Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

Christmas Surprises

(This post first appeared as my December/January column in the Tetbury Advertiser, out now.)

Although we put so much effort into planning our festive celebrations, I often find the highlights of my Christmas are the moments that take me by surprise.

Photo of young Laura playing with Playmobil figures at Christmas
From the archives – Laura, aged about 3, enjoying her Playmobil collection. Note Father Christmas is just arriving in his very tiny sleigh.

One such occasion occurred when I was a child, growing up in an outer suburb of London. When I  was  about 11, the age my daughter is now, I was for the first time considered old enough to go to the midnight church service on Christmas Eve. We weren’t a particularly religious family, but the small, plain church in our garden suburb had special significance for us. My parents had married there, we children had been christened, my grandfather was its choirmaster, and the small, rotund, gentle-manner vicar Mr Daniels, was a family friend.

The night was grey and drizzly as we entered the church, which seemed bright, warm and welcoming after our chilly walk from home.  Though battling to stay awake, I enjoyed his service. I was especially impressed by the colourful model crib, but the most memorable moment was yet to come. When Mr Daniels threw open the heavy porch door for the congregation to leave, the churchyard before us lay covered in a perfect blanket of snow. Illuminated by the orange glow of street lamps, big flakes fell steadily as we gazed in wonder, never having guessed that the weather could change so much during the church service.

Yes, I know it didn’t really snow in Bethlehem, but that snowfall felt like a special Christmas blessing: deep and crisp and even, snow on snow. You have to admire God’s timing.

After serendipitous delights like this, I’m happy to leave much of my Christmas preparation to chance. An incurable last-minute merchant in any case, I know that nothing I could plan would ever surpass the wonder of the snowy walk home from church all those years ago.

For Your Christmas Stocking

Cover of Stocking Fillers
My new collection of short stories for Christmas

My love of festive surprises influenced my latest book Stocking Fillers, a collection of twelve humorous short stories about the festive season.. Each tale follows a different character as they prepare for Christmas, from a small boy who tries to give Santa time management lessons, to an old lady celebrating what’s likely to be her last Christmas. Though not all the characters are loveable, I hope you’ll find them entertaining and memorable.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just before writing this column, I received a lovely surprise – the first official review of the book, which describes it as follows: “A delightful celebration of all things Christmas, Stocking Fillers features 12 funny, thoughtful, surprising and heartwarming tales that will get you in the festive spirit. Debbie Young’s writing is thoroughly engaging. If you’re looking to put some of the magic back into Christmas, and rediscover the reason for the season, start by treating yourself to this lovely read.” Well, that surprise has made my Christmas already.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and may it be filled with wonder and surprises of your own.

Stocking Fillers is now available to order as an ebook online and in paperback from good bookshops everywhere. 

Posted in Family, Personal life, Reading, Writing

Branching Out from Books

Kideeko logo   An update about one of my freelance writing projects   For the last year or so, I’ve been writing a regular column for a British online parenting magazine called Kideeko (www.kideeko.co.uk). I first became involved with Kideeko when I was still working part-time at the children’s reading charity Read for Good. At first, I was writing exclusively about children’s books and reading, fuelled by the knowledge and experience I’d gained through my work at Read for Good, and these articles provided a valuable opportunity to raise awareness before a family audience of Read for Good’s excellent work. For those of you who don’t already know, Read for Good is a UK national charity which exists to promote reading for pleasure among children. There are two distinct parts to the charity, which is funded entirely by donations (it’s easy to donate online via their websites):

  • Readathon, which provides schools with free materials to runs sponsored reading schemes in thousands of schools all over the country, at any time
  • ReadWell, which takes free books and storytellers into children’s hospitals to make life better for young patients, their families and their carers

In the three and a half years that I worked for Read for Good, I learned what I had already known instinctively: that books change lives for the better, in all kinds of ways.

