Posted in Family, Reading, Writing

In Praise of Public Libraries (For National Libraries Day)

The author, aged about 2, in the garden with her teddy
Tea with teddy. It was a big treat to be allowed to read at the table.

National Libraries Day seems the perfect time to publish something that’s been in my head for a long time  – a post in praise of the public library that I visited regularly as a child.

When I was a little girl, it was my ambition to become a “library lady”. This ambition clearly pre-dated the entry of the word “librarian” into my vocabulary, which suggests just how little I was.

In the leafy London suburb of Sidcup, where most of the housing stock had been built between the wars, I lived within 20 minutes walk from a sturdy, boxy-looking public library. I suspect that it was a classic 1920s style of architecture for public buildings, as was the primary school that I attended (Days Lane), about half a mile away. Down the next road was my grandmother’s house, where I went every day at lunchtime instead of having school dinners.

These three buildings were touchstones of my childhood, and they all backed on to a small woodland. In the spring, the wood was carpeted with wild bluebells. Before regulations were introduced to prevent us picking wild flowers, in May no classroom was complete without a jam jar of these simple, fragrant flowers on every windowsill. I still adore the sight of a bluebell wood; it grounds me.

Procession of children in traditional May Day ceremony at English primary school
Me, centre, being a May Maiden, with Days Lane infant school in the background

If this setting sounds idyllic, that’s because it was. It wasn’t just the children who enjoyed these woods. When I was 9, we had a trainee teacher for a short spell, a dark-skinned man called Mr Liverpool. He came from British Guyana (he had to show us on the classroom globe where it was). When I asked him to sign my autograph book before he left, he wrote “I love the woods, the woods of Haddon Grove”. I wonder whether he also loved the library.

Cardboard Tickets, Wooden Shelves

Old-fashioned wooden library filing drawers, viewed from the front
File under nostalgia

The youngest of three children with a primary school teacher for a mother, I inevitably joined the library at a very early age. In those days, we didn’t have plastic credit-card style tickets to be swiped against a bar-code reader. Instead, the lending system revolved around small cardboard tickets, with little pockets in them. Inside each book was a slender cardboard strip giving the book’s details. When you borrowed a book, you handed over one ticket per book, and the librarians slipped the book’s strip into your ticket. The ticket was filed in  date order, according to the return date. These tickets were kept in pleasingly solid, shiny wooden boxes behind the counter, alongside the rubber date stamp and ink pads, which the librarians used to date-stamp the sheet on the flyleaf of your book, to remind you of its return date. I thought the tickets were wonderful.

There were also card indexes, with a white postcard for every book in the library, ranged in racks of wooden drawers. If you wanted to find out whether the library stocked a particular book, you had to search for it among these cards, filed alphabetically in order of author. The drawers  made a lovely soft whooshing noise when you slid them open and shut, running on smooth rails. A few years ago I acquired a set of these drawers, out of pure nostalgia, for my study at home. I adore them.

Strictly No Talking

The library counters were golden, gleaming woodwork, as were nearly all of the shelves, with the exception of some low, white-painted, open-topped boxes in which picture books were displayed for the youngest readers. Dotted around the boxes were low stools with colourful tops.  That part of the decor was distinctly 1960s (like me). From the moment you entered the echoing lobby the astringent scent of polish invaded your nostrils. The strict enforcement of the rule of silence meant that the only echo should be your shoes on the shining parquet floor.

Filed By Age

Once you’d entered the lobby, your age determined which route you took. Under 12s turned right through double glass doors to the Junior section. Adults went straight ahead, past the check-in desk, to the grown-ups’ section. There was also a Reading Room, off to the left, where people could park themselves at big wooden tables to read newspapers (asleep, if you were Smokey Joe, the local tramp) or consult the huge reference books housed there.

Cover of The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon
One of my favourite books

It was a major rite of passage to change the direction of your step from turning right to going straight on. Although I was a competent and eager reader, I remember dreading reaching the age of 12, when I’d be automatically promoted to the adults’ section. There was an advantage, in that I’d be entitled to more tickets (I think you had two as an infant, three as a junior and four as a senior). The tickets changed colour too: children’s tickets were sage green, adults’ were the colour of a digestive biscuit. But I didn’t want to leave the comfort of the Junior section, where I knew exactly where to find my favourite books (The Ship That Flew by Hilda Lewis and The Glass Slipper by Eleanor Farjeon). I couldn’t understand why a boy in my class should be boasting about his preference for the adult section.

