A unique book contract signing

L to R: Michelle, me, Peter

L to R: Michelle, me, Kathy

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of signing a new picture book contract in a lovely, unique and totally relevant venue: our fabulous local independent bookshop, Reader’s Companion. Kathy and Peter Creamer of locally-based children’s publisher Little Pink Dog Books suggested the venue for signing the contract for A House of Mud, a text inspired by our family experience of building our mudbrick house years ago, and which I have long dreamed might become a picture book one day: a dream which will become a reality next year! The book will be illustrated by Kathy herself, who is also illustrating another of my texts, See Monkey. It was a great occasion, with Michelle Wheatley of Reader’s Companion there as delighted witness to what is the first step in a process which will eventually see the book arrive on her shelves!

A House of Mud is told from a child’s perspective, based very much on the fact that our three children, Pippa, Xavier and Bevis, enthusiastically took part in the experience of building, paddling in the mud and making small bricks themselves!

 

 

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Interview with Bob Topp of Read Me A Story, Ink

A couple of years ago, I received an email from the US with an intriguing request: would I agree to allow two of my stories originally published back in the 90’s–Cry Wolf, published in the Omnibus Books anthology, Amazing, and The Clever Thief, published in Cricket Magazine–to be included in an index of great read-aloud stories on a website specifically designed for the purpose? Both made excellent read-alouds in schools, bookseller and reader Bob Topp told me, inviting me to check out his website, Read Me A Story, Ink. After visiting this very impressive website, I was more than happy to agree–it’s a fabulous resource and I was glad my stories would be included in it–and as five-star reads, what’s more! Recently, Bob’s been in touch again regarding new developments, and acquiring another couple of my stories (The Magic Carpet, and The Old Woman and the Imp) for the site. Of course I was happy to agree once more–and also thought readers might like to know more about Bob and his fantastic site, which does so much to encourage the joys of reading great stories aloud. It’s a great interview–read on!

Bob, your wonderful website, Read Me A Story, Ink (and what a great name!) is obviously a labour of love. Can you tell me about how and when it started? What gave you the idea?

I started reading in Bergen Elementary School in our home town of Evergreen, Colorado when our older son, Harrison, was in second grade. His class was doing a unit on frontier America and we had just finished reading a children’s biography of American legend Davy Crockett at home. I offered to come and read a chapter to the class and soon found myself reading weekly. The next year, I started with our younger son’s class as well. After they both moved on to middle school – they are now 28 and 30 – a few of their teachers asked me if I would like to continue, so I began visiting a few classes once a month. At that interval, there wasn’t the continuity or time for chapter books so I started to collect short stories. After a few years and enough anthologies, I realized I couldn’t remember what story was in which book so I created an index for my own use. When the index reached six or seven hundred entries, it occurred to me that it would make a useful tool for parents and teachers and a friend helped me design a rudimentary website. Over the years the site has grown in numerous directions. I added recommended reading lists, printable stories, both public domain and for which I had the author’s permission, links to other great children’s sites and most recently I have started recording some of the stories. The core index is now over 1500 records and I estimate that I have read eight to ten thousand short stories.

How does the site work? What has it achieved so far, and what are your goals for it for the future?

My designer and I have tried to keep the site simple and very user friendly. Each record on the index includes a plot summary, age level, subject category and the source where I found the story. If there is a printable or audio version there are tabs beneath the record inviting the user to print or listen to the story. Also, if the author has a website, there is a link to that site so that the user can find out more about the author and what else she or he has written. The index can be searched by category, author or keyword making it easy to find appropriate stories for the user’s needs. Recommended reading lists and links to other children’s sites are all easily accessible. At the moment I don’t foresee any different intent for readmeastoryink.com, just a constant expansion of resources as I discover new stories and contact more authors.

What has the response been like, both from children and schools, and from writers whose stories are listed?

Response has been very positive from all quarters. Parents have mentioned that they use the recommended reading lists while teachers gravitate towards the printable stories. In one thank you letter from a fifth grader, she wrote, “ as I am writing this letter, we are listening to one of Mr. Topp’s stories.”  A function on the site’s administrative panel allows me to view the IP addresses of people, bots or institutions who have viewed the site and frequently the IP address is a school district. Authors seem appreciative of having their stories available and, write to say that they enjoy the recordings of their stories as well. I can also access information on how many times a specific story has been “viewed” on the web in a month. Most stories have been clicked on between one and two hundred times each month. Unfortunately there is no way to know if those views are individuals, school districts or bots that are simply out there roaming the web universe.

How do you choose stories which will be good for reading aloud? What are you looking for, in a story?

