Showing posts with label Anne Rooney. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne Rooney. Show all posts

Monday, 9 November 2020

Choosing your words carefully - Anne Rooney

Badgers choose their worms carefully. It's an easy typo to make.

This is long; that badger is the only picture you're getting. If you don't like that idea, stop now and do something you prefer with your time :-)

Writing seems a pretty easy process of just putting one word in front of another, right?

We-ll... They have to be the right words and in the right order. Splurging your thoughts onto the page is a good start, and I would never recommend being too thoughtful about a first draft if that will make you anxious, slow or feel blocked. But there comes a time when you have to look carefully at those words and make sure they are doing what they should be. Writing is rewriting. Editing is a vital part of the process. You've heard all that before. But what are you actually doing when you are editing your work? 

The pandemic is a time when lots of people are trying writing who haven't done much before — which is great. There's lots of good advice out there on planning and writing, but there's very little on how to revise your work — editing. So here goes: a quick explanation of what editing is.

You will have a professional editor work on your words at some point, of course, if your work is going to be published (including self-published). But it's still important to do that first bit of editing yourself because this is the point at which you make sure your work says what you want it to say. An editor is an advocate for the reader. They want to make the book good for the reader and will focus on that rather than on digging out what you wanted the book to be. No editor is going to crawl into your brain and look at what you meant and rephrase your writing so that it says that: you have to do it. An editor might later make it more elegant or concise, but they can only work with what you write. You are the only person who knows what you want to say in your book/poem/play/script or whatever, so it's up to you to make it clear.

The first stage of editing has a broad sweep. It looks at the structure of the piece, whether it is a poem, a novel, a picture book, a non-fiction book or anything else. Does the order and shape of the material work? Does it prioritise the things that need to be prioritised, whether to make sense or to give prominence to the things that are most important to you? Is there redundancy? Have you included things that are irrelevant, that draw attention unnecessarily from the main point, story or feeling? This doesn't mean expunge subplots; a relevant subplot is a look from another angle at the same or related issues. It puts the main plot into a wider perspective, or looks more closely at a detail of the theme, or considers it from a different perspective. A good subplot is not redundancy. It's this point at which you might add or remove a chapter, or a character or an incident, switch narratorial voice, or realise you are trying to cram two books into one, forcing irreconcilable parts together when they both need more space. Sometimes, sadly, you might decide the entire project is misconceived and can't be made to work. In an ideal world, you will have realised that before writing it, but we don't live in an ideal world. (I'm sure you've noticed that in 2020, even if you hadn't noticed it before.)

With luck, when you've made all the changes, you'll re-read and decide it's structurally fine. More likely, though, is that you'll find there have been knock-on effects from your changes and you need to tweak it a bit further. Don't skimp on this. There's no point in putting in the effort of the next stage if later your actual editor has you delete or rewrite huge chunks.

If you were looking at this manuscript as a publisher, there would be two further stages of editing, line editing and copy editing. As a writer, you can usually combine these — unless, perhaps, you have an issue such as dyslexia which means your work needs extra scrutiny at the level of fine detail. I leave that to your discretion; you know your capabilities. I'm going to treat it as one stage, which is what I do with my own work, but I then add a final proofreading read-through that looks for things like missing commas and all that shit.

This is where we come — finally — to choosing your words carefully. Writing for young readers, your principal aims should be clarity and simplicity. We could add precision to this, though I tend to see that as an aspect of clarity. What counts as clear and simple depends on the age of your reader and the level of knowledge you expect them to have. Sometimes, there seems to be a conflict between these aims and elegance of expression or extra meaning or resonance. It's a balance you need to negotiate sentence by sentence, word by word. But beware of thinking your deathless prose is worth a great deal of effort on the part of the reader: it isn't, and some of them will give up. You are writing to amuse or inform them, not to show off the long words you know and how well you can hold onto the tangled thread of an out-of-control sentence. This is easiest to understand with examples. Here's part of a sentence I agonized over this week:

'They sought metals and minerals in the rocks and dug them out to make weapons and jewellery.'

The tricky word is sought. Could and should I use a simpler, more familiar word? There are two conflicting approaches to this. Firstly, many children relish new words, and new words are useful. The National Curriculum encourages expanding a child's vocabulary. Sought is a useful word, and is the curious past participle of 'seek'. (Do you want to know why? In Old English, past participles were often formed by changing the vowel sound — so we have 'saw' from 'see', for instance. OE also often adds 'ed' or 't' to the end. If you take 'seek' and change it to 'soukt' it comes out exactly as 'sought' was pronounced 1000 years ago, but we no longer pronounce the 'gh'.) But at the same time, there are full guidelines on the order in which phonemes are introduced to a child developing their reading skills. Although relatively common, 'ought' is quite tricky. Allied with an unfamiliar word, that might cause some readers to stumble. We don't want stumbling — this book is for their enjoyment, not an exercise in developing reading skill.

What are the alternatives? I could say they 'looked for' metals and minerals, or I could just say 'they dug metals and minerals from the rock to make weapons and jewellery', which is shorter. 'Looked for' is so common a formulation it won't be seen by the reader. This is often what we want — that the words are effectively invisible, that the meaning is instantly apparent, like pebbles in a clear stream. (The words are the water, obscuring nothing if you've got it right.) But 'sought' requires pause and processing. It suggests and reflects a bit of the effort of prehistoric people seeking metals and minerals. It's not just looking, which is a visual act. It's hewing away dirt and rock with a primitive stone or metal tool in the heat of the midday sun or in a howling gale, a snowstorm, skin-drenching fog, or whatever. Sought is an effort for the seeker. Perhaps it's fair if it's also an effort for the reader. This is not reducing the clarity — it's still clear water, but now the water is flowing more quickly over the pebbles and we're seeing them in an environment rather than alone.

Do you have to do this for every word, every sentence? In a word, yes. But it becomes automatic, and you should be doing it as you write the first time eventually. 

It's not just word choice. It's also word order, sentence length, sentence structure and voice. Earlier in this post I wrote:

'More likely, though, is that you'll find there have been knock-on effects'

I wouldn't use this structure in a children's book. I'd say:

'It's more likely that you'll find...'

It's easy to see why I wouldn't use the first formulation for children. But what does it add here? Is it just pointless obfuscation? It has these effects:

The rhythm is much slower, throwing emphasis onto 'more likely' so that you pay attention: this is what's going to happen, so listen. 'Though' slows it further and signals a reversal in the argument.

'It' is not in the sentence, throwing focus onto 'you'. I prefer this as what is 'it' here? It's an implied likelihood, which doesn't make for a very interesting subject. We could rewrite it as: 

'The likelihood is that you will find...'

