Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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Aliens visit earth!

As a small child, I adored Ladybird books and the ones I wanted to read and re-read were the information books. I would spend hours filling my mind with useful knowledge. In fact, I still can’t experience a storm without thinking of the Ladybird Book of The Weather – everything I know about the Beaufort Scale comes from that well worn copy!

The new non-fiction readers from Maverick have a similar feel. There are three new books, at the higher end of reading skill based on the book band colour coding used.

The books have a similar format – Zeek and Finn act as helpful alien tour guides for any aliens who fancy a quick trip to earth but are worried about what they may find there.

In “Woah! What’s the Weather?” Dill from Planet Drull is a bit worried about the Earth’s weather (given the state of the summer this year he may have good reason). Zeek and Finn give a walk through many elements of weather types and how we record different aspects.

Bim and Bam from Planet Bland are worried about the wildlife. “Wild and Wacky Animals!” shows them an appealing mix of strange creatures and brings in some key environmental vocabulary such as prey, predator, rain forest and mammal as well.

Finally Flim and Flam from Planet Fashion (obvs!) want to know what they should wear. “Dress to impress!” explores how humans dress for everyday life and for special occasions. There is a useful map of the world at the start, which helps the reader see where each item of clothing is worn. The inclusion of accessories as well as more traditional clothing allows the reader to learn about other clothing such as Masai bead-work and Bolivian bowler hats.

These books have a similar format to the fiction readers. They are the same size and have a new spread for each item. There is also the established quiz at the end. However, the contents page, introduction and index/glossary will enable young readers to use their reference skills to locate specific information and build their vocabulary. The spreads are clearly laid out and alongside the main text and pictures we have commentary from Zeek and Finn, which adds additional information.

I think these books will add a positive additional dimension to any school reading scheme – often non-fiction books are more inaccessible for younger readers but there are many children who don’t want to always read fiction. For the child who, like me, wants to find out about the world around them, these may be just the thing!

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with complimentary copies of the books by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

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The MOOsic Makers by Heather Pindar and Barbara Bakos

There’s nothing more exciting than coming home to an envelope full of books! Even more exciting is a book cover that is full of sound and rhythm. Many of my own stories feature sound as an integral part of the story, so I was curious to see what came next.

The story starts quite quietly… Joni is sat on her farmhouse porch, just listening. There’s a stillness that draws the reader in to explore the double spread until you spot the riotous MOO-grass music rising up from the barn. What is going on?

Joni is surrounded by talented music making animals so when disaster strikes her loyal gang set out to save the day.

Along the way they discover fame but no fortune, the perils of being something you really don’t want to be and the nature of true friendship.

Although, on the surface, this story appears quite straightforward, there are several themes which would make it a very useful story for any classroom. Nutmeg and Celery, the talented duo are lured by the scent of fame, but have to become DisCOW musicians instead.  Georgie Smarm, music industry baddie extraordinaire, tells the girls that their preferred checked shirts and straw hats are for boys and instead they must wear pink and glitter! Joni is a capable, cowgirl boot wearing character too. Discussing these characters would make a very interesting starting point for conversations about gender, image and personal preferences.

Music clearly plays a large part in this tale. Nutmeg plays a mandolin, which is not a typical instrument in most children’s musical repertoire and certainly not mine! I recently went to hear the Ukelele orchestra of Great Britain playing and had been surprised at the range of ukuleles that exist. A quick google indicates that there are specific bluegrass mandolins and I’d guess Nutmeg’s instrument is sporting a lovely traditional sunburst colour scheme. You can read a bit about the mandolin here. Listening to fast, finger picked mandolin would be an exciting way to introduce the story and create a sense of the western environment it is set in.

I also felt that this story would be of value to read with slightly older children. The perils of forgetting your friends and your true self, in pursuit of quick fame and glory, might not be so evident for younger listeners but children who have been steeped in the overnight success seen on X Factor or Britain’s’ Got Talent, could find some insight into the dangers of being seduced by all that glitters.

The story is riotously chock-ful of puns, which will have children laughing and adults groaning in equal measures. Some may need explaining but all will add to the pleasure of the read. The good news is that Joni and the MOOsic Makers save the day and the evil impresario gets his comeuppance. It said so in the New MOOsical Express!

