Showing posts with label Ellen Renner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ellen Renner. Show all posts

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

One from the past - Diana Wynne Jones, by Ellen Renner

Well, you're not going to believe this - but Alex English's post is not going to appear today because yesterday, before she could put it up, her house was struck by lightning and she currently (!) has no wifi or power. We wish her luck in sorting this out, and in the meantime, I decided to seek out our most popular post ever, and put it up for your delectation and delight.

So here it is - from 2011, with a mahoosive 11,670 views, Ellen Renner, on Diana Wynne Jones. Enjoy.

Diana Wynne Jones: Best Loved Books - Ellen Renner



This post is a tribute to Diana Wynne Jones, who died last month. I discovered her books nearly fifteen years ago, just at the moment when I had realised I wanted to write for children, and promptly fell in love. She is my favourite of favourites; one of only half a dozen writers whose books I can re-read and enjoy as much each time. She could do it all: elegant prose, big themes, clever plotting. But a clever plot is mere problem solving. Magic rests in characters. That is a gift of imagination and ear. To write characters who live off the page, a writer has to become her characters as she writes, and no amount of intellect will make up for a deficit of empathy. Diana Wynne Jones understood pain. All her main characters are flawed or damaged, and that's what makes them interesting.

I knew it would be no simple task to pick only three books by Wynne Jones to write about here, and so it proved.

I have to start with Charmed Life, the first book of hers I read and still, probably, the one I love most. Charmed Life illustrates a repeated theme in DWJ: a young person in search of their identity, coming to terms with their unique gifts. The young Cat Chant, orphaned, bewildered and stubbornly gullible, must come to terms with who and what he is. Why is Cat such an attractive character? Wynne Jones revisited him twice more: in the deliciously dark novella, Stealer of Souls, and the long awaited sequel to Charmed Life, The Pinhoe Egg. In neither of these does she quite pull off the magic Cat has over the reader in his first outing. And that, I think, is because in the later stories he knows what and who and what he is. Cat's magic in his first adventure is that he is running from himself as fast as he can, and we wait with bated breath for his destiny to catch him up.

My second choice has to be Howl's Moving Castle. Here it is another orphan, Sophie Hatter, who in classic fairy tale mode sets out to seek her fortune. Like Cat Chant, Sophie seems almost wilfully blind to her magic ability, her identity, until forced to accept her powers. And again, it is this avoidance of the obvious, this refusal of talent, which drives both plot and characterisation. But the real star of the book is the slippery, vain wizard Howl (that ultimate slitherer-outer) who is, like Sophie, hiding from himself. In the turn-upon-twist denouement, a real tour-de-force of plotting, both hero and heroine are forced to accept their gifts and use them honestly.

It was difficult to choose a third title. So many vie for next loved: Dogsbody, Fire and Hemlock, The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Homeward Bounders, Deep Secret (and its sort-of sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy), Hexwood, Black Maria, The Ogre Downstairs and A Tale of Time City. I especially enjoy the fact that, although Wynne Jones revisits certain character types and themes, each book is different.

But in the end, I chose The Magicians of Caprona, partly because of one, perfectly realised scene. An enchantress known as the White Devil turns the two children, Tonino and Angelica, into a living Punch and Judy and they are forced to re-enact the puppet show, with all its violence, before an audience of adults, some knowing and some innocent of the children's true identities. This is sheer horror, a darkness of concept handled with perfection, not candy-coated but made acceptable to young readers because of the accuracy of her characterisation of her young hero Tonino. Throughout the book, his observations, reactions, emotions ring absolutely true for a boy of eight to ten, including a lovely messy cake-eating-in-front-of-adults scene (which I frankly stole and recreated in Castle of Shadows), girls-as-other, unthinking rivalry between clans. The Magicians of Caprona is a tour de force in point of view and voice from beginning to end.

Those are my three favourite books by Diana Wynne Jones. What are yours?



Saturday, 19 April 2014

It's Our Turn Now! Celebrating Project #UKYA - Lucy Coats


If you haven't already heard about it, I'd like to introduce you to Project UKYA, set up in September 2013 by Lucy Powrie, a teenage Force for Good, and a manic bibliophile. Essentially, Lucy has come up with the brilliant idea of blowing the trumpet loudly and publicly for UK Young Adult authors and their books, with a different 'project' happening each month. Right now there's a marvellously wide-ranging series of chats going on on Twitter under the hashtag #ukyachat. People are sharing books they love, and talking about different aspects of UKYA. Next month a new longterm project launches - a monthly (to begin with) 'livechat' on YouTube, talking about the latest UKYA releases, discussing UKYA books and much more, including special guests and author Q and As.

Why does this matter? It matters because YA from the US has held the balance of power in the public perception of YA for far too long. While the likes of Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments have all sold millions of copies and had films made in a relatively short time after publication, UK YA authors have been lagging behind in terms both of sales and of international recognition. We need to try and change that, because the pool of UK writing talent is immense, and yes, I'm going to say it, just as good if not better than anything coming out of America. All of us who care about books and reading need to work together to get the word out there to YA readers about just how good British books are at the moment.



This is absolutely not to denigrate US writers - I'm very excited currently about Laini Taylor and Sarah J Maas's forthcoming titles, among others. It's just that I'm equally excited - or more so - about Clare Furniss's Year of the Rat, Keren David's Salvage, Teri Terry's Shattered, Claire McFall's Bombmaker, Ruth Warburton's Witchfinder, Gillian Philip's Icefall, Ellen Renner's Tribute, James Dawson's Cruel Summer, Candy Gourlay's Shine and the new film of Anthony McGowan's The Knife that Killed Me. And that's just touching the surface of what's out there right now. I could spend the rest of this post just making a list of great UKYA books and writers (don't worry, I won't).



So, really what I'm asking you to do here is to support Project UKYA. Follow it on Twitter and take part in the chat, join its Facebook page, read and comment on the blog - but above all, spread the word about its existence to everyone you know who loves good books. UKYA books and authors deserve to be known and celebrated all over the world - let's be the pebbles which start the avalanche.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

9 - Ellen Renner on the politics of the library


Ellen Renner, Author of Castle of Cards
Some of the best posts on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure are probably planned well in advance, but sometimes a spontaneous response to a current event can be an absolute diamond...

