture books, and it’s something I keep meaning to remedy (the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen, in case you’re interested, is Journey by Aaron Becker, which should be checked out immediately by everyone). I think a good picture book is a thing so difficult to pull off that it’s practically impossible, and I feel it’s beyond the scope of my skills – but my mind still decided to explore an idea for one while in a hypnopompic state.

The reason for this? I love stories for children. I love them so much that I think about them even when, all told, my brain would rather be unconscious. I think about them even when I’m supposed to be grown-up and thinking about other things like bills and taxes and the economy and politics and other stuff I know nothing about. Yesterday, I was unwell – sore throat, fuzzy head, sniffles, and a serious case of the ‘OhPoorMes’ – and as well as taking plenty of fluids and as much rest as I’d let myself away with, I self-medicated with stories. I read Howl’s Moving Castle, just because there’s a scene in it where Howl the wizard has a cold and makes everyone suffer because he’s a crybaby. I feel better today, and I’m sure the paracetamol in the medicine I took made a big difference to the state of my health, but I know that reading did the rest.

Once, I met a lady who had written a book for children. She wasn’t sure what age range, particularly; she thought perhaps children from twelve and up, because there were things like war and slavery and family breakdown in her story (it was historical fiction). However, its word count was way too low for this age range, being more suited to children between five and eight. She was shocked to learn that twenty thousand words wouldn’t create a book long enough for her target audience, and even more shocked when I asked her what her favourite children’s book was. ‘I don’t read children’s books’, she told me, half-laughing at the very idea. ‘I’m more of a romance fan, myself.’ She paused, frowning slightly as she thought about it. ‘In fact, I really wanted to write this story as a romance about one of the older characters, and I’m not really sure why I wrote it this way,’ she said, looking confused.

And I thought: Why don’t you write romances, then? If that’s your heartsong, why aren’t you singing it?

I wouldn’t tackle a picture book not because I don’t enjoy them, but because I’m not immersed in that world. I’m not obsessed with picture books, with the making and creating of them; I’m not expert in the field (and if you think there’s ‘nothing to making a picture book’, then I invite you to try to make one). I love books for older children – they are what I read, what I love, what I admire. I haven’t read everything, because there is only so much money and time in the world, but I’d like to think I have a fairly broad exposure. Stories about adventure, and friendship, and challenging the odds, and fighting evil, and finding parents, and learning to live without parents, and learning what it is to be an individual, and how to trust yourself, are what my heart sings. That’s why those are the stories I write, too.

Writing involves a lot of different skills, all interconnected, but one of the most important is this: knowing what your heartsong is. Knowing how to be still and listen to yourself, and hear the whisper of the story that lies curled up inside you waiting to unfurl. It doesn’t sing with a very loud voice, sometimes, particularly if you’ve never tried to listen to it before, but it is there. If you can gently encourage it – and not drown it with thoughts like ‘I can’t write a story like this, it’s stupid/silly/inappropriate/unreadable/wrong‘ – perhaps you’ll be lucky and it will grow stronger, and clearer. Let it grow whatever way it wants – don’t try to force it to go one way, or another. Give it space and time and freedom, and allow yourself to astound yourself.

Read widely – particularly within the genre in which you’re writing, but not exclusively. Learn how stories work by reading how other people do them. Don’t write something in a particular way because you feel you ‘should’; write it whatever way it wants to be written. Become a reader before you become a writer. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t write to markets. Learn to listen carefully, particularly to yourself.

Write what you love.

Love what you write.

And let your heartsong burst forth, loud and clear.

 

 

 

And the Beat Goes On

This week has shown some of the best and worst aspects of the human race – just like every week.

We lost a beloved performer on Monday, and the world wept; that was touching, and unifying, and we shared one another’s grief. But, of course, there had to be some people who felt it was their right and privilege to harass the family of the deceased online, posting mocked-up autopsy pictures to Twitter (one of which I inadvertently came across yesterday morning, and which almost made me physically sick) and seeming to enjoy the notoriety – because notoriety equals fame which equals status, in their eyes – which came with it.

I personally cannot understand what would drive a person to create a mocked-up autopsy picture, the single most gruesome thing I have ever had to see, and put it up online. I cannot. But I share my humanity with the person or people who did it, and so I have to conclude that they have cauterised whatever compassion or kindness they may once have had; I cannot accept that I have anything, besides my mortality, in common with someone who could cause such deliberate agony.

All the love the world shared, and all the remembrances, and all the shock, and all the beautiful tributes, may as well never have happened now.

