There are writers that we read that will forever live in our hearts and heads. Writers whose vision, and eloquence, and understanding of their world and the wider world expands our own and makes us more understanding. For me Langston Hughes is one of those writers. A hugely important writer whose work heralded the Harlem Renaissance , one of America’s most important creative geniuses.
And then today I heard about this fund raiser from I, Too Arts Collective, a nonprofit organization committed to nurturing voices from underrepresented communities in the creative arts. Their first major project is to provide a space for emerging and established artists in Harlem to create, connect, and showcase work and the goal is to lease and renovate the brownstone where Langston Hughes lived in Harlem as a way to not only preserve his legacy but to build on it and impact young poets and artists.
As Langston Hughes said ‘Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly’ Help make this dream become a reality and help affect the creative and working lives of people for years to come,
This May I spent five days in Singapore attending the impressive AFCC (Asian Festival for Children’s Content). The conference draws professionals involved in the world of children’s books, film, games and other media together in the National Library and hours are spent talking, listening and learning about other peoples expertise.
This year the country of focus was Japan and publishers, writers and illustrators from Japan presented their wonderful books to a very interested crowd whose members came from all over the world.
If you want to know more about the events and the scale of the conference visit the website http://afcc.com.sg/ which not only looks forward to next years event from 17th to 21st May (when the country of focus is Indonesia) but also looks back at the conference over the six years of its existence.
There is no fee paid to speakers but if you are selected to speak then you are given a free multi-day pass to the conference which is worth its weight in gold based on the quality, diversity and range of the wonderful speakers.
How delicious it is to sit down with a magazine and not be entirely sure what you are going to find between its page, to have a sense of excitement and curiosity about what will be there. That is the feeling we are hoping to engender and encourage when people subscribe to Scoop.
Scoop is a new magazine for children between the ages of 8 and 12. It will be jam packed full of wonderful content by a fantastic range of writers and illustrators offering all sorts of different children something to tickle their reading fancy.
From Catherine Johnson to Gareth Jones, Emerald Fennell to Piers Torday, Chris Priestley to Lucy Coats the fiction will be a rich mix of voices and perspectives. From a look at the fun of cycling to how to paint a flower like Georgia O’Keefe we will have a range of activities. From writing a play to writing a poem we will encourage interaction. There will be graphic novel fiction and non-fiction, quizzes, competitions, reviews of exhibitions around the country as well as reviews of books. There won’t be a moments boredom and all this and so much more from the likes of Tom Stoppard, Neil Gaiman, Eoin Colfer, Andrew Donkin ….
So, who are we? We are Clementine Macmillan-Scott the founder of the magazine. She has worked as Coordinator of the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka and the Galle Children’s Festival. And me. Editor-in-Chief, commisioning content and working with contributors. Our Marketing Director Joanne Owen, a children’s and YA author and reviewer, who has worked for Bloomsbury Children’s, Macmillan Children’s, Walker Books and Nosy Crow. We all love reading, care about what children read and want that to be fun, quality, accessible and challenging.
Our aim is to enthuse children about the written word in as many ways as possible and publishing monthly at £3.99 per issue it is an irresistible purchase. The website goes live in the 1st September with lots of exciting content until then you can visit the site to register for a subscription http://scoopthemag.co.uk/. We are on twitter and instagram @scoop_the_mag and the first issue will publish on the 23rd September.
Why not subscribe http://scoopthemag.co.uk/ for someone you know. At £39.99 what a perfect year round birthday, Christmas or any-day present.
What an exciting week in the world of commentary about literature for young readers. First an article in TES (attached below for anyone who hasn’t read it) and then The Today Programme on Radio 4 follows it up with the author of the TES article having another opportunity to express his thoughts on the world of writing for Young Adults. (Again link below )
What can I say! It amazes me constantly that ‘other people’ are sitting around deciding in their great and elevated wisdom and critical ability what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ for Young Adults to read. That these wise, educated and cultured people have a notion of what is good means that they also have very clear ideas of what is ‘bad’ and bad seems to be anything that the young person might choose for themselves. Something that engages with the world on issues and concerns that they hold dear and want to address not only in the books that they read but in their lives both personal and political (or is there a difference!) So much about reading is about entering another world, the world of another person or political situation which allows you to polish and refine your ideas and opinions. For all of us (young or old) reading is also a way to vicariously experience, an opportunity to polish our opinions through the action of the protagonists without actually having to engage in the acts of rebellion, heroism, self-sacrifice and more. Through the vicarious sharing in the dramatic actions of Standish Treadwell I might just make a better and more noble choice when facing smaller but no less significant acts of repression in my own life.
