Thursday, December 15, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like Hugless...

When you come into Mostly Books, there are a few 'signature' books, ranges and authors that people have got to know us for over the years. Our Persephone Books have been a feature of the shop since we opened, and favourite authors of the staff tend to do well on the shelves too: Reginald Hill, Neal Stephenson, Brandon Sanderson and a few others we have more than a soft spot for.

Amongst shrines to authors in the children's room, you'll find Catherine Rayner, Julia Donaldson - and local children's author David Melling.

We've known David for many years, and recent events with him have seen a drawing masterclass at the local library, and also a splendid make-your-own-Douglas event that took place in the courtyard garden. But what has been really exciting is to see how 'Douglas' has really taken off and quickly won a place as a modern classic, shortlisted for plenty of awards, even spawning a hugely popular and pioneering smartphone app (itself up for awards).

Douglas has featured rather largely in the shop window for the last few months:

Hodder have done a great job turning Hugless into a very cute plush together with the book. Just look at his little nose and scarf:

David recently came into the shop to kindly sign copies of his books for us, and we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about his writing (and drawing) life...

Five questions with . . . David Melling's writing life
1.    What are you working on at the moment?
'We love you Douglas' the fourth Douglas book, then I’m taking a break from Douglas. I’m then working on a new character, not entirely sure of his name, but probably called ‘Warren’. It’s going to bit more slapstick humour than Douglas, a bit of a change of pace. The feedback from my publisher in terms of what they like about my work is my characters: they like the pathos, humour and the strength of character – and Warren will focus on all of these elements.

2.    What is the best writing tip you've ever been given?
I think my knee-jerk response to that question is: do a little each day. It’s very important. Kids often ask me ‘how do you do that?’ when I draw, and it all comes down to a little each day. It’s like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport. You don’t pick up your tennis racquet one day and be volleying, hitting winning shots the next. The more you practice the better you get, and that’s the same with drawing and writing.

3.    What's the best and worst thing about being a children's writer?
The best thing is to be able to sit down and write and draw all day long. I’m very lucky, and there is nothing better. The worst aspect is towards the end of a project however, you do long and unusual hours, you neglect your family. That can be tough.

4.    Do you have a writer's survival kit?
Well, I did hear that Andrew Motion finds Lemsip gets him all creative, and Agatha Christie apparently used to bathe in a hot bath with apples, and the aroma inspired her! If I’m stuck, I’ll go for a walk, or drive, in fact – just get moving. I find train journeys are very useful in that regard. I do a lot of work in coffee shops, just doodling when ideas come. I always have a sketchbook on me, and so can always write stuff down.

The cartoonist James Thurber once said the hardest part of his job was convincing his wife that when he was standing and staring out the window he was actually hard at work. And that’s true. When I’m sitting and staring out of the window, having a meditative moment, that’s when ideas come. It links back to the joy of the job, at any point – whatever I’m doing – I can pull back from reality a little, and dip into the writing well.

5.    What was your big breakthrough?
I had two big breakthroughs. The first was in my 20s, when I was introduced to an illustrator who lived a couple of streets away. I was very lucky, and for a year I apprenticed to him, and was able to build up a portfolio. If you have the opportunity to apprentice to someone great, it’s very fortunate, and a wonderful opportunity - but to find someone nearby in the same town was incredibly lucky.

Breakthrough number two was whilst working at an animation studio. I had been building my portfolio up, and realised that my big passion was children’s books. At the time I made this decision and starting to look around, I was introduced to someone who had just set up on her own as an agent, and was looking for clients. It was perfect timing, and although it took almost two years to get published, having guidance within the industry was incredibly useful. I’m happy to say that – nearly twenty years later – she is still my agent!


For more insights into David's writing life, visit his rather splendid website here. And if you are a young fan of Douglas, you can vote for him in the Red House Children's Book Awards here. And of course, we have signed copies of Douglas (including rarely signed copies with the plush) in the shop. Just email if we can send you a last minute, rather special Christmas present...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fake penguins

At Mostly Books we pride ourselves on our stock selection - and more importantly, that what we sell is up to our high quality threshold (particularly at this time of the year). What we would hate to happen is to recommend a book to a customer that turned out to be not quite what they were expecting.

So all the fuss about the BBC's Frozen Planet and possible faking of scenes is a bit of a concern. We have copies of Frozen Planet in the shop, and so this morning I went and inspected a copy to see if I could make out any hint that photographs in this gorgeously produced book have in any way been faked.

However, after taking it off the shelf and inspecting it more closely, I found this picture on pages 57-58). On the face of it - a touching encounter between the baby polar bears, their Mum - and a penguin. But look more closely:

Real or fake? The BBC need to be asked some very searching be the judge...

