Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Back to the Source

I have just finished reading The Tin Princess by Philip Pullman, first published way back in 1994, and it feels like I've blundered into a clearing and rediscovered why I'm in the forest in the first place. Pullman's writing did more than anyone else's to inspire me to write fiction for children – yes, because of Northern Lights, but also because of his illustrated books for younger readers, Clockwork and The Firework-Maker's Daughter. I remember, in my mid twenties, being made to feel the magic of childhood again and wanting very much to pass on the favour.

The Tin Princess is probably a very silly book. It's the tale of a cockney street kid who becomes the queen of a tiny central European state, and finds herself caught in a storm of courtly intrigue and danger as a result. It's so cliché-ridden it stinks (they even put the word 'swashbuckling' on the cover), but how wonderful that it doesn't matter!

As I sit and worry that my own writing is frivolous, that somehow I should be 'addressing issues' or 'telling it like it is' in gritty council estate drama, thank you Philip Pullman for reminding me that I don't need to. As he says on his website:

'… I'm not in the message business; I'm in the “Once upon a time” business.

And I'm proud to say that so am I.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Gold, Frankincense and... Mer?

I take great delight in finding pagan or magical imagery in churches. On a cliff near where I live is a church that contains no less than two mermaids. Naturally it overlooks the sea.

These sirens are on a carved stone column, dismissively described as un curieux pilier in the church itself, and have an escort of bizarre and brazenly secular heads: sun burst faces, feather-hatted noblemen and a vomiting sailor.

But the mermaids of Varengeville-sur-Mer aren't merely a legend, they were actually seen in the sixteenth century, playing in the waves. Whether or not those gawping sailors were sick drunk on rum or had merely stayed too long in the sun doesn't matter. They must have seen the mermaids, or they wouldn't have been carved in the church now would they?

In the graveyard, in the company of minor poets and composers that only the French know, the cubist George Braque is buried beneath a mosaic headstone. Back inside, his stained glass makes the light of the sun a deep-sea blue where the mermaids are.

The church at Varengeville was founded by St Valery, who carried the first stones up to this cliff top despite the advice of the locals. Fifteen centuries later the magical place he began is making its way back down, as the cliff subsides and the stone mermaids wait for the salty taste of the sea.

I collect places like this. But I see no reason why I can't share them.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Reading: Focused or Flighty?

As the submission process for my novel grows more protracted and, er... eventful (though still very uncertain), I'm finding it hard to concentrate on my writing. I have two new ideas that I believe are very strong, and I've started working on them both, but they are very different to each other and I'm torn. Fortunately the other primordial preoccupation of all writers (other than sketching cast-iron dragons, that is) is still open to me.

For the first time in my life I'm reading exclusively from a single genre: Kid-lit. More specifically, MG/11+/YA fiction, mostly published in the last few years. And it's quite a ride! There have been real highs, such as Pat Walsh's bewitching Crowfield Curse, and the brilliantly moving Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo (all hail!), though there were lows too. One book even got chucked across the room (and not in a good way) though naturally I won't mention its title here. There's been page-flipping adventure in The Joshua Files (M.G.Harris), wonderful writing in Fleshmarket (Nicola Morgan), and gripping contemporary drama in When I was Joe (Keren David). And I haven't finished yet – next up is Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick. All in all, I think I'm managing a book a week so far this year, which is pretty fast going for me.

But I wonder if all this focus comes at a price. I know that some writers never read their own genre (or say they don't), preferring to 'bring material in from the outside'. Now that I'm not reading history or popular science or picking up books at random (from Chatwin to Chick-lit), am I confining myself to a literary ghetto?

How do you read? Do you flit from genre to genre as the fancy takes you, or are you as joyfully blinkered as I've been lately?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Proofs, and a Cover Up

I recently received the proofs of my next picture book, to be published in August. In the world of fiction, a proof copy is a bound preliminary version of the real thing, but that's not the way with picture books. The illustrations being so important, picture book proofs usually come as flat, unbound and un-cropped sheets. But the purpose is the same – it's a chance for the author/s to have some final input before the book goes off to be printed.

After years of being Illustrator to other peoples Author, it's still strange to see those roles reversed. So it was probably inevitable that when the proofs came for Little Mouse and the Big Cupcake, I looked at the illustrations a lot more closely than another author might. And I wasn't exactly shy about letting Boxer Books know that I was worried about the cover.

Don't get me wrong, Jill Barton's fine illustrations have a real charm of their own, and are especially suitable for Little Mouse's ideal readership: the very young. But that cover, being so pale, just left me worried that my book would be all too easily missed on today's digi-coloured bookshelf. Just compare it with Jack's Tractor, and you'll see what I mean. Anyway, the reality of the situation is that at proof stage, there's not much that can be done about the colour work as scanned. However, that's not to say the design can't be altered. It turned out that others at Boxer had similar concerns, and here's what they came up with:

The addition of blue, and the enlargement of the text is a huge improvement. The design is much stronger now, and I'm happy that this is how the book will appear when it's released. What do you think?

Little Mouse and the Big Cupcake will be published (on both sides of the Atlantic) on the 3rd of August (when I'll be living in a carboard box, somewhere in the English Channel) by the very lovely Boxer Books. If you like furry animals, fun and cake, then what are you waiting for? Pre-order your copies now! You know it makes sense.