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December 22, 2016


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.

20161222_000705_resizedHowever 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.

Avo-cado surprise!

December 16, 2016


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!

help-with-shoes-img_4254While 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!


Literature, representation and disability

November 23, 2016


I recently delivered a speech at Nottingham Festival of Literature on this interesting subject – how disabled people are represented in literature. The speech is in four parts, and I’ve also embedded links to the speech, which I then recorded later, on my Soundcloud account, where you can have a listen here by clicking on the Soundcloud link.

A quick run-down here:

First of all, I looked at representation of disabled people in classical times. I then moved on to look at representation in medieval times and up until today (yes, a whistlestop tour!) I also looked at the theories of representation, before moving on to where we are now. I examined identity politics, about which I have some reservations, and I looked at the current theme of cultural appropriation, and how it links to disability representation. I want to see disabled writers venture forth from the haven of the first person account, and write more sci-fi, historical fiction, thrillers and so on, not just criticise what non-disabled writers have to say. As the writer, James Baldwin says: ‘My position, though, is that I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don’t like their alternative, write yours.’ Read his full interview, here, in the Paris Review, it’s a wide-ranging and thought-provoking read, and I agree with much of what he says.

My speech is available below as a transcript as well. In it, I draw on research I conducted on literature, art and representation for my first book, Scapegoat: why we are failing disabled people. It’s still in print if you want to buy it.



A message from over the wall


This is a wide-ranging subject, about which a lot of ink has been spilt. I looked at it, myself, in my own book, Scapegoat, published five years ago and will draw on some of that research tonight. However, I want to broaden out from good and bad representation, and the inevitable book lists (although examples are important), and set the whole debate in a wider context. I also want to talk both more personally and politically tonight – about the importance of good writing, about genre and about who represents whom, and on what basis. The disability scholar, Hugh Gregory Gallagher said, of the “land of the ‘crippled”, (his words) that “a great wall surrounds this place, and most of what goes within this wall is unknown to those outside it. What follows is a message from over the wall.” Our task, as writers, is to explore unknown worlds; take walls down; create understanding. In this context, I believe that means that writing about disability should be invested with universal meaning, so that we can look for what we have in common with each other and critiquing it should follow the same lines too.

I’m going to talk for about three-quarters of an hour, and then we are going to take some questions and have a discussion. I will look at historical representation first, then move on to the disability movement and its critiques of mainstream literature. I will discuss some texts that I think are interesting, discuss the vexed question of cultural appropriation and, of course, the uses of #criplit.

First of all, I wanted to give a sense of how my own interest in disability affairs and in representation.

When I was about thirteen, I woke one night, about midnight, with a terrible pain in my head. It crushed me, dazzled me and left me almost unable to function. I remember stumbling down to the dark kitchen and wandering around, wondering what was wrong with me. At some point I must have got myself back to bed, and back to sleep. My mother told me later that I had written a farewell note, saying that I was dying, and that I wanted the family to know how much I loved them.

Although I didn’t realise till later, I had just experienced my first acute migraine attack. I treated subsequent ones, without a diagnosis, in a slapdash manner until they worsened quite dramatically and I was diagnosed with chronic migraines – a neurological disorder – some years ago. Mine is not the only experience of disability or impairment in the family. My grandfather was deaf, after a childhood illness; my great uncle, Henri, was a blind war veteran in France. Other family members have Aspergers. Others, towards the end of their lives, have experienced dementia. A close relative had a traumatic brain injury some years ago. Seeing attitudes towards that last relative change, after disability, informed the writing of my book, Scapegoat, which examines violence towards disabled people and the culture within it sits.

That brings me nicely on to the next part of my talk – a brief cultural history of the representation of disability. I wanted to run through some of the powerful, cultural archetypes that still engulf the lives of disabled people today, right back to classical times, where attitudes were formed that still linger today, both in representation and in reality.

