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It’s been a long time since I have written a post. That’s because it’s been a rollercoaster of a year. It started with a huge dip as my mum died at the end of January – never my favourite month, as it is, and it was made a lot worse by this sad news. It would have been very easy for me to curl up in a ball and close the door firmly on the outside world.

Since then there have been at least as many highs as lows, and as has happened so many times before in my life, it was writing which came to my rescue – and writing which has supplied many of the highs.

One of the biggest highs was when I was asked by the fantastic publisher Nosy Crow to write a book for the National Trust called Nature Month-by Month: a children’s almanac. This was the perfect project for me as I love activities such as going out for walks, going swimming in rivers, lakes and seas and going foraging for wild food that I can cook with. I was excited to get going on the book, but when Mum passed away I wondered how I was going to get the words written.

I quickly realised, however, that getting out and looking up is the best way to deal with feeling sad. The days on which I needed to go outside to get ideas for the book were the days I found my sadness easiest to bear. There is nothing like getting absorbed in watching a heron standing on the riverbank, patiently looking for fish, or running alongside the canal, feeling the fresh air on your face, or standing under a huge beech tree in the park, listening to birdsong – all these things take you out of your thoughts and make you feel connected to something bigger and better than your own worries. I also realised that even in January there are signs of new life: flowers such as snowdrops and even some daffodils come out early in the year and you can already spot the tiny shoots of other plants appearing in the ground. Trees may not yet have any leaves, but there are soft yellow hazel catkins to see, and some evergreens have brightly coloured berries. It is not all doom and gloom out there in the winter.

There is a lot of talk about the healing power of nature. People with anxiety and depression are encouraged to get outside more and to try and take regular exercise in the fresh air. It is also a well-known fact that getting involved in a creative project such as baking or drawing or doing some craft can help to make you feel happier.

The other thing that has made me happier this year is the arrival of my new puppy, Nala! Her cuddles, her enthusiasm for life and the fact that I have to walk her, rain or shine, have all added up to one massive new high on the rollercoaster of 2018.

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Last night I had a party to celebrate the publication of Nature Month-by-Month. I decided to have it The Glove Factory in Holt in Wiltshire near where I live because this is a place that has given me a lot of inspiration and has helped me on the days when I have felt sad. I have spent a lot of time at The Glove Factory over the past year as there is a beautiful lake there where I go swimming all year round. There is also a lovely cafe where I can get a hot chocolate to warm up after a chilly winter swim! The people there are super friendly and have been very supportive of this new book. We had a fantastic evening, making miniature gardens and drinking tea. Here are some of the gardens that were made:

The almanac will be published on 4th October. I hope that you might take a look at it in your local bookshop and that it might inspire you to get out and go wild in 2019! And remember, if ever you are feeling sad, get out and look up – it’s better than staying in and feeling down.

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PAD-StoryOfMovie-Novel-9780008254469-C.inddThis summer I was offered a wonderful opportunity: to write the novelisation of the second Paddington film. As Paddington and his creator, Michael Bond, are both close to my heart, it was very exciting to be involved in such a project.

The schedule was the tightest I have ever had to work to: the script was sent to me at the end of June and I had to deliver a first rough draft in a fortnight. Of course, I didn’t have to make up a plot as the scriptwriters, Paul King and Simon Farnaby, had already done that. And I didn’t have to think too hard about how to flesh out the characters as I already knew the Browns, Mrs Bird and Paddington from years of reading their adventures and watching them on TV.

The hardest part about the novelisation was the structure. When you watch the film (which I highly recommend you do), you are hardly aware that there are three plot-lines running concurrently. The camera hops seamlessly between the Browns’ home in Windsor Gardens and Paddington’s plight elsewhere (no plot spoilers) to the shenanigans of the baddie (played brilliantly by Hugh Grant) in yet another location. The action whizzes along and you are caught up in the flow of the adventure. We know immediately where we are because of visual clues, so the dialogue does not need to tell us “now we are at Number 32 Windsor Gardens” or “now we are in Mr Gruber’s antiques shop on the Portobello Road”.

