Tuesday, 16 February 2021

A Musician In Her Landscape- My interview with Julie Fowlis by Steve Gladwin


Julie Fowlis is a multi-award winning folk-singer who performs in her native Gaelic. She won the BBC Folk Singer of the Year Award in 2008, has been nominated for and won several other awards and now co-presents the Folk Awards with Mark Ratcliffe. She also presented the first BBC Folk Prom in 2018 with fellow folk-singer Sam Lee, in a line-up which also included The Unthanks, Jarleth Henderson, Welsh folk group Alaw, and the BBC Concert Orchestra which was when I first became aware of her and her unique voice which has been described as 'chrystalline' and 'intoxicating' Her career has spanned five studio albums and she has been involved in a number of high profile collborations in the last few years, the most recent and well-known of which is probably her involvement in The Lost Words CD with fellow folk musicians, presided over by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane. I am delighted to be talking to Julie about that project, her life and music, and the importance of preserving her native language which she first learnt on the Hebridean island of North Uist, where she was born, and which still has such a significant influence on her music. 



Julie, thanks for agreeing to talk to an awfully big blog adventure.

It's a pleasure.

The main theme of these blogs is 'Landscape',so perhaps you could start by telling us about the landscape in which you were born? I usually ask people to describe it as if they are seeing it from their front door, or observing it in a walk'

I spent my formative years on the island of North Uist, before moving to the mainland in my teenage years. That landscape had a profound effect on me - those enormous skies, the countless shades of green and blue sea and endless white beaches. And the wind! The prevailing westerly which almost never stops - even on the nicest of days you are aware of the wind coming off the warm Atlantic, scouring the low-lying islands before heading towards the mainland of Scotland. The space, the wild, those colours and most importantly the Gaelic community which surrounded me were what shaped me and my music.


My first experience of hearing your voice was on the quite wonderful BBC Folk Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018, which almost single-handedly turned me back on to folk and its whole variety. For those not fortunate enough to see it, you were co-hosting it with Sam Lee and it included performances from both of you, as well as The Unthanks and Alaw. It was a primal enough experience hearing the Unthanks in that space, but, but when you sang it was as if your voice in Gaelic added that extra timeless element. It felt almost as if you were singing your homeland. Could you tell us about the first song you sung that night, and about the reactions to the prom as a whole? 

Funnily enough the first song I sung in the Royal Albert Hall that night was a traditional song from Galicia, Spain, which a great friend of mine, (who is a wonderful singer) translated for me into Scottish Gaelic. I sang this song bilingually in Galician and in Gaelic. I love how songs can travel and be shared within different musical communities. Us human beings inevitably sing about similar things, the same things move us to music, no matter which language we express them in. One of my favourite things is collaboration and to share, and this song came out of just such a project, celebrating the shared connection between two minority communities with a rich and ancient cultural heritage. The performance of that song actually ended up going viral in Galicia - people were really kind about it.

Could you tell us a little more about your language, the preserving of it, its particular nature, which so seems to lend itself to that spare, unaccompanied style of singing. Is it possible, perhaps, to describe the way it makes you feel, to sing in it?


Gaelic has been spoken in Scotland for 1500 years and more, and is part of a family of languages which include Irish, Welsh, Manx, Cornish and Breton. Only a little over 1% of the Scottish population now speak Gaelic. I feel very strongly about protecting the language and using it wherever possible and have made sure that it is my daughters' first language. It is the language that we use at home. 

The unaccompanied style of singing is the traditional style of singing - many of our traditional songs are work songs for example, songs may have been sung whilst rowing a boat or churning butter or milking the cow. There are also songs of love and loss, of clan and conflict, war and politics. Old history is documented through the songs - many, many centuries of life in our community are within the texts of the songs. It's incredible when you think about it. Many of the songs I sing go back 500 years or more.

That's' fascinating. What a heritage.

So, Julie, you're a young girl and you open your mouth to sing for the first time. I recently interviewed Jackie Morris, and she told me the moment she saw - as she put it, her father, 'make a bird land on the paper', she knew that that was what she wanted to be able to do. Was there a similar moment with you?

Not so much. I have always been a keen singer and I remember singing a lot as a youngster in school. However I was always a nervous performer and although I always had a deep love of music, I didn't always want to perform in front of people. I have battled with nerves all my life and sometimes performing can be very tough - but ultimately I love to express myself through the music, and that is what fuels me.



How important is the landscape where you lived, or have lived. Do you think it makes a difference to the way you sing, as presumably what you sing about. Where is home?

Ah, now this is where I 'am' comfortable. I love to be in wild landscapes and spend a lot of my time outdoors and exploring either by foot or on a bike. It's the landscapes where I grew up and where I live now that are my biggest inspirations really. It definitely makes a difference to the way I sing and also indeed to what I sing about. I spend a lot of time researching local history and inevitably place names, local stories and suchlike come out through the learning of their songs and indeed the writing of music.

Fairly recently you were involved in the creation of The Lost Words CD with Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris and a whole host of other musiccal names. How did you become involved and how important was the initial cause for you?

I have long admired Robert's work and had been in contact with him before the Spell Songs project had started. We had talked of collaborating in some way - and the opportunity through Spell Songs happily appeared early on in our conversations. Its been such a privilege to work with both Robert and Jackie and to connect with them through their work.