One of the most powerful archetype is that of the scapegoat. When a crisis or disaster struck a Greek city, bringing down the ire of the Gods upon the mortals, the citizens would select an offering to appease their wrath. The scapegoat – or pharmakos, in Ancient Greek, would sometimes be expelled forever from the city state, sometimes even sacrificed. All too often the offering, that cleansed and purified the nation, was a “useless” person[1] or an “outcast”.[2] Some one “mistreated by nature”[3] was often targeted too, it seems. All these words suggest that disabled people were all too often selected as a perfect candidate for scapegoating. The finest and most respected of Greece’s ancient moral philosophers also agreed that only the fit should survive. In Sparta, according to Plutarch, in his account of the founder of the state, Lykourgos, written in the 1st or 2nd Century AD, it was a legal requirement of citizenship that all children should be examined. “Whenever a child was born, it was taken to a council of elders for examination. If the baby was in any way defective, the elders dropped it into a chasm. Such a child, in the opinion of the Spartans, should not be permitted to live.” [4] It was a grim end indeed, it seems. Plutarch wrote that “ill born or misshapen children are sent to the place called Apothetae, a ravine at the Mount Taygetus.”[5] In Book Five of Plato’s Republic, Socrates muses, “The offspring of the inferior, and any of the other sort who are born defective, they will properly dispose of in secret, so that no one will know what has become of them.” [6]Aristotle agrees, saying in The Politics: “as to exposing or reading the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared.” [7] What nobody knows for sure is whether these edicts were Utopian or were actually enacted (the scholar, Rosemary Garland Thomson, contends that few were actually killed)[8].

However widespread the truth of the practice might be, those who led the moral thinking of the Greeks had but one exhortation – cleanse the state of disability. Two of the most famous Greek depictions of Paradise, Plato’s Republic and the Utopis of Diodorus, were places where disability was banished. Plato not only said that disabled babies must be killed, but that disabled priests were strictly forbidden. In Utopis, anyone acquiring a disability was instructed to kill themselves.

Disability was, as it is too often today, seen as shameful. Even the God Hephaestus was banished from heaven because of his impairment. His mother, Hera, in the Homeric Hymn to the Pythian Apollo, says: “my son Hephaestes, whom I bare was weakly among all the blessed gods and shrivelled of foot, a shame and a disgrace to me in heaven, whom I myself took in my hands and cast out so that he fell in the great sea.”[9] Hephaestus, in The Odyssey, internalises this hatred: “Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, scorns me for that I am lame, and loves destructive Ares because he is comely and strong of limb, whereas I was born misshapen.” He bewails his very birth: “for this is none other to blame but my two parents – would they had never begotten me.”[10] Indeed, Aphrodite took a non-disabled lover, to compensate for her husband being a “cripple” – and therefore thought of, even today, as impotent and unmanned.

Disability is also connected with evil – a prejudice that gains even more power in the Medieval Ages and beyond, in the time of the witch-hunts. Hephaestus is often represented with one leg shortened to denote his lameness; and throughout the Middle Ages it was popularly believed that his cloven hoof was the one feature, which the devil was unable to disguise.

However, lameness acquired, or limbs lost, in battle was accepted, up to a point – a first sign, perhaps, of what we now call the ‘hierarchy of impairment’. Indeed, men with a variety of physical impairments participated in the military. Artemon, in Plutarch’s Pericles, was very lame.[11] “Ephorus says that Pericles actually employed siege-engines, in his admiration of their novelty, and that Artemon the engineer was with him there, who, since he was lame, and so had to be brought on a stretcher to the works which demanded his instant attention, was dubbed Periphoretus.” That said, some disabled soldiers were taunted. In The Iliad, the soldier Thersites is mocked for being lame, a hunchback and ugly, although he was not excluded from the army.[12]

Disability is also a stigma – as it can be today, although some conditions are less stigmatized than others, with mental health and learning difficulties carrying, arguably, most stigma. As the sociologist, Erving Goffman writes in Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity, the Greeks coined the term stigma to refer to bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal or a traitor – a blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places.”[13] He argues that there are three different types of stigma. One is that of disability – what he calls the “abomination” of the body, when it is deformed. Then there is the blemish of individual character. And, thirdly, there are the “tribal stigma” of face, national and religion.

