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...