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.
Brian Conaghan is relatively new to the world of children’s books but not to the world of young people. He was a teacher for 17 years before giving it up to become a full-time writer when he secured a publishing contract with Bloomsbury for his first book with them, When Mr Dog Bites. He explained that as a child he didn’t read until he was about 17 and he considers himself to have been what is now termed a ‘reluctant reader’ He said “I hated the idea of people telling me what to do” and he feels that readers have to learn to enjoy reading rather than be forced to read. With this in mind he says that he read all sort of books with his pupils and felt that his motivation was to ‘grab’ readers with books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Refugee Boy, and early Roddy Doyle novels. Books, he tells me proudly “with swearing in them and about people like them” It is a literary canon that his own powerful novels very happily sits amongst. “Swearing doesn’t have a profound effect on kids but what does have a profound effect is when characters open up their emotions and express love through the pages to these kids” he asserts. When Mr Dog Bites garnered much praise for its original and brave story telling and also suffered some criticism for the amount of swearing in the book. But it isn’t possible to imagine an honest portrayal of such a complex character without the swearing. As a writer Brian aims to represent real life in his books and in the case of the books hero, Dylan Mint, real life includes having Tourettes Syndrome and an incredible ability to swear. Like all writers Brian makes a choice about who is going to represent and it is the good fortune of many many readers that he is choosing to go to the less frequently fictionalized characters for his heroes.
Brian goes on to explain that he is “interested in the individual who is lost and not heard and oppressed within the school environment and the social environment. Who isn’t valued by their society and their community. You see them constantly as a teacher. Kids at the back of the classroom, do the work, don’t give you any bother or hassle and it just seems that no one has asked them their opinion or their thoughts or feelings. These are the voices and kids I am interested in. The disenfranchised.” And to create these characters Brian has an incredibly original and unique voice himself. Amongst the very crowded shelves of teen and YA fiction there are few authors prepared to go so out on a limb and Brian comments that “ignorance is bliss. I can’t say I’ve read all these other books. I think we live in a derivative world. It is very difficult to be unique but what I do think you can be is honest, and I think you can be true, and I think you can represent people accurately.”
“The reason I like writing about teenagers is that I feel sometimes that irrespective of where you live in the world, which direction your life is taking and the social and economic political situation I think sometimes that what unifies teenagers is that we have all got the same fears about ourselves, about our bodies and about how other people see us and about how we see ourselves.” And it is this understanding about the universality and shared emotional world that we inhabit that gives Brian’s characters such universal appeal – regardless of the particular circumstances of their stories. He tells me “I just feel we are not that different. Other than the aesthetics and the language of it all we are not that different. I feel it is what’s in your head and in your heart that counts.” And in that Brian reveals the profoundly humanitarian and kind pulse of his books. Brian’s second book with Bloomsbury has just published and I am delighted to review The Bombs That Brought Us Together which has the hallmarks of the unique Conaghan voice, the unlikely hero, and a brave approach to telling the truth for his readers, but this time he sets his characters in a much bigger political arena.
After the huge critical success and a Carnegie Medal shortlisting for When Mr Dog Bites, Brian Conaghan’s second book with Bloomsbury, The Bombs That Brought Us Together, has just published. How do you follow a debut that caused such a sensational amount of interest? By writing something else brave, original and complex it seems.
In this moving novel Brian takes us on a more overtly political journey than its predecessor, yet at its core remains a touching portrayal of boys and their friendships. Brian explained: “I try to write tenderly about boys and I look at my own friendships as a kid and while we were into football and underage drinking we loved each other intensely and were always very open and honest with each other.”
When Charlie Law meets Pavel Duda it is at a time of great social unrest in Little Town. A suffocating regime is firmly in place with the laws laid out for all to obey and the enemy, in the form of Old Country, lurking menacingly across the border. Pavel’s story of migration from Old Country to Little Town, arriving with nothing but a flimsy understanding of the native language, is particularly resonant today. Brian started writing the book in 2014 as wars were being fought at the edges of Europe and the humanitarian crisis in Syria was sending shock-waves across the world. Struck by the nightly news pictures of families walking out of war zones, often with their entire lives packed in a small rucksack, he felt moved to write on their plight. . The people in the news stories, Brian understood, are just like the rest of us; not in any way less human or empathetic because of the cards that life dealt them. He was also aware of the Scottish Referendum and considered the imbalance of power between Scotland and England and he says “it got me thinking, what if this big place, a mighty powerful neighbour, would become a bully.”