It's accurate but dull, stilted and impersonal, trying not to pay attention to 'you'.

As literate adults, we can read any of these formulations easily. For a child, 'It is likely' is by far the easiest to understand. The slight benefit of the nuance the other offers is not sufficient to over-rule clarity and simplicity this time

What about sentence length? It's tiring to read lots of long sentences. It's also irritating to read lots of very short sentences. It gets boring. It's too jerky. The solution is to vary sentence length, with some sentences having subordinate clauses to make them more interesting. But for children, the subordinate clauses shouldn't be too long, or nested, and they shouldn't withhold the point of the sentence for too long as they [who? we've forgotten] can lose track. Indeed, adult readers will also lose track if you make them keep a first clause in mind for ages while you ramble on. Look at this:

'It is, without doubt, and especially when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one thought while navigating another, subordinate, thread, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses.'

We can use colour to show how the parts are linked:

'It is, without doubt, and especially when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one train of thought while navigating another, subordinate, thread, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses.'

There are five levels of clause here. That's waaaaay too many. You can read the red bits without the rest and it makes sense. (If you can't do that, the sentence has gone awry.) The other bits can be split into separate sentences that qualify the main thought. If we want to keep everything, it's still possible to do it much more simply:

'It is, without doubt, very inconsiderate to tax the attention of your reader with nested subordinate clauses. This is especially true when writing for children, who are new to the idea of keeping in mind one thought while navigating a subordinate thread.'

And finally... keep it as short as it reasonably can be. This means dropping unnecessarily wordy formulations that add nothing but are just lazy. Or that you used because you thought you were going to struggle to write enough words. Or that you used because you think the subject is a bit scary and you want to put lots of familiar stuff in:

'Chlorophyll is responsible for the green colour we see in plant leaves.'

What's wrong with 'Chlorophyll makes leaves green'? Nothing. The writer has added the waffle to find an opportunity to draw the reader in ('we see'), and just to dilute the potentially scary 'chlorophyll'. But children don't share your fear of chemistry and they wouldn't have chosen this book if they did. And 'plant leaves'? What else has leaves? There are no animal leaves. It's redundant.

I could write a lot about voice, but this is too long already, so just a quick paragraph to prove I haven't forgotten about it. Up the page I said I 'look out for missing commas and all that shit'. I wouldn't write that in a book. The (real) editor wouldn't like it. What does it do here? It suggests that you know what to look for so I don't need to enumerate 'all that shit'; it reinforces the informality of a blog — this isn't a lesson in editing that you will be tested on later, it's my take on it and it's not authoritative or comprehensive. This kind of phrasing directs your reading by setting your expectations. It also conveys personality. Different books allow different degrees of authorial personality. Obviously a memoir is almost entirely personality. A text book has very little, usually none. And if you're writing a novel, you will use voice to convey the personality of your narrator and characters. Consistency in voice is important. It's confusing if the 'person' speaking to you switches personality part way through the book (unless that's deliberate for some reason). So edit for consistency and plausibility.

And don't be too long-winded, like this... It takes work to make something short — put the work in. Don't be lazy. No reader owes you their time. You have to earn it, and reward them generously by having put in the effort they deserve.

Anne Rooney

Latest(ish) book: Our Extreme Earth, Lonely Planet, September 2020


Sunday, 9 August 2020

Crumbling pyramids - Anne Rooney

Pyramid of Userkaf, Egypt
Rubble of the crumbled pyramid of Userkaf, founder of the Fifth Dynasty, Egypt

I was going to write about eyes in picture book illustration today, but instead I'll respond to Keren's post yesterday about her struggles working from home. We are all experiencing the pandemic in different circumstances, but what seems consistent among writers is the inability to write. Concentration is, as Keren, says gone. 

Keren has described the difficulty of finding time and space to write when there are too many demands on her time and too many people expecting things of her. For me, there have been too few demands on my time and too few people expecting things of me. It's hard to be locked in with four people you can't escape, however much you love them, for months. It's also hard to be locked in alone for months. I would have expected to be good at lockdown: I already technically lived alone (as of October last year) and I already worked from home — though in fact most days I chose to work in Cambridge University Library, and had my grand-daughter, MB, here about three nights a week as her parents both work shifts. With the library closed and MB locked down 2 km away, I had plenty of time and space. Deserts of time and space. A chance, it seemed, to catch up and then catch my breath, and then work on projects I really wanted to work on. 

But no. Projects were cancelled or suspended, so there was little work that needed doing. And it turns out those demands on time and attention — other people, and even chores like shopping for food — provide the structure in which creativity and concentration flourish. Even if normal life is a struggle, it's a known struggle, with its own patterns of difficulty and paths to resolution. Novelty is exhausting. It didn't help that I was already in state of reduced concentration as my mother died at the end of last year and MB and family had only just moved out. I still hadn't adjusted to daily solitude when it became absolute. I'm not sure it would have made much difference if the pandemic had come a year later, though: it's the disruption of the systems we have come to operate within that is the problem. We can concentrate on writing when we don''t have to re-invent the mechanisms of everyday life on an ongoing basis. 

Concentration, I think, has been destroyed by doubt and by the emotional energy it now takes to get through the day. There is the constant, overwhelming worry — about the virus, about relatives and friends who might be suffering mentally or physically, about crashing businesses and future prospects, about the world  and all its other problems — then there is the effort taken to manage things that we had systems for. We have to concentrate on getting food, on parcelling out space in the house or negotiating its emptiness, on managing problems that would normally be minor, such as getting a washing machine fixed or replaced, or seeing the doctor about a worrying symptom. 

I am lucky that I have had some commissioned work over the last months, though far less than usual. I thought I would be able to start new things on spec but I have neither the focus nor the confidence to do it. I have frittered away lockdown doing the garden and reading too much stuff on news sites and Facebook. No grand opus. Of the books I'd hope to write, one needs physical access to a library, so that's out. One needs selling to a publisher before I go further with it, but publishers are not very active. The one I could be working up into a decent outline, I'm not happy with. There is no spark to it, no vitality because there is no spark or vitality in me at the moment. It would be a dead book, a pandemic-scarred book. I'd rather leave it untouched and unsullied until it can be written better.

All the writers I have spoken to have found focus has gone and it makes writing impossible, or almost so. We just have to accept that these are strange times and that the way daily life demands our concentration means there is none left for creativity. It's not even the same as the personal difficulties and trauma that can spark creativity, because our focus is not spent on a big challenge, such as dealing with heartbreak or surviving cancer; for most of us, it is eroded by concentrating on getting food into the house, cleaning everything that comes in, marshalling masks and gloves and sanitiser for trips to the shop,  managing dwindling money supplies or caring for distant but shielding relatives. These gnaw away at our energy and concentration even if we seem to have too little to do rather than too much. Renegotiating the fabric of life leaves no space or energy for creativity.