A novel works in a very different way, however. Unless the writer is going to fall into the trap of using “and then and then and then”, different tricks need to be used to show how fast the action is moving from one scene to another. An adaption of a film script can otherwise so easily become heavily reliant on “telling” rather than “showing” what is happening. So I couldn’t merely copy and paste chunks of stage direction to fill in the gaps between the dialogue.

The biggest challenge was in writing action scenes that had no dialogue at all. In one scene Paddington gets into a tangle at the barber’s. As a visual gag it is hilarious and full of tension and jeopardy. Writing it with no images to fall back on was a very tricky experience! That scene went through many, many drafts before we were all happy with it. At one point, in despair that we would never be able to visualise what was happening from reading the script, my editor and I asked to watch a rough-cut of the film. It was an odd experience seeing the film at this unfinished stage. The CGI and green-screen scenes had not been finished: Paddington was a brown blob on the screen and the actors were often jumping out of trailers rather than out of moving trains, for example. But it helped to be able to see how quickly Paddington could get himself tied in knots and made rewriting the scene a little easier.

Another challenge in writing the novelisation was how many last minute changes were being made to the film. Whole chunks of the script were being cut or moved around in the editing suite to make sure that the film flowed perfectly. This meant that I was then tasked with cutting and rewriting chunks of the book, too.

The hard work on everyone’s part was very much worth it in the end. I went to see the finished movie at the premiere at the Southbank in London a few weeks ago. The film is fast-paced, funny, heart-warming and tear-jerking in equal measure. And my behind-the-scenes experience made me appreciate all the more just how much work had gone into making it the gorgeous film that it is.

If you are looking for a pre-Christmas treat for all the family, do go and see Paddington 2! I guarantee you’ll leave the cinema feeling lighter and happier as a result.

I have always loved Halloween for two reasons – the parties and the DRESSING-UP!When I was young we didn’t celebrate Halloween in the UK. The first time I ever saw what fun it could be was when I saw the American film “E.T.”IMG_0086By the time I’d left home and had my own place, Halloween had become a major event in the UK. Children would come knocking on the door shouting “Trick or Treat!” I learnt that I had to have a stash of sweets at the ready, otherwise I might get flour thrown in my face. Sometimes, if the tricksters were of the mean-teen variety, I got flour thrown in my face anyway. I didn’t like that aspect of Halloween – I still don’t – so one year I decided I would be prepared for the pranksters.

I invited some friends around for a Halloween party and insisted that everyone come in costume. I dressed as a vampire (of course!), complete with fake blood dripping from my fake fangs. One friend arrived dressed as an enormous pumpkin which he had fashioned from chicken wire and crepe paper. He barely fit through the door! Another came as Frankenstein’s monster. Another as a wizard. Another as a skeleton. You get the picture.

 

 

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Soon the trick-or-treaters arrived. They rattled the letter box and yelled. They were definitely the prankster kind rather than the cute-little-witch kind. Quickly we turned out the lights, grabbed torches and scuttled to the door. The letter box rattled again and the kids shouted, “Trick or Treat!” Checking my friends were ready, I yanked open the door. “TRICK!” we yelled, torches held below our monstrous chins. The mean-teens on the doorstep screamed and ran off and we were never bothered by flour-throwers again!

Years later my own children wanted to go trick-or-treating, but we live in the country down a dark lane with no street lights. I didn’t like the thought of them wandering around on their own, and they didn’t want me to come with them, so my husband and I came up with a compromise. We would have a party. Parents would come too; there would be games and fireworks and food. And everyone had to come in fancy dress.

