Cakes and Tales

cake

I’d written a trilogy of stories about her, she’d been my companion for several years, but the time had finally come to say goodbye to my favourie alien, Opal Moonbaby, and write something new.

I knew only two things about my next book. It would be a stand-alone novel for  children over seven, and it would be called, The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch.

Piers Quote jacket-2If my title reminds you of another, well-known one about a certain wardrobe, well, it’s really no coincidence. I lapped up C S Lewis’s books when I was a child. Narnia, its inhabitants, its wooden portal and the young visitors who travelled through it are all hard-wired into my brain. Just like the contents of the other books I soaked up as a child, they’re still with me, and they exert a powerful influence. In fact they often leak out, almost unbidden, into my work. This time, though, I was going to meet them head on.

The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch.The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch. The title kept swirling rhythmically around in my head. I’d always loved the idea of those big cakes that turn up at parties, the ones people pop out of, but I thought it would be fun to see what happened if, for a change, the people doing the popping up were the ones who were surprised.

Max, my ten year old hero, doesn’t feel very heroic. He’s worried about his dad’s new marriage. He doesn’t want to move in with Ilona and her two peculiar offspring, Nettle and Wild. He’d rather stay in his bedroom perfecting his marble run, the one he’s been working on for years. Max started the marble run after his mum died in a climbing accident, and over the last three years he’s devoted himself to it, and to making quite sure he and Dad stay out of danger.(There’s definitely a bit of me in Max, the bit that is afraid to try new things, that catastrophizes about the risks involved in anything out of the ordinary, or anything at all.)

Max has had to to grow up quickly, and he’s left a lot of things behind, including stories. He doesn’t read them – can’t see the point in them any longer. Their structure and their resolutions don’t reflect the random nature of life as he sees it now. And he knows, from bitter experience, that happy endings don’t exist. So he’s mad as anything about having to jump out of a cake at the wedding reception with his two new siblings and shout, “We’re all going to live happily ever after!” Talk about insult to injury.

wolfAnd when the cake is strangely diverted, so that the children do not pop up, as planned, in the hotel dining room, but in a totally new landscape, a landscape fronted by a talking, but still fierce and slavering wolf, Max goes straight into denial.  It took a lot of cajoling, not just from me, but also from my editor to get him to accept the challenges being presented to him. “It’s chapter seventeen,” Jenny Glencross would patiently point out, “and Max still hasn’t got out of the cake!” Max and I both needed jolting out of our comfort zones to get the story moving. (You see, being perfectly in tune with your characters can have its downsides.)

The cake has touched down in The Land of Ever After, a place populated by characters from familiar stories, the endings of which have all gone haywire, thanks to an evil power-crazed witch called Babs Haggard. Unlikely as it seems, Max is regarded as the expert, the only person who can defeat Babs Haggard and put right the happy endings.

BabsOnce I’d set Max and Nettle and Wild down in the Land of Ever After, the fairy tales I read as a child and wanted to work with, came swimming straight back into focus. They’re as interesting to me now as they were then, but I do have a different take on some of them this time round.

For example, I’m less concerned with Snow White’s dress and perfect lips, and more interested in what it might be like to be one of the dwarves who loved her. How did he feel when she went away with her prince? What did he do afterwards? And that troll, parked under the bridge. What did he get up to down there all day? Did he have any other interests apart from billy goat watching?

One story character that bothered me, and still does, is the Gingerbread Man. I suppose it’s a simple cautionary tale but I never could understand why he just got up off the baking tray and ran away from the couple who had made and loved him. Why did he do that? Just because he could? We never really learn much about his mental make-up, do we? I’ve given the Gingerbread Man a slightly different role in this story, which has, to some extent, helped me come to terms with him. He’s still running about like crazy though.

