Thursday 9 February 2017

Adults in Wonderland

Why adults are (and should be) reading MG

‘No book is worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.’ CS Lewis

Some books are labelled for children. Some adults read them. When a lot of adults read them they are called crossover. His Dark Materials and The Lie Tree are award-winning crossover novels. The crossover label gives adults permission to indulge; but look, there's a crowd of big people swarming the genre wall without a permit. Many adults are out there avidly reading, blogging and reviewing children’s books. While some do it for career reasons and to screen books for their own children, many do it for their own reading pleasure.

Great Middle Grade Reads is a Goodreads group with over 2000 members, of which a large majority are adults. I asked them why they chose to read children’s books.

Two words: HYGGE and PLAY

Hygge: the Danish art of cosiness, has been trending since mid 2016.

Children’s books are hygge.

Story is hygge. Story simplifies and orders the random and chaotic in a way that is satisfying and reassuring.

When Hillary lost the US election her impulse was to retreat with a good book. What better way to escape the flux without? What more comforting book than a childhood favourite? What else can return us so accurately, literally word for word, to childhood? The pleasures of nostalgia and rediscovery combine in the dual viewpoint of now and then.

'Some of my favourite stories are the ones that helped get me through those (middle grade) years, to make me laugh, to clarify my own wonky emotions and feelings by way of characters. MG will always have a special place in my heart.'

As well as old favourites, adults are seeking out fresh reads which give access to the mental landscape of childhood.

'I like to shut the door on the current day, and throw myself into a fun or magical adventure (with a) happily-ever-after ending.’

With children’s books readers feel safe from ‘excessive gore, violence, bad language and sexuality’. Irritation is expressed with adult books where authors use the f-word to ‘show how cool they are’. The values promoted in children's books are equally hygge: ‘loyalty, friendship, courage, perseverance and goodness.’

'As many MG books have a happy ending they are nice to read when you are feeling stressed or need a bit of escapism from the real world.'

YA books do not share this comforting function since they are ‘darker and grittier and adolescence is angsty and emotionally tumultuous’.


‘A physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective.’

Like hygge, play is having a moment. Adult colouring books are best sellers. The Duchess of Cambridge is said to be a fan. The TV programme, The Grand Tour, is three blokes living out play fantasies on wheels. Trampolining, soft play, tree climbing, board games, collage nights, crafts, obstacle races, are all growth areas for adults with a strong element of play. They combine freedom with creativity, absorption with a carefree mindset. Play is refreshing, experimental, surprising and anarchic. It’s also good for you. Play is an antidote and a release, a necessary balance to constraint.

A more receptive corollary to this active play is playful books. If there’s no zipwire handy we can always pick up Peter Pan and scramble in some rigging.

It was agreed that adult books can take themselves too seriously. MG was seen as ‘pure fun; it’s about the thrill of the ride, entertainment and enjoyment.’

'Being an adult is stressful sometimes and can be rather dull. Reading MG allows me to rediscover my inner 11 year old.'

One reader likes to give her reading self a break from books that can be a ‘chore and a thought challenge,’ ones that ‘drown in waves of analysis, description and interpretation.’ Another finds the experience of reading children's books liberating, since she can read without the feeling that someone is ‘looking over my shoulder placing too many literary or social expectations on my experience.’

A key element of play is the exercise of imagination. Crossover readers felt the lack of imaginative latitude in modern life and sought it through children’s books.

CS Lewis makes the point that juvenile tastes for the adventurous and marvellous used to be everyone’s tastes. Mythology, folklore and fairy tales were not originally written for children. They simply fell out of fashion for adults in favour of social and psychological ideas. He argues that the early wonder tales ‘tap into the wonder a child has about the world.’ In less rational ages this wonder did not subside at adolescence. It was preserved into adulthood. Myths once provided the back story for the way things are rather than evidential chronicles and science. A good myth gives imagination ‘room to walk around.’ The mythic structure of many children’s books reinstates that liberty.  

‘I wanted to read something without boundaries. Children have fewer boundaries and so do children’s books.’

Children’s books ‘explore important issues in imaginative ways.’

