funny books

Tom with a ‘Laugh’ in His Name: An Interview with Tom McLaughlin

Accidental Prime Minister mr tiddles

In the same way that our politicians are touring the country to garner our votes, Tom McLaughlin, author of The Accidental Prime Minister, is touring the country to inspire children to read and write and draw. For Tom, inspiration starts with a blank piece of paper. “Books can spring from a doodle, or a mood – a moment you’re trying to create, and then you wrap a picture or a narrative around that. When I’m writing I think about drawing, and when I’m drawing I think about writing. I tend to plan out my books like a spider chart – mapping it out pictorially.”

Of course, Tom didn’t start his career writing books – he started, somewhat aptly for someone promoting The Accidental Prime Minister, drawing political cartoons. “It’s similar to what I’m doing now; drawing pictures and writing jokes, but of course with a book you get much more time to think about and play with ideas. Also, the world is quite a miserable place, and with a book it doesn’t have to be based in reality – so you can have the queen wearing roller skates!” This suits Tom well, as he’s never far away from a joke, inspired by anything from TV to podcast, Monty Python to John Oliver, Father Ted to The Daily Show. He even has the word ‘laugh’ in his name, a fact his publisher has highlighted by colouring it a different colour on the front of The Accidental Prime Minister.

He likes satire, and clever comedy, although admits that in writing for children, he does include plenty of fart jokes too. In fact, I was never sure during the interview quite how much Tom was joking: “If I were PM for a day I would make it compulsory for all cars to be fitted with dogs. Because there is nothing nicer than walking down the street, and seeing a car with the window down and the dog poking its head out, tail wagging in the wind. It just cheers me up. It would just make the world a better place…oh and world peace – that one as well.” In all seriousness, Tom does think that children need to have some knowledge of what’s going on around them. “I think it is important for children to know about the world. As a family, we always used to sit down and watch the news together. Knowing about the world can only make you a better and more rounded person.” Although he admits that writing The Accidental Prime Minister wasn’t a ruse to get children into politics: “It was never meant to introduce politics to children – that was a by-product of what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the most famous boy in the world, and I was trying to think of how to do that. Should he invent something or be rich? But I wanted him to be powerful and to have a voice – and that’s how the politics thing came about. I liked the idea of him being PM by mistake, although I had to bend the constitutional laws slightly to do that.”

story machine

Tom is following this with The Accidental Secret Agent, although with different characters. He’s also busy creating more picture books as well, following in the footsteps of The Diabolical Mr Tiddles and The Story Machine. Tom told me how he enjoys working within both media: “I like the illustrative quality of picture books, there’s something really beautiful about creating that world. With The Story Machine it was all about creating a mood – although it’s hard because you have to agonise over every single word – it’s not like writing a novel in which you can just go for it.” Surprisingly, as he is dyslexic, Tom found he liked the ‘going for it’ with novel writing despite remembering reading and writing being difficult as a child: “It knocked my confidence for six. I hated the idea of reading in front of people, in front of the teacher. It was terrifying and you felt kind of stupid. I was put on the table with the slow learners and told I was lazy. I was tested for dyslexia, so the school knew about it, but didn’t do anything. I think things are better nowadays.”

Even doing readings of his own books makes Tom nervous: “I still mess up reading my own books – so for The Accidental Prime Minister I read the same passage because I’ve sort of learnt it off by heart. Also, I have good days and bad days and that’s really weird.” He’s learnt certain techniques to help though, and admits writing is easier than reading. “I audio book stuff, and listen to the radio, and I’ve learnt to think about something else while I’m reading – almost like not looking at the words too intently – reading slightly above the line I’m reading so that I’m looking at it out of the corner of my eye – that makes things a little easier.” The strategies help him, and encourage him to speak out about it to children. During our school visit, he told his audience about his dyslexia, and how it hasn’t held him back as an author: “You can still do anything. What’s important as an author is not so much the pictures and words as having an idea and having something to say.”

Tom also treats his keyboard like a piano; music inspires him. In fact, music resonates throughout The Accidental Prime Minister because the chapter headings are all song titles – London Calling was originally the title of the first chapter – although this was dropped in the end, and it became ‘I don’t like Mondays’: “Being at home in front of the computer 12 hours a day drawing or writing you need something, so I listen to a lot of music. If I’m writing I tend to listen to quite spiky, anarchic jazz because it’s like playing the piano on the keyboard. You don’t want any words though when you’re writing. I used to have classical music but you ended up feeling quite sleepy.” Perhaps the sleepiness inspired his next picture book, The Cloudspotter, publishing 18th June. The cover has a dreamlike quality – and the book is inspired by using the shapes of clouds to make images. Judging from his talent at changing mere pen strokes into full-blown political caricatures of the children at this latest school visit, Tom’s pictures and jokes look likely to win him many votes.cloudspotter

Quick Fire Round:

