Friday, October 25, 2013

3 4 Friday - Views from a life spent writing, baking...and looking down on Earth

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." - Winston Churchill

We all love a good memoir – thoughtful, insightful, well-written – they can be amongst some of our most cherished and important literature. Or it can just be a peep behind the curtain of a famous sports person, pop star or actor.

At this time of year, amongst the ex-football managers and pop stars grabbing the headlines, we've tried to pick three of our favourite autobiographies for today's 3-4-Friday #FridayReads.

In 'Ammonites and Leaping Fish' author Penelope Lively looks back on her own life in this utterly beguiling and surprising not-quite-memoir. Penelope addresses the realities of ageing, memory, time, and a life lived in the 20th century. As she says: “One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority”.

Erudite, elegant, moving and deeply enjoyable, it talks about tricks of memory, the objects accumulated on the journey - and a life spent reading and writing. A beautifully designed hardback, and an original memoir by one of our leading writers.

Britain seems to be baking-mad at the moment, and few television presenters spark as much genuine warmth and affection than Mary Berry. Her autobiography ‘Recipe for Life’ is a wonderfully honest and at times unexpected memoir of the life of the ‘Great British Bake Off’ judge – someone who, born in 1935, has spent over half a century teaching Britain how to cook.

Packed full of beautiful colour photos, and interspersed with recipes from a very British childhood, Berry shares her life story and proves that you can still be a style icon and at the pinnacle of your career in your 70s.

For us, Chris Hadfield is one of the biggest stars of 2013. Not since the Apollo missions has an astronaut captured the popular imagination and turned people on to space and science, whether young or old. Remember *that* version of David Bowie’s 'Space Oddity' broadcast from the International Space Station?

Well, Chris has spent an awful lot of time in space, and in his book 'An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth' he looks at his training, experiences and the reasons why he has enjoyed every minute of it. A natural storyteller, his eye-opening, entertaining stories are filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises. From his perspective on top of the world, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement -- and happiness. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

3 4 Friday - Maps, Migrations and Moving Islands

Having been inspired by authors and publishers alike last Saturday at the 'Ways Into Reading' conference, today's 3 4 Friday #fridayreads feature some of our current favourite children's books, to get kids excited and losing themselves in a new book.

We’ll start with one of our absolute favourites this Autumn: ‘Maps’ by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski. I think it’s fair to say we’ve all fallen in love with the Mizielinskis and their quirky, brilliant illustrated take on the world.

This book of maps is truly a visual feast for readers of all ages. With lavishly drawn illustrations in an over-sized book, maps show not only country borders, cities and rivers, but squeeze in places of historical interest, eminent personalities, iconic animals and plants and fascinating facts. It is a book to dip into and go back to again and again - one of those books you just have to pick up and then get lost in...

We do love a good pop-up in the shop, and Templar’s award-winning How It Works series by Christiane Dorion and Beverley Young have produced bold and imaginative pop-ups on how the weather and the world works.

How Animals Live’ is the latest in the series, and is a pop-up tour through all the environments on Earth. It shows how, from rainforests to the poles, animals have cleverly adapted to life. With pop-ups flaps, pull-outs and other fun features children can explores the extraordinary diversity of animal life. Perfect for anyone with a curiosity about animals and the world around them, and suitable for a wide age-range.

Finally, we are really enjoying the wacky world of ‘Oliver and the Seawigs’ by the dream-team of Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve and You Can’t Eat a Princess illustrator Sarah McIntyre. The story is bonkers, the two-colour illustrations even more so. But it’s FUN. An unforgettably fun, frolicsome adventure full of mad happenings and even crazier illustrations.

Oliver must rescue his parents and teams up with a moving island and a mermaid, but has to beware of the pesky sea monkeys and the sarcastic seaweed. Brilliantly funny and gorgeously illustrated book that is great to read out loud.

As always, we are here to offer our own unique brand of advice to get kids into reading – come and ask us. And find out more about the authors we met last Saturday (including some top tips on writing from Tracey Corderoy and Andy Mulligan)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Shifty and Dangerous: Tracey Corderoy, Andy Mulligan and 'Ways Into Reading' with the OCBG

How many ways into reading? Well, let me count the ways... 