The MOOsic Makers

©Chez l’abeille  2019

Disclaimer: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the book by Maverick Books. I was not recompensed for this review and all views are my own.

 

 

 


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Writing: It’s a marathon not a sprint

youg child writing

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who writes, but it’s only in the last five years that I have written seriously.

After an exciting early phase of sending out frankly awful drafts of my stories, without a clue to why they were not the marvellous things I thought they were, I settled into a routine. Write, revise, critique, revise, submit. Repeat.

Time stretched and days passed as I wrote and wrote, furiously trying to balance the daily requirements of work and life…periods of drought when I thought I’d never have a new idea in my life, punctuated by needle sharp clarity and inspiration. Yet the rejections kept coming.

Then, as a result of winning a SCBWI Slushpile challenge I was accepted onto the very first Golden Egg Academy picture book programme. In the summer of 2018, I began submitting my stories again. As a GEA graduate and armed with three edited stories, I was feeling positive. Submit, wait…

Rejection. Rejection, rejection.

I felt crushed. I had poured my heart and soul into those stories for over a year. I had put all submission and competition entry on hold to give myself a chance…and for what purpose? To feel like THAT?

I’ve never wanted to run, let alone run a marathon but I think the resilience of the long distance runner must, in some way, be akin to that of the unpublished writer. Over the past five years, I have learnt to dig deep and stay in the race. I have jumped hurdles and learnt to get back up again. I have joined forces with other runners and writers to boost morale and share strategy. I have celebrated the successes and hard fought wins of others, whilst trying not to say out loud, “but when will it be MY turn?”

At this point, if I’m honest, I was the closest I have been to simply stopping. After all, no-one would get hurt, nothing would change, would it? Yet deep down, the toughness I had learned along the way wouldn’t let me. Just keep going, just keep writing, just keep submitting.

Write, submit…

Well, what can I say? I’m still pinching myself when I say to people that I’m now a represented writer. I have signed with a Literary Agent who loves my stories. We are editing and shaping to start submitting to publishers in the Spring. My first marathon has been run. A new one is about to begin.

This time I’m ready.

 

 

 


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FOMO!

I’ve started to notice a curious feeling recently. About a year ago when my slush-pile winning text, “Where’s that tiger?” found me a place on the Golden Egg Academy picture book programme, I was on a real high. After several years of trying, things were finally moving in the right direction.

Once I was accepted onto the Golden Egg programme I knew I wouldn’t be doing any serious submitting for a while. I had stories to hone and editorials to be ready for. But lately as this fantastic year is coming to an end, I’ve realised I’m beginning to feel sendy! This is the term coined in my critique group when you just want to be sending your polished texts out into the big bad book world of submissions; where the dream could, just maybe, if I’m really lucky, come true. But there’s also something else. Something I can only describe as a HUGE fear of missing out, of needing to be THERE…in the right place, the right time, where that one agent will chat to ME and realise what a fabulous all round writing star I really am…

#FOMO. Fear of missing out. Something that gets bandied about on social media, almost as a joke. Yet within the writing world I’m beginning to wonder if it’s more pervasive than we may imagine. Recently I’ve been trying to analyse where this sensation comes from and how it can impact on the unpublished, or even published author.

I’ve used Twitter and other social media for a while now. It enables me to keep in touch with my writing peers and hero/ines all at the touch of a finger. What I have come to see, however, is that a constant feed of Woo-Hoos and celebratory huzzahs can start to dent the confidence of those whose moment has not yet arrived. It’s all too easy to begin to compare yourself to all those successful authors and illustrators and feel, well, not quite good enough!

At moments like that I turn to my trusty critique group. They know my writing very well and provide a healthy perspective on what I am achieving. We also share and discuss the realities of our personal writing journeys, both the highs AND the lows and this helps maintain a more balanced view. Yet it can gnaw away at your confidence when all about you are apparently getting signed to agents or having their fabulous publications splashed across the book world and somehow you begin to feel that you are being left behind. In moments like that, the most important thing to remember is that no one ever posts their failures and rejections in the same way they share their success! Behind each and every wow moment lies just as much pain and fear of failure that will accompany anyone who calls themselves a writer. You are not alone!

