Showing posts with label Leila Rasheed. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leila Rasheed. Show all posts

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Megaphone: make your voice heard! By Leila Rasheed

Megaphone: type loud!

I am very grateful to Liz Kessler for letting me have her ABBA space to tell you all about a new writer development scheme aimed at increasing diversity in children’s literature: Megaphone.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the author of Chips, Beans and Limousines, and I also teach Writing for Children and Young People on the University of Warwick's MA in Writing. The initial idea for Megaphone came out of an idea I had two years ago, after reading Walter Dean Myers’ excellent article: Where are the people of color in children’s books?

 What he said echoed my own experience as a British Asian reader and writer of children’s fiction. I had of course been thinking about these issues previously, but his article made me see that I really had to try and do something to make a positive difference to children’s literature, which I love so much.

 Fast forward two years, and I am delighted to say that I’ve received funding, from Arts Council England and The Publishers’ Association, to run a new, and I believe unique, writer development scheme called Megaphone, which supports minority ethnic writers as they write their first novel for children or teenagers. There are five places on the scheme, and applications are being accepted now, until 24th December 2015.

Megaphone is aimed at writers who have never had a book for children or teenagers published before (they may have had writing for adults published). They must be from an ethnic minority, resident in England and over 18 years old.

So what does it involve? Well, if you are offered a place, you’ll be expected to write a novel for children or teenagers, between April 2016 and April 2017. But don’t worry – you won’t be alone as you turn your ideas into a fully-fledged book. There will be support in the form of one-to-one feedback on your manuscript. Drawing on my experience working with creative writing students up to MFA level, I will help writers focus on and draw out the story they really want to tell. In no way does this mean I ‘tell you what to write’! My role is as a skilled and experienced beta-reader, someone who can look at your manuscript with fresh eyes that have read a lot of children’s and YA books (as a manuscript editor for Writers’ Workshop, as a bookseller for Waterstone's, as a student of children’s literature, as a creative writing tutor, as an author myself) and help you discover ways through writing problems.

 As well as one to one support during the writing process, the scheme includes masterclasses with award-winning and best-selling authors – Catherine Johnson, Alex Wheatle MBE, Candy Gourlay, Lee Weatherley, Sarwat Chadda. Between them they have a huge range of skills and experience in writing successfully for different age ranges and in different genres – all of which can feed your own writing knowledge.

There will also be two masterclasses focused on working with agents and publishers: one with Julia Churchill, Literary Agent at AM Heath, (who represents, among many others, Sarah Crossan, Julie Bertagna and Jo Nadin) and one with a children’s publisher or editor.

When I was planning Megaphone, I decided I wanted to have publishers and editors involved right from the start. I felt that was the best way of ensuring that the books written during the scheme would have a really good chance of making it to publication and to children’s bookshelves. The result is an absolutely stellar line-up of editors, who have volunteered to help select applications and also to read the completed manuscripts and offer feedback on them at the end of the scheme. Anyone who has ever sent a manuscript to a slush pile knows how hard it can be to get feedback from an editor; well, the best editors working in children’s publishing today are offering a fast-track to their desks through Megaphone, and they are offering it because they know how important it is for children’s literature to reflect the diverse world we live in.

 Your completed novel will be read and commented on by at least one of the following: Venetia Gosling of Pan Macmillan (whose list includes Chris Riddell, Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Rainbow Rowell), Jane Griffiths of Simon and Schuster UK (recently double-shortlisted as an editor for the Branford Boase award), Rachel Mann of Simon and Schuster UK, (who has worked with Michael Morpurgo and Darren Shan among others) Shannon Cullen of Penguin Random House (who has a long history of working for diversity in children’s literature, including helping to set up the Commonword Prize for Diversity in children’s writing), Karen Ball and Katherine Agar of Hachette, (who have a huge amount of experience with commissioning and developing series from traditional and non-traditional authors), Kirsten Armstrong of Penguin Random House and Samantha Smith of Scholastic UK.

 There will also be a showcase event at the end of the scheme, and a short, professionally-made film will feature the writers on the scheme reading from their completed manuscripts (just a short extract, to whet the appetite!) so that their unique voices have the very best chance of being heard by publishers. Hence the name: Megaphone!

We are also looking at other ways of adding value to the scheme, for example by involving schools, organising Twitter chats, etc. The cost for the scheme is £300; however there is funding available to cover this, for those who are in financial need. No-one will be unable to take part in the scheme simply because they cannot afford it.

The masterclasses for Megaphone all take place in central Birmingham, in Writing West Midlands’ offices. This means that you would have to spend just eight Saturdays between April 2016 and April 2017, in Birmingham. The transport links are excellent and as a city we’ve come a long way since the 1980s (if you measure progress by the availability of proper coffee – I confess I do, a bit :-) ). Seriously, though – we are a young, culturally and ethnically diverse city and thus the perfect host for a unique scheme like Megaphone.

So please, spread the word – we are accepting applications until the 24th of December. I believe this is a great opportunity for new writers to get a head start and for us all to benefit from a more diverse children's literature world.

For full details and to apply, see the website: . Applicants should be 1) from an ethnic minority 2) resident in England 3) not have had a novel for children or teenagers previously published. Follow us at @MegaphoneWrite on Twitter.

Monday, 22 June 2015

300 Words to Unputdownable - Leila Rasheed

(Here's an unexpected treat; for unforeseen reasons, today's slot was going spare - so I decided to have a rootle through the archives and find a post to revisit. This, by Leila Rasheed, formed part of the ABBA Online Literary Festival in 2011. It has some very helpful advice concerning beginnings...)

Here’s the thing: it isn’t that hard to get an editor or an agent to read your unsolicited submission. What’s hard is getting them to read beyond the first paragraph. Lack of time and the sheer number of manuscripts they receive mean that they will reject a submission as soon as it loses their attention.