We could look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs and see where it all goes wrong. This, if you're not familiar with it, is a (partially discredited) psychological model of motivation devised by Abraham Maslow in 1943. He proposed that people need to have basic needs met before they can achieve 'self-actualization'. 


Self-actualization is essentially becoming the person you want to become, focusing on the things that are important to you. That can be creative endeavour, such as writing or music or painting, or sporting achievement or being a great parent or a successful CEO, or a committed activist. We each define it for ourselves.  Maslow argued that we can't do this if certain needs (eg for food and safety) are not met. Most people in the world are never in a position to achieve self-actualization. He divided the foundational needs into 'basic' (the bottom two layers) and 'psychological'. It's a bit dodgy, as many great artists and activists have achieved much while living in danger of starvation or persecution, but for many of us, it's fairly true. Another valid criticism is that Maslow derived his pyramid of needs working from the historical biographies of people he considered self-actualized and, unsurprisingly for a male Jewish American in 1943, they were mostly white and male. But criticisms aside, if we look at it now, it seems that for many of us the pyramid has collapsed.

Speaking personally, I'd say only the bottom layer is anywhere near intact, and for a lot of people even that isn't secure any more. For all of us it is shaky. The very air is a virus-laden threat; food can be hard to come by, especially if you can't get out and can't get a delivery slot; our sleep may be shot to bits; if you can't pay your rent, shelter is not secure. Reproduction is probably not a good option right now, either. 

The next layer, safety needs, has crumbled entirely for the whole population — indeed, for the population of the entire world. Love and belonging are hard to maintain if you are completely separated from some people and/or forced into too much proximity with others, not allowed the space to be different or heal disputes. Esteem slides away because we aren't achieving and because it rests heavily on reflection of other's approval which we aren't getting because we aren't interacting with others, and everyone else is also too busy struggling with their own collapsed pyramid. Of course, we are supporting each other remotely as well as we can. But not being able to meet up with a friend or neighbour to give or receive a hug, a cup of coffee, a reassuring pep-talk, leaves only the thinnest strand of support here.

Self-actualization is lost somewhere in the rubble of the other layers — unless you happen to be an ICU worker, and then you probably don't have time to read this blog. This is why we can't concentrate, why we aren't writing, so we should stop beating ourselves up about it.

Perhaps we need to build a new pyramid, as this pandemic is not going away any time soon, whatever jollying-along politicians might say. Building a pyramid, as any Ancient Egyptian could tell you, is long and arduous process.

Source unknown, sorry; if it's your copyright get in touch and I'll add a credit or remove it


Anne Rooney

Occasional blog: The Shipwrecked Rhino

Currently writing: You Wouldn't Want to be in a Pandemic! (Salariya, 2020)

Thursday, 9 July 2020

A personal history of ignorance - Anne Rooney

Formation of the Moon, giant impact hypothesis; image from NASA

"There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know."
Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of State for Defence, 2002

Lockdown learning must have revealed a lot of known and unknown unknowns to beleagured parents. How we deal with the questions we can't immediately answer is important — perhaps more important than those we can answer.

When I was little, I knew that if I wanted to ask something like 'why does a magnet pick up metal but not leaves?' or 'why is there skin on custard?', I should ask my dad. I was lucky; he was a scientist. If I wanted to ask why I had to drink a cup of tea, I knew my mum's answer was going to be that I would be a social pariah if I didn't learn to drink tea. *wave to your local social pariah*. Some questions had no real answer 'Because I said so.' 'Because that's how things are.' And a few allowed some scope for experimentation. 'Why don't we eat ants like anteaters?' 'You are free to eat ants and find out.' (Even crystallised with sugar in a hot oven, British ants are not worth eating.)

To factual questions, the answer was sometimes 'I don't know.' We had a set of encylcopaedias in which many things could be looked up, but obviously only the things that encyclopaedists expected people to want to look up. I don't recall there being an entry on the untastiness of British ants. We had a library, but it was not close enough to go to without a car, so was a Saturdays-only venue for exploration. Unless the question arose on Saturday morning, it would have been forgotten by the time we got to the library. The library wasn't really an ignorance-sink until I was at secondary school and had a decent school library on hand.

Some questions don't have a definite answer. My mum believed in God; my father didn't. That quickly revealed that there are questions that even knowledgeable grown-ups disagree about. I didn't twig then that actually there is an answer but the answer can't be determined with objective certainty. The notion of grades of unanswerability lay ahead of me. But the existence of God fell into a group of questions where different people gave different answers. Then there are questions that no one could even suggest an answer for, such as 'why does 'cat' mean cat and not dog?' And then there were questions that people just refused to answer, such as 'why do we have to go to the family planning clinic? what happens there?' (I had to sit in the car with my father and brother during these visits; my mum couldn't drive and there was no other way to get there.)

On reflection, eating ants was a critical point. It showed that ignorance is an opportunity rather than a limitation. I could find out for myself. This wasn't the same as those experiments where you find out whether wood or stones float or sink. The person directing the enquiry knows the answer. You know they know the answer. What's more, they know why wood floats, and you know they aren't going to tell you. (That reminds me, I promised to show MB a floating stone. Must do that this morning.) You can't look up why we don't eat ants. And I'm sure in a famine people would eat ants. In case you are wondering, not only are they rather lacking in taste, you have to expend a great deal of effort to catch and cook enough ants to find out. There's probably an energy deficit in ant consumption here.

Despite all these obvious gaps in my knowledge, I grew up and went to university. The person who interviewed me said he had never seen such a bad entrance paper in two of the categories. This was a bit of a blow, as I still thought not knowing things was bad. School exams suggest that. But he said that he could see I had potential as I'd done very well in the one that he thought mattered, so I could come anyway. (I know, that wouldn't happen now. This was the early, uncoordinated, version of trying to address equality of opportunity. I do now wonder why they bothered even setting the papers that didn't matter. Perhaps views on which mattered varied.) Here, ignorance was not just the opportunity to eat ants but to find out stuff. A gap that could be filled, and there would be pleasure, discovery and achievement in the filling it. Another turning point came with my PhD supervisor, who once said, "You don't need to know everything. You need to know the people who do know things." You need to know who to ask. A PhD itself is an exercise in finding a gap in knowledge and filling it. The gap is the most important bit. We need ignorance or we can't do any original research.