It’s also easy to feel that you have to be at every event, workshop, critique event or conference that comes along. This year I was able to visit the London Book Fair as the timing coincided with the school holiday period. I remember last year feeling rather jealous of all the book people who were able to go, as if somehow they had progressed an extra step up the ladder. I had to go…I had to be there to be a part of it, as all proper writers must surely be.

This morning, before I headed out to travel to the fair, I scanned Twitter and this comment made me stop and think:

In the interests of balance, I am NOT at the London Book Fair. So if you’re an author (aspiring or published) and you’re not there either, don’t be panicked by FOMO and a timeline full of tweets. It can be fun, but it’s really not an essential part of the process.

And they were right! I had a thoroughly pleasant time looking at all the books but would I rush back? I could possibly achieve the same outcomes by visiting my local bookshop or library!

Yet, given the array of things that are available it can become increasingly difficult to say no! The annual calendar starts to fill up with workshops, conferences, competitions. Again social media buzzes: Are you going? Are you entering? What will happen if you DON’T? Agents are found, deals are made…you have to be in it, to win it, don’t you? Yet in reality choices must be made, and budgets managed. Planning ahead and focusing on events that will develop friendships as well as my writing has become a more meaningful approach for me.

During my year of no submissions, I have developed seven stories and they are all the better for the time I have taken to let them sit and percolate. I have now written out a tentative plan for the next steps as I re-enter the world of rejection and hope! I’ll be working hard not to let FOMO deflect or defeat me. Writing is a journey not a destination.

©Chez l’abeille  2018

 

 


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Sometimes you win…

I don’t really consider myself as someone who wins things. True there was the under 11s photographic competition highly recommended back in 1971, a Puffin Book Club prize for something completely forgotten and some near misses with school raffles, but being the actual winner? Nah. Not something that happens that often.

By January 2017 I’d also been languishing in what felt like complete avoidance from all the agents and publishers I’d submitted to. Rejection is one thing but nothing? I’d not heard a peep from any of them and was seriously doubting myself and my capabilities as a writer. So when a flurry of excitement about a picture book challenge appeared online I was at first rather reluctant to join in.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators regularly hosts a Slush-Pile Challenge. Unpublished and un-agented writers (i.e. ME!) can submit a piece of work which might get selected to be read by a real life proper agent who knows what’s what. The brief set by Jodie Hodges of United Agents was fairly straightforward. She was after a picture book text that featured a human child at its heart (so, no animal protagonists). A story that young children and their parents could read together that would make them laugh or cuddle, or both. Surely I would be able to find something suitable?

Having written nothing new for several months I looked back into my archive. Picture book challenges don’t come along every month so I felt I had to submit, but which one? The tortoise one? Not human enough. The space one? Not ready enough.  I did have one though which seemed to fit the bill.

Where's that tiger“Where’s That Tiger?” started life in 2015 as an exercise at the Arvon picture Book retreat. During a workshop on rhyming structures I’d scribbled some frankly painful couplets, but the kernel of an idea was there. Almost a year later I was at a SCBWI masterclass with Ellie Brough, which brought it back to mind so I’d worked on it again. I don’t usually write in rhyme but it was finished and in reasonable shape. One click later it had gone.

May 2nd 2017: Hope dashed. Part of the challenge is also to be one of the randomly selected manuscripts. My story wasn’t one of the 25 that went to Jodie. I tried hard to be philosophical about this and console myself with feeling positive I’d entered in the first place.

May 11th 2017: Hope rises again. More stories are going forward! Mine is one of them…I was just a teensy bit excited.

June 3rd 2017: “I’m delighted to inform you that you’ve won”.  And breathe. I sat in bed and read Jodie’s comments over and over again.

“This entry had a fabulous, commercial, appealing central concept, a really strong rhyming voice, a great page turn moment from spreads 6 to 7 and the clever added bonus of the narrative slowly taking the protagonist and reader to bed. I always like a text to end with a twist, a cuddle or in bed!’”