'Good children's authors tap into the wonder a child has about the world, and are in touch with the natural child in themselves.'
                                            ~ ~ ~                                                     

The remaining comments focused on style.

Adults are reading children’s books for the overall quality of the writing as well as for specific elements of style.

Children’s fiction does not demote story to a vehicle for messages and flourish. Narrative is foregrounded and celebrated as a pleasure in itself. Lewis was particularly enamoured of the fairy tale, its ‘brevity, restraints on description, flexible traditionalism, inflexible hostility to all analysis, digression, reflections and ‘gas’.’

Good kid’s lit is ‘a lesson on how great writing appears to be easy to do, when in reality it takes great skill'.

‘When it takes an entire page to describe a room I get bored.’ MG tends to stick to ‘precise essentials. What is needed to hold a child’s attention works for adults too.’

The concision of a restricted word count was welcomed by some readers. When time is lacking children’s books can deliver ‘a really good story in a shorter number of pages'.

'MG books tend not to preach. Being preached at makes me want to stick my fingers in my ears and sing 'la la la'.'

'I love that MG is constructed so perfectly as to create an amazing story in so few pages, and it can still impact life.'

On vocabulary there is an enjoyment of simplicity for its own sake and also from the point of view of relaxation: ‘I don’t need to concentrate so much when I’m tired'. Conversely there was praise for the rich vocabulary of MG classics, ‘so much richer than much that is about today'.
                                                                        ~ ~ ~

There are ample reasons why adults are choosing to read books currently classed as MG. Children’s books satisfy universal desires for security, pleasure, play and wonder. It's also refreshing to find deeper themes dressed in simpler clothes. Added to this are the scope of ideas, the range of subjects and the quality of writing. 

So light a fire, grab a blanket and a bun (I prefer Jo March’s bag of apples), and settle down with a warming read.

We are all muggles who want to go to Hogwarts. Open the right book, and we can.

Sunday 31 July 2016

Book titles and paper knickers

 Lying on a Trolley in a Pair of Paper Knickers sounds like a title in the vein of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. As it happens it was me on the trolley. The consultant was threading a laser through a slit in my leg. We were chatting about books, and he recommended Hundred-Y-O Man. He also said that he was drawn to the quirkier titles at the airport, which goes to show that there is something to be said for odd titles and that consultants frequent airports while writers (at least this one) knock about on push bikes.

All this is apropos of The End of book 3. It’s actually been finished for some time bar the title.
My first choice of title was borrowed from a WB Yeats’ poem, but The Stolen Child had already been taken – twice. Always check before naming your baby. There are 25 books on Amazon called Hidden or The Hidden.

There is plenty of online advice about choosing a title but it wasn't helping much. Titles seem to fall into five categories:

Attention seekers: wordy, surreal, with unexpected juxtapositions and imagery. 
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

Second-hand: Borrowed from poetry, scripture or sayings, sometimes with a twist.
East of Eden, Gone with the Wind, His Dark Materials

Generic: Strongly signals genre.
Foreign Agent, Owned by the Mob Boss

Names of people or places:
Jane Eyre, Miguel Street

Classic: I'll throw the rest in here. Mostly short and relevant without being genre specific.
Sons and Lovers, Little Women, War and Peace

I asked some readers what worked for them.

Most of my sample agreed with my nearest vascular surgeon. They liked quirky. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Love Death and Vanilla Slices got a mention. Writer/blogger Anne Cater's favourite is Her Giant Octopus Moment. It’s intriguing and humorous without being ridiculous. Its author, Kay Langdale, explained how it fits her book's theme:

'The title was inspired by the Giant Pacific Octopus's reproductive habits. The female lays her eggs in a crevice of rock, and during the seven months it takes for them to mature, she protects them from sea-stars and crabs, and cleans and aerates them. At the point of hatching, she helps ease them from their jelly casing, and wafts them outwards and upwards to help them swim away. Then, not having eaten or tended to herself for the duration, she dies.

'The image related to the book as a metaphor for the devotion, dedication and selflessness frequently demanded by motherhood. The central character in the novel, Joanie, is selfish and thoughtless in her decision making, and her child, Scout, is impacted upon by her choices. At the conclusion of the novel, Joanie has a Giant Octopus Moment when she makes a decision, for the first time, which is based on putting Scout first.'

