“Rosa” – Doctor Who, and Malorie Blackman

I’m still shaking after last night’s Doctor Who episode. Written by the illustrious Malorie Blackman, a legend in the world of children’s and young adult literature – and former Children’s Laureate to boot, Rosa was set in Montgomery, Alabama and concerned the equally illustrious figure of Rosa Parks.

It’s sometimes difficult to understand story when you’re crying on the sofa. When you’re made breathless by it, and you can’t look away. When sentences make you sick and horrified at the world and then, in the next breath, make you laugh out loud. Emotions matter. They’re a total asset. And when a story triggers them, whether that story’s rendered on a television screen, written in a book or stuck onto the back of the HP bottle, you know you’re onto a good thing.

Malorie Blackman is a good thing. Rosa broke me and remade me and it reminded me of the utter power of story. It’s an unrelenting episode, stark and unflinching and with a remarkably final ten minutes or so. It’s perhaps more remarkable in that the agency of Rosa herself is never affected. She changes the world. She changes the universe. And she does it herself. There’s no machinations, no zapping of an alien to make her sit in the seat, it’s just the circumstances of history and the power of an individual voice. Beyond that, yes, there’s a Doctor Who episode but there’s also one of the lead characters being threatened with a lynching. There’s a moment where two of the leads reflect on how they face modern day racism. This is raw, horrific, outstanding storytelling and it felt like a statement of intent, not only for the show but also Malorie Blackman’s work. She is a storyteller of intense power.

If you’d like to discover more about Blackman’s work, I’d suggest starting with the outstanding Noughts and Crosses series. I review the first one here.

 

The Ink House by Rory Dobner

The Ink HouseThe Ink House by Rory Dobner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spectacularly produced, somewhat slender in the story department, and full of some rather intensely beautiful artwork, The Ink House is somewhat of a paradox. It’s beautiful, first and foremost; written and illustrated by Rory Dobner, an artist with a substantial and impressive commercial portfolio. His work hovers somewhere about the Neil Gaiman / Frances Hardinge side of things; a wild evocation of otherness, coupled with a firm belief that that otherness may in fact be true. His work is careful, and his lines are richly and subtly done, finding magic in the white space of the page and using that as a springboard towards some beautiful spreads.

Now, the paradox. This isn’t a story, at least not yet. The Ink House is a mansion built on a magical pool of ink. One a year, the artist goes off on an adventure, leaving the house free for animals to move in and have a great party. The artist comes back, the animals leave. That’s a great and eloquent frame, but I struggled with the episodic nature of the moments that hung in between. They felt a little isolated, occasionally disjointed, and I’d have welcome another eye over sentences such as “Panic ensues as the animals prepare to leave” (I’m not sure anybody prepares in a panicked fashion?)

Yet, this is beautiful. Even the line I’ve picked out comes with the most delicious spread of horses cantering through a tiled and pillared corridor in an image that made my heart sing. That’s what I mean about paradoxes; this book is full of them. Lines that don’t quite sit and work, and a story that isn’t quite there yet, but some of the best and most convincing black and white artwork that I’ve seen for a long while.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy

View all my reviews

How to pitch your book for review to a book blogger

I’ve been wanting to write a brief guide on how to pitch your book for review to a book blogger for a while. It seems to be one of those things that a lot of people can’t quite figure out, or get intimidated by, or just sort of blindly hope for the best with. And, really, it’s not rocket science. Pitching your book for review involves a little more than ‘please will you review my book’, but it really does involve a lot less than you think. Here’s my top tips in no particular order.

  • Know who you’re talking to and what they tend to review. There’s no point in emailing a person who blogs about children’s literature if your book is adult crime. It’s a waste of everybody’s time. Be strategic in your efforts.
  • Related, tell me why you’ve come to me. Personalise that standard email a little bit and tell me why you think your book and me will click.
  • Be polite and nice. Niceness on the internet is a good thing. We should all work towards it a little bit more.
  • If the blogger has guidelines for submission, work to them. In all likelihood they’re not getting paid, so respect their wishes. Don’t repeat email if you don’t get a response.
  • Respect time frames. Books don’t get reviewed immediately and maybe never. Sending a copy for review does not guarantee a review.
  • Be prepared for a negative review. Simply thank the reviewer for their time and move on. Don’t burn your bridges in a small community. Don’t make the blogger blacklist you.
  • Be realistic. This is a hard business, and nine times out of ten, you won’t get a response. If you do get a response that says no, thank them for their time and move on (sensing a theme here?)
  • Be passionate, honest, and know your market. YA is not just about vampires (and hasn’t been for about three hundred years). Picture books are not an easy option. Tell me about the heart of your book. Tell me why that matters in today’s publishing world.
  • Don’t pay somebody to do the dirty work for you! I can’t stress this one enough. There are a thousand websites out there that will give you lists and contact details for bloggers. This is usually public information and can be found via a quick Google. Don’t pay. Seriously, don’t pay for public domain info. It’s awful and a blanket email tells me you’ve done no research about who you’re talking to.
  • Do, however, pay for reputable services done by reputable people. There are people out there who can advise you on marketing or promotion. This is a complex thing, and there’s no shame in paying for services. Do however check their credentials, ask to see a sample of their work, or speak to former clients…
  • Don’t be afraid. I want to write about good books. I want to share books that have something important and relevant to say about the world. I want to hear from voices marginalised from that discussion. If I think I can help you out, or give your book a review, then I will.