Ears or eyes: eyes

Majority or coalition: coalition

Tea or biscuits – Earl grey tea

Jetpack or parachute – jetpack

Cat or dog – cat

Computer or paper – blank piece of paper

The Girls of Year 7

completely cassidyperfectly ella Dog Ears

I have three excellent books for those children facing, with some trepidation, the start of secondary school. Each book has its own distinct qualities and themes, but the one aspect they all share is demonstrating that with support from friends and family the upheaval and newness of Year 7 can be conquered: from dealing with a new faculty of teachers, juggling different subjects and homeworks, meeting and making new friends and keeping old ones, and other people’s expectations of a Year 7’s greater personal responsibility. Year 7 can be daunting and tough, so three great protagonists with whom young readers will identify are Cassidy from Completely Cassidy, Ella from Perfectly Ella, and Anna from Dog Ears.

completely cassidy

Completely Cassidy: Accidental Genius by Tamsyn Murray, illustrations by Antonia Miller
This book had me chuckling from the outset, and kept up the humour and pace all the way through. I devoured it in one sitting and highly recommend it. Tamsyn Murray captures the essence of what it means to be a tweenager in this endearing new series about a girl called Cassidy. Written in the first person, Cassidy is just starting secondary school and intensely worried about looking right and fitting in. Her mother is pregnant with twins, and her big brother is annoyingly at the same school, and just generally annoying! In the first in the series, Cassidy’s test results get muddled with someone else’s, and the school mistakenly place her in the Gifted and Talented group, as well as putting her on the school quiz team. Overnight she’s the school genius! At the same time she’s juggling her old friends, one of whom has a crush on her older brother (much to her annoyance), her transformation from little girl to bigger girl – from still wearing fairy knickers to dying her hair – and her changing family situation. Tamsyn employs the use of CAPITAL LETTERS to accentuate her tweens’ intonation, as well as random doodles and squiggles, and graphics showing ‘torn out’ to do lists, extracts from diaries, and lists of facts that Cassidy attempts to learn to keep up her genius status. But above all, what shines through is the realism of Cassidy’s voice, in her deepest thoughts, her squabbles with her brother, and her conversations with her friends. I can’t wait for the next book. This one was fantastic. (and there’s a website www.completelycassidy.co.uk). You can purchase it from Waterstones here.

perfectly ella

Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper
Although this book also opens by talking about knickers, it’s not meant to be as comical as Completely Cassidy. The voice of Ella, also in the first person, seems slightly more imbued with the author’s voice, with a more serious sensibility and worldly awareness. Ella’s family situation dominates the novel, for although Ella is also starting Year 7, she is still dealing with the breakup of her family:
“I don’t think their divorce will ever really make sense to us”
Her weeks are split between time at home with her teacher mother and three sisters, and time with her sisters at her Dad’s place with his new partner and new baby. Ella is also dealing with a sharper case of insecurity – she struggles to define herself against her other sisters, all of whom appear to her to have much more distinctive characteristics. They also deal with the outcomes of the divorce in different ways; her eldest sister bottling up the emotions but releasing a drip of anger and resentment; and her littlest sister wanting her whole family to live together under one roof. Ella herself counts the exact days since the divorce, and tries to make an effort to get everyone in her family to be happy, no matter the cost to herself. The accuracy of the situation is heartrending and I particularly loved that Ella prized her time alone with each parent more than anything. Ella is also contending with the dynamics of bringing two old friends of hers together at school and attempting to make them like each other – and then realising that a threesome of girls can be tricky. It’s a well-crafted book, and the writing shows that the author herself comes from a large family. She picks up the dialogue superbly. For her readers, there’s the added delight of craft activities, recipes and quizzes at the back of the book. You can also read my Q&A with Candy Harper here, and buy Perfectly Ella from Waterstones here.

Dog Ears

Dog Ears by Anne Booth, cover by Pip Johnson, illustrations by Anne Booth
This author shot to critical acclaim with her debut novel, Girl With a White Dog, in 2014. It gently introduced the topic of Nazi Germany to a young audience and makes for compelling reading. Her new book, Dog Ears, also uses the device of a dog to bring a much bigger topic to life. Anna, halfway through the autumn term of Year 7, finds that she can’t easily talk to anyone in her family, so relates her day to day thoughts and feelings to her dog. This works well, as the reader is the dog and therefore privy to Anna’s struggle as she tries to balance the hectic life of a Year 7 schoolgirl with problems at home. Her father is away, her mother dealing with an ill premature baby, and so Anna is left to pick up the pieces, dealing with domestic duties and the increasing stress of her home environment. Anne Booth wants to draw attention to the multitude of children who suffer the pressures of being young carers at the same time as dealing with schoolwork and friends and growing up. She manages to strike a fine balance here between bringing an issue to light and making this a fun read. Through the telling of the story we gradually realise that Anna is finding it harder and harder to keep up with not just her schoolwork – but also to remember things for school such as ingredients for food technology, costumes and musical instruments for school performances. The extent to which Year 7 can be overwhelming is patently laid bare here. Anna is also under pressure from her Gran to be more helpful at home, and all of this is set against the backdrop of an exciting talent competition at school. There’s the fluctuating emotions of her mother because of the situation with her sick baby brother, as well as frustrating Skype conversations with her absent father. By the end she has realised that she is not alone in her predicament, and also that once her feelings are properly aired, she has a huge support network around her. Anne Booth manages to pack a great deal into this slim manageable book. It’s a complex situation dealt with simply and deftly, and an enjoyable read. Buy it here.

