Most of us, I’m sure, will have a favourite childhood book, one that we read to again and again, and mine was The Armourer’s House (1951) by Rosemary Sutcliff. I first read it when I was eight, the same age as its heroine, Tamsyn Caunter, and, not only did it speak to me, I also loved C. Walter Hodges’ evocative illustrations.
The author, Jacqueline Wilson, once wrote: ‘People don’t like to think that children have deep emotions and fears, but they do. For me, being a child was a startlingly intense time.’ And this, I think, is what Rosemary Sutcliff was supremely gifted in portraying.
The cover of ‘The Armourer’s House’. you can see how carefully I have looked after the book.
The Armourer’s House is set in the 1530s, when Henry VIII was king. This was the Age of Discovery, and the orphaned Tamsyn’s much-loved uncle, Martin Caunter, a Merchant Venturer in Bideford, Devon, builds ships and trades with the New World. But Tamsyn can never sail with him as she longs to do; she is only a girl. The story opens when her grandmother dies and Tamsyn has to leave all she loves to live with her unknown cousins in London.
Rosemary Sutcliff herself had a difficult life. Born in 1920, she contracted Still’s disease when very young and became seriously disabled. Her childhood was a lonely one at home with her dominating and possessive mother, while her father was at sea. She spent much of her childhood in hospital and her constantly interrupted schooling ended when she was fourteen.
‘Billingsgate Quay’. Aunt Deborah (with hat), Tamsyn and Beatrix go shopping. Note the ship’s crane in the background.
The Armourer’s House is Rosemary Sutcliff’s third book. Later, she called her early children’s books ‘too cosy and too sweet,’ a comment echoed by later critics. If that is true, then why did various episodes always make me cry? ‘Cosy and sweet’ was not what my eight-year-old self thought.
There are a number of episodes of almost unbearable poignancy; as when Tamsyn says goodbye to her childhood home and Sibbly the Cook, ‘now crying in the back kitchen with her apron over her head.’ I really felt for Tamsyn as she ‘managed not to cling to Uncle Martin when he stopped hugging her and lifted her up to the pillion saddle’ of the horse belonging to her unknown Uncle Gideon, the armourer, who will take her back with him to London.
I just loved the tall Tudor building with the upper floors sticking out over the lover ones. Note the helmet over the door to indicate that this house was where armour was made.
Rosemary Sutcliff gets across the trauma of Tamsyn’s heart-break, her homesickness, her bravery and her utter loneliness. By the time they get to London, ‘she was so stiff and cold and tired and unhappy that she hardly knew where she was.’ This, for me, has the ring of absolute truth; Rosemary Sutcliff, had been there, she knew what she was talking about. It still makes me cry.
And what Tamsyn thinks of her new home, with her four new cousins, and nowhere she can be private, also rings true. ‘She wasn’t used to living with a family at all and there were a lot of things about that she hated.’ Like having to share a bed with Beatrix, who’s three years older; like not being able to be alone; and she can’t even cry herself to sleep because Beatrix would know about it. ‘Cosy’ it isn’t.
Tamsyn and Piers have a make-believe adventure fighting a Spanish galleon
Walter Hodges’ illustrations, too, are an absolute delight. I loved the meticulous details of life in Tudor London – later, I realized that he’d been studying Wenceslas Hollar’s engravings of London before the Great Fire of 1666. They complemented the book perfectly and they, too, became part of my inner landscape.
The Armourer’s House helped to foster my love of history and of art, and was a huge support to me, emotionally. I have much to thank Rosemary Sutcliff for.
Do you have a favourite book?
Illustrations from The Armourer’s House’ by C Walter Hodges
There are billions of great stories. But when I find one that stirs me, that sings in my heart, that reminds me of all that is good about life and humanity, it’s like finding a stretch of rare orchids on a walk in the countryside while holding the hand of my child.
I found David Lucas’s extraordinarily beautiful and poetic book, ‘The Robot and the Bluebird’ at a robotics exhibition while in Chicago in the summer of 2015. My son (three years old at the time) and I immediately fell in love with Lucas’s story and it remains one of our favourite picture books.
‘The Robot and the Bluebird’ tells the tale of a robot who, because his heart is broken and cannot be mended, is dismissed to a rubbish tip and left to rust. One bitterly cold day, a migrating bluebird lands on his shoulder. The robot tells the bluebird: “… you don’t want to stay here. I’m rubbish”. But then, the robot makes a nest of wires for the exhausted bird in the place where his heart used to be, and the robot immediately feels as though he has a “living, beating heart”.
Then comes the most exquisite passage of the book. In the morning, the robot opens the door to his heart and the bird sings on his metal chest.
“My old heart only ever said ticktock,” said the Robot, “but now my heart is singing.” And the bluebird flew a little way up into the air, and the Robot felt like his heart was flying.