Your challenge as a writer is to grab that attention and hold it. You have to make them think: “I must read on.”  - the sooner, the better. My theory is that you can do it in under 300 words. Sound impossible? Read on.

I learned that my first book, Chips Beans and Limousines, was one of only two unsolicited submissions that had been published, out of 5000 unsolicited manuscripts received in the five years the list had been running. The numbers made my mind boggle a bit, so I went back to the book to see what might have worked in this case that didn’t in 99.06% of others.

The first line is:

Dear new Diary,

Have I got your attention yet? Probably not. It’s slightly interesting that it is a diary because you know you’re going to get the character’s unedited thoughts – but also not exactly original. Diaries can be deadly dull, too.

The second line is:

I have a surprise for you.

When I read my book to a class of 9 – 10 year olds, you can feel their attention switch on at this line. They want to know what the surprise is. On a subtler level, they want to know why this writer is talking to her diary as if it is a real person.

So there you go – it is possible to get the readers’ attention in as little as two sentences. And it doesn’t even require a startling event as in the first line of Iain Banks’ Crow Road:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.  

Of course having one of those is great – but then you have to live up to it. What you don’t want is for your first line to be the best line in the book, so the rest of the reading is a progressively more disappointing experience. You want it to tease, to promise, to set the scene, to lay out the red carpet. Like this:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

When I first opened Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, I stopped right there and read it again, aloud, noticing for the first time ever how the name Lo-li-ta does exactly what he says on the palate. I was hooked – not by plot, for no event has been mentioned - but by the promise of rich, original language that re-shapes the world for me.

I am Sam. Sam I am.

Shorter but equally irresistible!

But a good first line is not enough. You have to deliver on your promises; show that your characters are people we don’t want to walk away from, stir up a language soup that tastes so good the reader wants more and more and more.

220 words into Chips, Beans and Limousines, the surprise for the diary turns out to be:

You never thought you would belong to a celebrity, did you? (The whole first page can be read at:

As it happens, that isn’t the-truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but it pays off  the debt to the reader created by the original promise of a surprise, and also builds on it to promise more exciting things to come. The reader is probably interested to find out what kind of things a child celebrity gets up to and confides to her diary (and why she persists in talking to that diary as if it was her best friend). And so they read on.

Over the time that I was composing this blog post, I was also re-reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. These are the first 276 words of that classic, first published in 1865:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation? Notice how the writer builds his character. She is a natural, rebellious, realistic little girl who gets bored by the same things his readers do. She is someone they would want to play with, someone we would want to spend a book with. He neatly mirrors (pun intended) the reader’s own feelings – who doesn’t remember checking through a book to find the illustrations before starting to read? – and reassures them that this author understands the kind of book they want. So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.  The sudden physical movement ups the pace. We sit up and take notice just as Alice does. There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so verymuch out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!' This is the most overt attention-grabber, the ‘Why? How? What next?’ moment for the reader – but charater and voice have been working their subtle attention-getting magic even before now.  (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat- pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity,wouldn’t the reader too be burning with curiosity? she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.  At this point  I would defy any child to put the book down. How is she to get out and what on earth is down there?
Obviously, C.L. Dodgson was a genius and I’m not. But I do think it interesting that our first passages, though so very different and separated by nearly 150 years, both make a clear play for the reader’s attention well within 300 words. It makes me think there must be some kind of universal rule there. And I think that practicing getting those first 300 words right can only help set high standards for the rest of your novel.

My advice
· Dare to be bold – but remember that you have to pay your debts to the reader. Only blow your grandmother up if you are absolutely certain that you can live up to it.
· Alternatively, challenge yourself. Blow your elderly relative sky high in the first line and set yourself the task of constantly being even more interesting than that in the rest of the book.
· Think about creating an impression with voice rather than event.
· Don’t be afraid of subtlety. A seductive glance can make more of an impression than streaking.
· Remember to build pace and tension, don’t just pile incident on incident.
· Be true to your whole story. It’s not about showing all your cards at once, it’s about making a good entrance.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Black and White and Everything In Between by Savita Kalhan

According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 in the US, just 93 were about black people. The UK fares little better by all accounts.

Leila Rasheed has blogged about the importance of non-issue based children’s books featuring children from ethnic backgrounds, and why she finds it hard to write about non-white characters.

Tanya Byrne has written about this on the Guardian books blog where she calls for more books featuring children of colour.

The dearth of non-white characters was raised by Dean Myers, in his article: Where are the People of Colour in Children’s Books.

And then again by his son Christopher Myers in The Apartheid of Children.

There is now an increasing debate and demand for more diversity in children’s literature to reflect our increasingly multi-ethnic and multi cultural society.

Almost thirty years ago Verna Wilkins set up Tamarind Press in an attempt to redress the lack of books with children from non-white backgrounds being published in the children’s market. But ‘mainstream’ publishers have yet to catch up, and there is clearly still a huge lack of such books.

As a British Asian, who is 100% Indian in terms of heritage, but who is essentially more British than Indian, and as a big reader during my childhood, it was always a surprise when I found a book about a child who shared my skin colour. A nice surprise. Yes, often those kids were beset by problems such as racial abuse and stereotyping, but that wasn’t a problem for me because growing up in the UK at the time did in fact necessarily involve having to face those issues to a greater or lesser degree.

What bothers me now is the fact that, as all of the above authors have pointed out, there are still very few books that feature children of colour, whether or not they are issue-based or are 'normal' non-issue based stories .

Children are growing up in a society which is far more culturally mixed and diverse. But, for today's children, not much has changed from when I grew up, in terms of seeing and reading about a diverse range of children like themselves and their friends in literature.

That’s a problem.