A Hidden Treasure : ‘The Child’s Guide To Knowledge’ (1861)

The-childs-guide-to-knowledge-cover

I’ve been visiting some of my favourite bookshops over the last few weeks and picking up some utter treasures. These are books that wouldn’t and won’t make a fortune if I sold them on, but to me they’re priceless in what they say about our ideas of childhood and children many moons ago. I’m going to introduce a couple of them to you over the next couple of weeks, The Child’s Guide To Knowledge (1861) is the first one up.

It’s a slim, small little thing, the sort of book that could fit easily into your pocket. I found my copy of it in a charity shop at the seaside, and it was dwarfed by the books about it. This is a copy that’s lived a life, and that’s no wonder when you consider the age of it. 1861. The American Civil War was happening, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died, and on March 12, this book was being held by somebody called Richard. He wrote his name in it too.

(I wonder, upon investigation, whether it was this Richard? I’m not sure about the dates, or even if I’m reading his name correctly, but the area feels about right. I’m not sure people would have travelled far from their point of origin, particularly on a fairly prosperous coast(?)).

the-childs-guide-to-knowledge-introduction

I had a little bit of a moment when I found it. I don’t know much about books like this, as they’re about fifty or so years before my specialist area, but I love them. These little collections of lessons and facts to be recited by some poor child in some schoolroom somewhere are fascinating. They tell us what adults thought children should know, and the way that they thought they should know them. This, for example, is onto talking about macaroni by page three. Macaroni! Macaroni comes before the lesson on the constitution! It’s so weird!

A final thing to note is the authorship. A Child’s Guide to Knowledge is written, rather coyly, ‘By A Lady’. (Coincidentally, this sentence tickles me so much, I used it as the background of my Twitter and might never change). The lady herself is never named throughout the text, except refers to herself as the authoress and refuses to add wood-cuts or engravings into the book as they ‘might take off the attention of children’. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Well, I can answer my own question straight away here and refer to the fact that she’s not named. Some of that is obviously due to convention, the status of writing for children at that time, and the blessed patriarchy that we all hold so dear (!). That can be rectified with the benefit of hindsight, and so here’s to you Fanny Umphelby and thank you for giving me so much joy with this peculiarly, brilliant little book. I particularly love how you finished the last page off with a good review.

the-childs-guide-to-knowledge-last-page

 

 

 

The NCRCL Open Day 2018

I had a lovely opportunity the other weekend to revisit the University of Roehampton where, seven (!) years ago, I studied my MA in Children’s Literature. It’s a course that changed my life, not only through the legitimisations of the interest that I had but also through the groundwork it gave me to explore those further. It is also a course that I fell into somewhat by accident; I found it a week before the course launched, wrote an essay that basically said “I QUITE LIKE BOOKS”, sent them a copy of my undergraduate dissertation, and Bob was my proverbial Uncle.

Selfie with the University of Roehampton Sign

I made it to the University of Roehampton !

I was invited to share a panel with the lovely Mat Tobin of Oxford Brookes, to talk about potential career paths after the degree, and it was a genuine pleasure to do so.  In a way, it took me a while to find what I do now because I did not realise it was an opportunity. Does that make sense? I’m not sure it does so let me try to explain a little. I come from a background where academia was never really part of the conversation. I was not the first member of my family to go to university, but I have been the first to work towards this as a career. As a choice. And finding that break, realising the procedures that led towards it, it took a while. Practicalities. Paying the bills. Little things.

So, now I have a portfolio career. I write, I research, I teach. I temp. I blog. I run my own publishers (scream, etc). I sell articles. I pitch. I poke, in a very Britishy fashion, at every door that might be happen and though I might have to screw my courage to the sticking post, I do. It’s a work in progress, and there’s things I could do better and things I could do more of, but I am happy. I am, I really am.

University of Roehampton Library at Night

University of Roehampton Library at Night

And visiting Roehampton gave me a delicious opportunity to reflect on that. I stopped the night before the talk, and managed to spend some time on campus that evening. It was a peaceful, hot evening and it was only the second time I’d ever been there.