... like our ninth most viewed post, my editorial colleague Ellen's reaction to a report that a well-known poet and broadcaster had been banned from a library:

Keeping Politics out of the Library: Aristotle Would Not Be Amused - Ellen Renner

See you at 11.00 for number 8!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

That Delicate Thing Called Confidence by Ellen Renner

I knew I shouldn't do it, but I couldn't resist. 


I don't know if I'm unusual in this respect, but I tend to avoid reading fiction when writing a first draft. Partly, I don't want to be influenced by someone else's voice or ideas, swept away into someone else's world when I need to be thinking about mine. Building a story,  breathing life into a concept and creating characters, is a treacherous process, hemmed round with dangers and pitfalls. One mis-step and a shiny idea you've cherished for months or years can turn sullen and lifeless.


Also, I already have a problem with displacement activities. I don't need the seductiveness of story to provide me with yet another excuse to avoid bum on chair/fingers on keyboard/brain switched on. (The last being by far the hardest.) And because proper thinking - really digging deep - is hard work, I find that confidence (or the lack of it) makes all the difference.


So confronting someone else's utter brilliance while struggling through the thicket of angst that is my typical first draft isn't something I find helpful. But Oxford University Press had kindly arranged for me to appear at the 2012 Hay Festival earlier this month to promote CHARMED SUMMER, the first book in a series for 8-12 girls. I spent last year writing four books about friendship and mystery on a summer island. It's been a total delight working with the team at OUP and with Working Partners on the Flip Flop Club concept. I've enjoyed the collaboration, learned a great deal, and am very proud to have been involved. The books are lovingly produced by OUP and, as I'm sole author, I'm promoting them under the psuedonym Ellen Richardson, to keep them distinct from my own books.




So here I was at Hay for the first time in my life, rather in awe and very impressed. The festival was extremely well organised and they certainly look after the 'artists' beautifully. Even the porta-loos are posh! So impressive was the whole event that I found myself surprised the weather had the temerity to rain, although monsoon might be a better description. However, on the last Saturday the rain stopped and the sun almost shone. Better yet, directly following my session, I and my son were able to trundle off to hear Philip Reeve talk about his new book, GOBLINS. Which is, of course, brilliant. As was the session. I knew it would be. I shouldn't have gone but I couldn't resist.


All indulgences must be paid for in this life it seems, and I began paying the price at once. With each delightful, clever and elegantly written extract that Mr Reeve read out, a niggling little voice in the back of my head grew louder: 'You will NEVER be able to write anything half so good. Why try? Give up now.'


I think all writers, perhaps even Mr Reeve himself, have a similar goblin inhabiting the darkest recesses of their minds. One with a nasty, whining voice which takes considerable determination (or sheer stupidity?) to ignore. I tend to avoid circumstances likely to wake mine. I've been waiting ages to read FEVER CRUMB. I'm desperate to read it. I opened the book to the first page a year ago, devoured the words on it, snapped the book shut and put it carefully away. I won't open it again until my own current project has safely made the journey to that lovely, comfortable place known as editing.


My new thing is TRIBUTE, to be published by Hot Key Books in 2013. It's a young adult fantasy. It's ambitious and big and scary and I'm right in the sticky middle of the first draft. Still floundering; still finding my feet. And it's going well. I'm excited - when I let myself be - because I know it's the best thing I've yet written. But will it be good enough? Not if I listen to my own inner goblin. I couldn't write for nearly a week upon returning from Hay, but I'm not sorry I went to hear Philip Reeve. I thoroughly enjoyed his talk and will buy the book. But I won't read it. Not just yet.

So, a question to those writers brave enough to answer. Do you have your own little goblin? Do you read other writers when writing a first draft? Or like me, do you avoid?



Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Initial Response: on gender and writing - Ellen Renner

A few days ago, Keren David wrote an excellent ABBA post querying why women writers sometimes choose to use their initials rather than full names. She felt that women need to stand up and be counted. It's a subject I've considered for a while without coming to a conclusion. My thoughts on reading her post were too long and complicated to fit in the comments section, so I’m returning to the topic here.

I'll start with a confession: I wanted to be published as E. L. Renner, but my then agent convinced me to use my first name. I'm still uncertain that was the right decision.

Why? Partly because initials are more anonymous. My books are about my characters, not me. I want my stories and characters to stand alone, with as little 'author-as-brand' hype as possible. As a child and teen reader I didn't want to know anything about the author of books I loved except when their next book was coming out. I wanted to experience the magic of transformation into another person, another world, another experience. Author photos were a definite turn-off: I wanted magic performed by some unknown alchemist, not a real person. Terry Prachett has the wisdom to wear a magician’s hat for his publicity stills.

Then there’s the delicate question of the critical glass ceiling. It's a perennial topic in adult fiction and it would be naive to believe that children’s books are exempt. It would also take a large dollop of willful obtuseness not to notice that male authors attract more critical attention per capita than their female counterparts. It's not a conspiracy; critics don't exercise their bias consciously any more than did the editors of the publications who recently voted for Sports Personality of the Year and neglected to put a single woman on the list.

I believe that almost all of us, however pro-female we believe ourselves to be, are so conditioned by the constant bombardment of overt and subtle messages in every aspect of our society about the relative value of the male versus the female that we subconsciously take a story written by a man more seriously than we would the same story written by a woman.

I don't think J.K. Rowling's books would have been as successful had she published them as Joanne. I doubt George Eliot would have garnered such a strong place in the canon if she had written as Mary Ann Evans. If Sylvia Townsend Warner, one of the greatest stylists and most original writers of the twentieth century, had been a man, I am convinced that her books would be much better known today. Arguably, Virginia Woolf made it into the public eye not because she had a room of her own, but because she had a publishing house of her own.

Is it, therefore, a cop-out for a woman to write under her initials, in an attempt, however feeble, to combat the anti-female bias that pervades every aspect of our culture? Possibly. It’s a difficult question and one I’ll continue to ask myself. But I also know I'll use whatever tools I can fashion to give my books and my characters, both male and female, every chance I can.

Because the larger point is that, although gender shouldn't matter in life, it does. And the only way I can see to address this issue as a writer is to attempt to be as genderless as possible – a writing androgyne. I enjoy writing both male and female characters. I don't set out to write about a girl or a boy; I choose the gender which seems to fit the story best. And the reason I write at all is because I want imaginative experience. While it's true that I can’t experience what it’s like to be a boy or man in real life, I can imagine it as a writer, and I have never felt closer to any character than I did when writing Tobias Petch in City of Thieves.