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Turning Real-Life Stories into Books - with added imagination from Frank Cottrell Boyce

What if you had a car that could fly? What would you do if you found a bag full of money?

The imaginations of more than 200 schoolchildren from more than five Abingdon schools were given a jump start on Wednesday Nov 30 as they listened to multi award-winning children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce talk about the inspiration behind his books.

Frank read from his latest novel ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again’ and told how the roots of the story grew from real life.

Ian Fleming is well known as being the creator of James Bond, but fewer people know that he was the creator of the original children’s story ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ . Even fewer would have known that the story was inspired by a real car.

Ian Fleming saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang race when he was a young boy – and that memory came back to him when - convalescing from a heart attack - it formed the inspiration behind his only children’s book.

Frank Cottrell Boyce told the amazing story of a rich count who came into his money very young and spent his money on things most children couldn’t even dream of. Things like a full-size train track in his grounds to race trains, and putting a zeppelin engine in a car - the original Chitty - to race it at Brooklands (it could go over 100mph).

Frank Cottrell Boyce’s first books are all based on what children would do when placed in extraordinary situations. ‘Millions’ is about what a couple of boys decide to do when they find a huge amount of money. And ‘Cosmic’ is about a 12-year-old boy who looks much older and gets mistaken for an adult.

These stories have been loved by children, turned into films, and means Frank Cottrell Boyce has been on every major award for children’s writing.

In Frank Cottrell Boyce’s ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again’ – the original Chitty’s engine is reassembled (without the family’s knowledge) inside a camper van. So when they set off, their trip around the world is like no other.

Frank also shared loads of stories and advice about how simple things can become stories if you add a lot of imagination and a little magic – and talked about all the things that inspired him to become a children’s writer.

He knew he wanted to be a writer from when he was at school and a teacher read out something he’d written to make a friend laugh – and he made the whole class laugh.

‘I learned that if you choose words in the right order people will laugh even if you’re not there in person. Someone could be laughing at the same thing even all the way in China. Writing is like having a superpower.’

His incredible talk ended with so many hands bristling with energetic questions for the author he could have been there all day.

Note to other booksellers: If you’re going to organise a big author event involving lots of schools – don’t organise it on a day when there is a big strike on and lots of schools are going to be closed.

But do organise it with author Frank Cottrell Boyce. Because even if the whole event has hung in the balance – it can still turn out to be a tremendous day that makes several sleepless nights truly worthwhile.

A huge thank you for all the schools and teachers who turned out in force to keep the event going.

And a big thank you to everyone who came to the shop to meet Frank at Mostly Books afterwards. Particularly to Jo and Rosie Caulkin who travelled from Birmingham to meet him.

Five questions with . . . Frank Cottrell Boyce's writing life
1.    What are you working on at the moment
'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang 2' (looks nervously at his editor sitting across the table from us). No, of course, that's finished. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang 3!

2.    What is the best writing tip you've ever been given?
Read, read, read.

3.    What's the best and worst thing about being a children's writer?
The best thing is the contact with children. Watching them meeting an author, getting questions. It's very real, very visceral. The worst thing is that, you do so many events that you end up having no time to write. You can't do events half-heartedly, every event I do I put everything into, I don't want to let anyone down.

4.    Do you have a writer's survival kit?
No - nothing. My house is so busy, and I am so busy, I write anywhere, at any opportunity. Edith Nesbit (and also PG Wodehouse) used to write at parties. In fact, that's a great tip for writers: learn to write at parties!

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
I had written the script for ‘Millions’, and Danny Boyle told me "I'll do the film, but you must write the book". And that was the nudge I needed. I think writers need to have other people give them a shove to get a book out there.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Abingdon Christmas Extravaganza - and a smiley snowman

November is over. Tomorrow night is the annual Abingdon Extravaganza, parade, Christmas lights switch-on and fireworks. This year there will be entertainment in the market square, and hopefully the temperature will be slightly warmer than last year when some of the band musical instruments froze...not to mention one or two Cubs and Brownies.
We spent Sunday doing our Christmas window, and very festive it looks too. Someone came into the shop this evening asking "where did you get your snowman". She was gutted when she learned it had been made for us...
He is a very smiley snowman, and he has been making a lot of people - young and old - smile.