 

With thanks to Usborne Publishers for sending me a copy of Completely Cassidy for review, and to Simon and Schuster for sending me Perfectly Ella for review.

 

Candy Harper Q and A: The Perfectly Ella Blog Tour

perfectly ella
Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing three books that feature Year 7 girls as protagonists. One of them is Perfectly Ella by Candy Harper, a new witty and enjoyable coming-of-age tale about Ella, who is the fourth of five sisters. Ella has to deal with family break-up, shifting friendships, and being part of a large family of girls. Author Candy Harper is herself the fourth of five sisters, so I wanted to quiz her on her fabulous family.

MinervaReads: I’ve always fancied myself as a bit of a Jo from Little Women, or Saffy from the Casson series of books. Who are your favourite fictional sisters?

CH: Ooh, loads. The Conroys in Hilary McKay’s The Exiles series. The Fossil sisters in Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes. Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and BeezusThe Penderwicks. Laura and Mary from Little House on the Prairie (I love it when Laura pinches Mary because she can’t stand what a goody-two-shoes she is.) The Bennets in Pride and Prejudice (When people hear that I’ve got four sisters they ask me if we’re like the Bennet sisters, I tell them actually growing up with a load of sisters is less about helping each other do your hair for a ball and more about learning to eat with one hand guarding your plate.)

Are any of your siblings also writers – like an Emily to your Charlotte Bronte?

CH: No, but my 10 year-old daughter, Lyra, is a brilliant writer and illustrator. Her latest picture book ‘The Day All the Pets at the Pet Show Died’ is a heart-breaking work of staggering genius and I’m sure we’ll see it in bookshops soon.

Many groups of siblings have formed some kind of group act – Jackson Five, The Von Trapp singers, etc. Does your family have a special talent?

CH: We can’t sing, dance or play the ukulele, but we do know how to put on a rollicking good row. During which, two sisters are usually blisteringly angry, and the other three are convulsed with laughter. Seeing my littlest sister (who is actually quite tall) grab my middle sister (who is Kylie Minogue sized) by her collar and pin her up against a wall is a special memory I will treasure forever.

candy harper sistersCandy (second from left), and her four sisters (when they were little)

You have four sisters. Did you miss not having a brother?

CH: When my mum was pregnant with my little sister I really hoped she’d be a brother. When she was born, my parents bought me a boy doll to make me feel better. For the next three years I spoke to the doll more than I did my little sister. Then I discovered she was small enough to sneak under our back fence into the neighbour’s raspberry patch, and all was forgiven. Ever since then, as long as people bring me something nice, I don’t mind which gender they are or whose garden they’ve stolen it from.

What is the best and worst thing about having four sisters?

CH: Growing up, the worst thing was that they were EVERYWHERE. We were a family of seven living in a three bedroom semi. I used to climb into the airing cupboard to get some peace and quiet. But on the plus side, there was always someone to play with.

You are the fourth of five sisters. Did you ever get bought anything new?

CH: Ha! You sound like a younger sibling yourself. The short answer is no. I was always optimistic about the whole hand-me-down process; I used to admire the new things my big sisters got and imagine how great I’d look in them years later, ignoring the fact that they’d be covered in felt tip stains and bobbles by then. It took me a while to consider the impact of changing fashions, too. I remember looking at my eldest sister’s mint green court shoes and thinking ‘One day those babies will be mine.’ When they finally reached me in the ’90s, everyone was wearing Doc Martins and I was a lot less keen on them.

With huge thanks to Candy Harper for being so honest and sharing her stories of sibling rivalry with me. Look out for my review of Perfectly Ella here. To win one of five giveaway copies of Perfectly Ella, find me on twitter @minervamoan and follow and retweet. If you’re not lucky enough to win, you can buy your own copy in the shops here.
Perfectly Ella blog tour bannercandida harper photo

Ivy Pocket Character Development: A Very Lofty Opinion of Herself

ABIPCOVER

I’m delighted to host a guest post from John Kelly, the illustrator for Anyone But Ivy Pocket on my blog today:

Ivy in cake

I love designing characters.
My favourite thing about being an illustrator and writer of children’s books is the bit at the beginning of a project where you get to decide what a character looks like. To be honest, I’d be happy just doing that, and not bothering with any of that messy story business. So, back in November last year when I got an email from Bloomsbury asking me if I wanted to illustrate, Anyone but Ivy Pocket I didn’t even wait to find out if I had time in the schedule to do it. I just read:
“Ivy Pocket is a 12-year-old maid of no importance with a very lofty opinion of herself.”
‘Perfect’, I thought. I know exactly what she looks like. So I drew a quick sketch and sent it to the designer.
It was Ivy standing by the broken pieces of a priceless vase, with a dopey expression that said, “I’m afraid it was an escaped panther, M’Lady.”
IVY rough 1