As the Roman Empire gained territory, and the Greek Empire fell, one legacy remained: hostile attitudes towards disability. The Romans, indeed, extended the abuse of both disabled children and adults, in their open enjoyment of “freakery” and spectacle. They, too, discriminated against disability from birth. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Romulus, the founder of Rome, demanded that “all the city’s residents should raise all their male children and the first born of the girls and not kill any child under three unless the child was deformed or monstrous in which case it was to put to death immediately after birth.” The mother had little or no say in the fate of her children. It was the father, or patria, who determined whether the child should live or die. The Twelve Tables of Roman Law dictated that the deformed child should die, after being shown to five neighbours.[14]

The scapegoat crops up again too, with the scholar, Carlin A Barton noting that “the monster, and especially his avatar, the grotesque stupidus, ranked among the principal and most effective sacrificial decoys and scapegoats required to preserve the ‘roman’. They were the recipients of many of the blows aimed at deformity…Embodiments of chaos and representatives of the society, the stupidi, were types of the scapegoat.”[15] But it was perhaps in their fascination with the “freakshow”, the spectacle, that the Romans can be seen to have passed their ideas about disability down to the Victorians and beyond. As Cicero writes: “in deformity and disfigurement there is good material for making jokes.”[16] The monsters – disabled people – were seen as wonderful spectacles. Dwarfs, hunchbacks and fools were all in demand as entertainers (singers, clowns, jugglers to name but a few). Indeed, Plutarch and Longinus note that children were even deliberately deformed[17] by being bound and confined in boxes so that they could be sold at the “terator agora”, or “monster market”. As in Victorian times human deformity became a marvel of the natural world, and disabled people collector’s items. Pliny recalls in his catalogue of human wonders, Natural History, (7.74-75), the giant Gabbara, brought in the age of Claudius, and the dwarf Cinopas, kept by the granddaughter of Augustus, Julia, as a pet. He writes: ““the tallest person seen in our age was a man called Gabbara…just under ten feet tall…the smallest man was Cinopas, just about two half feet tall.”[18]

The Romans, too, saw disability as a stigma – as something that might make the disabled people powerless in themselves, but powerful in that they could pass on their sin to others. The disabled person was not only seen as struck down by God, but, in some ways as being able to pass his or her sin on to others. Pliny writes in his Natural History: “We spit on epileptics in a fit, that is, we throw back contagion. In a similar way we ward off witchcraft and bad luck which follows meeting a person lame in the right leg.”[19] In many cultures this remains true today. The “hunchback”, for instance, is both hated and feared – in many Mediterranean cultures they are still seen as the manifestation of sin, and also able to curse. Even the disabled Emperor Claudius, who escaped death at birth only because he was from the highest echelons of Roman society, was subject to abuse from both the Roman nobility and Roman Guards prior to taking the imperial throne because of his impairment, now thought to be cerebral palsy and resulting mobility impairments. Even his mother, Antonia, treated him with contempt and referred to him as “a monster of a man, not finished by nature and only half done’”[20]

However, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, other ancient cultures, there is a far more generous attitude towards disability. In one ancient Eygptian text, the Instruction of Amenemope, it states:

“Do not laugh at a blind man

Nor tease a dwarf

Nor cause hardship for the lame.

Don’t tease a man who is in the hand of the God

Nor be angry with him for his failings.

Another ancient myth, that of Enki and Ninmah, in Mesoptomaia, describes the creation of humanity in a “playful tale” which celebrates and explains the origin of “normal” and “abnormal” human forms.[21] It was only when the Egyptians feared genetic contamination that they enforced normalcy, in the words of Lennard Davis.[22] Some texts suggest burying children with a condition that is similar to Huntingdon’s. But it was not a common fate for disabled children. Unfortunately, however, the civilisations of Greece and Rome have influenced our culture more than those from Eygpt and Mesopotamia. Our legacy from those times is one rich in contempt for disabled people. Sinner, slave, scapegoat, stigma and spectacle – a human without humanity, who should be banished from sight and segregated permanently – these images of disabled people and attitudes towards them, are hardwired into our culture.

For parts Two, Three and Four of the speech, do pop over to my website to read the rest (or, of course, you can listen on the link above).

A teaser from Part Four is below, which looks at identity politics and literature.


