Festivals galore

Autumn is definitely the time for festivals and usually a conference or two.  This year  I have just been to Cheltenham and also Bath, where I have been helping out for 13 years – I don’t know where the time has gone.

The start off was in Bath and I spent Saturday the 28th Sept over at the Guildhall helping with two of the very popular events.  The first of these was with the current Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell and it was a total sellout in the Banqueting Room.  300 eager fans and parents were in the room to hear Cressida talk about her writing journey, how to train your dragon and particularly about the latest volume in the series ‘Wizards of Once’, which is called “Knock Three Times”.  The signing queue was enormous and took nearly two hours for everyone to speak to Cressida, get their books signed and have photos taken.  We just managed to get things tidied when it was time for our second speaker of the day to start her signing session.  This was the wonderful Emma Carroll, who has become one of our brightest lights when it comes to historical novels for the middle grade audience.  This latest book has a very local feel, not least because Emma lives in Somerset; it is called  “The Somerset Tsunami” and is based on a true event that took place in January 1607 (Gregorian calendar) and which affected large parts of the county as well as the area around Newport in South Wales.  I remember seeing a programme about this many years ago and can’t wait to read her version of events.  Once again the room was packed full of eager readers and then another long queue formed to get books signed.   I was also lucky enough to see the amazing Chris Mould in the Green Room, although his session about his new illustrated version of Ted Hughes’ “The Iron Man” was not until after I had left.  However I hear great reports about it and gather there was even a surprise appearance by the  totally unique Chris Riddell, who was doing his own event about “Guardians of Magic”, the first in a new series called the ‘Cloud Horse Chronicles’. By the time I left, tiredness was beginning to set in, but it had been a great day.

After this I had a bit of a rest but on Tuesday I was back in Bath.  The first event was at the Central Library and was a craft and reading session with Tracey Corderoy, when she was talking to some very young children and their parents about her book “The One-Stop Story Shop”, illustrated by Tony Neal.  There were rhymes, props, singing and lots of glitter and glue.  I was amazed by how well prepared Tracey was.  There were pre-cut templates, packs of sequins, paper and all the things that were needed, so we didn’t have to go hunting around.  This really did make for a stress free event.  She also told us about her latest picture book called “Mouse’s Night Before Christmas”, which I have already bought and which will be in the Christmas round up.  After this lovely session (which really took me back to the days in a public library) I went down to the Guildhall for my second event.  This was with the lovely Abi Elphinstone and she had a couple of hundred school children enthralled by her talk about her books, but particularly about “Rumblestar” the first in a magical new series called  ‘The Unmapped Chronicles‘.  This was an excellent event which the children loved, although I think being shown her very own home-made catapult might have made quite a large impression.  This is yet another young writer who is taking the book world by storm and I look forward to following her books over the coming years.

My third day at the festival was on Sunday 6th October and it was the finale of the whole event.  As usual there were more people that I wanted to see than I was actually able to get to, but it was a fabulous time.  I started off with the wonderful Robin Stevens who was talking about her books ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ and particularly about the new title “Top Marks for Murder”, which once again sees her heroines Daisy and Hazel back at school and facing yet another murder mystery.  The idea for the story came to her when she was standing on Bath railway station and saw a couple of people on the hill in the distance; it made her think about seeing a murder, but not being close enough to recognize the murderer and so the plot was conceived.  Robin has built up a following of avid readers and they were out in force to get their books signed, some of them bringing their complete collections.  I was then scheduled to help with the “Horrid Henry” session with Francesca Simon, which was a packed event and there were loads of excited fans wanting to find out about their unlikely hero.  Once again the queues were long and everyone wanted their books signed.  I managed to dash downstairs to try and get some books signed by the speakers for another event.  They were Catherine Fisher, author of “Clockwork Crow” and “Velvet Fox” and P.G. Bell who wrote“The Train to Impossible Places” and now has “The Great Brain Robbery”.  I managed to meet Catherine and get my books signed but unfortunately  Peter Bell had already left the building.  Never mind, I will catch up with him eventually and the books will gain his signature.

Anyway this saw the end of the festival for this year but as the saying goes “I’ll be back” next year I hope.  In the meantime I have also been spending time at Cheltenham Literary Festival, but only in the audience.

I attended it on Saturday 5th October, so I had a double dose of book events that weekend.  The first event was Robin Stevens, something that I had booked before I found that I was stewarding for her the following day.  Whilst it was great for me to be able to see and hear her talk to different groups, I must apologise to Robin for popping up all over the place.  What was great was to see how she tailored her talks to suit the audience and the length of time that was available at each venue.  This event was definitely larger than in Bath and lasted an hour, so there was more time for questions from her adoring fans.  What we all discovered was that the Cheltenham audience is quite politically minded and when asked to come up with plots and characters for a murder mystery they chose the House of Commons and some well known politicians !!  Thankfully this was all fiction.  My second event was a panel session called “The Ultimate Guide to Writing for Children”.  It consisted of the iconic Barry Cunningham, founder of Chicken House Publishers and discoverer of the “Harry Potter “series, Alex O’Connell from ‘The Times’, Nikesh Shukla from the Good Literary Agency and Jasbinder Bilan, the author of “Asha and the Spirit Bird” (and previous winner of the Times Children’s Fiction Competition).  This was definitely one for the adults, something that was reflected by the lack of young people in the audience, although the Pillar Room was crammed full of excited adults, some of whom definitely wanted to have their work published.  The talk itself was stimulating and reminded me that I have been very lucky over the years to meet many people in publishing, all of whom are generous with their knowledge and experience.