And here he is at night. Aaah.
If you come into the shop, take a look at this utterly gorgeous nativity set from German toy company HABA. Designed to be a family heirloom, and drawing on a German tradition of lovely wooden, handcrafted nativity sets, this does have a wonderful wow-factor. £99 - but we are selling it for £87.99...
The parade starts at 6.45pm, with fireworks scheduled for (approx) 8.30pm. And this Saturday it's a special Christmas shopping day in Abingdon, and all the car parks will be free...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

“We see the world clearly when we're children, and spend the rest of our lives trying to remember what it is we saw” – Garrison Keillor

Cosmic was the first book I read by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It was on the shortlist for the Carnegie award in 2009, and that year – for the first time ever – I read all the books on the list. It was a strong list that year: Eoin Colfer, Siobhan Dowd, Kevin Brooks, Patrick Ness. But for sheer comic exuberance, and a fantastically imagined story (and me being a sucker for anything to do with space flight), it was easily my favourite.

Cosmic features the exceptionally tall Liam Digby, who – through a series of unlikely events somehow rendered plausible in Boyce’s story – gets mistaken for an astronaut and sent into space.

The inspiration for the exceptionally tall Liam was a boy at a school in Bootle, Merseyside, near to where Frank lives, and the school where he first sat in front of children as part of an author event. The school has influenced Frank (and his stories) in other ways, but the subject of his latest book The Unforgotten Coat takes as its inspiration (clearly the wrong word) a sadder episode from the school.

The story centres around Julie, in her final year at primary school, full of confidence, and on the cusp of stepping out into a wider world. But into her class come two brothers, immigrants from Mongolia – Chingis and Nergui – who not so much turn her world upside down, but make her realise that she only has a grasp of a very small part of it. Wilful, intransigent and full of sinister stories of a demon trying to ‘vanish’ his younger brother (possibly by eating him), Chingis picks Julie to be their ‘Good Guide’ – and she in turns seeks to understand more about their country and culture.

Initially the strangeness of the boys actions put everyone on the wrong foot, including their nomadic wanderings around Bootle, and even turning up and demanding ‘emergency baking’ privileges at Julie’s house. Julie initially wants to assimilate elements of Chingis and Nergui’s world, and thereby enter a Xanadu of strange Mongolian myth and folklore. But when the truth of their lives becomes evident, and Julie starts sorting myth from reality, she is forced to intervene and act beyond her age, something which has dramatic consequences for everyone.

Whether or not you cotton on quickly to the reality of the boy’s lives, or even spot the heartbreaking twist towards the end, is immaterial – this is a book for young children after all. What Frank does so masterfully in The Unforgotten Coat is take you completely into a world as seen through the eyes of the child protagonists. The design of the book works completely to support this, looking and feeling like a school exercise book, complete with pasted-in polaroid photographs. The last aspect comes courtesy of a collaboration between photographers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. The effect works beautifully, and I genuinely can't see this book having the same emotional impact in a digital format.

In all his writing – including his earlier books Framed and Millions – Boyce lets stories unravel through the eyes and imaginations of children. Crucially, he always explores the way imagination can influence reality in profound ways.

This is a theme Frank is passionate about, as anyone who has ever heard him speak or met him will testify. Last weekend, Boyce was (by all accounts) the star turn at the British SCWBI conference in Winchester, sharing anecdotes, inspiring writers and reading liberally from E Nesbit, quoting Richmal Crompton and other authors who bring this quality to their writing.

The Unforgotten Coat is a simple story, and although it is streaked through with sadness, it nevertheless ends on an uplifting note. The message is one of tolerance, mutual respect, and the importance of seeing the world in a different way. These messages can be found in plenty of other children's books, but not perhaps in such a simple and elegant way.

The book has been deservedly shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book of the Year - although my loyalties are slightly torn between this and Lissa Evans' Small Change for Stuart. Together with Morris Gleitzman's Too Small to Fail and Andy Briggs' Tarzan, these are my favourite children's books of the year.

Frank Cottrell Boyce has had a busy year - and 2012 will only get busier. Having also released Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (the officially-commissioned sequel to Ian Fleming's original) Frank is also about to enter a two-month writing 'purdah' to script (together with filmmaker and long-time collaborator Danny Boyle) the entire opening ceremony of the London Olympics. No pressure then.

If you ever get a chance to meet Frank, or listen to him speak, please try to do so. He is truly inspirational, and already one of our greatest children's authors.

Frank will be at Mostly Books this Wednesday, 30th November at 1pm, for one hour only, to meet customers and sign copies of Chitty and The Unforgotten Coat. This will be his last public event before his Olympic writing duties, and our last public event of the year. It's a slightly crazy day on Wednesday, what with the possibility of disruption to the school timetable, but if - unexpectedly, at short notice - you find yourself able to come down to the the shop and give him a big welcome to Abingdon, we would be delighted to see you.

