The Magic of Surprises

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The B5B Breakfast Room (Flowerdews Winchester)

Nobody knows where I am.

That’s a lie. Only a handful of people know where I am: the friend I’m away with (to attend the SCBWI British Isles Conference 2015), the people who own the B&B and LateRooms.com. Maybe, spies or hackers, but I doubt my stay in Winchester will interest either. Yet, when I arrive there’s a parcel waiting for me, wrapped in anonymous brown paper. No return address.

Huh. Nobody knows I’m here. Nobody I’d expect a parcel from.

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Forgot to snap the parcel before opening it, so here’s a SCBWI breakout session about writing comics – it does, at least, involve brown paper and surprises!

Do I dare open it? It could be something cool, useful or important, but it could be a whole host of terrible things: severed digits, pirate’s curses and jellied frogs not withstanding. This is what every character in a story needs – Internal Conflict.

The longer I stare at and speculate with my writer friend, the more suspense builds up. I am, as they say, on the edge of my seat. Not knowing what’s inside is exciting, a strange mix of needing to know (to end any anxiety) and the anticipation of pleasure (to be rewarded for my wait).

I slowly remove the glossy dark brown tape trying hard not to tear the crisp manila packing paper.

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Magic Making Dept Rocks!

This is the thing about surprises. They’re vital to any story. A story without surprises is dull. Whether it’s a genie magically appearing from a lamp, learning you’re a boy wizard (please make the parcel from Hogwarts) or an internal revelation that a character is stronger than they think, the surprise fuels drama. A good writer builds up to each surprise, sometimes with the knowledge of the reader (as often happens in horror, part of the suspense is knowing that a surprise is coming), and sometimes hoping desperately for the reader not to see it coming. Every scene should have a surprise relevant to the character and/or plot.

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Thanks Danielle!

Back to the parcel. Inside, another mystery that keeps the suspense going: a stick of rock, two purple parcels and a white envelope sealed with crimson wax.

Further investigation reveals a letter from the ‘Magic Making Dept’ at LateRooms.com:

“A little birdie told us that you’re quite the writer, so we’ve added a touch of magic to this parcel that we hope you can put to good use.”

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Unwrapped Surprise!

Quickly unwrapping the purple packages, I become the owner of a stylish new pen and notebook. In the language of writing,  resolution achieved.

The surprise is, on reflection, that I feel a valued person by LateRooms.com, that I’m more than just a customer. And, when it comes to my writing, I’m going to extend that thought to my characters, and treat them to their own special surprises.

 

 

p.s. Thank you to Danielle, the Magic Maker, and to all the volunteers and faculty that  make the SCBWI BI conference happen and special. Everything made this a great weekend and I’m feeling inspired to tackle my new book with gusto.

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School Librarians Revealed: Part 4 – Best Books and Writing Sheds

This is the final part of School Librarians Revealed, a report on the joint SCBWI-BI Central East Region/Ipswich Children’s Book Group meeting with two Suffolk school librarians: Jayne Gould and Alison Baker.

Authors are Real People: The Secrets of School Visits

Children really love to have authors come into school and often feel that they are meeting “a famous person”. So it’s not surprise publishers are very keen to have authors come into school or go on tour. Pupils find writing workshops very good and are always interested in hearing how writers go about writing, for example, Jeremy Strong talks about his writing shed.

When writers come into school they need to be able to “hold” a class and talk to them. Often the best authors have some sort of show, do something special and sparkle. But authors don’t need to be all singing all dancing. Douglas Hill, for example, had a very quiet presence and delivery, but still held the children with the story he told.

“The 2 Steves” – Barlow and Skidmore (www.the2steves.net) – are cited as an example that all writers can learn from because of their skill at holding a class, learned from years of teaching drama. Jack Trelawney is also good.

School visits also help facilitate it the relationship between writers and readers. It’s good for children to recognise the writers are “real people”. Many students don’t realise that you can write to authors and children are delighted to meet them. Authors are encouraged to make use of any connection they already have with a school — especially if they had previously worked there or have children at that school.

Writer should have a plan and know what they are going to talk about or do. If the children are misbehaving author shouldn’t be afraid to make them pay attention rather than waiting for teachers or librarians to intervene. Anne Cassidy told off three girls at the back of an audience of 100 for talking and the students were far more shocked at being picked out by the author than they would have been being told off by a teacher.