‘Only connect.’ E. M. Forster knew that books teach empathy. Between the pages of a book a reader can become another person. Boys can become girls, and girls boys. Men can see the world, however briefly, through the eyes and emotions of a woman. And understanding may result. And then, perhaps, the word ‘girly’ will no longer be a term of disdain. When that happens, this entire discussion will be irrelevant.

Earlier this year I attended a conference where a speaker advised writers to ensure their main characters were boys, trotting forth that insidious mantra of marketing, ‘boys won’t read about girl characters’.

Please don’t tell that to the countless boys who read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, The BFG and The Magic Finger. Or the boys, like my son, who devour Prachett’s Tiffany Aching books (which gently poke fun at gender stereotypes through the dealings between Tiffany and the Wee Free Men). Don't tell the generations of boys who have loved Charlotte's Web and The Borrowers or those who, like my husband, read E. (!) Nesbit’s The Railway Children and fell in love with Roberta.

If boys hear the message that a book is good, they'll read it whether or not it has a girl as a main character. Who gives them that message? We do. Parents, teachers, librarians, publishers, marketing and sales departments with gender specific covers. If boys are refusing to read books where the main character is a girl, it’s because we’re telling them that they shouldn’t. We give them permission to exclude girls from their imaginative world, and that view of the female as 'other' will simply carry on into adulthood. That’s where writers need to draw the battle lines: not how gender specific an author’s name is, but the banishing of girls from the centre stage of life itself. It’s an appalling message to give to children of either sex: that girls cannot be heroes, cannot be the main characters in story or in life.

I happen to be female. That accident of genetics has shaped and coloured who I am, but it is not my primary definition as a person or as a writer. Despite my qualms that Keren may be right, and that I’m somehow betraying my ideals by using my initials, I am considering publishing my next book as E. L. Renner. It’s an older, darker book and I want to distinguish it from my younger fiction. That’s the obvious reason for switching to initials, but I know the issues I listed above will inevitably influence my decision.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Visitors From the World Called Imagination - Ellen Renner

‘Where do ideas come from?’ It’s the one question you’re bound to get during a school or library visit. I’m always truthful and say I don’t know. Oh, the disappointment in the eyes of that future author in the third row who sits, pencil poised, hoping to be gifted with the secret of story. I offer comfort in the form of tips on how to generate ideas and catch them before they fly away, like Roald Dahl’s BFG scooping up dreams in his net and bottling them, and the child is satisfied.

And, for me, there is a sense of disaster averted. I truly hope that no clever, obsessively inquisitive neuroscientist ever cracks the mechanics of creativity. I don’t want to know where my ideas come from, I just want to spy them fluttering past my eyes at unexpected moments, like translucent, technicoloured butterflies. Actually, I have a superstitious fear that if the magic process is examined too closely, it will wither away under the white hot glare of intellect. Some things grow best in the dark.

The origin of characters is even more mysterious to me. There’s a wonderful, darkly funny story by Diana Wynne Jones called Carol Onier’s Hundredth Dream. It should be required reading for all writers, especially those whose characters have a habit of hi-jacking the story.

I remember typing the last words of the final scene of my second book, City of Thieves, and feeling an overwhelming sense of bereavement. I had spent a white-hot six weeks glued to my computer, writing sixteen hours a day to get the story out. Not because of editorial deadlines but because Tobias, the main character, refused to get out of my head until I told his story. And it is a good story. Compelling and heart breaking. And although I know I created that story and remember long sessions working out the plots and reveals, it still feels as though Tobias told it to me.

When I’d done the deed, and written the last word, I lifted my aching fingers from the keyboard, looked round my extremely untidy study and suffered real grief that these characters I had lived with so intensively for a month and a half did not actually exist somewhere … in some alternative world. I believe I actually cried.
I always tell that story with a slight worry the men in white coats will be sent to talk with me by kind well-wishers, but I’ve come to believe that, for me, it perfectly illustrates why I write. It’s all about the characters.

Oh, you do need plot. And pacing. And themes … and all the other lovely mixture of ingredients that are so much fun and make up the craft of writing well. But characters are the heart, the soul, and the ‘why’ – at least for me. But where do they come from?

Some writers (I know, because there are whole chapters in ‘how-to’ books and entire units in creative writing courses dedicated to the subject) draw their characters directly from life - observing people they know and those they don’t; taking notes, adding, subtracting, rubbing out and re-drawing, until they have the characters they need to populate their plot.

I don’t do it that way. I start with a concept, an idea, a theme. After that, the characters form a casting queue outside my mental door. Of course, they must also be drawn from life – from a lifetime of observing people, of reading books obsessively, of watching television and film. But I don’t have to build them mechanically. They seem to create themselves as I put the first chapters down, and tell me their stories as I write. It truly does seem a form of magic.

I’m in that delicious, tantalising stage of a new book. A book I’ve been waiting nearly six months to start. As the time approached when I knew I’d be clear of other writing commitments and able to begin this new project – a shiny new strong idea that I don’t want to mess up – I was torn between anticipation and fear. I was wracked with the classic anxiety: had I forgotten how to write my own stories? Would I be good enough to tackle this big idea? Would the words come; the plot? And – especially – the characters?

A few weeks in and anxiety is easing. I’ve become caught up in my own storytelling web. Or, to put it more accurately, I’ve fallen in love with my characters. They have arrived, wholly-formed and real, from some hidden part of my mind, and are living their lives on the pages as I write. I’m enjoying their company tremendously. They’re teaching me about their world, about pain and strength and courage. This time, I do have a deadline to meet; I know how long I have to be in their company, and am already dreading the day that I will type that last scene and raise my head to look around a strangely lonely study.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Boys Won't Read About Girls, Will They? - Ellen Renner

This post is prompted by an incident earlier this month at the North East Book Award. A boy of about ten or eleven came and stood silently to one side of my signing queue. He waited patiently, studying the showcards of my two books covers. (City of Thieves is the sequel to Castle of Shadows.) When things were drawing to a close, he finally spoke up. 'I don't think your publishers did a good job with the cover,' he said, pointing to the showcard for Castle. 'Oh, why is that?' I asked. 'Because ...' His face expressed serious offence having been taken. '...it looks like a girl's book. And it isn't!'