I understand you had been due to get back together, but were unable to for obvious reasons. Did you have a new goal in mind? It must have involved a great deal of skills sharing with the various collaborations.



We had hoped to get together to record a new album, a follow-up to Spell Songs and to accompany the little sister book to The Lost Words, The Lost Spells. We were sad not to be able to get together but have started to inch the project forwards working separately from out homes.

Are there any special words in the Gaelic language which you are fond of, or feel are paricularly expressive.

My goodness, there are so many. I don't know where to start. I quite often reference the simple phrase Co as a tha thu. Which means where are you from? But literal translation means 'who are you from?' Which is lovely. There is a real sense of belonging and history loaded into that single phrase.

Now one of the songs on your last album concerns a selkie woman  - who, for those of you reading who haven't come across them - are the seals - either man or woman - who can turn human once they come out of the sea. It is the song from your album Altera that spoke to me the most deeply when I first heard it. In Celtic Myth the song of the seal represents the idea of soul loss and a detachment from the person or home. Hiraeth is the similar phrase in Wales which can't really be defined, but what comes closest is a sense of unresolved longing. What does the selkie mean to you as a figure and how was this reflected in the song.

I think the song of the seal is meaningful on lots of levels for me. Jackie talked in her blog about liminal spaces and these places mean much to me also. The idea of the Otherworld in Gaelic is very strong. But it doesn't necessarily mean another world far away - other world can exist within the world we see from our back door. Also the idea of the line 'between worlds' - I'm very aware of those places - and time - where those lines are thin. Perhaps this is to do with being brought up on an island where you are surrounded by coastlines but also by the world of the sea. Or perhaps it's from speaking a minority language where you speak and exist in one language but have to continually shift to another cultural space.

Was there an early connection with the seal, or in your own childhood? Did you sit by the fire as someone told you these stories, and what kind of stories were they?



I remember the stories of the seals from my childhood, yes, but I'm afraid they were not by the fireside as you might imagine, like in a children's book. These stories are often quite dark, as was much of the folklore I learned when I was a little older.

What do the seals mean to you - or other animals for that matter? Do you have such a thing as a totem - or an animal that you feel led to, or particularly inspired by?

The seals occupy that liminal space to me, they exist in both ther worlds of sea and land and truly belong to neither. Or is it both. They exist in a way we cannot and that makes them fascinating. Also, when you look into their eyes they definitely hold much expression and emotion, and when you hear their call they can often sound just like a human cry.

Now the folk-music circuit has clearly been as hit by Covid as anything else. Apart from online concerts, has the last year given you the chance to engage in other projects, or has it just been difficult, as it has been for so many.

I have actually found this last year both difficult and extremely rewarding both at the same time, there has been space and time to think about music that I haven't had for many years, and I'm grateful for the time I've had with my family. I've spent a lot of time out and about exploring around us which has proved hugely inspiring and which is directly informing the work I do now.



Obviously projects like The Lost Words involve a great deal of collaboration, and it's clear seeing the film of the Lost Words Blessing just how much you all enjoyed each other's company. Is collaborating with people important to you, and can you tell us about a few of the people you've worked with, and on what?

Yes, indeed, a project like the Lost Words is right up my street. Collaborating is what I love most and especially with a bunch of such talented and inspiring individuals one couldn't ask for better! Other projects which I have loved over the years include the Transatlantic Sessions and Hebridean Women. Currently though, myself and my husband Eamon Doorley are busy working on a follow up album to 'Allt' with friends Zoe Conway and John McIntyre, which is focussed on creating new works in the Gaelic and Irish languages, inspired by traditional and contemporary poetry in both languages.

Finally, Julie, what are your hopes and aspirations for your own language, and what do you feel you are able to do to preserve it?   

To not just survive, but to thrive. I hope for the Gaelic language to have wider recognition for its cultural importance, and not just in Scotland, but throughout the wider world.

Thanks, Julie. It's been fascinating talking to you.

My pleasure


All images her were taken in North Uist or near Julie's home and are her sole property. You can find the link to Julie's own site, including a longer biography and much more, at the top of the article.


In the next few months I will be interviewing a number of people about the group called The Inklings, the group of Oxford based friends, among whom were J.R.R. Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, particularly about landscape, but with a selection of other things. These will include.


Katherine Langrish on C.S. Lewis and Narnia on 'From Spare Oom to War Drobe' her new book of essays on the seven Narnia books.

Brian Sibley on Tolkien and Lewis, the 1980 adaptation of Lord of the Rings and his biography of Peter Jackson.

John Garth, author of 'Tolkien in the Great War' and 'The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien' on Tolkien's landscape and where it came from.

Grevel Lindop, biographer of Charles Williams, and co-editor of the most recent collected poems with John Matthews.



Monday, 15 February 2021

Eureka! A WIP breakthrough via creative research - by Rowena House

For a year now, for family and Covid reasons, the castles of my story have been out of reach. So have the hills and the streets where my characters walked in real life. It’s been tough trying to write their story without the inspirational, tactile, lived experience of place.

Research and planning have, to a degree, filled the gap, alongside repetitive drafting of potential opening scenes. Overall, though, the process has been frustrating.

