Do you know about keckling? Or Liripoops?

When a friend of mine was little or ill or stuck on an island with his grandparents – I forget which – he read the Oxford Dictionary.  From A – Z.  He didn’t remember it all, but he remembered some of it, and he always said that he really enjoyed it.

On Sunday – my husband, in search of a word to fit the crossword carefully combed the columns searching for a particular word with the right spacing of As and Es.

He could have searched it on Google, but the sun was shining, he had a pair of specs and he was happy to while away 20 minutes perusing the onion skin pages of my dad’s ancient dictionary.

Afterwards, he told me a string of words I didn’t know, even using some of them in conversation. Do you know what to Keckle is?  Or a Liripoop? This word press program certainly doesn’t.

It occurred to us that there is great pointless glee in doing this, and that to truly fulfill such undirected curious joy you have to have the real book.  The internet is so big it isn’t in alphabetical order, you can’t just look up all the words beginning with K, you’d explode, and anyway, there are probably loads of replacement window companies and takeaways in West London who’d come top of the list.

So make sure, that every once in a while, you have a dictionary moment. Roam through it, pick up a stray word and start using it.

I might just go and iron my liripoops and keckle something to a post before the wind picks up.



A chat with my 10 year old self.

Hello – can you say who you are?





I like horses. Riding bikes, reading – and I fight with my older sister.

Ok. Anything else?

My grandmother lives in the flat opposite our front door and she’s really miserable.  I hate her. She’s an ogre.

Do you really hate her?



No matter how hard my Dad tries, she won’t laugh.

What does your dad do to make her laugh?

Long pause. You’re a grown up – why would you want to know?

I just do.

He dresses up.  Puts on a silly hat, then knocks on her window. He tries to make her jump, or laugh.  It’s really funny, but she just says: “Raymond! You’re puggle.” And knocks her cigarette ash into the marmalade tin.

What does puggle mean?

You know – daft.’

So do you have a horse?

No – I hang around the horses that live in the field on the other side of the river.  They’re owned by a woman called Jan, but she never comes to see them.  One of them had a foal in the field when I was there.  It was in a white film, and it wriggled as it came out, and then the mare chewed the white stuff off and the foal treid to stand up, but it couldn’t so I ran to find mum.

What did your mum do.

Nothing, she was on the phone, so I got Dad, who found the policeman who lives next door and then he decided that the foal was ok.

So was that exciting?

Pause.  Dunno.  I’ve got a friend up the lane.  He goes away to school, but when he’s at home, we play James Bond under the tree in the garden.

Play James Bond?’

Yes, he’s James Bond, I don’t know what I am really. I’ve never actually seen a James Bond film. And we shoot things.

Really shoot things?



Can I go now?


Pillows and mattresses.

I’m currently revising a manuscript that I first wrote in 2008. Yes, that’s right, a book that would now be in year 2 at primary school had it found its feet straight away.  As it is, it’s still an unborn baby of a book, written and re-written and re-written again, shoved in a drawer, forgotten, remembered, rewritten and forgotten again.   In fact it’s been re-written so many times that it has a huge subsection in my document folder that outstrips all the other manuscripts I’ve written .

The reason, I think, that I haven’t successfully delivered it – is that I find it so exhausting.  It is such a huge thing, physically and such a monumental monster to write and edit.

I see it like this:

SHRUNK! and the SHRUNK! books are around 25,000 words.  They are pillows, quite big pillows. In some cases, there are two or three of them, and with the Story Adventure even more,  and they might slip out of my grasp but they are modular, a collection of pillows that need moving up six flights of stairs.  The chances are I will have to go back down and get one, but I will make the trip.

Dear Scarlett and Saving Sophia.  45,000 words. These are single mattresses.  Awkward but fine so long as the telephone doesn’t ring when I’m jammed behind it on the landing.  The mattress doesn’t have any handles, and it does occasionally slip from my fingers and slide all the way down, but mostly the direction is up.  It’s possible to turn the mattress over, invert it, move the beginning to the middle, the middle to the end.

This novel, the baby from the bottom drawer, feels massive.  It’s an extra large kingsize super big, unreasonably heavy  mattress with no handles and lumpy sticky out buttons. Even the first flight takes an age. Every time I change something, there are pages and pages of revisions to make, I slip back down a flight of stairs, and my brain explodes just a little more.  I can actually get lost in the plot and if I’m away from it for more than a day, I’m climbing those stairs from the bottom all over again.


It’s using every scrap of my head.

So I’m sorry if you’re trying to ring me, or arrange something.  And I’m sorry I haven’t answered your email –  but right now, I really have to get this 65,000 word mattress up the stairs.


Writing Strictly from memories

The season of Strictly is upon us.  The bad jokes, the glitter ball, the makeup the strange skin coloured bits on the dresses that always worried me when I was a kid. Were those women really half naked?

Years ago, I used to watch the grandparent of Strictly.  It was a serious affair, called ‘Come Dancing’. I have absolutely no idea how the scoring worked, who the judges were, who the contestants were – I was a child on my Grandma’s sofa – marvelling at the costumes, the glitter, the orange spray tan ( things have moved on there) and the only moments of anything remotely sexy shown before the 9 o’clock watershed. It was as if glam rock had fused with the old ladies at tea dances and the two spawned something strange and exotic and slightly illicit.