Kay’s most recent favourite title is Karen J Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I agree is another cracker.

My personal favourite is By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It’s the most loaded title I know. It encapsulates the book and trails atmosphere. Nine words evoke a detailed visual and a hangar-load of emotion. Unable to support the weight of feeling someone sits down to cry in a vast public space. All around are the miniature dramas of parting and arrival, the flux and impersonality of commuting. It’s a flash poem. Every word works. Wept is more touching than cried; the soft blending of wet and swept speaks of uncontrolled, copious tears. It’s unusual, arresting and full of pathos. It simultaneously awakens empathy and curiosity. Why is she crying? Why there?


But longer and stranger isn't necessarily better. T S Eliot's working title for The Wasteland was He Do the Police in Different Voices. It gives some clue as to the ventriloquism of the piece but it makes me think of Spike Milligan. 'The Wasteland' sets the tone as arid, lacking in sustenance, without bearings.

Not all the favourites were attention seekers. Poet, Liz Brownlee, went for Snow Falling on Cedars for its ‘musicality, the deliciousness of cold and the comfort of the cedar smell, movement and softness, light and delicacy’.

Also, before I get carried away with Ukrainian Tractors and Electric Sheep I have to consider that my book is part of a series so it needs to match the other two which are simply names: Oy Yew and Nondula. Therefore, after due consideration, I’m going for a one-worder.

 I name book 3, Nigma.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Review and Interview: Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

Had I seen this book while browsing I would have dismissed it as witch/vampire genre and of little interest to me. And then I would have missed something. I’m thankful to my book group for choosing it. It contains some of the best nature writing I have ever read.

Product DetailsThe heroine, Corrag, is a witness to the Glencoe Massacre. She is condemned as a witch and awaits death by burning. Charles Leslie, a Jacobite priest, arrives seeking her testimony. Corrag’s biography is interwoven with her account of the massacre but for me the narrative soon became secondary to Corrag’s voice. In a previous post I wrote about voice as a distinctive taste that lingers. The taste of Witch Light is exquisite.

The priest is a good but staid and limited man. Corrag increasingly affects him. He comes prepared to protect his soul from contamination and leaves with his doors of perception widened. Corrag is soul-kin to Leslie’s wife, winter to her summer. He is bewitched by Corrag, but only in the sense of learning to live from his heart, and so he becomes a better man and husband.

Corrag exists in a bubble of profound beauty. She lives like a wild thing and speaks like a poet. This is literary laudanum. Mind loses its boundaries not in the way of madness but with compassion and delicacy. The author gives words to the quiet rapture of sub-linguistic perception. And then she does it again. Living simply in nature, Corrag accepts daily gifts of psychedelic clarity, sensual immersion and mystical imagery. The distinction between spiritual and material is lost. As you read you will shape shift. You will stand in a waterfall with moths in your hair.

Corrag’s love affair with nature extends to Alasdair, a male extension of the land. His passion for place is actively custodial. Hers is passive, surrendered, grateful.

The relationships in the book are softly drawn. Interactions are barely physical: more concerned with the subtle transmissions that occur between souls.

I have often wondered why history stands so near for the Celt. The book helped me see why this is so. I can vouch that Rannoch Moor emphatically broods and holds its history. It is easy to hear battle murmurs and to feel a metallic flood in the back of the throat. The clans are of a piece with their land and each other. The mist sits on them as on rock without discrimination. The brutality and treachery of the Glencoe Massacre is personalised. Naturally it would be transcribed into the DNA.

The book group view

Much praise for the quality and lyricism of the writing.
The voice and character of Corrag was particular and affecting.
Many of us felt inspired to visit the locations in the book.

Took a few chapters to get into as an expectation of a stronger narrative drive.
One person struggled with the intensity of the voice.
Some would have liked more historical background.

Discussions and digressions

Minority groups, conformity and its evolution, caste systems, school uniform, religion, herbalism.

There are some staggeringly lyrical passages in the book. Do you write poetry?