Last Saturday, Mostly Books were proud to be supporting the Oxford Children's Book Group for their annual day conference 'Ways Into Reading'.

An imaginative and illuminating programme of speakers took to the stage at Oxford University Press (in the same building as the OUP Museum) with the focus being on the myriad of ways that are available to develop a deep and abiding love of reading amongst children.

The audience consisted of librarians, teachers, educational professionals, children's publishers, authors and readers - and subjects ranged from the magic of reading aloud and story sacks to the changing role of children's written language, and the importance of 'dangerous' books...

Victor Watson - author of the Paradise Barn series - kicked off with a look at the power and allure of series fiction.

Series fiction is often dismissed critically, but Victor recounted how one small boy described reading a new book as entering a room full of strangers, but that series fiction was like 'a room full of friends'.

He described his own journey into books with Malcolm Saville's 'Seven White Gates' and the dawning realisation that there were other books in the series, and that Malcolm was still writing them...

Because the most important books that children read are the ones that they read on their own, series fiction which hooks the reader - whether a successive or progressive series - are a powerful way of fostering a love of independent reading, in Malcolm's words of 'being on edge for that first page', of walking into that familiar room.

It's a theme which parallel's Neil Gaiman's comments this week that fostering a love of reading, at its simplest, is "finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them".

A good series seems a fantastic way of achieving this.

The team behind the The Phoenix Comic (Caro and Tom Fickling) gave a passionate plea for comics (and comics as opposed to graphic novels) as a way for children to develop a love of reading.

(And as someone who grew up reading almost nothing but The Beano, Tornado and 2000AD in my younger years, I wholeheartedly agree)

The Phoenix Comic - successor to the early DFC - is possibly the most important comic currently being published, given its commitment to the highest quality writing and artwork. Caro and Tom shared experiences of the comic so far, the humbling feedback which flows in from readers and parents - and shared plans for the future direction under the auspices of its publisher, the newly-independent David Fickling Books.

Tracey Corderoy is a big favourite at Mostly Books, with books such as Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam, The Very Messy Mermaid and The Little White Owl being some of our bestselling children's books in recent years.

Tracey grew up in Port Talbot, in a house with no books, and told a tale of a girl being transformed into a reading machine by the multi-sensory magic of seeing books brought to life through all kinds of creative ways - something she does with her own books, with story sacks, dressing up, theatrical performances - and even live ducks in bookshops!

Author Susie Day meeting Tracey Corderoy
Intrigued to discover more, in between signing books afterwards, we wanted to find out more about Tracey's writing life...

Five Questions With...Tracey Corderoy's Writing Life

1. What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on Hubble Bubble young fiction #2 and #3 (a follow-up to Hubble Bubble: Glorious Granny Bake-off). I’m also working on a sequel to Shifty McGrifty.

2. What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
The best tip I was ever given was to ‘just tell the story’. Don’t worry about all the pieces being in place.

3. What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best is the immediate feedback you are able to get from children, I love that. The worst is deadlines, which I think must be quite common. I find them very constraining.

4. Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
(Thinks for a moment). Mmm, not really. I think it’s important *not* to give yourself ‘kit’ actually. Otherwise, if you don’t have it, it gives you an excuse not to write. I will write anywhere, on anything – even if I don’t feel like it.

5. What was your biggest breakthrough?
It has to be the day, after three years or so of rejections, when someone got in touch to say they really liked 'Grunt and Grouch', and could I come in and have a chat about producing a book with them, as characters. That was very special.


The conference featured a talk by the team behind Project X at OUP, and also Vineeta Gupta publisher of Children’s Dictionaries at OUP looking at the changing nature of children's language, particular some of the work they've done analysis the language patterns in the 40 million words from 90,000 short story entries in the Radio 2 short story competition. From children's favourite character names (Lucy and Jack) to the most popular 'new' word (Gangnam!) the '500 words' project is well worth discovering more about (and the BBC did a feature on this back in May).
Finally, Andy Mulligan - author of 'Trash' and the Ribblestrop books - gave a talk about dangerous books. Andy's own brush with danger (experiencing the reality of daily gun-battles whilst on the set of the film of 'Trash') Andy talked about the power of prose, and a different take on finding books that children *want* to read. And providing an extreme example of his own experiment in opening the door to a group of reluctant teen readers (it involved the book American Psycho and a not inconsiderable amount of flack from parents).

