Every day last week I had the pleasure of spending some time at Westonbirt School, talking to English classes in Years 7, 8 and 9 (11-14 year olds), sharing insights into an author’s life and writing advice that I wish I’d been given at their age.
On the Thursday, for World Book Day, I returned in the evening to co-judge the school’s annual inter-house reading competition, alongside the award-winning poet Shirley Wright and two sixth-form pupils. We judged the pupils’ readings were on four criteria: clarity, confidence, choice of passage and overall performance. The overall standard was really high, and, in the stunning setting of the school’s Grade 1 listed library, being a judge was a very enjoyable experience.
Congratulations to all those pupils who performed, and to the English department, so ably led by Miss Sheehan, for staging such a streamlined and impressive evening of entertainment.
But before the readings began, I had to give a small performance of my own: a brief motivational speech to all those taking part. In case you’re interested, here’s the transcript.
My Address to the Readers
People often assume that being a professional writer is a lonely business, spent in isolation. But as I’ve been explaining in these classes, the writer’s life is all about collaboration. It’s team work. Editors, proof-readers and cover designers help turn my manuscripts into books, before the books are sent out into the world.
Reaching readers is by far the most important stage in any book’s journey, because a book’s success stands or falls by what its readers make of it. Every reader interprets the writer’s intention in their own way. Furthermore, the same reader, reading the same book at different times in their life, may find it a completely different experience. Books you love now may leave you cold when you get to my age. On the other hand, in later life you may find you love books that you struggled to enjoy at school.
Those who read books aloud to entertain others add another layer of interest to a writer’s words.
In the audiobook publishing world, these people are called voice artists. Good voice artists add value and interest to a book and inject it with their own personality. They also make the process look easy. But even when you know a text really well, reading it aloud is hard work, as I know from my own experience. At the launch of my first novel, performing an extract from Best Murder in Show, instead of reading about “Rex’s elegant girlfriend”, I managed to call her “Rex’s elephant girlfriend”. That’s quite a different thing and an error I’ll never forget. (Click here to witness my gaffe!)
Using your voice to engage an audience is a valuable life-skill in any setting. If you apply the skills demonstrated in this competition in other settings, such as the classroom, the boardroom or in government, you can change lives and may even change the world.
Last Friday, in the rain and the mud in Bristol, Greta Thunberg spoke for just four minutes. Her immaculate delivery of her succinct and perfectly polished script moved not only the tens of thousands on College Green, my own daughter among them – but, thanks to the internet, her voice resonated around the world, mobilising millions to support her cause – including you, here, at Westonbirt School, as you watched her speech streamed live in the Great Hall. (Watch her speech on Youtube here.)
Those of you who are reading to us tonight may be reading words written by someone else, but in years to come, when you use the power of the spoken of word to deliver your own messages, we may find ourselves as mesmerised by you as we were by Greta.
You have already proven your exceptional skills by being chosen to represent your houses in school-wide heats. No matter who wins this competition tonight, your houses should be proud of you all and you should be proud of yourselves.
Now let the stories begin.
The Story Behind the Story
My time spent working at Westonbirt School (1997-2010) was the inspiration for my new St Bride’s School series, which begins with Secrets at St Bride’s. However, the situation, the plot and the characters are completely made up!
To read the first chapter for free and to find out more about this jolly romp of a novel, click here.
There can’t be many people who didn’t love a school story of some kind when they were growing up.
That’s one reason I decided last year to write a new series set in a classic English girls’ boarding school, St Bride’s. My series gives an old premise a new twist: it’s a school story for grown-ups, revolving around the intrigues among the staff, including the headmistress, commonly known as Hairnet, the teaching staff, including newcomer and narrator Gemma Lamb, and the support staff including Max Security, trying to keep everyone safe from harm.
Talking about it among friends, I soon became aware that I was not the only adult to still care passionately about school stories aimed at children.
Among the keepers still on my bookshelf are:
Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Darbyshire series, which I loved for their laugh-out-loud humour
Classic girls’ boarding school tales, such as the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books
Richmal Crompton’s “Just William”, whose antics were originally intended for an adult audience
Fascinated to know which school stories some of my author friends most enjoyed, I’ve now decided to start a new monthly blog series in which a guest author shares their favourite. I’m pledging also to read the books they recommend – although I’m sure I’ll already be familiar with some of them. You might like to read along with us.
Jean Gill’s Choice: Anne of Green Gables
Kicking off the series is Jean Gill, who has written a huge array of books across a multitude of genres. Jean is an award-winning writer and photographer who lives in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named Endeavour, a Nikon D750 and a man.