Authors also need to be flexible and adaptable. “Don’t panic when things go off plan, just go with the flow,” suggest Allison, “and the children will respond.” Keep an eye on the audience – if you’re losing their interest, wind things up quickly.

Schools are also an excellent place to get feedback from young readers, if you’re brave enough! Children can be extremely honest about their opinion of books. Only the flip side, authors can end up leaving the school with lots of new ideas generated by the pupils.

 

Best Books of Last Year

As part of our discussion we talked about what everyone in the audience and on the panel thought were the best books published last year or once there are most excited about when they read them.

·        All three of the Charlie Fletcher books — about statues coming to life in London: Stoneheart, Ironhand and Silvertongue.

·        Gideon the Cutpurse by Linda Buckley-Archer – the third instalment is hotly anticipated!

·        The final book of the Noughts and Crosses Trilogy – Checkmate by Malorie Blackman

·        Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. It was considered a big book to get into, but it was a nice story and a good adventure that attracted a wide range of readers in the school libraries. Interestingly, it genuinely crossed the gender divide because girls like Valkyrie Cain and boys like Skulduggery.

Favourite books

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson is regarded as a modern classic. Many librarians felt they could constantly give it to any child who could read and that they know that there isn’t anything bad to take from it, but a good story.

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsal (www.jeannebirdsall.com) is very highly thought of by Jayne, but had not had much success yet selling it to students.

The London Eye Mystery by the late Siobhan Dowd was very popular with year four onwards at Broke Hall School.

Alison felt he couldn’t go wrong Michael Morpurgo.

Mrs Marriage Project by Pauline Fisk — this book caught the imagination of one librarian, but she couldn’t sell it to most of the girls in her school.

One important consideration for book is its ability to be read out in class by a teacher.

Children don’t seem to be aware or snobbish of abridgements or adaptations. 50 page versions of Dickens are popular, and often the children will come back to the longer versions if they want to later on.

Boy Books and Girl Books

Authors that bridge the gender divide

·         Robert Muchamore

·         Roald Dahl

·         Michael Murporgo

·         JK Rowling

Books that bridge the gender divide

·         Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon and Tony Ross

·         Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

·         London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd

·         Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan (very popular with year six)

·         Vampirates by Justin Somper

·         The Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett

·         The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Laurence

·         Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

There are obviously many books that would definitely are boy read or girl reads. One librarian had tried very hard to persuade boys to read “Not Quite a Mermaid”, but could not overcome the pink cover. During a session on choosing books, Not Quite a Mermaid was a definite no when judged by the cover, it became a probably not when the blurb was read out, but, after being read the beginning of the story the boys were interested in it, but would not borrowed because of the pink cover.

And, Finally….

Jayne had a very interesting exercise with some of her year six pupils to help them break away for what they normally read and to read something different. She selected books for each of the pupils and put them in an envelope which they were not allowed to open until they were back in the classroom. They were told to have a go at the book and to come back and talk about it. The pupils were excited by the exercise and it worked very well.

 

I’d like to thank Jayne Gould and Alison Baker as well as everyone who attended the discussion at Broke Hall School. I’m also very grateful to the school for allowing us to have our meeting their with the Ipswich Children’s Book Group. You can find out more about British SCBWI by visiting http://britishscbwi.jimdo.com/

School Librarians Revealed: Part 3: The Books Librarians Want Written!

This is part three of School Librarians Revealed, a report on the joint SCBWI-BI Central East Region/Ipswich Children’s Book Group meeting with two Suffolk school librarians: Jayne Gould and Alison Baker.

What Librarians Want: Gaps on the Shelves

We talked with our panel and audience about what they felt the gaps on their shelves were and the books they wished more writers and publishers were producing.

  • Good middle year readers and shorter books for older readers, especially in a market saturated with “brick size” trilogies. Year Six students need meaty books, but don’t necessarily have the stamina to read at great length. They would welcome good books that they could get their teeth into but not too long.
  • Good but not lengthy fantasy – Spiderwick Chronicles (Holly Black and Tony DiTertizzi) were really popular (although helped by the film).
  • Broke Hall School finds it hard to keep Horrid Henry (Francesca Simon and Tony Ross) and Beast Quest (Adam Blade) on the shelves, so more like these would go down well.
  • Good, short books that would make good class readers for Year Five/Six would be welcomed. Anything ideal for teachers to read aloud to their class, but doesn’t take up a term to read, would be good. Once by Morris Gleitzman was cited as a good example of a book very easy to get through in class but has a lot to build lessons and discussions around.
  • Fiction about Sport: although there are a few series on football, they could do with more stories including more sports as well as football, for example, a rugby series.