I completely agree with Malorie when she talks about diversity of multi-cultural voices in children’s literature being of paramount importance, not least because it would promote awareness and understanding, and tolerance.

On a personal level, as a writer, I have written books featuring all white characters. People have often said that The Long Weekend could have been written by a white Anglo-Saxon. That’s fine. I find it quite amusing. It’s my fully Indian name on the spine. In another novel, Amnesia, the main character is an English boy, but his best friend is Indian and his girlfriend is half Italian. The book I have just completed is about an Asian girl and features predominately Asian characters of different backgrounds. I don’t feel that because I’m Asian I have to write about Asian characters all the time, or that I should feel obliged to.

What’s important in children’s literature is that a diversity of characters in terms of ethnicity and culture is depicted, and that their voices are heard, and that a child is no longer surprised when they find more than one book featuring someone of their ethnicity, culture or colour. Sadly, that’s not happening yet.


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Once was bookseller

The last in our current series of blogs by booksellers who work with children’s books, this time by our own Leila Rasheed. These blogs have been intended to give a glimpse of relationships between booksellers and children’s writers, something usually transacted behind the scenes. Leila has been both, as you’ll see in this fascinating account of life in a cross-Channel Waterstones. We hope you’ve enjoyed this ‘Month of Sundays’ and we plan to bring you more tales from behind the till next year. Meanwhile, we at An Awfully Big Blog Adventure would like to thank the contributors and also all those who opened out and enriched this discussion with their thought-provoking comments.

Round about the same time I decided to take my writing seriously I met a random Danish composer and we moved in together in Brussels. I found there was a Waterstone’s, applied for a job and went to Italy. I rang from a phone box in Italy to see if I’d got the job and apparently that swung it. I was now a bookseller. It was 2002.

Waterstone’s Brussels was a WH Smiths from 1921 until 1997. It was once managed by Marina Warner’s father. During the 2nd World War it was a Nazi officer’s mess. It is the bottom two floors of a typical central Brussels mansion, and the building has a faded, stately huge heaviness, like a woman who’s grown too thick around the waist for her crinoline. On the third floor, where the offices are, corridors and false walls maze like secrets in a heart. It smells of dust and creaky, twisted wood.

I loved working in that bookshop. Loved it. The staff (hello guys) were amazing: bookish, funny, intelligent, crazy (literally, not ‘wooo, I’m so crazy’), arty, cosmopolitan. I loved the books. I quickly got to be in charge of the children’s section, probably because no-one else wanted it. This was bliss. I loved tidying my section so it looked enticing, like rearranging the sweets in a shop window. I loved unpacking boxes of new stock. I loved selling books, I loved people buying books. I loved writing shelf-talkers (those little bits of card under a book that say how great it is) and seeing people read them and smile and pick up the book and buy it. I loved poring over the publishers’ catalogues, thinking, ‘That’ll sell here’ and buying it in and seeing it fly out. I loved seeing my profits go up, my section do well. I even loved stickering and de-stickering (de-stickering less so; it wrecks your nails). I did not love the waste; the piles of 3 for 2s shed like Imelda Marcos’ last week’s shoes.

Waterstones in Brussels and in Amsterdam, the chain’s only two branches abroad, sell the same books as you would find in a Waterstones in the UK. There is a huge audience for English language books in Brussels. Belgium is a country of two parallel languages: French and Dutch. English is a neutral space between these two language communities, whose inability to get on with each other, politically at least, has led to the country entering the record books as the country which has taken the longest time to form a government after an election. (It’s like some incredibly unstable chemical compound, as soon as a government comes into being it decays). Middle class Belgians, especially Flemish Belgians, almost without exception speak fluent English. Ex-pats working in Brussels will frequently speak and read English as well as their own native language/s, French and Dutch. University courses are taught in English. Many of the international schools there teach curriculums in English. It is the official language for many if not most businesses in Brussels. Aside from Waterstone’s, Brussels supports an independent English bookshop, Sterling , many, many independent bookshops specializing in (for example) art and travel that sell books in English as well as other languages, Passaporta, which is a multi-lingual bookshop and includes a residency for writers, and an independent English language children’s bookshop, Treasure Trove, which has been established over 20 years. There are of course local French bookshops and Dutch bookshops and the Dutch bookshops in particular will also stock some English language books.

In the Waterstone’s chain, some books were assigned ‘core’ status and had to be kept in stock. Beyond that we were fairly free (depending on space, not much of which was left after the core stock, a fair amount of which was dire TV tie-ins and so on, was on the shelves) to buy what stock we wanted. Our customers were typically Eurocrats, politicians, diplomats and business people, some English teachers and many students. Our strongest sections were therefore politics, business and economics, while core stock memoirs of C-list British slebs languished un-sold. Good books for bright children to learn English as a second language were in demand. There seemed to be very few around, and I would say this is a gap in the market waiting to be filled by any clever publisher out there. The Usborne First 1000 words in English was a strong seller when put face-out with a shelf-talker. Not on Waterstone’s core stock, but we could shift 5 or 6 a week on average, a lot for us. Overall, we sold books. We made a profit, unlike some other flagship branches. We were therefore allowed to behave in many ways like an independent bookshop but with Waterstone’s purchasing might behind us. Glory days, etc.

To begin with, there was a form I had to fill in stating what I had spent on stock. But that vanished, and then there was no budget. Managers came and went like stressed moths. Now and then a bigger manager came from London and zoomed up the stairs to the office and zoomed down the stairs again and out to the pub. There was a mysterious thing called CPD that was meant to happen. I wrote my novel on the staff computer on Sunday afternoons. There was a revolution against uniforms.
The international schools came and swooped upon us and spent hundreds of euros. We did events. A customer asked Jackie Kay to direct her to the gardening section.
Once there was a thunderstorm and the roof came down in the children’s section and drowned several Enid Blytons. We mopped and dried out stock on the radiators. I collected things people lost in the children’s section. I considered making a little museum.

