Category Archives: reading and literacy

Why are Jack Reusen books so short?

harry potter page 1A long long time ago (actually it was only three years back) I tried to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my eldest son. It was a few weeks after his seventh birthday and he was on holiday from school. I thought that at last he was ready to sit down and enjoy one of the best children’s fantasy series ever written. He wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, he enjoyed it but his attention started lagging in the middle of each chapter. I tried to keep my reading as animated as possible but we still ended up stopping in the middle of some chapters. We would take a break, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes until the next day. For the most part it seemed to work. However, with each break he seemed to forget more details about the book.

At their heart Harry Potter books are mystery books in a fantasy setting. There are clues to remember and puzzles to solve throughout. Forgetting details in these sorts of books takes a lot of the oomph out of them.

I would be asked things like ‘Who’s Ron?’ ‘Why can’t Harry just do magic straight away?’ or possibly the most telling ‘Why does he live with his Aunt and Uncle?’ (asked when Harry has his first Hogwarts Christmas). It was clear he was forgetting more than he was remembering and at around chapter six or seven I could see that almost everything was going over his head.

We put Harry Potter away, to come back to when he was a bit older. All the same, the experience of trying to retain his interest lodged in my mind.

This sensation came back to me when November of 2014 rolled in. The nights grew long, and I discovered a new way to write. NaNoWriMo (national novel writing month) fell into my lap. They said something like ‘you have a book inside you waiting to get out’ and I realised that there really was.

Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame became something that I needed to write; something fantastical, exciting, relatable, and importantly, a book that could (hopefully) maintain the interest of an energetic seven-year-old like my son.

There are lots of books for seven-year-olds. Incredible, exciting, sometimes hillarious books, but I felt like I could write something a bit different. I wanted an element of the seriousness of ‘older’ fantasy books, and a slight taste of the danger and thrills that come with that.

From my own experience I realised that I could hold my son’s attention for about ten minutes, so (estimating a reading speed of about 250 words per minute) I worked out that my chapters needed to be no more than 2,500 words long.

I also wanted to make sure the story could be read all the way through in a relatively small space of time so I limited my chapter count to be sure that the whole book could be read in around a fortnight (at a rate of one or two chapters per night).

When I released the first book in the Jack Reusen series I began to hear that other families were having exactly the experience I’d hoped they would. (I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that some parents were sneakily reading ahead to see what happened next). These responses were brilliant, then, around a month after release, I heard something that changed the way I looked at the books.

At the time I worked in a local toy shop. One of our regular customers came in specifically to thank me for writing the book. I hadn’t been thanked for the book before.

It turned out that she had been trying to get her nine year old son to read chapter books for years. Nothing caught his interest. Then she gave him ‘…the Fey Flame‘ and apparently he read the whole thing in just a few nights. I was taken aback and told her how happy I was that he had enjoyed the book so much.

That boy wasn’t the last to say something similar about the Jack Reusen books. The shorter length seems to have made it easier for a lot of children to enjoy. Now that I know I’m helping kids get into reading I can’t bring myself to change the formula.

The original idea was to give families something that they could enjoy together, but a fantastic side-effect seems to be getting more reluctant readers caught up in a book. I love reading and the idea that someone might miss out on the enjoyment of it is disheartening. If writing short chapters and short books helps get a few more kids enjoying reading then I’ll write as many of these books as I can.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your own favourite short/quick reads in the comments below. All the best, John

The Yuletide Theives (a pressie for Crieff Primary)

Jack Reusen John Bray Crieff Primary summer king jenny copland grace russell

Last year I launched a book that is a little different to the other stories set in Jack’s world. It’s about making friends in new places and learning to enjoy new things, but most of all it’s about saving people’s Christmas presents (and even Christmas dinners) from being stolen by a ten eyed monster.
The whole story is the result of a character designing competition I held in Crieff in the summer of 2015. Three winning designs were selected and the story was created to give those characters a home.

Since all three of the winners were pupils at Crieff Primary School I decided to set aside all profits from sales of this book to the school.

If you’d like a wee Christmas story to read in the run up to the big day (and fancy supporting a great wee school) you can get your copy by clicking this link. I hope you enjoy it, please let me know what you think.

All the best, John

Questions to make your brain whizz at Viewlands Primary School

viewlands primary school perth scotland

I was recently invited to talk about writing at Viewlands Primary School in Perth as part of their programme of activities for Book Week Scotland. I spoke to four year groups (primaries 4, 5, 6, and 7) and each year group contained two classes which added up to about sixty kids at each talk. It was taxing, enlightening, but most of all it was a lot of fun. Each age group had their own ideas and their own questions.

scottish book week free author talk

I was asked about the work involved in writing a book, the methods I use to develop a character, I was asked why I picked the fantasy genre, what my favourite books are, and hundreds of other equally interesting questions.

