Monthly Archives: June 2015

Crivens!

feegle3At the moment our house is enjoying a full-on adventure with the wee free men and their ‘Hag’ Tiffany Aching. Terry Pratchett’s ability to create a world filled with humour, excitement, intelligence, and heart is not compromised by writing for children. The Tiffany Aching series includes four (soon to be five) books, set in his iconic Discworld, and each book focusses on a young woman called Tiffany as she grows into a fine upstanding witch.

Out of my two my eldest is especially enthralled with the books. The first book (The Wee Free Men) went down a treat and he really got a kick out of the violent, loud, yet loyal and caring ‘Nac Mac Feegle’ (or ‘wee free men’). It’s a book series that I enjoyed myself years before I became a parent and there’s something really special about being able to share it with my kids now.

The thing that impresses me most is one simple fact that, in itself, shouldn’t be impressive: the main character is a girl. Every book follows Tiffany, sure the wee free men are there too, as are a few other male characters, but the character we follow through every page is Tiffany. This shouldn’t be a big deal but it is. So many books for children (my own included) focus on the adventures of a boy as the main character, and in most cases he’s also cast as the hero. It makes a refreshing change to see that a girl can be just as heroic, just as relateable for two young boys as any male protagonist (I feel I redeemed myself a little with Spark of Dreams, you’ll see Thea’s heroics near the end of the book).

Not once have my kids asked ‘but why is a girl doing everything?’ not once have they complained. Both my six (soon to be seven) year old, and four year old sons have barely noticed that they’re following the adventures of a girl. Perhaps it’s because this is one of the first chapter books I’ve read to them (smaller frame of reference), or maybe their generation has different expectations than mine did. Whatever it is, I’m getting a lot of enjoyment out of knowing that my two kids clearly know how brave, clever, and heroic girls can be.

I’ll be rectifying my own lack of a central female character in my books next year as I delve more into Thea’s story, and follow her on a voyage around the world of Fey. It’s in the planning stages at the moment, so very little is concrete, but I can’t wait to delve into the world of legends, mythological animals, and the downright made-up stuff that I’ve got planned for next year’s batch of books.

Tiffany-Aching-Poster-600x686In the mean time I heartily recommend Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books (‘The Wee Free Men’, ‘Hatfull of Sky’, ‘Wintersmith’, ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’, and Pratchett’s soon to be released, final Discworld book ‘The Shepherd’s Crown‘). In the first book you’ll follow Tiffany as she meets strange little blue men, discovers she might well be a witch, and has to fight the Queen of the Fairies. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them as much as we are. All the best, John

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Write your book at a virtual writers camp

camp_logo-290f133f1af2562198f3a75b662feb03In just a few days I, and thousands of others, will embark on the beginnings of a mindboggling cacophony of stories. July is the month for Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), where you pledge a word goal and a genre and then look forward to the weirdly competitive edge that your writing has been missing.

I say ‘weirdly competitive’ because there’s no sole winner, and you find yourself routing for precisely the people who are doing better than you. In a slightly masochistic way, you’ll find yourself enjoying the successes of those who challenge you challenge you the most. As you push yourself to smash your daily recommended word count, there they are, always a couple of hundred words ahead, but without them you’ll drop back to a hundred and fifty words a day with an ‘at least it’s something’.

NaNoWriMo gives you results; do it right and you’ll finish the month with a solid, real, piece of work but it doesn’t work without a couple of ‘spotters’. Thank goodness it’s virtual, allowing you match your wits with people on other continents just as easily as you can with someone you can meet with for a coffee and a ‘word sprint’ (where you write as much as you can in a set period of time, basically racing each other). I already have a friend in the states set to join me on the adventure, and I welcome any other writers or would-be writers who fancy getting that book finished once and for all.

Please consider signing up, it’s a genuine rush watching that word count go up by significant leaps each day. It’s the movement that pushed me on to launch the Jack Reusen series, and absolutely anyone can do it. Sign up in readiness here, set your word count goal, pick your genre (by no means does it have to be a children’s book) and get cracking. Honestly, if you do it right you will have that first draft done by August.