I choose approximately one out of every six or seven stories that I read. The first and most important criterion is whether I like the story. If I like it, that enjoyment will translate in the reading aloud and in most cases the kids will like it as well, though I have been amused over the years to note the difference between reading to myself and reading aloud. Occasionally stories that I love fall flat when read aloud for inexplicable reasons while stories that I hesitate to read become all time favorites when I read them aloud. I also tailor the story to the grade. I read 30 minutes to third graders and 45 minutes to fifth graders with the stories frequently chosen by theme for the month (ie., Holidays, Black History Month, Women’s History Month and always, Dragons for November). Ultimately I can’t escape my own biases which are in the direction of positive stories with at least one character who can be a role model. Humor also creeps into many of the stories that I read.

You are now, with writers’ full permission, making stories available both in print form and in audio form as read-aloud. What has been the response to that?

Without a doubt the printable stories page is the most visited page on the site. I assume this is because both parents and teachers are finding readily available material for reading aloud or as suggested reading to their children or students. Authors, parents and friends have all given me positive feedback on the recordings but since there are far fewer recordings than stories that are available to print, they haven’t gained the same traction.

Do you still go into schools yourself to read aloud?

Yes! I currently read to 14 classes, first through fifth grades, and have no plans to stop. I begin reading for the new year in a few weeks and I am already getting excited about what to read first and mulling over what new stories I have discovered and what month of the year would be best for their first reading.

Are you interested in hearing from writers about stories that might be suitable for Read Me A Story, Ink?

That is a very difficult question for me and one that I have frequently contemplated. As it is right now, I read a story that I like and ask the author’s permission to make it available. If I started receiving short stories that I hadn’t read, I would be in the position of having to reject some – something for which my personality is not suited. I do currently offer two previously unpublished stories that were offered to me and I have to admit that I am very proud to make them available. So, I guess the answer to your question is an unequivocal yes and no 🙂

Michael McMahon on creating illustrations for Two Rainbows

My latest picture book, Two Rainbows, illustrated by the wonderful Michael McMahon, came out this month with Little Hare and to celebrate I asked Michael to share his creation process for the book, which he’s done in this very interesting post. Enjoy!

I was first given a draft of Sophie’s Two Rainbows by my publisher Little Hare and was asked to imagine this little world of words becoming illustrations. When reading the story for the first time there were two things that I was struck by. One was the stories unique look at colour, and the other was Sophie’s original choice of words.

Stepping through the colours of a rainbow the reader follows a little girl as she begins to notice all of the colourful differences between the city where she lives and the memories of her home in the countryside. Sophie’s words give life to a simple story that highlights both the obvious and the subtle. Comparing the vibrance of the farm meadows to a muted bus-stop poster gives the story both a realistic and idealistic twist.

Illustrations are often simply coloured in, either to express emotion or create emphasis, but it’s rare for colour to sit at the forefront of a narrative. In that sense it was a nice change of pace to wonder how colour could be used in each scene. I often sketch and then start to put together each illustration, with colour naturally following on from this somewhere near to the end of the process. However, it was interesting that colour was now going to be considered first before touching pen to paper.

 

After reading each page, I would very quickly draw the first things that came to my mind, not thinking it through too much. I would then read the next part of the story and do the same. I like the spontaneity of this. After considering each page separately, I’d then start to sketch the story again and consider it as a whole – crossing things out and moving things around until it starts to form something I feel is working well.

This is how the messy sketches begin…

 

 

After the initial sketches, I find it important to start each book with a little bit of research. In a way, I feel it’s good for storytellers to know and imagine the world of their characters, a sort of ‘reading-before-the-lines’ not just between them. I imagined the little girl in the book growing up and spending her childhood in the countryside and then suddenly having to pick up everything and shift into the heart of a very far away city. I took my time photographing the inner suburbs of my own city to get a sense of where the little girl might live. I also went through troves of old photos of famous cities to create a kind of made up metropolis. I took inspiration from a lot of different places.

This is how the sketches start to take on a little more shape…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the sketches are finished and placed alongside the text, I then start to put together the illustrations by adding more details and slowly refining each one until we have the finished book.

 

 

Five Favourites 24: Kate Forsyth

Today, it’s the turn of Kate Forsyth to select her five favourites.

 

It was so hard to choose only five favourites from my childhood, when I read so many wonderful books. But I have finally – after much agony – chosen only a handful for you.