More details can be found here. And we would also be delighted to reserve a signed copy of his book if you cannot make it, and would like one as a gift. Please let us know.

Regards - Mark

P.S. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again is as much a sequel to the film as to the book, which is just as well, as this is a fun, frenetic romp of a story in which the Tooting family stick a huge engine into a VW Camper Van, which then develops a mind of its own. Flying (literally) between England, Paris, Egypt and Madagascar, and involving a truly sinister and scary baddy (Tiny Jack - a worthy equal to the childsnatcher) this is an action-packed thrilling story that I heartily recommend for ages 8-11. And a sequel is on its way...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hard Times, Great Expectations

In October 1843, a 31-year old author had an idea for a book which he believed would 'strike a sledge hammer blow' for the poor. Despite some early success, he was not doing well as a writer. The 1840s were a time of severe economic downturn in England, and his books had not been selling well.

But the economic situation was taking a far worse toll on the poor, exacerbating their already desperate living conditions. Starving to death was not uncommon. This was the Autumn of 1843, and Engels was in Manchester observing at first-hand the horrors of poverty and child labour. What he wrote as a result of what he saw continues to impact societies across the globe.

The struggling author had also visited Manchester, and the story which came to him - and which he composed "entirely in my head" - was a direct result of that visit. He felt the same anger as Engels, but he focused his anger into fiction. The book was written, illustrated and rushed into print on December 19 1843, sold 6,000 copies in the six days before Christmas, and has since gone on to become one of our most enduring works of fiction.

Much of our attitude towards Christmas - its imagery and traditions - can be traced back to Charles Dickens and "A Christmas Carol". When one thinks of the prevailing 'spirit' of Christmas, of hope, joy, thinking of others - these are all messages that spring readily from Dickens' tale.

It's entirely appropriate, therefore, that two books on Dickens are near the top of our Christmas newsletter - the annual gathering together, by everyone at Mostly Books, of all the titles and gifts that we think you should consider for friends and family this Christmas.

February is the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth - and Claire Tomalin's masterful biography is published in anticipation of that - along with many other titles scheduled throughout 2010. Dickens has plenty of advice for the hard times we currently face, incidentally.

We are biased of course, and we believe books make wonderful gifts. But whether you are buying books for others or yourselves this Christmas, we urge you to "make time for books". Turn off your gadgets, clear some time for you and your family, and approach a book with great expectations for providing some solutions to current problems you may face.

And we are here to help. Please just ask.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Steve Jobs of the Renaissance? Keith Devlin's 'The Man of Numbers'

At the start of "The Man of Numbers", the subject of the book - Leonardo of Pisa - is compared to a pre-Renaissance Steve Jobs. Gratuitous and opportunistic? Not really. It's a clever - even canny - comparison admittedly, but spot on. Leonardo of Pisa is better known to us as 'Fibonacci' (a nicknamed coined by a 19th century historian), and as Keith Devlin rather skilfully explains in this beatifully produced book, he took a number system in existence for more than 700 years, optimised it for merchants, made it more user-friendly - and in doing so transformed the world.

The bare facts are these: the Hindu-Arabic number system has been existence for hundreds of years, but in medieval Europe it was of academic interest only, and everyone else got on with roman numberals and the abacus. Calculations - particularly for commerce - were carried out using arcane methods fiercely guarded by calculators, and a lot of trust was involved (no records of any of the working, you see?). Add to the fact that at that time there were a multitude of weights, measures, currencies and you get an idea of the complexities of trade.

Leonardo grew up as the son of a wealthy trader in Pisa, who thus had the education, the experience (through travelling in North Africa) and the opportunity to observe the power of the 'new math' at first hand, and realise the potential for simplifying trade. It is a measure of the ubiquity of the Hindu-Arabic system ("the only global language") that Devlin has to work hard to make us understand the profound implications of using base 10 numbers, of number placement, and of the 'tricks' that can be done to do complex calculations.

Leonardo's publication of Liber abbaci ("The Book of Calculation") was an immediate success, and its focus on being a teaching aid (with plenty of worked examples) ensured its widespread copying and dissemination. The impact was dramatic and rapid. Despite initial resistance to the number system (you can imagine the power-position that existing calculators occupied and their Luddite response) its potential to manage increased complexity meant the new maths was unstoppable, and led to developments in trading, banking, ledger-keeping, and more complex companies based on pooled capital or 'shares'. This was something that turbo-charged Italy's place as the centre of global commerce.