Andy's latest book 'The Boy With Two Heads' is about a mild-mannered, delightful 10 year old boy who suddenly grows another head. Cue confusion in dealing with an alter ego who is rude, arrogant and occasionally downright nasty. Anyone with teenagers might just get where Andy is coming from - and where he goes with this delightfully literal take on the adolescent and the emergence of a different persona...

We were also lucky to be able to chat with Andy, and ask him some questions as well...

Five Questions With...Andy Mulligan's Writing Life

1.  What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a book about the first world war, to be published next year. It’s about a 14 year old boy in this age, who becomes obsessed about a 14 year old boy who goes to war in 1914.

2. What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Get to the end. I don’t mean to sound smug, but it’s very easy to start something, in a burst of enthusiasm, but you’ve got to get to the finish line, even if you finish badly.

3. What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?
The best is spending time with children, as characters, because as a children’s writer your characters will often be children. The worst (thinks very hard). Mmm, nope, I really can’t think of anything – what have other writers said?!

4.  Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?
Mmm. A laptop (that sounds a bit dull, doesn’t it?). I have to say that, although not an essential, I love writing on a train, it’s the rhythm of the train that just seems to help with the writing process.
5. What was your biggest breakthrough?
I think – for me – it was the when I realised what the ending was going to be for ‘Trash’. There was this moment, I was in Manilla, a typhoon was approaching, I was walking around and the heaven’s opened. I just thought “this is how it’s going to end”. It was very biblical, you could see the trash coming out of the bins, everywhere, and rushing down the street...


Thank to all the authors for making it a wonderful day, and the Oxford Children's Book Group for inviting us along. It's a fantastic group, passionate about making a difference to children love of reading locally, so why not become a member?

(For another take on the conference, read the brilliant ChildLedChaos's perspective over on her blog - and Griselda Heppel's has also done a great take on the conference from an author's perspective as well)

Friday, October 11, 2013

3 4 Friday - Carousing our Curiously Quirky Mother Tongue

Any day of the week, every day of the year, you can find something to celebrate. For example, yesterday was World Porridge Day. Next Tuesday is National Ada Lovelace Day. Next Friday is Chocolate Cupcake Day (apparently). See, something for everyone.

But this Sunday is ‘International English Language Day’ – so for today’s 3 4 Friday #fridayreads, we’re carousing our curiously quirky mother tongue, with three newly-published books about a language spoken by two billion people...

Wordsmiths & Warriors’ by David and Hilary Crystal, is a fabulously unique tourist's guide to the evolution of the English language in Britain. Illustrated in colour throughout, it explores the heritage of English through the places in Britain that shaped it. It unites the warriors, whose invasions transformed the language, with the poets, scholars, reformers, and many others who have helped create its character over the years. David was the author of ‘Spell It Out’ and ‘The Story of English in 100 Words’ and comes closer to possibly anyone else currently writing as an official ‘biographer’ of the English language.

For four decades, David Marsh has worked for newspapers, turning rough-and-ready reportage into the ready-to-print word. He is familiar with everything from sloppy syntax to a fundamental understanding of what (bad) grammar is. But ‘For Who The Bell Tolls’ is no call to enforce rigid rules. Rules, he argues, can get in the way of fluent, unambiguous communication at the expense of ones that are actually useful. Instead he has put together, in this readable and easy-to-understand guide, the rules he thinks help - and those he thinks we can do without. Don’t think ’grammar police’, instead think ‘grammar community support officer’...

As you would expect, the book is a joy to read, but it’s also a call for clear, honest use of English, which has many enemies: politicians, marketing people, local authorities, estate agents...and some journalists come under scrutiny, but hopefully everyone comes out the other side with better understanding! A book for anyone who loved 'Eats Shoots and Leaves'...

