Showing posts with label Penny Dolan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Penny Dolan. Show all posts

Friday, 1 January 2021


Free Clipart Of A bell hourglass and happy new year banner 

It's the first of January 2021 and the beginning of a new year. Let's hope it will be better for many than the one that came before.

Right now, a post about New Year Resolutions or Inspirational Goals doesn't seem to fit my mood, so here - instead - is the Awfully Big Blog Adventure New Year Quiz instead. 

Appropriately, the twelve questions are about Beginnings found in well-known Children's Books. I wonder which ones you'll recognise?

Are you ready? Found a pen and a scrap of paper? Or shout them aloud over your mince pie, along with "Easy Peasy." And you don't need to fill in any deletions. Steady? Go! With no Googling either!

Wishing you Good Luck!  

And even more Good Luck and Better Times for the year ahead too.  

(nb Answers can be found below the second set of New Year Bells)

1. The Sun did not shine, it was too wet to play so we sat in the house on that cold, cold wet day.

2.  In a hole in the ground there lived a _____________


3. You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of  The Adventures of ______ __________ but that ain't no matter.

4. One sunny Sunday the caterpillar hatched out of a tiny egg.

5.  It was Mrs May who first told me about them.

6 . There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.

7.  "Where's Papa going with that ax?"

8.  Mrs _________'s Academy for  Witches stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by pine forests.


9.  When ________ _______  was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever.

10. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.

11. It was a dark and blustery afternoon in Spring and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.


12. The first place I can well remember was a large, pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.


That's it! Well done, probably, and hooray!  

And every good wish for your year ahead.

(With Impressive Resolutions or Without.)

Penny Dolan






Free Clipart Of A bell hourglass and happy new year banner

Hello Again. Here's the Answers!

1 The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss

2 The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien

3 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

4 The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

5 The Borrowers by Mary Norton

6 The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

7 Charlotte's Web by E.B.White

8 The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

9 The Secret Garden by F. Hodgson Burnett

10 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S.Lewis

11 Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

12 Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

PERSISTING: The Story of A Book Group by Penny Dolan

During lockdown - surely the most overused opening right now? -  some bookish things changed in my life. Today I want to write about one of these ordinary, everywhere but special groups that many of you may belong or have belonged to - or not belonged to because of your own reading preferences.  Here's my story:

The Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* started years ago as a staff-led, after-hours monthly meeting at the local Waterstones bookshop. The choice slanted towards the next highly promoted title which could be interesting but, even with discount, an expensive obligation if you didn't like the book quite that much. Sometimes, if the choice was a film-tie-in paperback - the kind where actors appear on the front cover - you might have a plainer copy already on the shelf at home. Lucky you! 

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaHowever, within a year,  both the two staff "minders" had moved to bigger, better branches and nobody wanted the unpaid responsibility of after-hours opening.  Yet people persisted. 

The bookgroup met around eight, in one of the various large bars of local hotels and pubs in town. The "readers" increased, spreading convivially out across the bar but that meant the discussion broke up into small cliques. The long hot summer took away several members and then the dark winter months shrank the group even further.  

What could be done? We, a few remaining members, persisted. In an economical mode.

We rented a small, cheap church community-room opposite the local library, whose only free slot was from quarter-past-six to quarter-past-seven, between church meetings and music rehearsals.

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaHappily, this odd time worked well for the now all-female group: it fitted easily between work and home, was brief enough for people with caring responsibilities and late night transport was no longer a difficulty. 

The timing might suggest a cocktail hour but we opted for minimum refreshments: tea or coffee and simple chocolate biscuits. We used our sixty minutes for small fragments of news and lots of book talk. Over the years, people came and went - house moves, work moves, family changes - but still the book group was there, persisting.

We also got round the book title problem. We subscribed - like twenty more local book groups - to our library's book group loan scheme. Through this excellent scheme, we could collect multiple copies of one title from central stock just before one meeting and delivered the pile back again in a months time. This quantity of borrowed books also explains publishing's great passion for creating popular Book Group titles and adding those annoying Talking Points pages at the end of novels.  

