Friday, 27 November 2009

Leo the Late Bloomer

Time for another book review, and it's something a bit special too.

Leo the Late Bloomer was a great favourite of mine as a child in the seventies, and glancing around the internet, I see I'm not the only one who remembers this classic American picture book. As far as I can tell this book is no longer available in the UK, but when my first child was born my mother kindly ordered me a copy from the US, bringing back floods of memories. By now that nostalgic present is almost unreadable, it's been so well-thumbed and fought over at bed times.

I can remember clearly having this book read to me, and how I patiently waited, night after night, for Leo the tiger to bloom, frustrated on his behalf that he couldn't read, write or eat neatly like his animal friends. I think all little children can relate to that as I did, especially if they have older brothers and sisters. And then what hope (okay, perhaps I'm making this bit up) was felt when he finally and triumphantly mastered these things! As with all childhood memories, I've no doubt embellished my fragmentary recollections. But I do have one strong memory, a response from my three-year-old self, circe 1976, now finally delivered to the illustrator after 33 years of being deep-frozen in my headbox:

Why, oh why, do all the tigers look exactly the same?

This really confused me. I can remember seeing the difference between Leo and his parents when they all sat together because of their sizes, but when they were spread out across a double page, uncertainty returned. And it must have really bothered me too, because the same feelings of bemusement come back today when I read the book, and prompt me to explain, 'now, remember, this one is Leo...

A small -- a very small -- blemish on an otherwise perfect book.

Leo the Late Bloomer is still available in France, and I was delighted to see it's one of the titles in my three-year-old's school book club. This means we'll soon be getting our fourth copy of this delightful tale of frustration, patience and triumph.

Leo the Late Bloomer (which is heartily recommended, especially if you have already got your copy of Jack's Tractor and just need a little something to go with it), by Robert Kraus and Jose Aruego (Illus.) is published in the US by Windmill Books through HarperCollins, and in France as Léo by Ecole des Loisirs.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Blogging Awards

In the real world, the best trophies are ones you can serve mulled-wine in. On-line however, where hot autumn comforts can only be virtual, there's still nothing nicer than being freely selected to receive a digital award for blog-keeping, and I'm very pleased to have been chosen for two of these in the last few days. So thank you Simon Kewin for the Superior Scribbler award and thanks also to Melinda Szymanik for the Kreativ Blogger award. Both Simon's Blog and Melinda's are worth spending some time at. Take wine with you, but please bring the virtual glasses back here afterwards.

These awards do come with certain rules and an obligation to pass them on. If you are here because you have been given an award by me, please go to the end of this post to see the rules for each award, though remember: no one is really obliged to do anything.

First though, to play the game, I have to nominate five fellow bloggers for the Superior Scribbler Award and then seven for the Kreativ one. That's a lot of nominations! It's obviously the case that every blog I follow is award-worthy, otherwise I wouldn't follow it, would I? Anyway, I find I can't select twelve blogs in any meaningful way, so I'll just go ahead and nominate seven people for BOTH awards and hope the Internet Award Police don't break down my door at three am and superglue my lap-top. Here then are the fabulous seven, in no particular order:

The Superior Scribbler Award and The Kreativ Blogger Award

  1. To the nine-year-old Bookreader at The Books I've Read, for being at once one of the most interesting people on-line (for children's writers like me) and also one of the scariest (punches are not pulled! Nor should they be).

  2. To William Sedgwick at The Fly in the Temple, for being a very talented young man with a great deal more to show and tell than his blog currently suggests. William, I hope this award encourages you to show more of your excellent life-drawing and then write about it.

  3. To Anita Saxena at Anita's Edge, for being brave and generous by sharing her writing with us and for hosting amusing collaborative writing games.

  4. To Natalie Bahm for extracting lessons on creativity and the art of writing from everyday events and family life, often in a humorous or touching way. And much more besides.

  5. To James Mayhew at Dusty Old Books for injecting a little soul into the internet.

  6. To Rachel Fenton at Snow Like Thought, for lyrical storytelling, painting and poetry, and for being patient with my facetious comments.

  7. To Penny at Planet Penny, for rampant creativity and assorted livestock, and for being the best mother a proud son could have.

Thanks to all of you for the interesting things you say and do, and for sharing them on-line.