I took my childhood fascination and used it to write The Yoghurt Plot. Which is an accidental homage to that almost forgotten sequinned world that the 1970s toyed with and abandoned in favour of orange space hoppers and brown cars.   I wanted to reach into that strange marriage of frump and glitz and pull it out and make it live.

The result is overtly a time travel story, but underpinned by love for a world I never really saw except through the juddering TV, and never remotely understood.  In the Yoghurt Plot, I imagined what living right up close to that greasepaint and patent leather would feel like.  I took as my setting an east coast run down sea side town and planted the dance into the middle of it. It might have been some strange monster like Little Shop of Horrors, but instead I chose to let it lift my heart as a writer. While I was writing it, I grabbed at the glimpses of Come Dancing that I could remember, along with the smells of Grandma’s face powder and held my breath in an attempt to get right back inside the memory.  Because Bugg, the central character was visiting the past, it was easier for me to visit my past through Bugg’s eyes. My incoherent memories had to coalesce in order to construct the story.

Curiously, now, eighteen months after writing it – I almost can’t remember the process.  I know it’s a story, a fiction, but because it came so much from sensory snapshots I think more than any other book I’ve written – it feels like one of those dreams where it might really have happened.

Half way through…

We’re half way through this year’s Festival of Children’s Literature in Bath.  It’s a fantastic 10 day marathon of events from quizzes to drawing sessions  to serious discussions of young adult literature.   It takes place in the middle of Bath, and has done every autumn for the last few years.

My personal involvement is as a steward alongside a pool of other committed and energetic stewards, many of whom know an awful lot about children’s literature, and some of whom write it.  Mostly I’m a talking signpost in a yellow t-shirt, sending people upstairs, downstairs, in search of box offices, toilets, Peppa Pig or Sophie Mackenzie.  Sometimes I make tea and coffee for authors, sometimes I help to get people into character suits.


On Sunday, it was Miffy.

Here she is, brushing the doorway with her magnificent ears.

This weekend coming you can meet a bunch more characters and authors and some excellent stewards too.  Check out the programme here.



Volunteering for the Summer Reading Challenge


Yesterday I cycled into Bradford on Avon and I was inducted into the finer details of the awesome 2014 Summer Reading Challenge, Sarah McIntyre’s Mythical Maze.   This means that I am no longer an observing parent but an official volunteer at the library and can find out, face to face what children between 4 and 11 like to read and help them choose the next book in the challenge.

I know I meet children all the time in schools, but this is different.  This isn’t about suggesting my books, it’s about suggesting all books and hopefully because I read so many children’s books I can recommend books that they’ll like and they can come back and tell me about them later on in the summer.

So I’m really looking forward to it.  It’s a little like bookselling – another thing I totally love.


Since yesterday I know that:

Children under 4 don’t do it, but they can do the Booktrust Bookstart Bear Club.

I know that there are scratch and sniff cards in the librarians’ box of rewards

I know that there’s an app that parents can download and that the children can then get extra little stories from special posters dotted around the library.

I know that there’s a special wristband reward for reading 4 books

I know that if you go on holiday you can visit a different library and get the books signed off but you have to go back to your own library so that they can officially enter your achievements in the register.

I know that the medals for six books are pretty awesome.

I also know that loads of children have already signed up, but that there’s plenty of room for more.

And that’s just for starters.


As I cycled home, I wondered if any other children’s authors or editors had volunteered for the Challenge, because if you’d be even remotely interested, you may find your local library still has gaps in the schedule, and they’ll probably welcome you with open arms.

Or, there’s always next year.




NOT Birmingham New St Station again?

I’ve been lucky enough to be shortlisted for a few book awards recently. SHRUNK! was up for the Heart of Hawick, debut award. Dear Scarlett made it to the finals of the James Reckitt Award in Hull (you can find out about it here on Liz’s blog) and also to the last 5 of the books put forward for Our Best Book Award in Leicester.

Sadly none of these places are very near Bath.  In fact, Hull is a snappy 5 and a half hours train ride away, so I had plenty of time for thinking in both directions.

On the way up, I mostly thought, why am I doing this?  Am I mad? Someone else will win?  (which they did in all cases, congratulations to Rob Lloyd Jones, Rachel Carter and Tom Palmer) But on the way back I thought about what a totally dedicated bunch librarians are because in every case they were charming, helpful, hospitable, soothing, enthusiastic, hard working, going far beyond the call of duty, and they were passionate about books and reading.

I asked how the awards were put together and I discovered that at Hull and in Leicester, huge piles of books are being read through the year ready for the longlist. Reviews are combed, blogs are read, covers examined.  Age ranges carefully considered  – books included or rejected.  It takes most of the year so between that and the Summer Reading Challenge it’s fairly full on.  And then, in addition to that, they have to organise the actual ceremony.  Persuading us authors to come, hiring buildings putting together activities for children liasing with schools.

All this is in response to a potential or actual drop in reading or achievement locally. The idea is to get the children to vote themselves – give them some power over us, the authors – get the authors up to meet them, engender passion and excitement about reading in the children.  Increase attainment, lifelong love of learning and reading.

At Hull there were 400 children, in Leicester 300 but they’re only the tip of the iceberg because each school could only send a few children – back there, out of sight were masses of children who couldn’t come to the award ceremony, but who, as a result of the awards, had a strong sense of ownership.

It was great.  And even as I passed through Birmingham New Street Station for the fourth time in a fortnight, I gave thanks for librarians, for libraries and for award ceremonies and all those who work so hard to put them together.

You’re all pretty incredible.