The care of others and selflessness are ultimately what brings us humans joy. Without giving and showing love and kindness, we are empty and alone. It is not a depressing, bleak viewpoint but a universal truth that the younger we understand, the better human being we can try to become.
If you are aspiring to be a writer then this was a valuable event to attend at Goldsmiths University in London. Entitled; Meet the publishers: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, it consisted of a panel of leading contributors. Polly Nolan, a literary agent from the Greenhouse Literary Agency, Sam Smith from the fiction publisher, Scholastic, Felicity Trew, literary agent from the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency, Liz Banks, editor at Egmont Publishing and Sara Grant, Goldsmith’s lecturer and founder of SCWBI’s undiscovered voices.
The discussion focused on issues and opportunities in the children/teen publishing industry. The contributors were passionate about what they call The Voice in writing. It has to be authentic. It has to be original said Sam. It is the one thing I look for, she went on to say, when I receive manuscripts. As I’m reading I ask myself, are the voice and characters shining through. Polly gave an example. Take Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, she said. Give them the same song to sing and you will find they sing it differently, they sing it in their own unique style. The same is true for writing. Think about what makes your work a piece of writing, your writing. Liz said even if you create a different world, a world of fantasy, a historical world, even then your voice must shine through. It must feel like you’ve lived in that world.
Next they talked about the common pitfalls writers make when they approach agents. Felicity said if you are writing for children then please write for children. Think about who you are writing for. Is it a picture book? Is it a for a young adult or is it for teens. Make sure your voice is not patronising. Know that a jarring phrase can break the spell for agents and your manuscript does not get a further look. Liz added if you are writing comedy, write what makes you laugh. It has to have authenticity. Never sacrifice yourself for the publishing industry and be confident about your writing. Polly stressed that writers should not send their scripts before they are ready. Revise it as often as you can. Put it away for six months, go back to revise more. Revise, revise, revise. And once you are ready, put it aside for another two weeks, revise one final time and then send it off with a query letter and synopsis and allow yourself to work on them. Sam talked about feedback and critiques. Publishing, she said was a collaborative process. Think about the advice you are given but don’t follow it slavishly.
And finally the contributors touched on what they described as print reading and e-reading.. Liz pointed out that agents, editors and publishers still think it’s important to hold books in your hand and read them. She said, however there’s been a huge shift towards the digital market in adult reading..
and a link has been put up for further reading if you’re interested:
The contributors then chatted about a writer’s profile on social media. They all agreed the old idea of an author sitting alone in a shed writing away is gone. With technology increasingly taking over our lives, readers want to see more and learn more about an author’s life. So It is important to have a social media profile if you are serious you want to be a writer.
They ended with a quick look at e-publishing. They said it had opened up the publishing market and presented writers with a huge opportunity. They said embrace the opportunity to get your book published.
I hope this is helpful. It was well worth attending and gives you an insight into what agents, publishers and editors are thinking.
If you like beards and pop-up books and have young children, then this is the workshop for you.
Make your own beard-themed pop-up creation in my next hands-on, half-term workshop at the Florence Nightingale Museum. For my return visit to this lovely venue located within St Thomas‘ Hospital, I’m taking my inspiration from ‘The Age of the Beard’ exhibition currently on show there to deliver three 1-hour family sessions encompassing 3D paper skills, design and illustration.
Learn how to make pop-ups with moving parts and how to assemble a finished book.
The workshops are suitable for 5+ with parents and carers. Adults will be encouraged to take part but don’t worry, no experience necessary and results are guaranteed. Materials will be provided, you just bring the creativity!
The workshops are free but normal entry fee to the museum applies. Booking is recommended.
Family Workshop: Pop-up Beards!
Wednesday 15 February, 11.00-12.30, 1.30-3.00 & 3.00-4.30
This workshop is free with admission
Places are limited, to book please visit https://billetto.co.uk/en/users/the-florence-nightingale-museum-trust
Florence Nightingale Museum, 2 Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7EW
“The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.”
When I read this book a few years back, I didn’t just gently weep, I lay on the sofa and howled. Don’t think I can go to the film…
A MONSTER CALLS
A novel by Patrick Ness
From an original idea by Siobhan Dowd (who died, and so the baton – her idea and thoughts for this story – was passed on).
I’ve always thought that the most difficult part of writing a story is getting the first chapter right. It must draw the reader in, give them enough information but not too much, create a memorable setting, bring the characters alive and give the plot enough impetus to hold the reader’s interest and make sure they continue to the next chapter.
However over the last couple of weeks I’ve been wrestling with ending a book. I don’t mean finding the perfect end, the twist that will make sense of the rest of the book or the right way to resolve the story. No, I mean ending the writing process, taking my hands off the keys and telling myself that I have finished this particular piece of writing; it is time to move on to something else.
I find it a very difficult thing to do.
I have been made particularily aware of this on my most recent project, as it has been a collaboration. The person, I have been working with, comes from a very different background, with a much more pragmatic approach to writing.
So when is a story finished?