And that, with a few tweaks of expression, was pretty much how long it took to design Ivy.
IVY rough 2

That’s not normal. Usually there’s loads of versions and roughs. Lots of furious scribbling, curses, and rubbing out before the character starts to slowly appear. So, just for form’s sake, I did a few more doodles of Ivy, and a simple character pose. But she pretty much stayed the same. And the character pose I did even ended up as the cover of the book. I credit the writer, Caleb Krisp, with writing such perfectly described characters. And he was brilliant at offering feedback when I got it wrong. For example, my first attempt at the beastly Matilda Butterfield wasn’t right at all. Her description read:
12 years old. Very pretty. Dark hair, hazel eyes, red lips and an olive complexion. Looks like a doll. Lovely, but somehow unreal.
For some reason I gave her bubbly blonde curls and an expression of worried angst. Caleb put me straight and pointed out that she was supposed to be a selfish, malevolent, spoilt brat. I gave her long dark hair and a vicious little expression.

Matilda wrong
The hardest character to pin down was the enigmatic (and villainous) Miss Always.
Prim-looking young woman (aged 25-30) with mousey brown hair. Wears a brown dress and matching gloves. She has unremarkable brown hair pulled back from her face. Round spectacles. Excellent teeth.
She’s supposed to look harmless, uninteresting, and unthreatening. It’s really hard to draw ‘unremarkable’ and make it interesting. Anyway, it took me a while to get there. At first she was too silly, then too scary, then a teensy bit prim, then too friendly, then stern, then sappy.

Ms Always (1)

Good grief! Eventually I somehow combined them all and got it right.

Ms. Alwats final

So, I do love designing characters, but give me a massive evil beard, a villainous octopus juggling a cutlasses, or a giant alien robot every time. Much, much easier.

With thanks to John Kelly. The illustrations, as you can see, do enhance Caleb Krisp’s characterisations and further bring the story to life. You can read my review of Anyone But Ivy Pocket here, and purchase it here

Countdown to the Election

General elections throw up a lot of questions. Who shall I vote for? Is our electoral system the right one? Why are television debates so long? It can be hard to answer the questions, and harder still when they are asked of you by your children!

There is so much to cover when explaining politics that I wanted some books to help children navigate the political landscape. Actually I found very few books on politics for children. There are many that serve an agenda, such as highlighting conflict or understanding refugees, but very few that simply define what politics is, what an election is, and how the system works. In the end I chose just three books.

the election

The Election by Eleanor Levenson, illustrated by Marek Jagucki
This picture book for young children explains what happens when two families support two different parties in an election. The parties are simply drawn and illustrated – one is spotty and one is stripy. The book defines an election, campaigning, debating and voting in simple language. The pictures show typical families in an attempt to illustrate that the election is something that affects everyone; there are drawings of a lady in a wheelchair, a person cycling, and people of different ethnicity and age. For the adult reader there are certain jokes contained within, such as a political reference to the Acropolis, the industrial revolution, and more mundane observations such as a Dad about to fall on marbles and various poses of people looking at their mobile phones. It’s not subtle, but it serves its purpose very well, and is the only book of its kind to illustrate a British election so succinctly and simply. Buy it from Waterstones here.

whos in charge whos in charge inside2

Who’s in Charge? How People and Ideas Make the World Go Round
This non-fiction gem explains the idea of politics from power and the different types of leadership through political ideas, the building of society, the economy and people’s rights. For me it works well because to explore politics, you need to have some understanding of history – and that’s what this book gives as well. It illuminates ideas of democracy, theocracy, monarchy, anarchy, and dictatorship, as well as giving definitions of the state, a citizen, government, a politician, and isms. From the timelines showing how different civilisations were borne, to the introduction of monarchies and leadership, populations, and land as a way of explaining how different political systems were thought up and needed, to illustrating the different ideas of the state in a ‘rainbow of ideas’ from communism through to fascism, the book also explores capitalism, the economy and local politics. The beauty of the book is that it speaks in generalisations, rather than homing in on specific countries, leaders and governments, so that the child gleans a view of what is possible and why politics exists without forcing any agenda or giving room for pre-imposed political leanings.
whos in charge inside1
What’s more this isn’t a dry book at all, the graphics are exciting and playful – from a local politics jigsaw to a monopoly board of capitalism, flow diagrams, venn diagrams, comic strips, quizzes and a mix of illustrations and photographs. The foreword is by Andrew Marr, and it is great for reading through cover to cover, or just dipping into for a particular topic. This served its purpose very well too. You can buy it here.