Photo Credit: tanakawho via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tanakawho via Compfight cc

For me, it’s not enough to simply shrug and say ‘well, that’s life. That’s human nature.’ I’m sorry, but that’s nonsense. It’s not human nature. It’s very much a human construct, and one which we’ve created. There has always been cruelty, of course, but now it has legitimacy, and a platform, and it confers infamy and gets people talking – and yes, I appreciate the irony of this, even as I post about it – and that, somehow, makes it seem less heinous. It makes cruelty seem like a career path.

What has happened to make us this way?

My mind has been swirling with thoughts like these for the past few days, and that’s not a good thing. My thoughts tend towards Worst Case Scenarios even at the best of times, and I find it all too easy to get lost down all the dark paths. So, I knew I had to do something to divert my thinking and make things seem better, even if the only person it benefited was myself.

So.

Earlier in the week I finished (after a marathon, power-through-it day) the edits on the book I’ve been calling ‘Web’; I’m not saying it’s done, just done enough for me to put it aside for a while. The end still isn’t strong enough, but overall I’m happy with the story arc, and I think I’ve fixed glaring plot holes and issues with characterisation. One of the main things I feel I had mis-handled with this book was its scariness – you may recall it features a ghost, and not one who is happy to sit in a corner and rattle its chains. This is a ghost set on revenge, and so it had to be scary. It had to have reasons for what it was doing, as well as a method. Giving it reasons and method was the easy bit. I mentioned a while back that I don’t really know the ‘horror’ genre as well as I could, not being a person who likes scary films and whatnot, and I had been spending too long forcing the ghost into a box marked ‘Wooo!’ by giving it a shark’s head, and talking about it screaming all the time, raising goosebumps and hackles alike. I reread those bits a few days after I’d first written them, and I rolled my own eyes in boredom.

Stop trying to make it scary, I told myself, by throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it. Stop and think about what makes you scared, and use that instead.

Well. I scare easily. Things like weird shadows where shadows shouldn’t, at first glance, be can make my blood run cold. The idea of a whisper in my ear in an empty room makes me lose my reason. A stifled sob from an invisible throat would freak me out more than a maniacal laugh. So, I went with that. It was out with the shark’s head (which, on reread, was ridiculous), and I toned down the screaming. And it was much better.

Then, I revisited Eldritch. It’s been so long since I worked on this book that I’d forgotten what state it was in, and that was brilliant – it was like reading someone else’s work. Polly – who, when I first submitted this book to her, wasn’t yet my agent but just a dream, a long shot – had recommended that I shelve my idea of having Eldritch as the first part of a trilogy and instead write it as a standalone book, and so I’d started the process of doing that, months ago.

But the best part is, I hadn’t realised quite how far into the work of rejigging the book I’d managed to get before something else – no doubt another story – had dragged me away from it. I was over 45,000 words into it, which felt like being given a present. That’s about three-quarters of the way through what will become a new first draft.

So, I began to read Eldritch, and it made me laugh.

It’s not David Walliams funny, or Andy Stanton funny, but some of the dialogue between the protagonist Jeff and his friend Joe pleases me hugely, and the chemistry between the two boys – their obvious long-standing friendship, and the comfort with which they poke fun at one another, fun which conceals a deep affection – made me happy. I am in the throes of writing a new ending to this story, which promises more fun ahead (as well as Peril and Danger and Derring-Do and Magic), and it was the best thing I could have done to lift my mind out of the mire of the world I have no choice but to live in. I have made a hurried, scribbled, general outline of what I want to happen, and ideas are drip-dropping into my mind all the time, slowly but with great richness, like balm falling onto wizened skin.

Revisiting Eldritch reminded me why I want to write stories. I want to create a little bit of magic, and stimulate wonder. I want to leave a little fairy-dust behind me so that when I’m gone, people will know I tried to help. I tried to encourage compassion and fellow-feeling and laughter, because in the end they have to win out over cruelty. Otherwise, what are any of us doing here?

Content Warning

I am currently reading a book so brilliant that it’s actually a painful effort to put it down and get on with the rest of the stuff I have to do, like sleeping and eating and writing. It’s a book written for older children/young teenagers (its heroine is eleven – sort of); it involves magic and baddies and scary things happening in dark rooms and the terrifying power of scissors. It features a creature who cries cobwebs.

It’s fantastic.

