Archives for category: Children’s Books

November is a month of remembering. There’s Bonfire Night – “Remember, remember the 5th November: gunpowder, treason and plot!” There’s also All Souls’ Day when we remember loved ones who have died. Then there’s Remembrance Sunday when we think about all those who have served in the armed forces and fought and died for our freedom. This year 10th November is the day on which Muslims remember the Prophet’s birthday. And there’s Transgender Day of Remembrance today as well.

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November seems like a good month to spend focussing outwards like this. It is a dark and stormy month with short days and often lots of rain. It can be difficult to find anything to lift our spirits and the temptation is to hunker down and become inward-looking, giving in to feelings of gloom and doom. Stopping to remember what other people have done for us, however, can help us realise how much we have to give thanks for.

I find that I am thinking a lot about my mum and grandma this month. They are both no longer with us, but the things that they taught me are still important and I am starting to pass them on to my children now. One of the things they both loved to do at the end of November was to begin thinking ahead to Christmas, and they would spend the last weekend of this month making mincemeat and Christmas cake and Christmas pudding mix. Here is the recipe for mincemeat which they passed down to me and which I will be making over the next couple of weekends. You can find it in my almanac for children, Nature Month-by-Month, published by Nosy Crow and the National Trust.

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If you are looking back and remembering someone special this month, my heart goes out to you. And if you are looking forward to Christmas, you’d better get baking!

 

 

 

This autumn term is very long . . . the summer seems a lifetime away and we’ve all – teachers, parents, carers and children – been working hard for weeks and weeks. So it’s a relief that the holidays are here again. I am looking out at blue skies and sunshine and hoping that this weather is going to last for a while!

But even if it doesn’t, there are lots of games and activities that you can do indoors. I had great fun coming up with ideas for Nature Month-by-Month – in the 2019 edition you’ll find lots of ideas for Hallowe’en games, for example. These can be played inside or outside. I loved writing about these because it took me back to when my children were small. I didn’t used to be very happy about them going Trick or Treating as we lived in the countryside and the houses were quite a long way apart from each other down very dark lanes! But I wanted them to have fun on Hallowe’en, so we would invite all their friends to come to our house and we would have a big party. Here are some of the games we would play:

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Recently I have been researching and thinking up new ideas for an updated version of Nature Month-by-Month for 2020, which has just come out in the shops.

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I decided to write about pumpkin carving, as we always enjoyed doing this during half term, and it was a great activity to do on a rainy day or during one of the dark evenings after the clocks had gone back.

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You can make yummy things from the pumpkin flesh, so don’t throw it away! You can make delicious soup by frying up the pumpkin with onion and then adding stock, nutmeg, cream, salt and pepper. There are lots of good recipes online. You can also make scrummy pumpkin muffins like these:

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Whatever you do this holiday – whether you choose to go for blustery walks or whether you stay indoors and keep cosy – I hope you have a good rest and lots of fun!

As for me, seeing as it’s so sunny today, I think I’m going to take the dog and go for a walk through the crunchy autumn leaves this afternoon. Or maybe even go for a swim if the sea is calm enough . . .

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(Vlad says, “You could always curl up with a spooky Hallowe’en read if the weather outside is frightful ! Mwhahahahaaaaa!)

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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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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 . . .