As part of the discussion, one author noted that this runs contrary to the advice given to many writers who have been told that publishers aren’t after books for middle age readers (7 to 9-year-olds) or shorter books for older readers. The prevailing economic demand seems to be for “value for money” books, which in other words, offer more pages per pound.

  • More action and fantasy for boys (Charlie Higson, Anthony Horowitz, Robert Muchamore)

Laugh Out Loud Funny

  • More humorous stories for older readers – somewhere between Horrid Henry/Jeremy Strong (too young) and Louise Rennison (too old).

High Interest, Lower Challenge

High interest level but easy reading books are in great demand. One in 10 students at Stoke High School is an EAL (English as an Additional Language) student, many from a Polish, Portuguese or Afghan background. It is difficult to source books in their own language to help them keep up their mother tongue as well as helping them to read English.

This is even more of a problem in special need schools, where teenage interest needs to be expressed at Biff and Kipper reading level. Students who use the Makaton symbol system to aid their reading find it hard to have any books suitable for them and staff often resort to remaking the books for their students. As an audience member said, it’s like “learning to play the piano at 11 and having to play nursery rhymes. It’s embarrassing.”

Scary

Students are always asking for “really scary books” (from Year Three onwards). However, what staff find scary and what the students find scary is another matter.

Alison was scared by Breathe by Cliff McNish, she even dreamt about it, but students didn’t find it scary. Stephen King was a little too old for most of their students, but an author who could “do” Stephen King “without the other bits” would do well. One of the troubles is that books now compete against TV, film and video games.

From Scary to Censorship

Interestingly, Darren Shan is not stocked by many librarians. In the primary school library in particularly there was a fine line between stocking a wide range of books and keeping them suitable. Even Robert Muchamore’s CHERUB series is not stocked after the second book at some libraries because it was felt the violence and teenage content escalates through the series, although CHERUB is very popular with many students.

A red dot system helps to indentify books that need to lend out with care (identified with small stickers) and may not be suitable for all readers. For example, Broke Hall School Library stocks Garth Nix’s Sabriel but are careful who borrows it (I am reminded of the system they use in the Clayr library in Lirael by Garth Nix). Children grow up and mature at different ages making many decisions on a pupil by pupil basis. With the introduction of self-service takeout systems, it makes borrowing easier when librarians are not there to offer guidance, however, it is possible to put a block on certain books (in other words, an electronic red dot!).

Parents, it was felt, are responsible in monitoring and being involved in their children’s reading. Surprising it’s often the books children coming in from home that are not suitable reading and parental complaints about the school libraries are, thankfully, rare.

Manga is popular at the high school library, but titles are selected with great care as most of the publications are only suitable for 18+ (and often contain offensive (violent and sexual) material not suitable for a school library). The school does have a Manga club — which also has a cultural focus on Japan. However, most manga’s violence and gore is mild compared with many of the computer games children play.

However, it could be argued that it is better to read about some of these areas than it is to see it on TV. At least with reading, there can be a difference between what is written and what is understood by the reader. Most people recognise the children see worst things at home — many students have watched 16 and 18 rated movies with their parents. (Year One, Two and Three students have seen Lord Of the Rings, and at least one Year One student has seen The Dark Knight).

Biography

Age appropriate biographies are a real gap in the market. Marley and Me by John Grogan was cited as a prime example of a biography that worked very well. The author adapted to his biography for younger readers (Marley: A Dog like No Other) and it’s very popular. The students would not have tackled the adult version.

Students wanted to read about people in the news — books about Richard Hammond (On the Edge), Lewis Hamilton and Jonny Wilkinson were read by many students, although it was felt that a more age-appropriate version of their biographies would go down well. When Year Eight and Nine students do biography work they can struggle to find contemporary biographies, either the books are not written yet, or, in the case of Katie Price’s autobiography, are not suitable for younger age group.