Me, centre, aged 6, as a May Maiden on the school field
Another scene from my happy childhood. It was always summer when I was a child

Another pleasure in going to the library was seeing my favourite library lady. On the way there, I’d be hoping that she’d be on duty. This library lady had dark, bouffant hair and red lipstick, and she always smiled kindly at me as I shyly proferred my books to be stamped. She lived a few streets away from us and we’d often see her walking to the local shops with her daughter, a docile petite girl with Down’s Syndrome. The daughter always held her mother’s hand and in the other hand carried a large click-shut patent handbag. I remember being surprised when my mum told me that she’d just turned 21. (There was a Down’s boy of similar age, Tony, who lived in the house that backed on to our garden, and he used to come round to play.) My mum would say hello to the library lady when we were out, but I don’t recall ever really stopping to chat. This seemed appropriate, as if she carried an aura of library silence around with her.  In any case, I was slightly in awe of her: to me it was like meeting a minor member of royalty on the street.

This lady was my role model for the kind of library lady that I aspired to be. She was always smiling, always kind, but no doubt she had her fair share of heartaches, in those days before political correctness, when Down’s Syndrome was a newfangled expression and we referred to Tony and the library lady’s daughter as Mongols. (On the way to the library, we passed the Spastics Society collection box outside the shoe shop – another long banished phrase.)

I never did pursue my library ambitions, but even now, when I enter a library, I often think back fondly to the library of my childhood, set among the woods where, in my mind, bluebells always bloom. I was devastated years later when I heard that the library had burned down. But I am thankful to live in a country where book burning only happens by accident and we are free to read whatever we want. I bought a battered secondhand copy a few years ago of the same edition of my much-loved A Ship That Flew. The pink-jacketed edition of The Glass Slipper I’m still looking for.

Even so, visiting the library is one of many happy memories that stands out in my very happy childhood, and it’s definitely one to celebrate on this special day. Happy National Libraries Day and thank you, to library ladies (and men) everywhere.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like some of the others about happy memories of my suburban childhood:

Bowled Over By Fond Memories of My Grandma

Let It Snow: My Best Childhood Memories

Posted in Writing

Tales of the The Unexpected Book

Beware of the Tetbury Advertiser – you never know where it might lead! I mean that in the nicest possible way, for a few years ago, the Advertiser was the starting point of a trail that led to the publication of my first book. Here’s the tale of how it came about.

Paul Newnton, author
Tetbury author Paul Newnton

In the summer of 2010, a few months after I’d started writing my Young By Name column in the Tetbury Advertiser, I was contacted by one of its regular readers, the writer Paul Newnton. Though now living on the other side of the country, he kept up with local news via a postal subscription to this popular monthly magazine. Having enjoyed my column, Paul asked me to help him promote his new novel, the first in a proposed series. Despite my protest that I had no experience of book promotion, I agreed to meet him for tea in the Snooty Fox on his next trip to Tetbury. With the help of an excellent cream tea, he convinced me that by drawing on my long career in journalism, PR and marketing, I could be of valuable assistance. He was right: within a very short time, I’d arranged for his book to be stocked in the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, generated news coverage in the local press, and fixed up an interview on BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

The author and publishing consultant Helen Hart
Helen Hart – the antidote to vanity publishers

A few weeks later, a graphic designer friend mentioned that his wife, who runs the Bristol-based assisted publishing company, SilverWood Books, was enjoying the online version of my Young By Name blog. We arranged to meet, and I came away with a commission to write a self-help promotion handbook for authors. The book was particularly to address the rapidly expanding group of self-published or independent authors – but what author doesn’t want to sell more books, even those commissioned by traditional publishers?

To explain the jargon, self-published authors are those who produce their books independently of traditional publishing companies. Thanks to the latest developments in digital printing and e-book technology, it’s possible to put your book on the market without a publisher’s contract, thus avoiding the nerve-wracking round of submissions and rejection letters. Authors who are willing and able to master the necessary technology do this themselves, but for technophobes – or for those who prefer to spend their time writing – there exist excellent publishing consultants who can do this for them, adding value and expertise. These are far removed from the “vanity publishers” of the past, who simply took your money and treated your manuscript as a routine print job, often with dire results.

To fulfil my commission, I undertook extensive research, interviewing many authors – including Tetbury’s Paul Newnton, of course – and members of the book trade, not least Hereward Corbett, proprietor of Tetbury’s Yellow-Lighted Bookshop.

Dr Alison Baverstock, MA Publishing Course Director at Kingston University
Dr Alison Baverstock, all-round publishing guru

Pre-publication, the first reviewer of Sell Your Books! was so enthusiastic that she even agreed to write a foreword. This was no small compliment, as this reviewer was Dr Alison Baverstock, senior lecturer in the MA in Publishing at Kingston University and all-round publishing guru. She deems it to give “motivating, practial and cheerful guidance on the process. It raises the spirits and promotes author confidence. It’s an investment in your writing now – and your future development.”

