On Writing (Tue 16 Feb, 2016)

Wherefore Art Thou Inspiration?

To the pedants out there, please overlook the use of ‘wherefore’ in this context. I know the word really means ‘why’, rather than ‘where’, but I’m a great believer of, and proponent for, the evolutionary nature of language.

If the majority of people take wherefore to mean ‘where’, who am I to argue? Besides, I prefer this interpretation regardless of Shakespeare’s intent for Juliet’s balcony scene.

Old Will himself was never one to doff his cap and politely bow to the vocabulary norms and grammatical rules of his day. The bald-headed Bard was oft playing with language, teasing his audience and making up words.

So, if I choose to use ‘wherefore’ to mean ‘where’, I don’t think Shakespeare will be leaping out of his grave anytime soon to castigate me. (Castigate, by the way, is one his makey-uppies). Makey-uppies, incidentally, is one of mine!

Having recently read another aspiring author’s blog, I felt moved to write about the subject of inspiration.

The prompt came from the revelation about the terror they felt when unable to write – the stress and churning pit of the stomach they experienced staring at a blank screen waiting for inspiration to strike.

As someone who has experienced periods of feeling unable to write, I can empathise.

Staring at blank screen is not the answer

It is hugely frustrating when the creative spark you seek can’t be found, but staring at a blank screen and worrying, in my opinion, is not the answer.

Dwelling on something which will not materialise is not likely to make it materialise any quicker – if anything it will impede its progress.

It is better, I believe, to walk away and give your head and life some breathing space if you are able. Why beat yourself up?

That’s not an excuse for laziness and there is something to be said for being disciplined about your craft, but inspiration is a fickle fairy and often strikes when you least expect it.

Towards the end of last year, I was having difficulty writing anything.

To compound my sense of failure, I was in the throes of signing with an agent.

On the one hand I felt monumentally excited. On the other, I felt like the world’s biggest fraud of a wannabe children’s author.

What if I could never write another story?

If truth be told I didn’t experience anything like the all-encompassing anxiety the author I have referred to, felt.

I just hoped I would climb back in the literary saddle at some point with fingers ready to gallop across my keyboard with unbridled abandon.

Three months later, my fingers did perform a little tap dance and it was this little tap dance that paved the way for a theatrical solo which blew my socks off when inspiration struck.

Too much going on

With hindsight, I was unable to write because there was simply too much going on in my life.

I was preparing for Christmas on my own, wrapping and delivering presents, buying food and putting up decorations and trees single-handedly while my husband was working abroad.

In addition, I was dealing with two sick children, both of whom had a ghastly diarrhoea and vomiting bug, plus trying to empty some of the contents of my Father’s flat prior to him moving into a nursing home due to his Parkinson’s Disease.

My stress levels were high and, if truth be told, writing was at the back of my list of jobs to be accomplished.

Once Christmas had passed, my Father was settled in his new accommodation and the children had returned to school, I suddenly felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders.

I was surfacing for air and thinking about writing again.

Writing is something I do for myself. It’s an outlet for pleasure and escapism. It’s where I want to go when I’m happy.

And that for me, is when inspiration tends to strike – when I’m content, have some ‘breathing space’ and when my mind is free to wander.

There’s a lot to be said for daydreaming, in my opinion.

The capacity to absorb thoughts and feelings, revel in frivolity and grab a shooting star to a new dimension or a new story, in my case, is wonderfully liberating.

So, however we find inspiration, through calm, through reading, walking the dog, overhearing conversations, meditating, exercising or singing loudly to the radio, I think all authors need a bit of ‘me’ time.

And when we can’t get our ‘me’ time and life throws a few bricks our way, it behoves us to soak up the hits and quit worrying about the writing.

Nothing bad ever happens to authors…it’s all experience for the next book!

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Cats Ahoy!

Macmillan Children’s Books. First published 2011

Peter Bently and Jim Field

ISBN: 978-0-330-51880-2

At first glance “Cats Ahoy!” appears rather unprepossessing on bookshop shelves compared to hundreds of other competing picture books, many of them much brighter, bolder and eye catching.

Its size doesn’t help, being narrower and smaller than the likes of those by rhyme writers Donaldson, Corderoy, Hart and Emmett, so it’s easy for this book to get lost amongst larger, brighter offerings.

The fact the plot is predominantly set at night means the book, while wonderfully atmospheric, has a dark front cover which doesn’t instantly leap out at children yelling: “Look at me!”

The internal text can, again, make the book more inaccessible than it needs to be with dark writing on dark pages, which doesn’t make reading as easy as it could be – but these are design issues and not criticisms of the author and illustrator.

Nitpicking aside, this picture book, about a cunning cat named Alfonso and his mob of haddock-stealing pirate plunderers, is an absolute treasure.