These parties have gone down in family folklore as amongst the best things we did when the kids were young. The costumes people wore were elaborate and scary – there was lots of fake blood and green hair! We did apple-bobbing and eating pancakes off string and finding chocolate squares in a plate of flour and I made a “Yucky Dip” from layers of jelly. You had to plunge your hand in to pull out sweets, but it quickly became a lot messier than that, with kids sticking their faces in and finding the sweets with their teeth. I also told a Spooky Story, turning out all the lights and handing round peeled grapes and plates of spaghetti while I described in detail how someone’s eye ball had been found rolling down the street, or how a body had spilled its guts all over the road.

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I miss those parties. My kids are grown-up now. Maybe that’s why I have written about little Vlad Impaler and his ghoulish family. It takes me back to the days when we had fun dressing up and being spooked on Halloween. Whatever you are doing this Halloween, I hope you have lots of fun. And remember to be safe out there when you are trick or treating – and be kind to the treaters!

With thanks to MinervaReads for first posting this on her amazing book blog.

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IMG_2323This week the world has lost an incredible man. Michael Bond, who passed away yesterday, at the majestic age of 91, will be sorely missed by many. I will miss him as a wonderful writer – who was still writing new stories until very recently – and also as a friend.

In the late 1990s I joined HarperCollins as an editor and was incredibly fortunate to be given the job of “looking after” Michael. I will never forget the first time I had to call him. I was, of course, thrilled at the idea of speaking to this great author. I had been brought up on his warm, funny stories both in print and on the small screen. (As a child of the 1970s, “my” version of Paddington was the animation narrated by Michael Hordern – I still find it difficult to read the stories without his voice reading them to me in my head.)

When I picked up the phone to call and introduce myself to Michael and heard him answer in his inimitable gentle tones, I panicked. What should I call him? “Michael”? “Mr Bond” seemed more appropriate. But maybe he would think I was being over-formal? In the end, I coughed, said, “Hello,” and plunged into an awkward explanation of who I was. Michael immediately put me at my ease. He was extremely gracious – as the cliché goes, a real gentleman – and I could tell even from that first conversation that much of his own temperament and mannerisms had gone into his well-loved creation.

We met for the first time at London Zoo for a celebration of Paddington’s 40th birthday. I had not expected to get anywhere near Michael on such an important occasion, but he sought me out and once again put me at my ease.

Over the twenty years which followed, I was lucky enough to be invited to Michael’s house to meet his wife, Sue, and also his guinea pigs: two incarnations of Olga da Polga, Vladimir (an unexpected son!) and more recently Oksana.

I have many fond memories of meetings with Michael. It is thanks to him that I really understood how to craft and hone a story. His manuscripts were the cleanest and sharpest I have ever seen. They were delivered, typed on cream paper, with no errors of spelling, punctuation or grammar. The stories were honed to perfection. I also learned the importance for a writer of knowing one’s characters inside out and back to front. If I ever dared to challenge Paddington’s motives or actions, Michael would gently say, “But that’s how Paddington is, you see.”

Michael was not only one of the best children’s writers this nation has ever seen. He was a bon viveur who loved fine wines, champagne and good food. He adored France and loved to talk about how “the French know how to live”. He was a raconteur with many an amusing anecdote about the varied people he had come across in his life. But most of all, he was a gentle, generous man.

As the Browns said, it’s been “nice having a bear about the house”. This, at least, will still continue to be the case. RIP Michael Bond. Long live Paddington.

This week The Family Fiasco hits the shelves. It is the sequel to The Parent Problem and continues the story of The Mortifying Life of Skye Green, a permanently cringing thirteen-year-old who finds her family a daily trial. Embarrassing parents have always been with us and thus are not a new theme in children’s books. But they give a writer so much material! Just take a look at this article I wrote for the Guardian, listing my Top Ten favourite embarrassing parents in children’s books (click on the link).

I should warn you, though, if you think your mum or dad or guardian is embarrassing now, wait until YOU become a parent or guardian yourself. You know what they say: what goes around, comes around. You have been warned….