Max is facing a major Humpty Dumpty situation here. He has to be all the king’s horses and all the king’s men and pick up the pieces of every story he meets. But while he’s about it, he’s going to need to pick up the pieces of his own story, too, and get it back on track.What’s more, he’s going to discover that there are other characters in his story – he’s got a new sister and brother now and they’re on the road with him too. As Max travels through Ever After in search of Harsh Mountain, the Shining Pathway and, finally, Beyond, he’ll have company. Because this is not just Max’s story. It’s a whole bundle of stories, old and new, out of which, if I’ve done my job properly, the main one comes tumbling out.

The story of Max and Nettle, and Wild.

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Launching The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch!

Phew! We did it! Last night we launched The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch at the very wonderful Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights It was a lovely sunny evening in central Bath and not sweltering hot as it had been the day before, when I was worried my cake would melt on the way to town. I spent hours making this cake. I know I’ll never be a master baker but I am quite proud of it. And I had another smashing cake there too, made out of hardboard by my husband, ready for my stars to pop out of!

with edible cakebig cake

Speaking of the stars, my daughters dressed up as the wolf and the witch. I have to say that they are FAR more glamorous than the characters in the book but they do look fab. I challenge you not to make your own witch and wolf expressions as you look into their eyes.

emma witchmaddie wolf

And then I needed a Max and a Nettle, the heroes of my story. Here they are in costume and ready to go the Land of Ever After!

the stars best

Here we are in action! Excuse my silly face but I am in full flow.

Presentation daft face

Then it was time to cut the cake and have a drink, sign books and give away free marbles. What a lovely spread Mr B’s provided and what a great display of my books, too!

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Thanks to my brother for taking these pictures. I notice that he didn’t take many of my guests though – but please be assured that they were there, including these lovely new readers.

ewan reading lovely girl readers

So the book is launched and now, with cake, costumes, props and marbles I’m ready to go visiting schools and libraries and festivals. If you’re someone who might be interested in a slice of that, visit my website Maudie Smith  Here I am. Have cake, will travel!

 

First Fairy Tales

My next book, The Cake, the Wolf and the Witch is about three very modern children, but it is also populated by characters from well known fairy tales. My exceedingly reluctant hero, Max is unhappy enough about his dad’s wedding but he’s unhappier still when he gets whirled away in a wooden wedding cake to the Land of Ever After, which seems to be a very very long way from the hotel Max thought he was in. He’s even more disconcerted when he meets a very lifelike, talking wolf and very soon he can’t move for fairy tale characters, all of Maxwhom are frightened because their happy endings have started going horribly wrong. They want him to go on a terrifying quest but all Max wants is to get back to the hotel.

Once I knew I wanted to write about characters from fairy tales, they came into my head without a fight, sliding in from doors propped permanently open somewhere in my brain. And that got me thinking just how much the old tales are a part of us all. We have a shared understanding when we think of these stories, their dynamics, their morals, their endings – either happy or sad. They’ve helped build us into the people we are.

BUT is my Cinderella your Cinderella? Is my gingerbread man your gingerbread man? When you picture a character from an old story are you picturing an illustration from a particular old favourite book of tales?  I thought I’d show you mine. This copy of Hans Anderson stories was owned by my mother before me and was printed in 1938. I think I loved it even more because it had been my mum’s book first.

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I spent ages staring and staring at the pictures by Edmund du Lac, particularly this one of the Princess and the Pea – I think I probably wanted to be that Princess.

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Or if not her, Gerda or the Robber Girl from The Snow Queen

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I grew up and life went on. The book got moved from house to house and put into lofts where it eventually became popular with some mice.

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But I still have it. And even if I didn’t, I think I’d still remember the illustrations.

I’d love it if you’d share your first fairy tales with me. Why not comment here, or send me and the rest of the world a tweet? @Maudiesmith

Writing an Early Reader. ‘Peter and Jane’ it ain’t – thankfully

This is a busy week for me. Not only are all three of my Opal Moonbaby books coming out again with new jackets (see New Leaves below), but my first Early Reader is published. Hooray!