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is inspired by and reflects real life events. The book creates a relatable story that humanises and personalises those events for the reader. At the core of Brian’s writing is the desire to understand his characters and their motivation. He wants to paint portraits that are honest and through the portrayal of those lives allow the reader to get closer to understanding a bigger political context.
Brian believes that today we “live in a culture of fear. We have to look for answers as a country and as a community and look at why we are demonising young people”. He argues that this demonisation comes from a wider attack on working class values and working class communities being vilified by the media and politicians. Brian wants to show his readers that people are fundamentally not that different and when any differences are emphasised it is done in the name of greater political ambitions. In Little Town these differences are amplified to create a culture of fear in order to help the regime maintain the skewed power balance. Pavel’s arrival shows Charlie that he has been taken in by the propaganda, blindly accepting its sweeping generalisations, and the friendship that Pavel and Charlie go on to form is a safety net for both of them. While on the surface it might appear to the reader that it is Pavel who has most to gain from the friendship, we soon see that both boys benefit from the relationship in a profoundly important way. When Old Country invades Little Town and Charlie and Pavel find themselves on the wrong side of the regime, it is the courage and confidence that their friendship has given them that gives Charlie the strength to resist and take a course of action that will change their lives.
Dealing with big political issues in The Bombs That Brought Us Together is something that Brian feels is very important. He was brought up to be politically motivated and he is concerned that the disenchantment felt today about the democratic process is down to a failure of the system. He feels that books like his, that directly address political themes, are empowering young people and offer the opportunity for readers to realise that they have a part to play in the narrative and that they can question the disparity of power. He writes to give voice to the silent, both in the personal and domestic arenas and the larger political arena.
In the end The Bombs That Brought Us Together is full of optimism and hope for the future as, at its core, is the belief that people can overcome their hardships; that they can change; that they can find strength and security through friendship and love, and that caring for their friends and families has its own reward
The Bombs That Brought Us Together is a powerful book about important issues. It is a book with a strong voice and a book that doesn’t shy away from looking directly at a problem,. Like the best YA writing, its power is in its characters and their interplay as they contend with moral and social dilemmas that the reader can empathise with. Brain Conaghan’s book joins others such as Maggot Moon, in giving the world a different view of boys, their friendships and their hopes and dreams. Brian is a thrilling writer whose respect for his audience is such that he doesn’t shy away from the truth. Happily for us, he tells me that he is a fast writer and that there are other books in the pipeline, which I for one am very much looking forward to.
“A book can never be too young for you, a book can be too old for you but it can never be too young for you … “ David Roberts.
To celebrate the publication of A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spottingby Michelle Robinson and David Roberts I met David for coffee and to talk about his career in publishing, his books and the joys of illustration. Here is some of what we spoke about …
David went to art school in Manchester where he studied Fashion Design. And whilst he was on the course two visiting lecturers introduced him to his future – a milliner to a passion for hat making and a fashion illustrator opened his eyes to the possibility of earning a living as an illustrator. He found that his tendency to draw characters that look like him made his choice of fashion illustration as a specialism a little tricky “They weren’t the most attractive lets say … so I didn’t really get much work” he tells me.
David went to Hong Kong where he worked as a milliner and while he was there he started to work for local newspapers and magazines doing art for their horoscopes, fashion pieces and articles which started him on his career as an illustrator. One of the pieces he did, about the people in the fashion industry which he based on a hybrid Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous and Ivana Trump, he had made into a postcard through which he met his agent Christine Isteed of Artists Partners with whom he has been every since.
It was Christine who guided him to being a children’s book illustrator. She pointed out to him that he draws characters with a story and she took him on telling him that she would find him work in children’s publishing.
It was exactly what David wanted to do and was the start of his amazing career. “For me at that time Christine was the one that gave me that boost. I wanted to do children’s book illustration but I never believed I was able to do that. So when she said ‘Go away, come back to me when you have reworked your portfolio, take a few nursery rhymes and illustrate them…’ that was the start for me.” David’s first book was with Wayland called ‘Frankie Steins Robot’ by Roy Apps and he has since gone from strength to strength and work by him must be present on almost every child’s bookshelf with a range of titles covering everything from pre-school to YA.