I asked him if he liked the cover for City of Thieves, and he said it was great. We chatted a bit, and I assured him I'd pass his comment onto Orchard's design team. Now, there was no mistaking the hurt that boy felt. Here was a book he'd really liked (once forced to read it for an award). And he felt cheated by the cover.

His reaction, I fear, is probably more more to do the social attitudes of boys than the book's cover. I agree there are more ivy tendrils than necessary, but the cover is blue and yellow, not pink. What I think that young man objected to, without realising it, was the image of a girl on the cover. So no girls allowed at all? Difficult to get round that one.

When I got back from the NEBA (which I'm pleased to report Castle of Shadows won, despite the main character Charlie's misfortune in being a girl), I decided to have a trawl through my collection of children's books, gathered from years of visiting second hand book shops. I remembered those books from the 70s and 80s as much less gendered, to be addressing boys and girls equally with the covers. Pink was not an issue. Was I right?



The obvious place to start seems E. Nesbit. The Railway Children and The Treasure Seekers, here in their Puffin covers, present the classic gang of kids having adventures story which is a never-dying perennial to this day, in the hands of someone like Ali Sparkes. Assorted boys and girls on the covers, with or without dogs and grown-ups in attendance.



Moving forward, we come to one of my favourite writers, and a fellow Devon resident: Gene Kemp. Kemp was a teacher as well as a writer, and knew all about boys and their reluctance to read about girls. I can't help feeling she had a great time pulling the wool over their eyes and giving them the shock of their lives with the excellent The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. But it's Juniper I love best. An almost lost classic with one of the best heroines in middle-grade fiction. Seek it out! That's Juniper in the lead on this cover. No apologies needed for her: she's a girl, she only has one hand, and she's totally brilliant.



Now here are two absolutely classic 70s covers: Diana Wynne Jones The Ogre Downstairs, and Madeleine L'Engle's A wrinkle in Time. Girls and boys floating in air. Magic and adventure. No gender-specific marketing in sight.











One way to get around the issue of gender on covers is to leave the kids off totally. Easier if you have magic/fantasy elements, as in these two classics from the late sixties/early seventies: The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon, and Susan Cooper's iconic The Dark is Rising series.








In these days when marketing likes gender division because it's seen as easy to sell, and anything with a girl protagonist runs a gauntlet of pink and glitter, some publishers manage to still try to address the fact that there's a need for books which are for boys and girls both. Two recent examples of gender-less adventure books are Frances Hardinge's Verdigris Deep, which is a lovely cover but avoids the issue by the abstraction of the figures.

A more interesting example is ABBA's own Nick Green's The Cat Kin. The first cover, in the Faber edition, is totally genderless. You can't tell that one of those running children is in fact named Tiffany. But the Strident cover, which I prefer, addressed the issue head on and in gung-ho fashion. Let's hope it's a sign of things to come.






I want to end with three covers of a Newberry Medal winning book from the seventies, which has undergone numerous incarnations: Bridge to Terabithia. I think the covers speak for themselves, but I find the latest one the most worrying. Here, the girl has been eradicated totally.












That's certainly one strategy for getting boys to read these books where girls are characters. And it's important they do so: what better way to learn to empathise with the other half of the human race? But I don't think that erasing girls from the picture is the answer.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Diana Wynne Jones: Best Loved Books - Ellen Renner



This post is a tribute to Diana Wynne Jones, who died last month. I discovered her books nearly fifteen years ago, just at the moment when I had realised I wanted to write for children, and promptly fell in love. She is my favourite of favourites; one of only half a dozen writers whose books I can re-read and enjoy as much each time. She could do it all: elegant prose, big themes, clever plotting. But a clever plot is mere problem solving. Magic rests in characters. That is a gift of imagination and ear. To write characters who live off the page, a writer has to become her characters as she writes, and no amount of intellect will make up for a deficit of empathy. Diana Wynne Jones understood pain. All her main characters are flawed or damaged, and that's what makes them interesting.

I knew it would be no simple task to pick only three books by Wynne Jones to write about here, and so it proved.

I have to start with Charmed Life, the first book of hers I read and still, probably, the one I love most. Charmed Life illustrates a repeated theme in DWJ: a young person in search of their identity, coming to terms with their unique gifts. The young Cat Chant, orphaned, bewildered and stubbornly gullible, must come to terms with who and what he is. Why is Cat such an attractive character? Wynne Jones revisited him twice more: in the deliciously dark novella, Stealer of Souls, and the long awaited sequel to Charmed Life, The Pinhoe Egg. In neither of these does she quite pull off the magic Cat has over the reader in his first outing. And that, I think, is because in the later stories he knows what and who and what he is. Cat's magic in his first adventure is that he is running from himself as fast as he can, and we wait with bated breath for his destiny to catch him up.

My second choice has to be Howl's Moving Castle. Here it is another orphan, Sophie Hatter, who in classic fairy tale mode sets out to seek her fortune. Like Cat Chant, Sophie seems almost wilfully blind to her magic ability, her identity, until forced to accept her powers. And again, it is this avoidance of the obvious, this refusal of talent, which drives both plot and characterisation. But the real star of the book is the slippery, vain wizard Howl (that ultimate slitherer-outer) who is, like Sophie, hiding from himself. In the turn-upon-twist denouement, a real tour-de-force of plotting, both hero and heroine are forced to accept their gifts and use them honestly.

It was difficult to choose a third title. So many vie for next loved: Dogsbody, Fire and Hemlock, The Lives of Christopher Chant, The Homeward Bounders, Deep Secret (and its sort-of sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy), Hexwood, Black Maria, The Ogre Downstairs and A Tale of Time City. I especially enjoy the fact that, although Wynne Jones revisits certain character types and themes, each book is different.

But in the end, I chose The Magicians of Caprona, partly because of one, perfectly realised scene. An enchantress known as the White Devil turns the two children, Tonino and Angelica, into a living Punch and Judy and they are forced to re-enact the puppet show, with all its violence, before an audience of adults, some knowing and some innocent of the children's true identities. This is sheer horror, a darkness of concept handled with perfection, not candy-coated but made acceptable to young readers because of the accuracy of her characterisation of her young hero Tonino. Throughout the book, his observations, reactions, emotions ring absolutely true for a boy of eight to ten, including a lovely messy cake-eating-in-front-of-adults scene (which I frankly stole and recreated in Castle of Shadows), girls-as-other, unthinking rivalry between clans. The Magicians of Caprona is a tour de force in point of view and voice from beginning to end.