Owen & The Onion ER-1

I say my Early Reader, but actually Owen and the Onion is only half mine. The other half belongs to the fantastic illustrator Becka Moor who came up with all the glorious colour illustrations – all sixty pages of them. And it’s not even entirely ours either, because our very clever editor and book designer at Orion Children’s Books both had a big hand in the finished book too.

I published a picture book last year with illustrator, Antonia Woodward, Milly and the Mermaids. You might think that writing an Early Reader is just like writing a longer picture book, requiring exactly the same skills – and it is a similar job, but as I’ve learned, there are some very particular differences.

With a Picture Book we are almost always working with a very limited number of pages, usually twelve double page spreads. So as an author, even one who doesn’t illustrate (and most of us don’t), it’s very wise to have an extremely clear picture in your head of what should appear on each page. The illustrations play a large part in the actual ‘telling’ of the story and in many cases there will be no words at all on entire spreads, even – perhaps especially – when the storytelling is at its most intense. Reading a Picture Book is both a visual and an auditory shared experience.

An Early Reader is different. It’s very often a shared experience too, but the book is in the hands of the child now. The Early Reader is likely to have more words in it than a picture book, and a lot more pages, and it’s likely to be for slightly older children, but that’s not to say that the words you use can instantly be more complicated. In fact it’s the opposite. An Early Reader may be for an older child but it is intended to help that child learn to read, so while there can be interesting and varied vocabulary, it shouldn’t be too complex. As in a Picture Book, there can be repetition, not just because it sounds good and adds to the lyrical quality of the story, but because it can make a section of the book satisfyingly easy to read, giving the new reader a chance to build some momentum and increase their confidence.

As in all good stories, there is likely to be a central character for the reader to identify with, root for, and even occasionally disapprove of!Owen circle intro page

A character who changes in some significant way during the course of the story. But you haven’t got long to make it happen, or much room for back story – it’s not an adult novel we’re writing here so there’s no room for waffle or digression. Children are pretty unforgiving about that sort of thing.

The story must shoot forwards like an arrow but it will also need to have lots of variety – changes of scene, and character, the action moving on swiftly with every short chapter, every page turn. There’s no room for wallowing in a character’s feelings, or indulging in your best exotic flowery language. Things should be happening all the time in the pictures, and in the words. Little visual jokes and speech bubbles are fun and break up the page for the beginning reader, helping to keep them motivated. The skill is to tell an absorbing tale in relatively few words, preferably under 1500 of them.

Then, with a bit of luck, you’ll have a lively and enticing story, something to inspire first your illustrator and then, most importantly your reader – after all you’ve probably only got one shot with them. I don’t mean to be prescriptive, though. There are many ways in to writing, and I’m just giving you a taster of what I’ve learned myself while writing my first Early Reader.

One thing I can say for sure – publishing for this age group has come a long way since I was learning to read with the somewhat drab Peter and Jane. Take a look at this exchange. Yawn. I’m afraid I spent most of my time with those books coveting Jane’s dress and the ribbon in her hair. I’m surprised I ever progressed at all!

peter and jane

However you choose to go about writing for this young audience, it’s a thorough and pretty exhaustive process –  but one I’m looking forward to repeating with my next book for young readers, All the King’s Tights, which will be illustrated by the very wonderful Ali Pye. More on that later.

Now, have I forgotten anything?

Hmm. Oh yes, an Early Reader should always, always have an ogre in it…

Ogre, p31…shouldn’t it?

New leaves

opal new look2-1Spring is here and I’m celebrating. Not just because of the change in the weather but because my Opal Moonbaby books are coming out in new editions this May, all with dazzling new cover illustrations by the wonderful illustrator, Tony Ross.

I’m thrilled with Tony’s illustrations and with the design of these vibrant and colourful covers. They seem to bring Opal Moonbaby bounding right out of the pages at us – which is just right, because Opal would definitely do that if she could, and bounce all over us too.