We could choose our own titles too: each year, during an enjoyable June meeting, we created a reading list that spread across a wide range of genres and interests and all was satisfactory. Each month, the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* continued meeting.

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaThen came the cuts. Our town library - one of the original Carnegie libraries - survived the county wide cuts but with a thinned-out staff, service and stock and eventually with an adult education service moving into the building as well. Our supply of monthly Book Group copies grew erratic,  but we persisted. 

We devised a cunning book list, suggesting a choice of three titles per month for the librarian and for a while,  it worked. The librarian ordered in whichever one of the three titles was in greatest stock.

We usually received a mix of hardback, paperback, large print and audio-cd versions so there were often polite discussions about people's preferred formats:
hardback for best design and book feel but heavy to read in bed;
paperback was useful unless the font was tiny; 
large print was enjoyed for easy reading but never (to my mind) beautiful 
while audio was great for listening  but not as speedy as the written word if you were in a rush
We were going well, with titles happily lined up to see us through late spring and early summer.

And then came Covid. 

That was it.  After more than a decade, our small but sociable hour had gone. Some people did not want to commit to reading anything, let alone thinking about it.  Some were involved with shielding or isolating or coping with changes to family arrangements. Some did not want to think beyond the "now" moment, either,  even though they knew it was there.  Some were dealing with all of these and all reactions were sensible and understandable.

Clearly, what many people had liked about the book group was the sociability, the chance to be together with the books as a focus. Maybe even more than they liked the books themselves? An interesting thought.

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaAnyway,with the library closed its doors, our monthly title no longer mattered a jot, nor among the general awfulness. did the missing meeting matter. What clearly did matter was that not everyone in the group liked using modern technology to the same degree. There would be no Zoom meetings for the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group.*. 

Instead, gradually, we've been sending the group our own email (short or long) each month, keeping in touch with oddments of news or thoughts about any screen stuff seen, or gardens or anything. Just saying hello, really. And, occasionally, some of us mention book titles we've read.  Truly, it's about the people, not the pages.

However, now there's been news of libraries re-opening, but not as we knew them.

Our library, like others, will open in a limited, phased way sometime in July, mainly for the  return of books and the collection of orders; later in the summer, people will be allowed in to use the computer screens . . . 

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaBut the essential library pleasure of idle browsing is a long long way away, and what will the state of the book stock be by then? Remembering that in the past, library books were thought to spread disease, will anyone in the book want to borrow books as before? Or will it all be e-book loans?

Should the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* even try to make a new reading list?

Or plan to meet again sometime in the future?

And, after all these years, is persisting even possible for Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* ?

As for your own Book Groups? How are they going?  How are they working?

Penny Dolan

ps The Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* is a fictitious name. But somehow I'm feeling rather peckish right now.

Friday, 1 May 2020



Last week, something very cheering dropped through my letterbox: my author copies of two early reader titles! I was particularly pleased and surprised because I feared these titles might have lost their place in the publishing process by now.

Though they might not be world class literature, they are bright and colourful and satisfying to see, mostly because of the work of the editors, illustrators and designers.

Consequently, today on ABBA, I’m posting a few random tips about writing “little books” like these.

Spend years hearing young children read. Sorry, that’s my joke. Seriously, do listen to children as they read and as they interact with books. Get used to the rhythms of their language, what they can and can’t understand. Be aware of the words they use and the kinds of words that interest them.

This is a big one. Write from what young children know, not from what you as an adult find amusing. I think of it as “looking upwards from below”, not looking down from your knowledge head.

No ideas? Walking and thinking about children’s interests is a good way of letting ideas rise to the surface, Watching and listening to children when possible. What matters to them? When you can – ha ha hollow laugh right now – look at any reading book collections in local children’s library. Note the changes in sentence length and layout.

Got your idea? Jot 13 numbers down along a page. These are your spreads. Scribble two or three words beside each number noting what the progression of the idea might be. Get the span of your story spread across the pages.

Then write your story according to that pattern. Read your work aloud, then improve it. Leave it alone. Go away. Come back later. Repeat process over a few days. Your eyes and ears will get dulled to the process if you sit too long so do something different.