Of course, it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that, no matter how hard I try to be young in spirit and wrinkle-free of face, I am far more aged than the average reader of a book like this. In recent weeks there was a small furore about adults reading books written for children or teenagers and how we should all be ashamed of our juvenile tastes (I’m sure you can all guess what I thought of that). However, what’s on my mind this morning is something similar: are the themes in children’s books becoming more suited to adult readers?

Image: stevewhibley.blogspot.com

Image: stevewhibley.blogspot.com

As well as creatures made of twigs and strange messengers from Other places and magical upside-down worlds, the book I’m currently reading takes the Great War as a backdrop for part of its story: bereaved parents of fallen soldiers, left-behind fiancées whose beloved boys never came home, young men broken and hollow-eyed as a result of what they experienced in the trenches, present in person but absent forever in spirit, are all over it. The story is suffused with the sensibilities of a passing age, a turning from innocence to experience, a shattering of the traditions that had once bound society together and the beginnings of a new and uncharted way of life, one in which women expected to work and the paterfamilias in all its senses was starting to become less relevant. In one way, of course, nothing could be more important to a children’s story; those feelings of change and transformation and turning define a person’s life when they’re on the cusp of becoming an adult. In another, though, I can’t help thinking that while the general feeling created by all this tragic historical detail will add to a child’s reading experience, that in truth it’s designed to appeal to older readers, ones who will understand the symbolism in a deeper way.

I’ve blogged before on the absurd notion that certain topics are ‘unsuitable’ for children (including dark themes, death, good and evil, frightening things, ghosts and loss and challenges to identity, among plenty of others), and these same topics (albeit in different concentrations, perhaps) turn up regularly in adult books too. It’s probably natural, then, that there’ll be ‘bleeding’ between them; children need to read what they want to read, and these fictional explorations of change and discovery, courageous resistance in the face of evil and self-sacrifice in order to save a loved one are as important for young readers as they are for older ones. It’s also true that an adult reader will bring a different mental focus to a book than a child will, and themes will be read and understood differently depending on the age and experience of the reader; the same story might mean one thing to a child reader and something entirely different, something more, to an adult.

Perhaps it has always been this way. Charlotte’s Web, for instance,features sacrifice and the threat of slaughter and the overwhelming power of friendship. Children might get a message of love and unity from it, where adults might bring their own sense of nostalgia and their greater awareness of the passing of time to the story. The poignancy of Charlotte’s struggle might mean more to them, for they know, from the beginning, that Charlotte cannot live forever. Perhaps the mastery in the book I’m currently reading lies in the fact that it works on a multitude of levels: it’s a story about the encroachment of magic into a family and the struggles of two young girls to outsmart it, but it’s also a story of the increasing industrialisation of society, particularly after the slaughter of the Great War. It’s a tale of the machinery which ate huge chunks out of the countryside and the people who lived in it – and the traditional creatures and stories and legends who were also driven out. It’s a story about parental love for their daughters, but the hints of a darker reality are there too – an entitled class with more money than compassion, a woman who loves her own children but who has contempt for those of others. It’s a story of two girls who miss their big brother, a soldier who was lost in France in 1918, but it’s also the story of his lost life, the wife he never married and the children he never had.

Perhaps the books I love – the rich, textured, multi-layered, story-within-a-story books – haven’t started to incorporate ‘adult’ themes so much as I, the reader, have started to notice them. Perhaps, in reality, there are no ‘adult’ themes: good children’s books are as full of life and death and vitality as their adult counterparts. They are not lesser, not by any means, and no adult should be ashamed of reading anything which brings them pleasure, certainly not the masterpieces of children’s literature which contain more truth and beauty than shelf-loads full of the narcissistic nonsense which sometimes passes for ‘serious literature’. I love the idea that a child reader might love a book for reasons they can’t put their finger on; they might know there’s more to a story than they can grasp at a particular point in their reading life, but they resolve to come back to it later and read it again, gaining more and more from each re-read. I did this regularly as a kid, and (weird as I am) I’m sure I’m not alone. Those are the books we love at every stage of life, the ones which become part of our DNA. Adults coming to them can get the immeasurable joy of reading the story on all its levels at once, which is an experience like no other; children will treasure them all their lives.

Image: childrens-books-and-reading.com

Image: childrens-books-and-reading.com

Perhaps we should worry more about our intense need to police what people are reading than our desire to categorise books as ‘for one sector of society only.’ Of course there are books which are not suitable for children, and from which they should be kept, but I hate the thought that so many adults would be reluctant to open their minds to a wonderful story for children just because they feel it’s inappropriate for them to want to read it.

Read outside the box a little, is my advice. You might be surprised by what you find.