Tag Archives: cultural icons

George’s marvelous medicine

For over a year I’ve struggled to get my eldest to read independently. To be honest that’s not entirely true as he’d happily jump into reading Star Wars encyclopaedias at the drop of a hat. However, with the encyclopaedias he’d put them back down after a page or two.It was pretty clear that we needed to track down a book that really spoke to him.

With p4 and the step up in reading it brings on the horizon I realised that he’d need to get more accustomed to longer stretches of reading than he had before. I hunted for books that would pique his interest but every time we simply find another story for me to read to him and his brother (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing).

We hunted and hunted, I trailed him through a serious number of bookshops over the past few months. Then, about a month ago we took a trip to Glasgow, walked in to Waterstones, and with the promise of a comfy seat and a chocolate he finally reached a decision; George’s Marvellous Medicine.

Picking the book in person had its own charm to it and I think the setting definitely helped. However, the general idea of a boy messing with a grouchy granny seemed to catch him straight away.

It was a favourite of mine when I was his age but I’d forgotten how good it was. George is precocious and empathetic, and also a bit of a chancer. To be honest I think it was a good match for my son’s personality. On top of this the granny (the recipient of the medicine) is a whole new character once you look at her from an adult’s perspective.

My son read the first few chapters aloud but he’s starting to just grab his book, curl up, and read. Last night he skipped bedtime story and just brought the book into bed with him to read by torchlight. The book geek in me couldn’t be happier, but on top of this I know that what he’s doing will make the change in reading level this year all the easier to keep up with.

It’s a simple book that has been expertly crafted by one of the greatest story tellers I’ve read. Our new challenge will be to find the right book to follow it, but I’ve a feeling that the Roald Dahl back catalogue will keep him occupied for a while.

What were your favourite books when you first started reading? Can you remember any of them still? Let us know in the comments below.

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

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Should a book series end?

vsThink of classic kids books (pre Harry Potter) and we find an even mix of two kinds of series. On one hand we get authors writing seemingly endless collections of books, on the other we get relatively short collections with a fixed end point.

Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, and Rev. W. Awdry wrote in a way that left the reader with no sense that any one book was to be the ‘last book’. We see a big difference between these and books like the Narnia series, ‘the Lord of the Rings trilogy/quadrilogy’ (though not exactly children’s books), ‘Little Women’ (and its sequels), and ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (and ‘Through the Looking Glass…’).

Maybe the thing that makes the biggest difference is the fact that characters in these continuous book series don’t seem to age (or they at least age at an extremely slowed rate), the other books noted guide the reader through a journey with the main character that often looks like a coming of age story. This leaves me stuck, I want to let my characters age and develop but I really don’t see myself closing off the series at any point.

I’ve got a world growing around Jack and his friends and family that shows no sign of shrinking. Ideas for books far into the future, when Jack and Thea are teenagers, and even adults, are already taking shape in my mind, but how do I let them grow without limiting myself to some future ‘end point’?

Thankfully Terry Pratchett has shown me the way. His Discworld series went on as long as he did and it’s open nature somehow lets it live on in the minds of readers. Commander Vimes, Lord Vetinari, and Tiffany Aching are still doing their own thing in my mind and in the minds of millions of Pratchett readers. Despite leaving things open Pratchett managed to allow his characters to grow and develop (and age) as the series went on. It’s comforting to know that I was never forced to see these characters ‘end’.

J. K. Rowling has basically said that she won’t write any more harry Potter books. She has absolutely every right to decide what she writes and when she writes, but I can’t help but feel saddened by this fact (I’m sure a lot of people do too). I like to hope that if Jack Reusen manages even 1% of the fandom Harry Potter has seen I’ll be able to keep his world alive and running.

There is no one big bad guy in Jack’s world, no clear obstacle that he’ll eventually one day overcome. I plan on putting my characters through all kinds of conflict, danger, adventure, discovery, and excitement for as long as I can. Perhaps some book series should end, there’s sometimes a natural point that feels like the time to say goodbye to the characters, but I don’t think authors have to write like this.

What’s your favourite type of book series? Do you like a clear and concrete close to the story, or do you prefer to feel as though there might be another chance to revisit the world just around the corner? Feel free to discuss your favourite book series, and what you like about them in the comments section below. As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Was Enid Blyton a bad writer?

wpid-imag1413_burst008.jpgEnid Blyton is responsible for a huge portion of missed sleep from my childhood. The Famous Five books and the ‘Mystery’ series were staple components of my evenings (and long into the night) from the age of about eight or nine till I started high school at twelve (we don’t do middle school in Scotland). She opened a world of adventure to me but I have to admit she also wedged me thoroughly into a literary rut.

With Blyton’s books I developed a love of reading that became a core part of my identity, ever since then I’ve regarded myself as a passionate reader. However, her writing style left me cocooned from other works of fiction; she wrote in a relaxed, easily accessible, manner that demanded little of the reader and simply allowed the story to flow.

In many ways reading Blyton was like watching TV; I simply allowed the story to unfold before me, often going for chapters without feeling as though I needed to put much of my own thought in at all. This is the blessing and the curse of Blyton’s writing. Her books were published at a time when children were just beginning to migrate towards television as the entertainment medium of choice, Blyton appeared with an alternative.