Thank you for finding a poetic feel to my book. I do try for that - above all I want to tell a story, but secondly I want to tell it (always) in the most beautiful way I can. Yes, I write poetry. I always have - although never, I feel, to an extent that I'd feel confident enough to try to find publication. But poetry was always my first love, and I read it regularly. During the writing process of my books, I find poetry a wonderful distraction and inspiration combined.

I haven’t read your other books yet so I can’t judge where Witch Light stands in comparison. Quite often authors write one stand out book that contains their own essence. It’s the book they were born to write. Witch Light has that feel. Is it your favoured child?

Is Witch Light my favourite child ...? Hard one to answer! But it was certainly a novel that poured of me without too much pause for thought, which felt as if I was tapping into something inside me that had been waiting to be found. It is essentially a novel about goodness, and I suppose in that respect its themes and overall message make it my favourite, yes. But each book took me on a journey in which I discovered new things about me as a writer, and me personally. It's a trite answer, but I love them all!

 Witch Light was written instinctively while your earlier books were carefully plotted. Most writers have a strong preference for one method over the other. Have you reverted to planning or is the pantster out of the bottle for good?

I think I now combine the instinctive way of writing with the planned ... I need, without doubt, a gut reaction to an idea before I can turn it into a novel; I need an instinctive response to it, almost something visceral. But I also have deadlines (I didn't have one, with Witch Light; I was writing out of contract and therefore had as much time as I needed) these days, which mean that a degree of planning is needed. I try to fuse both, these days.

If a group of evangelical Pagans wanted a bible I’m sure Witch Light would bring them converts. I live near Glastonbury and have friends who wear flowers in their dreads, have pet crystals and walk the fields at dusk theatrically reciting poetry. Would you fit in?

I love Glastonbury! I am not sure whether I'd go so far as have a pet crystal ... But I love its sense of freedom - people being as they choose, living as they want to - and the heart of paganism seems to be, for me, a celebration and awareness of nature. That part is certainly something I recognise. Corrag talks of the 'betwixt and between times' - dawn and dusk - and I certainly feel there's a special feeling to those times. And the passing of the seasons, the phases of the moon ... I'm not a dedicated follower to either, but I am aware of them. And I love the wild places - or a garden, if not. I've been to Glastonbury several times and each time I've felt at ease there.

 Corrag has a worldview to shame many sages. To what extent do you share it? Is it possible to bring that sensibility to modern life?

Bringing Corrag's sensibilities to modern life ... In small ways, it's certainly possible, I think. I like to believe (hope!) that I have always been well-meaning and keen to ensure the welfare of others. (I was raised that way - and toyed with nursing as a profession, for a while). The simple notion of being friendly and empathic makes so much difference, to everyone involved. On a larger scale, Corrag's sensibilities might be trickier to realise, perhaps. I think she'd watch the refugee situation with horror. I think there is violence going on in the world that she - like me, and so many others - couldn't fathom or bear; but I think she'd try to counteract it in her own small acts. Lifting a snail off a pavement, for example. That would be her way - the little gestures - and those are always possible to do.

I’d love to know what your literary influences are. If you had to choose one favourite book from each decade of your life what would they be?

Literary influences! Poetry, both in the beginning and still. Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost were two inspirations, and Heaney remains my true north of writing, perhaps. He fuses the human heart with nature - essential to good writing, for me. Also Margaret Atwood, the Bronte sisters, Michael Ondaatje, Elizabeth Smart ... One book from each decade of my life is a hard one! I'd say, instinctively: 0-10 was The BFG by Roald Dahl; 11-20 was both Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Heaney's Death of a Naturalist; 21-30 would be The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and 31-36 would be ... too many to call. Anything by Donna Tart, Marilynne Robinson or Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps. And reaching over all of these books is, and always will be, Shakespeare.

Also check out this magical link from @sfletcherauthor new archaeological find in Glencoe.

Friday 1 January 2016

A book is like a year

2015. Bo-nn-nn-g. 2016. Adrenaline sparks above the trees, towards Knightstone, beyond Brean, over Cardiff, the fizz and crackle of ignition and flight as the burden of a heavy old year falls away. Hope hangs with the sparks and is doused by sky and another year is picked up and strapped on. Orion is there. She doesn't change at all. Small clamour and great peace share a space.