If you fancy some support along the way, feel free to follow and chat to me on my personal Twitter account. I look forward to sharing the highs and lows of writing a book with whomever of you feels up to it. All the best, John

Why I refused to read Harry Potter

no harry potter restriction circleIt’s not as bad as it sounds, please read on to find out more. I was first told about the boy wizard in high school, it would have been about 2000/2001, and I point-blank refused to read it. I even laughed at friends who were recommending it. You see the problem was that Harry Potter was a kid’s book, and seventeen year old John was no child.

I had my mind set on becoming an author and was sure that truly engaging writing (the kind that I could learn from) could only be found in books aimed at adults. I read magical realist authors like Rushdie, de Berniere, and Garcia Marquez. I also Immersed myself in classic literature and edgy new work. In short I thought of children’s literature as something of an oxymoron. Instead I was simply a moron.

Reality hit me at Stirling Uni in 2002 when I headed down to the MacRobert Cinema to watch Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with a friend. The film left so much unsaid, so many questions unanswered, that I borrowed copies of the first two books from her to catch up with what was going on. Then I borrowed another (you know, just to see what happened next), and then another. Then I ran out.

On the 22nd of June the following year I was queueing outside a Waterstones in Aberdeen at midnight. I patiently waited for them to open the doors and release copies of ‘the Order of the Phoenix’ to the street-load of waiting children dressed as witches and wizards (I wished I had come in costume too).

A good book transports you to another world, or offers a view of our own that you might not have considered. It opens up questions and makes you think, and if you’re lucky it takes you for an adventure. Magical realists can do that, classical literature can do that, gritty ground-breaking new fiction can do that, and (unbeknownst to my seventeen year old self) so too can a good children’s book do all of these things.

We can get stuck in a rut when it comes to what we read, fixating on just one genre, but we miss out by doing that. As students, a bunch of us traded favourite books, we all had widely different tastes and we decided we might benefit by shaking things up a little. To be honest I don’t think I’ll ever be a full horror, crime, or thriller convert (though I still like to jump into a good horror book as the nights start to draw in) but that wasn’t really the point of our experiment. Our wee book-swap gave me an insight into what qualities made these types of book so appealing to so many people, it made me realise just how hard it can be to pin down just exactly what counts as ‘good writing’.

I still cringe at the thought of how condescending I must have sounded as a teenager and I apologise to Adam for dismissing what truly was an amazing find, and I also thank Vikki for allowing me to see how rich and enjoyable children’s literature can be (even for adults).

Are there any ‘children’s books’ that you’ve found particularly engaging? Do you avoid popular authors because you think they’re somehow less remarkable because of their popularity? Feel free to have a chat about it in the comments below, or over at the facebook page or twitter account. As always, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

The cavern keeper

8232497112_ddaba4ccc5_bHere’s a quick wee glimpse into a place that will be very important in book three. I hope you enjoy it:

These caves were his. It’s not like he actually¬†owned them or anything, but in the same way that a town, a school, or a stadium can ‘belong’ to someone, these caves belonged to Magus Hypologismos (people called him Logi for short, you can see why).

Logi was no stranger to the outside world. As a young man he had toured the globe with a group of Lutin traders (we might call them leprechauns). They exchanged exotic wares from one country to the next, and Logi saw more of the world than he had ever expected. He had three favourite memories. There was the time he had been invited to hunt with centaurs in Laconia, riding onto their horsey backs and gripping onto their broad human shoulders for support.

Further east he had eaten a feast of spiced meats and rice with a genie, sitting in the desert sands around the fire-pits of Mishan. After the meal the genie had entertained him with displays of incredible magic making the sky dance with light and the moon change its colour to shine like a giant gold coin hovering in the sky.

Possibly Logi’s greatest memory was in fact the moment that began his adventure back home to the caves. Whilst sitting in a sanctuary in on the mysterious island castle of Por-Bajin, he was invited by a jadatski (rain master) to a modest dinner of pickled cabbage. They debated into the night, and right through to dawn about whether the golden scrolls of Kubai-Khotim were real.

The scrolls were said to be able to tell the future, and Logi had made it his mission to find them. Sadly in all the centuries that followed he had still never found them.

Logi had enjoyed a colourful life, but his travelling was over, and now these ancient caverns were his home. Books and scrolls weighed down the shelves that lined every wall. Orange lanterns added their flickering light, making the ancient texts appear to dance and move, almost as though they were alive. Logi often wondered if some of the movements really were just a trick of the light.