I suppose, in my head, I have the notion of the perfect, a piece of writing so polished, that it cannot be improved upon in any way at all. I tell myself that this is what I am working towards, as I edit and re-edit, write and rewrite, change, punctuate, delete, copy and paste over and over again,
At the same time, I also tell myself that every deletion and rewrite is an additional guarantee that the story will not only be accepted by a publisher but go on to win the Carnegie Book Award and be picked up Disney and turned into a multi-million pound franchise. To ensure, a bidding war among publishers, all I have to do is rewrite a particular phrase or sentence, even if the rewording is merely changing an ‘and’ to a ‘but’. I am therefore loathe to let the work go, in case I have missed that surplus adjective in the fourteenth chapter in my frantic reading and rereading of the text -a suplus adjective that will spoil any chance of getting it published.
Of course, I am deluding myself in all this.
There are other reasons for delaying finishing.
By refusing to accept that a piece of writing is ready to be read by others, I am postponing any critical reaction or rejection. Every re-edit is a precious moment gained, in which I can avoid sending the story off to my agent and getting a negative response.
The writing process is full of hope. At the start, you hope the story will come alive sufficiently for you to stay with it. As you continue writing, you hope it will be enjoyed. At the finish, you hope it will be published, be reviewed and be a success.
But once you have packaged a story and sent it off, reality sets in. You can still hope but there is nothing more you can do. Except accept the probable rejection when it comes as sanguinely as possible.
I’ve just been on my longest school visit ever, although it wasn’t a visit in the usual sense. This trip was to a small primary school in Mohali, northern India. I went there as a trustee of the UK charity that helped found it. If I was going to fundraise and advocate on its behalf, I wanted to understand more about Bright Sparks School. While I was there, I also did some sessions with the kids, using my own and other people’s books.
The children live in a shanty town called Mohali Colony. Their parents are mostly labourers or roadside fruit & veg sellers. The kids come to school in their (donated) blue uniforms, from ramshackle homes built on rough ground beside a sewage-tainted river. Their only clean water comes from standpipes in the street. Mostly, each family lives in one room.
The children speak a mixture of home languages: Punjabi, Hindi, other state languages, and English – this being the language they speak least confidently. I had taken some bi-lingual picture books with me, and they were even more useful than I imagined. One of them was ‘Handa’s Surprise’ by Eileen Browne (once a member of this writers’ group!) with dual texts in English/Punjabi, and English/Hindi. It’s a story of an African girl who sets out with seven fruits as a gift for her friend. On the way, various rascally animals steal the different fruits…
I read this book with all five classes in turn. With the younger ones, the teacher read the Punjabi or Hindi page first, and then I read the English. In the older classes, the children read the Indian languages and then learnt to read aloud the English with increasing confidence. All the classes enjoyed recalling the words for the eight animals and eight fruits featured in the story. Surreal scenes in my life now include the memory of standing in a room full of Punjabi kids, all chanting avo-caDO! avo-caDO! – this being a fruit and vocabulary item previously unknown to them all.
Before leaving, I offered to hold a whole-school session using this story. The older kids would do the readings in Hindi and Punjabi, and after, they would all sample and vote for their favourite fruit. The day before, I went to a wholesale fruit market in search of the now much anticipated avo-cados. Sadly, none were available. But later in the evening, my host family kindly took me across Chandigarh to a specialist shop where we could buy some. We also bought some other unusual vegetables to take home with us, like rocket and pak choi.
But, when I arrived at school the following day laden down with all the fruits, I found to my horror that the avocados were not there. Like Handa in the story, I had somehow lost them along the way. To everyone’s polite dismay, we had to use the ubiquitous kiwi fruit as a stand in!
While the staff were cutting up the fruit in the school kitchen, one of the younger boys appeared amongst us. Without being asked he just set about peeling and preparing the pineapple for everyone. His parents, of course, were fruit sellers. There were many times during my stay when I was struck by the sheer competence and can-do approach of these children. I saw older boys – again unprompted – helping younger children with their unfamiliar shoe-laces on sports day. The classrooms were often cleared of their wooden folding furniture, quickly and safely, by the kids themselves. On visits to their homes, I found them cooking family meals, doing the family wash by hand, sewing and cleaning and looking after siblings, all while their parents worked.
Of course, these are not necessarily the activities I think the children should be doing. Quite the reverse. One of the reasons for the very existence of Bright Sparks School is to give these kids a space in their lives where they can be children, learning and playing, and leaving those adult responsibilities aside. But, I was still impressed by the way in which kids from such precarious backgrounds shared the limited resources and cramped spaces in this little school, and supported each other with great good humour and only the occasional spat.
The avocados did turn up. I’d left them behind at the shop(!). They were sampled by everyone the day after I left. But apparently the favourite fruit was still the one voted for on the day of the readings and the fruit feast. And the winner was… mango. A fruit and a word with its origins in the nearby Himalayas. So no-one had any problem saying that!