I typed The End yesterday on the final book of The Waifs of Duldred Trilogy. I was looking forward to a break from the pressure of writing to contract, but already I have strapped on the bag and am filling it with ideas. Plot lines are snaking across the hemispheres. The real preoccupations develop without conscious shaping. The subtext ferments without attention. We think we are driving but we're on a travelator from alpha to omega. Signposts appeared throughout the books. I didn't know what they were pointing to until I arrived; some were small and essential, others big and astonishing. It's only at the end of the year, at the end of the book, that we get some idea of what it all meant, where we moved from and to and why.

I hope the books make the same sad-happy-funny-absurd journey from the overwhelm of circumstance to a way forward, from hopelessness to action, from small clamour to the great peace.

Wishing the same for all of you. Happy New Year.

Thursday 26 November 2015

What does your book taste of? Finding your writer's voice

I’m waiting for my medlar to blet. Medlars are best eaten when they have started to rot. But only half of it is bletted. Will it be over-bletted by the time the other half has caught up?

Why am I doing this? Well, my inner reference library has a gap under medlar.

Good writing tastes of things. Shakespeare and Donne taste of medlars, quinces and sack. Quinces I have tasted. Sack is a near relation of sherry. Medlars I have yet to try. I imagine they taste of scrumpy and cloves, but I may be wrong and therefore I can’t fully step into Elizabethan literature, which is why I’m circling a medlar and considering its state of blettedness with a linen napkin tucked into my jumper.

Children’s books are tasty. Mary Poppins tastes of cough medicine and blancmange, the Famous Five books of bread and butter and a new laid egg (brown with a feather stuck to it). Oliver Twist is thin gruel.  The Borrowers tastes of cores and crumbs, Harry Potter of popping candy, Alice in Wonderland of tarts and toadstools, 101 Dalmatians of puppy steaks.

All of those classics have a distinctive taste that goes beyond food. Good writing has an inimitable flavour that pervades every sentence. It is prized by agents and publishers. They call it voice. It is part of, but not the same as, style. Literary agent, Donald Maass, describes it as ‘a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world.’ He says that agents ‘want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.’

So how to make your book like the medlar: a taste without substitute, essential reading, genre-extending? Many articles have been written on finding your voice. Most of them focus on accessing the subconscious by free writing, or finding your natural rhythm by writing as you speak.
To continue with the food-related metaphor here are some exercises to get you thinking about your personality, preferences and world view. The point is to recognise your creative drivers and allow your personality to dictate your expression, to give your books a taste that is entirely your own.

Write your own menus

Go mad with this. Write the menu you would have chosen as a child, the one you would choose on a beach in Bali, or after a long winter hike. Different menus suit different contexts, but give yourself permission to indulge your own specific tastes. Be a diva. If you want stilton and black pepper in your porridge go ahead (yes I do sometimes, and no I cannot possibly be pregnant). Do the same with your writing. Let it reflect your unique preferences.

(For me, much of the fun of writing Oy Yew was crazily food-related.)

Choose your eating style

Are you drawn to messy fingerfoods or the precision and ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony? Write as you eat, with control or plate-smashing abandon.

 Enhance your most interesting ingredients

Balsamic and black pepper bring out the flavour of strawberries. Exaggerated characteristics can work well in children’s books, but subtlety will add depth. Don’t smother your best ingredients with blandness such as ‘he got up and put on a checked shirt and black jeans.’ Who cares?

Experiment Fail Refine

Great chefs and Glaswegian chip fryers work this way. Be prepared to play with your ingredients. Put your own stamp on them. Someone has to be the first to deep fry a Mars bar.


As above, but with a dash of panache. Toss your crepe ceiling-ward then close your eyes, spin around twice and catch it with a flourish. Be unpredictable. Make the commonplace arresting with your own unique perspective.

 Light candles

Create an ambience. Any old candles will not do. Any old table setting will not do. The mood must match the meal. Give your book its own special atmosphere. The atmosphere of a restaurant is as important as the food. Locations can match or clash with the meal. I think a  full English should be eaten in a back street cafe with formica tables, crusty sauce bottles and condensation on the windows, but it might be interesting to eat it outside a Himalayan monastery.