But as they say, nothing in writing is wasted.

At four o’clock on Sunday morning, Valentine’s Day, my subconscious decided to prove the point by revealing a 3D image of story: a way to perceive and to manage the relationship between historical research, structural planning and a dual narrative.

Hurrah! The dual narrative especially has been a major stumbling block.

For once, it’s clear where this eureka moment came from: the week I’d spent drafting this blog about creative research, thinking deeply but tangentially about the story.

The subject of research always seems to be a bit of a Pandora’s Jar (to borrow a phrase from Natalie Haynes). In historical fiction, research has a reputation as a time-suck, an opportunity to procrastinate when you should be getting down to the serious bum-on-seat business of storytelling.

The trick, I decided, after researching research, is to set its creative limits.


Let me quote something on the subject from Robert McKee’s Story. It echoes advice about the freedom on knowing your limitations which I first heard from David Almond who got it in turn from Flannery O’Connor. Here’s McKee:

 “Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world ... By the time you finish the last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your world—from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in September—that you couldn’t answer instantly.”

You can find more about his thoughts on this on pages 71-76 of Story (in my 1997 edition, at least).

Accepting this passage as a starting point, the purpose of creative research is, therefore, to build a profound knowledge of a tight, intimate story world: “a limited world and a restricted cast offer the possibility of knowledge in depth and breadth.” That’s McKee again.

To win the war on cliché takes research, he says, and “the time and effort to acquire knowledge”. So let’s call this Research of Knowledge.

Research of Knowledge clearly applies to the ‘external’ content of a story: its historical or contemporary socio-economic and cultural contexts. It also relates to exploration of the themes and truths the story is aiming to convey: the psychology of its characters, and the realism that makes a work of literature authentic and artistically true.

For McKee, Research of Knowledge also includes close examination of received life experiences, the emotionally and psychologically important events that feed our creativity; he calls that research of memory and research of imagination.

For me, Research of Knowledge also encompasses the craft of storytelling. I’m not sure if McKee applies it this way as I’ve not read Story in full for several years, but logically I think he must. Studying Story, and other craft books like it, is, after all, research.

Research of Knowledge is distinct from the pursuit of facts, not least because facts are increasingly problematic in an age of Trumpian alternative facts, online anti-vaxx conspiracies and suppression of Freedom of Information requests.

Sure, we can all accept that at sea level, water boils at 100 degrees centigrade. But how many people died during atrocities committed by European empires? Even asking the question is political.

As the Irish President Michael Higgins put it this week in an article about the centenary of the partition of Ireland, published in Britain in The Guardian:

In my work on commemoration, memory, forgetting and forgiving I have sought to establish a discourse characterised by what the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney calls ‘a hospitality of narratives’, acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events can and do exist. The acceptance of this fact can release us from the pressure of finding, or subscribing to, a singular unifying narrative of the past.”

In other words, searching for a single, simplistic set of facts about us, the human race, and the fate of our planet, risks tipping us into worlds of conflicting, subjective realities. 

A search for facts necessarily becomes a search for truth, which is whole different ballgame, one that seems to me to lie at the heart of many debates in our writing community: debates about Own Voices, diversity, and the economics of who gets to write what and how it’s published, to name but a few.

Researching knowledge, therefore, must be sensitive and careful. It can’t just ask, what do we know about X? It must also ask, how do we know it, and can we trust that source?

Which makes creative research a form of critical thinking.

Critical thinking about sources was a cornerstone of research in my former life as a journalist and is embedded in my present genre of historical fiction, too. A historiographer asks: who wrote this account, with what purpose, and whose voices were silenced in the telling? The imagination is then set to work filling knowledge gaps.

But critical thinking seems to me to be a good starting point for any genre. And life in general. Anyhow...

In terms of character building, creative research into our knowledge about psychology is a smorgasbord of ideas whatever the genre. Personally I’m addicted to articles in the New Scientist about psychotherapy, neuroscience, the study of belief systems, and the impacts of trauma on the mind.

In craft terms, creative research into story structure is a sure-fire way to avoid tired formulae and to discover workable new forms. (Hat tip to Linda Aronson again.) Star Wars is nigh on half a century old! High time, imho, to nick the best bits of the Hero’s Journey and move on.


I could go on about researching voice, language, rhythm, lexicons for individual characters, like operatic leitmotifs. But I’ll resist.

There is, however, one area of creative research which I do think it’s worth reflecting on. For this post, let’s call it Research of Self.

It’s something I think a lot of us do, in writing journals or quiet corners of our heads. It’s over and above the sort of research of memory and research of imagination that McKee talks about.

On the MA in writing for young people at Bath Spa we were encouraged to do it via critical analyses of our course WIPs, a part of our creative practice I didn’t really get it at the time, being more focussed on the product of imagination – the story – than the process of writing it. 


I now recognise that was my loss: a lesson taught by a collection of unfinished Books Two, still-born stories lost at different stages of gestation, now bottled in formaldehyde and sitting on a high shelf. Why didn’t you finish us, they seem to ask.

Research of Self might help me to answer them.

This form of research considers both how we write (our process) and why we write: our motivations and intentions.