English: Westonbirt House Girls' School, Tetbu...
Westonbirt School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In another bizarre demonstration of all roads leading to Tetbury, I discovered that I’d met Alison a few years before, when I was working at Westonbirt School and she was guest speaker at Speech Day. I’d taken her photo to include in the school’s newsletter.

I hope that knowing its local origins and inspiration, authors living in and around Tetbury will take a special interest in my book. I’d love to hear any feedback or input from them, which I might also be able to share, with their permission, on my blog of book promotion tips for authors at Off The Shelf Book Promotions.

Cover image of Sell Your Books! by Debbie Young
All my own work

Finally, a big thank you to the wonderful Barry Gibbs, editor of the marvellous multi-faceted Tetbury Advertiser for commissioning my Young By Name column in the first place. Without you, none of this might have happened!

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser and appeared in its February 2013 edition.

  • Sell Your Books!, a book promotion handbook for authors, is now available to order from good bookshops and online. (RRP £8.99, ISBN 978-1-906236-34-2, Publisher SilverWood Books) It is also available as an e-book.
  • SilverWood Books provides helpful, expert and services to authors seeking to self-publish their books. For an initial chat, free of charge and with no obligation, please call Helen, Sarah or Joanna on 0117 910 5829 or visit their website: http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk
  • For more information about Paul Newnton and his books, visit his website or pop into the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop which stocks some copies and will always be happy to order more.
Posted in Reading, Writing

My Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged! And I mean that in a good way…

The authors Debbie Young and Helen Hollick
With Helen Hollick at the launch of “Sell Your Books!”

I’ve been tagged in “The Next Big Thing”.

This is a blog hop in which one blogger answers a series of questions about their work in progress before nominating other bloggers to whom they’d like to pass the baton. It’s a bit like a chain letter, only very much nicer!

I’ve been tagged by historical novelist Helen Hollick, whose books take pride of place on my mum’s bookshelf. Helen was a special guest at the recent launch party for my first book, Sell Your Books!,  kindly hosted by my publisher SilverWood Books – the company that also publishes Helen’s many novels. Sell Your Books! – my Previous Big Thing, so to speak – is a book promotion handbook to help self-published and indie authors to (yes, you’ve guessed it) sell their books. Published less than a month ago, my book has already received some terrific reviews on Amazon.

“Every indie author should have one!” says Helen Hollick.

But now I need to tell you about my NEXT big thing by answering the ten set questions… 

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Until this morning, it was going to be called Forever Young, but then I discovered there are already at least five books on the market with the same title, so it’s time to think again. (Book promotion tip: it’s always worth doing a search on Amazon before deciding on your final title.) So now I’m thinking it will be called Young By Name, for obvious reasons.

2) Where did the idea come from for your book?

The writer and blogger Laura Zera
My online friend, Laura Zera

As well as writing a book promotion blog for Off The Shelf Book Promotions to supplement the advice in Sell Your Books!, I’ve been penning this  personal blog, YoungByNamefor nearly three years. I’ve put my heart and soul into over 200 blog posts and received some lovely feedback from readers. But blog posts are a bit like newspapers: today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. Old blog posts slip away into the sunset as new posts are added. When one of my regular readers Laura Zera told me recently that I ought to preserve them in a book,  not least so that my daughter can read them when she grows up, I decided that she was right.  So I’m going for it!

3) What genre does your book fall under?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. Some posts are sheer humour,  recounting funny things that have happened to me. Others are travelogues. Many are nostalgic bits of family history and memories from my childhood. So that I can get my marketing right, I’m going to have to invest some time in trawling through publishing websites till I hit upon a category that really fits. This will dictate the cover design, blurb, and so on.

4) Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

My late English teacher, friend and mentor Joe Campbell, who was a New Yorker, said that the actress Juliet Stevenson always reminded him of me but I think she’d need to put on a couple of stone, like Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones, to play the part convincingly. A cross between the national treasures Tamsin Greig and Miranda Hart would be good: intelligence and ready wit under an outer wrapper of social awkwardness. Miranda in glasses and flat shoes but with her hair curled would be about right. For my daughter, Ramona Marquez, the little girl in the BBC TV series Outnumberedwith her hair straightened, would be fine. For my husband, it could be whoever who played the hero in Dr Finlay’s Casebook or Robert Carlyle in Hamish Macbeth to get the accent right. (“Och, no!” I hear him cry. He’d probably nominate a heart-throb such as Johnny Depp. Well, I could live with that!)