We had Johnny Depp in there once, filming up the road. I served his bodyguard, a tall, sad-eyed man in a ten gallon stetson. Michael Jackson visited before I arrived, the shop was closed for him and he bought children’s books. We had theft. I never noticed, I’m a bit rubbish that way. People would walk in and walk out again with overcoats full of hundreds of euros worth of dictionaries and Tintin books which they sold on the black market. We had two armed robberies. I wasn’t there at the time. We got a security guard.

We were sandwiched between a gun shop and a porn shop, behind us junkies slept in doorways, on the other side of the street was the red light district. A footstep behind us was Rue des Cendres, where the Duchess of Richmond’s ball before Waterloo was held. The rain ran down the arch of the disused cinema opposite and dripped like saliva from an open mouth. It’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever lived in. Last time I was there a man tried to slash my face with a knife as I walked down the street. We sold crackers at Christmas and Cadburys’ Crème Eggs at Easter. We were an ex-pat institution. Why do I say were? It’s still there. It sells coffee now. We angled for a coffee shop for ages and now there is one. You could go there and get a coffee next time you're in Brussels.

If I could do anything in the world, I would go back to bookselling as a career (alongside writing). I think I was a good bookseller and I know I enjoyed it. But I don’t think it would be practical in the long term. Why? Well, there has been some good news for bricks and mortar bookselling, there’s no doubt about that. Children’s publishers are springing up everywhere. That has to translate into sales. Waterstone’s has a new beginning. I have been following the James Daunt news on the Bookseller and am very excited at the changes. Scrapping the 3/2 is good. It’s good for customers who now have real choice rather than the illusion of choice. It’s good for staff who are trusted to do their jobs and know their books. It’s good because it gives value to something other than price, and this is what bricks and mortar bookselling has to be about, because it simply cannot compete with big online booksellers for price or convenience.

And there’s the rub. The bricks and mortar bookshop faces huge, specific and fundamental challenges – online bookselling, e-books, rise of the self-publisher - and all against a backdrop of worsening economic conditions. So much so that I cannot imagine career bookselling will last into a new generation in any other than a very boutique form. I hope that I’ll be proved wrong. I hope commenters can persuade me that I'm pessimistic. But in Birmingham we do not have one single independent general bookseller. Do you know how many people there are in Birmingham? One heck of a lot, that’s how many. You’d think they could support one single sole little independent bookseller. But the last, Bonds books in leafy Harborne, shut a couple of years ago. Over in equally leafy and more intellectual Moseley/ Kings Heath, we’ve got an Oxfam books that is usually jammed. That’s doing well – the second hand bookseller with the cheap charity rates to help it make a profit. The organic yummy mummy cafes have Usborne stands in them.

Books are selling but bookshops are closing. People will browse and pick up a second hand book but they’ll do their serious book shopping online. I cannot help thinking that much as I love real proper bookshops, all things pass. Like cassette tapes or VHS, or the steam engine, or the Bronze age.

Still, if a dedicated independent bookseller can stay afloat anywhere, it should be able to do so in Moseley/Kings Heath. Does anyone out there want to open one? And give me a job?

leila rasheed once was bookseller; now is book writer.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

300 Words to Unputdownable - Leila Rasheed (inc competition)

Here’s the thing: it isn’t that hard to get an editor or an agent to read your unsolicited submission. What’s hard is getting them to read beyond the first paragraph. Lack of time and the sheer number of manuscripts they receive mean that they will reject a submission as soon as it loses their attention.

Your challenge as a writer is to grab that attention and hold it. You have to make them think: “I must read on.”  - the sooner, the better. My theory is that you can do it in under 300 words. Sound impossible? Read on.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Summer plans

I’ve decided to take a break for a while, not least because there’s a waiting list to join in this excellent blog. Thanks to everyone and au revoir! But I thought I'd make my last post a brief one about the future - the summer.

One of the hardest things about having writing as a main occupation, and moving between two different countries on a regular basis, is time management. I have to think about being one month in England, two months in Italy, two weeks in Belgium – and only one of those countries in my own home, and none of them where I have a separate and dedicated work room. It’s difficult to take a routine with me from country to country and house to house, so I think of my life as chunks of time and tasks to achieve within that time, tasks relevant to the country I’m in. So in Italy I have time to do lots of writing, but in England I have the opportunity to read new children’s books in the library, network with other writers, and do school visits and events, so I write less. I try to bring some order to my life by prioritising.

This summer I will be in Italy, so my priorities are:
Write, write, write! My work in progress is set in a snow-bound Brussels – but I’ll be trying to imagine it in 25 degree heat in Italy. At some point I’ll also have to write the second draft of a Working Partners’ novel.
Mark, mark, mark…
Creative Writing MA portfolios can be done from home.
Another bitty job that can be done online.
Learn Italian
I do know Italian pretty well… but I’d be so much better at it if I just learned a verb a day.
Teach English
To get a bit of income. I have a couple of friends who come for occasional lessons.
Get healthy
It shouldn’t be that hard, should it? Surrounded by fresh vegetables, hills to stride up and down, and sea to swim in. Fingers crossed I won’t just spend the entire summer stuck to the computer, drinking coffee and eating pizza.
And thanks to my Kindle, I can also…
Catch up on my reading!
I just wish there were more children’s books available for the Kindle.

What are your summer priorities? I'd love to know.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

What is children's literature anyway? 32 definitions and counting...

