Tuesday, 30 November 2010


"...not another illustrator who thinks he can write!

This mean-spirited sentiment has come my way a few times in recent months, but you know, I'm grateful for it. After all, nothing inspires ambition quite like being put in one's place.

Now hit me again, harder.

Friday, 26 November 2010

I Learnt Two Interesting Things…

…at the Sheffield Children’s Book Award. They are so interesting (especially if you write and illustrate picture books) that I’m going to share them here. No, wait, I actually learnt three things! But first…

The award ceremony was a huge event, much bigger than I’d expected, with a 1000 school children in the audience, plus plenty of adult hangers on. Sheffield should be very proud of itself for hosting such a wonderful annual blast – a celebration of libraries, reading and books, with the kids themselves voting for the shortlists and the winners.

I didn’t win in my category, though just being shortlisted felt pretty special, I can tell you. Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andreae and Sarah McIntyre won both the picture book category and the overall prize, and this is a much deserved win because, as I said, the children chose it themselves. It was in talking about this with editors afterwards that I discovered the first of the Interesting Things:

--Picture book editors, some of them at least, are growing less reluctant to publish rhyming texts.

This is exciting -- for me, anyway -- not only because kids love rhyme, but because it comes naturally to me when I write for the very young (as with Jack’s Tractor). The difficulty of landing a co-edition, especially in a language other than English, has made rhyming texts very difficult to sell in recent years. But I was told, “if it’s good enough, it will be translated.”

The second Interesting Thing was this:

-- Gross sells (Morris is a very manky monster indeed), but not so much in the US. Actually, Morris does have a US co-edition, but as a general rule, books about poo, vomit and farting, while hugely popular with young readers everywhere, often don't get picked up by US buyers, and the possibility of not landing an American co-edition keeps the lid on the number of gross picture books that come out in the UK. In other words, there’s no point in running off after Morris’s slime trail just because he’s very popular, even though these days there are certainly more gross books about than before. Gross alone isn’t enough. But that’s the thing about Morris – he manages to be charming, even when he’s squeezing his spots! Definitely something to keep in mind.

The third thing I learnt was this: if you are nominated for an award, then if at all possible please go to the ceremony. I know a lot of authors complain about having to traipse about attending these events because I’ve heard them doing it, but when, at Sheffield, the kids were told that their favourite author couldn’t be there, the look of naked disappointment on their faces was a lesson in itself.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Being Let Out

I'm off for a week, mostly to be in Cambridge to catch up with old chums, though I'll also be heading up to Sheffield for their children's book award. This is because Jack's Tractor has been shortlisted in the picture book category. I honestly think I've been very restrained in not mentioning that every other post, so stop rolling your eyes, you at the back!

I have never been nominated for a proper children's book award before. And this after over ten years of writing and illustrating. Perhaps that isn't something to admit here in public, but I can't help feeling that this, coupled with the fact that Jack's Tractor is the first text I wrote that I didn't plan to illustrate myself, can only say positive things about my decision to concentrate on writing.

I don't think I'll win the award – my money's on Morris – but I hope it'll be fun just being there. In any event, I'm not going to take my grumpy side with me. I'll leave him here instead, to illustrate this post.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Willies and Bums

Warning! There are some potentially offensive words in this post.

I’m working on a new text for reluctant teen readers (14 and under), primarily boys, and the question of just how bad bad language can be in kid-lit has presented itself. It’s always an issue, but this particular text, which is slap-stick and energetic, just cries out for some fruity language, especially with very grown up bad guys. For example, I can’t have sleazy nightclub owners and their hard men say ‘Golly!’ or ‘Come back here, you ruffian! We have the measure of you!’

There’s a lot of scope for ingenuity in cooking up faux swearwords, and famously this is where literary pirates get their cheesy vocabulary, (arr!) but even the best faked-up obscenities tend to bring a text down in age range, a sure way to drive off teen readers. The problem is, real swearwords often drive off the people who control what those teenagers read.

I’m fortunate to have editorial guidance on this though, and after reflection, the spectrum of language and acceptability looks something like this:

‘Cunt’ and ‘fuck’ are right out on the edge, and I hesitate about using them even here. I wouldn’t even use ‘WTF?’ for this age range.

‘Arse’ and ‘shit’ are tamer, but still too fruity for most gatekeepers. They might work for older readers, but are best avoided if you want your book to be stocked in a school library.

‘Bloody’ and ‘crap’ inhabit perhaps the most interesting part of the spectrum, which seems to form the crossover point between rude and tame. Many people would still object to their use in a children’s book, but for an audience over 12, and if deployed with care, a great many wouldn’t.

‘Ninnyhammer’, ‘lumpus’ and ‘poo-brain’ are at the fun end of things. This is my natural home, though I have to turn my back on it while I write the teen story.

Do you have any thoughts on this? At what age should young readers be exposed to bad language in literature, language they are more than likely hearing around them anyway? Or should children’s books be a refuge from the crappier side of life? Where would you draw the line?

Monday, 8 November 2010


As I revise my 11+ SF/supernatural thriller, I find I’m using the search and replace function to eradicate certain words, or at least limit them, as part of changing the tone of the story under editorial guidance. Since at some level this action is driven by the current market, I thought it would be interesting to display the corpses of those words here, as a warning to others. So here’s the gibbet:

Paranormal (dead)

Psychic (mostly dead)

Agency (very dead, along with all ‘agents’)

Department (dead, along with ‘government/al’)

Spy (mostly dead, though there are still two left in the field)

I’m actually queasy with embarrassment seeing these words listed here, because they suggest my book is about something it’s not. So it’s just as well they are gone. Words favoured and promoted as part of the same change are: spectral, ghostly, dreamwalker, dreamself, Metascape and Somnarium. I like these words.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010


I have a foot each side of a divide. It’s not an eye-wateringly wide distance to span – children’s publishing is still a small pond -- but it is brain bending, not least because the size of each lily pad is so very different. One is as broad and bendy as an 80k word novel (yes, careful counters amongst you will have noticed that it has grown), while the other is as tight as a 347-word picture book text (and one that I have been asked to reduce, at that). But the trick doesn’t really lie in balancing between two such mismatched things, the trick is allowing them both to bloom despite my size 12 clod-hoppers. If you hear a splash, you’ll know what’s happened.