Don’t get me wrong – I’m in accord, broadly, with crip lit principles, and not just on the point of consultation. Speak to people about their conditions if you are going to include that condition in a book. Be generous with the work of disabled writers who may have had a harder journey to get to publication. Promote their work – if you like it. Take a good, long look at the crip lit hashtag and read intensively. Do be careful with language – use what disabled people have asked to use. This isn’t that difficult – ask the community. But push back as well, if you feel your creative integrity is being challenged by dogma.

And then, whoever you are, whatever your background, don’t be afraid. Put pen to paper. Bring those walls crashing down, through your empathy – and your skill. Nothing should be off limits. You are a writer. Go and write.

Thank you.

[1] Equites, 1969, Ed D M Jones, 243, from Todd M Compton, Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior, and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth And History, (Center for Hellenic Studies, 2006)

[2] Pharmakos and Katharma as Words of Abuse, translated by HJ Vince, text from gebhard#22

[3] W J W Koster, ed, commentarium in Ranas et in Aves Argumentum Equitum which is fasc 111 of Lydia Massa Positano, D. Holwerda, WJW Joster, Jo.Tzetzae Commentarii in Aertisophenenm, part 1V of W.J W Joster, Scholia in Aristophanem (Groningen: JB Wolters, 1960), trans Todd M Compton, 733a

[4] “Plutarch. Lycurgus: The Father of Sparta, Lycurgus 1

[5] ibid

[6] Plato, The Republic, translated by Storey, checking pub date 460c

[7] Ibid, 1328-30a, 1335b

[8] Martha L Rose, The Staff of Oedipus, (University of Michigan, 2003), quoting Rosemary Garland Thompson, checking ref

[9] Plato, The Republic, 316-319, translation by Evelyn White, checking pub date

[10] Homer, (8.308-12). The Odyssey

[11] Plutarch, Pericles

[12] Homer, The Iliad, 2.216-219

[13] Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity (Pelican, 1968), 11

[14] Dionysius of Halicarnassus (2.15), in Neal H Walls, The Origins of the disabled body, Disability in Ancient Mesoptomaia, in This Abled Body: rethinking disabilities in biblical studies, Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, Jeremy Schipper, (Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 38

[15] Carlin. A Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans, (Princeton University Press, 1993),146

[16] Cicero, Oratory 2.239

[17] Longinus, de sublimatae 44.5

[18] Pliny, Natural History, 7.74-75, (Penguin, 2004), translation Jones

[19] Pliny, Natural History, 28.7, (Penguin 2004), translation Jones

[20] RRJ Garland, The Eye of the Beholder: Deformity and Disability in the Graeco-Roman World (London, Duckworth, 1995), 41

[21] Neal H Walls, The Origins of the disabled body, Disability in Ancient Mesoptomaia, in This Abled Body: rethinking disabilities in biblical studies, Hector Avalos, Sarah J. Melcher, Jeremy Schipper, (Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 19

[22] Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, (Verso, 1995)

[23] William Shakespeare, Richard 111, V, vi, 78-83

[24] Colin Barnes, Leeds University disability archive,

[25] H. C. Eric Midelfort, A History of Madness in Sixteenth Century Germany (Stanford University Press, 1999) 228-276

[26]M Miles, Martin Luther and Childhood Disability in 16th Century Germany, Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 2001, vol 5 (4), 6

[27] Midelfort, 233

[28] Ibid, 276

[29] Howell, Michael & Peter Ford, The True Story of the Elephant Man, (Middlesex: Penguin, 1983)

[30] Treves and the Elephant Man, reprint of “The Elephant Man”, Royal London Hospital, 2003, 10-11

[31] DJ Kevles, In the name of Eugenics, (Harvard University Press, 1985), 145

[32] GK Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (Cassell, 1922)

[33] Erving Goffman, Asylums, (Penguin, 1968),73

[34] Ibid, 73

Chapter 7: Brave new world?

[35] “Representation and its Discontents: The Uneasy Home of Disability in Literature and Film” from The Handbook of Disability Studies

[36] Ibid, 196.

[37] Ibid, 205.