My next visit to Cheltenham was on Saturday 12th and one again I had two very special events to attend.  Both of them were panel events although the themes were very different from each other.  The first discussion was entitled “70 years of Children’s Books” and was chaired by the totally amazing Daniel Hahn (editor of “Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature” and prolific translator and reviewer); he was talking to Alex O’Connell, Mat Tobin (Oxford Brookes University) and Clare Pollard, the author of  “Fierce Bad Rabbits”, a truly delightful look at picture books.  Each of the participants had to choose one title from each of the last seven decades and it was brilliant to see the range that they came up with.  Many of the titles I am glad to say were old favourites, some I really must get around to reading and one or two were new to me.  The panel also chose a title that they thought might prove to be future classics and although I have not read one of them yet, I think that they are definitely worthy of this accolade.  They are  “Bearmouth” by Liz Hyder, “Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Lowe, “Skylark’s War” by Hilary McKay and “Town is by the Sea” by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith.   The second event of the day was entitles “Mysterious Places” and it had been guest curated by Robin Stevens, although she was not able to attend and the wonderful and talented Katherine Woodfine took the role of chair, as well as being one of the authors, talking about “Spies in St Petersburg”.  The other speakers were Dominique Valente with her book “Starfell”, which was about magic and what happens when a particular day ceases to exist; Dave Shelton with the first in a series of adventures featuring “Emily Lime, Librarian Detective” and Polly Yo-Hen with her latest novel “Where Monsters Lie”.  They spoke about their individual books and specifically how they created the characters and situations, but they also talked about other recent books that they have been influenced by.  This was an event that was definitely loved by the young audience and hopefully they will have added some new titles to their reading lists.  The great thing about such panels is that you might go to hear a particular author but you then discover that you might enjoy books by the other participants.

That was my final event for this year but I am already looking forward to the various events for next year.  There are also a few book launches in the offing, so I hope that I be able to report on some of them.  The thing to remember is that these book events are for everyone and it is a total delight to be surrounded by so many enthusiastic readers, especially the young ones.

It must be Christmas!

Well, for the last couple of months we have been showered by lists of books that we should be reading this Christmas and I thought that as in previous years I will pick a few of the ones that I have really enjoyed.  Yet again it has been quite a bumper year for Christmas stories and this year they cover a large range of genres as well as age ranges.  So let us start with those for what is now termed the ‘independent’ reader.

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Puffin, 978-0141369723

“Mistletoe and Murder” by Robin Stevens is the latest in her series about the two young sleuths Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong.  I have been an avid reader of all her works and this definitely lives up to the superb standard of the others.  Daisy and Hazel find themselves spending Christmas in a Cambridge college and then they become embroiled in a murder enquiry which really tests their skills.  Robin Stevens has used her love of ‘Golden Age’ crime to link this story to the works of Dorothy L Sayers and in particular to ‘Gaudy Night’ which is set in an Oxford College.  As the girls might say, this is a “really spiffing read”.

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Macmillan, 978-1509832583

“The Road to Ever After” by Moira Young is a total change from her earlier work and is for a slightly younger audience.  It is the story of young  Davy David who scrapes out a living in the  small  town of Brownvale and re-creates pictures of angels on the ground.  Life changes when the mysterious Miss Flint hires him to driver her to an unknown house on the coast, despite the fact that he is only 13 years and cannot drive.  What follows is a magical journey, with unexpected consequences. There is a sense of being on a quest as well as there being a nod in the direction of “A Wonderful Life”.  This is a story to re-read and treasure and I know it will be with me for a long time.

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Canongate, 978-1782118572

“The Girl who saved Christmas” by Matt Haig is the follow on to last year’s best seller “A Boy called Christmas”.  Whilst the central character  is still Father Christmas, this book is set at a later period.  People are beginning to not believe in Father Christmas and the magic is starting to disappear.  It needs someone who really believes, to save the day; but even she is beginning to have doubts.

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Nosy Crow, 978-0857636386

“Murder in Midwinter” by Fleur Hitchcock.  When Maya thinks she might have seen a murderer, the police send her to stay with her aunt in Wales.  But the danger follows her in this exciting story.

