Friday, 29 November 2013

Review of The Bell Between Worlds and Interview with author Ian Johnston

Book review of Ian Johnstone's The Bell Between Worlds by Isobel aged 9

This book is about a boy called Sylas Tate who can make a drawing come alive with just his imagination. He doesn't know how he got his talent until he goes into a different world and meets a group of people who know how he got them.

My favourite part is the bit where Sylas is running  to the passing bell, which takes people from one world to another. Sylas has just met the Ghor (half dog / half man)
It is a bit like the book Time City by Diana Wynne Jones because in both books there are two different worlds and it could be the end of the universe.

It is harder to understand than Harry Potter but easier to understand than Lord of the Rings.
I recommend it to ages 9+. I would like to read a book about Sylas's mum and dad and how his mum got her powers.

Author Interview Ian Johnsone

What was your favourite children’s book as a child?

Hmm, that’s difficult. It’s a close-run thing between The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and a number of Roald Dahl books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Danny the Champion of the World, but I think The Faraway Tree would probably win overall. I loved the underlying idea – a gateway to other worlds in the highest reaches of an enchanted tree – such a clever extension of every child’s excitement when they climb scarily high in a tree – excitement derived in part from leaving the normal world behind and going somewhere adults can’t or won’t go. It was the first time that I came across such a convincing gateway to another world married with such a wonderful concept for those fantastical places and I have been interested in them ever since.

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?

Another tricky choice! I love The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve and the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. But in truth I still adore the books I loved as a child and, perhaps because they are still laced with that wonder I felt when I read them in my youth, they are probably still my favourites. So, the short answer would be The Faraway Tree.

What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?

I think one of the key reasons why they inspire us is that they assume a capacity for wonder and an ability to suspend disbelief and go with a story wherever it may take you. By contrast, adult fiction often spends a lot of time and lines establishing its credibility, even when the premise is fantastical. That’s heavy work for the writer and for the reader, and I think as a consequence it can’t go as far as quickly or get there as accessibly as a children’s book can. I also think that children’s fiction explores great universal themes, such as good and evil, love, friendship, family, adversity, triumph and so on – themes that apply to us all and to our whole lives – and they do so from a perspective of innocence that we all treasure.

Why did you start writing for children?

My answer to the last question is actually a pretty good answer to this one! But to expand a little, I was always aware that the majority of the most influential books in my life were those that I read when I was a child, when I had that capacity for wide-eyed wonder, to go with a story wherever it might take me, to get lost in its ideas and themes. I have wanted to write since I was a child, and I always knew that if and when I did, I would want to write for the immense imaginative capacity of children. That capacity is even a theme of the book!

What made you want to write this book?

Well, I suppose I could say ‘everything I have said so far!’, but there is also a rather specific history to this story. When I was about twelve I had an idea: what if one of the reasons we can sometimes doubt ourselves – feel so unsure of ourselves – is that we are not quite whole? And what if that other part of ourselves was another person living in another world? What might that person be like? And how might they be connected to us? That idea still intrigued me after all these years – in fact it had grown into something much bigger – and so I decided that it had to be written!

What is your favourite aspect of writing for children?

In the actual writing phase I love letting my imagination go and seeing where it takes me – in children’s writing, there are almost no limits! After the book is written, I count it a great privilege to meet young readers. It is wonderful to hear their impressions of the story and the characters – it makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Your description in The Bell Between Worlds, is beautifully evocative, do you have any tip you can share on how to write description?

Thank you that’s very kind of you! Well for me, two of the key things to remember when describing things are that they are three-dimensional and that they may act on all of our senses. It is important to try to look around the thing you are describing and sometimes to hear them, smell them, touch them and taste them as well as to see them. If you can do that your imaginings will become more real to you as the writer, and as long as you then put some of your impressions down, they will also become more real to your reader. Of course there is a balance to be found between saying too little and too much, so one good tip is to decide which senses are the most appropriate to the thing you are describing and focus on those. Another tip is to give some thought to the “route” you are going to take when describing something – think of yourself as a tour guide and find the sequence of description that is most engaging and easiest to picture or understand.

Interview Questions from Isobel our child reviewer.

In the book Sylas makes the bird wind chime fly, what would you make something do?