I grew up in the eighties and by then we had access to so much more child-orientated TV than the generations that preceded us. The challenge was even greater for authors then than it had been back in Blyton’s day. Eighties children’s authors had to go foor the popular vote by whatever means necessary. They grasped for the ghoulish in the form of the Goosebumps series or pandered to a growing culture of pre-teen girls who aspired to a fantasised version of teenaged life in books like the Babysitters club. Meanwhile, in a dusty antique book shop on a holiday trip to Lincoln cathedral I came upon the famous five. I was hooked.

Blyton enjoyed (and still enjoys) the backlash from librarians, teachers, and other people who wish to promote ‘proper literature’ to children the world over for her work. Rhiannon Lassiter’s mother (Mary Hoffman) banned Blyton, you can see what Lassiter thought to that by following this link.

For many Blyton was low brow, pandering and, at best, akin to the type of bargain-bin paperback frivolity that adults buy at the train station or airport to help pass the time. In essence it was (is?) seen as just one step up from a magazine.

I can’t help but wonder if this is just a case of the anti-popularism which is often sported by the self-designated cultural elite, who seem to feel the need to put down anything popular as bourgeois and watered-down alternatives to ‘real’ literature/art in general.

I’ve never gone for this kind of thinking, I liken it to the idea that fine dining is always superior to fast food. Of course there’s something to be said for an excellently prepared meal but sometimes you really just want a greasy cheeseburger and fries from a burger van. (Neither fine dining nor fast food have the best credibility as sources of nutrition, in both instances it’s all about the taste, the aesthetic)

I think the same thing is true of literature, sometimes we’ll want to enjoy the complexities and nuances of an exquisite work of fiction but sometimes, and I think this goes ten-fold for those who are just beginning their literary journey, sometimes you just want to be swept up in an adventure.

So was Enid Blyton a bad writer? In my mind the answer is a resounding NO; she provided me a literary foothold in an era in which electronics and TV were taking over every aspect of the life of a child. She let me escape that world (a little) and allowed me access to the world of my imagination in a way that the alternatives simply couldn’t. Was she a literary marvel? Probably not, but the service she did perform well was to allow children to marvel at what a book could do.

I am the first to admit that moving on from Blyton’s style of writing was quite hard but as I noted in a previous post I found a way, as I’m sure many many more people did as well. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the modern book industry would be an shell of its current state if it wasn’t for her prolific contribution to children’s literature, if for nothing else but that her works stood as an alternative to the proliferation of TV into the lives of children. In this sense, at least in my opinion, she stands up as a literary hero in her own right.

DON’T FORGET: Book one of the Jack Reusen series: ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame’ is available in both paperback and in digital format. You’ll make me as happy as four kids and a dog with a picnic blanket and lashings of ginger beer if you click on this link to pop over to the ‘books’ page where you can find out more about the book and get details on how to get hold of your copy. I hope you like it as much as I enjoyed writing it 🙂

How big can a character get?

MS400016210446SThere are characters that stretch across the globe: Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse, Elsa but where are they? That might seem an odd question but think about it. What makes these characters so big? It could be the fact that they’re available on almost any type of media you could want (that clearly helps). However the thing that I personally think makes these characters so absolutely huge is that, in a way, they live inside the minds of a huge portion of the world’s population.

We’ve all had that moment when we’ve watched a film adaptation of a book and thought that the actor playing a character is nothing like the person we pictured. We already have an idea about that character, we’re connected to our imagined image of them, and we can even feel a little annoyed at the casting people for making such a wrong call.

This goes to show that as soon as we’ve encountered a character we develop our own version of them and when millions of people know a character that makes for a huge multi-layered version of them spread over our planet.

OK so Jack and his friends aren’t in the same league as these characters, currently there are just a few dozen copies of ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ out there in the world but I am starting to get feedback trickling in about the book and one thing is becoming quite clear: I’m coming to the strange realisation that I have very little control now over the way that readers think about my characters.

In many ways they all kind of have a life of their own now. As the adventures of the book play out readers will inevitably be picturing Jack, Thea, Fynn, Sparky, Connor, Alyssa, Granny Reusen, and even Harold in ways I had never imagined.

It’s both amazing and very intimidating to be told that someone likes one of the characters because I’m still writing them and people might not agree with the direction some of the characters go in. I have to walk a fine line between character development and straying so far that people will feel cheated.

I made the decision from the very start to let my characters age, more than that I wanted them to develop, I want the events of each book to matter to them,  in light of that each story will change them irrevocably. I can’t even imagine what this process feels like for big authors like Rowling and Landy (Skulduggery Pleasant).

For these authors there are literally millions of versions of their characters out there in the world. They must have to have nerves of steel when making changes and developing their characters. The only other alternative would be to play it safe like Disney did with Mickey and not develop their character at all over the course of nearly ninety years (considering Mickey’s success I guess there’s something to be said for ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it).

Personally I want my characters to feel human and a big part of that involves letting them develop but that doesn’t stop it from being intimidating when in the back of your mind you know that some readers might not be entirely happy with the changes you make.

Do you have any favourite characters who were spoiled by a writer/author? Are there some un-aging characters that bug you (personally I’d love to see the Simpsons grow up)? Feel free to comment below, all the best, John