The fact that history has forgotten Leonardo (Fibonacci comes from the moniker 'Fils Bonacci', or son of the Bonacci family) is both surprising and intriguing, although Devlin does some superb detective work to make plausible suggestions of why this was. It provides a primer on the history of mathematics and numbers, pre-eminent Muslim scholars, pre-Renaissance Italian politics and business, medieval manuscript hunting and even the impact of the printing press.

It must be said, "there is maths in this book". This requires some engagement from the reader, and at least one chapter will require you to put aside any school-era squeamishness to see the examples that would have had such a big impact. But it's worth it. And I think Mr Jobs would have been flattered by the comparison. Although there is a little sting in the tale: in an era before the printing press, widespread copying of the original manuscript - and an explosion of copycat publications - ensured that Leonardo all but disappeared from the historical record, and his only recently (through painstaking computer-aided analysis) been returned to his rightful place.
Republished again in Italian only in the 1800s, with an English language translation only published in 2002, the rescuing of Fibonnacci’s reputation and standing in the development of maths has been a long time coming. With this book, there is a hope that a much wider audience will learn about - and appreciate - what Leonardo of Pisa achieved.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

One enchanting evening: Kevin Crossley-Holland

It is doubtful to be able to think of another writer writing today who celebrates so wholly, the long traditions of story-telling, as Kevin Crossley-Holland.

At an event hosted jointly by the Oxford Children’s Book Group and Oxford Brookes, Kevin Crossley-Holland, who has recently published an autobiography of his childhood, described his journey to becoming a writer.

He places its origins not simply down to sharing stories of myths and folk tales with his father, but also to a love of history – which fired him up as a boy, to transform his garden shed into a museum. People brought him artefacts discovered locally or from home. And his grandfather had collected treasures that were so precious he had offers from the British Museum.

It was an accident which closed the door to a possible sporting career, resulting in a lot of time recuperating, that than transformed his studies into a proper appreciation and a love of language – particularly Anglo-Saxon.

One of his first works was a translation of Beowolf (he started writing poetry in his youth), which he started when at Oxford University.

But a full-time writing career didn’t beckon until two mentors he had met in Oxford, encouraged his decision to give up his job in publishing to research and write a book of Norse myths.

And those mentors were JRR Tolkien and WH Auden.

Of course he has gone on to not only be shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, but to be the only writer ever to have won with a book for younger readers ‘Storm’. He called for the judging criteria to be split, as so many novels published are for older readers, meaning primary school teachers are left lamenting the fact that there is never room for the best writing for younger readers.

But even all this did not make it easy for Kevin Crossley-Holland to write the book he is best known for his King Arthur trilogy, which starts with ‘The Seeing Stone’. This was a project he had thought about and planned for years but could not find a way to approach, until he was commissioned to write it and had already spent his advance before he started to do the actual writing.

Here, he gave an insight into his writing life. Answers are under our own noses, he said and offered plenty of tips about how to approach work, how to get inspiration and ideas, and how to weave your own knowledge and research into a narrative world children can enter.

Why should our first thoughts be the best, says the author, who spends about 40% of a book’s journey in the planning, thinking and getting to know a character, then about 20% of the time in rapid writing and about the last 40% in drafting and revising.

In answer to a question about whether he could put his finger on why stories were so important, the author was in no doubt. He believes it is important for children to know stories because is that it is part of a genetic heritage. This is why we are so able to suspend our disbelief, because it is through stories that we learn to be human, to feel sympathy, joy, or excitement for another person – through reading about what happens to a character we learn empathy.

Five questions with . . . glimpses of Kevin Crossly-Holland’s writing life
1.   What are you working on at the moment?
I am completing the second in the Viking trilogy ‘Scramasax’. I always write poetry. And I am going to do a picture book with Jane Ray about Vivaldi.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
It is a job of work and a matter of getting down to it and not waiting for inspiration. It’s all about thinking of writing as a discipline. It’s also about going that extra mile – writing something and thinking even as you write it that it won’t wash – you have to take risks and go for it. Actually, I am better at doling out tips than receiving them.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
It is probably having children writing to you, sometimes even long after they read something, and tell you that something you’ve written really counted. That and the smiling faces of children when you meet them. There really isn’t a worst. It is a gloriously rewarding job.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing of snack essential before you can start work?
Well I am extremely pernickety and I go around my study tidying imaginary things away and checking that my pens have got a refill and just about anything to defer starting work.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
In terms of critical esteem is was ‘Storm’ (which won the Carnegie Medal) and in terms of sales it is the Arthur trilogy, which has been translated into 25 languages.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Dinosaurs, doggy paws, shark-phobia, Helliconia: The Kennington Literary Festival 2011

This was our third year as bookseller for the small but perfectly formed Kennington Literary Festival, a fantastic little festival which springs out of the passionate and thriving community surrounding Kennington Library - given added poignancy this year by the threats to the library's existence.