So, when someone writes a long article about the risible standard of literature for young adults and seems to have very limited knowledge of what is being read by young adults today I am very keen to know what they think is good. Like the best wish fulfillment fiction my dream comes true the next day when the same commentator suggests that a good book for Young Adults to read at the moment is ‘The Domestic Manners of the Americans’ by Fanny Trollope. I have never heard of this book but a quick bit of research tells me that it created a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic when it was published in 1832 as the author had ‘caustic views of the Americans’ , and that she found ‘America strongly lacking in manners and learning. ‘ Sounds like just the enlightened, sensible, generous and empathetic literature we need these days to make sense of our fractured world in such troubled times. Thanks for the tip? No. Not really. But thankfully young adults continue to vote with their feet. To buy books by wonderful writers like Lisa Williamson, Louise O’Neill, Malorie Blackman, Brian Conaghan, Juno Dawson, Benjamin Zephanian, Alex Wheatle, William Sutcliffe, Laure Halse Anderson, Non Pratt, E Lockhart … someone please stop me
It has taken two months of intense and thoughtful reading to read and carefully consider the well over 500 submissions we received to our call out for manuscripts. And it has been a really fascinating experience for so many reasons.
Firstly, to see themes and ideas that appear through so many books from authors in hugely different and separate parts of the world. I wonder why this is? Is it that people are trying to write things similar to books that they have read and love, or similar to books that are selling well. I have read advice to aspirant writers that you should see what is working in the market place and try to write alongside that. Based on my past two months I now know that that is very very bad advice.
Secondly, writers all over the world are looking at ways to create engaging, interesting, original and compelling stories for young readers. Sometimes those stories are so universal in their handling of their story that I feel concerned that something is being missed and the missing thing is taste and flavour. I do believe as human beings we are all very similar. We care about fundamentally the same things – love, friendship, family, independence … the list could go on and on BUT (and this is a big but) we come at all these things with such distinct cultural knowledge and that should neither be ignored or made to be an excuse for certain types of behaviour and attitude that may be challenging. How do we navigate that literary tight rope … its tough but we have to as writers, publishers and readers. We want to see ourselves in books, we don’t want to see a neutered version of people but we also don’t want to feel that we are being pigeon-holed.
Thirdly, magic. The world is full of magic. Books are full of magic. Life is full of magic. The act of writing a book is pure magic and the act of reading one and having life transformed by that book is also magic. But magic isn’t a get out of jail free card. Things should not just happen purely because magic exists. Even magic is logical and has to make sense. One action has to lead logically on to another. A crazy mayhem packed plot may not be magic it may just be confusing.
William Sutcliffe is the author of several books for adults with his last two books published by Bloomsbury aimed at young adults. A distinction he, and no doubt many of readers of YA literature, feels is rather an arbitrary line. Certainly the complexity of ideas, the sophistication of writing and the dilemmas that his characters and therefore his readers have to face is no less challenging in one set of books than the other. However he does focus in both The Wall and Concentr8 on a cast of characters whose age puts them at that point in life between dependence and independence, powerlessness and empowerment and in both books it is this pivotal moment that forms that moral framework of the narratives.
In The Wall Joshua is a young man growing up in a town, in the never explicitly named, Israeli settlements who finds a tunnel to ‘the otherside’ where he is confronted with the reality of the impact of the settlements on the lives of the dispossessed. The wall is a physical presence in the book dividing the two communities but it is also a metaphorical wall between childhood and adulthood, between a boy’s morality and that of his parents. The book is about choices, about Joshua learning the meaning of his parents choices and about starting to make choices of his own. Two words that appear in the book with some frequency are ‘debt’ and ‘atonement’ and when we speak Will points out that there are many biblical references in the book with it in some ways being a contemporary and politicized retelling of the biblical story The Good Samaritan. The dilemma’s and actions of the hero of the novel focus on the way in which Joshua repays a kindness and recognizes his part in the greater actions of society which is not one that he feels sympathy for or a part of.
Concentr8 also focuses on choices and actions and their outcomes and this time with a very different group of young people. Set in the expanse of London’s housing estates these young people are victims of a society that is casting them to the margins by failing them in schools, by drugging them with Ritalin and by giving them no hope of any future. The book begins with echoes of dystopian literature, as William Sutcliffe says ‘feeling quite far-fetched like wild sci-fi’ but quickly uses its tense story telling, excerpts from medical and scientific research and very real portrayal of an ambitious London Mayor to feel incredibly real.
The characters portrayed too are viscerally real from the way that they speak to the camaraderie and bonds that exist between them. William Sutcliffe tells me that he worked for a while in a ‘rough South London school’ that was ‘not really a school, more a holding pen’ and that he feels that the failure to educate means that our society is creating ‘twentieth century canon fodder, a class of people who don’t really get an education, who leave school without any hope of a job and they are just in despair from quite a young age. And under current austerity measures the little hope they have gets worse and worse. These are the characters I wanted to put in to this book. I don’t think that they have much of a voice in our society.’
