Sunday, 7 June 2020

Miniature World Building

When we talk about world-building in fiction, it sounds like something huge. We think Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones with their great historical backstories, myriad characters and entire languages. Or we think of the intricacies of science fiction – creating believable alternate realities or different scientific laws. Then there are books like Watership Down, where Richard Adams spins a mythology and history around real rabbit behaviour. Where books that take the reader into other worlds work, they’re deep and involving, they never for a moment give you cause to stop and question their plausibility.

But world-building works on a small scale too.

One of my favourite childhood books was Five Dolls in a House by Helen Clare. I can’t tell you where it came from or who gave it to me. It seems like a book I always had.

My well-read copy of Five Dolls in a House by Helen Clare, illustrated by Cecil Leslie

You can tell right from the start that some serious world building is going on here. Many – perhaps most – books that take their world-building seriously will provide readers with a map. There’s no map in Five Dolls in a House. Instead, there’s a section of the house. Oh yes! It’s like a signpost to say, ‘Here’s the world you’re in right now. Focus on this.’ And how many times I flicked back through the pages to work out who was where at various points of the story, how often I simply examined the picture and wished I owned this house myself.

Section of dolls' house from Five Dolls in a House by Helen Clare, illustrated by Cecil Leslie

The premise of the story is that Elizabeth wonders what the dolls in her dolls’ house do when she’s finished playing with them and closed the front of the house. She peeks in the window but of course the dolls are just lying where she left them. Then all at once Elizabeth finds herself walking up to the front door of the house. This strange magic isn’t referred to at all; Elizabeth just accepts it without question and I, as a reader, went along with her. When Elizabeth meets the dolls she tries to explain who she is, and the dolls take her explanation that she owns the house and the fact that she already knows all their names to mean that she is their landlady.

Every detail of the dolls’ world is considered. They moan about how dreadful it is to live in a house where the whole of the front comes off sometimes. They have to pretend to have dinner because all the food in the house is made of plaster (Elizabeth remedies this with a chocolate biscuit and jellies). Some pet mice take up residence in the house and the dolls use them as horses to pull a little carriage (with disastrous results!).

It’s a joy! The characters are gorgeous – Vanessa, the eldest who is a terrible snob, Jane, the beauty, Amanda, clever and naughty, Jacqueline, the French paying guest, Lupin, who always goes about in her vest much to Vanessa’s disapproval, and the monkey who lives on the roof and is always making cheeky comments and causing mischief.

So much is packed into this short book. As with many chapter books for younger readers, each chapter is a complete story but the whole has a narrative that reaches a satisfying conclusion. Long after I was grown up, I did discover that there were sequels to the story, but I can’t bear to read them. For me Five Dolls in a House is a completely perfect miniature world and I don’t want to know any more.

This post is part of a collection of seven about children's books that I love. You can see the original post here, with links to all the books I've written about.

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The seven books I'm not posting covers of

I keep being tagged in those social media posts where you're supposed to put up a number of books you love or books that have changed you or just books. With no comment or explanation, they usually say. I suppose this is so that it doesn't seem like a hard thing to do. Maybe so that it provokes other people to comment. I've done this before, I always want to shout about books I love, but the tags are coming so thick and fast in the current situation - what else have people got to do but look back at books, movies, music, paintings that they love - that I can't bring myself to join in. And besides, I find I want to comment. I have things to say about books. I want people to hear them.

So I was lying in bed, thinking about what I might choose if I was posting seven books that mean a lot to me/changed my life/I want to share. I thought I'd need to browse through my bookshelves but actually seven books appeared in my head straight away. Of course, as a children's book nerd, all seven are children's books. I do read other things. I love many, many books aimed at adults, but I don't feel nearly as passionate about them as I do about the children's books I love. Why would that be? Is it because the books I loved as a child stood out more because the pool of all the books I had read was smaller when I read them? Is it because I wasn't consciously looking for books that were like books I'd already enjoyed, so that finding these was a joyful happenstance?

I'd be interested to know if adults who don't read children's books have stand-out books from their childhoods that they would consider including in a list of favourites. As us children's writers know, many adults see children's books as less worthy than books aimed at adults. I think if anyone who had been a reader since childhood gave it some thought, they would easily put their finger on a few stand-out books from their childhood.

So here are the seven books that sprang into my mind.