This year the festival welcomed the widest possible range of authors, from first time novelists to literary legends, poets, illustrators and local celebrities.

Newly-installed Oxford City Poet Kate Clanchy read poems, and extracts from her memoir Antigona and Me, in which Kate writes about the deepening friendship between her and a Kosovan immigrant whom she employed as a cleaner, and who becomes her friend. Kate uses her own story to explore many aspects of immigration, heimat and our treatment of immigrants in this country. We were also very pleased to have copies of the superb collection of science-inspired short stories she edited: Litmus (we have both books in the shop, and can really recommend them both).
In the main hall, Winnie The Witch illustrator extraordinaire Korky Paul sketched dinosaur portraits and read from the original Winnie book (25 years old next year). Korky also announced and presented prizes to a story and illustration competition held in the run-up to the Festival.

Science Fiction legend Brian Aldiss talked about his life in writing, and also discussed Oxford as a centre for fantasy fiction, in conversation with fantasy author Juliet McKenna.

I was very excited to meet Brian, whose books I consumed voraciously at school and university, and felt particularly privileged to discuss his views on the future of manned spaceflight for a few minutes whilst he signed. Brian was born in 1925, won a short story competition in the Observer in 1955, and then went on to become one of the true greats of Science Fiction - and definitely the grandmaster described on his website. He is also an accomplished poet and (exhibited) artist.

He and Juliet were heading off to the Cheltenham Festival that afternoon, and had other events lined up the following day. Truly inspiring.
A change of tack in the afternoon. Local authors Margaret Pelling and Frank Egerton spoke about their novels Diamond in the Sky and Invisible respectively. MG Harris talked about her bestselling books for confident readers The Joshua Files (and gave news of next year's final installment, with its sexy black cover).

Bill Heine was utterly compelling in talking about 25 years of the Headington Shark. Never heard of the Headington Shark? I'll bet this looks familiar:

The shark celebrated its 25th birthday in August, and Bill has published the definitive account of its history. Bill is a local celebrity and broadcaster on BBC Radio Oxford who, I think it's fair to say, divides opinion. The same can be said of the shark, whose arrival in 1986 on a well-to-do suburban street (an artistic response to the threat of nuclear war) caused all kinds of conflicts, court battles and ultimately led to a ruling from the then home secretary which has had implications for planning laws ever since.

It is frankly an incredible story, particularly concerning the court battles that Bill lost time and again (comprehensively, expensively) and yet the shark survived. Bill is a master storyteller, holding his audience rapt (albeit running out of time). The book has been beautifully produced by OxfordFolio and is a work of art itself, and of course we have signed copies in the shop...

After the authors had signed books and met fans, the local author and journalist Helen Peacocke led a local walk to tie in with her latest dog-friendly walking guide "Paws Along The Way".

Kennington has a very family-friendly reputation. The Friends of Kennington Library laid on tea, coffee and cake (amongst other refreshments) and lots of volunteers gave up a very sunny October Saturday to ensure the event was a big success. Thanks to them, to the authors - and thanks for inviting us to take part too.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book frenzy week!

It’s been a week of hurtling through book-related celebrations that has left us feeling exhilarated at so much enthusiasm for books, exhausted – and suffering from a severe case of bookshop envy.
Recovering as we were from the previous week’s excitement with Cathy Cassidy – and Our Lady’s school in Abingdon hosting their first book festival (with more than an author a day visiting the school) – on Thursday we were up and ready to run a bookstall for the Oxfordshire Book Award ceremony – 300 children, 5 authors and a lot of cake.

With only about half an hour to transform a school dining room into a book buying and signing palace, it was a race against time to deliver, unload and unpack 25 boxes of specially chosen titles – from all the current new crop of interesting writers, bestsellers – but, primarily titles from no fewer than five guest authors at the Oxfordshire Book Award ceremony.

The Oxfordshire Book Award is run among primary and secondary schools in Oxfordshire with the aim of encouraging reading and lively debate about reading. And if the enthusiasm for book buying is any sort of gauge of success – all this encouragement has definitely created a severe case of bookitis among all the pupils who attended.

There was certainly a lively enough atmosphere as we served up books at the same time as the children were served up afternoon tea refreshments at Abingdon School, following an afternoon of listening to the guest speakers. There was a chance for children to meet some of the prize-winning authors, as well as guest authors Jo Cotterill, SL Powell and Sally Nicholls.
Award-winning author Malorie Blackman (winner of Secondary School Category for ‘Boys Don’t Cry’) was kept busy signing and meeting her fans.