Those are my three favourite books by Diana Wynne Jones. What are yours?




Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Keeping Politics out of the Library: Aristotle Would Not Be Amused - Ellen Renner

Yesterday, as I was filing my income tax, someone emailed to tell me about Sheffield City Council's decision this week to ban Ian McMillan. For those who don't know about this, Mr McMillan, a poet, broadcaster and comedian, was scheduled to run a children's creative writing workshop at Upperthorpe Library in Sheffield. The event was intended to highlight the value of libraries to their local community, in a time when, as we all know, both school and public libraries face massive cuts.

Apparently, the city council banned Mr McMillan because they feared that the event might be hijacked for the purpose of making 'political' comments. Hijacked by whom, or how, the article didn't make clear, but according to Sintoblog (sintoblogspot.com) the background to this is the fact that Sheffield council, although not currently proposing any library closures at present, is planning major cuts to the library budget which will have an inevitable knock-on to service provision.

There are two main points about this story that immediately caught my attention. First, the issue of censorship. What we seem to have here is a clear-cut case of a political body banning free speech because it might reflect negatively on their policies.

I don't know whether or not Mr McMillan was planning to be overtly political as he taught creative writing to the children (having done quite a few creative writing workshops with 8-12 year-olds, the mind boggles trying to figure out how exactly one might manage to slip a political agenda in there along with the zombies, vampires and alien invasions), but the issue here is surely whether or not a city council is entitled to ban the expression of opinions which might prove politically awkward.

Beyond the free speech implication, I was struck by the philosophical stance of Sheffield City Council not wanting libraries, of all things, to be used as a forum or focus for political comment. I find it surreal that politicians should not be aware of -- or should choose to ignore -- the fact that libraries are political in essence. Libraries, like hospitals and schools, are physical representations of the implied bargain between the citizen and the politician.

As many people (other than the members of Sheffield City Council) know, the word 'politics' is derived from the Greek word 'politika', famously used by Aristotle as the title of his work about ethics and political philosophy. Politics means 'affairs of the city'. It means the relationship between the citizen and the 'polis', or city, and their responsibilities to each other.

And this is the heart of the matter. I have a responsibility, like all citizens or residents, to pay my tax so that politicians can decide how to spend my money to keep the city, county or country running. That's what I did last night (a bit late, but 2011 is turning out to be my year for scary deadlines).

In return, politicians have a responsibility to the citizenry, which is to provide services, and to make politically accountable decisions about that provision. We elect politicians to make hard decisions. And if we disagree with the decisions they are making, we also have a responsibility to inform them of that fact. The debate about the provision of services in a time of financial constraint must be kept open and free-flowing, and Sheffield City Council needs to embrace its proper political role and reject the temptation of censorship.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010



Ten Things I Learned at the SCBWI Conference -- Ellen Renner





This weekend Winchester was overrun with illustrators, writers, editors, agents, publishers, string quartets and a certain amazing, talented cake maker as the British branch of SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) celebrated its tenth birthday.

I've been going to Scooby conferences for seven of those ten years, but there has never been such a buzzy, sparkling, friendly, aspirational, confident event as this year's get together. Added excitement was due to the huge party on Saturday evening to celebrate the mass book launch of seventeen SCBWI members with publications out this year.

SCBWI has a lot to celebrate, as increasing numbers of its members buck the tough publishing climate and secure first deals, helped by initiatives like the Undiscovered Voices anthology. In the space of a few short years Scooby has grown from an invaluable support network for unpublished writers and illustrators into a unique organisation which continues to help beginners while also providing opportunities for published members. There is nothing else out there remotely like it.

So what did I learn?

1) BE POSITIVE! Too often, when more than two writers (I can't speak for illustrators) gather in one place it isn't long before the air is filled with the gnashing of teeth, the beating of breasts and low rumbles of discontent. With reason: writers are all too often the canon-fodder of the publishing industry, especially in these tough economic times. But the Winchester university campus positively vibrated with the optimism and enjoyment of the artists, writers and creatives gathered there. And if I bring nothing else away from the conference, it will be that word: joy. The joy of creating. I have been reminded of why I write: because I love it.

2) Facebook friends are even better in real life: I was thrilled to meet Keren David at last. We're writing twins (first books published on the same day) and we share an agent. I'm a huge fan of Keren's and it was lovely to get to meet her at last. And there was much excitement as Nicky Schmidt of Absolute Vanilla fame flew in all the way from South Africa, to the delight of her many friends at the conference. Fabulous meeting you, Nicky!

3) A good critique group is worth its collective weight in gold, which I already knew. But what I discovered was that limiting time during a live critique session focuses the mind and makes for a stronger experience for everyone.

4) If you are speaking at the conference, it's guaranteed to be at the same time as the one or two other sessions you desperately wanted to attend.

5) No one knows what the future holds for the book. Contradiction lies at the heart of the publishing: What the editors would like to publish and what they are allowed to publish are not always the same thing. During the industry panel, the editors explained that when taking on a new writer, they were looking for a unique voice. Almost with the same breath they were trying to predict the next big 'trend'. But all had to acknowledge that the gatekeepers now are the buyers for the huge retail chains, which inevitably leads to copy-cat publishing as retailers only want to buy in what was known to sell last year. So when the black and red vampires finally sink back into the grave (soon, please!) another writing fad will inevitably rise to take their place. The wild card in all this is e-books. The entire industry seems to be holding its breath. Will publishers be out of a job? No one knows, but the consensus was that gatekeepers of some sort are essential.





6) More mass book launches, please! This is certainly the way to go. Shared stress, shared joy, and lots of people enjoying themselves. The best book launch I've been to by seven leagues. Celebrants included: Mike Brownlow, Dinosaurs of Doom; Jason Chapman, Stan and Mabel, Jane Clarke, Gilbert the Hero; Lucy Coats, The Beasts in the Jar; Keren David, Almost True; Candy Gourlay, Tall Story; Savita Kalhan, The Long Weekend; Maxine Linnell, Vintage; Anita Loughrey, Shapes Around Me Squares; Jon Mayhew, Mortlock; Sarah McIntyre, Vern and Lettuce; Tamsyn Murray, My So-Called Haunting; John Shelly, Outside-In; Donna Vann, New York City Adventures; L. A. Weatherly, Angel; Sheen Wilkinson, Taking Flight; and my own City of Thieves. Whew!