Growing Up With Books

Page from Teddy Robinson book that has been coloured in by a young Debbie
An early indication of my love of books: enthusiastic colouring

My own life experience endorses that view. I was a lucky child: I was brought up in a house full of books, taken on regular visits to the local public library and had my own bookshelves in my bedroom. Books were valued and reading always encouraged. Whether sharing books with other members of the family, listening to stories on the radio or on vinyl records (no CDs or iPods in those days!), or reading alone, I grew up loving books. It was no surprise to anyone when I chose English Literature for my degree, or when my career revolved around writing, at first under the guise of trade press hack and PR consultant, and latterly as a published author, journalist and blogger. Although Kideeko’s editor has now asked me to address broader parenting topics, the joys of children’s books and reading are never far from my mind whenever I’m writing about children. (I also write for Today’s Child Magazine, available in print and online.) For evidence, you have only to read my article about Mother’s Day in Kideeko‘s March issue, in which I hark back to treasured moments sharing books and stories with my mum. You can read that column here: Making Mother’s Day

My mum and my daughter together
An 80th birthday hug from her granddaughter in a Christmas onesie

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to sharing Mother’s Day with my child, as well as my mum, this Sunday, and I wish a happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere. If you’d like to read more about my lovely mum and daughter, here are some past posts about them: The Scent of a Mummy – remembering my grandmothers’ and mother’s perfumes The Only Certainties in Life: Birthdays and Taxescelebrating my mum’s 80th birthday Father’s Day To Followmy daughter’s take on such celebrations

Posted in Family, Personal life, Reading, Writing

All Change!

English: Woodland magic Shafts of sunlight thr...
Changing Autumn colours at the National Arboretum Westonbirt, a few miles from my house  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Mummy, did you realise that this will be the last night I go to bed as a Year 5?”

Such was the plaintive cry from my daughter’s bedroom on the eve of the summer holidays. Like most children, she is averse to change, but it didn’t take her long to realise that change can also bring advantages. Not least the one that stems from the deal we did when she was still at infants school: I agreed that the number of pounds in her pocket money should equal her school year. She reminded me of our agreement the minute the summer holidays began, holding out her hand expectantly, “because, technically, I’m really a Year 6 now”.

Unlike my daughter, I positively embrace change. When I’m restless, rearranging the furniture makes me feel so much better. Not so my husband. Notorious for being unable to find things – glasses, car keys, wallet, shoes, daughter – even he feels it’s getting out of hand when he can’t find the sofa.

Changing Roles

This autumn it won’t be just my furniture that’s getting a different outlook. I will be too. After being in constant employment since finishing my formal education, I’ve decided to go it alone. Well, I couldn’t wish for a more understanding boss.

By the time this edition of the Tetbury Advertiser* rolls off the press, I’ll be working from home. I’ll be writing, blogging, editing, helping other authors, and reading, reading, reading. (I like to think of reading as a job creation scheme for other authors.)

Statuette of man reading a book
Reading: a job creation scheme for writers

As a writer, I could – and often do – work anywhere I happen to be. But by choice I’ll be working mostly at the desk in my study, overlooking my back garden, which from this viewpoint is dominated by a huge old apple tree.

The apple tree serves as a kind of arboreal calendar. Imperceptible daily changes transform it from bare branches to blossom to harvest. No matter what I’m writing, wherever my imagination has taken me, a glance out of the window provides me with a grounding reality check or where I am and what season we’re in. A few weeks ago, the old tree was so full of apples that it showed more red than green. Now with only the odd scarlet dot breaking up the expanse of leaves, it just looks like it’s recovering from measles. Before long I’ll be able to see straight through barren branches.

Changing Colours

Even that anticipated change doesn’t make me feel downhearted. 13 years of driving to work at Westonbirt has cured me of autumn melancholy. Nothing puts a more positive spin on seasonal change than the National Arboretum. Even when the autumn blaze of colour disappears, the trees spring magically back to life, their skeletons revitalised by the magical fairy lights of the Enchanted Wood’s Illuminated Trail. Such optimism is enough to make you look forward to midwinter.

But first, I need to rearrange my study…

(*This post was originally written for the October 2013 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser.)

Posted in Family, Writing

The Sixpence That Changed Into a Swimming Pool

King George VI sixpennny piece, seen from either side
Just an ordinary sixpence – or is it? (Photo: Wikipedia)

This post has been written in response to MoneySupermarket.com’s “Pocket Some Extra Cash” challenge, inviting the country’s top bloggers to describe how they’d spend a £20 windfall to put a smile on someone’s face. To oil the wheels of our imagination, they’ve kindly given us £20 each. This is my story…

When I was about 10, my grandmother bought me a wonderful book called The Sixpence That Changed Into A Swimming Pool. It was part of the Judy Picture Story Library, a series of slim shilling novels published as a spin-off from the popular girls’ comic of that name.