Axel Scheffler, best-known as illustrator of The Gruffalo, won Best Picture Book (Primary School Category) for ‘Zog’, and the queues for him didn’t die down until everyone had to be dragged back to school for the end of the day.

The awards are judged by children across schools in Oxfordshire. They also picked Michael Morpurgo’s ‘Shadow’ as the winner of the Primary Book award.

Our sincere thanks to Gabby, Jo and Sally for their assistance in manning the bookstall. I don’t suspect for a minute they knew what they were letting themselves in for, but it was too late to prepare them when someone suddenly yelled ‘they’re coming’ and the next 40 minutes went by in a blur of recommending titles and scrabbling to find enough one pound coins.

The atmosphere wasn’t much less frantic at the opening of Barefoot Books in Summertown (piccies below).

The whole place is enticing enough to host a children’s party, let alone some storytelling. It’s a beautiful space for selling books.

It’s wonderful to be able to add Barefoot to the list of Oxfordshire booksellers and we hope their incredible programme of events means many people will make the trip to Summertown and fall in love with Barefoot Books.

We were lucky enough to grab a little time with two of the authors on Thursday – our thanks to Sally Nicholls and Jo Cotterill.

Five questions with . . . Sally Nicholl’s writing life
Sally Nicholls is the author of two books. 'Ways to Live Forever' is about a boy with leukaemia, and won the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize. It is currently being translated into sixteen languages. 'Season of Secrets' is based on the pagan myth of the green man.

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I am trying to put together a submission for my next book. I am at a really very early stage with putting together my ideas and it might be a ghost story. I’ve also been commissioned to write two books for Barrington Stoke, who publish books for reluctant readers.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
To learn from writers that you love, but not to try to write the same book as they would write – that way your book will only ever be second rate. You have to write the book that only you can write. You have to write about the things you love.

Also – that the first draft won’t be any good, but that is a good thing. A first draft can be as rubbish as you like and this is a positive thing because what’s important is that you have got it written and can start to work on it.

3.    What is the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The thing that I like is that you have a lot more freedom. You can write a realistic book and a historical book and they will sit together on a bookshelf. What I don’t like is the fact that a book takes so long to write, it takes several years to finish a book and you are on your own in front of a computer.

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
I am definitely a procrastinator, I always think a cup of tea would be nice, so for me it helps if I am somewhere else – someone where I know I am there because I am supposed to be writing. I like best to be writing with other people. Getting two or three people together in the same room who are supposed to be writing really works for me because you don’t want to be the one who’s not writing.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
It never really felt like I had a breakthrough, more a series of stages. Firstly, getting on an MA course, finding an agent, then a publisher. I had five publishers interested in my first book, so probably my biggest breakthrough was when a publisher actually said they would pay me some actual money. That meant I was able to write and just work part-time three days a week.

Five questions with . . . Jo Cotterill’s writing life
Joanna Kenrick published her first book, Moondance, a picture book for young children, in 2004. Since then, she has published many different books for teenagers and young people, including her young adult novel Red Tears, a story about a teenage girl who turns to self-harm. She also writes a series of books for 9-13s called Sweet Hearts under the name Jo Cotterill.

1.    What are you working on at the moment?
Book 6 in the Sweet Hearts series, which will be the last Sweet Hearts book! It’s due out in June 2012 and is about a synchronised swimmer competing in the Olympics.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Read, read, read

Write, write, write

I can’t remember who said it, but, to me, it sums up everything an aspiring writer needs to know.

3.    What is the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
Best thing: being paid to make up stuff!

Worst thing: constant worry about money . . .

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential bfore you can start work?
Empty house! Absolutely essential!

5. What was your biggest breakthrough?
Getting an agent for my YA novel ‘Red Tears’. It was the first time I really believed I could have a career in writing.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Going Barefoot in Summertown

Mostly Books were invited to a heaving Barefoot Books Friday evening, and their sublimely gorgeous new bookshop cum offices in Summertown, North Oxford:

It was packed. But I managed to squeeze into the corners for a few photos:

Barefoot had put on quite a show, with a true access-all-areas event. It's a bold move from the multi-award winning independent publisher: the building has been outfitted to an incredibly high standard, with offices, storytelling spaces, shop and café.

They will be running courses and workshops. With other publishers opening their own bookstores elsewhere in the UK (Persephone, Gallic Books) this is probably one important, albeit niche, future of high street bookselling.

As you would imagine with Barefoot, the wow-factor is high due the high quality of craftmanship throughout the building.
And I got to sit in the big storytelling chair at the end!

Mmm. Now I wonder where we get a chair like that from for our bookshop...