This list arose out of a workshop on Writing for Children and Young People, delivered yesterday to MA in Writing students at the University of Warwick, along with Karen Ball and Sara Grant. As I planned it, I found myself wondering: what is children’s literature anyway? How can one define and describe it in all its rich complexity? How can one explain a kind of writing that encompasses everything from Rosie's Walk to Twilight?
I came up with a list – and I would love to know what you would add to the list.
1) Children’s literature is not the only kind of literature that that children read. For example, my childhood reading included James Herriot, the Readers’ Digest and Summerhill by A.S. Neill.
2) Children’s literature is commercially successful. I have been told it’s the only sector of publishing that is growing.
3) Children’s literature is highly popular – the most borrowed and sold books in the UK are children’s books.
4) Children’s literature is as easy to write as adult literature. You start with the same things: voice, characters, conflicts, points of view…
5) Children’s literature is as difficult to write as adult literature. You start with the same things: voice, characters, conflicts, points of view…
7) Children’s literature is literature for minds that are growing as fast as humanly possible. Can you keep up with your readers?
8) Children’s literature is literature which forms you whether you/ it like/s it or not.
9) Children’s literature is literature which influences the next generation, therefore determines our future. Those who read Mr Gum today will rule the country tomorrow.
10) Children’s literature is literature which is remembered and loved for a lifetime.
11) Children’s literature is the soil that adult readers grow in.
12) Children’s literature is responsive to the reader.
13) Children’s literature is a tightrope walker: between childhoods (your own and other peoples) and adulthoods (your own and other peoples).
14) Children’s literature is not one single literature but many literatures.
15) Children’s literature is a way to deal with important issues in society.
16) Children’s literature is a way to explore humanity’s most essential psychology.
17) Children’s literature is undoubtedly affected by film and computer games.
18) Children’s literature is changing constantly.
19) Children’s literature is for children.
20) Children’s literature is literature which gives children something to aspire to
21) Children’s literature is literature which empowers and educates children.
22) Children’s literature is interested in the same things children are interested in
23) Children’s literature is true to the emotions and inner lives of children
24) Children’s literature is not judgemental or moralistic.
25) Children’s literature is about children’s lives and interests in the broadest sense.
26) Children’s literature is interested in adults only as far as they relate to children.
27) Children’s literature is fun for children to read!
28) Children’s literature is all about the story.
29) Children’s literature is written by all kinds of people.
30) Children’s literature is not just read by children.
31) Children’s literature is not bought by its intended readers.
32) Children’s literature is a commercial designation.
Add your ‘Children’s Literature is…’ in the comments!

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Book review: Stones for My Father by Trilby Kent (review by Leila Rasheed)

For a change, I thought I’d post a book review today. Stones For My Father, by Trilby Kent, is a historical children’s novel published in Canada and the U.S. by Tundra Books. Set during the Boer war, it’s the story of an Afrikaans girl, Corlie Roux, whose life is changed forever when her farm is burned by the British army and she has to escape into the bush. From the days hiding out with the laager, to her final imprisonment in a concentration camp, Corlie’s struggle to survive in the beautiful but harsh African landscape is richly and evocatively described. Animals, in particular, are so well-painted that they leap off the page. This is one of those books that leaves you feeling as if you have really been there.
“We continued in silence, stopping only to watch a goshawk slice between the treetops on its afternoon death-cruise. When we reached the river-bank, I tore off a thread from the hem of my dress and showed Gert how to tie it onto a fishhook. We gathered sticks for rods, and used bright protea leaves for bait. Then we slipped our dry-soled feet into the sparkling water and waited, trying to ignore our growling stomachs.”
Corlie’s mother – who hates her, for reasons that are revealed at the end of the book – is one of the adult characters who are so well-described that they seem to have physical weight in the mind.
“’Get out of here,’ she snapped. ‘Take your brother to Oom Flip’s. He owes us a box of tobacco.’ Despite her godly airs, my mother was a prodigious smoker. Pa had never approved of her pipe habit, but Pa wasn’t around anymore to tell her so. My mother’s face had turned quite red, the veins in her temples bulging where her hair had been scraped back into a severe bun. ‘Are you deaf, girl? Do you want me to get the sjambok?’”
There was a discussion recently about hope in children’s books on the Balaclava mailing list, and I thought this was an interesting book in relation to that discussion. Corlie’s life is tough and unredeemed by love. No-one comes out of this well, not the British who burn farms and herd children like Corlie into concentration camps to die, nor the Boers who consider Africa given to them by God and casually beat the African servants by whose knowledge and skills they have been kept alive in the bush. There is a sense of people made hard by their hard lives, and all – from soldiers to children - caught up in the chaotic whirlwind of war.
The most obvious source of hope is in the figure of Corporal Byrne, the Canadian soldier fighting on the British side, who finally gives Corlie a future. But I think there is another one, which pervades the whole book – the physicality of Africa itself; the animals, the vegetation, the land. This is a harsh and dangerous place where Corlie is at risk, but it is always described with love and a sense of joy in its immense beauty. The land itself is the hope.
There is another interesting issue, which may or may not be obvious from the excerpts above: it’s difficult to determine the reading age for this book. This is certainly not The White Giraffe, for example! Corlie herself is twelve, but narrates the book from some future point of adulthood, and very much as a literate and educated adult – for example, on the first page she describes a baby as a ‘putto’. There’s plenty of exciting plot, but I did feel that the final chapters, particularly around the dream sequence, might drag for the child reader. The novel would probably be best suited to a thoughtful teenage reader or an adult. If younger children who like a challenge try it, though, I’m sure they will find much to enjoy, for Corlie’s Africa is a world which will entrance you and convince you. When I put it down I could still hear the lourie birds calling and see the bright wildflowers trembling in the breeze.
Stones For My Father is Trilby Kent’s second novel for children. Her first is Medina Hill, and her first novel for adult readers: Smoke Portrait, has just been published by Alma Books. She lives in London.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Dispatch from Italy: here's a suggestion, why not try hard work? by Leila Rasheed