 

I hope readers will like these new opal new look3-1jackets as much as I do. If you have an opinion I’d love to hear what you think. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, don’t they? But I think it’s a very tough cookie that isn’t even a teeny bit influenced by the images on covers when they’re deciding which book to read next.

 

And since Opal’s turning over a new leaf and having a fresh lick of paint, I reckoned my website could do with a bit of a spring clean and a new look too. Do come and visit at Maudie Smith

 

 

opal new look-1

So that’s the covers done, and the website. Now all I need to do is take off my smelly old woolly winter socks, clear the fluff from between my toes and get a decent haircut – and I’ll be properly ready for spring.

 

And then, summer! Wheee!

Where do mermaids come from?

milly at the beach

Writers of fiction are often asked where they get their ideas from. Most of us would answer, ‘anywhere and everywhere’. That’s true, of course, but it’s not a very satisfying response. And what the flipping heck do we mean by it?

All you need to start a story is a small and glowing spark:  a photo of people you’ve never met, an old portrait, a snatch of conversation heard on the bus, an odd phrase seen in a text (or a Tweet!), a particular smell, or even an unusual sneeze! The main thing is that you shouldn’t know too much about your spark to begin with. I think the best ideas come from something very small. If the idea starts off too busy, too fully formed, then it’s probably already a story, and it’s probably someone else’s! If you only have a spark of an idea to begin with, then you’ll blow on it with the power of your own imagination and grow it your way. Of course, some sparks just go out even when you blow on them. But don’t despair, they just weren’t the right sparks!

Another way in to story, is through memory – our memories are definitely all our own so we can’t be accused of pinching them. But the trouble with memories is that they are the stuff of real life,and rarely make satisfying stories in themselves. They need to change.  So I wanted to tell you about a picture book story I’ve written. Milly and the Mermaids was inspired by a memory, but it evolved into something very different from the original.

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It all started like this:  When I was five I went to South Africa with my family. It made for an amazing and memorable summer. Here I am making my mark in those white, white sands.

SA4 12-1

We were on a beach in Durban one boiling hot day and I had two ice creams. Then I wanted a third, and when my parents refused I made a massive fuss and we all fell out. My dad went for a walk and I sat and fumed on the sand. A bit later he reappeared, smiling, and holding something out to me. I thought for one glorious moment that it was an ice cream. But it wasn’t. It was only a stupid seashell.

Here it is.

Do you see how my childish eyes and wishful seashellimagination could have mistaken it for an ice cream cone? I was very put out to find that it was only a seashell, I can tell you. I chucked it in the sand, we went back to our hotel in bad moods, and the next day I woke up and was sick sick sick with horrendous sun stroke. I didn’t want an ending quite like that in my  book for young readers!

Milly, the little girl in the story, doesn’t long for ice cream as I did. She longs for mermaids. She’s desperate to see one. She’s at the seaside but whatever she does, she can’t seem to find a mermaid to play with. When her dad brings her a shell, it isn’t brown and white like mine, but green and blue, like a mermaid tail, and for a moment she believes it is a real mermaid her dad is carrying to her. Her disappointment is just like mine was, and she throws the shell in the sand. Fortunately her dad has the good sense to keep the shell. They take it home with them and Milly finds that the shell has much much more to it than meets the eye.

Milly meets her mermaid at last, and that’s her happy ending. I had a happy ending, too, in a way. Because even though I ONLY had two ice creams, AND got told off, AND got sunstroke, years and years later I still own this beautiful shell from a South African beach.

Thanks, Dad!

 Maudie x

PS  This blog first appeared over at the very tremendous Girls Heart Books.

 

My Writing Process

tear-out-hairMy writing process?  Well, since you ask, it looks very much like this.