Accidental Prime Minister

The Accidental Prime Minister by Tom McLaughlin
Lastly, I wanted to have some fun with politics. After all, I grew up on Spitting Image – there was no greater vehicle for getting people young and old interested in politics. Tom McLaughlin’s book manages to introduce the idea of politics for a 7+ readership with some serious points, but mainly with laugh-out-loud humour. It tells the tale of Joe, who makes one great speech that goes viral, and he ends up as prime minister. There are slight misrepresentations – most of our prime ministers were voted in, not just handed power – but the book makes some serious points amongst all the silliness. It begins by bringing politics to street level – Joe’s ambitious speech starts because the government want to close his local park, and he wishes to keep it open. Other serious points include those adults who are just in politics for the ego-trip, the ‘spin’ that can be put upon events, and the randomness of war – but essentially the book is packed full of humour – because what would happen if a twelve year old were in charge? There are jetpacks, bouncy castles, a Queen who rollerskates, ice cream and whoopee cushions, and the author’s delight in writing this satire comes across with his very 1980s pop song chapter titles, including Fame, Parklife, Don’t Stop Me Now, as well as his parody of Thatcher’s famous speech: “Where there is grumpiness, may we bring giggles”. A riotous laugh. He also illustrated it himself with some winning cartoons. Grab yourself a copy before the election, click here.

The Unreliable Narrator

Some of my favourite literature has unreliable narrators, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – the latter of which clearly reaches into the children’s literature genre. For children, it can be fun to spot an unreliable narrator and makes for great discussion.

Some narrators are unreliable simply by being young – the story is told from their first person perspective and they are too immature to appreciate everything that’s happening around them. In many ways the reader can see through this and may appreciate that they themselves have a greater understanding of the narrative than the person telling them the story. Diary form novels fit easily into this genre – Wimpy Kid, Emily Sparkes, Dork Diaries. We can see the author’s intent where the first person narrator of the story is playing catch up with the reader.

Then there are more subtle unreliable narrators, perhaps those who are lying to us, to themselves, deliberately or not. I wanted to review two books with unreliable narrators, both of which are for the middle grade readership (9+yrs.) but the two books couldn’t be more different. These are both highly recommended by me.

ivy pocket

Anyone But Ivy Pocket by Caleb Krisp, illustrations by John Kelly
Twelve year old Ivy Pocket is a maid, sacked by her employer at the beginning of the novel, and left destitute in Paris. She is summoned to the bedside of the Duchess of Trinity and asked to deliver a very precious jewel, the Clock Diamond, to Matilda Butterfield in England on the occasion of her birthday for the reward of £500. Ivy agrees, and starts her adventure of gothic charm, ghosts, catastrophe and murder.
The brilliance of the novel though, is not so much the somewhat violent action scenes, twists and turns, and great characterisation, as the way in which the story is told. Ivy Pocket is swamped with the most extravagant case of delusional self-belief, believing herself to be above her station, and brilliant at everything. She is hilariously quirky; ebullient, tongue-in-cheek, absurd and captivating.
She reminded me at times of that long-ago American heroine Amelia Badelia, who does everything she is told completely literally from making sponge cakes with sponges to stamping on letters, but with the best intentions. Ivy too believes she is constantly in the right, and all those around her are ridiculously wrong. She insults, misconstrues and acts dumb in turns, but in the most winning and humorous way, that you love her despite everyone else in the book finding her deeply irritating. The language is deeply satisfying – Kaleb Crisp employs delightfully tongue-in-cheek vocabulary throughout from ‘carbunkle’ and ‘stupendously’ to ‘claptrap’ and ‘bunkum’. Her insults are luscious:
“Lady Elizabeth, there is no great crime in being a dried-up bag of wrinkles. In fact, I’m not even sure it would be kinder to drag you outside and shoot you.”
and
“A great big slug of a woman – part goddess, part hippopotamus…her enormous body spread out on every side like an avalanche”
I wanted to read aloud parts to everyone I met whilst I was mid-read. Ivy Pocket also has stock phrases that she repeats throughout the book, giving her great characterisation, added to the fact that almost everyone else in the book is highly satirical, and you have one of the most fun books I have read in a long time. I’m imagining that a child will have to be quite sophisticated in order to appreciate all the nuances within, but once hooked, they’ll devour this and every sequel that follows. It’s reminiscent of Lemony Snicket’s books, and yet highly distinctive.
You can buy a copy here, the book is published on 9th April 2015

Liar and Spy

Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead
Where Ivy Pocket is playful and verbose, Liar and Spy is realistic, modern and minimalist. Set in New York, the story is mainly told through dialogue. Liar and Spy is narrated by Georges, a young boy whose family is suffering from financial difficulties. Georges tells us about himself, the difficult time he is having in school, and the family he befriends when his family downsizes into a new apartment block. Georges’ Dad pushes him into joining a ‘spy club’ that they stumble upon in the building, and before long Georges is playing at being a spy on his neighbours in the building.
The humour within this novel is observational. Rebecca Stead has managed to capture the dialogue, worries, and thoughts of young boys particularly well, and it soon becomes apparent to the reader that everything is not as it seems. The cleverness lies in working out, from the small clues that Stead drops throughout the narrative, whom is lying to whom and whether our narrator can be trusted. In the end, it’s for the reader to understand that if our narrator is living under a delusion, then by default, so are we, the readers. It’s a small, clever book that betrays some youngsters’ fears and anxieties in a subtle, non-threatening and understanding way.
Liar and Spy also brings into play how other people live – not just a view of American life for those of us reading it in the UK, but also how different families operate in different ways. It also opens our eyes to some deeper thoughts – what matters in life – how our small actions every day build up to create a bigger picture. It’s a great book, a terrific story, but also makes for interesting talking points as children grow towards the teenage years. Buy your copy here.