7) Tea breaks are essential to a functioning brain.

8) Most writers fall into two camps: plot-driven and character driven. This became a topic of debate during the conference. Should the 'what' drive the 'why' or the other way round? For me, action derives from character; that may be why I don't plot in huge detail in advance. Or perhaps I'm just lazy.


9)Someone can be in their 33rd year in publishing and still radiate optimism, enthusiasm and inspiration – as long as that person is David Fickling.

And 10) As Mr Fickling reminded the writers and illustrators in the audience repeatedly: You are the makers. We can't do it without you.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Future of Children's Reading - Ellen Renner

The first week of November the University of Exeter is holding a children's literature festival, EXEtreme Imagination. Well known authors, including Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, Beverly Naidoo, Mal Peet, Julie Hearne, Tim Bowler and Helen Dunmore will be giving talks and going into schools and libraries to meet Devon children. As a local writer, I'll also be taking part: going into schools and launching my second book, City of Thieves, at the end of the festival.

More and more frequently, I'm hearing other children's writers questioning whether or not festivals and school visits are a productive use of their time. Especially as they often don't get paid for festivals and because, in the current economic climate, fewer schools are able to afford the SOA rates for author visits. For many authors, income from school visits has traditionally formed a large part of their income so it's a serious concern. Although I can readily understand the frustration underlying these sorts of comments, I'd like to offer another point to consider.

The one thing that children's writers need is readers. And so it seems logical to me that promoting children's love of reading should be one of our primary concerns. If not for altruistic reasons, then purely out of self interest. Because no one should take it for granted that readers will always be out there.

Nine months into my own career as a published children's author, I feel at least nine years older and wiser. Because the times, they are a-changing. Established children's writers, whose careers began twenty, ten or even five years ago, entered a totally different world. The abandonment of the net book agreement and the predictable changes to the industry that have followed -- combined with difficult economic times and rapid technological change that may fundamentally alter the way books are made and sold -- mean that the situation for writers is almost certainly going to get worse, at least in the short term.

It would take a disposition cast in stainless steel not to be affected by the prognostications of doom and gloom flooding the world of children's books: the death of the book; the declining literacy of children; the closing of libraries; and possibly scariest of all, the increasing evidence that the very way we use the internet is changing the structure of our brains and the way we read. Novels may soon be a thing of the past as both children and adults become incapable of sustaining the concentration required to read one.

So, faced with the increasing difficulty in earning a living through writing alone, and the fact that our profession may soon no longer be either required nor desired by society, what is a children's writer to do? Some campaign for libraries, some blog, all of us try to write the best books we can, most of us do a certain amount of moaning and a whole lot of worrying.

The only thing I, personally, can think to do, is to go into local schools. I don't view school visits primarily as a way to supplement my income or even as a self-promotional tool -- book sales are largely insignificant. I view them as a form of outreach. I have had children buy a book who have never owned one before. They might even read it. Children need to meet writers. They need contact with adults whose job is playing pretend on paper, and who can get across to them how much fun reading and writing can be.

Story is fundamental. Along with music, dance and making images, humans need story-telling. These days they get it through lots of different media: TV, film, gaming, the internet. Books are a relatively new invention in the world of story and, after a few centuries, they may already be dying out. I hope not: I love books. But story will continue, in some form.

But whatever the fate of the book, and whether children read a paper book or read on a screen, it's vital that they read. They need stories: good ones. The ability to read well is one of the greatest gifts a child can be given. Stories have the ability to unlock whole worlds inside a child's mind, opening them to new ideas and experiences. That is quite enough reason in itself, but reading is also the key to social mobility, to aspiration, to achievement.

Children who read do well at school. Those who struggle to read often struggle through life. Getting children reading, and keeping them reading, is incredibly important to them as individuals and to society. For lucky children, it starts in the home, with parents reading to their babies and toddlers. It carries on in schools, where enlightened primary teachers read daily to their students. As writers, our job is to write stories that are good enough. Stories that make readers turn the pages.

The Exeter festival opens with a paneled debate: After Hogwarts: What is the Future for Children's Reading and Writing? The debate will take place on the evening of Wednesday the 27th of October. Members of the panel include Sara Davies, Executive Producer at BBC Bristol, Julia Eccleshare, Children's Editor at the Guardian, and Professor Debbie Myhill, Acting Dean of the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at Exeter, and Samantha Shipman from Liverpool's Reader Organisation.

If you would like to attend, or if you have a question you'd like to send in advance to the panel, please contact Pete Hodges at [email protected]

I'm already composing my questions.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Following My Characters: A Debut's Journey by Ellen Renner


2010 has been my debut year. My first book, Castle of Shadows came out in January and in August the sequel, City of Thieves, was published. Although I have a year of school visits and promotion ahead for these books, publication day marked the end of my personal journey from unpublished to published writer. August 5th , City’s official birthday, was also a day of letting go.
As Keren David remarked in her lovely post of a few days ago, publishing a book does rather feel like letting your child venture unprotected into a large and scary world. Keren and I have been shadowing each other this entire year, with our first and second books coming out within weeks of each other. I would love to get together with her soon and compare notes.
In what I’m sure is a familiar story, my work/life balance went crazy as I struggled to manage the conflicting demands of family, work, finding writing time, building an on-line presence and doing school visits. I also learnt that it’s possible to stand in the children’s department of Waterstones wearing a jolly ‘I’m a writer’ badge on my jacket and a fixed smile on my face and talk to complete strangers about my books. My family has probably suffered most (apart from those innocent shoppers in Waterstones!). I’m not a natural multi-tasker, and even my best friends would never use ‘Ellen Renner’ and ‘well-organised’ in the same sentence.
I’ve been pleased to find that some of the things I was most worried about aren’t problems at all: I love school and library visits. Talking with the children about my books is fun as well as a privilege; but what I find most rewarding is working with them on their own writing. I’ve also learnt that, not only can I write to deadlines, but that I enjoy doing so. Another tremendously positive thing has been meeting other children’s writers in person and online, and discovering how supportive and generous they are.
I’ve discovered quite a lot of things about myself as a writer, as I begin to explore my own strengths and weaknesses in a more focused way. One of those things is that I’m almost totally at the mercy of my characters. Character-driven takes on new meaning here. I never intended to write a series: Castle of Shadows was meant to be a stand alone. But then I fell in love with one of my characters, Tobias Petch. The more I found out about him, the more I knew I had to write his story.
Because characters nag you. They get in your head and won’t leave until you do them justice. As a writer, my characters drive the rest – plot, theme, the story itself. I don’t plot in detail before writing a first draft. I couldn’t (disorganised, remember?). Also, I’m intuitive. I trust my story-telling instinct to pretty much keep the narrative on track; and anyway, that’s what rewrites are for.
I think there are two basic kinds of writers: the intellectually-driven and the emotionally-driven. It’s all about getting the balance right because you need both. I don’t think it matters which comes first as you write; they are different ways of undertaking the same journey. Some writers plot intensively before digging into a first draft, using their intellect to sort the framework, then colouring in that framework and building characters.
I work the other way round, although the intellectual side of plotting, pacing, point-of-view, and theme is just as important to me. But I need the characters first: that emotional intuitive connection. It almost certainly means I have to do more rewrites than someone who plots it all out first; but on the positive side, my characters might lead me on a journey of discovery to places I hadn’t envisioned going. Sort of like the journey I’ve had this first, amazing, debut year.
The question I’d like to end this rather rambling post with is: how do you other writers work? Does character come first for you, or plot? And do you think it matters?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Five Questions They Always Ask During School Visits - Ellen Renner