By the time my children were growing up, things had moved on a bit. We could get to libraries and by the time they were at school there was Yahoo to look up answers to many things. But the idea that all questions are answerable with certainty is dangerous. (As we now see every day in the viciousness of twitter.) I encouraged them to think about questions that can't be easily answered. My older daughter's favourite book at six was the DK introduction to philosophy. I remember telling her in Waitrose I would buy biscuits if she could prove the biscuits existed. (She got biscuits; I wasn't very rigorous as long as she made a good attempt.)

Their primary school was excellent. It valued knowledge and ignorance. When the Iraq war was imminent, the older one went into school and asked about it. Not convinced she was getting a good answer, the next day she took in maps she had printed out and asked each teacher separately to show her where Iraq was. Few knew. Some teachers were annoyed; they didn't like their ignorance being found out. The good ones investigated with her (or actually knew where Iraq was).

And so to now. MB asks me where the Moon came from. I explain to her. We make an Earth and a Theia out of play-do and make them collide. We tear Theia and a chunk of Earth into pieces and then form the Moon out of the bits. She asks if Theia was hot or cold. I don't know. I ask a friend on Facebook with a PhD in astrophysics. We agree that as a rocky planet it should be cold. But as a very early planet it was probably geologically active and so should be hot. Hot or cold? The question heads off from a six-year-old in East Anglia to be asked around the astrophysics world. You don't need to know everything; you just need to know the people who do. Or you need to know the people who know who to ask. If I didn't know Helen, I could have asked on Twitter, with the right hashtags. Someone would know (though then we have the issue of assessing the reliability of the source, which is another matter). The point is not whether she will get an answer, but that the ignorance is productive itself. 

In the late 19th century, the professor of physics in Munich, Philipp von Jolly, told Max Planck not to become a physicist because all physics was known; there were no opportunities for discovery. Planck went on to reinvent physics with quantum theory. What could von Jolly's ignorant certainty have cost physics? Never underestimate the unknown unknowns. Any parents alarmed at the ignorance home learning has revealed — that ignorance is possibly the best bit. It's food for the enquiring mind. Children are excited by questions grown-ups can't answer. You should be excited by questions you can't answer.

Last night, less than ten hours after staging the formation of the Moon in play-do, MB had a message from school saying she had to attend a Teams class meeting and present some of her home learning. 'But I haven't done any!' she wailed. How do I answer that? I don't know.

Anne Rooney
Blog: The Shipwrecked Rhino: a wunderkammer
Latest book (as far as I know):
An Animal Park Keeper, HarperCollins, 2020

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

What has the past ever done for us? Anne Rooney

For a long time, I have wanted to write a book about the shameful roots of the UK's success — indeed the whole edifice of western culture. Of course, no publisher wants such a book for children; it undermines the national curriculum view of Britain and it has only a UK market. No one wants (or wanted, until this week) to admit that much of the wealth of Europe rests on slavery. (Though remember that Western Europe was already dominant and rich before slavery; the USA's wealth has slavery as its bedrock. We need to look further back, at other abuses, too, to understand Europe. We have a long history of criminal treatment of others.) No one wants to know that the entire American space mission and much of its technological success is built on whisking Nazi scientists away from Germany at the end of the Second World War and giving them immunity in exchange for their ideas and expertise. No one wants to know about the atrocities committed in Imperial India or colonial Africa, or how Europeans, possibly deliberately, infected indigenous Americans with diseases that would wipe them out, and certainly did nothing to prevent it, because it was a quick and easy way of freeing land from its troublesome owners.

Keren David said here yesterday that she didn't learn about slavery in school. I did, though I grew up in white rural England. And not only slavery. In ways that weren't apparent at the time, I was lucky to go to a large comprehensive (one of the first) with a very mixed intake. (Socially but not ethnically mixed; there were few pupils who were not white.) Even luckier, there was no national curriculum and the headmaster and his wife, who also taught there, were both historians. 

Our history began with anthropology, and how modern humans first emerged in Africa. The first picture in my history exercise book, drawn when I was eleven, was of a naked black man standing behind a rock and throwing a spear at an animal he wanted to eat. We did not do the Stone Age as white people wearing furs and living in caves. (I would now take issue with the idea that men were always the hunters, but no matter.) History didn't start with Romans; it started in Africa, with prehistory. Then we did Mesopotamia before we did Egypt, before we did a tiny bit on the Greeks and then quite a lot on Romans because it's easier to inspire a bunch of 12-year-olds to make a model gladiatorial sword or Colesseum than to get them to write a tragedy or establish a democracy — though we did have a democratic school council.

We did Saxons and Vikings, of course, and the Middle Ages and then all the usual Tudor stuff. I don't remember how those parts were presented as they have been overlaid by what I have done since, though there was a fair bit of plague death and emancipation of serfs. But then we did slavery, beginning with the terrible conditions in slave ships, and we did the Industrial Revolution with a major focus on abuse of the urban poor. We learned about England's part in the shipping of slaves. We did no American history except the plantations. We did abolition. I think we mostly stopped there, because the GCE curriculum started at 1848 so we would get enough of modern Europe. Britain didn't feature heavily in GCE, but it was all revolutions and wars: unification of Italy and Germany, Franco-Prussian war. A little bit about colonialism in Africa, but only as it fed into European conflicts. The First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, and a tiny look ahead at the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism, but only as consequences of Versailles. A fair amount on Russia, the overthrow of the monarchy, the Bolsheviks, the rise of Communism. No mention of 1918 flu. No mention of the USA, Australia, India, the Far East — except a lesson the Boxer Rebellion and the Opium Wars because that could be called European. This was a curriculum set by an exam board, no longer by an enthusiast who wanted his pupils to understand where they came from. (We did Florence Nightingale and the Crimean, the great London fogs, and the cholera epidemics, but i think that was in biology.)

My father was disappointed that I couldn't give the dates of key battles, that I didn't know all the kings and queens of England in order and that I knew more about the slaughter of North American Indians (bad thing to know) than the glories of Empire dominating Indian Indians (good thing to know). He felt it unpatriotic to highlight the bad things in our history, and this, I fear, is at the root also of how history is usually taught in this country (and probably many others).

If you mix history with patriotism, it seems, you have to miss things out. Your own glories are writ large. The defeat of the Nazis was no doubt a great and essential achievement, but we are not allowed to examine it too closely. We aren't allowed to point to the fire-bombing of Dresden or the starvation of post-war German civilians in Berlin and ask if we can learn something useful about avoiding so many civilian casualties in future (especially when the war was actually over). Why do people now talk of the 70-year peace in Europe, supposedly achieved by crushing the Nazis? Why do we have to have an unmitigated story of success? What peace? Why did Europe stand by and let Srebenica happen?  Where were those peace-proclaimers looking when Greece was ruled by the Generals? During the Portuguese revolution? While Ceaușescu, Tito and Hoxha killed their own nationals in vast numbers?  *While we killed our own citizens in Northern Ireland, ffs?* Our prosperity and our teaching of history are rooted in ignoring the people who aren't like 'us' — 'us' being privately-educated, rich, white men — and drawng a veil over our more shameful acts. Actually, it's even worse than that: sometimes, it's not even recognising the shameful acts for what they were, but glorifying them.