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Last week I was asked to speak at a Careers Forum for the Arts at Sevenoaks School, which is where I did my A Levels nearly *mumbles* years ago. It was a great honour to be asked, and a delight to meet the other panellists who were all old girls as well. Sixth formers interested in the Arts came along to hear us speak briefly about our careers and then ask questions. I was there to represent the world of children’s literature, but also to talk about publishing and the study of creative writing at university. The others were Stina Richardson, who designs jewellery, the journalist and award-winning poet Olivia Cole and the podcaster and comedy writer Helen Zaltzman.

There has been a significant decline in take-up of Arts subjects at GCSE level, which of course means fewer pupils are going on to study them at A level and Higher Education, and this in turn will have a detrimental effect on the future for the Arts in our country. So, it was heartening to see a room full of sixth formers interested in creative subjects and fantastic to see that the school was encouraging this.

All of the speakers came from very different areas in the Arts and we had come to our present careers by varying means. However, the more we were questioned about our careers, the more it became clear that we had two things in common:

  1. At sixth form level, we had NO IDEA WHAT WE WANTED TO DO WITH OUR LIVES.
  2. We have found ourselves where we are today by remaining flexible and open to new opportunities.

And yet, the over-riding concern of all the pupils was, ‘Which subject should I study and which university should I go to if I want a job like yours?’

It was clear from the questions we were asked that the sixth formers were anxious that they had to know RIGHT NOW what it was they were going to do as a career and they wanted us to tell them EXACTLY HOW they should be going about it.

As Philip Ardagh, author of the Eddie Dickens series of children’s books, said in a recent article for The Bookseller:

“I think students nowadays are more geared towards the job market and, although the Arts generate millions of pounds for the UK economy they somehow seem less tangible – their specific jobs less definable – than a career in, say, science or accountancy. Gone are the days when knowledge for knowledge’s sake was seen as a way of enriching people’s lives. Students are ‘taught to the test’ and schools themselves are monitored and graded. A truly rounded education doesn’t even seem to be a goal in the 21st Century.”

This is a real problem. Not only are we dissuading children from taking up the Arts in the first place, attaching unhelpful words such as ‘soft skills’ to subjects such as Drama, English, Art and Music, but we are also making them paranoid about studying the ‘right’ courses at the ‘right’ universities. (Of course the fact that a university education is no longer provided free of charge does nothing to help this.)

My experience of being an Arts student was very similar to that of my fellow speakers, even though they were all about ten years younger than I am and all are in different fields.

Stina, for example, started out as a model. She soon realised this was not going to be a career she was likely to be able to continue with throughout her life and also said that ‘much of the time I was bored – hanging around, waiting to be told what to do next’. She noticed someone making jewellery one day and asked them to teach her how to do it. Before long she was spotted wearing something she had made, and she had her first customer. That customer was seen in a magazine wearing the jewellery and was asked who had made it, and Stina had more sales off the back of that. She said that at school she enjoyed spending her days in the art room, but could never have predicted she would end up as a designer.

Olivia and Helen both described themselves as being a ‘bit of a nerd’ at school. They both loved English and went on to read that subject at university, but neither of them made that decision as a conscious career move. They just ‘loved words’.

I was the same. I loved languages, loved words and had only a vague idea that I wanted to write. I studied French and German at university and most of the literature I read was ancient stuff, from Mediaeval to nineteenth century – hardly a career move, unless I was going to stay in academia. But the point was, I LOVED IT. Getting an Arts degree was about following my passion, not about ticking a box.

I hope that if the sixth formers took anything away from the Careers Forum, it was this: that the Arts will only survive in this country if we have new blood coming from our schools and universities and that if you are passionate about something, be it making things, writing things, painting things or drawing things, JUST DO IT! You never know where it might lead.

 

 

Most of the time, being a writer is a solitary job. I was going to say ‘lonely’, but that wouldn’t be true, as that implies that we writers feel sad, sitting alone at our desks all day. On the contrary: writing is what makes us very happy. It is true, though, that we are alone a lot of the time (unless you take into account the company of hundreds of made-up characters who romp around inside our heads!)