Jean’s choice is a book I confess I’d never read before: Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. First published in 1908, this Canadian novel is now considered a world-class classic for readers of all ages. Over to Jean to describe what makes it so special for her…
Hi Jean, it’s a pleasure to have you as the first ever guest in this new series, and I was captivated by your choice when I read it. Such a beautiful natural world conjured up there, in a stunning corner of rural Canada, and I enjoyed that as much as I did Anne’s blossoming under the care of her adoptive family. How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you read it since?
My aunt, who lived in Canada sent it to me as a Christmas present when I was eight years old. I read it two or three times when a child and revisited it thanks to the recent television series.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
When I was a child, I accepted Anne’s world as it wasn’t so very different from the one I knew in its sexism, physical punishment, demands that children be seen and not heard, that they work to earn their keep and should think themselves lucky if they were adopted after being orphaned. Later on, I was horrified by the adults’ behaviour and by the social norms but still recognised them in the historical context.
What did you particularly like about this book and about the author – and was there anything you disliked?
I love the misfit heroine, a ‘swotty girl’ if ever there was one, who lives and loves with passion, fired by her own imagination, a rule-breaker whenever the rules are wrong. What makes the book timeless is that Anne wins hearts while staying true to herself. The phrase ‘kindred spirits’ stays with me still and, like Anne, I’ve found kindred spirits to treasure, sometimes across the potential divides of age and culture. The development of Anne’s relationship with her new parents is beautiful, without being mawkish, and Montgomery portrays so well the change brought to their suffocating lives by this child.
And who couldn’t love Gilbert Blythe? – competition in the classroom and temptation outside of it, even though Anne knows love is bad for a girl’s high aims in life. That is another element which makes this book amazing for its time – falling in love is not the be-all and end-all for a girl. There is more to life!
The answer’s is probably obvious already, but which character did you identify with?
Anne, without a doubt!
The books that we love when are young often leave a lasting impact on us as we grow up. How did Anne of Green Gables affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
The criticism ‘too much imagination’ was shown to be ridiculous. Imagination is Anne’s superpower as it was – and I hope still is – mine.
It was one of many books that allowed me to develop a sense of self that did not fit into all those rules about what I was supposed to do and be. Unlike Anne, I had a lot of self-control, and it was very satisfying to lose my temper vicariously through Anne’s fiery responses to life’s injustices. I too suffered from a permanent sense of unfairness, and the way Anne is blamed in school and at home for other people’s wrong-doing or for well-intentioned disasters hit exactly the spot where I felt wounded.
I remember being spanked when I was seven because early one morning I’d let out into the garden a dog we were looking after and he barked. I still don’t understand why (possibly) waking the neighbours was a hitting offence – and we were very rarely spanked, so my father must have felt strongly that this was an act of serious disobedience.
That was very much an Anne-type action and consequence, within a world that made no sense. I still react strongly to the unfairness of Anne being punished for acts of empathy and for rule-breaking.
How did it affect your writing?
I like breaking rules 😊
Anne goes to a small rural school in which all the ages are together in one schoolroom, and her ambition is to become a teacher. How did your own education compare to hers?
Mostly army schools. My father was a soldier, so the longest we stayed in any one place was two years. Sometimes we moved after only six months. I went to one school for only four months, so each time I had to start again, trying to make friends, following a different curriculum. I was taught the Tudors eight times, and at one time shifted for a few months to a school that taught Maths via Cuisenaire rods – all very confusing and lonely. I was told off by teachers for holding my pen wrongly and being too advanced a reader – and for dumb insolence 😊 So inevitably, like Anne, I became a teacher and I like to think I looked out for the misfits.
My older sister went to boarding school, and we’ve compared notes on our very different schooldays. I think Secrets at St Bride’s would make her smile and reminisce!
Were your friends also fans of Anne, or did you feel that this was your own private world?
I don’t remember talking about the world of books in which I spent most of my time, when I was eight but later, from eleven onwards, I definitely shared book recommendations with friends. A friend who met me at eleven remembers us being the only ones allowed to read the top shelf books (Dickens was up there).
Do you think Anne of Green Gables would still resonate with young readers today?
I think so and I’ve found out that Anne is big in Japan! The television series has highlighted the books again and the French translator for my books. Laure Valentin, has translated Anne of Green Gables into French – another example of kindred spirit serendipity!
I like to think that Anne of Green Gables would enjoy Jean Gill’s latest eco-fantasy novel, Queen of the Warrior Bees, in which a teenaged girl who doesn’t fit in with her peers finds her true purpose in working with nature to save their world – by shape-shifting into a bee!