Spooky Ride

October 31, 2016


Happy Hallloween! Here’s a video of Spooky Ride, my first ever pop-up book, published by Tango Books way back in 2001. Spooky ride was the start of a long and fruitful relationship with Tango Books that still continues. The paper engineer for the project was the very patient Matt Johnstone whom I bombarded with questions at the time. It wasn’t until pop-up book 2 that I took on that role myself, picking it up as I went along.

I’d seespooky-09n a funfair ghost train in Finsbury Park and wondered how that could translate into 3D book. The final book has one continuous train track running through holes in the pages, out the back of the book, round to the front and back in again – so you can read it over and over and over and over… My brief was to base the illustration style a little on ‘Funnybones’, keep the colours pure and make it scary! – well, sort of, it’s a children’s book.


The Infinite Quest For a Signature Style

October 28, 2016


The question on how to develop my own illustration style has never previously been an issue I’ve needed to consider. Working in the animation industry I’ve always enjoyed matching appropriate styles to each brief, in much the same way that when writing I would specifically choose individual voices for different stories – in each case there is to me a correct and natural ‘fit’ that will breathe life into the project. I love working this way, working methodically through the reason and motivation for a thing, I feel as though I’m unravelling a strange organic puzzle.


I love to play with different illustration styles. Here are three different interpretations of a character.

So making the move into illustration for children’s books presents an entirely different and unforeseen problem – this is an area where  a signature style is usually considered beneficial – as the calling card by which illustrators are recognised and as the reason why people will buy their artwork. And working this way goes against all of my natural instincts.

There’s also a sense of pressure when I try to commit to a single style –its a creativity killer. Searching the Internet for solutions I found the regular mantras:

 “Stop worrying about creating a personal style. It will come once you stop looking for it”.

“Follow what your hand wants to draw”.

But after working in the animation industry I’ve accumulated a variety of art knowledge, theory and experience and my aesthetic tastes vary. Do I really still want to draw only what my hand wants to draw? The concept of ‘style’ throws up so many questions -and I found discussion on the subject vague and confusing. Finally, I realised what the problem was. I couldn’t find a solution until I answered the obvious question:- What is ‘Style’?

I discovered a really thoughtful breakdown of style by Sycra Yasin. He considers that artists really mean two separate things when discussing style – ‘Inherent Style’, – derived from our innate way of doing things and our influences – and ‘Manufactured Style’ – a style arrived at through trial and error, iteration and deliberate choice making. Yasin suggests that all artists exist somewhere on this style spectrum and then opens up the debate into issues of stylisation Vs realism and how we arrive at those choices. I recommend this as an incredibly useful watch for anyone interested in parsing the artistic process.

As for me, breaking down the process helped resolve my dilemma. I’m limiting my range to include a few, complimentary styles. I’m aiming for cohesion while still allowing the room I need for experimentation. And most importantly, I’m going to stop worrying about it now!



Our Public Libraries Need Help

October 20, 2016



Tony Brown and Elizabeth Hawksley with some of the donated books

I am a huge fan of public libraries; I’ve had a library card since I was six. Nowadays, they offer you far more than just books. With my library card, for example, I can access the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (the DNB) or read The Times or The Guardian online, and much more. And libraries are currently suffering from ferocious budget cuts.

So, when I became the UK Children’s/Young Adult Book Review Editor for the quarterly Historical Novel Society Review, I decided to offer the ex-review copies to my local library. Every few months, when my floor round my desk has once more disappeared under books, I email Tony Brown, the Stock and Reader Development Manager of Islington Borough library, label the email: Books looking for a good home, and send him a book list. Would he like any of them? So far, he has always said, ‘Yes, please,’ to the lot.

I always get far more books than I, or my wonderful stable of reviewers, can review; often because they are not actually historical (a dragon on the cover, for example, is a giveaway; or the recent book where Lady Jane Grey’s husband has become a horse; or a book featuring jokey zebra gladiators) or where I’ve been sent two or more copies of the same book. So Tony gets an eclectic mix.

Here are six examples of recently reviewed Historicals which I hope other readers will now be able to enjoy in my new list of books for Tony.

quarmby ctbjs11wiaakuwa lee

Yokki and the Parno Gry by Richard O’Neill and Katharine Quarmby
Illustrated by Marieke Nelissen

Yokki and the Parno Gry by Richard O’Neill and Katharine Quarmby is a traditional Travellers’ tale with delightful pictures of their everyday lives. It is about the power of the imagination to help in times of hardship and it’s aimed at children of four plus.