An Interview with Tatum Flynn, author of The D’Evil Diaries

The Devil Diaries TatumFlynn (2)

Tatum Flynn is darn witty on twitter. I always feel that twitter users should be witty – the word wit is in the name – but Tatum and her avatar stand out in particular. And then I noticed that she’d written a book for children too – with a deeply compelling title, The D’Evil Diaries, and I knew I had to read it. The book has an intriguing premise – it is set in Hell, features the Devil himself, which is fairly subversive for a children’s book aimed at the 9 yrs+ audience, and even contains conversations between the Devil and God. I realised this was one debut children’s author whom I had to interview. I first asked Tatum if she had set out to do something different by writing her rather rebellious yet highly inventive novel.
I’m not sure if​ any writer sets out to write something different on purpose, we just all *are* different, we all have uniquely odd internal universes. Writers just let the cat out of the bag by putting those internal universes onto the page. I simply set out to write a story that would entertain me, with an eye to eleven-year-old me, and that story happened to be a funny version of Hell because that type of subversion and unlikely juxtaposition is the kind of thing that tickles me.
In the novel there are two very likeable and well depicted children – Jinx, the son of the Devil, and Tommy, a dead child who seems to be in Hell by mistake. Is Tatum more of a Jinx or a Tommy?
All my characters have a bit of me in them – I think they have to, to come alive – but honestly the character that I most identify with is Loiter. [Jinx’s pet sloth] I would happily spend most of my days lounging in a hammock drinking margaritas and reading Calvin and Hobbes. But if I had to choose between Jinx and Tommy, I’d say I was more like Tommy as a kid – I didn’t have her talents for gymnastics or knife-throwing, but I was pretty bouncy and chatty and a crackshot with a pistol.”
Devil Diary illustration2
Pistols aside, there’s some wacky stuff in the book, with superb action scenes from a carousel where evil horses come to life, to woods with dead witches hanging from trees. Above all, there is oodles of humour, and not just common slapstick, but witty intellectual humour, which is so refreshing and wonderful to read in a children’s book:
Humour doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me. Sometimes it does, but sometimes I go back and say, Hmm, this chapter isn’t funny enough, let’s have someone fall on a hellhound and squish them. But that’s the joy of writing – it’s easier to be funny when you have time to think about it! Esprit d’escalier and all that. Humour generally, though, is super important to me. Laughter is the physical manifestation of joy, there should be more of it around. It’s one of the reasons I write kid’s books, because there’s far more humour in them than adult books. Humour is also a great way to take pretention down a peg or two, or mock terrible things happening in the world. I think humour keeps the human race sane, and that’s not an exaggeration.”
Tatum’s book is funny, but also controversial, as Tatum features God as a character in The D’evil Diaries. I wanted to know if she’d hesitated before including Him, as I imagine there may have been consternation among some publishers:
Yes, a little, though probably not for the reasons you might think – I mean, once you set a kid’​s book in Hell you’ve already pushed all your chips in the middle.”
Tatum’s chips reference brings her past as a professional poker player into play. Maybe this helped her look at things from different points of view in the book as well. It is written in first person, from Jinx’s point of view, but Tatum also has scenes between God and Lucifer.
I was unsure about having too many different points of view.​ The first section from His point of view was something I wrote early on, but I took it out. Then I was encouraged by various people to enlarge the Lucifer sections and interstitials, so I put it back in. One of my favourite lines in the book is ‘God was in his pyjamas’, so I’m glad He crept back in, plus I’m fond of the dynamic between Him and Lucifer, where the King of Hell reverts to being a sulky teenager around his Father.”
Devil Diary illustration
I stopped short of asking Tatum about her religion but did venture to query her opinion on the existence of Heaven and Hell:
The epigraph at the beginning of my sequel is:
‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’​
​from Paradise Lost​. That’s the type of heaven and hell I absolutely think exists. I’ll leave the possible existence of other types to the theologians.”
Something that particularly tickled me in the book was Tatum’s imaginative use of chapter titles from chapter 10 ‘Blah Blah Secret Plots Blah Blah’ to chapter 11 ‘Library Cards at Dawn’ but also her references to songs, chapter 14 ‘If You Go Down to the Woods Today’ to chapter 23 ‘Just Another Brick in the Wall’. Which song would Tatum prefer of the two?
Woods, definitely, I always think there’s something slightly deliciously creepy about the teddy bears’ picnic…
Lastly, I asked Tatum which book in the world she wished she had written. Jokingly, she replied…”the new one I’ve just started,” but then proceeded to tell me her favourite influences:
Molesworth, the Addams Family, Tankgirl, Calvin and Hobbes – but I couldn’t have written (or drawn, interesting how they’re all illustrated) those anyway. I’m just glad that they’re out in the world for me to be inspired by. I think most people become writers because the book they want to read doesn’t exist, at least that was partly ​the case with me. So I think the book I wish I had written is one of my own that’s yet to come, one that will be as near to perfect as I can clumsily make it.”
Self-deprecating, witty and clearly talented, I’m delighted to have interviewed Tatum Flynn about her debut children’s book. I’m sure I’ll be talking to her in years to come about how much more she’s achieved.

