As I type, the Bath Children’s Literature Festival is in full swing – the only festival of its kind in the country. It is always an honour to be asked to participate, so when the opportunity arose, I said YES immediately. I then promptly panicked, as I had been asked to provide an ‘Alice in Wonderland storytelling event’. So . . . nothing to do with my own books.

What had I been thinking? Was I MAD?

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Um, yes.

Ah well, in for a penny, in for a hat costing ten shillings and sixpence (or £4 on EBay) . . . I decided to go for it and dress as the Mad Hatter to tell Alice’s adventures from his point of view.

As the Cheshire Cat says, ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.’ That seemed to just about sum it all up.

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The Cheshire Cat giving me advice. Mainly on how bad my Cheshire accent was.

And so I took my audience on a trip to Wonderland, drinking strange potions and eating magic cakes, growing and shrinking, swimming in our own tears, running a Caucus Race to dry off, meeting a (dubiously) zen Caterpillar and eating a magic mushroom – all with the strict proviso that none of these things should be tried at home.

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The White Rabbit made an appearance. He did a photo call, but no autographs.

My audiences were very obliging and joined in with everything, including an enthusiastic ‘Off with his head!’ at the end.

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The best way to explain a Caucus Race is to do one.

I hope that comment did not reflect the audiences’ opinion of the show. At any rate, they were not as judgmental as the Queen in Wonderland, who famously declared: ‘Sentence first–verdict afterwards!’

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The new term is well underway: homework is piling up for my kids and deadlines are piling up for me; schools are getting in touch to book in visits; students are emailing me to chase marks and reports on assignments. In short, the summer is over and it’s Back to Life, Back to Reality.

I had a funny summer. Things had happened which had forced me to take a break from writing. I was, frankly, beginning to worry that I would never be able to find the focus to write again.

But the thing about being forced to take a break is that often the mind uses that time to mull things over. As the wise philosopher, Winnie-the-Pooh says:

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

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This is what I did for a large chunk of the summer. I sat and stared out to sea. I sat and gazed downstream and let my mind drift along with the current. I climbed a cliff and let my eyes follow the line of the horizon until my vision blurred and I wasn’t really seeing anything any more. I let my thoughts meander through meadows and linger in leafy lanes.

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It turns out Pooh is right about this too:

“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do it go where they can find you.”

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In taking time out, and letting go of the panicky feeling of writer’s block, I seem to have freed up a bit of space in my head. I am now writing again. It is a fantastic feeling, to be itching to get to my keyboard every day, to be desperate to scribble down the next idea or snatch of dialogue.

But I have learnt something this summer: that there really is a value beyond measure in Doing Nothing. And so I intend to find space for that – even for a few moments – every day from now on. I hope you can too.

Happy new term, everyone. And happy dreaming!

Last year I was driving through my local town, Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, and I spotted two banners hanging on the town bridge. One was advertising a music festival and one a festival for the arts. It got me thinking: why don’t we have a book festival for kids too? It was a fleeting idea, but it soon grew into a Very Big Real Thing. I just wasn’t sure, initially, if it was something I could pull off . . .

I mentioned this to a couple of children’s authors I know who live in or near Bradford-on-Avon, and they agreed we should start our own festival. We had a meeting in a cafe (always the best place to have meetings, I have found) and began firing questions into the air and scribbling in our notepads. The most important question was:

“Where should we hold the festival?”

It was when my friend and fellow author, Fleur Hitchcock, came up with the idea of involving our local library, that everything came together. Bradford-on-Avon library is a hive of activity. It is slap bang in the middle of the town and hosts a cornucopia of activities and events year-round.

And once a year the library runs the Summer Reading Challenge for children. Librarians go into schools and give assemblies to explain what the Challenge is all about. Then children come in with their parents or guardians to sign up and pledge to read six books over the holidays. They come in and out of the library throughout the summer to tell the librarians and volunteers about the stories they have read. It’s a great way to foster a love of reading and to use the library as a hub for the community.