Before I post the rules, I see that rule 3 of the Kreativ Blogger award states that I should now provide seven facts about myself that you don't know. Despite risking sending you back to Simon or Melinda's blog, here are seven marginally interesting things that might be of slight interest even as they make this long post even longer:

  • So, I have a pet peeve: people starting conversations with the word so, despite there being no previous information to justify it. It's potentially confusing and makes my toes curl. Mind you, I also dislike it when people trail off to an ending with the same word, so...

  • I like tea as much as coffee. This seems to annoy people, but what can I do? I also like dogs as much as cats and wine as much as beer. And I shall stand firm on this.

  • I don't suffer fools gladly, despite being something of a fool myself. Ah, hypocrisy.

  • I sometimes solve part of the crossword in my head, so that when I'm sitting at a café or bar, drinking tea/coffee/wine/beer, I can whip out the untouched grid and effortlessly start filling it in. Ah, vanity.

  • I secretly wish I could dress like a Regency dandy, despite not having the wardrobe or the consumptive physic. Or the nerve.

  • I was Alexander the Great in a previous life. No really, I was. Or was it Napoleon? No, it was definitely Alexander – you can still see his likeness in my imperial nose and proud Hellenic chin.

  • I sometimes lie about my life, and I've even done it in print. Fiction is a hard habit to suspend.

And now, the fun part...

These are the rules for the Superior Scribbler Award:

1.Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
2.Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author and the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
3.Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to
This Post, which explains The Award.
4.Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit
this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we'll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
5.Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

And these are the rules for the Kreativ Blogger Award:

1. Copy and paste the pretty picture which you see above onto your own blog.
2. Thank the person who gave you the award and post a link to their blog.
3. Write 7 things about yourself we do not know.
4. Choose 7 other bloggers to award.
5. Link to those 7 other bloggers.
6. Notify your 7 bloggers.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Fangs For Nothing

One of the disadvantages of being an English writer in France is the difficulty of getting books to read. I could read in French I suppose, but it takes more energy and feels a bit like peering at a world through frosted glass. In other words, I'd rather not. The internet is the obvious solution, but there are drawbacks there too. What I really miss is being able to wander into a good bookshop, browse and then make a chance purchase.

Now, there are some excellent bookshops in Rouen and I do wander around in them from time to time, if only to soak up the atmosphere. But today I decided I really ought to go and thoroughly explore the amazing children's section at L'Armitière with a view to assessing the market as it is today, on the shelf, regardless of any differences there may be between English-language and French publishing. What I found surprised me.

It turns out that most of the books there are translated from English anyway, and many of the others are trying to look like they are. And do you know what? It's not just hype, there really are hoards of vampires in bookstores these days, whole belfries of them! Though Transylvania is right out – modern vampires live mostly in the suburbs.

The weird thing is -- even though there was a special stand for vampire books -- I didn't see anything by Stephanie Meyer there. Though I did come away rather feeling that I had, if you see what I mean.

Whatever happened to vampires? They really have gone soft, haven't they? Now they are the toothbrushing playthings of adolescent female fantasy, I really feel the lack of good old fashioned, blood-hungry monsters. Not that I want to write about them particularly, but we need to leave something in the shadows, otherwise how will we scare our children? And it's no good looking to werewolves, zombies or fallen angels, they're just as dreamy and pretend-dangerous these days.

With one eye (as always) on the future, I collect romantic comedy plot ideas for adult fiction. Coming home from my visit to the vampire's air conditioned, bookish lair, something silly in that line occurred to me. A story about a shy, socially awkward young man who never has any luck with women, and who hides himself away to study all the faux-bestial anti-heroes in paranormal teen fiction. He emerges a year later, deathly pale from lack of sunlight and over-wise from all those glimpses into the secret desires of female writers. He learns how to cook, gets a job in publishing, and then goes on the rampage, carelessly letting his eighteenth century manners show beneath his leather jacket and simpering, 'Mon amour, I vish to slay you mercilessly, but for now, I sink I vill just hold your hand, no?'

Monday, 9 November 2009

Unbridled Self-promotion

Having come over all moody and Nordic in my last post, it's now time for something completely different. Here's a shameless plug for my latest book, Jack's Tractor.

