Monthly Archives: February 2016

Messing about with the Secret Garden.


At the beginning of January, this book came out. Yes, the “Secret Garden” – and it is, indeed, The Secret Garden – but not as you know it.  The brief was to retell, in 5,000 words, Frances Hodgson- Burnett’s original book, in a way that would be accessible to a child who might struggle with the classic text.   “Yes,” I said, wondering if I could really do it. “Sounds like a great challenge”, which indeed it was.  I started by re-reading it on kindle, which is always unkind to a manuscript – then I re-read my battered childhood copy:


And drank a lot of cups of tea and decided that I might have bitten off more than I could chew.

But I took some notes – and I took some more, and realised that if I wrote the skeleton of the story, like a synopsis, stripped off the parts that I couldn’t work in, and fleshed out the pieces that were essential,  it was perfectly possible. It could even be fun.   I’m not a methodical person, my thoughts aren’t very organized but I’m good at finding the essence of something and I decided that the essence of “sour faced Mary” was where I would start.   It also seemed that Dickon, and Martha were essential, and of course, Colin.

I wrote something that I quite liked, that was about 8,000 words, and then began to pare and to cut and by the end it felt like thin sheep, shorn, racing over the pages where once something quite fluffy had stood.

Then came the illustrations, which were not at all as I imagined, but for all that, brought the story alive. Mary had a face, Colin too – and the house and moor, and garden.

When the finished book arrived, and I found myself reading it  I decided that it had worked.  That the Secret Garden, that precious book, part of the childhood of so many people, now had a new version that could be accessed by thousands of children who would not otherwise go near it.  And when they’ve read the Secret Garden, they can move on to Wuthering Heights, rewritten by Emma Carroll  , and Frankenstein by Beverly Birch or the Railway Children, or Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables, or Jane Eyre or…  Masses of them, actually, masses of sacred texts made accessible for modern children.





Algorithms? Are they really a replacement?

Today, S.F.Said, the author of PHOENIX, (if you haven’t read it, you should) has written this article which contains shocking statistics of the pathetic state of newspaper coverage for Children’s literature.  It turns out that all children’s literature, from Young Adult to the picture book is bundled together and gets the tiniest slice of space –  3.1% of column inches.  Read the article for the rest of the information.

This is poor indeed.  It’s lousy for writers & illustrators, but its lousier for children themselves.  As I see it, it means that all the people who were out there to help a child or parent choose a book are gone or on the edge of extinction. Economics has shaved away professional librarians/libraries and proper bookshops are being bullied out of the road by online selling.  And because of the parlous state of children’s books years ago, pre Harry Potter and Philip Pullman, the column inches in the newspapers withered, and they’ve not been re kindled. (To mix metaphors)

Tragically, this leaves parents and children with algorithms as guides.

So – where once my mother would pin a sheaf of newspaper cuttings on the kitchen notice board, now, she’d wander into a bookshop (If she could find one) or faff about online with no idea what lay within the covers and choose something unguided.  My childhood was dominated by those books with good reviews, and they were good books. Someone, an adult, had read them, thought about them and given them the thumbs up.  If I had worked on the same principle with my children,  they would have had a very few books per year suitable for their age range.

You may respond that Amazon and Goodreads are littered with reviews.  Yes, they are, but you have to find the book to find the review and even then some of them aren’t much good:

Was a bit long coming in the post but very good quality book almost new”

or written by parents who HAVEN’T ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK

“My 9 year old daughter loved this book. She couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended”

It’s not as if there aren’t lots of terrific reviewers out there, dying to get some proper column inches.  It’s not as if there aren’t thousands of parents and grandparents reading the review sections.  I volunteer for the Summer Reading Challenge in the library, and parents wander in and say: “She’s read all of Roald Dahl’s books – where do we go next?”  If the librarians are busy, I will help them find books (I love this bit) and they will go away having explored a new branch of the children’s book tree, but without that person, me, the librarian, the bookseller or the reviewer – they’re a bit stuffed, frankly.

So, Mr or Mrs Newspaper Editor – it’s time you woke up – there are lots and lots of people out there who NEED professional reviewers.  It’s time we had them back in the pages on a regular basis. Not just Summer round ups, and Christmas choices, we need them week in week out.

There’s this new campaign out there #coverkidsbooks – join it to add your voice.

You never know, it might help the librarians and the booksellers. If they’re still out there.