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air. Sitting down at my usual bar, drinking my usual cappuccino, scribbling in my usual notebook, half-listening to the usual 102.2 radio playing over the speakers (slogan: “Very normal people”), in between the usual Italian rock ballads and 80s nostalgia, I catch this plaintive question: Do you ever feel like a plastic bag? I sit up, I take notice. No, but I am prepared to go with it. Drifting through the air, wanting to start again. Okay, this is one of those metaphors that seems really good when you first think of it but doesn’t quite work on paper. You don’t have to feel like a waste of space. You’re original, cannot be replaced. This ought to encourage me, after all I’m a writer, we all sit around chewing our nails thinking “Are my books a waste of space? Am I original? Will I be replaced by a younger and more marketable author?” and our spirits rise and fall with our royalties – just like a plastic bag, actually, drifting through the air. But it doesn’t encourage me. It really doesn’t. It sounds about as sincere as Berlusconi’s hair weave. Or that other slogan of all-purpose blandly grinning reassurance: Because you’re worth it.

I understand the desire to have a song you can punch the air to, the need all us very normal people - slogging through our commuter runs or thirty-seventh drafts, feeling as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel, fearing that our lives are meaningless - have to be reassured that we truly are special. But this self-help song is hollow, because there is no struggle and no victory. It just assumes entitlement. Entitlement to self-respect, entitlement to publication, entitlement to glossy hair. It assumes you need make no sacrifices to achieve your goal. That having a dream means you are entitled to have it come true. That if you want to sing, a fairy godfather in the form of a massively rich record executive, ought to bungee jump down and whisk you away to the top of the charts in a flurry of flash-bulbs.

Not true. If you start with I have a dream, you should anticipate pushing through the dark years, still another mile. To those who feel like a waste of space, here’s a suggestion: set yourself a goal and work your socks off to achieve it. For example: work on that metaphor until it’s powerful rather than ludicrous. And then you can punch the air to a song which contains a real emotional victory: I will survive. There’s a reason that one has stayed popular: it’s the story of a self-respect and success that was earned.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Three thoughts - Leila Rasheed


The world is changing and so is my brain. When I was a teenager, I used to saturate myself in Dickens or Austen and go about narrating my life to myself in the voice of their novels. This evening I was struggling to light our apathetic fire and found myself narrating my life to myself in a Facebook status. Leila Rasheed Is: playing with fire. Language shrinkage. I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel, and I’m convinced that I’ve written it a hundred times more badly than I would have five or ten years ago. My brain has curled up like a hedgehog and no matter how much I poke it with sticks, it doesn’t want to move.
I think I can solve it. The first step is making space for a book, turning off the computer. Reading does for the brain what water does to those magic towels I coveted when I was a child; it causes it to expand and become far more interesting. There are microbes that lie around in a state of dehydration for years just waiting for the rain to bring them back to life. My brain can live again!
We need computers. We probably even need Facebook. But we need real books, too. This is why it is so sad that libraries are under threat. The internet scrunches language up small, it dehydrates it. Books, novels, well-written books of all kind, allow language to flourish. And language is thought.


Spell checkers have their own happy logic. Sometimes when I am typing away, I’ll mis-hit a key, and the program will adjust what I typed to what it thinks I meant to type. So what I intended as more becomes moiré. Now I have never, to my knowledge, intentionally typed the word moiré until this blog post. How often does the average Microsoft user use the word moiré? How often does anyone use the word moiré? I imagine the computer, blind and deaf as it is, imagines itself used by an elegant lady with strings of pearls and a chignon (another word I have never to the best of my knowledge typed before). Such a lady would use the word moiré. Such a lady would have a less apathetic fire than mine, and a small dog to sit in front of it.


Over in Italy, we buy firewood that fruit farmers have trimmed from their trees and we stack it outside to dry. It is proper wood, with knots and gnarls and bark and splinters. We also collect driftwood; big nubbly olive roots stripped of bark, bits of door, that kind of thing. When dried out this burns in witchy colours because of the salt. It usually leaves behind stubborn bits that won’t burn, and old nails and so forth.
Here in England we buy sacks of smokeless fuel shaped into perfect pebbles as light as pumice, and ‘Blaze’ logs, which are formed of sawdust into a regular cuboid with a perfect hole down the middle, packed neatly into plastic. They are the same brown all over. They burn entirely and leave vast amounts of fine, clean white ash.
On the one hand, a functional, Facebook sort of a language, perfectly cuboid, uniformly brown. On the other, a gnarly, splintery, waterlogged sort of a language that needs stacking in the head and leaving to dry for a while before it can burn, and burn, and burn.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Fire and fireworks

I wonder about Bonfire Night, I really do. I wonder how it started. I can’t believe that, even in the 1600s, ordinary English folk were so uncritically in love with their MPs that they consciously decided to dedicate a night every year to burning an effigy of the man who tried to get rid of them. I mean, we don't burn effigies of the Brighton bomber.

I suppose that people’s outrage stemmed less from the threat to the government, and more from the fact that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up St Stephen’s Hall, the symbolic home of popular liberties and rights. Also, from the terror of being taken over by the Catholic powers of Europe. These things could all make you afraid and angry enough to burn a man for centuries after he’s dead.

But probably it really started unconsciously, more by accident than design. An ancient festival happened to coincide with the biggest news of the year. What the Guy on the bonfire actually represented was a mixture of things: the man himself, the old year, the folk memory of a sacrificial king, an all-purpose Papist, a horrible foreigner. And because the Guy was a mixture of things, he was strong enough to survive. He always meant something to someone. As I think about him, he’s already starting to take shape as a possible character in a possible book in my head.