Jack's Tractor was actually published in June, but due to an administrative mix up my author copies went astray. This is mostly my fault for changing address so often in the last few years. I only hope that the lucky recipient has enough English-speaking friends (with children) to make the most of their windfall. Otherwise, they can always prop up the piano or line the guinea pig's cage.

Anyway, having cleared this up with the lovely people at Hodder Children's Books, I finally received twelve shiny new hardbacks last Friday, and as everyone who has ever had anything published knows, that moment is always at least a little exciting.

Jack's Tractor is a significant book for me. It's my first published text that has been illustrated by someone else. I have two others under contract now, and a third out on submission, but this is the first to reach the shelves. Not being the illustrator has been a strange experience, and I was quite seriously worried that I wouldn't like the illustration style. But I needn't have been concerned – John Kelly has done an excellent job, with a style not dissimilar to my own, but very different in technique and finish. I love the colours and the vibrancy, and my children love the pictures too, which is the acid test.

Ironically, this book was slow in the production because the illustrator had some trouble of a repetitive strain nature – as acknowledged in his dedication -- which is one of the problems I've had with my own illustration style. John, if you're reading this, I feel for you and hope yours was only a temporary difficulty. Not least because I'd like you to illustrate another of my books one day.

Jack's Tractor, which has had good reviews, would make an excellent Christmas present (cof!) for anyone under six who likes noise, fun, colour and animals, and it can be ordered directly from the publisher, or from your nearest independent bookseller. Other purchasing options are available.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

I Was Having None Of It.

I've been an unsuccessful amber hunter for years, always baffled by the motley shore. But this time I was determined.

My trips to Denmark are infrequent, but with a growing family there I've managed a number of walks on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Under that dark body of water is a petrified forest, a lost landscape that has been scattering its treasure – crystallized blood of trees – in the deep currents since prehistory. During storms the sea casts it ashore, where it can be found, rough and mingled with seaweed, by those who know how to look.

Baltic Gold.

I don't care about the monetary value of amber. No one should whose livelihood doesn't depend on it. I can buy amber on the high street, or indeed coal – fossilized tree matter is very common. I only care about that lost forest and about connections in time and place. What I'm searching for is not an organic jewel, but a palm-full of ancient stuff, a hard-won pocket prize to warm and handle and look into, with maybe a fly trapped inside, or frozen bubbles of another world's air. But above all what I want is to find it myself, to make that personal connection. A piece of amber can be cut, polished and sold many times, but it can only be found once.

Denmark this autumn was picked out in amber colours. The window of the wood-burner, the birch leaves in the sodden forest, a candle flame seen through a chill glass of beer. Every golden flash a taunt -- a challenge to go down to the shore to try again.

But the weather was abysmal, even running to unseasonable snow, and not the nice kind either. The East wind was unstoppable and the sea boiled like a cauldron of lead. Perfect conditions for amber to be thrown ashore, but not for searching it out. Typically, I only had a light jacket and scarf with me, hardly proof against horizontal rain that felt like it came straight from Siberia (and it probably did).

I struggled down to the sea anyway, and spent an hour inclined against the gale, scanning the sand and seaweed through the spray. Somewhere nearby a grown man was foolish enough to try and fly a kite, but the scrap of blue at the end of his long line just raggled in the air, never more than a few feet off the ground. A whole family, wearing enormous padded tracksuits and muffled up to the eyes, arrived, staggered in the elements, and then hurried back to their car. It was as if the Baltic wanted to be left alone to count its treasure.

But I was having none of it. I staggered on and I blinked, and eventually I found something. A small, rough yellow-brown nugget, that even felt slightly warm to touch. Amber? Within seconds I knew.

It was just another stone.

By now it was time to leave. I couldn't stay on the edge of the world any longer. I had failed yet again. I made to throw the stone into the sea, but a glib thought came to me then. Something about every stone, even the humblest little pebble, having the potential to be polished up to bring out its best. And coming from such a place, and being immeasurably ancient itself, even my caramel-coloured imposter was a wonder in its humble way. And I was probably the first to have found it too, to have picked it out from the rest, to have looked closely at its tiny landscape. Then I remembered William Blake's grain of sand and these thoughts didn't seem so glib after all. I put the stone in my pocket and went home.

And what about the amber, that Viking fire-stone? Where was the charged sun-made miracle matter of the ancient Greeks? What of Baltic Gold? Well, it's still there. But I was having none of it.