What a great question! Well in truth many of the things I write are things I would love to do. I had the idea for the Groundrush when I was walking down a steep forested hillside in New Zealand. It had been a really hard climb to get to the top and we were very tired so when I saw a stream tumbling down the hillside I found myself wishing that I could use it as a water slide. The more I thought about it the more I thought it would make an incredibly exciting ride – darting between the trees and over mossy banks – and so the Groundrush was born. But I suppose the most exciting creation to me is the symphony on the Windrush towards the end of the book – I won’t say too much because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but I would love to witness something as beautiful and powerful as that!

At the start of the book it has lots of information that you need later, have you thought about a companion book, with maps and character information.

I certainly have. I think the Samarok might make a nice publication in its own right, as it contains many stories from the history of the Other, including lots more about its magic, its creatures, its peoples and events like the Undoing and the Reckoning. I also hope to release some pieces of writing that did not make the final cut. We have already published a Prologue to the trilogy and a deleted scene on Goodreads, here: Goodreads

Friday, 15 November 2013

Books that Teach Life Lessons: INTERNET SAFETY - Guinea Pigs OnLine

As parents there are many life lessons that we need to teach our children. Some of these are difficult to approach, or need to be tackled as and when the need arises with the opportunity for planning or discussion.  This is when books can come into their own, as a children’s book whether it be a novel or picture book can have the life lessons that the children need but dealt with in sympathetic ways that they’ll understand.

On this post I'm going to talk about a book that my seven year old is reading, ‘Guinea Pigs on Line’ by Jennifer Gray and Amanda Swift’ with fantastic funny illustrations by Sarah Horne and published by Quercus. Now this book is about Guinea Pigs, Fuzzy and Coco who have adventures when their owners are working that develop out of them surfing the web.

So what, life lesson cold the stories of technical savy rodents possibly teach our kids?

Well, it actually deals with a rather topical lesson, INTERNET SAFETY. My husband works for an educational computer company, so we have many discussions on safeguarding children on the web. The problem is that children know the rules but they don’t understand them. They KNOW, not to talk to strangers on the street. BUT they don’t understand the same applies online. They know not to tell strangers where they live, but they will post photographs or their houses for all to see. The internet seems safe, protected by a screen, and it’s this lesson that children need to learn, that it’s not safe, however at the same time, you don’t want to scare them.

In Guinea Pigs Online, co-authors, Jennifer and Amanda manage to slip this essential life lesson into the story, with action peril, humour, and most avoid making it preachy. It happen in chapter four, one of the guinea pigs Fuzzy has fun away, and the other Coco is worried that he’s in danger, so she whilst trying to find clues as to where Fuzzy has gone online, she accepts a friend request from another guinea pig Renard, who offers to help her and asks for Coco address, which she gives him. Then they arrange to meet in the Copse outside her house at midnight. Of course when Coco meets him, vulnerable and alone, Renard turns out not to be a guinea pig at all but a hungry fox.

Thankfully Coco avoids becoming fox food, but her tale of naivety about internet safety and the consequences, are written in an way that digestible for children, clearly showing all of Coco mistakes and what the consequences can be without causing terror. In a world that is becoming more and more web based I’d urge any parents, teachers and careers to read this book to their children.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

3D review - The River Singers - Tom Moorhouse - editor interview

We talked to Liz Cross, Head of Publishing, Children's, at Oxford University Press about what was it about Tom Moorhouse' debut novel 'The River Singers' that made her want to publish it - and about her life as a children's book editor.

What was your favourite children’s book as a child?
I loved many, many books passionately at different points in my childhood. I was a great re-reader and if I loved a book I would read it literally dozens of times. The books I probably read more than any others were Antonia Forest's Marlow books - and if I have to pick just one I'll pick The Cricket Term. The characters are so alive, so complex, and so realistic that I feel I know them all just as well as my own schoolfriends.

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?At this precise moment it's Penguin by Polly Dunbar because it's so hilarious sharing it with my four year old, who likes to act out the entire story while we're reading it.

What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?
I think they are inspirational in so many ways. For me, a childhood without books is unthinkable. The books I read as I was growing up kept me company, taught me about many different things, gave me ideas, comforted me, made me laugh, helped me escape when that's what I needed to do, gave me glimpses of what might be possible. They were magical in every sense of the word. I don't think one can overestimate the power of a story at a time when you're finding out who you are.