(And, just in case you feel like writing a strongly-worded complaint, that title is correct. Google insists it isn't though if you try to search on it...) 

Finally, if you feel English has become a bit of a minefield, you may enjoy Sandi Toksvig's tips on all sort of pitfalls to avoid with her updated book of modern manners. In her book ‘Peas & Queues’ she explains that, how to behave, like how to punctuate, is an aspect of life that many are no longer taught - and getting it wrong is the stuff of comedy at best and humiliation at worst.

Thankfully, Sandi has come to the rescue with her entertaining guide to modern manners, with tips on what to do whether you're talking to a bore, or forgot their name in the first place.

So – three books on the English language to celebrate and learn how to speak proper. After all, as Churchill himself is supposed to have said, “this is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put”...

P.S. Who is Ada Lovelace? We can wholeheartedly recommend this book! And World Porridge Day has an extremely serious message about poverty and hunger.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Spies, Spooks and Giant Slaying - The BBC Radio Oxford Afternoon Bookclub

Another fun Afternoon Bookclub in the company of Kat Orman and Nigel French from Coles Bookstore. Click on the link and fast-forward to about 1 hour and 9 minutes to listen (available on iPlayer until 14 October).

Books discussed this week included:

  • An Officer And A Spy - Robert Harris (HB, Random House, £18.99)
    Robert Harris is the master of intelligent thrillers and here he has written something very special indeed – a fictionalised account of one of the greatest political scandals of all time - ‘The Dreyfuss Affair’ – which reads like an edge-of-your-seat thriller with a very contemporary feel. With its heady mix of scandal, intrigue, dodgy intelligence dossiers, public hysteria and press collusion – it’s a tale with a very modern feel…
  • Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase - Jonathan Stroud (HB, Doubleday, £12.99)
    My pick for Hallowe’en – a brilliantly written, hairs-stand-up-on-neck ghost story with a twist. Appropriate for middle grade (8-12) and a first-class chill-ride in a world strangely different from our own...
  • David & Goliath – Malcolm Gladwell (HB, Penguin, £16.99)
    I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell, a brilliant writer who takes often complex ideas and research, teasing out the human stories to compel us to look at the world differently - even if we don't always agree with him. David and Goliath revisits issues of crime in society from earlier books, looks at the limits of power and even how smaller school class sizes may not necessarily be better. Superb stuff.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Usborne Day - everything great about children's publishing, in one publisher, on one day

We thought long and hard before getting involved in 'Usborne Day', a single day on Saturday October 5 to celebrate Usborne's 40th birthday. After all, trying to establish a random day of celebration can lead to the proverbial 'epic fail' (just ask Diageo) but in this case, the celebrations are entirely justified.

So this post is going to be unashamedly about Usborne and our special day of celebration this Saturday - including a rather special storytime. More of that in due course...

So, Usborne, a bona fide British success story. Driven by the unlikely figure of Peter Usborne, it was founded on those doughty British character traits of healthy subversiveness, a polite disrespect for the status quo, the British sense of humour and a proud history of children's publishing. Usborne have grown to be a world power, translated into over 100 languages worldwide, and most children's publishers would give the stickers from their activity books to have the reach and affection they command.

I mean, isn't this great? You go to visit Usborne's German website and see this:

Those Stephen Cartwright illustrations. The Little Yellow Duck (can you see it?). This must be what if feels like to be Mercedes or BMW ('Lesespass' means 'Reading Fun' in German incidentally - what a great word...)

A lot of this success can be put down directly to Peter himself - who (amongst many other things) was one of the founders of Private Eye. (If you are at all interested in the history of Usborne, take a look at this 40th anniversary video of Peter explaining how he started the company.). Peter's whole approach back in 1973 was to compete directly, not with other publishers, but with what he felt kids actually wanted to do in the home: read comics, magazines and watch telly.

Hence the design of the books themselves - bright, eyecatching and interactive in the genuine sense of firing up the imagination of the reader to go off and do stuff with the knowledge they've gained - and return for more.

And that's really the secret of Usborne, and it's the same answer you get from any head of any publishing house, once you strip aside the mission statements and marketing flim-flam - just publish good books...