Oodles of thanks to fellow children’s author, Fleur Hitchcock,creator of such gems as Shrunk! and Dear Scarlett,  for asking me to join in with this My Writing Process Blog Tour. For Fleur’s own unique writing process take a look here

Here are my answers to the questions we’re all answering.

What are you working on?

Having completed work on my Opal Moonbaby series, it’s time for a change. My initial reaction to finishing such a big project was to write something completely different and I began working on much shorter stories, stories which allowed me to play, and which I hoped wouldn’t leave my brain hanging out in long shreds. Writers beware, though, it turns out that even short stories have significant brain-shredding properties. Things can get equally tangled up, if not for such a long period! Anyway the result is, I’m now working with my editor on two brand new stories which will become part of Orion’s wonderfully colourful and eclectic mix of Early Readers. I’m very chuffed to be contributing to such a gorgeous set of books.

And yes, in the background I’m brewing something rather longer. It’s another novel for the junior/middle grade age group. No aliens this time but plenty of fantastical characters on the loose.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Yikes! I don’t know. I like to have an idea of what age group I’m writing for and what I’m going to write about, but I don’t tend to think too much about genre. When a book is about to be published some lucky person has to fill in a thing called an Advance Information Sheet and tick a box to say which ‘category’ the book falls into. (I know this because my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University covered many aspects of the publishing process.) If they let me get hold of the sheet I’d start ticking loads of boxes, which is probably even illegal! Friendship might be the obvious category for Opal Moonbaby books but I would also like to check Funny, Fantasy, Animals, Magic and Adventure. I didn’t set out to write a book that fell into one of those categories, or one genre, in particular. I just tried to tell the best, most entertaining story I possibly could.

Why do I write what I do?

I blame Mary Poppins. Her and a few others.

mary_poppins Ever heard the expression, you are what you eat? well I’ve got another one for you – you are what you read, or perhaps even better, you are everythng you’ve ever read. It was only after I’d written the first Opal Moonbaby book that I realised how very influenced I was by all the books I’d loved as a child. And it was the ones that had fantasy characters meeting real world characters that captured my imagination the most. The Cat in the Hat, The wolf from Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, Mr Tumnus, the Psammead, Mary Poppins and Pippi Longstocking are all hard-wired into my (admittedly mainly shredded) brain and have an enduring influence on me.

Also, my books tend to be for the 8-11 age group and I think that’s because I have very strong memories of what it was like to be a tween, that difficult time in your life when you have to make such enormous leaps that you practically change into another person entirely, both physically and mentally. It’s a change my own daughters are just completing now, so they help remind me of what it’s like and that keeps me ‘in the zone’.

How does your writing process work?

Frankly, folks, it’s a blooming mess. I wish I could say otherwise but there’s no point trying to pull the wool over your eyes. There’s usually loads of angst and gloom and doom involved – stupid really, for something that has such lovely results. I think I belong to the Dorothy Parker school ‘hate writing, love having written’ and all that.

Unsolved bunch of puzzles

BUT, the best way I can describe my process is to liken it to doing a jigsaw puzzle, one without a picture that is.

I’ll try to get as many edge pieces in as possible. If I’m lucky I’ll bank a few good corners. Those are the bits I think of as the perameters of my story, at this stage a vague unfinished outline. Then I’ll probably start working on something in the middle, a character I like the feel of, or a big scene. I’ll let that spread out into other characters and other scenes until, with luck, the middle will meet up with the outside, and with more knowledge I can fill in more edge pieces as I go. It doesn’t always work, sometimes I end up with something that isn’t even a sensible shape. I’ll have a square jigsaw with a giant abscess sticking out of it – an abscess that will need lancing, although sometimes it will take my agent or editor to convince me of that. Eventually though, I’ll be looking for a coherent shape with every piece in just the right place.