It won the The Roald Dahl Funny Prize back in 2011 and richly deserves the recognition bestowed.

Told in rhyme, in 609 words, author Bently spins a good swashbuckling yarn involving a crew of pirate moggies who steal an aptly named three-masted clipper “The Kipper.”

Intent on thieving the biggest haul of fish ever from smug trawler-boat skipper Trelawney P. Craddock, the cats set sail from a town which looks remarkably Devonian or Cornish in style with cobbled stones, narrow alleys and harbour cottages.

Their flag is a cat skull and crossed fish bones and, of course, once the thieving felines have taken to sea, they hoodwink Craddock into abandoning ship, believing he is under attack by a ghost pirate ship.

Alfonso and his crew are left to seize the booty and party in a nearby cove.

One by one, furry faces popped up with great glee,

“Hey, checkout that Haddock!”

“Fishtastic!”

“Yowee!”

 “And now,” said Alfonso,

“To Smgglers’ Bay

For a great fishy feast!”

And the cats cried,

“Hooray!”

(page turn)

In a small sheltered cove out of sight of the land

The sea-mogs scoffed haddock and danced on the sand.

As the bright rays of dawn were beginning to gleam

They sang,

“Yo-Ho-Ho and a Carton of Cream!”

As with the verses above, the book is humour-filled, not only in the written telling, but the illustrations too.

Little touches like a sign on a fishing boat warning opportunistic cats: “No scallops left on this boat overnight” and an image of Craddock’s trouser-less cook rowing for his life in giant cooking pot, ladle in hand, add to the fun.

To my mind, some of the humour in “Cats Ahoy!” is a little sophisticated for very young children which is why I think it sits more happily in the Key Stage One bracket for 5-7 year-olds.

I don’t doubt many older 4-year-olds will enjoy the pictures and tale but, like an episode of The Simpsons, they will only half appreciate the humour.

The story ends with a wonderful pun as the town’s innocent looking moggies return home a week later, looking innocent but much, MUCH fatter.

Alfonso is depicted struggling to climb through his cat flap due to his significant weight gain.

They were gone for a week – a whole week without dinner,

But when they came back they were fatter, not thinner.

Some townsfolk began to add up two and two.

And questioned their cats, “Were you there?” “Was it you?”

 But the cats had all taken a most solemn vow

Jus to look up all sweetly and answer,

 “ME? HOW?”

And whatever their crimes, the folk find to this day

When they question their moggies, that’s all they will say.

My six-year-old son adores this charming book with its lovable rogue characters, great story, moody illustrations and appealing endpapers. The front endpapers are filled with fish. The rear endpapers are filled with fish bones.

For a clever, fun read which adults and children alike will enjoy, “Cats Ahoy!” is PURR-fect.

The Princess and the Presents

 

Nosy Crow Ltd. First published 2014

Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton

ISBN: 978-0-85763-302-6

Move over Varuca Salt (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Violet Elizabeth (Just William) – you have been superseded by a monstrous princess, more spoiled than the pair of you put together.

Varuca and Violet have nothing on Princess Ruby, a beastly and utterly spoiled princess who screams and bawls when she can’t get her way.

And in Hart’s rhyming tale: “The Princess and the Presents”, the little ‘darling’ is doing a lot of screaming and foot stamping to ensure she receives all the presents she wants for her looming birthday.

“I WANT a giant tree house AND a parrot that can talk.

I WANT a pair of fancy shoes that light up when I walk.

I NEED a new tiara, to wear each day to school.

AND a pony AND some roller skate and LOADS and LOADS of jewels.

I WANT a massive birthday feast with sweets and posh ice cream…

Or I’ll lie down on the palace floor and scream and scream and…

SCREAM!”

While most children are told ‘I WANT, DOESN’T GET’, vile Princess Ruby does get, since her kindly, but cowed, Father the King will stop at nothing to give his precious daughter the birthday she has been dreaming (oops, screaming) about.

On the day of her birthday, Ruby pushes past the King who has come to wake her.

Upon dashing to view her birthday haul, the ungrateful child is furious with the meagre selection she is initially presented with.

“BUT WHERE’S MY GIANT TREE HOUSE?”

Bawled the greedy little tyke.

“You promised me a mobile phone,

THREE puppies AND a bike!”

Her Father proceeds to pander to her demands and has the servants usher in pile after pile of gifts – so many in fact that the palace cannot take the strain.

When cracks begin appearing in the walls and ceiling, Ruby’s Father senses disaster and instructs his daughter to escape outside.

“But what about my brand-new stuff?” the selfish princess whined.

“Go and save it NOW. And don’t leave ANYTHING behind!”

It is the total collapse of the palace, with her Father in it, which is the catalyst for a dramatic change in Ruby’s demeanour.