 

The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe – C.S Lewis

 

This was the first book I ever read all by myself and it was, for many years, the benchmark by which I judged other books. Was it as thrilling and magical as Narnia? I love the other books too (except for The Last Battle), but this one will always occupy a very special place in my heart. There is something so wonderful about the land at the back of the wardrobe, the lamp-post in the silent snowy forest, the faun carrying an umbrella, the menace of the White Witch, the beavers with their cosy house and sewing machine, Edmund’s betrayal and eventual redemption, the lion who can play like a kitten … just writing about it makes me want to go and read it again!

The Little White Horse– Elizabeth Goudge

 I absolutely adored The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, which I read as a little girl sick in hospital. I read it over and over again, and longed with all my heart for a house like Moonacre Manor.  It is filled with wonderful descriptions of the house, the garden, the woods and meadows, and of food (which was very important to me at the time, as I was living on hospital fare.) It tells the story of Maria Merryweather, who goes to live at the manor with her governess and her dog, and finds mystery, magic and romance. I still wish for a house just like Moonacre Manor – if I ever sell five hundred million books, that will be what I will buy. I also love Elizabeth Goudge’s other books, particularly Linnets and Valerians, but The Little White Horse was the first of hers I ever read and so closest to my heart.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken

 I cannot understand why Joan Aiken is not much more widely celebrated than she is. Her books are so funny, so surprising, so thrilling, and so beautifully written. They are set ‘at a time in English history that never happened,’ when Good King James III was on the throne and the wicked Hanoverians kept plotting to take over the country. My copy was given to me by my brother, and cost $1.15 … sigh! Wishing books were that cheap now. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase tells the story of two cousins, Bonnie and Sylvia. The first is rich and beloved and lives at Willoughby Chase, a grand manor house. The second is poor and orphaned, and sent to stay with her. However, Bonnie’s parents must go away for her mother’s health, and a cruel and devious governess comes to take care of them, precipitating the two girls into the adventure of a lifetime.

The Glass Slipper – Eleanor Farjeon

A delightful retelling of ‘Cinderella’, The Glass Slipper is full of dancing rhythms and warm-hearted humour. I remember the day I borrowed it from the library, and began to read it on my walk home from school. I became so engrossed I walked straight past my street and only realised where I was when a passing neighbour tooted me and called out to me that I’d missed my turn-off. I simply turned around and kept on reading as I walked back towards home. I loved the book so much I spent years trying to find it again, and was so delighted when I discovered a copy in an old second-hand store. I now collect Eleanor Farjeon books, and have a copy of her book Kaleidoscope (signed to someone called Kate!) which is one of my absolute treasures.

 

The Stone Cage – Nicholas Stuart Gray

A retelling of ‘Rapunzel’ from the point of view of the witch’s cat, The Stone Cage is one of my all-time absolute favourites (as you know, Sophie!) I have re-read it many times and it never fails to enchant me. The voice of Tomlyn the cat is pitch-perfect, and the mix of humour, pathos and danger so adroitly managed. I think of it as one of my touchstone books, and know that anyone who lives it (or any other books by this author) is a true kindred spirit.

 

Five Favourites 23: Katherine Langrish

Today Katherine Langrish is writing about her five favourites.

My five top books? Of course it’s really almost impossible to choose, but here are some which spring to mind

Susan Price’s The Ghost Drum (1987) is set in a far-distant Northern Czardom where half the year is summer and light and half the year is winter darkness. It’s the tale of young Chingis, daughter of a serf but raised by a shaman woman to inherit her magical powers and her hut that runs on chicken legs across the snow. And it’s also the story of Safa, son of the cruel Czar who has kept him imprisoned since birth in a single room with no windows.  “Every moment, day and night, waking and dreaming, his spirit cried; and circled and circled the dome room, seeking a way out.” One night Chingis hears his spirit crying from far away, and she sets out across the steppes to rescue him. I have read this starkly beautiful and unsparing story over and over again.

The wonderful Nicholas Stuart Gray is undeservedly neglected; I can’t think why he’s not still in print. He wrote many books and plays for children: perhaps the very best is Down In The Cellar (1961).  A family of four lively and eccentric children rescue a mysterious young man called Stephen whom they discover lying wounded and ill in a deserted quarry they were told not to visit. They smuggle him into the cellar of the rambling old house in which they are staying, and attempt to look after him.  But sinister forces are in pursuit of Stephen, and five-year-old Deirdre keeps seeing things the other children can’t – weird green lanterns shining in the dark, and a mysterious golden gate in the cellar wall. Are half the villagers really warlocks?  Where do the cats go, when they go missing? And who or what are the Spoilers? This is a very scary, very exciting and very funny book.