You can purchase The D’Evil Diaries here and find out more about Tatum Flynn here, including her vagabond past of piloting lifeboats in Venezuela, shooting rapids in the Grand Canyon and almost falling out of a plane over Scotland.

 

 

The D’Evil Diaries by Tatum Flynn

The Devil Diaries

Once in a while a children’s book comes along that is so inventive, and witty, and different, that you want to hug it whilst reading. Twelve year old protagonist Jinx D’evil is just like any other school boy apart from the fact that he is a demon with bright red skin and wings, lives in Hell and is the son of the ruler there, Lucifer. His problem is that he is too angelic – he is no good at being devilish, and runs away from his father after disappointing him one too many times. Whilst on the run, in the outer circles of Hell he meets Tommy, a dead girl, and together they discover a coup to overthrow his father, and finally Jinx has a chance to prove himself a worthy devilish son. The ensuing adventure is fast, furious and fun. The story is gripping, the writing compelling and the jokes clever and witty, so that you can appreciate them as an adult and as a child – it’s not just silly slapstick:
“Now, now, you really needn’t worry. I happen to know that Tafrac, the Patron Demon of Wrath, isn’t home right now. I believe he’s down on Earth, busy making people angry with a new scheme, something to do with website comments.”
Even the chapter headings are well conceived, from ‘A Rare, Lesser-Spotted Dead Girl’ and ‘Blah Blah Secret Plots Blah Blah’ to ‘How Grim Was My Valley’. Throughout the book these chapters are interspersed with scenes of Lucifer himself – sometimes on holiday – sometimes chatting with God. Tatum Flynn’s writing oozes effortless humour, but she manages to deftly mix it with a great plot and loveable and realistic characters. The friendship between Jinx and Tommy is nicely observed and develops well during the novel. This is a great debut book from a new talent. I recommend it both for its irreverence and its crafty humour. There will be high expectations for the sequel.

Illustrations by Dave Shephard

Publishes 2nd April. You can buy the book here.

Thank you to Hachette publishers for sending me a proof copy of this title for review.

Me and My Books: The Grammar Conundrum

grammar
My books and myself? My books and I? Are you finding this difficult to read? And now I’ve started a sentence with ‘and’, which is okay in literary prose isn’t it? Although children are taught that you absolutely mustn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; it’s not deemed to be an acceptable sentence opener.

Seriously though, how much does it bother you? I read a LOT of books. Or a great many books! So many of them contain grammatical errors, particularly when I read them on the kindle, although admittedly many of the ebook errors are typos, which leaves me wondering if the digitisation was just a tad slapdash. Are we making more grammatical errors because our language is evolving and we deem it to be okay to finish a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, or use that instead of which, or are we just not taught grammar correctly anymore? Are there less copyeditors (yes, I know it’s fewer) with a good grammatical grounding?

The Super Adventures of Me Pig

Does it matter more if the grammar is correct in children’s books? Some children’s books are supposed to contain grammatical errors. The funniest book in our house at the moment is The Super Amazing Adventures of Me Pig by Emer Stamp. It starts like this:
“Hello.
Me I is Pig. I is 562 sunsets old. Well, I is guessing that is how old I is. I is not brilliant at counting. I got a bit confused around 487.”
The grammar here is not annoying because it’s supposed to be terrible – the author is writing as if he is a rather stupid pig, so the grammar reflects this, and it makes the book funny. The children testers for this book found it hilarious because they knew instinctively that it was grammatically very badly written. However, in order for them to find the style funny, they have to know the correct grammar to start with. But what about if the author is writing from a young child’s point of view, but in the third person narrative voice:
“He did, however, out of the corner of his eye, catch them doing that sarcastic thing they did, where one of them – Barry didn’t like separating TSE into two, as that was kind of recognising that they existed, but if he had to, he would refer to them as Sisterly Entities One and Two – would pretend to write down something he said, as if it was really important. Which of course was their way of saying that it wasn’t important at all. Barry really hated it when they did that.”
The Parent Agency, David Baddiel, illustrated by Jim Field

Heidi

What’s the difference between the book containing grammatical errors or just being badly written? Would a book flow better if the grammar was correct? Take an extract from Heidi by Johanna Spyri. Some might argue that the language is too ‘heavy’ and the style of writing too old-fashioned, and therefore it becomes prohibitive as a modern child needs something lighter. I don’t necessarily agree with that:
“Heidi looked at the jug that was steaming away invitingly, and ran quickly back to the cupboard. At first she could only see a small bowl left on the shelf, but she was not long in perplexity, for a moment later she caught sight of two glasses further back, and without an instant’s loss of time she returned with these and the bowl and put them down on the table.”