For The Goose Road, for example, I now know that sheer lust to be published played a big part in getting me to The End. A supportive, enabling environment was also essential (big shout out to friend from the MAWYP, GEA, SCBWI and BookBound as always). This environment is something I’m trying to emulate via writing friendships, these blogs and a PhD.

The subject of World War I was another factor that kept me going with The Goose Road. I’d shied away from this horrific part of human history as a young adult, at school and at university. Now I had the maturity to face it, and – with help – the skill to recreate it for a new generation. That made the five years from inception to publication worthwhile. It also made shouting about it online feel okay, not arrogant or naff. 


I’ve yet to pinpoint the deep, visceral appeal of the current WIP. Its charm is long-standing – the basic idea is perhaps ten years old – but do I have to write this story? I hope so.

Which leads to intention, the other big topic for Research of Self.

What is the underlying driver behind writing this story and not another? What intuitive, subconscious influences are at work? Is there a better story hidden under the surface of the story I think that I’m telling?

Readers of earlier blogs in this series about the WIP will recognise Hisham Matar’s voice in that last paragraph.

As mentioned here last month, research for the current WIP isn’t a discreet phase of the process. All stages go hand in hand, feeding off each other and into each other: planning, drafting, editing, research.

Research in all its forms will be as broad and as deep as it needs to be, and revisited as often as necessary. This, happily, avoids the question: at what point do you stop researching and let the story flow? Lord knows if it will work, but it’s a plan. And I haven’t got another one.

Please do let me know your thoughts on research and on writing in general. They’ll be super welcome as always. Talking about stories with other writers is the best research of all.


Twitter: @HouseRowena

Facebook: Rowena House Author

Website: rowenahouse.com



Sunday, 14 February 2021


 I'd like to start this post by thanking everyone who contributes to Abba for their varied and interesting posts, and especially for their recommendations of books and authors, both old and new.  I’ve been tempted by many, bought quite a few and enjoyed most of them. It is always a delight to discover a new author, or at any rate, one who is new to me, especially in these trying times.

Having been inspired by Sue Purkiss’s recent review of Natasha Farrant’s “Voyage of the Sparrowhawk”, I bought and read it and absolutely loved it.  I’m sure I’m not the only children’s writer to value recommendations of books, especially those which have won prizes – it’s so useful to read them and work out what made this book a prizewinner, what attracted the judges, and what makes it stand out from other, books.  Sue’s review of this book is much fuller than mine, but basically the book is set in 1919, and it’s the story of Lotti and Ben who, having to leave their home territory in a hurry, make the drastic decision to sail their narrowboat across the Channel to France to find Ben’s brother, who is “missing believed killed” during the Great War.  It really is an excellent read, and well deserving of its prize.

After I’d finished it, I decided to look up Natasha Farrant’s previous book, “The Children of Castle Rock”.  This book also looked interesting, so I bought and read that too and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is the story of Alice, who is sent off to a rather unusual boarding school in Scotland, where she thinks she will be friendless.  When her father disappears, she determines to find him, so she sets out to look for him across the Scottish highlands to a remote island with the help (and occasional hindrance) of her new friends.  The ending is not what you might expect, but it’s very satisfying.

Algorithms have not had a good press lately, especially since last summer’s exam fiasco, but there are occasions when they can be useful.  In particular I know whenever I buy a book online, an algorithm suggests other, similar, books I might enjoy too.  Their idea of similar is not necessarily the same as mine, but I often check them out just in case.  And the latest of these, recommended after I’d read “The Children of Castle Rock”, was “The Valley of Lost Secrets” by Lesley Parr, which also proved to be a find.  This is about two brothers, Jimmy and Ronnie, who are evacuated from London to a small Welsh mining valley at the start of WW2 with their classmates.  New alliances are made and old alliances crumble  as the brothers come to terms with their homesickness and find a way to settle into their new environment, solving an old mystery along the way.

As well as these books, I have either noted or downloaded several other books that have been suggested in various posts over the last year or two, and although I haven’t yet had a chance to read them all, I really value books recommended by fellow children’s authors, so please keep them coming!

website: www.lynnebenton.com

Latest book:

Published Franklin Watts, Oct 21

Saturday, 13 February 2021

On not getting ahead of the season by Sheena Wilkinson

We’re all tired, aren’t we? Locked down and fed up. February teases, as always, with birdsong in the mornings and a grand stretch in the evenings, only to blast us with bitter easterlies and remind us not to get ahead of ourselves, or the season. Covid does the same, with new variants, and new fears daily. 

I am planning an October wedding, with a great deal of disbelief – I am fifty-two and had not so much resigned myself to eternal spinsterhood as embraced it years ago. The fact that we must consider several different scenarios from no guests to a hundred, none of them possible to foresee with accuracy, adds to the sense of the surreal. It’s exciting but exhausting. We can’t not plan – we’d like a jolly nice party, thank you very much, and so will everyone else by October – and yet it seems like tempting fate, like flying too close to the sun or getting above ourselves with the gods. Like welcoming spring in February before waking up to blizzards.