Many girls are into the so-called agony biographies — often led by their mothers reading, for example, Child Called It (David Pelzer) or My Sister’s Keeper (Jody Peacock). While the grown-up version isn’t really suitable for Year Six, an age-appropriate version would be desirable.

Coming soon – Part 4: What are the Best Books and Who Writes in a Shed?

School Librarians Revealed: Part 2 – Keepers of Books

This is part two of School Librarians Revealed, a report on the joint SCBWI-BI Central East Region/Ipswich Children’s Book Group meeting with two Suffolk school librarians: Jayne Gould and Alison Baker.

The Book Keepers: The Role of Librarians

“The only way you can learn to make choices is by making choices,” says Jayne Gould, “and part of that process is making the wrong choice”. Despite the temptation to interfere in children’s reading choices, most librarians felt that only in exceptional circumstances do they step in. They support a pupil’s right to make choice and try a book.

Librarians are keen to encourage pupils to read and to keep them borrowing books. Part of the process is helping pupils find something appropriate, by both content and reading age, and, at the same time, challenging. They also have a role to play in helping developing readers.

Problems do occur, for example, in Broke Hall School, Year Four boys started going for the longest books they could find so they could be seen reading “great thick books”. But many of these books came back the next day because they were too challenging a read. So Jayne Gould worked very closely with teachers to establish reading scheme: specially chosen books were placed in five colour types and the students had to read one book from each of the coloured tubs in order to get a gold certificate.

In the older school, the problem can be the opposite. Year Nine students still take out Horrid Henry when they should be challenging themselves, although with a mix of reading abilities, some students still need something more appropriate to their reading age, like quick reads.

Stoke High School has had a lot of success with a paired reading scheme. Pupils who read at below chronological age, but not low enough for corrective reading, are paired with stronger, older readers. They meet twice a week for 20 minutes to practice reading out loud. The scheme not only makes dramatic improvements to reading ability (and enjoyment) over six months but also creates some strong friendships. It is not unusual for pupils to improve their reading age by two years during the scheme. It also helps the students to learn to pick appropriate books and get satisfaction from being able to get into and to the end of the story.

And it’s not just pupils that need supporting. Teachers need librarians to be an informed resource and to support the curriculum as well as foster wider reading. The librarians need to read voraciously and share their reading experiences/suggestions with pupils and staff. Children who like reading are always in the library talking about what they’ve read. Most children are very happy talking to the school librarians and they feel enthusiastic children can be ambassadors for reading, helping encourage other students to pick up the reading bug.

A forgotten role of school librarians is teaching children to make decisions about books. All the schools hold sessions on how to choose a book, helping children to make a decision on what to read (although despite this most students still make their decision entirely on the cover!).

Age banding

The move by many UK publishers to start “age-banding” books is hot topic of the moment. Unsurprising to anyone listening to the debates, staff in schools are almost universal opposition to age banding because it would stop a lot of children picking up books.

Obviously, there is an issue of suitability and making sure books are age-appropriate so the kids are not exposed unduly to swearing, violence and, in the case of some celebrity biographies, inappropriate pictures. However, librarians felt on the whole that children should be allowed to read anything they choose and be trusted to self censor, if they don’t like it.

Students are largely self censoring. They often don’t want to read something that is not suitable for them and they will bring them back. An 11-year-old girl in one library borrowed a book that had been put into the library by a previous librarian and returned it for being too explicit. Most readers will stop if they are uncomfortable with the book.

Even in the high school library, most of the students do not look at the adult book section. Alison Baker jokes that they’ve trained them all well! However, Year 10 and 11 students do read Agatha Christie, Mills and Boon and “good adventure stories”.

During her days as a bookseller, Jayne had a customer who wanted to buy the classic Black Beauty (by Anna Sewell) for a 5 year old without realising that might be inappropriate for the youngster.

The difficult comes with people who don’t work closely with children or know the children’s books market. How do they make choices to buy books for children? It would be helpful to the “grandparents” buying books, but at the heavy price of stigmatising children and excluding many from the pleasures of reading.

For more information on the age banding debate visit:

Coming soon – Part 3: The Books Librarians Want Written – watch this blog!

Advent Writing Exercises – Day 23: December 23th

Fight the cold weather by building an inferno of great ideas. Kindle your fire with a great opening line and be as imaginative as you can. Stoke the fires of invention with every line you write until ideas glow off the page.