Don’t be afraid to speak – there may be a fact that you know but that the editor or illustrator does not. However, don’t be too precious over your work. The editors and the consultants know the series house style and fomat better than you do.

Structure your story so that something slightly different visually can happen on each page spread – obviously within the context of the story. Also , save any criticism of the illustration for those things that matter. (And, by the time you see the pages, it may be too late. You may not win.)

Is your proposed story actually interesting? Look at the range of titles within any particular levels in a library or online. Remember, a publisher is unlikely to want another story on the same subject. Yes, one can have too many puppies!

Think of each page turn as a chapter, or a new scene in a drama. How does “this spread” progress the plot? How can I build in some tension or surprise, a big reveal?

Finally, don’t expect riches. This work is not well paid and often only for a fee, but can be fun to do while struggling over something “bigger”. And never forget to register for PLR! Come February, my “little books” bring me quite a lot of joy! 

nb. These images are earlier titles.  I think my new books are too new to exist! 

Wishing you good health and happy words
Penny Dolan

Wednesday, 1 April 2020


Celtic Cross Spread - Lotus Tarot

Hello! On a very unusual April the First.

With the UK is in self isolation mode, as are many countries, this day doesn't feel one for jokes - even if the annoying little fonts within this post are playing tricks on me.

Although the lad in the card seems mightily hopeful, I'll let him stay here awhile, as a wish for better and happier times.
Instead, while recognising I am one of the lucky ones without responsibilities, I'm musing on the current situation.where all my usual patterns of working seem disturbed.  


1. The getting of ideas.
I have limited the daily wash of news and information, but that same mental blocking makes it harder to dream up any new ideas at all. This seems to be a common problem. 

On Monday, here on ABBA, Tamsin Cooke described how children's experience of living in social isolation is making so many potential storylines seem unbelievable fiction. She explains the conflict far more closely and clearly than I could so do look for her post.

For myself, I'm just glad to have a WIP set in Victorian times to escape into, even though that time may be totally irrelevant to publishing's eventual mood and future shape. Onwards, however, wherever.

2. Keep watching your hands. 

File:Dürer, Albrecht - Study of Hands - 1506.jpg ...

Hunkered down at home, I'm waiting for fresh ideas, my scribble-pad at my elbow while I cook or clean.  Soon - like many - I'll be sorting through dusty paper piles, now-irrelevant print-outs and sets of workshop materials kept "just in case" for far too long. 

As I potter through each task, I'll be watching out for the smaller ideas rising up into the misty surface of my mind. Keep that notepad at the ready. That thought? That idea? That memory? it might make sense,

3. Going out, staying in.
 cheryl ladd – GrutsTwo weeks in, and it's time to start looking for other ways to "fill the well" which - for me -  often began while wandering around historic sites, museums and galleries or going to the theatre. 

Time to search out some of the big museum tours and shows online, I think. 


Time to get out all the art books and look at the pages slowly, to write to the image. 

Time to go through some of the books on writing and try out some of the suggestions. Time to read books about artist's lives and how their work developed, perhaps?.


Time to search out some of the new websites offering art classes, creative ideas or on-line writing suggestions  Yes, there's alway's time . . .
Nb. You'll fine a new one "Let's Write!" Sue Purkiss's well-titled blog,  in the left sidebar of this very ABBA page. 

4. Wing'd chariots and all that. 
Pomodoro Technique - Wikipedia

Time too, now the clocks have sprung forward, to focus my attention again. I'm returning to my trusty timer and a loose adaptation of the "Pomodoro" technique. First, setting the timer for ten minutes, you do nothing but write for that stretch. Then try for another ten, or even twenty or thirty. Gradually, one's habit of attention is being re-learned. 

Hint. You can set time limits on many more tasks than just writing. The sound brings you back to the present. Useful if, with all that's going on around you, you are more than usually distracted. 

5. Reading to yourself, for yourself.
File:Corot Monk Reading Book 1.jpg - Wikipedia
There's so much more time - including the wakeful nights -  but I no longer want to read books that don't work for me, particularly fiction. 

In normal times, this would be a problem. I belong to two book groups where I love the people more than the books, and would hate to drop out of either one.