I’m passing on the Writng Process baton to two wonderful writers:

Lou Kuenzler Lou is the author of the delightful Shrinking Violet series, Princess Disgrace, Aesop’s Awesome Rhymes and many other funny books/stories for primary school age children (including several titles such as Shadow Snatcher which aim to offer high interest stories to low ability readers). She has also written for CBeebies

and

Emma Carroll Emma is a fellow graduate of the brilliant Bath Spa University MA in Writing for Young People. Her debut novel, Frost Hollow Hall, has just been longlisted for the Branford Boase Award 2014, and rightly so. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric and frosty Victorian ghost story, just the thing to see you through the rest of this long old winter.

Don’t forget to check out Lou and Emma’s blogs soon. I bet they’ve got way more sensible writing processes than I have!

 

 

 

Boy Book or Girl Book?

 

  At a recent school visit a boy at the back of the room asked, ‘Is it a boy book or a girl book?’

I was pleased his question came at the end of my talk and that he hadn’t already made up his own mind but I hesitated when it came to the answer. I should probably have said ‘girl’ – after all, my books have not one but two heroines. I mean, who am I trying to kid? But I knew many boys had enjoyed reading about Opal Moonbaby and Martha, and I didn’t want to be discouraging.

If you look at the way Opal Moonbaby is marketed you would say at once that these are girl books – one of them is pink, for heaven’s sake! They are dubbed suitable for 7+ girls who like to read about friendship. And they are. But does that make books like mine solely suitable for girls? I really hope not. Yes, the girls are the main characters but friendship is a universal theme, and fantasy characters and adventures can be enjoyed by both sexes.

And anyway, don’t we want boys to read about girls sometimes? What better way could there be of getting to know and understand the opposite sex, especially for only children or families where the children are all of one gender? Where else but from a book are we going to find out how the other 50% of the world really think?

This seems especially important to me in an age where children are constantly subjected to images of the opposite sex, not all of which are designed to help them make deep and meaningful relationships with them. I don’t want to get too heavy here, but for many boys, the sight of inappropriate images of girls on the Internet and elsewhere may be just around the corner. Someone who has read about what girls are really like, from the get-go, will more than likely be able to rise above all that stuff and see beyond it.

I’m sure books used not to be marketed in this way but I can see why it’s happened. There are so many books out there and people choosing are so often short of time, it’s tempting to help them by categorising. But think of the books we might have missed if we’d done this in the past. Would boys have read books with female protagonists? Charlotte’s Web, ‘The Borrowers’ or ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’? Would girls have read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Lord of the Flies’? Would I have known and loved ‘Little Pete’ if it hadn’t been on my brother’s bookshelf?

I put it to you that the best men read ‘girl’ books as well as ‘boy’ books. Here’s my evidence. My husband grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ stories. Admittedly he may be something of an exception, but I can definitely vouch for his ability to empathise with females!

Boys and girls are different and those differences need celebrating, but let’s not turn them apart from one another at the very beginning of their reading lives. What great books might they miss?

Oh, grow up!

Oh, grow up!

We had our family theatre trip last week to see Peter Pan at the Bristol Old Vic and I was reminded how much I love the theatre, especially theatre that makes you use your imagination. Looming lakes created out of wafting strips of blue paper, a crocodile’s fearsome jaws made of a split and sharply serrated traffic cone. The best theatre makes the audience work a little, just as the best children’s games come from their imaginations, a few bits and bobs and a cardboard box.

The whole design of Peter Pan took its lead from children’s games and used objects they might find while out playing on the street – after Wendy is shot down by poor old Tootles, the lost boys make her a house out of old builders’ pallets; the pirate ship is a paint-splattered skip.

Even the casting left something to the imagination. Tinkerbell, unusually, was played by a man. A man in a white tutu (see pic). He gave a great comic turn, yet I found myself immediately moved to tears when we had to clap him back to life. Peter didn’t have to ask twice. The audience couldn’t wait to show they believed in fairies, such was the power of the production.