On top of this some of the older children were interested in the practical elements of writing; we discussed the fast-paced first-drafting I do as a result of my connection to National Novel Writing Month. This gave me a chance to describe some of the difficulties I’ve faced in the past in regards to forward planning (or the lack of it).

viewlands primary school perth scotland

I think the teachers were pleased to hear me sharing some important lessons I’ve learned about forward planning and the difficulties of redrafting rushed areas of my work that don’t contribute to the overall story (I get the feeling that planning ahead is something teachers have to remind pupils about a fair bit).

It was an exhausting and massively fulfilling experience and I’d like to thank Mr Scoogal and all of the other teachers for inviting me along on the day. I had an absolute blast and I hope the children did too.

nanowrimo national novel writing month

I wanted to post about this weeks ago but I’ve been tied up in yet another bout of National Novel Writing Month (guess I’m a glutton for punishment). NaNoWriMo is once again over (I completed my word-count of 50,000) and life is finally going back to normal.

The month was tough and some things I tried in my writing turned out to be a bit of a waste of time. One activity in November definitely wasn’t a waste of time and I’m extremely grateful to all the staff and pupils for the wee injection of energy I got right smack dab in the middle of the writers equivalent of a marathon.

Thanks for popping along to read this, feel free to scroll down to see more posts on writing, and thanks again to all the staff and pupils at Viewlands for having me along, all the best, John

Knocking the mentor off his pedestal

Most fantasy fiction has at least one ‘mentor’; Harry had Dumbledore, the hobbits had Gandalf, and Luke Skywalker had Obi Wan (and yes I do count Star Wars as fantasy more than Sci-Fi). They all take the form of that perfect expert with all the knowledge/wisdom to ensure that the hero knows everything they need to.

Most of the mentors listed also come with glaring flaws (SPOILERS AHEAD): Dumbledore knowingly coaches Harry in preparation for the boy to sacrifice himself, Gandalf does much the same for Froddo, and Obi Wan neglects to tell Luke some pretty important stuff about his dad in the hopes that it would make it easier for Luke to kill Darth Vader.

In fact all of these mentors seem to share the exact same flaw embodying a shocking degree of ruthlessness. I didn’t want a ruthless mentor for Jack but I did accept that Fynn would eventually have to demonstrate flaws.

I waited till the second book to investigate those flaws and decided to tackle an issue that adults often shield kids from; us ‘grown-up’ types sometimes find it hard to cope with things. In Spark of Dreams I allowed the pressure of being the ‘expert’ to get to Jack’s mentor, specifically because I felt that Fynn’s reclusive nature wouldn’t have combined well with his new degree of responsibility. It made him crack a little, showing a side of himself we hadn’t met before.

I think it’s important for kids to know that sometimes they won’t react to challenges the way they’d like to. It takes you less by surprise if you can prepare for that. Life throws all kinds of stuff at us, sometimes we cope and sometimes we don’t. For a short while I wanted to see how my characters would react when their mentor didn’t cope.

Don’t worry, Fynn gets back to himself soon enough, but it allowed me to show all of the characters in a different light. Some became more fragile and others grew stronger and in the end they do what needs to be done.

We’re bigger then ourselves and our support network is more a part of us than we realise. I enjoyed getting the chance to experiment with that in Spark of Dreams but most of all I found it refreshing to see how well the younger characters coped.

Do you think it’s important for kids to learn a lesson like this? What other aspects of our lives do you think we hide from children unnecessarily? 

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Aye!

It looks as though there’s going to be a wee free men movie! If you haven’t encountered the NacMacFeegles/wee free men before pop over to this post to get filled in.

The wee free men and their ‘Hag’ (a young witch by the name of Tiffiny) are some of my favourite Terry Pratchett characters from the whole of the Discworld. They’re tenacious, fearless, and more than a little crazy.

The news on who’s producing the movie makes it even better. As a child of the 80s I was exposed to a huge range of Jim Henson creations from Sesame Street, to the muppets, to Fraggle Rock, to Star Wars, and the Labyrinth. Jim Henson Studios are apparently developing the movie and I can’t imagine it being in better hands.

Henson’s son Brian is producing the film and Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna will be writing the screenplay so here’s hoping both can continue their parent’s legacy.

It doesn’t sound like there’s an expected date for release yet but fingers crossed they get it out to us soon.

Are you a Pratchett fan? What other Pratchett characters do you think deserve big screen treatment (keeping in mind the Sky TV creations from a few years back)?

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

*Information for this post came from an article in the Independent.

Fitting in (Crieff Writer’s evening/ literary open mic night)

It doesn’t matter how confident we are, sometimes we will inevitably feel like a round peg in a square hole (or a square peg in a round hole even). It’s a simple fact that we are all individuals and that even where a number of us find common ground someone will feel excluded.