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So once we knew we wanted our festival to be in the library, everything else fell into place. We called ourselves The Bradford-on-Avon Mini Book Festival (or BOAMBF for short). We had activities on the go while children came in to sign up for the Summer Reading Challenge on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th July. This meant we had a captive audience and it also meant we could inspire the children to write their own stories over the summer period as well as read other people’s.IMG_1452

Maudie Smith took a group of children to the seaside and told them the story of Millie and the Mermaids

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Cate Shearwater led a bunch of gymnasts through a fantastic gymnastic routine and read to them from her Somersaults and Dreams series.

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Angie Morgan showed children how to make ENORmouses (or is that enormice?) and read to them from her ENORMouse book and her Shouty Arthur series.

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Jeremy Strong had a packed room full of children hanging on his every word as he told them of his long career in children’s books (he has written over ONE HUNDRED books for kids!)

Alex Campbell held a “writing surgery” for teens and young adults who are keen writers and wanted tips on how to improve their work.

Fleur Hitchcock and Ian McKay showed us all how to make a model village from cardboard boxes and scraps of paper and material.

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Gary Parker, creator of top series “Millie in Between” on CBBC, talked to us about his experiences writing children’s drama series for the BBC.

And I ran a workshop on writing stories about “Animals in Funny Places” and also one on “How to Build a Story” with Fleur.

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It was an action-packed, glitter-filled, noisy, happy day. And the best thing about it was the stories that came from the kids themselves. Running the workshops was a little like putting on the festival itself: each workshop started with a small idea, but by the end we all had some cartoons, pictures, stories or pieces of artwork that were Very Big Real Things in their own right.

So if you have a tiny idea and you’re not sure if you can make it work, give it a go! You just never know what might happen . . .

To find out more about BOAMBF go to https://boambf.wordpress.com/about/

Today is a Sort-of Book Birthday. Why sort-of? Well, because the content of these books is not entirely new, but the COVERS are! Which means I get to feel all excited about my babies having a make-over and being unleashed on the world all over again.

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I wrote The Puppy Plan nearly ten years ago. It was originally called Puppy Love. It took a while to get it right, as it was my first novel for children. Up until then I had written short chapter books, picture books and short stories. It was quite something to realise that I could write a longer book. It was inspired by my children who were 6 and 4 at the time, and our new puppy, Kenna.

Kenna, our lovely Lab.

Kenna, our lovely Lab.

I had never had a dog before, although I would have loved one as a child, and it was a bit of a shock to realise how much work it was, training and looking after a tiny puppy. I spent the first month of dog-ownership under house arrest with Kenna as she was not allowed to go for long walks and needed to pee ALL the time! So I sat in our kitchen, writing notes on an idea for a book about a girl and a dog – in between taking Kenna out into the garden and teaching her how to pee OUTside and how to sit, stay, lie down, etc.

During those days and days of training, I started to notice Kenna’s facial expressions and body language when I spoke to her. She sometimes put her head on one side as if she knew exactly what I was saying. Much of the time it looked to me as though she was thinking hard about everything I said. At other times she looked completely baffled as if to say, ‘You are crazy, you humans!’

As my new story developed, I realised I needed to give the dog character, Honey, her own voice in the narrative, and so I came up with the idea of Honey commenting on the action. I didn’t want her to be able to communicate with her owner as I needed her to be a real dog – I didn’t want to inject any fantasy elements into the story. Having her commenting on the action in the sidelines seemed the best way to do it.

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Ten years on, I am proud to see these books are still being enjoyed by readers everywhere. I get lovely letters every month from people who have only just come across them for the first time. So it is great to see them get a makeover with these fab new covers. Many thanks to Matt Hunt for his beautiful illustrations and to my publishers, Macmillan Children’s Books, for designing them so wonderfully well.