And I Darken by Kiersten White

 And I Darken by Kiersten White, the author turns Vlad the Impaler, the 15th century Transylvanian warlord, into a girl, Lada. Lada must fight to succeed her father and ruthlessness is the key to her survival. As the reviewer wrote: This is not a book for the squeamish. For girls, age fifteen plus.

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee is a murder mystery set in the 1920s and our heroine is a housemaid who can’t spell. I thoroughly enjoyed this lively story – and the amount of work poor Nancy has to do is 100% accurate for the period. For girls of ten plus.

siggins donnelly landman

Rugby Player by Gerard Siggins 

Gerard Siggins is a well-respected Irish writer follows the adventures of the 21st century young rugby player, Eoin Madden, with a gift of seeing ghosts from Irish history. Rugby Flyer features real life Prince Alexander Obolensky who became an Irish football legend in the 1930s. A great read and boys of ten plus will love it.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

These Shallow Graves is set in New York in 1890, where young socialite, Jo Montfort, uncovers the truth about her father’s untimely death. The reviewer praised this book for depicting a realistic late 19th century New York, with a believable heroine struggling with the restrictions on a well-brought-up young lady’s behaviour. This is a young adult novel but my guess is that it will be a crossover book.

Hell and High Water by Tanya Landman

The publisher’s publicity department actually sent me three copies of Tanya Landman’s Hell and High Water! And I can understand their enthusiasm. It concerns a mixed-race boy in 18th century England, struggling to find his place in the world. Landman doesn’t pull her punches about the ignorance, corruption and bigotry of the time. Aimed at both sexes, age twelve plus.

What I enjoy about the Historical Novel Society is that I can keep up with what’s out there and what publishers are looking for. Children’s/YA novels are changing all the time; boundaries are being pushed; and difficult subjects, like race, are tackled openly which would previously have been mentioned more obliquely. Modern children’s Historicals can be challenging as well as terrific reads.

There is a real variety of books for Tony to choose from.

True Life Stories about Mixed Race Britain

October 7, 2016


tr-book-coverMost of the time I make up stories and concentrate on fiction. However, for about two years I worked on a Memoir about our younger adopted son, who joined the family when he was nearly four years old. The whole Memoir has not seen the light of day. In other words, I have not found a publisher, but I was happy to have a short extract published in an anthology edited by Dr. Kate Massey.

“Tangled Roots – True Life Stories About Mixed Race Britain”.

My true-life story is one of at least twenty five varied and moving stories. It is entitled ‘A Rock for Jah’. It tells about the first time we saw Jah. He was with a short-term foster family, where he had been staying for eighteen months, which was far longer than planned. The family was wonderful and they had been preparing him to move on to a ‘forever family’, but it must have been difficult for a little child, not quite yet four years old, to understand why he had to move onto an entirely different family again.

The reason why I called my story “A Rock for Jah” is because the first time he saw my husband and myself, we showed him a photo of our other three children. It was a holiday snap of them sitting on a big rock in Scotland. Jah examined the photo solemnly and he then pointed out something nobody else had observed – a little rock next to the big one. “There’s a Rock for Jah” he said. It was moving to witness how deeply he wanted to belong somewhere. He had spotted this tiny rock where he could ‘belong’.

Jah’s birth family was partly African, partly from the West Indies and partly white British, so clearly his story belongs in a collection dedicated to multicultural Britain. However, we had already adopted a son from a Caribbean background and we were already a mixed race family before Jah joined us.

The back cover of the book, states “12% of UK Households are mixed race, although experts estimate the actual number of mixed race people may be more than two million – double official figures..”

The collection is described as “a shockingly honest, funny and heart-breaking collection of memoirs revealing the human dramas behind the phenomenal success of ‘mixed Britannia’.”

You can find out more about Tangled Roots on the website

Once I realised that I was not going to get my Memoir published, I started writing a blog – Adoption Reflections. It is a very interesting way to communicate to others around the world. More about this in my next Buzz About Books blog post.

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