Narrative voice should also make a difference. If we can’t excuse David Baddiel for the writing above, would we be more willing to excuse it if he had written the book in the first person instead of the third person? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is acceptable because it’s written in a colloquial way in the narrative first person.
“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”
However, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is as much about accent and social commentary as it is about grammar. Do we always need to be grammatically incorrect to talk in a child’s voice? The following books all use grammar incorrectly for effect – to create the child’s personality and they’re all in the first person. Are the grammar mistakes immediately apparent to the average child?

Emily Sparkes

“This is completely a bad start and I am just thinking I need to change the subject quick because she is on an ‘eco-roll’ when it is too late and she says the terrible words.”
Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald

Clarice Bean Spells Trouble

“I go home in a very downcast-ish mood and even my older brother Kurt says, “What’s the matter with you?”
Which is unusual because usually he doesn’t notice other people’s gloom, he is too busy feeling gloom himself.”
Clarice Bean Spells Trouble by Lauren Child
But then surely, if Clarice is quoting her mother, as she does in the next extract, would her mother, as the adult, speak slightly better than she does here:
“When I ask Mum why he’s so cheerful, she says, “He’s just got himself this weekend job at Eggplant and it has really put him in a good mood.” To me, this still sounds like Clarice Bean – or is Clarice not quoting her mother directly, but twisting it from her memory into ‘Clarice speak’. Is bad grammar excused if it’s in speech marks because it’s representative of how we speak, which is often grammatically different from written prose?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney is American, and so of course a reader should expect Americanisms, but the author also deploys a lack of good grammar for effect – it is a child’s diary after all.
“Us kids have pretty much figured Fregley out by now, but I don’t think the teachers have really caught on yet.”
However, if it’s being an ‘authentic’ kid’s diary – would the spelling all be correct, or should the editor be modifying that too to create ‘personality’? Tricky one, hey? What about apostrophes? They all seem to be correct in the Wimpy Kid books…should they not be? Do your children speak like this? Can readers/writers get inside the head of a youngster without resorting to bad grammar?

I have a child in my house who insists on saying “Me and my friend went swimming” instead of “My friend and I went swimming”. I correct her constantly, which must be ‘super irritating’! However, did she pick this up from reading, or from her other friends? One children’s book, which I read recently, made this one error all the way through, even though the rest of the book was grammatically correct. For effect or just an error? Has our language changed so much from the days of Johanna Spyri that it’s now acceptable for modern literature to have bad grammar littered throughout? Does the expanse of bad grammar in our midst mean that children’s authors have a responsibility to write with even more care for correct grammatical usage to teach our children what’s right in the first place? If our children pick up their language tools from reading, at what point do we think its okay to break the rules for effect? And one day will they even know the difference?

When does bad grammar become a literary style?

 

By the way, last Thursday I guest-blogged on another site, MG Strikes Back, about the role of animals in middle grade fiction. You can read it here. It mentions some of my recent favourite MG books too.

MG STrikes back

The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Broccoli Boy

An amusing tale involving superheroes, food and school bullies. Rory Rooney is locked up as a medical mystery when he unexpectedly turns broccoli green on a school trip. The scientists aren’t sure if he’s carrying a contagious disease or if his colour is the result of something he ate. When Rory discovers another boy has also turned green, and not only that, but he’s the school bully and they’ve been locked up in isolation together, he realises they will have to work as a team to prove to the world that they are superheroes and must escape – after all, the Incredible Hulk and the Green Goblin were green. Cottrell Boyce manages to make ordinary London extraordinary as the hero and his classmate roam around a vibrant night-time London, having weird and wonderful adventures, their friendship developing and cementing the further into the book you delve. Brimming with humour and likeable characters, this was a gripping read from start to finish. Giggles a-plenty and great visual scenes that almost beg to be made into a movie. Add in some girl power, a penguin and a friendly prime minister and you have an immensely lovable story. Frank Cottrell Boyce has an easy-going natural storytelling voice that manages to weave humour, great adventure and pathos into a book all at the same time. Modern London is adroitly depicted in the book, with the climax reaching the dizzying heights of the Shard. Not to be missed by your children of eight years and over. Publishes 26th March 2015.

Illustrated by the incredibly talented Steven Lenton (unfortunately for me I reviewed this from a very early proof, so didn’t get to see the illustrations – that’s why I’m going to buy my own copy through the link below!)

To buy The Astounding Broccoli Boy, click here