While The Wall is told in the first person, Concentr8 is told from multiple viewpoints each chapter clearly labeled by the character whose point of view we are sharing. If The Wall is about making the bigger political story personal Concentr8 is about making the personal story political. Will’s writing is clearly focused on trying to ensure a voice for people. His concerns are that in society we find it easy to marginalize and push out of sight people that fall outside our own set of prejudices about normal. The young men in Concentr8 are the urban marginalized: the people that the media pillories, that are considered difficult in school, who are not invested in the system because they can not see where they fit or what the system does to support them. Using satire to expose the self-interest of politicians in London in the days after a period of rioting the book is also deadly serious as a group of young people kidnap and hold hostage a man who works for the London Mayor. We know it can’t end well and while reading about the hold-up in a deserted warehouse in Hackney our sympathy for the hostage takers tends to move back and forth understanding their plight but also afraid of them and their audacious actions.
The novels both have a strong and impassioned authorial point of view. William says ‘you have to take a moral stand’ and while I questioned that his characters moral stand in Concentr8 is worryingly ambivalent he says that ‘one of the things I worked at in this book and which I think is very important and sometimes missing in YA fiction is a sense of ambivalence. Some YA fiction makes it very clear who the good guys and who the bad guys are. Ambivalence was very important to me with these characters. What they do is clearly bad and unpleasant. They are not nice. But I wanted readers to feel some sort of identification towards them, and sympathy for who they are, which puts you in an interestingly complex position about what they do. What they do is pretty appalling. There is nothing good about what they do but I hope that what the book does is give you some feeling that if you are in a condition of total despair and you have no hope for the future, then just standing up and being counted and being noticed feels like something.’
The end result is certainly that William has written a book that many young people will see in it something of their lives represented. Something of the people around them and the feeling of hopelessness that sadly is the daily life of many young urban people. He says that ‘I hope that a 15 year old kid reading this book might feel a bit understood. Its not just about you understanding the book. It’s the feeling that the book understands you.’
What next for William Sutcliffe? I don’t doubt that whatever it is that the portrayal of people in complex and difficult situations will be interestingly and skillfully traversed.
Both The Wall and Concentr8 are available now in paperback published by Bloomsbury. William Sutcliffe’s books have been shortlisted and won an impressive range of prizes as follows:
The Wall Grampian Children’s Book Award 2014, Shortlisted.Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year Award, Winner. Guardian Children’s Book Prize, 2013, Longlisted. CILIP Carnegie Medal 2014, Shortlisted. Hampshire Independent Schools Book Award, Shortlisted. UKLA Book Award 2014 (12-16 Category), Shortlisted. Scottish Children’s Book Award (older readers), Shortlisted. Cheshire School Book Award 2015, Shortlisted. Amazing Book Award 2015, Longlisted
Concentr8 Peters Book of the Year Award 2016, Shortlisted. YA Book Prize 2016, Shortlisted. CILIP Carnegie Medal, Nominated
The reading has begun and I am overwhelmed by the quality, range and diversity of the submissions we have been sent. There are a few things already to read again and consider for the next round but with well over 400 submissions left to read I am going to be realistic about time frames.
By the end of August I will have read and considered all the submissions and had a chance to re-read too. Early in September I shall write to any authors whose work has sung out to me and shall ask to see the entire novel.
I realise that it is disappointing not to hear if your work is NOT selected but with 525 submissions to read we cant get back to everyone. So I am going to say here that it is absolutely amazing to realise just how many people are writing great books and have sent their work for us to consider for publication on the Pushkin Press list. In the days before the open submission date I would wonder how many submissions we would receive. I hoped for 200, I would have been thrilled with 100. 525 is mind-boggling.
Well, the extraordinary thing is we have 525 submissions, from all over the world. And I have started reading. It is going to take a while and I hope that by the end of the week I will have a pretty good sense of a timetable on when people will expect to hear from me if they are going to be called to submit their entire manuscript.
Then I will start reading all of those and will hope that at the end there will be some wonderful authors with brilliant books who we will be able to publish.
Thank you so much everyone for your interest, for your submissions, and for your patience! You might have to exercise quite a bit of that as I didn’t in my wildest dreams imagine I would be reading so many synopsis and first pages.
Making your dialogue sound natural is always a problem. Read it aloud to yourself, or even better get someone to read it aloud to you. You soon hear what works and what doesn’t.
It is also important to avoid having your characters talk about things that have happened in the book. Dialogue should drive the plot forward not rehash what we have already read. Remember that all dialogue has to work in helping keep the pace, explore character and reveal important information.
When writing historical fiction carry your research lightly. We the reader do not need to know every tiny detail of making a dress in 1840 when your character is a dressmaker, or skinning a rabbit when your character is a poacher. It is great that you have researched and know exactly how these things are done but for us it may be a bit boring to have too much detail.
Get the voice right and consistent. Ye Olde English can be pretty trying to read but the odd word used here and there can place a character very firmly in a time and place which is not here and now. Read books written at the time your novel is set in to get a sense of language.
Look at old photos, paintings and other source material for details that can help your book feel time specific. How did a hospital look in 1917? There are pictures to help. What was London like in 1925? There are pictures there to help. Best not to guess or think it was like today but with horses.