Logi took the stairs down to the deeper chambers, where the most ancient and powerful texts were housed. No one but the Magus (Logi himself) was allowed down here and he hadn’t had a request for any of these texts in centuries. All the same it was one of the most comfortable places available to him, and he often sneaked down here to sit in the huge throne-like chair and enjoy the peace.

Thick books with gilted spines surrounded him like dusty jewels, their leather dyed in all manner of colours. Logi sat back in the quiet, enjoying the rainbow of books flickering by the light of the lanterns. Then something moved, it didn’t just look like it moved; it really moved.

Logi stepped closer to inspect. It couldn’t be a creature of any sort; the enchantments protecting the library wouldn’t even let a dust mite down here without permission. All the same Logi knew what he saw, something had definitely moved.

In the silence Logi could even hear his shoes creak. A sudden ‘thwap’ echoed around the chamber as a thick scroll dropped onto the hard stone floor and began unravelling. Logi leaned in closer and was astounded to see fresh words appearing on the paper, as though being written from inside:

The families are reunited. The children of fate grow closer to learning their heritage but dark days are ahead and they may have to pay for the mistakes of their ancestors. One will return to claim these scrolls, and once again wield the knowledge of what is to come. He prepares even now.”

The writing stopped.

Logi sat down cross-legged on the polished stone floor and lifted the scroll, allowing a simple ‘Hmmm’ to escape his lips. All those years and the scroll had been right here under his nose the whole time. Whatever it had been up to seemed to be over for now. In the several hundred years that Logi had patrolled these tunnels (aside from the odd holiday), he had never once witnessed a book, or scroll, write itself. He didn’t have anything else planned that day, so he relaxed into a big leather chair, rolled out the scroll, and waited.

Hours passed, but Logi had centuries of experience in patience. The writing began again, it looked like some kind of heading this time:

What has come before…

After that the writing came quicker, Logi’s eyes struggling to keep up. As the story poured out in front of him, words escaped his lips: “What is a ‘TV’?” “Who is Tam?” and “This ‘macaroni cheese’ sounds amazing, I wonder where I might get some…”

Logi read on and on, getting more involved still. Perched on the edge of his seat he actually yelled out “Run Sparky! Run!”. He relaxed, things seemed better now, the characters appeared to be safe. He settled in and read on.

The writing slowed, the last few lines had been about three men getting on ‘motor-bikes’ (whatever they were), and heading for an underground library. Logi got the feeling he might find himself a lot more involved in the story very soon.

What Reading can do for you

Read for 1 minute or less a day with your children and they may end up in the bottom tenth percentile! (But should you care?)

I’ve seen this graphic (or something very similar) floating around the internet recently. While I agree with the idea that reading with your children is a good thing, I’m not sure if I agree with the hefty role being given to word volume, or the assumption that parents only care about test scores. It’s part of the growing inclination of so many to try and quantify childhood learning.

Of course, some skills are more quantifiable than others: vocabulary, memory, the ability to follow instructions (this list is far from exhaustive). In this sense it’s easy to see how an increase in vocabulary and memory might improve test scores. However, there are so many more important skills that reading helps develop than the capacity to have great test scores.

Children who read find themselves exposed to other ways of thinking, other worlds, and other people, in a much more intimate manner than you find in any other medium.

The characters, ideas, plots, scenarios, and places found within the pages of a book do not stay there; they find a home inside your mind. It’s about as close to telepathic communication as we can get.

When a child reads a story where a character loses their memories, they aren’t simply exposed to a vocabulary-building exercise; they have been given access to some fairly complex notions about identity. This might lead them to ask questions about whether we are the sum of our memories, or something more. In essence, books (and perhaps fantasy books in particular) provide simple, digestible ways of thinking about some pretty big questions.

It kind of bothers me to see test scores held up as the pinnacle of childhood achievement. Test scores can be a great way of gauging a child’s engagement with their learning, but I’m a little dubious about regarding these scores as anything more than that. 

A child’s ability to deal with the world outside of school will have a lot more to do with how much they understand, plus a host of skills that are even harder to quantify.

If a child opts for university they may be surprised to discover how important it is to have a collection of skills that go beyond reading speed, vocabulary, and memory (the more testable skill set). 

I used to tutor Philosophy undergraduates at Edinburgh University and it was amazing to see the way that some students (who came in with less than stellar grades in high school) would somehow overtake their higher scoring classmates. Often this hedged on far less tangible/quantifiable skills than memory etc.