What can I say about them? They seem distinctly 'girly' to me, but that could be to do with the era in which I was a child. There's a clear progression in when I took up each as 'my favourite book'. But somehow even when I championed a new one, all the others still remained 'my favourite'. The order is:

Thursday's Child by Noel Stretfeild
Henrietta's House by Elizabeth Gouge

So I thought, instead of just showing you covers, I'd tell you why I love these books. I've already written about most of them on this blog. You can click on the titles above to see what I had to say.  The rest I'll write over the course of the next few weeks. There isn't after all anything much pressing to do at the moment.

Friday, 8 November 2019


Retreat: (noun)
3. The act of retiring or withdrawing into privacy or into some place of saftey.
4. A place of seclusion or privacy.

There is a house in France that feels like home to me. Though it doesn’t belong to me, I have a key and I know that whenever I want to go there I can. My family and I have been going on holiday there since, well, since before we were a family. As time has passed and I have moved house and my parents and friends have moved house, this has been the most constant place in my life.

But things change and now the house is to be sold. It’s taking a while, but a couple of months ago I realised time was running out for me to do something I have always promised myself I would do – to go there alone to write. I’ve written there before, writing time set aside during holidays, and once for a week with a writer friend, but never alone. Two weeks all alone? I’d be lonely, they said. Won’t you be scared? Won’t you be bored?

But I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t scared or bored. It was the most extraordinary thing to have my brain emptied of all the things I usually have to think about for other people, of having to walk dogs and clean things and cook and make money and pay bills. Because of the time difference all the TV programmes I might have watched were on late so I didn’t watch TV. This is the essence retreating, of course – the putting aside of everyday life. It is utterly relaxing. I thought about my work, I read a little, I daydreamed, I slept, I ran. I wrote. I wrote. I wrote.
The lovely annexe where I worked

I had planned a new book. Three thousand words a day was my aim. In two weeks – let’s call that twelve days to allow for travelling – that would make 36,000 words. That’s a good start on a book that might be around 50,000 words in the end. First drafts just have to be hammered out. They’re always terrible, but once the words are on the page you can start sculpting them into something better. My plan was very precise – divided into scenes on a spreadsheet with only two or three places where I had written ‘[they go from A to B somehow]’. I plot using the snowflake method with some slight variations. I find this allows me to build my plot in an orderly but creative way. What I didn’t know is exactly what the tone of the book would be or what the characters would be like. I find these are the things that come as I write if I know where I’m going with the plot.

So, day 1, I got up and went for a run. Then I showered and had breakfast. I made coffee and carried it round to the little annexe to start work. It was eleven o’clock by this time and I was irritated with myself for not getting started sooner. How was I going to write 3,000 words a day if I didn’t start until eleven? I wrote for two hours. I had some lunch and sat in the sun (oh how the sun shone those first two days!) and then I wrote for another two hours.

I had written 5,000 words.

A fluke. Must be.

But the next day and the next I got 5,000 words on the page. I kept up the same routine. Four hours of writing, sometimes five, a couple of hours of some other type of work a bit later. On day 7, I wrote the final words. The book was 35,000 words long. Obviously, I thought, as I packed up that day, that was just a start. I would need lots of polish and there would be plot holes that needed work. So on day 8, I reread it and made notes. The beginning needed changing. It always does. There were a couple of other places which didn’t quite work. And lots of other notes of course. But it wasn’t bad. Four more days of revising and then another read. I couldn’t quite believe it.
Lovely evening walks - though I ended up covered head to toe in bites!
The sun shone... some of the time

Of course I haven’t read it again yet. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there are giant plot holes. Perhaps the plot is derivative or dull. Perhaps the characters are feeble. But I don’t think so. I think this book is nearer to done than any first draft I have done more slowly. In a month or two, when I can read it as though someone else has written it, I will bring it out and work on it again. I’m hopeful.

Retreating is extraordinary. Of course not everyone is lucky enough to get the chance to do this. I know I couldn’t have when my kids were younger and I’m privileged to have access to such a wonderful spot to hide away it. But even without being able to retreat completely, I think this experience demonstrates the necessity of clearing mental and physical space for writing so that when I write I can focus on nothing but my story. Just got to work out how to implement that now…

All locked up and ready to leave

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
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Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Frances - the most real small child I've ever read

I remember almost no picture books from my childhood. I suppose this may be because they would have been library books for the most part. At home, I had a handful of Beatrix Potters which I valued more for their satisfying size than for their stories.

The one story I could remember as an adult was Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban. Why this particular book stuck with me more than all the others I must have had read to me I have no idea. Of course, it is a very fine book, so perhaps my pre-reading self had some literary discrimination. All I know is that this was a book that if I saw it on the library shelves, I would immediately add it to my pile. That copy must have spent more time in our house than it did at the library.