As this is my debut year, I'm a newcomer to school visits. To my relief, I've found I really enjoy them, especially the question and answer sessions. Sometimes the children throw up new and interesting questions that really make you think. However, there are the perennials. I'm sure those of you doing school visits will recognise all of the following.

1) Where do ideas come from?

The classic, the groaner, the one you get not just once during a Q & A session, but often 2, 3 or 4 times, until the teacher steps in with a sigh: ‘Katie, Alex, Josh and Elly have already asked that question, Sam. Can you think of something new please?’

And yet, much as writers may dread this one, there’s a reason why it’s the number one question kids ask. It goes to the heart of what we, as writers do, and what they, as readers want to know.

Where does the magic come from? I haven’t got an answer for them and I tell them so: I simply don’t know. I can – and do – tell them how to make it easier for ideas to arrive and how to capture them so they don’t escape. But as far as I’m concerned, ideas are magic. They pop into your head when you’re cleaning the fridge or driving to catch a train, and I’m not sure I want to look too closely into that particular Pandora’s box for fear it might snap shut and never open again.

2) Is writing a book hard?

I love this one. I have it at least once in every session and when it arrives I mentally rub my hands. Yes! Hooray! Writing is hard. It’s very hard. And so, I point out (in the least worthy and moralising way I can) is everything that’s worth doing. Real achievement requires work. But it's also the most fun, the most exciting thing of all. And that sort of aspiration is what kids should be fed. Not pop-star-idol-candy-floss dreams. Which leads me on to the next three questions ...

3) Are you famous?

They do so want you to say yes. And I never know how to answer this one. Obviously, I’m not. But I am known for doing something reasonably well, or I wouldn’t be visiting their school. So I tell them that most writers aren’t ‘famous’ in the way that they mean, like pop stars. But that we are in a different way or we wouldn’t be talking to them. And it never feels like I get this one quite right. I’d love to know how other children’s writers deal with this question.

4) How much money to you make?

The incredulity, the disbelief on their faces when I tell them the average annual wage for a published writer according to the Society of Author’s latest census. It’s ... priceless.

5) If you aren’t famous or rich, and it’s such hard work, why do you do it?

And that is the question, isn’t it. Why do we? Well, most of us are obsessional (and probably masochistic). But that aside, it's because we have a need to tell stories and stories need an audience to live. So we do it in order to have readers like these children. And I'm always aware, on visits, of how privileged I am to be invited into a school or library to talk to readers about my books.

And now I want to cheat a bit and move from the five most common questions to one I’ve only had once, but which is my favourite question of all. It was asked by one perceptive young man during my first library visit.

Do you ever tell the truth?

And I was really stumped for a moment or two. ‘No,’ I said in the end. ‘I don’t. Everything I write is made up; I don’t use real life in my books; I don’t base my characters on people I know. So in one sense it is all a lie. But it’s all true too. I’m always asking questions about ‘real’ life when I’m writing. I think that’s what stories do.’

What a great question. I’m sure there will be more of them.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Five Villains I Love to Hate - Ellen Renner