Fearing for his wellbeing, the tiny tyrant experiences an epiphany, recognising it is her greed which has wrought disaster.

“What HAVE I done?” sobbed Ruby.

“The best thing I ever had

Is buried in a pile of bricks.

PLEASE! Help me save…

(page turn)

…my DAD!

Those gifts are less important than the person I ADORE!

I’d give up ALL these presents just to see my dad once more.”

And therein lies the message of the story about the shallowness and superficiality of greed and materialism.

Being a children’s picture book, the King doesn’t expire, but is dug out from the rubble of the palace where he and his repentant daughter are happily reunited.

The final page shows Princess Ruby, wearing a practical dungaree dress, and her Father, wearing a casual jumper, living a simpler life in her tree house.

Gone are Ruby’s flouncy, frilly dresses and gone are her Father’s formal suits as they live happily ever after in a humble home.

Despite, perhaps, being perceived as a girl’s book, my five-year-old son thoroughly enjoyed it and would request repeat readings.

Maybe the predominantly yellow front cover colour helped since he was adamant he didn’t want me to read Hart’s first Nosy Crow princess offering, “The Princess and the Peas” which is wall to wall pink?

“That’s a girl’s book!” he declared indignantly.

When I did read it to him, he loved it, but I’m not sure, as a parent, I support the marketing strategy of colour co-ordinating books pink for girls and blue for boys.

If storylines and characterisation is strong, as in Hart’s books, they deserve to be accessed equally by boys and girls, not subliminally dictated to by marketing executives.

While it is pleasing to note the publishing world is slowly veering away from labelling books “Stories for Boys” and “Stories for Girls”, it seems they may have a way to go on their colour choices, which can profoundly influence children’s decision making.

I’m delighted my son loved “The Princess and the Presents.” Dozens of readings and regular discussions about Ruby’s spoiled personality bore testament to this.

“I’d tell her off,” he would say banging his finger crossly on the pages of the book.

But calm would always be restored when Ruby learns the error of her ways and changes for the better.

With delightful characterisation and humorous illustrations from Sarah Warbuton, the pictures enhance the beautifully written comic cautionary tale.

An absolute gift!

The Snorgh and the Sailor

 Alison Green Books. First published 2012

An imprint of Scholastic Children’s Books

Will Buckingham and Thomas Docherty

ISBN: 978-1-407116-52-5

 

“The Snorgh and the Sailor” has classic-of-the-future written all over it.

Not only are the illustrations mesmerising but the story is sure-footed enough to withstand literary fashions, such is the strength of the tale about seizing the day and taking a leap into the unknown.

Of course, the theme about stepping outside one’s comfort zone, with all the adventures it brings, would not be so successful were it not so delightfully juxtaposed with a pessimistic and grumpy central character – the Snorgh – who is a real ‘stick in the mud.’

He is a web-footed, shaggy-haired, elephant-trunked creature of habit who lives, we are told, in an ugly little house of the marsh.

Every day he shuffles along the shoreline picking samphire to make salty soup which he eats all alone in his chair by the fire.

Despite leading what is evidently a miserable-looking, lonely existence, he thinks himself fortunate.

“How lucky I am,” he muttered, “to have nobody to share my fire.” He took a slurp of his salty soup. “How nice,” he said, “to have my soup to myself.”

Enter, stage centre, the sailor – a naïve, enthusiastic and optimistic hare – who is about to turn the rigid and inflexible Snorgh’s world upside down.

During a wild storm, one night, the bedraggled creature washes up at the Snorgh’s shack.

“Hello” said the creature. “I’m a sailor. My boat has been washed ashore in the storm. Can I come in?”

“No,” said the Snorgh. “Snorghs don’t have visitors.”

“But you’ve got such a nice house!” said the sailor, and he marched right in.

He sat down in the Snorgh’s chair and warmed his toes by the fire.

The Snorgh harrumphed and went and sat in the bath.

When he asks to share the Snorgh’s soup, the Snorgh replies:

“Snorghs don’t share soup.”

But the sailor had already helped himself.

When he enquires if the Snorgh would like to hear about his adventures, the Snorgh says:

“No, thank you. Snorghs don’t like adventures.”

But the sailor told him anyway. The Snorgh pretended not to listen.”

When the clock strikes eight, in the middle of the sailor’s most exciting story, the Snorgh abruptly announces it is bedtime.

“Snorghs always sleep at eight o’clock.”

In the morning, after a wonderful night’s sleep dreaming dreams more colourful and wonderful than any Snorgh has dreamed before, he wakes to find the sailor gone.

Although he is ready to hear the rest of the sailor’s story, he spies his boat sailing over the horizon.

So desperate is he to hear the next instalment, the Snorgh grabs his bath and launches himself out to sea in pursuit.