The picture at the top of this post hangs in the Houses of Parliament. It shows Elizabeth I delivering a commission to Raleigh in 1584 to go and steal the lands of the indigenous North Americans and slaughter or subjugate the inhabitants: 'to discover unknown lands, to take possession of them in the Queen's name, and to hold them for 6 years'. The painting is, like, Colston's statue recently toppled in Bristol, a product of empire and imperial pride, this one produced in 1925, 30 years after the statue. This is the sort of thing our MPs see on the walls, reinforcing — at best, not challenging — the idea that this was a Good Thing. It is in the series of works that, according to parliament's website, shows how our nation was built. Not even a hint of 'maybe it wasn't a good idea?' We now venerate the abolitionists (yes, they had their limitations, but still an improvement) and the suffragists, yet dare not, somehow, ask why they were needed and what that says about the events we glorify in 'building our nation'.

I don't claim any credit for knowing about slavery as a child. It was ENTIRELY down to good teaching. At the time, of course, I had no inkling how lucky I was, or that I had an amazing teacher, doing his best in a definitely very right-wing region to chip away at the carapace of complacency. I have recounted my patchwork of historical education only to show that if we can cover some of this, which is more important than the Battle of Trafalgar or some other white-men-kill-each-other history, maybe future children will look at such statues and paintings and ask why the hell we are venerating this shit? I was lucky — or was I privileged? I am very uncomfortable with the word 'privilege' as it's currently used, as it's lazy. I think it was a privilege to be taught by a humane, erudite, compassionate history teacher. If I had gone to a public school, I would have learned the invasion of America as a success story, not a violation that spawned further atrocities. In common parlance that would be considered 'privileged', yet I would consider it deprived — or deceived, lied to, misled, intellectually abused... We need to redefne privilege in a way that doesn't validate the views of the so-called privileged.

I'm not sure whether patriotism and honest history are really at odds. I would not say I am patriotic: I feel primarily European, so I'm not qualified to comment on nationalistic patriotism. But if patriotism is a kind of biggified local interest, it must surely benefit from forensic examination of its past, including — especially — the mistakes. We mustn't sweep them under the carpet. Or into the sea. Personally, I think the statue should be hauled out and left to moulder on the quay with a new plaque owning up to its disgraceful history. Or, as an archaeologist friend suggested yesterday, put in a museum, lying down, with its triumphant desecration intact and with a proper explanation. Out of sight is out of mind, all too soon. In sight, as we see with the painting of Gloriana's commission, is very much in mind.

If you feel that history should be taught more in this vein in the UK, there is a petition here you might like to sign.

Anne Rooney

Latest book (as far as I can tell, but who knows, these days?)
HarperColllins, May 2020:

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Pretending not to work from home - Anne Rooney

Old normal: in the UL
Most writers work from home all the time, so lockdown shouldn't make any difference, right?

Wrong. Apart from all the additional complications many of us face, from partners and children being around all day to the mental and emotional impact of total isolation, there is one important difference between now and Before All This: working FROM home has become working AT home. It's a very different kettle of fish.

New normal: actually at home
Although I officially work from home, for the last few years I've been working almost entirely in the University Library, which is a three-mile cycle ride away. I also like to work in cafes and on trains. I concentrate best when there is some bustle, and some noise I need to block out. Working from home actually *at* home is too quiet. I used to have Radio 4 on for background natter, but that's been too annoying and depressing for a long time, its gloom and doom too hard to ignore. Radio 4 leaches any residual calmness you might have retained and saturates you in misery; it's become a form of self-abuse.

Silence is too distracting, though. For the first few weeks, I'd leap to the window every time a bus came (there's a bus stop right outside), just so I could see some human beings. Usually, one human being — the driver. I listen too carefully for the birds — was that a cuckoo I just heard? The drone of traffic has been replaced by the almost-constant buzz of emergency helicopters (I live a mile from the largest hospital in Europe).

But last week I saw a link to a website that plays cafe background noise constantly. You can adjust the levels of chatter, kitchen noise, etc to suit your preferred cafe environment. My productivity has shot up since I've found this. It's cheaper than going to a cafe, too, at a cost of £0. But you do have to make your own coffee. Still, if you are finding that you can't work from home if you can't work in a cafe, this might help. I need someone to make a University Library simulator now.

Anne Rooney
Latest book, possibly, but who knows any more?
How to be an Eco-Hero

Hachette, 2020

Thursday, 9 April 2020

One plague or another... Anne Rooney

As Dawn said a few days ago, we all went into this lockdown with fine plans of writing new things. In my case, revamping an outline for a non-fiction book I'm keen to sell and doing some work on adult book that I'm not yet trying to sell as I don't have a clear vision of its shape. And improving my very poor German. Plus working on the few commissioned books that have not been put on hold. But aside from meeting deadlines, that's not what has happened. A good deal of gardening has happened. And a sudden desire to revive a novel I wrote some time ago and my then-agent couldn't sell because 'we don't want historical right now.' Historical in this case is the plague in Venice in 1576.

I found myself drawn back to the book with some enthusiasm for the first time in years. I know I can't be bothered with trawling it around publishers or agents again (I've parted company with my last agent) so it will rot in a drawer. I thought I might self-publish it as something to do. But then I got into an argument with a whole bunch of people on a publisher's website and now I'm not sure. They were denouncing the publication of a book set during a fictional pandemic as 'opportunistic' and 'profiteering' and 'making money out of people's misery'. Are they right? I don't think so. No one is being forced to buy this book set in a pandemic. Profiteering, surely, is making money by price-gouging essentials, such as soap or masks? If you don't want to read a story set in a pandemic, just don't. Personally, I am enjoying revisiting plague narratives now and recognising aspects of the lives described that were previously alien to my experience. Even revisiting a book I wrote myself, I am quite pleased to see that I correctly captured the feelings of self-isolation. (It's not really a book about plague, but plague is the backdrop and isolation and restricted movement are key aspects of it.)

If we believe that people want characters they can identify with rather than a homogenous white, straight, middle-class cast, don't we believe they also want situations they can identify with? And that might include living through a pandemic?