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

“These whimsical, witty, moving and memorable observations of family life, written by a Londoner transplanted into the English countryside, are presented in bite-size chunks for perfect bedtime reading.” (With apologies for the excess of adjectives.)

SilverWood Books assisted publishing consultants with author Debbie Young
Team SilverWood with me at my book launch

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

If I had the time and energy to master the technical processes and to organise the necessary professional services such as jacket design and proofreading, I’d do it all myself to save money. But to preserve my time for writing and book promotion, I’m planning to use the services of assisted publishing company SilverWood Books to self-publish. That way, I’ll be confident of a slickly produced, beautiful book that will look at home in any high street bookshop. Yes, it will cost me more, but I think the results will boost sales and so justify the investment.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’m aiming at doing a book for each calendar  year of blog posts, so the answer to that is a year to write the original blog posts. I’ll now need to spend a few days organising and subediting the posts before I send the manuscript to SilverWood.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Any collections of essays or articles by bloggers or  newspaper columnists that people are happy to buy to re-read at their leisure in paperback. The best of these are by masters of the art such as Clive James, Alan Coren  or dare I suggest Jeremy Clarkson for those who find his views palatable? Among the younger generation, the actor Michael Simkins, junior doctor Max Pemberton and the wonderful Caitlin Moran are good examples. All completely different personalities, obviously, but each is entertaining and engaging in his or her own way.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always written and always liked to make quips about things going on around me, and the invention of the blog provided the right format for me to set all these thoughts down easily in one place. In my hectic daily schedule, in which I juggle different jobs, family life and volunteering, there is no shortage of ideas for new blog posts!

10) What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There is a serious thread that runs through it about living with Type 1 diabetes – a serious condition that affects both my husband and my daughter. As with my first book, I’ll be donating a percentage of my royalties to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (www.jdrf.org.uk) to help fund research into a cure. Behind my flippancy lies this serious, purposeful undertone.

And now it’s time for me to pass on the baton to these writers whose Next Thing is definitely going to be BIG!

Cover of To The Fair Land, historical novel by Lucienne BoyceLaura Zera – a wonderful Canadian writer living in Seattle, who I first discovered via her compelling blog, before reading her terrific travelogue about Africa. Like mine, Laura’s  next big thing is going to be in a completely different genre to her previous book. Over to you, Laura!

Lucienne Boyce – like Helen Hollick, she’s a historical novelist published by SilverWood Books. She was invited to read her debut novel, To The Fair Land, at the prestigious Cheltenham Festival of Literature this year, and she’s now working on her second novel – but I’ll leave it to Lucienne to tell you all about it!

Sophie E Tallis – a local teacher who has just published her first book, White Mountain, but I have a feeling she has many more Big Things ahead of her!

Thanks again to the lovely Helen Hollick for tagging me – it’s been a pleasure and a privilege, Helen!

Posted in Travel

Books on the Brain

Eaton's Christmas Catalogue, 1904 cover

(New post about the challenge of Christmas shopping – with a little help from the Grufflo)

When the first charity Christmas catalogue dropped through my letterbox, I was not best pleased. After all, I was in the middle of packing to go on my summer holiday.

I was irritated also by spotting the first mince pies in the supermarket in September. In fact, I generally try to avoid any mention of Christmas until after Guy Fawkes Night is over and done with.

The Christmas Past

But last year, I left my preparations until a little too close to Christmas, and, to my shame, completely failed to send cards to half my friends and relations. Nearly a year later, I’m still cringing with guilt that I didn’t send one to my best friend’s elderly mother, who, in her late 80s and unwell, still managed to send one to me. I’m determined to be better organised this year. Gladys, this month’s column’s for you.

The Christmas Present

Late October, my sister-in-law makes a helpful pre-emptive strike, initiating a discussion about what we should buy each other for Christmas. She suggests that it would be easier if we stopped buying for the adults in the family at all, focusing only on the children. Great, I think, I’m off the hook! But her proposal is scuppered by immediate protests from my brother and sister, both older than me but big kids at heart. So I resign myself to writing my Christmas shopping list – or at least the list of names of who I have to buy for.

I have little time or enthusiasm for shopping. I barely enter a grocery store from one month to the next. (Whoever invented Ocado home deliveries, I salute you.) I therefore hit on a new tactic to minimise the pain and effort: this year, I resolve to buy everything in just one shop. I need to send so many presents by post that this one shop must sell goods that are easy to wrap and fit in a jiffybag.. So that’s the hardware shop off the list, then.