What makes a good villain? Much of children’s literature, especially that written for a younger audience, goes for the out and out baddie – the caricature of villain as monster – larger than life and deliciously wicked. Think Cruella DeVille or Captain Hook.
Roald Dahl was a master of the out and outer. Miss Trunchbull in Matilda has no redeeming qualities – she’s a cartoon figure of pure child-hating spite, and the same goes for those evil aunts, Spiker and Sponge, from James and the Giant Peach. These are the sort of villains that young children love to hate.
There is a large chunk of children’s fiction which takes as a theme the classic battle of dark and light, with villains to match: Voldemort in Harry Potter; the White Queen in Narnia; Abner Brown and Mrs Pouncer in Masefield’s The Midnight Folk; ‘It’ in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and many more.
Enjoyable though these baddies from the dark side are, they tend to make for two-dimensional characters and I seldom give them a second thought after I’ve finished the book. Their story doesn’t continue to unwind in my mind. That’s the sort of villian I wanted to talk about here: characters which have stayed with me and made a lasting impression.
My list of five favourite villains starts with Treasure Island. Robert Louis Stevenson transcended genre when he wrote the character of Long John Silver. Is Silver the first anti-hero in children’s literature? I don’t know. But I do know exactly what made that story stick in my memory from the first childhood reading: the character of Silver – a cold blooded murderer who cannot even be trusted to be thoroughly, safely evil. Silver might, depending on his mood on a particular day, stick a knife in a boy or save his life. Silver has dimensionality. You can’t see all the way round him. He keeps you guessing. He is as unknowable your next-door-neighbour or the woman sitting across from you on the train. He is real.
My next villain makes Long John Silver seem tame, for all the pirate ever did was murder and cheat. Aunt Maria, in the book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, is that most frightening of creatures: a villain who believes she is doing good. Aunt Maria knows best and all she does is for the benefit of others. In fact, like all good villains, she desires power – the power to control those about her: family, friends, community. Hunched in her wheelchair like a black cockroach, armed with her two walking sticks and sweet reasonableness, she looms over her seaside community like the black witch she is. Her evil is not supernatural, it is chillingly human. Who among us has not met an Aunt Maria?
My third villain comes from one of the most terrifying books I have ever read, Changeover by Margaret Mahy. The theme of the book is a familiar one: the desire for immortality, the jealousy of the young by the old, and the lusting after their youth. The sinister Carmody Braque is sucking the very life-force out of Laura’s little brother, Jacko. Carmody’s evil has taken him outside the normal realm of human existence, but his desire to live is totally human and comprehensible. As one of the characters says of him: ‘He began somewhere ... He wasn’t always like that. He was a baby and a boy and a man, and in the beginning he probably didn’t seem very different from ordinary people. Somewhere along the line he made a wrong decision ...’ Much as I might like to, I have never been able to forget Carmody Braque.
In our relativistic, post-modern age, children’s books abound with equivocal villains and anti-heroes. In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, you have two to choose from, because the heroine, Lyra, has a pair of extraordinarily dysfunctional parents. Some people might find her mother, Mrs Coulter, the most satisfactory villain of the book, with her manipulative beauty and willingness to sacrifice her child for her beliefs. But to me Mrs Coulter seems more an attempt to personify the evils of religious fanaticism than a real person. She’s hideous, yes, and frightening, but it’s in a similar, fairy-tale way to Lewis’ White Witch or Andersen’s Snow Queen. It’s Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who gets my award for top villain. His crime is the very human desire to know the truth. He’s an adventurer on an ego trip, certainly, but it’s his suppression of all impulses of morality, compassion and the most basic empathy in order to prove the existence of another universe which drives him to child murder, a murder he seems barely to notice committing.
In end, of course, the line between hero and anti-hero becomes blurred. Hester Shaw, in Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines series, is morally ambiguous from her first appearance. Her mother has been murdered and Hester is left hideously scarred. Her only motivation is revenge. Hester is never a comfortable or likeable character. She is scarred internally as well as externally, full of hatred, grudging. But her story is so extraordinary, especially her relationship with the Resurrected Man, Shrike, that the reader cares about what will happen to this girl. In the second book of the series, Predator’s Gold, Hester’s status changes. She switches from hero to villain when she betrays the love of her life. She does so out of weakness: fear of loss, lack of self-esteem, insecurity. Most of us can identify with Hester’s all too human fears, and although her actions are unforgiveable, we understand the reasons for them.
It was really difficult to narrow my list to five. I’d love to know other people’s favourite villains.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Green Incarnations - Ellen Renner

It’s one of the most powerful images in British folklore: the head of man who seems to be made of the very oak leaves from which he peers. But who is the green man? Herne the Hunter, a British version of the horned god Woden, with his wild hunt tearing across the night sky? Or the Gaulish deity Cernunnos, transformed in Wiccan mythology into the Holly King and Oak King? Herne makes his first literary appearance in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, but many writers have been drawn to this story of death and rebirth. I’ve recently read or re-read four children’s books which adapt the myth in different ways and for different age-groups.
Lob, by Linda Newbery, a beautifully illustrated book for newly confident readers, introduces the concept of the green man on its most basic and positive form. A green man for gardeners, Lob is a nature spirit of growth and regeneration. Newbery uses this theme to tackle the important subject of death and loss. A young girl learns to cope with the death of a beloved grandfather, while the green man who inhabited the old man’s garden must renew himself and find a new home. It is a story of hope and continuity.
Bereavement is also the theme of the Sally Nichols’ Season of Secrets, intended for slightly older readers. Nichols uses the Wiccan myth of the Oak King and the Holly King, twins who wax and wane with the seasons, taking it in turns to hunt and be hunted, to die and be reborn. This cycle of life and death is literally played out before the eyes a child mourning her newly dead mother. One wild night, Molly is caught up in the hunt and befriends the dying Oak King. In Season of Secrets Nichols addresses the dark side of the myth with directness and honesty. She balances loss with joy as we journey with Molly towards the inevitability of change and the necessity of growth.
A book I regularly re-read is Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones. In her version, Herne is hunted and devoured by his own dogs in a never-ending ritual. There is a melancholy edge, a deep sadness to her portrayal of a being both hideous and beautiful. A creature of the dark, hidden away inside its mother Earth in a modern world which neither remembers nor wants it. A being ‘cruel and kind at once’, who longs for freedom for the wild magic which is his essence: ‘My ancestors came out by day and didn’t frighten or puzzle people. I want to be the same.’
Here light and dark are not simple good and evil but existence and its opposite. Light is ‘the movement behind movement ... the stuff of life itself’, while darkness is that which cannot alter and derives its power from ‘things as they must be’. In this story Herne is stronger even than the luminaries; he possesses the power of death, the passing of time, which in the end must overcome the very stars themselves.
Last year I was delighted to discover the complex and intriguing use of the huntsman myth in Katherine Langrish’s Dark Angels. Her embodiment, Halewyn, is a far cry from the Oak King. He is a trickster, a manipulator; always predator and never prey. He is less to do with seasonal cycles than the darkness of the human soul for, as he says: ‘Out of all Creation, only men and devils know how to be truly wicked. Isn’t that so?’
Halewyn’s mythic origins are not clear cut: is he Herne the Hunter, the Welsh Arawn or the Lord of Misrule? Is he the King of the Elves, a demon or the very Devil himself? He seems to be all and none of these things, as Langrish draws on rich and various sources from folklore and myth. Here we find the payment of a living soul to hell every seventh year, as in the legends of Tam Lyn and Arawn, combined with a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice.
The book begins and ends with the wild hunt. A mortal wolf hunt prefigures the final climactic scene, where Halewyn sprouts Herne’s antlers and leads his Wild Host over the edge of the world itself – the Devil’s Edge.
Langrish’s huntsman is the darkest of all these portrayals, mercilessly trapping a human soul every seven years to seize and carry down to hell. This is the fee which allows for his existence and that of his kingdom of rejects and misfits: ‘The mad old beggars on the roads, they’re my people. The cast-off children nobody wants. The babies abandoned in ditches. The guilty, the lost, the wanderers, the refuse of Heaven’. But even here there is ambiguity, for Halewyn is a devil with a sense of humour and in the end metes out a wickedly apt justice.
Four very different books written with different ages and audiences in mind, but four rich incarnations of the green man which I have greatly enjoyed.