That’s the curious dichotomy of being a distance student; you study, intensely, with somewhere and maybe never visit. But when you do, you get refreshed. You get, in a way, a metaphorical shot of thoughts and creativity and recognise the agency that you possess as a student. Students are powerful creatures and I think that sometimes, when you’re a distance learner, it’s easy to forget that. I’ve experience of being one, but also of supporting them in a professional context so trust me, I know what it’s like from both ends. You work in isolation, connecting through forums and online media, and maybe that’s about it. Your host institution remains a name. Opportunities like the NCRCL open day, and the wide range of lectures and events that Roehampton do (some of which that made me very jealous!) allow you to connect to the community that you are a part of – a community that you’ve always been a vital part of. There’s a way to be a distance learner but also to be a part of the world of campus, and I think they’ve got that really nicely figured out.

Manifesto For Learning

Manifesto for Learning

The Open Day itself was lovely. I got to chat with a lot of the current students, and get very envious of their poster skills (seriously, I belong to the ‘just whack a picture up and hope for the best’ school) and also to hear Dr Zoe Jaques of the University of Cambridge speak. She’s great, and her talk reminded me that you’re always learning. There’s always something to be found in the research of others that will apply to your own. I celebrated this by having a very indulgent late lunch and writing my own personal manifesto for learning. An affirmation of sorts, I guess, but also a reminder that I can never remember yourself/yourselves until it’s too late. But then, isn’t that the thing about learning? You’re always in a dialogue, and even if it’s just with yourself, then it’s enough. Because, at the end, you’ll be something more than you were before.

Many thanks to Alison, and the team at NCRCL for such a lovely day. Here’s to the next.

A quickening of the heart : life as a book collector

I had a bit of a lovely moment the other day. I found a clump of the books that I collect, and I bought them all because it was one of those rare occasions where I could actually afford all of them. And now, several days later, I’m still riding that wave of delight that only comes when you find the thing you love and are, due to circumstance and the twists that life gives you, able to make that thing your own.

Book collecting is a curious thing. I have been doing it for long enough now that I’m able to walk into a bookshop and scan the shelves within minutes. The books that I collect are distinct enough in cover and spine to make themselves known to me, and if they’re not there, then it’s a different sort of visit. One where I wallow in familiar names and new ones, and maybe take something different home. But if they are there, then, it’s something quite perfect. The heart quickens, and you tell yourself to stay calm because, inevitably, you won’t be able to afford the one you’d like.

But sometimes the stars come together, and you’re able to take one or more home. And that moment of connection is such a potent and precise kind of energy that I suspect, were it able to be harnessed, would power a thousand cars for a thousand days. The thing is, you do not collect stories without having a story of your own. Each book that you collect, each title that you invest yourself in, each author that you find a little bit more about yourself, becomes part of your own story.  And so, when you find these titles in the shop or a new book by that author that you’ve been collecting, there is a little part of yourself located in the finding. You find yourself, and all of the other selfs that you’ve ever been.

There’s a parallel here for any sort of collection; that sense of knowing the story of each thing and how and when it came into your life, but it always feels a little bit more powerful for me because I collect books and books are powerful things. Books endure, and have done so in a fairly recognisable form for centuries. I suspect, for example, if you were to place a 1990s brick phone against an Apple Watch and presented both to an individual from the 1600s you would have substantial difficulty in persuading them that they were the same thing. But a book, with its recognisable form and shape and intent, has that coherence pretty much whenever, wherever and however you find it.

I keep returning to that notion of the finding, for I am as fond of that as I am of the having. The finding is the chase, you see, and it is a rather beautiful thing. Being a book collector means that you have that peculiar need to just check a bookshop that you’re passing, or to pause when you are on holiday somewhere to pop in a bookshop that you’ve never been to before. You learn to accept that books may make themselves known in the most inopportune of moments; when you are walking back to the train station after a conference, or indeed backpacking across a country on the other side of the world. This is what it is, this integration of the find into your life.

That’s what book collecting does; it slides away from that semantic precision of ‘collecting’, redolent as it is to me of Boy’s Own trips to the Amazon and butterflies pinned in tragic horror to cases, and instead becomes something rather more embedded. Something closer. Something lived, lived and learnt.  Something felt. Something felt deep down inside of you, where feelings lose their precision and instead become raw and un-edged and indescribable things. That’s where book collecting lives, there.

 

The NCRCL Open Day 2018

Just a quick note to say that I will be speaking at the NCRCL Open Day 2018 (June 2nd, University of Roehampton). I know that London might not be an option for many people but if it is, and children’s books are your jam, I would urge you to come along! Studying for the MA changed my life in innumerable ways and I’d reccomend it to anybody (and I’m also happy to answer any questions about it). It’s a free event but you do need to book ahead; and do say hi if you get there!

(That was a lot of exclamation marks for one post, do forgive me… 🙂 )