When I was first writing this novel I did worry that I was exploiting the misery of people long dead, and I lit a candle for the plague dead every time I visited Venice for research. But the thought that to publish it would be exploiting victims of the current pandemic had never occurred to me. What do you think? If someone publishes a book set in a plague/pandemic, is that reprehensible? And does it make a difference whether, as in the case of the dispute, the book is about a covid-like disease or something else? (The author of the disputed book wrote the book 15 years ago, so the disease is not a direct reference to covid-19.) Are you reading pandemic literature? I've been revisiting some and ordering some new dystopian fiction. I'm finding it helpful seeing this new aspect of life reflected in fiction. What about you?

Anne Rooney
Out now: How to be an Eco-Hero
Hachette, 2020

Sunday, 9 February 2020

A visit to Eerie-on-Sea


If there is anyone who still hasn't read Malamander, they really need to. Thomas Taylor's glorious middle-grade novel is set in the dreary seaside town of Eerie-on-Sea, which is the site of some seriously sinister goings-on. This week I was lucky enough to visit Eerie-on-Sea and meet up with Thomas, just back from his US book tour. The pretext was fossil-hunting, for which Eerie (AKA Eastbourne on the Sussex coast) is a fine spot — but not my usual spot, so I was very glad of Thomas's guidance. We spent a happy day trudging over pebbles and clambering over rocks in the February wind, wielding a hammer and staring at the ground.

Ravilious, Eastbourne. Far from the old-lday,
swirly carpet look I was dreading
Eastbourne was surprisingly pleasant, but I did get to see its Eerie side a little. I arrived Monday afternoon and immediately set off towards the fossiliferous end of the beach. Soon it was raining, a cold, grey mizzle that was slowly soaking me. As I rarely take much in the way of spare anything when travelling, I headed back towards the radiators to dry out my clothes. It was an Eerie-ish start. Every cafe I passed was closed. Even the cafes Google claimed were open were closed. The wind blew, the rain rained, the seagulls swooped like pteradactyls on the look-out for chips. I saw a sign for 'winter gardens' and thought that, at least, should be open in winter. But it was dilapidated and shut, the paint peeling off the once-ornate fretwork. I ended up in a chain coffee shop reading and wondering if there would be anywhere to get some dinner.

Beachy Head: not Eerie at all
The next day was brighter. After fossil-hunting, Thomas directed me to the pier (in the book) and the Victorian tea rooms (morphed into a fish-and-chip shop in the book) and a burnt-out hotel, also in the book. I walked back to the pier, which didn't disappoint, and saw a man next to the No Fishing sign throwing back a large flat fish. I asked him why he didn't want it, and he said it was too big for his frying pan. The Victorian tea rooms had an air of aspiring to run-down gentility. I suppose it could actually once have been genteel and was now run-down, but it didn't quite look genuine. I failed to have tea there as they had a £5 card limit and I had no cash and didn't want two cakes. They seemed quite glad I left;  my bedraggled, wind-blown appearance and large rucksack full of rocks were far from genteel. The burnt-out hotel was, well, burnt-out.
Edge of a large ammonite

I didn't see any monsters or find any villains. I saw a fox and two hares and a raven. But it got me thinking about the places books are based on and how as writers we build the place anew but embodying the essence of it more purely than the real place does. When, as readers, we visit the places that have been borrowed or transformed like this, they have an edge of instability. Think of the Venice of Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza novels or Michelle Lovric's Drowned Child, the Oxford of His Dark Materials, and the London of a hundred different books — all places transformed but recognisable. As you walk around there is a sort of shimmering of the Other City just beneath the surface or around the corner. You half expect to see it, but know you won't. It's too good at hiding, but somehow feels more real than the public face.

Places are enriched by this transformation, given new depth and allure. I had never been to Eastbourne before and my expectations were based on Eerie-on-Sea. Although the town didn't match it, I could see it there, in the broken winter gardens, the bored seagulls, the driving rain and the closed cafes. There's a kind of intimacy created by visiting somewhere that has been written about by someone who really knows the place, can see into its heart and knows its darker side. I felt I knew its secrets, that this face it presents to the world, if we scratched the surface, would reveal its villains and monsters and adventures. What lurks beneath the swirly carpets?

Thank you, again, Thomas, for a great day. Can't wait for Malamander book 2 in May!

Anne Rooney
Out now, Lonely Planet:

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Reading, reading, reading by Vanessa Harbour

This post was inspired by reading Anne Rooney’s recent blog about her journeys on the bus and how she is using the time to read all sorts of books that she WANTS to read. It made me think – a lot.

It is said you can’t be a writer unless you are a reader. This is something I tell my students frequently, particularly if they comment on how long the reading list might be. I have had some very serious discussions about whether they should be reading a hardcopy (you can make notes in the margin!), an ebook – again you can sort of make comments, or as so many of them do now, listen to the audiobook. I confess I am not convinced about this when trying to analyse a text and trying to explore it critically. But there again, maybe I am a dinosaur.

I spend a huge amount of my time reading and I am not necessarily talking books here. The very nature of the jobs outside my writing means that I need to read reams and reams of pages created by
A selection of work books
my students or the writers I work with. All of which require consideration and feedback, so they are not read to relax. Some can be thoroughly enjoyable, so it is not an issue to read them, others… well... It is not just manuscripts that I need to give feedback on that I read. I also read a lot of books that relate to my work. Not all of which I would choose to read given a choice.

I am also in the lucky position to be sent quite a few books by publishers to read just pre-publication. This is a wonderful opportunity and I love reading them. However, I am aware that I am reading them for a reason. I need to shout about them, to give the writer’s a well-earned nudge in the publicity stakes. We all know how hard it is to publicise your work when you’re an author.  All help is welcome.

What this does mean is that I rarely read just for me. Over Christmas I was thinking about this as I deliberately made the effort to read a couple of books that interested me: Damian Barr’s You Will Be Safe Here and Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew. Both books that I had heard a lot of good feedback on, plus I am a great fan of Damian’s Literary Salon podcast, so wanted to read some of his writings. These books relate to nothing I am working on currently. At first, it was hard because I felt guilty. Mad, I know. But I thought I ought to be reading things connected with work. I realised I needed to stop thinking like this, as Anne did for her bus journey, reading books I want to read plus maybe revisiting some old friends could be part of my own self-care.

Reading is so important. We know in children that reading can encourage empathy. Empathy is a key element of emotional intelligence, and part of helping children to appreciate others. I think this can apply to adults too. Reading a book is a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes. To view the world through their eyes. It makes you stop and think. As a writer, it is a wonderful habit to get into as it helps you realise what works for you and what doesn’t. You can then endeavour to apply that to your own writing. Books can be inspirational; they allow you to escape into another world while your brain continues with its latent processing. I often find that the solution to a plot problem will come to me while I am reading. I am sure it is because I am not thinking about it. I acknowledge that the same can happen when ironing or while in the shower or driving.