David does not see himself as a writer, rather as someone who is an illustrator of other peoples books. This is despite his wonderful Bertie series of books which cover the escapades of a little boy called Bertie who has some pretty revolting personal habits that appeal hugely to a young readers. David created the character and wrote the first two books and the writing is now done by Alan Macdonald while David continues to illustrator both the picture books and fiction titles that are published around the character.
“I soon realized after doing those books that writing is not for me” David tells me “what gives me the real thrill is someone else’s imagination, and what they come up with can then take me down a road that I never would have been able to think of myself. I need someone to open that door for me.”
David acknowledges that the challenge of illustrating dinosaurs for Julia Donaldson’s Tyrannosaurus Drip meant that he was pushed out of his comfort zone – and had to come up with characters for animals that don’t wear clothes as clothes mean to so much to him when creating character.
He says he enjoys illustrating other peoples books so much more that trying to come up with his own texts and this is also perhaps why David’s work, while being so distinctive, meshes so well with different writers from Chris Priestley to Sally Gardner, Julia Donaldson to Michelle Robinson. There is great mutual respect between the two creative halves and never a feeling that one is trying to impose its will on the other..
David is surprised that his work is often talked of as being gothic as he is not a fan of anything even remotely scary. He says he couldn’t even watch Sleep Hollow with Johnny Depp which is hardly hardcore horror! But he acknowledges that he likes to illustrate darkness “creepy and sinister and the oddities of things, the shadows. What I loved so much about Chris Priestley’s stories is that they allowed me to remove the characters because he didn’t want things revealed. I could literally draw a room with a shadow and that was enough.” And this was a new way of thinking for David who found himself freed of having to create a character and could focus on creating an atmosphere. Which he does brilliantly.
It isn’t too much of a surprise to find out that one of the reasons that David wanted to be an illustrator is because of his love of Edward Gorey’s books. He became captivated by Gorey’s work while a student because “there is something about the way that it is so static. Its just these captured moments that really really appealed to me in the way that I also really loved Victorian photographs where a scene has been set and you are posed. I learnt a lot from looking at Edward Gorey and Gustave Dore and Charles Keeping. I learnt about tone and light and depth and how to leave the white space and how to cross hatch from looking at their work.”
David is the master of leaving the space. He does not over explain or over illustrate and leaves the reader lots of room to use their imagination and fill in the gaps. David is also a wonderfully humourous illustrator and much of this is conveyed through the charm of peoples faces, and ‘wide eyed’ innocence. David admits that he loves to draw people, to think of who each character is, what they would wear and how they would move through the world. He thinks this is at odds with his solitary life as an illustrator who doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with people and it is the humanity he invests in his characters that I think make them so compelling to the reader.
David’s reputation is building around the world and while he is published in many countries and is working directly with American publishers he doesn’t feel he has to adapt his style to suit his projects abroad. Working directly now with Abrams on the books Rosie Revere Engineer and Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty with a third one on the way.
He notes that his books published in the American market are often noted for their ‘Britishness’ and he knows that in the end it would be a mistake to try and contrive something for a market “always just be yourself, do it how you see it and then let other people take from that.”
David is amused by conversations in which people assume that his ability to create children’s books is because he “has the mind of a child”. He says “I don’t really think about the child when illustrating a book, I only ever respond to the text. I never ever think what would the child want to see.” Like other original and successful creators of children’s books his ambition is to create the best and not to double guess what the audience might want.
Yet at the same time David is conscious of the orthodoxy of a classical training. “I always felt that there was this secret method which I didn’t know about because I hadn’t trained that way. That you had to be so pure about things and if I was doing watercolour I would feel I couldn’t possibly pick up a coloured pencil and add that to it because this is supposed to be watercolour. And then I found a copy of John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing and something flicked in my mind. I just looked at it and saw that it was a case of whatever is on the desk he picked up and drew with it so it could be a crayon, or pen and ink or watercolour. It was so free and it instantly made me think whatever I want to make the mark with I should make the mark with. It made me a little less frightened.”