On first glance, I thought it was going to be the tale of a girl with a magic coin that she could transform at will into her own private leisure centre. But it turned out to be a much more interesting and satisfying tale.

Inspirational Investment

Cover of the Judy annual, 1967
Comic annuals – such a treat

The heroine, a schoolgirl of around my own age, (let’s call her Sally, as I’ve forgotten her name), has a sister confined to a wheelchair, suffering from a disability for which the only hope of a cure was to have unlimited access to her own swimming pool. Like all Judy‘s heroines, Sally is a resourceful type, keen to help her sibling, but has only sixpence to her name. Determined to save the day by somehow acquiring a swimming pool, she invests her sixpence wisely to turn it into a shilling. I forget exactly how – probably by buying six things each costing a penny and selling them on for tuppence each. She then acquires a shilling’s worth of something to trade for half a crown or so.

And so the tale continues, providing a handy introduction to the concept of compound interest along the way. It’s not only her money that snowballs, but also her goodwill. Other people inspired by her tenacity muck in to help her run jumble sales and other fundraising events. Satisfyingly, on the final page, Sally unveils the new pool to her sister, to the pride and admiration of her family and her sister’s eternal gratitude.

It was a salutary lesson for any child whose first instinct on finding sixpence would be to spend it all on sweets. (My grandfather claims my early mastery of mental arithmetic sprung from his habit of taking me to the sweetshop every Saturday with sixpence to spend.)

Rising Prices, Raising Smiles

Now I’ve been set a similar challenge, but the sum in question is not sixpence but £20. Well, that’s 40+ years of inflation for you.

The challenge has been set by MoneySupermarket.com, whose research revealed that even a small windfall like this can put a smile on the face of the recipient. I’m allowed to spend it however I like – or indeed to save it – to make the most of the opportunity.

On reading the brief, the story of the sixpence and the swimming pool immediately sprung to mind. A little while ago, I befriended online, via Mumsnet, a lovely lady with six children, one of whom has been severely disabled from birth, confined to a wheelchair and often in unbearable pain. Sadly her condition wouldn’t be cured by the acquisition of a swimming pool, even if I had the time and stamina to grow the £20 into one. But I do know that her mother longs for driving lessons which would give her and her daughter more independence and mobility and greatly improve their quality of life.

I’d therefore like to forward the £20 to her, to start off her driving lesson fund. I hope I could also count on the snowballing of goodwill here, as in Sally’s story. For example, a friendly local driving instructor might decide to join in by offering a specially discounted rate for her lessons. A bigger driving school might donate as many free lessons as she needs to pass her test. And is it too much to hope that some kindly motor manufacturer might chip in with a wheelchair-adapted car?

Well, it’s the sort of thing that might happen in Judy‘s world. But even if it doesn’t, I’m sure just the gift of the £20 will put a smile on my friend’s face. And she does have a very lovely smile. I think Judy would approve.

backyard swimming pool
Oh look, a swimming pool! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Post script: Shortly after this post was published, a kind reader offered to donate an additional £20 as her “first random act of kindness of the month”! If anyone else would like to do this, please send a cheque payable to “D Young” to me c/o my work address (I’m slightly nervous of putting my home address up here!):

Debbie Young, c/o Read for Good, 26 Avening Road, Nailsworth, Gloucestershire GL6 0BS

If you prefer to pay by BACS, please contact me and I’ll send you my bank details.

I’ll bank them myself and transfer the total to Jo by BACS, to avoid creating any extra work for her, and I’ll post the total up here in a few weeks.

STOP PRESS! (Thursday 14th March)

I’m delighted to announce that this evening I was notified that this blog post has been chosen as the competition winner! My prize is £200. Needless to say, that’s going into the driving lesson fund. The swimming pool is filling up…

Posted in Family, Reading, Writing

Meeting My Hero: M C Beaton

Cover of Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death
Who could resist a book with a title like that?

