The Longshoremen and SUNK!

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I grew up with the stories of longshoremen.  My father, during his summer holidays in the 1930s was a longshoreman’s boy on the beach in Shanklin Isle of Wight. From what is now a pub on the beach, he lugged small boats and hefted out deckchairs and rented them out during long summer days. The bathing machines had only just been rolled into retirement, women still wore skirts into the sea, and for a boy who had spent his childhood in grim boarding schools, it seemed a charmed and sun flilled place.

Years later, as a 1960s family, we holidayed in the island. Not in the deckchair zone but on the huge majestic beaches of the west wight, where fossils adorned the sandcastles and long breakers meant hours of feeble but hugely enjoyable body surfing.

When my own children were the right age, we took a cottage near Steephill Cove, possibly the loveliest of all the deckchair paradises and became aware of the elderly longshoreman, Mr Wheeler who still hired out the deckchairs.  Nothing in his world is remotely chaotic, it’s all beautifully organised, but it got me wondering about the possibilities.

What if the deckchairs turned on the people? What if the windbreaks trashed the sandcastles? What if everyone in authority pretended there was nothing wrong?

I took this idea and plugged it into the world of SHRUNK! and SUNK! was born. It’s summer, well, English summer, and things are going wrong on the beach, but no-one wants to know  – so Tom, Eric, Jacob and even Tilly get involved in a desperate battle against the marauding beach furniture, rescuing the town from an uncertain future.

It’s out on June 4th – along with a completely redesigned set of brothers and sisters – with a new illustrator who is the fabulously talented Ross Collins (he can really draw.)

Although SUNK! is the last in the series – it can be read entirely on its own.

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Best books according to adults? or Best Books for Children?

There’s been a great deal of discussion around the ten (or 11 or 21) best children’s books of all time recently.  You can see some discussion here, here and here.

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Now recently, I came upon this lot, in a cupboard in my mother’s house. These books were mine (see how many Puffins there were) and it doesn’t include all the books that I’d previously plundered and brought to my grown up books shelves. So if you add in the rest of the Narnias, the Joan Aikens, the Moomins, the Case of the Silver Egg, Stig of the Dump and plenty of random others, it’s heading for about 50 books that I owned, and HUNG ON TO.

Then – Add in all the fantastic books that have come since…

How can there possibly be only ten?  Well it’s obvious that there can’t.  Any more than there can be the 10 best paintings of all time – who do you throw out – Michelangelo, or Rothko? Or the 10 best films, or the 10 best songs.

If I had to rescue the 10 best children’s books from a burning library I’d burn with it. And anyway what makes a book the best?  Some of the classics are really hard work – some of them, some children, simply can’t relate to now.  They don’t all actually want to read Little Women, or Little House on the Prairie – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still stands up really well, but it may not in 10 years.

So they might have been the best children’s books of 1950 – 1980 but they aren’t the best children’s books of now. It’s impossible. It’s silly. And it stops parents searching outside the carefully selected box.

It’s like my husband’s book club which is trying to read only ‘Good’ books and has come unstuck with some almost unreadable Nobel prize winning books.

I think it all needs to be more random, more instinctive.  Who bought me ‘The Cave Twins’ by Lucy Fitch Perkins? Or the Chesterfield Gold by Roger Pilkington? Someone who wasn’t checking things off a list as both books seem forgotten now.  Who bought the first Moomin book for us? I’m guessing it was someone who liked the covers.  Who threw the first Dr Syn book at me? Not a person looking at high brow fiction that’s for sure.

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But all these books made me, built me into a reader, a writer, a critic.

So can we stop having to have 10 best? Even 20 Best?  Even 100 best?

Can’t we just have books that children want to read?

Spring – springeth and I wanted snow.

I’m writing this book.

Well to be fair, I’m always writing a book.

But this one’s about snow – and there hasn’t been any.  It is kind of chilly, and without socks my feet are seeking out the patches of sunlight on the rug, but there’s definitely been a shortage of snow round these parts.

I so thought it would happen.  I’ve left all the snowy scenes to write, assuming that at some point it would plump out of the sky and turn the countryside black and white, which was very lazy of me, I know.  But I wanted to hear the crunch. Measure the resistance as I place my foot.  See how the sheep look – all that stuff.

But as a writer, I’m used to this.

Usually, I’m in the freezing cold, trying to feel hot sand burning the soles of my feet, or imagining sunlight on fresh grass.  Generally, I find myself trying to recreate the smell of deckchairs, or ice cream, or sun cream.

But that’s what our imaginations are for.

Snow. In the sunshine.

 

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The perfect school visit.

So it was perfect – absolutely brilliantly perfect.