The next three double page spreads work wonderfully well with small children who hear the story but read the pictures.

And it’s at this point the words and pictures diverge to tell different tales.

When he was far out to sea, he suddenly ran aground.

“Who put that island there?” he muttered.

Only the island isn’t an island – but an enormous whale – previously referred to in the sailor’s story.

Young children like to know ‘they’re in on the secret.’

In a subsequent page, an enormous wave turns out to be a sea monster.

Of course, the Snorgh doesn’t know this and is busy chasing the sailor saying:

“I need to know what the sea monster did!”

The pair do meet again, on dry land, where the sailor is making soup on the beach.

Despite offering the Snorgh a bowlful, the Snorgh insists he has merely come to hear the end of the sailor’s story.

He stamps his foot and cries: “But I have to know what happens next!”

Scratching his chin, the sailor replies:“Well, in that case, you’ll just have to come with me. We set sail at dawn.”

The story wraps with illustrations of the pair sailing into the sunset, with the sailor towing Snorgh in his bath.

They are then seen enjoying a variety of exotic adventures like skiing, hot air ballooning and camel riding.

The text reads: And what an extraordinary story it turned out to be!

To my mind, “The Snorgh and the Sailor” is a picture book which deserves to stand the test of time.

Its message to children says ‘sometimes it’s necessary to step outside your comfort zone’ if you are to reap the rewards of fun, friendship and the very best adventures that life has to offer.

A classic bedtime ‘Snorghy’, ideal for 4-6 year-olds.

The Day the Crayons Quit

 First published 2013 in USA by Philomel Books (Penguin Young Readers Group Imprint)

First published in Great Britain in paper back by Harper Collins Books in 2013.

Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

ISBN: 978-0-00-751376-5

I wish I’d been more attracted to the front cover when this book was first released because I missed valuable time possessing this work of sheer originality and fun.

Once you open the pages and begin reading, it becomes clear why this book shot to the number one position in the New York Times Bestseller list and was voted overall winner in the UK’s 2015 Red House Children’s Book Award.

Put simply, it’s a story about creativity and ‘thinking outside the box’ but it’s done with verve and giggles.

And what better way to slip a subtle message into a children’s book than through laughter?

What is refreshing about this picture book (1,013 words) is that it’s a book to be enjoyed by children and parents.

The humour is a little sophisticated in places for very young readers and the text on the longer side of standard picture book length.

It’s for these reasons it is probably best suited to 5-7 year-olds or late 4-year-olds to early eights.

The front cover shows placard-waving, cross-looking crayons and it soon becomes evident that a revolution is taking place in a little boy’s box of crayons at school.

The crayons have sent Duncan, their colourer-in-er and draw-er, a stack of letters stating their grievances and why they are going on strike.

They would like to be used differently in many cases, or simply USED in others.

Purple crayon, a neatness fanatic, is cross Duncan can’t stay inside the lines when he colours. Depressed beige is tired of only being used to colour turkey dinners and wheat, when the top jobs like bears and ponies go to his rival brown.

Over-used blue has been worn down to such an extent by colouring vast swathes of sky and sea that he has become a stubby nub no longer capable of seeing over the railing in the crayon box.

Pink is aggrieved Duncan never uses this colour, perceiving it to be a ‘girls’ colour’, while yellow and red crayons are squabbling as to which of them is the official colour of the sun.

In yellow’s letter to Duncan, the crayon says:

Last Tuesday you used me to colour in the sun in your “HAPPY FARM” colouring book. In case you’ve forgotten, it’s on page 7. You CAN’T MISS me. I’m shining down brilliantly on a field of YELLOW corn!

What raises a giggle is a seemingly ‘real’ colouring book, open at the Happy Farm page where a child has coloured in a yellow sun, yellow corn and yellow hay.

Orange crayon counters yellow’s argument by providing evidence from the same colouring book that the sun, according to Duncan, is not yellow but orange.

The funniest part of the book for my son came in Duncan’s letter from Peach crayon who is seen hiding naked in the crayon box because the paper wrapping, that should be covering the crayon, has been torn off.

“I don’t even have any underwear! How would YOU like to go to school naked. I need some clothes. HELP! Your naked friend, PEACH crayon.”

My son roared with laughter at this page which resonates with adults, too, who recognise there is usually one crayon in every box which has lost its wrapping.

It’s the ending where the reader discovers how Duncan makes peace with his disgruntled crayons.

The final, double page spread shows a fantastic multi-coloured picture where the sky is yellow, a whale is orange, a dinosaur is pink and a crocodile is blue.

Duncan has used his colours more creatively than ever. As such, his teacher gives him a:

“good work” sticker for colouring…

(final page turn)

…and a gold star for creativity!”

 A beautifully executed book worthy of five gold stars for originality!