Nowadays, happily, Bonfire night means mostly good things to people, and especially to children. It’s the start of the long, wonderful slide down into Christmas. My mum and my husband complain at this time of year, they hate the evenings drawing in, but I have always loved it. It’s wonderfully portentous, witnessing the increasing power of the night. And it’s a perfect excuse for curling up; in a pub, with a book, in front of the TV, anywhere cosy and warm.

I like Bonfire night because it’s the ceremonial start of winter, the start of the magic and stories season. It's a time to feel the delight of a hot potato in cold gloved hands, to snuff up the smell of sparklers. It’s a time to stand close to someone you love and watch fireworks re-enact the Big Bang over and over and over. It’s a time for danger, too. My Bonfire night is haunted by the ghost of my mum’s childhood friend who had a firework explode in her face some time in the 1940s and died, only to revive as a wraithly story every November of my childhood. And that, too, is a possible book, or part of one.

So while you’re enjoying a happy and safe Bonfire night, don’t forget to keep an eye out for stories and characters – they’re everywhere at this time of year.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

I know it's only September but

Winter is coming, and the author is getting fat. Yes, indeed, I have seen the signs – ‘Book your Christmas meal now!’ in pubs across the land. This is the time to stick on Radio 4 and some warm socks, draw the curtains, and make the house smell of delicious cooking.

These are my warm socks (I wear them as I type this). They are Authorial Socks. They were knitted for me by my best mate, and the stripes are the barcodes for my first two novels. If they were not made of wool, you could scan them and they would beep. No doubt Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan and others have just such socks, which they wear as they write their masterpieces. If they do not, I pity them.

And this is what I suggest for the cooking: a mouth-watering pamphlet of recipes created by author Rosy Thornton, a 'virtual friend' of mine from the Writewords site. All the recipes are taken from her new book The Tapestry of Love, which is set in the Cevennes region of France. She’s giving this pamphlet away as a kind of amuse-bouche for the novel, so do feel free to download it here:

If you get a taste for the book, it can be got from Amazon or the usual places, but there might be a couple of weeks delay because the paperback is just about to be released.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Blog! What is it good for? (* with apologies to Frankie goes to Hollywood)

I really liked Karen Ball’s post a few days ago where three different kinds of 21st century book buying and reading were identified. It seemed to me to get right to the heart of the matter: variety is what characterises the habits of book buyers. Since we have recently been having a discussion among ourselves about the possible future directions of this blog, I thought it would be interesting to copy her model and look at my own blog-reading habits as a representative example.

Why do I read blogs?

Blogs such as Cake wrecks are not going to expand my intellectual horizons (though I did learn a lot about different kinds of icing), but they are so funny. I usually don’t look at Cake Wrecks for weeks, then I go back and have a binge, reading back through pages of posts. I laugh and relax and feel happier afterwards. The thing that obviously makes this work is not so much the photos of cakes gone bad, but the author’s fantastic voice – she could write a teen novel if she wanted. Angus, Cakes and Full Frontal Icing?

We all know writing is a lonely business, and for me, the real value of blogs such as helpineedapublisher is that when I read them I know that there are other writers out there, coping with the same problems that I am. I shall not walk alone! Nicola Morgan’s blog works so well for me partly because it deals honestly with subjects that are really important to me, but also, importantly, because of her voice. You feel that a real person is talking to you, a real conversation is being had. The fact that she’s in Scotland, I’m in Italy, and we’ve never met, becomes unimportant. Helpineedapublisher is one of maybe two or three blogs that I actively look at daily.

There is really worthwhile and important information out there on the internet. People are giving it away for free. Most news sites, for example – BBC or the Guardian. From a writing point of view, I can go to The Greenhouse Agency’s blog to hear from the horse’s mouth what you should look for in an agent, or to find out what kind of writing they are looking for. I can go to Emma Darwin’s blog for a thoughtful piece on the technical skills of writing. People hoping to be published have more sources of free information available to them than ever before.

Obviously these three blog functions overlap. Ideally, I suppose a blog should be entertaining, give you a great sense of community, and be instructive as well. Helpineedapublisher does all three, I think.

When do I read blogs?

In a break from work, when I’ve finished typing up a section of my novel in progress, or done something else that makes my brain feel as if it needs a rest. I don’t sit down to read blogs as a duty – I do it in my spare time, for relaxation.

I think, therefore, that blogs are best compared to newspapers or magazines. The same things make both work: being written in a strong, entertaining voice, issues that affect the readers (or that the readers believe affect them), information that they need or want. Just like newspapers or magazines, they get cliquey; people stick to the same blog and want their opinions reinforced more than challenged, as is human nature. But the flip side of that is that they create a sense of lively community.
It seems that we writers should be in a really strong position to make the best possible use of blogging technology. We know how to write in a strong voice, we understand about writing for a specific audience, we know how to make novels readable and gripping – so the blogosphere should be our oyster. All comments on how we on ABBA can make the most of that oyster will be gratefully received below!

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Five things I didn’t know until I got published - by Leila Rasheed

1) Writers are divided. Poets and community writers think novelists have it easy and set too much store by publication. Novelists don’t know that community writers exist. Horror, romance and fantasy writers scorn authors of literary novels for being pretentious and not selling any copies, and literary writers look down on horror, romance and fantasy writers for, well, not being literary. Happily, all are united by their mutual incomprehension of why any intelligent adult would choose to write ‘kids’ books’.

2) Not all children’s authors are nice (although everyone working in children’s publishing is nice, disturbingly so).

3) Commercial fiction means ‘fiction that sells a lot of copies’ – for example, The Catcher in the Rye. Genre fiction means ‘fiction with a murder weapon, cartoon heart or vampire on the cover’. Literary fiction means ‘fiction with a truncated soft-focus person, an unremarkable landscape or Soviet-style graphics, on the cover’. Move away from these definitions and you will swiftly sink in a quicksand of doubt.