I’m sorry, this isn’t really about books, is it? Except that, among everything else, I am trying, like many of you, to write one. With no knowledge of what state the publishing industry will be in by the time I finish, or what people might want to read. Writing a novel without a contract always feels bold, but in 2021, is it crazy? I swither between thinking it’s a great triumph of hope and optimism and that it’s the equivalent of taking my coat off in February. 


But my heroine is called April; maybe that’s a sign that spring isn’t as far away as I fear. 

Friday, 12 February 2021

The Beast and The Bethany by Jack Meggit-Phillips, illustrated by Isabelle Follath, review by Lynda Waterhouse


The title of the story intrigued me and the opening sentence hooked me in;

Ebenezer Tweezer was a terrible man with a wonderful life.

We first meet the 511-year-old Ebenezer in a pet shop where he is about to do a very bad thing. In the shop he also meets a small bony girl with a backpack that has two stickers; one reads BETHANY and the other BOG OFF. Their paths are destined to cross.

Like Dorian Grey, Ebenezer appears young and handsome and floppy fringed but, instead of a hideous portrait in the attic, Ebenezer is harbouring and humouring the terrible Beast and his insatiable appetite. Each year the Beast provides him with a potion to keep him looking young, as well as vomiting out any object that he desires. All Ebenezer has to do is keep the food coming. This is a story where anything is possible and many terrible and hilarious antics are revealed. Isabelle Follath’s line drawings quickly establish the surreal world of the book and work seamlessly alongside the narrative.

The first terrible thing that we see Ebenezer do involves Patrick the Parrot and the Beast. I was glad I had been forewarned that Ebenezer was terrible because I was alarmed at the fate of Patrick and a tad concerned about Ebenezer’s next task: to find a child sized meal for the Beast to devour. I gasped at the cruel trick the Beast played upon Bethany. It was so mean! But the quality and tone  of Jack’s writing made me feel that I was in a safe pair of hands and that this story, as well as providing lots of laughs, contained real jeopardy but also a lot of heart.

As Claudette the Parrot points out;

‘No-one is perfect, and everyone has to die. Be sorry for the mistakes you make and remember the friends who are lost …..If you want to honour Patrick’s memory you can do it by bringing some joy into the world.’

Bethany and the joy she derives from doing horrible things is more than a match for Ebenezer and an unlikely friendship forms. As the story develops we also find out Bethany and Ebenezer’s backstories. They may live in a cartoonish world but they are not cardboard caricatures and this gives real heart and feeling to the tale where the Beast is cut down to size, and thanks to the actions of Claudette the stage is set for another story.

A stunning debut.

ISBN 978-14052-9888-9


Thursday, 11 February 2021

Some Very Short Reviews of Some Very Brilliant Books - Kelly McCaughrain

I'm not saying I buy my nephews books for Christmas and then sneakily read them before I give them to them, but... if you're looking for book recommendations, here are some great ones I discovered over the festive season:

The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery

This is completely charming, as you'd expect a book about imaginary friends in WWII to be. A lovely Christmas read but I'd recommend it at any time of year. 

Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

I don't think I've met a character in KidsLit I related to as much as the boy in this one. Ware is quiet, introverted and completely happy in his own company, he just wishes his parents would get that and stop trying to 'fix' him. I wish I'd had this book when I was 11.

Brand New Boy by David Almond

This is such a clever book about artificial intelligence and what makes us human. A group of friends befriend the new boy in their class, but soon discover he's not quite like them. Can they teach him how to be human? 

The Pumpkin War by Cathleen Young

This is a brilliant premise based on a real event in Wisconsin where kids grow the biggest pumpkin they can, carve it out, and then paddle it across a lake in a race. Tomboy Billie is determined to take the title from her ex-friend Sam this year. I love that this has all kinds of outdoorsy stuff like gardening and bee keeping!

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D Schmidt 

This one's been out for a while but I hadn't read it till now. The story and style are both masterclasses in 'Wait, can you do that?!' Apparently you can. Joseph is thirteen, he's just been released from a juvenile facility and he and has a daughter he's never met. The ending broke me. 

Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel

This might be my favourite discovery ever. Why didn't I know about Frog and Toad?! I assume because they're American. They were a series of picture books from the 1970s about two friends and they're the most beautiful, charming, funny, sweet, heartwarming books I've read in a long time and I will be buying them for all babies in my life from now on. I even knitted the characters, I am so besotted. My husband and I have spent most of this year going, 'No, you're Toad!' (I think I might be Toad.)

You can keep your willpower, Frog. I am going home to bake a cake.
You can keep your willpower, Frog. I am going home to bake a cake.

Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year,

Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She is the Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland #CWFNI

She also blogs at The Blank Page


Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Pandemic play (Anne Rooney)

On the covid ward
This post has snuck up on me and I don't have time or ideas. No, I have ideas but they take too much time to develop. This is the irony of a pandemic that stops you doing anything... no time to do anything. I've tested both ends of the lockdown spectrum. Last spring, complete isolation (well, except the tortoise), separated from the child I've looked after all her life and with allmost all my book contracts cancelled. Deserts of time, but not the emotional resources to use it for all the projects I planned to do when there was time. Now, I have the child 5 or more days and nights a week and am trying to homeschool alongside work that has returned to near-normal levels, and all urgent (of course). Today is one of two days this week I don't have to play Playmobil covid wards and try to enforce rainbow writing, so I'd better get to work. But first, a tip for playing the time stock-market. Marzipan.