If you’ve ever looked something up on Wikipedia, I bet you’ve found yourself clicking on a link in one article that takes you to another. Then in the second article, you find another that leads you to a third… and before you know it, an hour’s flown by.
It’s especially easy to play reading tag online like this, where hotlinks provide easy stepping stones. Playing the same game with physical books requires more planning and patience, but I still find it hard to resist.
The most recent bout for me took Daniel Defoe‘s novel Robinson Crusoeas its starting point. To mark its three hundredth birthday, we chose it earlier this year as our Book of the Month at the BBC Radio Gloucestershire Book Club, hosted by Dominic Cotter as part of his lunchtime show, with Caroline Sanderson and me as his regular panel.
I’d read Robinon Crusoe at university and really enjoyed it, as well as Defoe’s Moll Flanders, but that was long enough ago for me to have forgotten most of the content. To be honest, my most vivid memories of the story stemmed from the old French television series, dubbed into English, which made a strong impression on everyone of my vintage who saw it, with its stirring theme music (do click the link to listen!) and compelling narrative, mostly true to the original novel.
For a three-hundred-year-old novel, it was surprisingly accessible. Written in the voice of Crusoe, the novel fooled many of its early readers into thinking it was a memoir. As well as the familiar story of his shipwreck and solitary status on the island for most of his stay, there is wrapped around it a substantial tale of how he came to go to sea in the first place, including an earlier adventure along the coast of Africa, and the saga of his journey home. Rereading it now, I found it compelling and intriguing, although as a twenty-first century reader, his condescending attitude to non-Europeans jars.
… and Other Castaways
Hearing the Book Club broadcast, my author friend Edward James recommeded a new non-fiction book to complement it: Crusoe Castaways and Shipwrecks in the Perilous Age of Sail by Mike Rendell. On request, the publisher, Pen and Sword, kindly sent me a review copy.
The book was a pleasure to hold as I read it – it felt like a luxury item. Here’s how I reviewed it on Amazon UK:
This is a beautifully presented book, the cover immediately getting you into the frame of mind for the era that it describes. I had it recommended to me after reading Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, which is, as the title suggests, the jumping off point for this guide to the real Crusoe (and Defoe), other castaways of the era, and victims of shipwrecks, some famous, some infamous, some little known but worth knowing about.
It’s a very readable guide for the casual reader, as well as for serious historians, with a high level of detail about the various journeys. The author’s style is personal and personable, authoritative without ever being stuffy.
Having read it, I realise that Crusoe was not untypical of this dangerous age, and reading about the hazards of the journeys even when plain sailing (the nutrition, the piracy, the mutinies) made me wonder that anyone arrived at their destination intact at all.
This would be a good gift for anyone interested in Robinson Crusoe and Defoe in particular, or in historical sea voyages in general. My only criticism is that the captions on the very attractive colour plates, which added atmosphere to the narrative, were absurdly short. There is a list of image acceditation at the back, but I thought it would have made more sense to add this detail to each picture, rather than have the reader turning back and forth between the plates and the text.Otherwise, an engrossing read and aesthetically enjoyable too.
… including a Castaway Cat
At around the same time, by chance I cam across another Crusoe-inspired book, (and goodness knows, he’s inspired plenty of spin-offs over the years, fromThe Swiss Family Robinson to Lost in Space). Visiting the fabulous Old Station Pottery and Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, I spotted The Nine Lives of Island Mackenzie by Ursula Moray Williams, its cover featuring an Edward Ardizzone illustration referencing Robinson Crusoe.
Ardizzone’s evocative line drawings are scattered throughout Moray Williams’ gentle and witty text, intended as a chapter book for younger readers, but a delight to Crusoe fans of any age, especially if they also love cats! Not wishing to spoil the plot of this delightful read, suffice to say there are plenty of parallels to Defoe’s story, as well as a satisfying ending.
Over to You
So now I’m all Crusoed out – but feel free to share via the comments box news of your own reading tag adventures.
I wonder how many degrees of separation there are between books? I’d love to know!
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While I’m often a little sceptical about some of the quotes on book covers by famous authors, critics and other celebrities, particularly where the same names appear over and over again, I’m always pleased to be asked to read other writers’ books prior to publication, especially if they or their publishers are after an endorsement quote from me.
I hope not, because I do genuinely read the whole of each book myself, and whatever is attributed to me on their cover has been composed by me rather than any PR. ( I spent a large part of my former career working in PR, so am familiar with the territory!)