What do you love about this book and what makes it stand out?
This book stood out for me from the start because I had the weirdest experience with it. The very morning that it popped up in my inbox, I'd had a sudden thought on the way in to work - wouldn't it be great to find a book for 9 to 12s that had a Watership-Down-type perspective. So when The River Singers with its cast of voles popped up a couple of hours later I actually felt quite spooked! Then, of course, I fell in love with the book for its beautifully-realized setting, its lyrical tone, but most of all for its engaging characters, witty dialogue, and feeling of real adventure.

How many people have worked on this book and for how long?The number of people that work on any one book is always surprisingly large. At OUP we're really collaborative and so lots of people from different functional areas have been closely involved in scoping out the particular look and feel we wanted for this book. More specifically, two editors (including me) and two designers have worked pretty intensively on it over the past year.

What made you want to work in children’s publishing?
It was what I always wanted to do. My mum was a children's writer, and so I was familiar with the sight of page proofs and cover visuals arriving in the post, and the thrill of receiving the first finished copies. It was so exciting to see a real live book emerging from those typed pages which I'd seen sent off to the publisher in the first place. I just found the whole process fascinating - and to be honest I still do.

Monday, 4 November 2013

3D review - The River Singers - Tom Moorhouse - author interview

We caught up with water vole expert turned children's author, Tom Moorhouse - author of the delightful 'The River Singers', to find out more about he challenges of turning your work as a scientist into an appealing book for children and about his writing life.

What was your favourite book as a child?
Ooh, that's not a fair question. There are far too many great books to choose from, and I'm too fickle to pick one all-time favourite. I go through moods, both with music and books, where I'll listen to a band or read an author obsessively and then move on. I frequently go back to them, though. So I end up with a sort of mental short-list of books and songs I've loved and which form a pool that I return to time and again.

So, caveats in place, one of my favourite children's books is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin. I recently re-read it and was amazed that even now, when I'm (what passes for) an adult, it still grabbed me and dragged me along for the ride. It's great escapism, as all good fantasy books should be.

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?
Oops. I think I may have just answered this question. I always used to get this wrong at school: read all the questions before answering. Tsk. But I also recently read Skellig by David Almond, and thought it was great.

Why did you start writing for children?
I was always surprised when people read my stories and said Oh, it's a child's fable, isn't it? or If you're writing for children, you probably should revise such-and-such a bit because it's a bit dark.  It was odd, because until The River Singers I never deliberately sat down to write a children's story, but they often seemed to come out that way.

So I suspect that the way I write just lends itself to children's writing, and it was inevitable. But I still never feel like I'm “writing for children”. I'm writing for me, and for the story I have in mind. Seriously, I think that's the only way of doing it – because if I'm not writing the book I want to read, who else is going to read it?

What is your favourite aspect of writing for children?
I love the way children approach books. They just launch into them. If a book grips them they devour it, and otherwise it ends up on the floor (i.e. the rejects pile). In that sense they're great critics, because you get an entirely honest reaction. A book is either amazing or irrelevant. And as an author that's brilliant, because if they love the book then you've really made a connection. And if they are bored by it then it's their honest opinion and you can't argue with that.

Adults make things a lot more complicated. I could point at the Dan Brown phenomenon. People often say that they read his books with guilty pleasure, suggesting that their enjoyment is actually somehow beneath them. So you end up books that are criticised by people who go on and buy the sequel. That's weird.

What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?
It's the connection I mentioned. Writing a book means taking a lot of your own experience of life, the way you look at the world and the things you have learned, and mixing them all together into a story. You hold them up saying This is what I think about things – what do you reckon? Especially as a child everything you read and hear contributes to the way you see things, and think about things. And if you love a book then it can really influence the person you are trying to become. What more can you ask?

What made you want to write this book?
I had been set the challenge of writing a book from my experience as an ecologist. Water voles were the perfect animals for an adventure story – they live in a beautiful world and nearly everything that happens to them is life threatening. I spent so much time working in the places they live that I already knew their world inside out. Writing the book was a real joy because I got to share with people the things I'd experienced.