Increasingly, some of the titles are not what I want to read. Maybe I know too much about dramatic tension and rising plot points and unreliable narrators now? Faced with a too-evident screen-seen structure, I easily lose my belief in the particular fictional world before me on the page. 

What I want are books that I am comfortable with, well-written and re-assuring, often quirky. I want more of the calm rationality of non-fiction too, not the next biggest dystopia or emotional roller-coaster. I already seem to be living through that now, thank you. 

 6. Reading for themselves, too. Illustration - Wikipedia

This is a slight blog-side step, where I start to wave banners in the hope that the rush of online-schooling and home-working will still leave plenty of room for reading for pleasure. I want young readers to be able to choose to read "below their reading age" at times, without too much analysis and outcome. I want them to be able to return to their own comfort reads and much-loved younger favourites, just as many grown-ups are doing in this odd time. 

At a time when I am not able to meet or hug my children, grandchildren and many others in my family for who knows how long, I would like them to stillbe able to have the "literary hugs" offered by so many beloved books.

Penny Dolan.

Friday, 31 January 2020


Today is Friday 31st January,. Tomorrow will be Saturday 1st February and tonight we will be "out of Europe." Right now, I can't help feeling hugely sad.

I have been wearing my head out, wondering what to say for this particular start-the-new-month post.  I could pretend all is okay and go on ahead, idly whistling. I could pretend there's a story to write - although I have no confidence in what people want any more. I could pretend to devote myself to words on the page when - right now - I can see only a blank space?  As I suspect do many: these last twelve months have not been a very creative period.

I could even pretend to be poorly - groan, moan,  sob! -  and say I forgot about my ABBA post entirely?  Yet how can I do any of these when I feel as if there's a sort of monster roaming around the land?

Then, musing,  I thought of another monster:  an instantly-recognisable, much-loved monster who, despite his anxious look, is probably a highly profitable monster too.

And I looked at some of the story behind this particular monster's story and this is what I found.

Once upon a time . . .
There was a boy who lived in Germany. He loved art and he loved drawing and he decided he wanted to teach other people about art.

Unfortunately, he and his college studies did not get on. For a while, the boy - now a young man - helped mentally ill people in their homes and set his dream aside. Away on holiday, this German man shared his love of art with an English friend. The consquence was that he moved to the UK  and finally studied at Bath Academyof Art in Wiltshire  and went on an exchange to New York.

A Squash and a Squeeze | Teaching Children PhilosophyMoving to London, his freelance work was used in advertising and editorial articles and he also started illustrating children's books.

One book was based on a popular Jewish European folk tale. (As someone interested in folk tales, I'd come across this already where the plot centres on the troubles of a farmer overwhelmed by his complaining wife and many children.)  The version that he  - or the artist Axel Scheffler, as you know by  now - worked on  kept the plot within a simple farmyard setting.

The delightful retelling proved a very popular title  mainly -  I feel - because Axel's simple style fitted so perfectly with the book's setting, and partly because children and grown-ups responded to the words and rhythmic patterns in the text.

Yet it was not, apparently, until after the book was out that Methuen - the publishers - brought the artist and writer together:  "Axel meet Julia, Julia meet Axel"  And so their famous collaboration began.
But who was this Julia? What was her story? 

Julia grew up in North London. Although her father was a doctor, the whole family and - I assume -  several of their friends were keen amateur musicians and theatrical performers.

Julia and her sister became part of a children's opera group and spent much of their childhood creating their own plays and props and acting out their own stories. Given a weighty anthology, she loved learning and and reciting many of the thousand poems.

By the time Julia was at Bristol University, she was a capable musician and songwriter, well used to singing at folk clubs and in public. During the summer holidays, Julia and two friends went busking in Paris before travelling around France and around Europe. They performed in clubs, on the street and often to groups of children. Julia began making up simple plays and songs in the language of each country where they were perfoming.

Julia was someone who knew three European languages, helped -  or so I feel - by the fact that her parents were both fluent German speakers and her mother a leider-singer. Julia herself had studied French and German at school, learning Italian while working as a children's tutor in Naples. This was also a time when learning one or two European languages was considered an important part of a well-rounded education.