Usually any such requests come directly from authors, and usually they are friends of mine from the independent sector, publishing their own books. But recently publishing house Endeavour Quillapproached me to read and review the latest book from an author new to me, Amy Myers. Amy has written many books, including a series of historical detective stories set in Victorian London – the Tom Wasp Mysteries, in which the eponymous detective is a chimney sweep.
Swept Off My Feet by a Chimney Sweep
Despite my to-read list being huge, I have had a soft spot for London chimney sweeps ever since I fell in love with Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins at the age of 7. I am also addicted to historical mysteries, such as Lucienne Boyce’s Dan Foster and Susan Grossey‘s Sam Plank series). And I’m a Londoner by birth, though have lived in the Cotswolds for nearly 30 years now. So I couldn’t resist this offer, and rapidly tore through Tom Wasp and the Seven Deadly Sins. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Tom and his young sidekick, whom he’d rescued from climbing chimneys; the colourful scene-setting in the city reminiscent of the movie sets of Oliver!(yes, I have read the Dickens novel too, and seen the stage show, but Myers’ books was very filmic); and the plot based around the London bookselling scene (a topic also addressed beautifully, albeit at a slightly earlier era, in Lucienne Boyce’s novel To The Fair Land).
Behind the Scenes with “Little Darlings”
Whether or not I’m asked to provide a cover endorsement, it’s still gratifying to be offered advance review copies (ARCS, as they’re known in the trade), as it allows you a sneak preview of a book before it hits the shops. Thus last night I stayed up late to finish the most recent ARC I’ve been sent, the wonderful Little Darlings, debut novel of Melanie Golding, due for publication in May by HQ (a Harper Collins imprint).
It’s an eerie thriller about the mother of twins who becomes convinced her babies are changelings. I’d describe it as the love child of Rosemary’s Baby and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I’m sure it’s going to be as big a hit as both of those. (The film rights have been sold already, even though the book’s not out till May.)
I first came across Melanie Golding when one of her short stories was picked at Stroud Short Stories, a regional competition of which I’m co-judge. When she read it to the audience, I knew I was hearing an exceptionally gifted and accomplished writer, and I’m thrilled that she has taken her writing to novel length. Her contract for this book was one of the biggest and most shouted-about last year, and you’re all going to be hearing great things about the book once it hits the shops.
Sneak Preview of Little Darlings at the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest (Saturday 27th April)
So I’m particularly thrilled that Melanie has agreed to read an extract at the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, the free local liffest that I run in my village, prior to her book’s publication. So if you’d like to be ahead of the general reading public, and are in striking distance of the Cotswolds, do come along on the day – admission’s free, no advance booking is required. Click here to download the full festival programme and see what else you won’t want to miss during our action-packed day.
And Finally, A 99p Challenge…
If you’re at a loose end for something to read tonight, and like reading ebooks, you might like to take advantage of the special offer running at present on Best Murder in Show, the first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series – just 99p/99c or the equivalent in your local currency, from Amazon stores around the world. (Also available as a paperback to order from all good bookshops.) But hurry, the offer ends on 7th March, and after that it reverts to full price. Here’s the link which should take you to the local Amazon store wherever you live. Oh, and it would be remiss of me not to mention that this book carries a lovely endorsement quote from the ever-generous Katie Fforde!
It’s an annual tradition in the village where I live to have aScarecrow Trail each September, organised by Louise Roberts. Each year I try to tie it in somehow with the Little Free Library on my front wall, and this year I chose Roald Dahl’s Matilda, possibly the most well-known and best-loved booklover in fiction.
Free Roald Dahl Books to Borrow
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been raiding local charity shops to find secondhand (pre-loved) copies of Roald Dahl’s children’s books, and I’ve amassed about a dozen – so this week only, the children’s section of my Little Free Library (the one on the right in the picture) will contain exclusively Roald Dahl books for young visitors to borrow. (Donations of more Dahl books will be most welcome.
Happy 30th Birthday, Matilda!
By chance I discovered last weekend that this year is the thirtieth anniversary of Dahl’s Matilda, and this autumn there will be special editions of the book published featuring cover illustrations of what she might be like by the time she’s 30 – doing great things in every one!
How to Visit the Scarecrow Trail
The Hawkesbury Upton Scarecrow Trail runs from today through next Sunday, and there’ll be tea and cakes served in the Methodist Hall from 3pm until 4.30pm both Sundays. Everyone welcome!
For more information about the wonderful Roald Dahl, here’s his official website: www.roalddahl.com