4) You will be paid for just doing just about everything apart from writing – leading workshops, being a motivational speaker, teaching other people how to write. The one necessary qualification for these jobs is a publishing contract. For writing, you will receive a six-monthly statement which tells you how over-drawn at the publisher you are.

5) You will be welcomed into schools, although they don’t quite know why they want you. Children will consider you a celebrity and queue up for your autograph. They will assume you are rich, have a fast car, and personally know Jacqueline Wilson. Meanwhile you will be spending every night worrying either about how to feed your own children, or whether you can afford to have children in the first place.

Had I known these things before I was published, it would have made no difference whatsoever to my desire to get published, and be a writer.

Post script: this is all a bit depressing. So here are five WONDERFUL things about being published:

1) Nine year old girls will look upon you as a god.
2) Children will ask you for your autograph; you will be horrified to realise how much you enjoy giving it. Even though you know it will be lost forever at the bottom of their bag. In a school, you will be a celebrity.
3) Other writers will amaze you with their supportive generosity. Writers who work in prisons, writers who work with the mentally ill, writers who give their time and talent so that others can benefit from writing. Writers who let you use their best workshop exercise without a grumble. Writers who sit around and help you bitch about rejections.
4) Filling out official forms will acquire a new piquancy now that you are able to write with perfect honesty: OCCUPATION: WRITER.
5)Books are tax-deductible.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On the importance of a good diet - by Leila Rasheed

A year or so ago I was in a critique group for published writers. We included authors of non-fiction, literary fiction, memoir, drama and poetry. I was the only children’s writer, yet the others seemed to like my writing, so much so that one day I received the thought-provoking comment:

“This is too good for a children’s book.”

A compliment? Well, I’m sure it was meant as one. But the more I think about it, the less I like it. The assumptions within it remind me of the extraordinary British attitude to school dinners. Healthy, tasty food? Far too good for children! They’ll do just fine on deep-fried e-numbers and cardboard pizza with a side of chips.

I doubt there are many people who would deny that children are a country’s best investment, that they are, literally, our future. Most parents instinctively put their children’s interests before their own. We know that how a person is treated as a child will affect how they behave as an adult; the echoes of affection or violence, of support or scorn, carry far into adulthood. Recently, our society has also woken up to the fact that feeding children on sugary, salty rubbish creates just as many echoes: obesity, heart-disease, eating disorders. And yet when it comes to feeding the mind, it seems that even some writers still consider children scavengers rather than honoured guests at the table of literature. What echoes are created when the mind is fed on second-rate stuff?

Why should people assume the best writing must be for adults, any more than the best food? Isn’t it children who need it most, who need to be fed on fresh, vitamin-rich, mouth-wateringly delicious words and sentences? If they don’t get these things as children, how can we expect the adults they become to read anything but rubbish? How can we expect them to have a healthy, discerning attitude to books? How can we expect them to care about reading at all?

Children’s books should be different, yes. Children are not adults; a children’s novel is not just a shorter version of an adult’s novel. Different but not worse; if anything, better. Because if adults are content to toss the skin and bones of writing to children, keeping the meat for themselves, by the time those children grow to be adults it will be too late: their reading palate will have been destroyed forever.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

What I did on my Holidays

I am in Snowdonia, staring at sheep. I believe sheep to be unfairly represented in the media. Their public image is of slow-moving creatures with the figure, appetite and intelligence of a Hoover bag. But the animals I see stare keenly back at me, assessing my relevance before choosing to bound, agile, away over the slippery slates. They look quite capable of herding sheep-dogs. Each bleat has a different tone – some sound like a human mimicking a sheep, others are bleak as foghorns.The lambs look at me, look at their mothers, look at me, look back at their mothers. Some bolt. Others freeze.

I am thinking about sheep and how long humans have farmed them for. What is natural about a sheep? What is natural about our countryside? Very little, even here, after generations of breeding and clearing and husbanding. We call a natural landscape like this one unspoiled, untouched. As if to touch something were to spoil it. That's why naïve writers resist editing. But it happened this way. But that’s exactly what they said. Of course, the first thing any writer has to learn is that real life is much better if it's fiction.

It strikes me that writers are just like farmers but without the benefits of lots of fresh air and exercise in their daily employment. After all, what is natural about the readable book, the elegant sentence? They look so easy, but they're the result of long hours of hard work. We are herders of words, sowers of sentences.Farmers kill weeds, we kill our darlings. Farmers breed for meat or fleece, we weave plot and theme and character together into a unique whole. We dam the story and let tension pool, we foreshadow in the beginning the traits we wish our ending to show. We choose and train and grow words. Farmers set a process in motion – growing a sheep or a cabbage to maturity – then guide and train it. The process writers set in motion is the story: what happened, and then what happened, and then what?

I am no longer in Snowdonia. I am in the Dee valley, staring at the ruins of an abbey. Turner, a plaque informs me, painted this. I look at the picture and think how natural it looks, how much like real life. But, the plaque goes on to tell me, the artist conflated two view-points, so that he could show the ruins of Dinas Bran above the abbey’s shoulder. The view he presents does not exist, it is a layered ghost, a prototype Photo-Shop, an impossible made up of two possibles. What looks so natural is actually nothing of the sort. I can't help feeling slightly cheated, and then I realise I'm like the person who reads a book and says to the author I never knew you thought that, or You based that character on me, didn't you? Why wouldn't Turner also know that real life looks much better if it's fake?

I am no longer in the Dee valley. I am at home in Birmingham, it is just gone 10 p.m. and I am wondering what on earth the point I'm trying to make is, and how to conclude this blog post. It's too late to try and salvage it, so I shall end where I began, with sheep. Noble creatures!