Marzipan Dimetrodons, random bird and starfish
 For an investment of about £2.50 and 10 minutes, you can occupy a child with marzipan for quite a long time. Warm it (the marzpian, not the child) for a very few seconds in the microwave to soften it. Really not long, 10 seconds is probably enough — it gets unevenly hot, and once hot marzipan is stuck to your skin it (a) hurts and (b) doesn't come off easily. This is not a good time to go to real hospital. And it's never a good time to explain that your burns come from microwaving marzipan to make extinct animals. You can mix in a few drops of food colouring: poke a hole in the blob of marizpan, add the colour, and knead the resulting mess thorougly. Do this bit yourself, unless you have a good washing machine and lots of hot water to spare. Wash your hands between colours or everything comes out muddy brown and then you are stuck with making walruses and other brown things. 

Use your marzipan like playdough. You don't need to worry about the child eating it. And you can make lovely things that you leave to harden for a day and then eat them on purpose. OK, it's high in sugar (and possibly colourings), but it's not toxic. Don't do it if you or your child is allergic to nuts, obviously. If it all goes horribly wrong, you can still eat it and it's kept them busy for a while. And they learn a lot about which animals are basically blob-shaped. Seals are quite easy to make. Slugs are very easy to make. It's not a day for celebrating the biological wonders of giraffes and elephants. Worms are a good starter-aninal. You can press the little lines into them with a comb (wash it before and after, obvs).

Now I'm going to correct dinosaur layouts and eat leftover Dimetrodons for breakfast... Have a nice day, everyone.

Anne Rooney

Latest book (doesn't mention marzipan)
Salariya, 2021

Monday, 8 February 2021

Reasons to be cheerful by Keren David

 It's February, dark, cold, miserable, in the pandemic era. We're locked down, the virus is mutating, and spring...and vaccinations feel a long way off.  It's so easy to feel depressed and anxious. So I set myself the challenge of finding 10 things to be cheerful about. Here...in no particular order....

1) Zoom meetings. I know, I know. But they are accessible to everyone -  great for the housebound whose lockdown won't end when everyone else's will. I was on a panel event the other week which attracted 100 people  -  I can tell you that would not have happened in a bookshop, however convivial. And for the timid, school visits are much less frightening if you can't actually see the kids. I know real life will resume one day. But I hope we don't forget the people for whom Zoom has opened new doors.

2) Books. Many people are reading more , because their lives have slowed down. Children are reading more -  and parents are reading with their children. Hopefully they will carry on making time for books when life gets busy again. This has to be a good thing, doesn't it?  My most recent read was 'We Played With Fire' by Catherine Barter -  a stunningly good YA book about two real sisters who talked to ghosts or did they). Next I'm looking forward to Magpie by Eve Ainsworth. 

3) Duolingo. I lived in the Netherlands for eight years and failed to master Dutch. But for the last 60 days I've been learning Dutch with Duolingo -  a free app, which has the admirable aim of offering educational opportunities for all.  The best thing about it is that it's like throwing a fire blanket over anxious thoughts -  a few lessons of  word order, or conjunctions, late at night, and I am ready to sleep. (What's more, Duolingo Dutch throws up brilliant sentences such as  Zij zijn zijn zoons, which means They are his sons. 

4) Property websites. Hours and hours of escapism, planning the next stage of my life, in various parts of the world. Will it be Brighton? Will it be Manchester? Will it be Amsterdam again (armed with my new Dutch vocabulary). Probably none of them, but a girl can dream, and Rightmove and Zoopla help me do that. 

5) Art. I stumbled across this lovely video by Edmund de Waal, and now I am planning to make my own polyfilla pictures...although I might use photographs rather than poetry. Or book titles...Meanwhile various talented friends are making fabulous art in lockdown, which I am enjoying very much  via Instagram. And although I cannot visit museums and galleries, there is a lot of art available to view online. 

6)  Other people's good news. I'm not giving away any secrets. But in the last week or so I've heard of an engagement, and a book deal and an offer to do a PhD among my dear friends and these wonderful events are about a million times more exciting and comforting and full of hope and joy than they would have been anyway.

7) Flowers. I dream of being able to afford one of those schemes where a new bouquet arrives every week. But even just a few blooms are very cheering -  and so are the green shoots of  the spring bulbs poking through the snow in my garden.

8) Food.  Specifically this mushroom soup, which I made for lunch, which is delicious and somehow very comforting as well. 

9)  Television  I don't think I've ever appreciated television so much in my life. In fact, I don't think I've ever watched so much television in my life. But the quality and quantity available is quite outstanding. To mention just a few; It's a Sin was a masterpiece -  devastating, brilliant, important. Similarly I May Destroy You was breath-takingly good. Schitt's Creek  -  so funny and heart-warming that I've watched all six series three times. And Lupin - very entertaining. Plus I caught up with The Bridge and Borgen which I've been meaning to watch for years, and both were amazing. What next, people? 

10) Writing  All my writing in the last few months has been journalism  -  partly for the day job, and partly to promote my new book . And I've written some pieces that meant a lot to me and that I'm proud of.  But this week I hope to tentatively dip my toe into creative writing again. And you know what...I'm looking forward to it. 