She, like Axel, went to America, travelling round the States on a Greyhound bus and busking in Seattle and San Francisco before returning to London. She then worked as a publisher's secretary and wrote children's plays and songs for BBC Bristol and for the popular children's tv programme Play Away.  After gaining a PGCE, she taught English in school for two years before returning to France for a year,  finally moving up to Glasgow in Scotland. At home with children, she started using the skills she'd learned as a song-writer. sending off manuscripts to children's publishers.

And so,  and so . . .

One day, an editor at Methuen invited her in to discuss a possible picture book, A Squash and A Squeeze. It was to be illustrated by a German artist living in London called Axel Sheffler - and so it began. 

Working together, the pair created The Gruffalo, winning hearts and awards, as well as Julia's Children's Laureate role and film deals and more.  Other collaborations followed, including another great family favourite: Room on the Broom.

The Gruffalo - Room on the Broom 15th Anniversary Edition(Possibly, Broom and Squeeze are both about finding enough room for everyone and appreciating each others strengths, needs and fears Maybe that is the same for The Gruffalo?)

I'm writing this post, thinking about all the European countries that fed, somewhere, into The Gruffalo's success. There is Germany, France,
 Italy, England, Scotland - and maybe others I haven't read about yet.

He could almost be described as a particularly European monster if not a global creation..

 Once you start to look, you can find other European authors and illustrators: some as well known and beloved as Judith Kerr, or Goscinny & Uderzo and their translators* ; or Astrid Lingren, plus a host of now-unknown others who are starting as new names within the forest of children's early readers. This without mentioning that there are several artists like Quentin Blake, who live and work some of the year in Europe.

I love the way that the children's book world crosses boundaries and cultures in all sorts of ways, not only in the books themselves, but in real life, in meetings and conversations. There are children's writers and artists right now, counting their pennies and euros to work out whether to travel to the children's publishing festival in Bologna and wallow in all the books and artwork on show there: a trip that is one of my fantasies. One day  . . . one day . . .

Finally, this week's end has brought another book back into my mind. The Christmas before last, I bought copies of this book to give to friends. Initially an exhibition, the book was published as a visual testament, as a way to show how strongly these forty-five illustrators - and many more illustrators and authors -  feel about the  value of our European links. If you peer closely, you'll spot the name of the person who wrote the foreword: Axel Scheffler.

41063426. sx318

Here's to hopes for a friendlier and kinder future than we've lived through this last while. 

More information about these artists can be found at

and at
Written with apologies if any unknown errors have crept into these accounts.

*Fact just found: One "Asterix the Gaul"  translator was Anthea Bell , the editor that Julia Donaldson worked for when first involved in publishing herself.

By Penny Dolan.
Written on the 31st January 2020

Tuesday, 31 December 2019


As I write this post, I'm thinking about Christmas celebrations, both the familiar and the almost unexpected changes, and about the New Year ahead.
Each year, here in the UK, the media and the markets suggest a Christmas holiday wreathed in customs and habits, where expected foods are eaten, certain drinks are drunk, shows watched, gifts given and half-known songs sung within that oh-so-festive festive hearth and home. Each year, we recognise the incoming festive clues and note the pattern that, "out there", stays the same.

However, "in there, in here", in our private lives, the ways of celebrating change and have to change.  There are many kinds of families, often in many locations, and what once seemed to be "this is how we do it at Christmas" suddenly doesn't fit the pattern of days anymore.

Sometimes, these changes are because of loss or sorrow, sometimes they come from a happier source and sometimes the change is just because a different pattern might work well this time round. 

For example, our own Christmas celebrations were more altered than usual this year. We did put up a tree, listen to Carols at Kings, eat mince pies. go to midnight Mass and so on and so on.  However, withFamily Visitors not arriving until the twenty-eighth of December, our own Boxing Day was suddenly most suitably named . . .

Book Boxes For Books For Moving House Packing Storage UK

Yes, boxes indeed! Piles of 'em! Stacks of 'em! 