And Peter himself, though perfectly elfin, was no youngster. Forgive me if I’m wrong, Tristan Sturrock, but I’ve been watching you in shows for years and I reckon you must be in your forties. But it still worked, we still all believed in you as the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Wendy grows up though. She covers her child’s pyjamas with a womanly dressing gown and breaks the news to Peter that she is an adult, a mother, a carer. She is no longer ‘heartless’ and therefore she can no longer fly. For me this moment had an added poignancy as not only am I middle-aged and a mother, but I also used to be up there on the stage myself. Here I was in the audience supervising an unseemly scrap over the shared family pack of Maltesers, and a part of me couldn’t help yearning to be younger and less responsible, to be up there with the actors again.

So when do we have to grow up? Is it when we turn twenty-one? When we reach middle age, old age? When we become parents? I don’t know. I think it’s more just an attitude of mind. The show made me try to remember what it’s like to be very young. To remember what it’s like to want to make sure you get your fair share of Maltesers. And then I tried not to mind that my older daughter, despite having some perfectly ‘good’ clothes, had chosen to wear a nasty nylon prom dress bought for Halloween which, as far as I could tell, she had on upside down.

They say that having children keeps you young, but that’s only true if you put yourself in their shoes regularly. Peter Pan reminded me to do that. And as a children’s author, it’s something I shall keep on doing. And as for acting, well now I’m a writer I do get to go up on stage and talk about my books and perform and show off and have a laugh. So maybe I don’t have to grow up totally and absolutely completely quite just yet.

If you want a refreshing mind lift – as opposed to a face lift – Peter Pan is still running. I recommend you fly to Bristol at once (second star to the right and straight on ’til morning!)

The Box Factor!

 

 

I was asked by friend and fellow author, Catherine Bruton, who also happens to be an English teacher in her spare time, to be a judge in King Edward’s School The Box Factor final. So, still a little uncertain of what I was letting myself in for, I donned lipstick and sequins, practised my Cowell-esque snarl in the mirror, and headed for the school theatre.

On stage, a young boy strode to and fro, deep in final rehearsal. Behind him, last minute technical hitches were spotted and quickly ironed out. Year 7s streamed into the auditorium brushing the crumbs of hastily eaten lunches from their uniforms. I shook hands with my fellow judges – the head girl, the head boy, the librarian – We took our places on the panel, stopwatches at the ready, and battle – I mean – competition commenced.

Distracted for a moment, I glanced across at the tantalising display of story boxes. Each one lovingly made, decorated and filled with artefacts to represent a favourite book. A deceptively simple version of Todd’s journal from The Knife of Never Letting Go sat alongside a fantastically flamboyant, Magic Faraway Tree. An entire ship sailed above them representing Michael Morpurgo’s Alone on a Wide, wide Sea. And of course, this one caught my eye!

Luckily for me, this box was not a grand finalist. This particular story is rather close to my heart and seeing Opal Moonbaby fashioned out of a ball and looking very much like her own planet, well, I would have had a hard time not choosing it. I would have had to be summarily dismissed from the panel. So I pulled myself together and got back to the serious business of judging.

This was such an ingenious idea; students being encouraged to take apart the components of books they’ve loved and put them together again in their own inimitable way for others to enjoy. Each highly individual performance was a personal unwrapping of a favourite book, designed to share the flavour and highlights and persuade the audience to read the book for themselves. As the contents of the boxes were revealed in many and various ways – we watched filmed book trailers, news items, the fictional characters themselves appeared on stage, impassioned speeches were made – I began to panic. How on earth were we going to choose a winner? I had a five star system but could see the librarian next to me was working in decimal points. The head boy was a sportsman and his sheet looked like the score card from a test match at Lords, while the head girl had just been for an interview conducted in Russian and I couldn’t understand her scoring system at all.

Anyway, we managed it in the end. Prizes were awarded and I went home happy, to add a load more book requests to my list for Santa.

The only down side – I didn’t get to do a single snarl!