We wanted to see students demonstrate an understanding of the nuances of arguments; memorising facts and figures simply wasn’t enough (though it was of course valuable). What’s more the ability to step outside rote learning and think for themselves enables students to create thought provoking and insightful essays. I learned that high test scores aren’t always a clear indicator that someone will perform well, even in an academic environment.

The abilities of a teacher are often assessed based on the test scores of the children they teach, but this can leave little room for some truly vital skills; like bolstered inquisitiveness, social understanding, and the ability to ground ideas within a real-world backdrop. 

Many teachers do a phenomenal job at encouraging these, and many more, traits (I’ve met a good number of these teachers on the various school talks I’ve done) and I’m fairly certain that these essential skills will be hard to locate by looking at where a child falls within the national ‘percentile’.

Of course we should read to our children for twenty minutes a day, longer if you get the time. For some of us it’s part of the ever-shrinking portion of the day in which we can spend time together, without necessarily having to deal with some kind of screen. 

Not only does it allow you and your child to discuss all kinds of topics and issues, but it also gives you a few moments in which to touch base and enjoy spending time together.

Reading, at least in this context, has much more to do with maintaining relationships and learning about the world we share, than it has to do with building vocabularies and assisting in academic scores. 

Reading shouldn’t be marketed as a fast track road to success (even if the numbers suggest it); it’s an activity that opens dialogue, builds relationships, and encourages inquisitive minds. In short reading opens us up to all of the fantastic skills that make us human, it doesn’t just help us test well.

If you have anything to say about any of the issues I’ve touched on in this post please feel free to share your ideas in the comments, or over on social media (here are the Jack Reusen facebook and twitter accounts). Thanks for reading, all the best, John

Crieff Primary visit

Crieff_PSI knew it was going to be a different kind of talk today because the whole class had already read the book. In fact they had literally just finished the last chapter when I got there, so they had lots of questions about the characters.

The great thing for me was seeing that I’d managed to make a story that they had clearly all enjoyed. I tried to write the books so there was something for everyone and today made me feel like I’d managed to get pretty close to that goal.

The added bonus of knowing that the class had all heard the first book was that I could get away with reading a wee sample of ‘…the Spark of Dreams‘. I think they enjoyed their wee teaser, and they certainly asked a lot of questions about what to expect in future books.

It was a fantastic day and a genuine thrill to see that Jack’s world had clearly appealed to them all so much, and I’ll definitely be down there again (if they’ll have me) to talk about any future books. In the mean time it sounds as though I might be getting some illustrations from the class, inspired by characters from the book, to share with you soon. I’m looking forward to what they think Jack, Thea, Sparky, and Harold look like.

Weirdly enough I spent yesterday in my p2 classroom in Comrie primary and today I was in my p3 classroom. The last couple of days have been really enjoyable and a wee walk down memory lane. Hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about it, thanks for reading, Cheers, John

Comrie Primary

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Today I was at Comrie Primary School for a book talk. It was lovely to revisit my first primary school, and odd to see how different the school looks now I’m not four feet tall.

By the sounds of it there are a good few budding authors among Comrie Primary’s pupils and they had a lot of interesting (and some very practical questions) about writing.

That’s the fun thing about these kinds of events. Aside from getting a bit of feedback on my writing, these talks definitely help me build self-awareness as an author.

How do you make a character? Why do you write in this genre? What should someone do to become an author?

It’s tough sometimes; some of these questions are relatively easy to answer, yet I feel a little under-qualified to answer others.

What do I do if I want to be a writer? I was tempted to answer ‘you write’ but that’s too glib (and dangerously close to sarcastic) an answer for a budding young writer. The truth is that there doesn’t seem to be one way to ‘be a writer’ but even that would be an unsatisfying answer.

Instead we got into discussing some surprisingly practical elements of the writing process: from sentence structure and grammar, to royalties and the earning potential of writing. It was a surprisingly thorough discussion to be having with primary school children.

I’ve just been informed that the pupils have decided to create illustrations of some of the characters from the book. I look forward to seeing the results and will hopefully get a chance to share them on here if I can.

Of course; if you know any children who have read the book(s) and who feel like sending in pictures of characters these are more than welcome (adults can send things in too if they like).

I love doing school talks so if you’d like me to come to your school please get in touch and we can try and arrange something.

As always, thanks for reading, all the best, John