This was the book that I sought out when I had my children. I bought Bread and Jam when my eldest daughter was two and eventually we had most of the Frances books, though the only other one that was familiar to me was A Baby Sister for Frances. We also had a rather delightful tape of Glynis Johns reading the stories. Oh I wish I had that tape still. She was odd and real and just perfect.

Why did Frances appeal so much? What was it about these stories that caught me? Frances, though she is, of course, a badger, is very much an ordinary child. Nothing much happens. In Bread and Jam Frances is fussy about her food so Mother gives her bread and jam for every meal until Frances realises that that’s dull and there are other foods she likes. Put so plainly is sounds almost Victorian – Frances acts up and learns a lesson. But it’s not like that at all. All the characters bounce off the page with life. We know exactly how Frances feels – and she feels so much and so strongly – and we understand it. She is one of the most real small children I’ve ever read. And you can’t help but love her rhymes:

The language of these books has seeped into our family vocabulary. We know what we’re referring to when we talk about things ‘coming out even’. When ever opportunity arises, I will say ‘You can be sure there will always be plenty of chocolate cake around here.’

It’s the detail I love. When Frances watches her friend Albert eat his extensive packed lunch, we get every detail of his ritual as he cracks his hard-boiled egg, peels it, salts it, bites it, then moves on to take a bite of his sandwich and his pickle and a drink of milk. You can feel Frances's envy at every bite. And at the end, her own joy in doing the same with her new non-bread-and-jam lunch, made even more special by the inclusion of a doily and a tiny vase of violets. 

This is very wordy compare to most modern picture books, and I know there are versions out there where the text has been cut, but I believe every word of this is necessary and every word is a great pleasure. For someone who loves children’s books so, I found reading to my kids something of a chore and in particular I disliked wordy picture books. Maybe I could feel the children getting restive and wanting to see the picture on the next page. I never found that with Frances though. I would willingly start again the moment I’d reached the end. Pure quality? Or because it was so embedded in my memory that the book felt like all the very best things about books and childhood and reading aloud.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Telling stories the Naughty Little Sister way

I am certain that I was already familiar with Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister stories when I came across them as an adult, but I have no concrete memory of them from my childhood. I suppose my mother read them to me. Perhaps she knew them from the radio, not when she was a child as they were first broadcast on the BBC’s Listen with Mother in 1950, but possibly from her younger brother’s childhood. Thinking about it, maybe they were also read on the BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) radio programmes I listened to as a child. These seem to have been modelled on the BBC’s early radio programmes for children like Children’s Hour and Listen with Mother.

I wonder if the Naughty Little Sister stories seemed like something from another age to my mother or if that world was still close enough to hers. In so many ways, they seem like a historical document - the clothes and the milkman’s horse and the extraordinariness of the day when the father is left to childmind. But none of this stopped me reading them to my children. The stories are too alive to seem old-fahsioned.

The narrative voice is one I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get away with today. It’s the voice of an adult talking directly to the child listener about her own childhood and her little sister – unnamed – who was always doing silly things. The adult narrator addresses the listening child with comments to make them see how silly and funny her naughty little sister was – ‘wasn’t she silly?” “wasn’t that naughty?” The narrator also references the listener’s own behaviour – “You would never do anything as silly as that” – to make the listener feel cleverer or to be gently instructive, or maybe just to reinforce how funny it was. Even though the narrator’s focus is absolutely on the little sister, there are occasional comments that reveal the narrator herself as a big sister – she is occasionally embarrassed, sometimes affectionate but mostly superior. You can tell that the adult narrator, looking back at herself sees that she was a harsh judge of her younger sister. I know it’s very old-fashioned for a book to talk down to children in this way, but I have huge affection for this narrator. I think these stories perfectly mimic the way adults tell children stories about things that have happened and people they know . It’s certainly pretty near the way I told stories to my own young children, although it’s possible that I was unconsciously aping My Naughty Little Sister.

Although the stories come from a time far away from ours, they still work because the narrow world of small children has changed relatively little. The stories are all about the little things that happen in children’s lives – losing teeth, playing islands on a newly washed floor, posting bread crusts into a drawer, getting bored when you’re told to sit still and be good, making a mess of your smart clothes.

Cherry on the cake are the gorgeous illustrations by the wonderful Shirley Hughes whose naughty little sister is right out of the world of her own Alfie stories. Plus from my point of view the stories are the perfect length for reading aloud – that probably betrays their origin on radio.

I'm working on making something beautiful with fairy tales.
Find out about my Snippets project and how you can help on my Patreon page.