So is The Cuckoo Tree (1971) by Joan Aiken. On a wild November night some time in the middle of Aiken’s alternative 19th century, her gamine Cockney heroine the redoubtable Dido Twite is travelling from Bristol to London by coach, with her friend Captain Hughes of the Royal Navy. Shortly after singing this raucous little ditty:

Captain Hughes and young Miss Twite

Went for a drive – hic! – one shiny night,

If they don’t end in the Cuckoo Tree

Pickle my brains in eau d vie!

– the drunken driver overturns the coach; Captain Hughes is injured and Dido is compelled to seek shelter for them both in sleazy Dogkennel Cottages, just down the road from neglected Tegleaze Manor. She is soon up to her neck in a plot involving smugglers, missing heirs, voodoo, witchcraft, and a scheme to send St Paul’s Cathedral crashing into the Thames with a full coronation ceremony going on inside.  Joan Aiken at her wildly imaginative, quirky best. Unbeatable!

Linnets and Valerians (1964) is Elizabeth Goudge’s best book for children, better than ‘The Little White Horse’, though I love that too.  But this book is deeper, full of the harm human beings can do to one another, of darkness and loss and the waste of lives: but ultimately also of the strength of goodness to drive out evil.  Like ‘Down In the Cellar’ it features a large family of children. These – two boys and two girls – run away in a stolen pony-trap and end up living with stern but upright Uncle Ambrose high on Dartmoor, in a village reminiscent of Widdecombe.  They soon find the village is divided by old tragedy and hatreds. Is Emma Cobley, the postmistress, really the sweet old lady she seems? Who is the strange, dumb wild man who lives in a cave up on Shining Tor?  And what is the secret of the wonderful tapestry in the Manor house, and the book of black spells hidden away in a secret cupboard in the Vicarage? This hauntingly lovely book is one of my all-time favourites.

Finally I have to choose Alan Garner’s The Moon of Gomrath (1963): it made such a huge impression on me as a child. The sequel to ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’, for me it’s an even richer and more exciting blend of Norse and Celtic mythology in (what was then) a contemporary setting.  So many wonderful moments – the shapeless Brollachan which flows into Susan’s body and begins to warp it, the old straight track that turns to moonsilver or curling flame, the mad, exhilarating ride of the Wild Hunt with their thrilling cry “Ride, Einheriar of the Herlathing!” and the long vigil of the elves outside the ruined manor house which is, creepily, only there when the full moon shines…  If I may add as an aside to modern publishers, the fact that aged ten I had no idea how to pronounce the Wild Hunt’s thrilling cry, “Ride, Einheriar of the Herlathing!” made not the slightest difference to my delight in the story.

 

Five Favourites 22: Meredith Costain

Today’s five favourites have been chosen by Meredith Costain.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, with illustrations by Ruth Gervis

I have read this book so many times over the years it is falling apart. It made me long for a life in a genteel inner-city London, one of the three little ‘Fossil sisters’ tenderly cared for by a guardian and a no-nonsense and very proper English nanny, and earning their keep on the stage. The scene where they vow to get their names in history books has stayed with me forever (and set me on the path to becoming a writer). I devoured the rest of her books one after the other.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I suspect I loved this book so much because I identified so strongly with Jo. She spent every spare moment she could reading, writing, crunching apples up a tree or acting out plays with her sisters. I also admired the family’s dogged insistence on making the best out of every situation: the scene where the four sisters are hand-hemming a bed sheet (hemming being something I hated doing myself) and imagining each seam was a new continent to be explored is wonderful.

When We Were Very Young by A A Milne, with illustrations by E H Shepard

We recited a lot of poetry in our house when I was growing up – and this book (along with Now We Are Six) contained some of my favourites: ‘Disobedience’, ‘The King’s Breakfast’, ‘Happiness’ and ‘At the Zoo’. All his writing had such wonderful, matter-of-fact rhythm that went marching through your head. The perfect companion to the perfect Winnie-the-Pooh.

A Book For Kids by C J Dennis

I went to a tiny two-roomed country primary school where our wonderful teacher shared his love of rhythm and rhyme (and the new kids on the block – The Beatles!) with us every day. He introduced us to the poetry of C J Dennis and I still know most of the poems off by heart, particularly ‘Hist!’, ‘The Ant Explorer’, and ‘Triantiwontigongolope’.

 

The How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs by Darlene Geis, with illustrations by Kenyon Shannon

My brother and I fought for ownership over this book (I’m happy to say I won – it’s currently sitting on my ‘beloved books’ shelf). We spent hours poring over the words and images and had fun trying to pronounce their unpronounceable names (so different to the names of animals we had first-hand knowledge of: cow, dog, chook, rabbit, horse). The blend of hard facts and narrative and its conversational tone made it perfect for young readers desperate to find out more about these fabulous beasts from another world and time.