An actual literary agent had said that? About my story? I was elated.

There followed a really hard 24 hours of radio silence in which I had to ignore my critique group who were busy chatting about their “sorry you didn’t win” emails and wondering who had, then a flurry of congratulations and finally the prize itself: a meeting with Jodie to discuss my work. In advance she had asked if I wanted to share a couple of additional texts so I had sent her the tortoise one and the space one as a follow up. She was able to meet with me quite quickly so I arranged time off work and underlined it in my diary in triplicate. With stars.

On the day  of the meeting I was, as ever, ridiculously early which turned out to be a good thing as finding United Agents was a bit tricky. I wandered up and down the street for a while looking rather out of place amongst the Soho hipsters but eventually I located the secret doorbell and was settled into Jodie’s book lined office with a nice cup of tea, feeling like a real fraud! Jodie was a great host however and we spent nearly two hours discussing writing and the whims of the publishing world. One of the things I struggle with is finding a killer title and she helpfully talked through the titles of her successful books and how they take the reader straight to the heart of the story itself. The rise of illustrated non-fiction was also something we explored in relation to some of my ideas. She was very encouraging about my own stories and offered great insights on how they can be developed to increase their commercial appeal. I came away from the meeting with a head full of ideas and a real sense of positivity and encouragement to keep writing.

So I’ve wiped the slate clean and decided to move on from all those unanswered submissions. You’ve got to stay in it to win it.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


Find your funny…

One of my favourite TV comedies is W1A. For those who haven’t come across this gem here’s the gist: Ian Fletcher and his team are tasked with clarifying and defining the BBC’s core purpose. It’s an important role and Ian Fletcher is an important man.

In preparation for the latest SCBWI workshop we were asked to think about our favourite comedy and this was mine. But what actually makes it funny?  As Mo O’Hara, author of the “My big fat zombie goldfish” series has worked with funny for quite a while, we were unpicking comedy gold with a real insider.

So what better place to start than with a banana skin, because… well, it’s a banana skin!

To get to the funny side of a banana skin for children, we had to think about who slipped on it (character), where they were (setting) and when it happened (timing). Now a favourite aunt slipping on a stray banana in the kitchen would probably be a domestic disaster (and not funny). The evil headteacher who has dodged several potential bananas, only to slip up in front of the entire school…well that might just get to green on the funny-o-meter. The key insight I gained from Mo when considering characters, was the idea of status and how this creates humour. Many really funny characters on TV have an assumed status, which brings me back to Ian Fletcher, the man in charge at W1A. Watch the clip carefully and you can see how the clever use of his assumed status is what makes this work; Ian Fletcher really has no control! Mo also got us thinking how to make our characters more multi-faceted by identifying their hopes and fears and thus avoid clichés.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen to your characters? Make it happen!”

A contained world, where the characters are stuck together with no escape is frequently the “where” element of successful comedy. Think of the cells in “Porridge” or the Craggy Island of “Father Ted” as good examples. They are also places where new characters can come and go and this is what provides much of the comic potential. However to make this work for children, any  world we set our characters in needs to be one that is grounded in their reality. Equally, the use of incongruity or taking our characters out of their “normal” can  bring in rich comedy opportunities. Mo referenced Eddie Izzard’s “Death Star Canteen” and if you’ve not seen it – go watch. You’ll get the point!

“Keep saying YES! Be extreme but within the boundaries of your world”

When we listen to really funny things it is often the timing that brings out the funny. Mo encouraged us to use dialogue in the same ways as an orator would. Repetition, emphasis, silence, pauses…all help to create the patterns of speech that will make us laugh. In W1A watch how hapless Will responds to the coffee order. For picture book writers it’s also important that the adults get something from the humour too – after all they’ll be the ones hopefully buying, reading and re-reading. This means re-reading our own work out loud to others is crucial and doing what Mo described as “punching up the script” to make it as funny as you can and upping the humour quotient.

So here’s a question:

Q: What would you call two bananas?

mo-ohara

A: A pair of slippers

See. Banana skins. They’re everywhere. Go find that funny!

©Chez l’abeille  2016