Revisiting some favourite
My plan this year, which was further inspired by Anne’s post, is to read more that is for me and not connected to work. I plan to try and read a couple of books a month that are my choice. Reading for pleasure. I need to remember this is allowed. These will be both adult and children’s books as I believe in the importance of reading broadly. It is vital not to read only one genre. Push the boundaries, read something outside your comfort zone, it can inform your writing. I will add a caveat, if a book does not hold my attention after a few chapters, I will not fight to the end.  Life is definitely too short to read books you don’t enjoy – I have to do enough of that already!

How about, like Anne, we all challenge ourselves to read more books for ourselves. Happy Reading!

Dr Vanessa Harbour

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Of books and buses - Anne Rooney

In answer to Keren David's post yesterday about where you work — usually in the University Library in Cambridge, though not from necessity as I have plenty of writing spaces at home. The University Library is relatively distraction-free, apart from the Tea Room. Usually I cycle there, but having hurt my knee last summer, and seen no improvement, I decided to give up cycling for a couple of months and see if that helps. So I'm buying weekly bus passes for £15 and have become a bit of a bussybody.

Two outcomes of being a bussybody: I do a lot more walking and a lot more reading! Walking, because buses only stop at bus stops whereas my bicycle goes door to door. Reading because it takes 30 mins each way, and more if the traffic is bad. This is fabulous. It adds around 5 hours a week to my reading time. And I decided right at the start that it wasn't going to be work reading, but anything I wanted to read. I've only been a bussybody for about four weeks and already I've read some new and old novels I wouldn't have got around to otherwise.

With more reading time, I'm less fussy about what I'll read. I've picked up some books lying unread around the house (usually from under the library shelves) that never appealed enough to be prioritised. But more often I buy new books, most often from Foyles in Waterloo Station. I love that little Foyles. It's small but well curated and I usually have at least 20 mins in Waterloo on the way to see my dad. I've found some wonderful things. In fact, the reading-on-buses thing started in September when I was going everyday to the hospital where my mum was dying. As a child, reading in a car or bus made me feel sick, but I found it didn't any longer. Hurrah! A bonus of getting older!
Favourite bus reads so far have been:

John Lancaster's The Wall, a dystopian clifi:

Creepy Gothic Wakenhyrst by the totally talented Michelle Paver, extra suitable as it's set in the Fens, just outside my bus route:

And the latest, which I'm part way through, is The Binding, the first adult novel by  YA author Bridget Collins. And it's absolutely brilliant.

Bus-reading can be a bit frustrating. You have to stop when the bus gets to your destination, no matter how engrossed you are. But to have that extra half hour, morning and afternoon, to read, when it's not possible to spend the time doing anything else, is wonderful. The benefits of a hurt knee... not sure whether I'll go back to cycling every day when it's better as the reading routine of being a bussybody has become so precious.

Any recommendations for bussybody reading?

Anne Rooney
Out now:
Animal Atlas, Lonely Planet

Monday, 9 December 2019

Leopardness and crocodilehood - Anne Rooney

There's a lot of very beautiful non-fiction books around at the moment; you will definitely be able to choose something fantastic as a Christmas gift for any small readers you know. What makes them beautiful is largely the illustrations. In fiction, pictures serve the demands of the story, which has its own challenges, but in non-fiction they do a harder job. They negotiate between demands that often pull in different directions: mediating objective reality, highlighting the message the text is focusing on and at the same time acknowledging what we don't yet know.

In the 1990s, Dorling Kindersley reset the bar for illustrated non-fiction with its iconic design of text wrapped around cut-out, high quality photos against a white background. It was the age of digital photography and photo-editing and the world was their oyster. We could show child readers exactly what something looks like in real, including an oyster.

DK Eyewitness Ocean

Close on the heels of photography came CGI: even things that we can't actually photographed could be presented as though they had actually been photographed. It gave us images of the inside of the Earth, the surface of distant planets and dinosaurs. But hang on. Is this really legitimate? An adult will know the parameters: we don't have photos of the inside of a volcano and never could have; we don't have photos of extinct dinosaurs and never could have. A child doesn't know how much we know, how much we can say with some degree of confidence will look right in these images, and how much is artistic licence. Where does non-fiction stop and fiction begin in an image like this CGI terror bird fighting wolves?

Titanis v. wolves, National Geographic
Today, photos are two-million-a-penny and you can see a video on YouTube of anything you can imagine, either real or CGI'd. That kind of realism has rather lost its grabbiness: unless the image is truly stunning, our attention slides over it. Kids are not easily impressed. On cue, illustrated non-fiction has rediscovered the power of illustration. Here things get interesting. Non-fiction is generally thought to be in the business of communicating the truth, showing facts (or at least consensus reality). Personally, I think its true business is getting readers to think about and question the truth and facts: this is what we think is true; why do we think this? how did we discover it? how certain is it? how could we test it? is there another explanation? The move towards illustration can support this much better than photography. But it's not a clear split, of course.

Some facts look indisputable. A chameleon has two toe: you can see them in a photo. Pretty clear, right?

No, a chameleon has five toes, but they are fused in two groups. You can see from the skeleton. Pretty clear, right?

Let's try that one again: how many toes does a chameleon have? It depends on how you define 'toes'.

Photography often closes off questions. A photograph has authority. CGI can be worse: it seems to have authority, but it can present as 'true' something that is our best-informed imagining (or even an ill-informed imagining, if the artist hasn't done their research). It has its uses.

These images are stills from a CGI rendering of the destruction of Pompeii by the volcano Vesuvius in AD79. It's pretty accurate in that we know exactly the behaviour of this type of volcano, the layout of Pompeii and the destruction evident in the ruins.

Video of destruction of Pompeii

Photorealism here makes it more immediate, more shocking — it packs a punch. We can imagine the terror of being caught in this.

On the other hand, CGI is obliged to visualize everything in a scene, even if it's not known — like the colour of a terror bird.

Artwork can highlight features in a way that photos can't. Photos are democratic: every feature gets the same shot at being noticed. Artwork comes into its own for creating an impression, or highlighting an aspect that is possibly lost in a photo. Here's an image from Shackleton's Journey (William Grill, Flying Eye, 2014):

Can you imagine an image that could convey the vast, bleak loneliness of Antarctica better than this? Antarctica not as it is now, with its colonies of researchers, but Antarctica when you are the only humans? No photo could give this view, or this sense of vulnerability.