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Freddy Vs School by Neill Cameron, reviewed by Joshua (for Dawn Finch)

My slot this week is being taken over by a guest reviewer - Josh (aged 9) has very kindly agreed to review Freddy Vs School by Neill Cameron.

First the blurb...

"Okay humans, listen up! My name is FREDDY. I live with my Mum and Dad. I go to school. Oh yeah, the MAIN thing: I am an AWESOME ROBOT! With awesome robotic SUPERPOWERS! But I'm hardly ever allowed to USE them, and definitely not at SCHOOL. Which is going to be a PROBLEM... A hilarious first novel from Neill Cameron, creator of the Mega Robo Bros series and How to Make Awesome Comics."

Josh's review...

Freddy vs school was an interesting, rollercoaster story which would thrill any reader especially someone my age. Freddy being a robot adds another adventurous aspect to the book. The plot of the book is very easy to identify once you start reading; a robot boy with fun and sometimes disastrous school adventures!

Freddy is a very funny and cool character with lots of friends. I like Freddy because he's a robot schoolboy around my age. Freddy has some wow superpowers but can't always use them very well. This book is good because it has so many different and interesting characters and such an exciting plot twist at the end.

The layout of the book was engaging and the pictures help set the scene and let the reader visualize the storyline really well. Neill Cameron used his imagination to tell a story that could have been written and illustrated by a 9-year-old it was so captivating.

I would highly recommend this book to other kids around the world that are my age, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Dawn says - I am hugely grateful to Josh for agreeing to take a guest reviewer slot this month. I love it when I can give a book to a discerning reader and when I read this one I knew just who to ask to review it. Cameron has written and illustrated a book here that is an absolute blast. This book is smart, funny and very engaging and I'm sure it will find many fans!

Dawn Finch is a poet and children's writer and the current chair of the Society of Authors' Children's Writers and Illustrators Group (CWIG)

Joshua is a huge book and comics fan and is also a keen historian and chef.  The reviewer was given a copy of the book in return for an unbiased review. This is Joshua's first professional book review, but I'm sure it won't be his last.

 Freddy Vs School by Neill Cameron is published by David Fickling books.

Saturday, 6 February 2021

A peak in Darien by Paul May

'The advantage  that children's fiction has over other types of writing is its near irresistible appeal to the reader to identify directly with its characters.' (Colin Burrow in London Review of Books 21/1/21)

I was reading Burrow's review of two books, one by Ursula Le Guin and the other a collection of interviews and conversations with her, when this sentence brought me up short. Why had I never thought of this? It explains so much about my approach to reading. When I was a child I always read at night, long after I was supposed to be asleep, and when I did finish a book and close my eyes I would carry on the action in my head, I would be one of the characters, be a part of their adventures, imagine new ones. My involvement was total. 

One of Le Guin's later additions to the Earthsea trilogy.
Those who identified with Sparrowhawk,
the wizard of the earlier books, were in for a shock.
As Burrow says 'always in Le Guin there is a 
sharp ironical turn against any reader who wants to be a hero.'

And that made me think about the way I feel about reading fiction now, or indeed about watching fiction on TV. I find it very hard to feel involved at all, and I've realized that there seems to have been a process going on throughout my life through which made-up stories have grabbed me less and less as the years pass. I am more likely these days to be watching the latest episode of '24 hours in A & E' than the latest drama about serial killers or child abduction.

I think that my childhood approach to reading was essentially one of escapism, or perhaps a kind of virtual tourism with a bit of time travel thrown in. There are moments of discovery in reading which are very like that moment when a new vista appears at the top of a mountain pass. The epigraph Arthur Ransome placed at the very start of his Swallows and Amazons series could hardly have been better chosen:

"Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes,

 He stared at the Pacific - and all his men

 Looked at each other with a wild surmise - 

Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

(The poem, if you don't know it, is Keats's 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer'.)

Back in 1975 a friend suggested cycling from Norfolk to Scotland. We travelled through the Yorkshire Dales in spring, camping in fields by rivers, getting milk from friendly farmers, blissfully unaware that, even back then, the Dales were a tourist destination. We saw no tourists, only wonderful landscapes and empty roads. I've been back many times since, but eventually you realize that it will never be like the first time. And it's not just that you won't ever see those particular hills again for the first time, it's that with each new place you visit, each new experience you have, you hope you'll recreate that freshness of youth, of never really having seen anything much before. And of course, even though each new journey may be enjoyable and exciting, it's never the first journey.

So too with books - at least, for me. That complete immersion in story and character becomes increasingly hard to find as time passes. It has taken a while for my ability to identify with characters to fade, but now it's pretty much gone. It's occurred to me that I've experienced a gradual transition from Aristotle to Brecht, that where once I could engage fully with the characters (I'm not sure I ever really purged my emotions in the classic cathartic manner) I am now essentially distanced from most of the fiction I read or watch, unable to enter into 'passive acceptance and entertainment,' as Wikipedia characterises the distancing or estrangement technique.