David feels that there is no right and wrong way of doing something and this confidence has meant that he has developed a wonderful distinct style that is always recognizably him. Despite the difference in the audiences from his picture books to his black and white work in YA novels the art is always clearly his. He loves the fact that he can move between black and white and colour work and that the illustrations for each take a different energy from him. The variety he feels keeps him fresh, and interested. He suggest that his most unusual work and the one that will surprise his fans the most is Tinderby Sally Gardner which came about because Sally asked him to work in a different style. He found the opportunity such a freedom and it was he says, rather like having time to draw for himself and experiment.
David does all his work manually and does not use a computer. An artist with immense drawing skills David is also someone who creates a colour scheme for each of his books which is special and personal to each text. For A Beginner’s Guide to Bear Spotting
the colour scheme was his first approach and also his first way into the text and didn’t involve any changes of heart or direction from him as the book developed. He says “I had this idea of orange, and yellows and orches and pale blues – these were the colours that I though the bears would look good against. With this book it was straight away right. “
Publishing in February David loved illustrating Michelle’s text. He says it was an opportunity for him to combine his black and white cross hatched line with watercolour and a perfect opportunity to bring those two creative worlds together.
“I had so much fun with it. The text is so new and so open, it felt like I could take it in so many different ways and it was so refreshing to think ‘how shall I do this’
David also enjoyed the process of working with Bloomsbury on the book as he felt no one was trying to ‘guide his hand’ on the book and that in being left to ‘have a go’ and then to adapt anything he might have got wrong allowed him to get it right.
For a child that is a little bit unsure about reading David realizes that Illustration is a way of making the reading experience easier. He remembers not being a confident reader and how much art helped him build his confidence. That pictures can offer clues to the words as well as a small break in the reading is important to how David structures his illustrations and in the Bolds by Julian Clary David aimed to have an illustration on every page to help young readers with both pace and clues.
The family in the Bolds is a family that David feels the reader wants to be part of and that they are always laughing and finding laughter in their experiences. “Its nice to illustrator laughter” David tells me and “when I am drawing I pull the expression on my face of the expression I am drawing. I found that when I was drawing the characters in the Bolds I have this crazy grin on my face the whole time.”
David doesn’t often get a day off but if he did on his wish list would be a visit to see a Hockney exhibition, an artist that he adores. He says that Hockney’s work from the 1970’s heavily influence Iggy Peck Architect and that he shamlessly stole a garden sprinkler from a Hockney painting for the book. It is clear that David’s influences are wide and his appreciation of the detail in other peoples art is something that is reflected in the painstaking care he puts in to his own work.
He also really likes exhibitions like the Viking exhibition and the Pompeii exhibition as he loves real stories about real people and he would love to do some non-fiction, biography even. He would be interested in people whose lives are interesting, whether or not he agrees with their politics. Margaret Thatcher for example would give him plenty to get his teeth in to … miners strikes and all.
For the coming months however he is unlikely to have time to start the Iron Lady’s life. He has several books in the pipeline, including his first book for Walker Books which he is delighted about as it was the first children’s publisher he was every really aware of. This after a career that spans, if you include all the educational titles, book covers and other projects, over 150 books. We have a lot more to look forward to from David in the future.
Enraged this morning by Radio 4’s Today programme’s coverage of France Hardinge’s win of the Costa Award for The Lie Tree I have found myself trying to answer the core prejudice in their coverage. That children’s books are inferior, jolly and a bit of a ‘lark’ That the prizes awarded to them aren’t ‘proper’ (which is how adult awards were described) and that the audience are somehow a little infantile – even when they are adults reading the book.
So, what is the difference between a book for young readers and a book for adults. It is not the quality of writing or the sophistication of the plots, or the handling of difficult themes or the scope of the landscape. It is not in the development of characters or the exploration of life’s meaning. It is not in the ability to handle terror or humour or fear or insecurity. So, what is it. I think it is simply the focus of the story being on a young persons point of view. When political tyranny is being explored, as it is in Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, it is done so through the prism of the friendship between two boys. When issues of right and wrong and racial injustice are being written about it is through an ill-starred love affair between two teens as in Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, when matters of gender prejudice are being portrayed it is through the story of a girl accused of witchcraft in Witch Child by Celia Rees.