Happy Sort-of Book Birthday, Honey and Summer Holly Love!

www.annawilson.co.uk

Earlier this year I was delighted to be contacted by St John and St Vigor School in Chilcompton in Somerset and asked if I would be their Patron of Reading. Of course I immediately said “Yes!” as one of the best things about my job is that I get to go into schools to encourage children to read and write. The Patron of Reading scheme ensures that an author will not visit the school just once, but will form a special friendship with the teachers and pupils, keeping in regular contact and helping the children with all areas of their literacy, from one-to-one reading to judging writing competitions to getting involved in class projects. I loved the idea of getting to know a school in this way, especially one that is close to where I live, as this means I will be able to visit once a term and keep in touch easily.

My first visit was during World Book Week. (That is why I look so tired in the photo, as I had lots of school visits that week!) I met the whole school, including the Reception and Year 1 classes, and talked to them about my books, told then about how old I was when I started writing, what inspired me and where I get my ideas from. I was asked some excellent questions that the children had thought up in advance including, “Which book best represents you?” and “How do you get your ideas on to the page?” both of which were very tricky questions to answer…

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I agreed with the staff that I would visit again in June and run writing workshops with the children. We also discussed how I might Skype them to discuss class projects or so that the children could show me work they had done.

The role of Patron of Reading was thought up by a head teacher in Wales who was very impressed by the impact that an author visit had had on his pupils. He saw that the children were inspired by meeting ‘a real author’ and that they saw that reading and writing could lead to exciting opportunities later in life and were not simply things they had to learn at school.

As it says on the Patron of Reading website:

“A few years ago, Tim Redgrave, the current headteacher at Ysgol Esgob Morgan in St Asaph, Denbighshire, took his Year Six class to St Asaph Library to hear Helena Pielichaty give a talk as part of Denbighshire Libraries Book Week. Tim never forgot the impact that the visit had on his pupils, and sometime later he emailed Helena about an idea he’d had for promoting and nurturing a love of reading. He asked her if she would be the first Patron of Reading and she jumped at the opportunity. The idea was extremely successful, and was quickly adopted by other schools around the United Kingdom.”

If you would like to find out more about The Patron of Reading scheme, take a look at the website here: http://www.patronofreading.co.uk or follow the scheme on Twitter at @patronofreading

I will be posting more news from St John and St Vigor after my next visit next term.

Last month I was thrilled to be asked by Greenhouse Books to go to Istanbul in Turkey to visit some schools. I spent a whole week travelling back and forth across the Bosphorus, giving talks and workshops in International Schools and one Turkish school. I met children from so many different countries, I quickly lost count! They may all have come from different backgrounds, and they may all have spoken different languages, but every single one of them had two things in common: they spoke English to me, even if they only knew a few words, and they LOVED reading English books!

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The first school I visited was the British International School of Istanbul (BISI). I met a lovely teacher who has even more pets than I do, including two tortoises, one of which was found after someone had run over it. (Ouch.) She told me that lots of families come for a two- or three-year work placement and let the kids have a pet and then they move on to a different country and can’t take the animals with them. She said she was well-known as a soft-touch when it came to animals, so she ended up housing all the creatures that were left behind! At one time she had rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, tortoises, lizards and hamsters all living in her apartment.

The Turkish people seem to love cats and dogs as much as we Brits. There are wild dogs roaming everywhere, but they are well looked after. The local authorities round them up and neuter them, give them vaccinations and make sure they are fit and healthy, while people everywhere leave out food and water for them. Cats are more of a law unto themselves, of course. I saw many a well-fed alley cat in the city centre, though, proud and self-possessed and certainly not interested in a cuddle!

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The second school I visited was Koç School – a Turkish school with a large campus where I stayed for three days and three nights. I had a comfy flat, five minutes walk from the main school building where I had my meals and gave my talks and workshops. The children had learnt English as a second language in school, but were so fluent and creative in the language that it was difficult to believe they had not also been speaking it at home since birth. I watched a drama production they had put on especially for Book Week and was bowled over by their confidence in English and their evident love of reading in English too.