Over Christmas and Boxing Day, we unpacked almost all the cardboard boxes that were stowed or stacked around our house for a too-long while.  As Chief-Librarian, I enjoyed arranging all the many, many books across the five, tall, new bookcases that had just been assembled upstairs by the Chief-Carpenter. Himself enjoyed basking in the glory of his creations, c/o IKEA.

Furthermore, by the end of Boxing Day, the task was done, with the empty cardboard disappearing to the tip the day after.  Phew!

It was an unusual and unexpected way of spending the Christmas break, certainly, but we felt full of a certain mince-pie fuelled satisfaction as well as - joy! - re-discovering plenty of interesting and alluring titles and places to put this year's haul of incoming titles.  

Right now, with Boxing Day accomplished, we have the time and space to enjoy our Visitors over this New Year holiday anyway - andnd no need to shuffle those boxes of books about the house again afterwards!

However, hearing all about other people's changes of festive habit and then working on this post about changes here, I'm starting to ponder about the pattern of my own working days.

Are there are any changes I could make to my own familiar habits and practice that would serve to open up my own creative approaches as well as my own writing for the new year to come?  
There's a few hours of thinking and planning left . . .

Penny Dolan

Sunrise Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

Wishing you all a Very Happy New Year - and with thanks to all the brilliant contributors to Awfully Big Blog Adventure and Awfully Big Reviews during 2019 and onwards into 2020.

Here's to a whole new decade of ABBA!

Friday, 1 November 2019


This last while, through an odd set of circumstance, I have been working on some early readers. These are not huge books, as you can imagine, but at times my head has gone into a whirl.  

Some of the whirl came about because the whole process was affected by the usual summer holiday pause (editors and consultants) and then by my own time away,/ While  there were long peaceful periods when nothing happened, there were others when suddenly a lot was happening.

Managing the various projects (while a few other Life things were going) was quite a frantic experience.

I had to make Lists and Charts and use coloured Sticky Notes because there seemed to be so different stages (or, in reality, the usual number of stages) to get through.

Sticky Paper Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures
Therefore. now things are calmer - and yes, because I have an ABBA post to do* -  I thought I'd write a list of what was involved.

First of all there had been

My own research as to how the series itself was developing. 
General mulling and moaning until I got an idea into my head. 
Plus some background research to make sure my idea worked, was valid.

None of these steps counted as "external" activity.

But then, in real life, came the following steps:

1. Submit synopsis + art work suggestions ( and wait for response).
2. Create draft text and adaptations of my own artwork suggestions (and wait for. . .)
3. Revise text (etc) after consultants suggestions (and wait for . .)
4. Revised, revised text  (etc) with editorial/consultant comments. . . .
5. Illustrator choice arrives for polite approval ( though the choice has always been ideal)
6. Cover roughs arrive for comments and (tactful) suggestions..
7. Artwork and text roughs arrive for checking and (tactful) comments.
8. Cover proofs arrive for comments
9. Colour proofs arrive for approval and as a courtesy
10. Contracts, since these aren't being handled by an agent, anytime within this process
11. Invoices, ditto.
12. And, presented as Item 12, various emails connected with all of these.
And all of this times the number of titles that I'm working on.

I haven't noted down all these familiar steps for pity or for a sniffy "so what?" 

I noted them down because, while I was struggling to keep on top of my rather small overlapping batch here, I began imagining how it might feel for all those at the other end of this busy book process.

By which I mean that I started thinking of all the editors who - usually women, often part-time, often on variable contracts - do the work of managing all these aspects of the Book Process.

And they do this not for one person but for all the different titles and authors and illustrators they are dealing with at the same time too. (Not to mention the non-glamorous in-house meetings and admin and similar things they have to manage and of which I am blessedly unaware.)

File:Thonet chair balance.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes things do go wrong for writers. Sometimes editors aren't all we hope - which no doubt works the other way round too. Sometimes, now, as writers we can complete all the process for ourselves.

However, at a time like today , sometimes one just pauses and send some quiet thoughts towards editors and all those other people who help a long the way.

Thanks. Couldn't do it without you.

File:Flickr - ronsaunders47 - A bunch of flowers on the ...