Some of the best books have a sense of place so strong that it’s said to be like another character.  Lewis Grassic Gibbon has the most distinctive voice and every sentence drips with the atmosphere of the Grampians. I hang out in the pages just to experience the sweet wildness of it.

Don’t follow recipes too closely

If following an old formula don’t let it show. Improvise and add your own combination of spices. The magic is destroyed if the sauce spattered recipe book is left on the worktop.

Be inspired by the great stylists but don’t imitate. Be aware of tradition but not constrained by it.

 Invite clashing guests

Who would you love to put in a room together and why? Who would you like to see arguing the toss and over what? This should throw light on your own preoccupations. You will be spending a lot of time with these characters so you must find them interesting. Observe. Try to understand everyone’s point of view but feel free to be subtly or blatantly partisan. Whose cause will you promote? Whose demise will you engineer? Intervene and nudge. Introduce mischief and watch the sparks fly.

And for your third Michelin star:

All you need is genius and fairy dust.
There you are: go forth and indulge.

3 days later

My medlar is fully bletted so I’m about to eat it.

What does it taste of? Well, bruised apple and bland fig. The aftertaste is, as I had hoped, teeming: I’m getting pointed beards, ruffles, theatres, the rattle of bits, blacksmiths, hayfields, the unwashed, wood smoke, damp tapestry, thatch, Falstaff’s breath, iambic rhythms, and porcelain inkwells.

And that to me is a good description of voice: it teems and it lingers.

Friday 9 October 2015

God, Eve and Snow White would reject supermarket apples: What makes an object magical?

Delight is my favourite word. It's a skipping through meadows word, a child’s word, a word of sprung limbs, juvenating, absorbing; a word of imagination unbound.
In adult books delight is in the artistry of the language, the subtlety of ideas, a poetic unfolding. In children’s books delight is (breaking into song) ‘a whole new world, a whole enchanting point of view’, an inner smile, unfurled magic. Open the book, receive the hookah from Carroll’s psyche-delighting caterpillar. Inhale.

Exhale and what spills out? Streams of magical motifs.

Such motifs abound in children’s literature: teapots, umbrellas, acorns, brooms, ladybirds, bees, butterflies, bells, hives, humming birds, harps, seahorses, eggs, wells, archetypal seasons and their symbols, angels, gifts, seashells, frogs, bats, hats, cats, stars, moons, whiskers and wings.

Chimneys are on my list of magical things. They inspired one of the plot threads in Oy Yew. In my talks I ask what makes a teapot magical and a coffee pot not? Why are owls magical and pigeons less so? What are the qualities of the intrinsically magical?

Here's my take. Objects of delight are:


Asymmetric, irregular. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins: All things counter, original, spare, strange;/ Whatever is fickle, freckled... The geometric tiling of mosques is deliberately flawed since only Allah is perfect. Created things are flawed. God, Eve and Snow White would reject supermarket apples.


It's hard to mistake the silhouette of a teapot or a giraffe, not so a blade of grass. A magical object often makes an unambiguous hieroglyph of itself. Spots, stripes, lustre and texture are magical.


There are formal similarities in objects of delight. Scales, scallops, webs and spirals recur. Bats, umbrellas, holly, frogs, fans and wings have webs in their design. Spiralling horns and shells are wondrous; right angles - never.


Hidden potential is magical. Eggs and seeds are like wrapped gifts. Magical things excite curiosity; they have the capacity to surprise. Dahl would never have written Tales of the Expected.


Caterpillars and chameleons are magical shape changers. Water is all change. It moves, it reflects, it freezes and melts. Butter is intrinsically magical for its colour, its unique taste, its foamy melting, its mystery as metamorphosed grass. Lard is somewhat static. Vegetable oil is the lipid equivalent of a right angle.

Magical children's books draw out and explore distinctions, characteristics and idiosyncrasies, in objects and people. Like eggs full of knockings, they excite curiosity and give birth to the fickle, freckled, strange.

Thursday 23 July 2015

Submissions Rollercoaster

View my guest post on the highs and lows of the submissions round, here