Artwork can convey uncertainty, too. Here's an image from Dinosaur Atlas (illustrated by James Gilleard, Lonely Planet, 2017):

Here, the non-realistic style underlines the contingency of the information it contains. We know the shape and type of this dinosaur (Tuojongosarus), but we don't know exactly what it looked like. We certainly don't know what colour it was, and by showing it in improbable pyjama stripes, Gilleard highlights and plays with our ignorance. This image asks the child reader to imagine what colours dinosaurs were. If the dinosaur were shown in grey or green, the child wouldn't think about that question.

In the follow-up title, Animal Atlas, the subject is both more familiar and more known-about. A different illustrator was chosen, the pictures closer to reality. Children know what an elephant or a giraffe looks like and so do we. We don't need to make them wonder if perhaps they are blue, or whether they climb trees or make a nest. The artwork is more documentary, but here its aim is to give a kind of intensity to the essence of each animal. It wants to highlight what it means to be a leopard, a crocodile or an ant. The essence of leopardness is not found in how many toes it has but in the sleek, serene, confident pose and steady, direct of the apex predator, the beauty of the markings. The rounded feet, don't show the number of toes, or the claws, but get across the density of the fur on this animal that needs to keep warm in the freezing environment of the high Himalayas.

Crocodilehood is rooted in the gaping mouth with gleaming, scary teeth, carried through in the coldness of that yellow eye.

Animal Atlas, illustrated by Lucy Rose, Lonely Planet, 2019
Art in non-fiction walks a fine line between information and inspiration. It can't be wrong. It can't show the wrong number of toes, show an African elephant in India, or a South American snake in Africa. But it can take the real world and make it fizzles with super-reality, it can condense the wonder of its subject matter. And it can do this because it rests on the shoulders of decades of brilliant photography. We live in a world in which children know what things *look* like, so we have the opportunity to show them what they *are* like.

Buy a small person a beautiful non-fiction book this book Christmas — and choose one with illustrations that no only show facts but open up questions. Especially if the question is 'what would it be like to be a crocodile'.

Anne Rooney
Stroppy author

Lonely Planet, 2019

Sunday, 27 October 2019

The tiger who visited the past (again): by Anne Rooney

(At the moment, we don't have anyone posting on the 27th. So here again is one of our most popular posts, about one of our most popular children's books. Enjoy!)

Everyone knows this wonderful book.
Well, except its new readers. No one is actually born knowing the book.

I read it to my children in the 90s and we have the same copy still. Now I read it to my grand-daughter, MB, who also has her own copy, the 50th anniversary copy, signed by Judith Kerr—but I tend to read the shabby old paperback to her instead of the shiny, heavy hardback.

My daughters had no problem with this book, though it looked rather old fashioned. Today, it looks almost alien. It describes the childhood I had, and that's a world away from now.

If I could draw, this post would be much better. You'll have to put up with words and make the pictures in your head. But that's what writers and readers do, so it won't be a problem.
My grand-daughter's life is not the life of an absolutely typical 4-year-old. For one thing, she has only one toy with batteries: an Octonauts station. Most of her toys are either wooden or they're LEGO/Playmobil, a lot of it previously owned by her mother and aunt. She spends a good deal of time with someone who can't operate the TV, and is only allowed an iPad on aeroplanes. We walk to the supermarket a good deal. If there were a child whose life came close to that of Sophie, it's probably her. But still the book is stuffed with beguiling mysteries. I've added some mysteries that I imagine will strike some of MB's friends.

What are Sophie and her mum doing? They're having tea, with cakes and buns and sugar-laden stuff, before daddy gets home. Is this just her snack? Will she have pasta and pesto/chicken nuggets later? What's that brown jug with a lid the tea comes out of? How come Sophie's mum is sitting with Sophie at a table for her snack? Hasn't she got a job to go to? Has Sophie already got back from nursery/after-school club? Wouldn't she be watching something while she had her snack? Why are they eating such unhealthy food? And if that's what they eat, why aren't they a lot fatter?
[revised picture brief: Sophie is on the sofa eating breadsticks and hummous; her mum is on her iPhone; Sophie is watching TV or playing a game on the iPad]

Someone knocks on the door. What, no doorbell/entry phone? Who are these people it 'can't be'? What's a milkman? What's a grocer's boy? Can't they go to the supermarket like normal people? Why is Sophie allowed to answer the door on her own? And she lets a stranger in—doesn't she know better than that? If not, she shouldn't be opening the door. Her mum doesn't even tell her off.
[revised picture brief: Sophie's mum goes to buzz the Tiger in after checking it's not a canvasser for UKIP or a Jehovah's witness. Or a mugger]

Why do they think a tiger will eat buns? Haven't they ever seen Planet Earth? But we'll let that go as it is a story after all. They seem to have quite a strange kitchen with no microwave, dishwasher or washing machine. It's not clear what Sophie's mum is cooking but it takes a lot of pans. Why does the beer only belong to daddy? They have a lot of odd things in their cupboard and fridge... At least the recycling is piled up near the sink so they aren't total savages.
[revised picture brief: Sophie goes into the kitchen to microwave a ready-meal for the Tiger; the Tiger gets some apple juice from the fridge but ignores the beer, prosecco, wine and non-dairy milk]

Why is Sophie's mummy so distressed about not having any food for daddy? Can't he cook? Can't he use Deliveroo? Isn't there an all-night Tesco or an M&S local? Daddy comes home and he's wearing pretty odd clothes and a weird hat—why? Maybe he's a used-car dealer. Why does daddy think it's a brilliant idea to go out in the dark to a cafe? Is his phone out of battery? Why does he gaze into the distance while Sophie and her mummy tell him what's happened? He probably thinks they're covering up for something with an implausible tale, or they are the latest victims of the opiate crisis. But no matter, because there is a cafe that sells really unhealthy food nearby. What's wrong with the bus they go past? People can fall out of the back; it should be in the depot being fixed.
[revised picture brief: Daddy/muumy use the Deliveroo app to choose some food and all watch something on Netflix until it arrives]

At the cafe, why does daddy drink beer but Sophie and mummy have no drink at all? Well, it is the patriarchy.
[revised picture brief: They sit on the sofa with their Deliveroo delivery and play on their phones]

Why do they go to the shop with a basket on wheels to buy food? They can't live in too remote an area for a Tesco/Sainsbury/Ocado delivery because we've just seen their street. And wouldn't you have to order tiger food from Amazon? At least mummy is up to date with the plastic-bag pariahdom.
[revised picture brief: Daddy arranges an Ocado delivery while mummy and Sophie choose the best option on tiger food delivery]

But as one mrsflowerpot said on twitter in 2004, 'what kind of nutcase lets a tiger in anyway?'

Anne Rooney
Blog: The Shipwrecked Rhino
Latest book:
Dinosaur Atlas, Lonely Planet, 2017