Penny Dolan


*I have been watching this date coming towards me and wondering what words i could even bear to use to write about it. And I don't mean Halloween.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

SPACE FOR READING: The Summer Reading Challenge. By Penny Dolan

The first of September, already! The shelves of my local children’s library will be filling up again as the six books borrowed for the Summer Reading Challenge are returned by the parents and children.

This year’s theme was SPACE RACE: a not-totally serious celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and this August I was involved too.

This wasn’t because one of my titles was on an Important List or fitted in with the theme or even doing Summer Events as An Author or some other Activity Provider.

I was there because I was a volunteer SRC helper. I sat behind the table, with boxes of cards close by my elbow and drawers full of stickers at my side, ready for those who’d signed up for this year’s SRC.

Before the holidays even began, I had been trained.

I knew about directing those with lost cards to the library staff desk to renew or even register with the Library Service for the first time.

I knew all about filling in the tiny SRC registration cards, including the need for parents to fill in their own email addresses.
The cards - with their mix of family surnames - also show one of the most important things about the library system. Libraries can be used by anyone in our society and are particularly valued by those who value their children's literacy.

I knew that the SRC asks children to read six books over the holidays, although of course, some read a lot more. 
To me, who was once a keen child reader – this half-dozen seemed an undemanding quantity. Why the limit? I wondered. 
However, there’s a wider perspective. As all six books can be taken out at once, this puts a greater demand on stock. If the SRC was a Ten Title challenge, just ten eager children might borrow a hundred books, and the library would be bare, especially in these straightened times. About six hundred children sign up for the SRC, so even six-titles, if taken out over one or two library visits, can use a lot of books.

I knew about this year’s folding Space Race Wallet – “We only have one per child so please don’t lose it!” - and the three-step system of stickers. Two books, two books more and then a last two. There are different stickers and different places to position the stickers and small “prizes” for every two books read. 
I was soon adept at giving out which sticker when, with encouraging words, but I never quite got the hang of the three-way fold . I handed the wallet back in as tidy a fold as I could.

I also knew that, when completed, each child would be awarded a Summer Reading Challenge medal. This was when I looked at the open SRC “wallet” and the spread where a child will have written, in sets of two, their six titles. Ta da!

I loved looking at their choices and asking them (in as quietly and friendly a way as I could) which titles they’d like best or which they’d enjoyed because I was interested in their books and liked children’s books myself. 
I had already seen a media-muttering about one library where this process seemed rather heavy-handed. Oh dear! What I was after was a mood of “isn’t talking about books you’ve read an interesting thing to do?” With plenty of smiles.

The title section also gave me a chance to see the variety of books that children read, to spot the usual favourites and to note that (as in bookshops) parents can dominate choices.

The Summer Reading Challenge is an initiative that can help to widen that knowledge by encouraging children to use the library, and by keeping a focusing on reading, keeping reading out there in the culture as an activity that lots of people do even when they are not within school. 
Besides, the books on good and well-funded library shelves can offer a wider variety of books (and therefore a wider variety of writing and literacy) than the current titles on offer in many bookshops.

There were sweet relationship patterns hidden in the pages, such as when a pair of siblings both had the title down because the older read it to the younger in bed at night, or else when a parent had read the book to both of them while they were all away on a caravan holiday.

Then, finally, came the Award when the young reader was presented with a special medal to wear. If they were going on to secondary school, they also got their SRC Certificate. 

This could be a delightfully cheery moment and one I tried to make as grand and “official” as  the child’s personality suggested. Sometimes photographs were posed and taken too! Later, when school holidays are over, the Certificates will go to the school and presented there, perhaps in an assembly.

As a new SRC volunteer, I really enjoyed the times I was able to help this year. I liked meeting the children and families informally, and seeing how the Summer Reading Challenge worked from the not-an-author side.

There's not always a gap to fill: the SRC sessions are popular with young teens who seem very competent and friendly and who can use their volunteering as part of The Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme. 

It’s September now, so SRC is almost over - but I certainly hope to sign up again next year. All in all, having seen the scheme in action, I am very much in favour. Some children do not need it at all as encouragement, some may speed through it lightly and carelessly, but many of the young readers I saw across the other side of the table were certainly involved with reading at a time when there are so many other things available.