Odly the barriers we hit aren’t always what we expect. Back when I was working on my MPhil thesis I came accross a study on second generation Portuguese immigrants in Paris who faced an unusual barrier.

When speaking French they sounded hip, urbane, youthful, and cultured. They spoke to contemporaries in Paris in this way and seemed to fit in comfortably.

However, their experiences of Portugal appeared so different that they sounded like genuinely different people.

You see, the Portuguese they knew came from their parents who spoke a rural and provincial dialect. This meant that their behaviour and speech in Portuguese simply couldn’t match the way they behaved when speaking French. Without the urbane, inner-city language they became very different and found it difficult to act like ‘themselves’ in Portugal.

What binds us can vary drastically, we might think that our tastes arethe simplest connection to share but sometimes we instead find kinship in our behaviours and aspirations. I found that last Saturday.

I had just completed a day of talking about the Jack Reusen books along at Fun Junction and remembered that there was a literary open mic night in the Strathearn Artspace 9as part of Crieff Arts Festival).

As a student I made it along to plenty musical open mic nights but I had never come across a literary one. To be honest it left me expecting something pretentious and a little clique-ish. I know Crieff already has a solid writers community so I couldn’t help worry whether I would fit in.

The atmosphere was extremely laid back, and the overall attitude from the audience was open-minded and welcoming. It meant that those reading for us were relaxed too and showed their work at its best.

The work itself was eclectic, including readings/performances of music, poetry, prose, and biography. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to and the only negative I could take from the night was a slight annoyance that I hadn’t prepared something to read.

I genuinely think we could make a monthly event of this (and not just because I’m itching for a chance to get up). I don’t know how we would go about it but I’d love to hear from others who might be interested.

Have you found a place that you fit in in surprising ways? Do you think creative environments are typically inclusive, or have you encountered clique-ishness in such groups?

As always thanks for reading, it means a lot to have people pop by to read these posts. All the best, John

Filling in the shadows

the_open_door_by_la_duqueBeing immersed in a book is very different to a movie; as events unfold right inside your head, they can elicit much more visceral responses. There’s something so weird (considering you’re just looking at some shapes on a page) but also something completely amazing about the whole process.

However, I’ve always run into problems when it comes to thrillers and/or horror stories. On a recent camping holiday where all tech stopped, I decided to pick up a wee collection of short stories based around ghost tales of Scotland.

During the day it was an enjoyable read and it helped fuel some ideas for the darker elements of future books. Then night fell, and the family went to sleep, and with wind howling around the tent I made the mistake of jumping back in. The horrors in the stories bled out of the pages and into the inky black night outside the tent. I jumped at the slightest sound. At one point the sound of an inconsiderate passing sheep mutated and left me gulping back bile.

It’s safe to say that my imagination likes to run with things at night. As a child reading famous five books the wind rustling leaves in the garden below could be nothing but lurking smugglers or other ne’er-do-wells. In my teens I read alien conspiracy stories and watched the faces of prowling cats distort in midnight lights to become malicious grey aliens preparing to abduct me (or had they already abducted me and wiped my memory?).

It took till adulthood for me to realise that a good night’s sleep would not be mine if I read this style of book. All the same I still forget sometimes and once again my mind will reel as the shadows take form and watch me, always behind my shoulder or just at the peripherals of my vision. Slowly creeping closer whenever my attention lapses.

I thought I’d be safe when I started reading the next book in Lari Don’s ‘Mythical creatures’ series, but no. There is one component perfectly crafted to leave children uneasy but to creep parents out to their core.

Don uses the old myths of celtic ‘Faerie folk’ (also used as part of the inspiration for the Fey folk of my books). However, Don stays closer to the legends as these faeries are far from benevolent; they are notorious stealers of children. Their technique is the worst bit; not only do they take your sleeping child from their bed but they replace them with a ‘changeling’ or ‘glimmer’ enchanted to look identical to the missing child. Your child is gone but you don’t notice, you walk into their room in the morning to find them unresponsive and clearly unwell, then over the next few days this replacement will either ‘die’ or disappear themselves.

What’s more is that by now it’s too late for you to claim your child back, as they have now been sentenced to a life in the land of the faerie folk; by eating their food they are doomed to never be able to eat human food again. Even if you somehow found your child and took them home the first bite of human food would turn them to dust. So..yeh…that’s some nightmares for parents right there.

The creepiest bit of ‘Wolf Notes’ (Don’s second ‘mythical beasts’ book) so far has got to be a wee boy’s little sister telling her mum that the boy in her arms in not her son but is instead a ‘doll’, a copy of her big brother. Somehow this got me worse than anything I’ve read by Stephen King.

Does horror in books get to you worse than horror in movies/on TV? What hides in the shadows in your house?

Feel free to share in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading, all the best, John