None of these authors patronize their readers. None of them write thinking that they are doing so for an audience that cant handle the sophistication and complexity of James Baldwin, Angela Carter or George Orwell. They are instead writing a story in this moment of a great wealth of publishing for young readers that puts the young person at the center and sets the story about and around them.
Today Programme on Radio 4 raise your game, gain an understanding and perhaps even start reading some of the books you clearly have no idea exist.
I am delighted to post here a wonderful, personal and inspiring review of MATILDA by the poet Toni Stuart. A great reminder that reading pleasure is a lasting pleasure.
I was given Matilda as a first communion present from my god parents. I was 8 years old at the time and it was, by far, my favourite of all the presents I received for the occasion. It is also the only one I still have and treasure today. I cannot remember how many times I read the book that year. It must have been a good few, as Matilda is still so vivid in my mind. Her mannerisms, her voice, the way she sits curled up in the armchair reading, the way she tilts her head slightly when considering Miss Trunchbull’s odd stature and way – I can still see and hear them all, as if I had just finished reading it.
But what is it about this story of a young girl with a voracious love for reading and learning that has made such an impact on me? Why is that 24 years later, I still have a visceral experience when recalling Matilda and her story?
At its heart, Matilda is a story about the power of books and reading. It is a story about how we find kindred spirits in those who share our love of words and stories. And, it is a story about childhood, and the remarkable strength and imagination of a child in the face of adults who are unable to truly see her, let alone her extraordinary mind and talents.
In retrospect, and, considering the text through the lens of my adult feminist perspective, what makes Dahl’s protagonist even more remarkable is that she is a woman, and the person who comes to her aid – Miss Honeywell – is a woman. The main antagonist is also a woman. So, here is a story about a young girl, for all children, in which most (let’s not forget Matilda’s father) of the key characters are women – each of whom is strong, intelligent and powerful in their own way. While this is not something I remember at the time, it is certainly something that had an impact on the way I saw myself and imagined my place in the world. As an unashamed book worm, from the age of 6, Matilda was someone I understood from the moment I met her. I did not think I was her, but I believed that I could be like her. Dahl’s ability to gently infuse the lives of his characters with magic is perfectly weighted in Matilda. There is just enough magic for extraordinary things to happen, but not so much that it made it impossible for me to believe that I too could move objects with my mind. In her quiet and yet fierce way, Matilda learns to navigate the world on her own terms. She does so with her mind, her care for the people around her and with books. My adult self realises that Matilda gave me permission to be myself – a shy bookworm, who loved reading and the world of the mind. My child self simply loved her courage and her magic.
Toni Stuart is a poet, performer and spoken word educator working between Cape Town and London. She says of herself ‘I am a poet who believes in listening as the catalyst for change.’
We have made a decision, here at The Read HQ, not to publish any reviews in the magazine. But occasionally a book we read will be so astounding that we’ll feel compelled to write about it here on the blog…
I have just read George by Alex Gino. A wonderful, touching, subtle and utterly magical book.
There is a lot being published at the moment looking at the theme of gender identity and honestly, I have to say it, in much on offer I find the story buried under the theme. As a reader (and an editor) I do admire books in which the theme is part of the story rather than dominating it.
In George Alex Gino has nailed it completely. A novel aimed at younger readers, the delight of the book is the subtle way in which the very central issue of the book is handled. George is a transgender girl who was assigned male at birth. She knows she should be a girl. When the school is looking for players to take part in a dramatisation of Charlotte’s Web, George wants to be Charlotte. That is the part that will allow her to tell everyone the truth about herself.
The delight of the book is the direct honesty of the story telling and the wonderful relationships that help George be the person she wants to be. George’s friend Kelly is a delight. Just the person we all want on our side no matter what is going down. There is a whimsy and lightness of touch too which I think puts Alex Gino up there with a writer like Louis Sachar.
This is a book that transcends issue and by doing so makes the importance of the theme of the book hit home to the reader. It is always better to entice and delight than harangue and preach. I feel so much better informed and so much more engaged with the issue of a transgender child now and I found it all out by reading a really wonderful novel.
I read that it took Alex Gino twelve years to write this book. I really hope that it won’t take that long for the next one.