Are you now preparing yourself for lots of questions from young people who might want to see a water vole?
Yes, and sadly the answers are not easy. What I'd like to tell them is that fifty years ago (and for the ~10,000 years before) they could have gone to almost any river, stream or lake in the country and seen water voles swimming. The sight would have made them happy but not been all that unusual, because they'd have seen it the last time they were by a river. 

Telling children that they have lost out on a wonderful experience because two generations of adults got things wrong, and because the current generation can't get its act together, isn't something I really want to have to do. 

So I'll probably just say that water voles have become very rare, but there are still a few places you can see them. If you find one of those places, you can leave a bit of apple on the bank by the water. And, if you're lucky, and sit very still, a vole will steal up to the apple and sniff it for a bit. Then it will grab it and scarper.

What simple advice can you give to young people who want to help water voles?
Ah. Tricky. In this case there is no simple advice. It's not like we can leave out extra houses for water voles, or give them mink-proof jackets or something. Which isn't to say we don't know how to safeguard their future, because we really do. 

It requires a national campaign to eradicate the non-native American mink. (Conservation means tough choices. Having water voles means not having mink.) We could do it in about five or ten years and then we could stop. And water voles, I guarantee, would return to nearly all the places they've been lost from.

But mink eradication would cost tens of millions of pounds. Sure, this is nothing like as much as a single jet fighter, but society, for some reason, tends to want jet fighters more than water voles.

So my advice for young people is this: go for walks as often as possible. Get wet, have fun, climb mountains, see woodlands, go swimming. Dam a stream and make your mother exasperated with your constant muddiness. 

Really, really enjoy yourself out there. Because if you love being outside (and there's so much to love) then one day you might be able to speak up for how much fun it can be. And that might just be enough to prevent our wild places and animals being lost through pure apathy.

Friday, 1 November 2013

3D Review - The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse

The perils and courage of a family of timid orphaned water voles is the subject of a sparkling debut, ‘The River Singers’, by Tom Moorhouse – an author who puts to excellent use that his day job is as a water vole expert in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University’s zoology department.

Tom Moorhouse uses his tremendous knowledge about these threatened creatures to take us right into their world and brings us a thrilling tale, but also one with an urgent environmental message at its heart – to protect our natural world.

Told from the point of view from the endangered water voles, feisty young Sylvan and his siblings must venture boldly along the river after their mother is killed by a mink. Their attempt to find safety in a world where threat lurks at every turn is turned into a tremendous story and children will delight in joining in with the lives of these endearing creatures.

Each time the family of water voles leave the safety of their burrow they are the target of foxes, herons, and of course, the deadly mink. Their quest for refuge and a new home becomes an epic adventure, although friends are at hand, sometimes in unexpected places.

There is sadness as well as laughter and bravery. The delightful scenes depicting the beauty and fragility of the natural world make this book particularly special. Tom Moorhouse's infectious love of the English countryside is engaging and shines through the whole story.

What is likely to particularly appeal to readers (aged nine upwards) is that it follows in a wonderful tradition of stories about our native wildlife – the much-loved Ratty of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ or ‘Watership Down’, where the everyday lives of familiar creatures become adventures that children find it easy to relate to.

But like all great books, it's not simply a good story. Water voles used to be a familiar sight on our river banks, but their decline has been swift (a fifth in two years) and this is a timely book that should also be a call to do more to protect some of our precious creatures.

As a book it has also been beautifully produced with and white illustrations by Simon Mendez that make this a real book to treasure – in more ways than one. I am a bit of a fan of illustrated books for older readers and the whole look and feel of this book marks it out as a future classic. Definitely one of the most special books this year.

Review of 'The River Singers' by Alex Thornton, age 9

As I have a nature-obsessed son I knew just who would be the right person to review this book! (After our red squirrel hunting summer holiday this year, there has already been a request to now see a water vole.)

I really liked the characters and adventure that went into this book. It also has a lot of information about how water voles live, there predators and mink but just told in a story. I loved the fact that I learned so much - it was a good scientific book, which I really liked.

The main characters are: Foder, the rat, and the water voles, Fern, Orris, Mother and Sylvan. 

Sylvan is my favourite character because he was the adventurous one, but he also looked after the other water voles.

It is a very emotional book (sometimes sad, sometimes worrying) and they have to get past many dangers on the way to the wetted lands. I liked the mixed emotion and adventure, which made it gripping. I think this will become a best seller in the future! I really enjoyed it.