So we are celebrating Usborne Day this Saturday, October 5, and we've tried to get creative, interactive and ensure everyone has a lot of fun. Here's what we're doing:
  • Children coming into the shop on Saturday will be asked to tell us their favourite book, and  - more importantly - their *perfect* book. We want children to get creative and imagine for us the kind of amazing book which they would love to read. It might be a mash-up of a favourite author or subject, it might be a magic book or one they can enter themselves. The sky's the limit - and we'll publish the best ones on the blog!
  • The first 25 entries on the day will win an instant prize of a bag of Usborne and other book-related goodies (Whilst stocks last. I think we've made up 25 bags, there might be 30 actually, we'll check)
  • Everyone will go into a draw to win £40 of age-appropriate Usborne Books (courtesy of Usborne). The competition will only run for this Saturday. We're not doing 'find the duck' again, we did that for several weeks over the Summer and over 150 children entered. This is just for one day! The winner will be announced at closing time on the Saturday!
  • There will be Usborne colouring to do in the children's room.
At 2pm, we have a very special guest arriving to do storytime in the shop. Local children's book review guru ReadItDaddy will be coming to the shop to read us some of his favourite stories, including a favourite Usborne tale.

The storytime is free, and everyone turning up will get entered into the draw as well.

So - we hope to see you on Saturday for some super celebrations!

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Top Secrets Event? Five questions with HL Dennis and The Secret Breakers

Cracking codes and uncovering secret messages was top Friday afternoon fun, and the culmination of a week-long celebration of reading at Our Lady's Abingdon. Pupils from visiting Dunmore School joined OLA pupils to solve fiendish puzzles from author Helen Dennis, and see if they were able to join the elite group of Secret Breakers.
The Secret Breakers are a series of exciting, code-filled adventure stories, and HL Dennis used some of the codes and cryptic puzzles found in the books to set challenges to the eager young audience.

The books - inspired by the real secret breakers of Bletchley Park - involve a group of school children who attempt to unravel real-life secrets and genuine unbroken codes, often in great danger.

Helen was a junior school teacher, storyteller - and even worked in a bookshop - on her way to becoming a bestselling author. She is also a fabulous speaker (in fact, if you ever have an opportunity to see Helen talk, or come to your school - definitely take it!).

At the heart of her talk is the code-breaking experience, and Helen brought along plenty of real-life cyphers to break. At stake was a place on 'Team Veritas' and a chance to work on codes that have resisted decyphering for generations...

It was a great deal of fun - and extra special given that we had permission from the publisher to have book four at the event (Helen hadn't yet had her copy!).

Huge thanks to Helen for a 'top' secrets event - with her journey from teacher to author (via failed international horse jumper - she kept falling off the horse apparently), we were intrigued to find out what makes HL Dennis tick writing-wise, and asked our usual questions...

Five questions with . . . HL Dennis's writing life

1.    What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a new project – top secret I’m afraid, I can't talk about it (we pushed) no, no clues!

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

A lot of people tell you to ‘write what you know’, but if there is anything you don't know, you can find out about it. This advice helped me to become much less daunted by a subject, and gives me the confidence to write about a subject. If you get stuck into research, learn about a subject, that gives you as much right as anyone else to write about it.

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a children’s writer?

The best thing is that children tell you exactly what they think, they don’t hold back, whereas adults might attenuate what they say. If they like the book, they'll get passionate and enthusiastic, and I love that immediate response. But that's also the worst thing – if a child doesn’t like your book, they won't hold back either!

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing or snack essential before you can start work?

Not really. I had to get used to write anywhere, because initially I wrote when teaching (well, not at the same time as teaching of course, but you know what I mean - I had to take the opportunity to write wherever). But what I really need is QUIET. Not absolute silence, but quiet. Aside from that, I can write anywhere and on anything – but I do need quiet.

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough?

A met another author, Andrew Norris, who was very inspirational. He came to the school to do an event. It wasn't that he said anything revolutionary, but he put it simply and powerfully: "if you want to do it [writing], get on with it". It was the first time I felt it was possible for me to become a writer.