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Puffin, 9780141373324

“The Christmasaurus” by Tom Fletcher is about a dinosaur searching for his identity and a young boy who loves dinosaurs and Christmas; add a nasty villain to the mix and get set for a fantastically magical adventure

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Simon & Schuster, 9781471159800

“Winter Magic” edited by Abi Elphinstone is a collection of seasonal stories curated by Abi.  the authors are a range of the top children’s writers that are in the UK today.  They include Piers Torday, Michelle Magorian, Jamila Gavin and Lauren St John.  There is bound to be something for everyone in this collection

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Hodder, 9781444926491

“Santa Claude” by Alex T. Smith.  When Claude accidentally locks Santa in handcuffs and can’t find the key (don’t ask)  he faces the problem of trying to deliver all of the presents himself.  This is a great story for those who are just beginning to read by themselves or who want to share with others.

 

With picture books we are always inundated by a host of new titles every year, however there are also some favourites that make a welcome re-appearance.  I have included some that have come back this year and which I have not written about on previous years.

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Simon & Schuster, 9781442496736

“Click Clack Ho! Ho! Ho!” by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin.  This is the Christmas offering about the animals on farmer Brown’s farm and how they ‘cope’ with Christmas Eve and the arrival of Santa. As usual it is extremely funny and will be a great read.

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Scholastic, 9781407109053

“The Lion, the Unicorn and Me” by Jeanette Winterson and Rosalind MacCurrach.  This is a truly beautiful rendering of the Christmas story which really touches the heart.  A absolute classic of the future.

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Floris books, 9781782502944

“Mary’s Little Donkey” by Gunhild Sehlin and Helene Muller.  This is a story of the Nativity for younger Children.  It is translated from the Swedish and then it has been abridged.  The illustrations are sympathetic to the tale and evoke the feel of the occasion.  A lovely version to read to young children.

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Puffin, 9781780080116

“Otto the Book Bear in the Snow” by Katie Cleminson is the magical story of two book bears whose book is borrowed from the library and then left whilst the readers go on holiday.  But the bears need to get back to the library for the Christmas party, unfortunately things do not go as planned, so will they get back in time?

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Puffin, 9780141373706

“Dream Snow” by Eric Carle.  A delicious little lift the flap book about preparing for Christmas on a farm.  It is great for recognizing the animals and getting into the festive spirit.

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OUP, 9780192747372

“Winnie and Wilbur meet Santa” by  Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. When Santa gets stuck in Winnie’s chimney he asks her and Wilbur to help him deliver the rest of the presents.  They have a great adventure but also lots of problems, so in the end Winnie uses a bit of magic to make sure that all the presents are delivered.  As always the illustrations are sumptuous and this time there is a pop-up at the back, which is sure to be a great hit with everyone.  I particularly like the use of Greek for names etc in the pictures, I wonder how many children will recognize the language?

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Bloomsbury, 9781408859155

“Robin’s Winter Song” by Suzanne Barton is a beautiful story of the Robin discovering Winter for the first time and seeing what a great time he can have with his friends.  The illustrations are positively jewel-like and add to the sense of joy and excitement about the time of year.

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Walker books, 9781406365955

“The Christmas Eve Tree” by Delia Huddy and Emily Sutton is the story of a small and unloved Christmas tree that was saved from destruction by a young  homeless boy and of the joy at Christmas as people gather around the tree to sing carols and to forget the problems of their everyday life.  The ending shows that there is always hope and we need to believe in the goodness of people around us.  There are beautiful illustrations with a feel of the 1960s to them, which really adds to the atmosphere of the story.

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Simon & Schuster, 9781471119989

“The Storm Whale in Winter” by Benji Davies is the second story about a young boy called Noi and the young Whale that he had rescued in the summer.  This is a winter’s tale and a wonderful coming together of man and nature to save one another.  It is a simple but very heart warming story.

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Red Fox, 9781782955504

“Lucy and Tom at Christmas” by Shirley Hughes have, together with “Alfie’s Christmas”, become symbols of what we might call a traditional Christmas.  It was first published in 1981 and the world has changed a great deal since then.  However the story gives a lovely sense of family, friendship and the meaning of the occasion.  Sometimes it is nice to wallow in nostalgia and think of the simple enjoyments of life.

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David Fickling, 9781910200803

“Coming Home” by Michael Morpurgo and Kerry Hyndman (illust.)  is the story of a Robin as he migrates to his winter home, all the time thinking about his partner who should be waiting for him.  It is full of trials and tribulations but also kindness and hope.  Definitely a story full of the meaning of  Christmas.

 

I can’t believe it is only a week until the big day but I am sure that there is still time to do a bit of reading or to get some stocking fillers for the family.  I know I will be reading some of these stories to my grandson when he comes to visit and i might even treat myself to a re-read of one or two favourite stories.  The Christmas season has definitely started as I was telling Christmas stories in my local primary school last week and I have also been to a performance of Messiah.  There is just “The Muppet Christmas Carol” to go and then all will be ready.  Have a wonderful Christmas everyone and enjoy your reading.