Walking past my local public library just before Christmas, I nearly fell over in delighted surprise when I spotted a big sign announcing an imminent personal appearance by one of my favourite living novelists, M C Beaton.

Although my nearest public library is in the middle of an old-fashioned  shopping centre, its managers are  up-to-the-minute on what makes modern readers tick. M C Beaton is the author of some of the most borrowed library books in the country (more details here). I’ve been hooked on her mystery  stories  ever since I heard a snippet of a radio dramatisation of the first Agatha Raisin book, Agatha Raisin and The Quiche of Death. I’ve now worked my way through all 23 books in the Agatha Raisin series, another 28 about Hamish Macbeth, and some of her others too. Always enormously prolific, at the age of 74 she still writes at least two books every year, an Agatha and a Hamish, for which her fans are truly grateful.

I immediately snapped up tickets for myself and her other fans in my family: my parents and my sister. We were all impatient for the day of her talk to arrive. After giving them a big build-up to the event, I became a little anxious. Would M C Beaton live up to our sky-high expectations? Supposing she wasn’t as fun, witty, warm and anarchic as her books? When I was a child, I met Michael Bond, creator of Paddington Bear  and Olga da Polga, and found him rather dull. There wasn’t a jar of marmalade nor a duffle coat in sight. (Apologies to Michael Bond, by the way – my disappointment reflects my childish grasp of authorship rather than his personality!)

Top Talk by A Master of Her Craft

M C Beaton addressing audience in library
The audience hung on her every word

Thankfully, Marion Chesney, to use her real name, was even more fun than I’d dared hope.  On the appointed evening in January, we battled through wind and rain to gather in the little local library. The room was buzzing with the chatter of eager fans, yet the minute she walked in, the room fell silent. She progressed  across the room, her Edwardian-style velvet gown billowing about her in a multitude of jewel-like colours. Beneath it shimmered a copper silk shirt. She knew how to create a dramatic entrance. Taking her seat on a plain library chair in the middle of the room, she picked up the microphone and with no more ado began to speak. Without reference to notes or slides, she took us through a highly entertaining account of her career, swiftly moving from bookshop assistant to reporter to theatre critic to novelist, holding the audience completely in her thrall.

It would be easy for a bestselling writer to use library events simply to sell their books. M C Beaton preferred to entertain. She also demonstrated herself to be as prolific a reader as she is a writer, just as all good writers ought to be. I was especially pleased to hear that one of her favourite authors was another of my literary heroes: Dorothy L Sayers, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey.

“I’ve even bought Fifty Shades of Gray,” she announced to our astonishment. “I bought it by mistake at an airport when I didn’t have my glasses on. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a new P D James I haven’t read yet’.”

The Icing on the Cake

M C Beaton shares a joke with my mum
Making my mum’s day

We were putty in her capable hands. Her self-deprecating tales served only to hold us deeper in her thrall. After the talk, not only was the queue to buy her books enormous; many people went back two or three times with further purchases.

Were we the unwitting victims of clever, cynical marketing tactics? Oh no, she was entirely genuine. How do I know? I asked her to sign a book for my author friend Sandy Osborne, whose own debut novel Girl Cop had been published the previous week. As she was autographing the frontispiece, I had a sudden, cheeky impulse to tell her about Girl Cop, and I offered to send her a free copy.

“Oh no, dear, give me the details and I’ll order it from Amazon,” she said with a winning smile. “I believe in writers getting their royalties.”

Cover of Death of a Scriptwriter by M C Beaton
The writer’s revenge!

M C Beaton’s writing career has not all been plain sailing. She is still bitter at the way she was treated by the producers of the Hamish Macbeth television series many years ago. They took extraordinary liberties with her characters and plots, which bear  no resemblance to her creations. Scandalously, they don’t even pay her royalties for repeats. But is she downhearted?

“Oh no, I got my revenge,” she asserted. “My next Hamish Macbeth book was called Death of a Scriptwriter.”

Now that’s what I call a class act.

For more about M C Beaton, visit her website.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to read other items I’ve written in praise of public libraries:

A nostalgic portrait of the public library I visited as a child

From my book promotion website, a report on talks by romantic novelist Sarah Duncan and performance poet John Hegley