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Marshmallow Skye: The Dreamy Cathy Cassidy

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a 'thing' for Cathy Cassidy (well, not that I'm fessing up to on the blog, anyway). But I do use the term 'dreamy' deliberately, because if there is one thing that Cathy does a lot of, it's daydream. She cites it as one of the best things about being a children's writer (see below), she claims it to be a crucial element of her writing success - and she advised all the children to do it at a buzzing author event held at King Alfred's in Wantage on Tuesday.

This was maybe not want the teachers wanted to hear. She imagined daydreaming being on the timetable, or a special daydreaming room where children would lounge around on sofas and beanbags, in surrounding of calm and plush carpets, with the teachers bringing smoothies and chocolate-chip cookies.

The response from the children was, overall, fairly positive.

Cathy came to Wantage as part of a staggering 2 or 3 event-per-day, 17-day tour as part of the launch of the second book in her Chocolate Box Girls series Marshmallow Skye. The hall was packed with nearly 300 students, and many had come dressed as their favourite character from one of Cathy's books.

Cathy took time to explain about her life as a writer (shed at bottom of garden, as well as a story 'teepee' which looked very cool) and how she came to write. The young Miss Cassidy bombarded the girl's magazine Jackie with 'hundreds' of short stories, so passionate did she want her stories to be published, and so it was perhaps natural that here was where she found herself in her first job.

(Cathy encouraged the children to publish their own school magazine. She also said, if there was already a school magazine, they could start up a rival. So there may be a media boom at King Alfred's over the next few weeks).

Having talked about her writing and her books, she read an extract from Marshmallow Skye. It is no surprise to us at Mostly Books why Cathy is so popular amongst her readers (which, for the Chocolate Box series, is broadly 9-13). The things she writes about are central to the life of her readers: friendships, feelings and quite simply the dilemmas of that simple-sounding phrase "fitting in".

Cathy warned children to 'never trust an author' as they were always on the lookout for shiny things to steal (in the form of story ideas), and then several of the bravest (and I thought this was *very* brave) children who had dressed up performed in a fashion show, across the stage, with the winners receiving some suitably fab chocolatey prizes...


There were some *very* big Cathy Cassidy fans in the audience, who were very excited to queue up afterwards to get books signed.

King Alfred's went to herculean efforts to put on a fabulously-organised event, and our thanks to Cathy for braving a schedule that saw her in Cardiff the day before, and Sheffield that evening!

Cathy also kindly offered to answer a few questions for the here goes:

Five questions with... Cathy Cassidy's Writing Life
1.    What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on the third book in the Chocolate Box series called "Summer's Dream". It's due out next June, and is about Skye's twin sister Summer.

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Well, I try to share as many tips as I can in the 'Writing Workshop' section of my website, so definitely take a look at that. But I guess my best tip is to write about what you care about. It shows, it really does. I write about feelings, that's what matters to me. But it could be anything: dragons, vampires, fast cars, anything - as long as it's something you really care about. If you try to write for a gap in the market, children are so sharp, and they are so open and direct, they will realise pretty quickly. Also, if I didn't write what I cared about, I'd have got bored long ago. I wouldn't be able to sustain it over several books.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The very worst thing is deadlines, and keeping to them. I think as you become a more successful author, there is more of an expectation to have books published on a faster timescale. I often think I would like a parallel 'me' writing away, whilst the other 'me' is doing all the other things! I'm currently on a 17-day tour, with sometimes two or three events per day, and by the end of the day there is very little energy left to write. On the one day off I had though, I was writing!

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
I write in a little shed in my garden, and in there I am surrounded by lots of nice things, things that only mean something to me, but which no-one else would give houseroom to! But the main thing for me is my laptop. Just before this tour, my laptop died. It was the middle of the night, I had a dreadful cold, and I had to drive the two hours to Glasgow, put my laptop in the Apple repair shop, get a replacement and start the tour.

I always have a notebook with me though, so that if anything comes to me I can jot it down. I guess the most important thing is just my head, for daydreaming. And luckily I always have my head with me!

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?
Difficult to say if there was a 'breakthrough' as such, although as soon as the books started to do well, that was very important. But really, it was from making my living as a journalist. My first proper job after leaving art college was on Jackie magazine, and although I started at the very bottom as office assistant, within two years I was fiction editor. This allowed me to discover just what kids like to read about, and how to write stories: how to hook a reader, how to edit stories, how to structure and illustrate them. All that knowledge was incredible. Once I left, I started with short stories (I still love to write short stories BTW - I have one coming out at Christmas) but gradually grew to write books. I love the space the longer format gives you to tell a story.