Finally, just want to add some ‘near misses’: I feel like I will have betrayed these lovely books if I don’t give them a mention as well!

Near misses: A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter, Ash Road and Hills End by Ivan Southall, What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff.

http://www.meredithcostain.com

Five Favourites 21: Claire Corbett

Today Claire Corbett is presenting her five favourites.

Elidor–Alan Garner–the anti-Narnia

This novel introduced my child self to the grown-up pleasures of having your heart broken by a book. Elidor, a slim novel published in 1965, is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. It lures you in by beginning as a classic portal fantasy: that is, the main characters enter Elidor, ‘Green Isle of the Shadow of the Stars’, through a ruined church in the bombed-out suburbs of post-war Manchester. The four children find themselves in an eerie, dying land and encounter trials of evil magic before being entrusted with four relics they must guard back in Manchester to keep the last of the light alive in Elidor. But the darkness of Elidor follows them into their seemingly dull everyday world. Here the book becomes more SF horror than high fantasy (its moments of suburban satire intensifying the terror), with its ending modulating to tragedy in the key of Celtic Twilight.

This perfect book is described by Garner himself as the ‘anti-Narnia’. It is scary and sad and refuses the child reader the pleasure of exploring its fantasy world. Instead its terrors erupting onto the streets of Manchester are gripping; only as adults do we see how Elidor not only  parallels postwar England, but is of course itself England, with the adults in that fantasy land having no more idea of how to hold back the darkness than did the adults during World War Two. Garner has talked about how he used scientific parallels for magic in the book with static electricity being one form that Elidor’s magic takes in Manchester. This is how Garner weaves SF into his fantasy, and it’s a very powerful device, making the magic feel real in his modern setting and denying the reader the comfort that scientific rationality will defeat the darkness.

Comet in Moominland – Tove Jansson – the Romantic Sublime

All of the Moomintroll books are enchanting but this book deals in the Romantic sublime. This captivated my child’s imagination before I ever heard of the concept of the sublime – the shiver of awe we feel at the beauty and terror of that which is great beyond human understanding: sheer mountains, vast Deeps, the infinite reach and darkness of space. This book delivers all of that as Moomintroll and his friends go on a quest to the Lonely Mountains to ask the astronomers what to do about the Comet threatening Earth. This book even has a kickass heroine in the form of the vain Snork Maiden, who saves Moomintroll from a giant octopus.

The Silver Chair – CS Lewis – Plato’s cave

The darkest, most Gothic and most convincing Narnia tale. I loved it for its epic quest through terrifying settings and its philosophical meditations on the nature of reality. Its pivotal scene is a gripping retelling of the parable of Plato’s cave (of course as a child I didn’t know this). As always with Lewis, the villain, challenging male authority, is a beautiful powerful woman, in this case a witch who kidnaps Prince Rilian, son of King Caspian. Using her engine of enslavement, the Silver Chair, she plans to turn the Prince into her puppet to allow her to rule Narnia.

Two children, Eustace Scrubb (the reformed brat from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and fellow victim of bullying Jill Pole, are sent on the quest to rescue Rilian by teaming up with one of Lewis’ most charming creations: the hilarious Marshwiggle Puddleglum, whose idea of looking on the bright side results in ghastly statements worthy of Eeyore such as: Now a job like this–a journey up north just as winter’s beginning, looking for a Prince that probably isn’t there, by way of a ruined city that no one has ever seen–will be just the thing. Puddleglum, one of the great pessimists of English literature, turns out to be the bravest and most stalwart friend any frightened child, or Prince, could ever wish for.

The Silver Brumby – Elyne Mitchell – the beauty of wildness

As a girl I loved horses and riding above anything except swimming. The thrill and danger of riding, the scent of gum trees and saddle leather and horse sweat, the exhaustion at the end of each day, all this was exhilarating. When I wasn’t riding, I loved reading horse books – Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara and the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley. When I came to Australia I was enchanted by the Silver Brumby books which not only thrilled me with tales of wild horses in the Snowy Mountains (I preferred wild horse stories) but introduced me to the beauty of the Australian bush.

1984 – George Orwell – language can corrupt thought

Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. War is Peace.

This may seem an odd choice for a childhood favourite but so it was. I read it when I was twelve and instantly its images and lines and ideas were engraved on my brain. How true and how loud do those slogans ring now in our post-Trump election, post-truth world? For a writer, 1984 is the key text, its meditations on the relation of language to politics and consciousness some of the most important ever written: But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. Orwell is one of our greatest writers whose work keeps language bright and sharp as a weapon against lies, a tool for truth against those who want to enslave our minds.