Two old copies of Lewis Carroll books - Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking GlassI try empathising with the recipients. What would I ask Santa for myself? (Oh, if only he’d consult me!) I jot down some ideas. They are all books. I’m constantly hearing snippets of intriguing books on BBC Radio 4, to which I’m addicted. Whenever I follow through and buy them, I’m never disappointed. In fact, I often enjoy them so much that I pass them on to friends or buy second copies to hand out. So this year I shall buy everyone books. Easy to wrap, easy to post – what’s not to love about a book?

Some of my most treasured possessions are books, such as the small red hardbacks of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, previously owned by my mother when she was a child. Both our names are inscribed on the fly leaf, mine in red crayon in the shaky infant school hand that preceded learning to do joined-up writing.

My grandmother's statue of a reading manMy single most precious thing is a small brown statuette of a man reading a book. He sat on my grandmother’s mantelpiece throughout my childhood and he moved in with me when she died. If I choose carefully, I could be giving my friends not only a Christmas present but a lifelong treasure.

There must surely be a book to suit the tastes of everyone on anyone’s Christmas list. A few ideas already spring to mind for the adults, but with children, I worry about duplication. But they can always pass swaps on to friends as birthday presents, or regift them, as now seems to be the accepted euphemism for getting rid of presents you hate. Signed copies provide a thoughtful point of difference. I’ve been lucky enough to snap up a book signed by both Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler at Bath Literature Festival for one child on my list, (Gruffalo fans will be envious), but what should I get the others?

The Christmas Yet to Come

For inspiration, I turn to my daughter, aged 9. An avid reader, she currently prefers any book featuring kittens, puppies, or mermaids – or preferably all three.

“What do you think is the best book you’ve ever read?” I ask her.

She thinks hard for a moment, then gives a big smile, tricky problem resolved.

“I haven’t read it yet,” she asserts with confidence.

Axel Scheffler's 1st Class Christmas stamp for Royal Mail 2012While I applaud her optimism, I am no further forward. Time to consult the local bookshop, whose staff will know what’s new and what’s hot. And if I look sharp, I can just fit them in on my way to the Post Office to buy my Christmas stamps.

And in case I forget in next month’s column: Happy Christmas, everyone!

This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser’s November 2012 edition.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy these other Christmas specials:

Let It Snow

When It Comes To Christmas Presents, Small Is Beautiful

Posted in Family, Writing

The Power of the Shower

(New blog post about finding writing inspiration under a refreshing shower – an electric power shower, I mean, not English autumn rainfall!)

English: shower head Deutsch: Duschkopf mit st...
Finding creative power in the shower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grabbing a quick shower yesterday morning while my husband walked my daughter to school, my cares fell away.

My conscience was clear: my part of the early morning duties were complete:

  • breakfast prepared – check
  • school lunchbox packed – check
  • daughter’s hair brushed and plaited – check
  • her purse topped up with a pound coin for after-school Film Club – check

For a moment I could let my busy head empty as I got myself ready for work.

At least, I thought I was letting my mind just wander, but after a few moments basking with my eyes closed, I suddenly realised that flowing into my head as steadily as the water was pouring from the shower head was a whole stream (groan) of ideas for various articles I was  scheduled to write over the next few days:

  • two book reviews  (the first has since hit the ether here)
  • the theme for this month’s parish magazine column (now on paper)
  • the gist of my piece for the November issue of the Tetbury Advertiser (emailed to the editor this morning)

So quickly and easily were these ideas coming, from somewhere deep within my subconscious, that I was tempted to spend the rest of the day in the shower. At this rate, I could have written a three-inch thick novel by tea-time.

But I had to head for the office of reading charity Readathon, where I spend my weekday mornings, so I cut my shower short at 15 minutes.

Short? I hear you cry. My husband complains that even 15 minutes is far too long, though it’s nothing compared to my daughter’s record of 45 minutes. (I’d never seen anyone enjoy a shower lying down, until she did.)

Even so, considering my mind had felt drained when I stepped into the shower, I was pleased with the result – and I don’t mean just being squeaky-clean.

English: Black Bear mother and cubs in den,, h...
Hibernating black bear mother and cubs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It had been a bit like taking a restorative nap. Although I can never sleep during the day, I’m a great believer in sleeping on a problem. Rather than lie there fretting in the dark, I recommend going to bed with the unsolved challenge lodged firmly at the back of your mind, and leaving it to stew the night away. Very often, on waking, I find the problem’s been solved, as if someone’s whispered it in my ear while I was out for the count.

Which makes me wonder what miracles of creativity I could perform if I went into hibernation. If it gets much colder this weekend, I think I’ll give it a try.

If you liked this piece, you might be interested in these posts about different kinds of power:

The Power Behind the Blog: Battery Chargers

The Power of the Postage Stamp