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While at Koç I did my best to learn a few words of Turkish so that I could say ‘Hello’ (Merhaba!) ‘How are you? (Nasılsınız) and ‘Coffee with milk, please.’ (Sutlu Nescafe, lütfen.) This last phrase was the most important one, as I was up very early every day…

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I felt I got to know people very well during the three days I was at Koç and was sad to say goodbye to everyone. On my last night I was lucky enough to be taken into the centre of the city with some of the teaching staff and we had dinner overlooking the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I am now very keen to go back so that I can explore the insides of these buildings and find out more about Turkish history and culture.

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My last day was spent in the International Community School of Istanbul (ICSI). I raced through workshop after workshop before being whisked away to get my plane home. This school, much like the BISI, had pupils from all over the world, some of whom had only been learning English since September. This did not stop them joining in with brainstorming animal names and funny places where you might find an animal. We soon had some lovely story ideas which the pupils started writing up or illustrating.

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So I have learnt that even if you are not fluent in a language, you can have a good go at learning to speak and read it! Perhaps we in England should learn this from our European neighbours. Meanwhile, ‘Görüşürüz. Okuduğunuz için teşekkür ederim!’ (I hope that says, ‘Goodbye and thank you for reading!’)

As that age-old philosopher, Winnie-the-Pooh once said, ‘You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.’

And so it is with authors. We cannot sit at our desks all the time and just expect our books to find their way out into the world, we have to get out there and meet our readers and talk to them about our books; encourage them to read more books and hopefully to buy more too.

Selling books is, of course, important to me, but it is also essential for me to connect with my readers: I need to find out what makes them tick, how they think, what their likes and dislikes are. I love chatting to the children and listening to their ideas. Sometimes they ask extremely thought-provoking questions too, so I often come away from meeting readers thinking that I have got at least as much out of it as they have – if not, more.

So, for a large chunk of this term, I have been away from ‘my corner of the forest’, visiting schools in Wales, Wiltshire, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Bristol, Manchester and Lancashire, giving talks and running workshops. I have talked at festivals and done signings in bookshops and held question and answer sessions with children and their parents. It has been exhausting and has meant that I have not had as much time as I would have liked to sit at my desk and write. But it has also been great fun.

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One of my favourite questions was asked by an eight-year-old boy: ‘How do you get your imagination out on to the page?’

I don’t think I had ever stopped to consider how this happens. I had to have a long, hard, think – of the sort Winnie-the-Pooh would be proud of. In the end, I gave a rather lame response along the lines of, ‘I have to write it down as best I can, and then I have to go over it and edit it and rewrite it until it is the closest I can make it to what is in my head.’ Not a very satisfactory answer, I know. So I am still pondering how best to answer such a deep and interesting question!

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As well as enjoying questions such as this, I get to see children’s stories and illustrations which they produce in the workshops I run. I am constantly amazed my the level of creativity amongst even the smallest children. Sometimes the ideas are crazy and fun, sometimes the language is original and poetic. Young children let their imagination run riot and are not afraid to experiment with new ideas, which is exciting to see.

I was also lucky enough to meet two wonderful young film makers this term: Jake Hawes from Crickhowell in Wales and Marti Guiver from Yeovil in Somerset. Both young men made short films of me doing my talks and also interviewed me. Here is a clip from Jake’s film:

Marti is still editing his film, so I hope to post that very soon. Jake is still at school, but has his own YouTube channel and makes films for Crickhowell TV. He wants to be a documentary maker when he leaves school. Marti is at college in Yeovil and also wants to be a film maker when he graduates. Both were very inspiring young people whom I felt privileged to meet and spend time with.

So, yes, sometimes you do have to leave your corner of the forest, even if you have pages and pages of stuff to write and stacks of other jobs to do and you don’t like travelling and you miss your family. It’s all still there when I come back though. Along with lovely memories of the people I’ve met and the things they have said to me and shared with me along the way.

In any case, as Winnie-the-Pooh’s author, A A Milne once said, ‘No sensible author wants anything but praise’. And how are you going to get that if you never meet the people who read your books?