However, every once in a while we get to go out into the world and talk about our books. I have posted here before about going to festivals and schools and libraries. I love doing this as I like nothing better than to meet my readers face to face.

But today, I did something incredibly extra-special: I WENT ON THE TELLYBOX! Yes, I was on TV. I can hardly believe it actually happened now that I am back at my desk, typing this, but here is a photo to prove it:

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I was asked to appear on the ITV breakfast show Good Morning Britain to be interviewed by presenters Kate Garraway and Ben Shephard about Roald Dahl. Why? Firstly, because today is the day that the delumptious, scrumdiddlyumptious Dahl Dictionary is published by Oxford University Press. And secondly, because I MET ROALD DAHL WHEN I WAS TEN YEARS OLD!!

Which is why, in the photo above, you can see his autograph on a page of pink paper. (Sadly I have written his name again for him underneath his signature. Clearly I didn’t think much of his messy handwriting.)

As soon as I had agreed to do the interview, I started panicking. What should I say? Would I be nervous? What should I wear? Should I wear make-up? Mostly I just wanted to scream hysterically and jump up and down. Luckily my kids were at home and they kept me calm, told me not to wear anything with animal print on (tricky as most of my wardrobe has something animally in it) and took the mickey out of me to keep me sane.

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Roald Dahl means a lot to me, so I was thrilled to get the chance to go on telly to talk about him. I first came across his books when I was a member of The Puffin Club in the early 1980s and I started to collect all his stories. Not only did I read and re-read (and still do) his delumptious classic children’s tales such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and so on and so on, but I also went on to read his writing for older readers too. One of my favourites is The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and other stories.

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This collection was published by Puffin Books as a ‘Puffin Plus’ title for older readers, long before the terms ‘Young Adult’ or ‘YA’ were coined. They were also the basis for a television programme I was an avid fan of called Tales of the Unexpected. In these stories, Dahl shows off the dark side of his writing far more than in any of the books for younger readers. Some of these ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ gave me nightmares, but I still wanted to read them and watch the TV adaptations!

One of the stories in the collection is not a horror story, it is actually the tale of how Dahl himself came to be published for the first time. It is called Lucky Break. In this tale, Dahl touches on his time at school which was a famously terrible time for him (if you want to know more, read his autobiography, Boy). He also gives some excellent top tips for writers as follows:

  1. You should have a lively imagination.
  2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean that you should be able to make a scene come alive in a reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.
  3. You must have stamina. In other words you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.
  4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
  5. You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or tick you off if you start slacking.
  6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children it is vital.
  7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.

These tips have stayed with me ever since the first time I read them when I was twelve years old. I paraphrase them and use them over and over again when I talk to people about writing.

The other thing that struck me was how inspirational it was for Dahl himself to have met his own favourite author. He was a big fan of C S Forester who wrote the historical Hornblower novels. It was when Dahl met Forester and told him about his own experiences of war as a WWII pilot, that Dahl’s own writing career started – this is the ‘lucky break’ of the title. Dahl says of meeting Forester:

‘What astonished me was that he looked so ordinary. There was nothing in the least unusual about him […] and yet here was a writer of stories who was famous the world over […] Tt was then I began to realise for the first time that there are two distinct sides to a writer of fiction. First, there is the side he displays to the public, that of an ordinary person like anyone else, a person who does ordinary things and speaks in an ordinary language. Second, there is the secret side which comes out in him only after he has closed the door of his workroom and is completely alone. It is then that he slips into another world altogether, a world where his imagination takes over and he finds himself actually living in the places he is writing about at that moment.’

When I finally got to meet Roald Dahl, I had that exact same feeling that Dahl himself had had when he shook the hand of C S Forester.

WOW, I thought. I want to be like that. I want to become a person who has a secret, magic life, writing stories.

And, guess what? Reader, I did!

So, this summer, get out to your local libraries, book festivals and bookshops, and bury yourself in stories. You never know where they might take you. Who knows, one day you might meet your literary hero and be inspired to write something yourself . . .