It’s not the first perfect school visit I’ve done but it’s the most recent, so I thought, for the benefit of everyone – I’d try and record the perfect details.

I was contacted in loads of time. This meant that I could book the cheapest rail fares and work out the best, most relaxing, cost efficient way of getting from Bath, to Southend.

The contact was a bookshop.  A brilliant children’s bookshop in Westcliff on Sea – Jacqson Diego. So I knew that the children would be able to buy books.

They offered to pay me and my travel – before I even had to prompt them.

A programme of possible activities was emailed to me a fortnight beforehand – a schedule that we kept – no sudden PE lesson in the middle of my talk or half of year 6 disappearing on a theatre trip.

Jacqui from the bookshop met me at the station so I didn’t have to get lost wandering the streets of Southend.

There was tea at the bookshop.

Jacqui accompanied me and a couple of boxes of books to the school where me met a governor, who was there to observe. She was delightful and helpful.  All the staff knew exactly who I was.

There was tea.

The children knew who I was – lots of them had actually read my books. The teacher who introduced me asked the children how they were to treat me – “like a rockstar” they replied. The hall was not too hot or too full or too farty.  The teachers listened to the talk – the children listened to the talk – they laughed in all the right places – they were keen. All 240 of them.

There was coffee.

There was the workshop which I had planned and printed a few copies. But one for each child appeared shortly afterwards and this way it was actually possible to workshop 120 children simultaneously, calmly and with everyone engaging.

There was lunch, with year 6.

There was another mug of tea.

There was more workshopping and then the children read out their work which was BRILLIANT!

And then there was signing – in the library – with tea, and loads and loads of children and their parents who wandered in from the outside and asked their children which books they wanted and a proper bookseller and a fantastic teacher doing the sales.

Then it was time to go back to the bookshop to meet more children – sign more books, and drink a little more tea.

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And then finally, to head out into slight snow, an easy walk to the station, and back to London.

So thank you Jacqui, and thank you Jo Farrell and thank you Hamstel Junior School for being awesomely welcoming and giving me an easy ride.

Not writer’s block so much as a washing machine.

Just at the moment, a broken washing machine is dead in the middle of the kitchen.

‘What’s for supper?’ ask the kids as they come back from school.

‘I don’t know, I reply. It depends on the washing machine. It’s blocking everything.’

‘Oh,’ they say staring at the piles of plates trying to get into the dishwasher and the shopping unable to cram itself into the cupboards. ‘So probably pasta again.’

I too stare at the mayhem and nod my agreement.  ‘Pasta again,’ I say.

It’s not that I couldn’t cook something more exciting, it’s just the limbo of not knowing that stops me committing myself to cooking something more exciting.

Real life dictates that I wait for a delivery driver.  That’s been going on since 2 – it could go on until 9.

It’s boring and it completely stops me from functioning as a writer.   I’ve done nothing remotely useful since 2.

This is not writer’s block, it’s just life block.

I have this image of Ernest Hemingway never washing up.  Jane Austen never had to go to parents’ night.  Charles Dickens didn’t have to get his car serviced.  Chaucer didn’t have to file accounts.  None of them ever spent all Sunday doing Geography homework.  None of them had real lives outside work.

But then if I had all that time back, without the minutiae of life blundering in, I’d probably find I didn’t have anything to say.

 

Another little book baby hits the shelves.

The third of the SHRUNK! books slipped out into the world last week. Like a freshly scrubbed seal pup it drifted out onto the waves and started to swim .  It’s called GHOSTS ON BOARD, and it has the same lovely characters as SHRUNK! with the addition of a bunch of ghosts.  Jacob is awful, Eric is wise and Tom is sorely tempted.  Tilly, Tom’s unreasonable sister is back –  and Mum and Dad are as ever, clueless numpties.  There’s threat and danger and the contributions of hundreds of schoolchildren (see THE STORY ADVENTURE) wrangled into shape by the application of logic and hard work. You don’t have to read SHRUNK! first, but it helps.

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Thank you letters

It’s that time of year:

Dear Grandma,
Thank you for the colour by numbers set. That is really kind.
Thank you,
Fleur aged 18

Or
Dear Uncle Ian,
Thank you for the pen nife,
I will try to us it carfully.
Ed aged 3.

Now people have different views on thank you letters – see here in the Guardian.  And in part, I kind of agree, but…

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I’ve just written one to a school of children in Stoke on Trent who sent me a stack of letters. They’ve been studying SHRUNK! this term and they’ve been to visit to model village. They had a load of excellent questions like ‘Why did Tom shrink Jacob?’ and ‘Why is it called SHRUNK!’ but best of all, they sent some fantastic drawings:

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They’re definitely worth a thank you letter.