Now a quick confession: I did squee a little, though silently, when I spotted one of my own early readers titles being taken out.

And an aside: One of the reasons I already knew about the medals was because, as Chair of the local Friends Group, we’d funded the blue or gold ribbons they hang on. Moreover, I’d also seen another Library volunteer, someone who prefers doing behind- the-scenes tasks. spending her time stringing up – or should it be ribboning up? - every one of those many hundred Summer Reading Challenge medals. What a hero!

Lastly, even a possible personal plan: I might start taking my laptop into the Children’s Library and working there. It was good to spend a couple of hours in such friendly, bookish company and so many familiar names.

Penny Dolan

Thursday, 1 August 2019


Last week, on a journey between Oxford and Portsmouth, we stopped for a while at the village of Chawton. 

You might now be asking Where's Chawton? What's Chawton? Or not.

Image result for Jane Austen portrait wikipediaBecause any Janeite - or enthusiastic fan of Jane Austen and her work - would recognise the place immediately. Chawton is where Jane lived for the last part of her life, along with her mother, Cassandra her sister and a female family friend. (Please note that I am not a knowledgeable Janeite.)

Their home is now the Jane Austen House Museum; nearby, within much larger grounds, lies Chawton House, the imposing home of the far richer relative who let Jane and her family have that corner house. 

Jane Austen's House MuseumThe mellow brick house, with its out-buildings and pretty garden, sits in interesting location: directly on the curve of the road that passes through the little village therefore - if it was then as it is now - the windows offered Jane and all a chance to see whatever was happening in the village and who was passing by.

Ah yes, writers can be nosy, even the apparently "quiet" ones like Jane.

I came to Chawton almost by chance, without any preparation or preconceptions, yet as I went round the fairly modest rooms and read more about her life, certain points about the way she'd ordered her life struck me.

Chawton was where  period of what could be called "writer's block" ended. Here, Jane took up stories she'd put away before and worked on them again. She had written when she was younger, but a long period of instabilityp in her home life had had an effect. Her father, a Vicar, unexpectedly moved his family to Bath, so Jane and Cassandra's lives became full of society and social obligations. 

Only when Jane came to Chawton, a place where she was happy and settled, could she did take up her writing work again.  She needed some kind of peaceful place for her writing to develop and thrive. 

Moreover, she did this by picking up her earlier ideas and drafts and working on them again, re-forming them into the first of her successful, publishable novels.  Sometimes discarded or set-aside ideas do still have life in them when time has passed.

Jane also had someone who was on her side emotionally an din all sorts of practical ways: her sister Cassandra took on a lot of the running of the house so that Jane had mornings free to write.  
Who would not welcome someone like that, there to defend your "space" for you and let your mind slip into the zone?

Although Jane's real life writing space, according to the display at the house, was a tiny, round table - barely the size you would use for a couple of drinks -  I did wondered if she would have wanted a more noticeable space. This small, restricted surface has been picked out as an example of Jane's writing constraints:why did she not have a larger writing desk? Did she not deserve one?
Maybe Jane welcomed a table - about the size of a large laptop - that did not attract attention, or encourage house-callers to ask how her latest writing was going, although in the phraseology of the time?.

The same for the squeaky door that warned her of people coming. Maybe that was a positive choice: Jane defining her own space by that noisy door? Like the jangly indian bells on my own workroom door?

Furthermore, there is a large and beautifully worked quilt in the house. On one hand, to some that needlework could be seen as a symbol of female toil. However, thinking of the number of writers who value time spent on art or craft work - doodling, painting, knitting and more - maybe Jane too, valued time to think about her work while her hands were busy?

All of these thoughts were going round in my head while I visited Chawton. My ideas might be simplistic misconceptions, so at a future date I want to discover more about her life, perhaps by reading her collected letters rather than just the novels.

I did enjoy my unexpected afternoon at Chawton, and those moments imagining Jane Austen as a real working writer in her  home, a woman dealing with all the everyday stuff, and making her own kind of pattern out of her circumstances. A very satisfying visit, especially on so fine and sunny a summer day.

Penny Dolan