Eleanor Farjeon

I am, of course, exaggerating slightly, and I may be suffering from a lockdown over-reliance on 'passive entertainment'. But it is the case that I find myself, in my self-imposed task of reading all the Carnegie winners, often more interested in the lives of the authors than in their work or, rather, than in their writing for children. This was especially so with Walter de la Mare, and is also the case with his friend, Eleanor Farjeon. Like de la Mare she wrote what might be called modern fairy tales in the Hans Andersen tradition (she won the first Hans Andersen award in 1956) but hers are more down-to-earth and much more fun. Many of them, I'm sure, would still be appreciated by children today. I enjoyed her stories, but I am far more interested in her friendship with Edward Thomas and his wife, and in her poetry. Farjeon's Carnegie win in 1955 was one of those 'lifetime achievement award' kinds of thing, and so was C S Lewis's win in 1956 for 'The Last Battle'.

So much has been written about the Narnia books that I don't think there's any need for me to add to it here, other than to say that 'The Last Battle' seems to me to be the worst of the series, and that the 'Christian message' to be found in previous winners like The Little White Horse or The Lark on the Wing seems considerably more palatable, up-front and honest. Christian motifs also animate Lewis's adult science fiction trilogy where they sit far more comfortably because the reader feels that Lewis is exploring ideas, rather than trying to influence young children by stealth, which is how I was definitely left feeling by 'The Last Battle'.

After I accidentally heard a bit of what must have been a very early radio adaptation of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' when I was a very small child, it was a good ten years before I plucked up the courage to read it. I read all the Narnia books eventually, but I think it might have done me more good to read Eleanor Farjeon. She knew all about that gradual disappearance of the freshness of youth, and was pretty good at recovering it, as you can tell from her most famous poem, 'Morning has Broken', and also from her story, 'Westwoods'.

There is a tall wooden fence sealing off the Westwoods from the land of Workaday. Mothers tell their children the Westwoods are dangerous, but they long to see beyond the fence, at least until they grow up and marry and have children of their own. It turns out that the Westwoods are wonderful but contain something dangerous to the land of Workaday—dreams. It's the young King's maid, Selina, who leads him eventually into Westwoods, and she's one of Farjeon's many very real-feeling female characters. When the king asks her to marry him her reply is typical. 'Oh all right,' she says.  

Paul May's website

Thursday, 4 February 2021

The Struggle to Say No - Ciaran Murtagh

I struggle to say no. If someone asks me to do something - for money I might add, I'm not a mad man - I find it hard to turn it down. 

I don't know what it is that makes it so hard, but I have an idea.

My Dad grew up on a farm in the west of Ireland without running water or electricity. He sacrificed a lot to get me to where I am, and the idea that I might turn down money for something as simple as writing a story when he and his family worked so hard to get enough to buy something to eat feels all wrong. 

Then there's my own personal circumstances. 

I had my first child when I was 17. All of my professional life I've been working to put bread on the table - not for me, but for her. If I'm vain enough to try and make a living from writing stories, then I better make sure nobody else suffers for that, especially not my own children. There are other ways to make a regular income, if I'm turning my back on them then the alternative better pay. 

And moving on from that, I only started making a decent living in my late 30s. It's hard to shirk the hustle. It's also hard not to think it might all be taken away from you as quickly as it arrived.  Fortune is fickle, if you currently bask in its glow - make hay! 

So all of that leads me to the point I find myself. I turned down work and it feels really odd. 

Added to everything else, this particular moment in history makes it even harder to do. There are plenty without work or wage, to have the audacity to turn one's nose up at opportunity - today of all days! - seems particularly graceless.  

But here we are. 

It's happened twice in my professional life. I turned down the chance to work on a Moshi Monsters TV show because it was morally bankrupt, and I turned something else down this week because it just wasn't for me. 

As someone who is self employed and who has struggled for two decades to get opportunities to write for money, to turn them down seems counter intuitive.  But truth be told, it's vital. As Kenny Rogers said-  you gotta know when to hold them and know when to fold them. 

It's taken me a long time to be happy saying 'no', I'm still learning how, but sometimes you've got to listen to what your gut is telling you, and just bite the bullet. It means there's more time for you to do the stuff you do love. 

Speaking of which... 

This month 19 episodes of Danny and Mick debuted on CBBC - I had a hand in all of them. You can also see my work in Crackerjack and Big Fat Like, also on CBBC and Dave Spud is starting on CITV. See what you can achieve when you start saying 'no.'

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Review of THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick Reviewed by Sharon Tregenza

 by Brian Selznick

I really don't know where to start with this book. It's a piece of art and a unique reading experience. It's a graphic novel, a picture book a middle grade mystery. It's also a black and white movie on paper. It's all of these things and its pretty wonderful. 

Twelve year old Hugo lives a secretive life in a Paris train station. When an eccentric girl and the owner of a toy booth invade that life, Hugo's secrets are put in danger. Hidden messages, a stolen key and a mechanical man all come together to form this unique story. 

There are almost three hundred pictures in this extraordinary book - each a joy to look at. It's no surprise that it won The Caldecott Medal. It's cinematic and beautiful and definitely a book for keeps. I'd give it six stars if I could. 

  • Publisher : Scholastic; 1st edition (1 Oct. 2007)
  • Language : English
  • Hardcover : 534 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1407103482
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1407103488
  • Reading age : 8 - 12 years