Category Archives: General

Hooray for Frances!

What a fabulous night at the Costa Book Awards . . . and what a brilliant result! Many congratulations to Frances Hardinge for winning the overall prize with her superb teenage novel, The Lie Tree – only the second time in 31 years that the winner of the children’s category has claimed the main award.

Frances Hardinge picAs one of the judges at yesterday afternoon’s meeting in the library of the St James’s Hotel, in London’s West End, I went into the room expecting to be in a minority of one, championing Ms Hardinge’s book. I knew it was an exceptional novel but it was up against some very strong candidates from the other four categories, never mind the weight of history being stacked against it. Would enough of the other judges sign up to the notion of a book for teenagers winning one of the UK’s biggest literary prizes?

As the meeting unfolded, though, it became apparent that The Lie Tree was in with a serious chance of winning. We discussed the category winners in turn, with each judge given time to comment on each book. There was dissent – one book, in particular, produced a clear split between those who loved it and those who really didn’t like it. But, for the most part – and despite strongly held and clearly articulated views – the differences of opinion were much less stark, and less bluntly expressed, than might have been expected.

Costa-Book-Awards-logoIndeed, the meeting was surprisingly convivial. Once the talking was done, the chair of judges, James Heneage – historical novelist and founder of the Ottakars chain of bookshops – asked each of us to write down our first and second choices. To give an indication of what a close-run thing it was, four of the five books secured at least one first-choice vote.

After the votes were totted up (two points for a first choice, one point for a second choice), The Lie Tree emerged out in front, both in terms of the total number of points and the number of judges who placed it in their first two. As James said later, in his announcement speech, dissent had yielded to consensus. It was the one book that was enjoyed and admired all round the table, even by those who didn’t vote for it. It was the right choice. The judges whose favourites missed out were generous-spirited in their endorsement of the result and in expressing their pleasure at conferring such an accolade on an author who is already highly regarded (and prize-winning) in the realm of children’s fiction but little known outside of it. Until now!

The lie treeI don’t mind admitting, I was thrilled to bits when we all decamped around the corner to Quaglino’s restaurant for the awards ceremony and the winner was announced. I was delighted for Frances Hardinge and her marvellous novel but, as an author of young-adult fiction, I was fully aware of what a momentous decision this was for UKYA more generally.

Teenage fiction has been the success story of British publishing for the past 25 years, producing scores of talented writers and so many brilliantly written books. The sales have reflected this and yet it has never really received the critical and media attention it deserves. So, a Costa win for a teenage novel was long overdue (it’s been 15 years since Philip Pullman won with The Amber Spyglass).

I am immensely proud to have been a part of the Costa judging process – first, in working alongside Melissa Cox and Andrea Reece to select the shortlist and winner of the children’s category, then as part of the final judging panel, with Jane Asher, Katy Brand, Julia Copus, Louise Doughty, Janet Ellis, Matt Haig, Penny Junor and our excellent chair, James Heneage. It was a pleasure to meet and work with them.

Costa-Book-Awards-logoCommiserations to the four category winners who missed out: Kate Atkinson (Novel – A God in Ruins); Andrew Michael Hurley (First Novel – The Loney); Don Paterson (Poetry – 40 Sonnets); and Andrea Wulf (Biography – The Invention of Nature: the Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt). I enjoyed all four books . . . but it was The Lie Tree that blew me away.

Scissett revisited

Scissett 1It’s always a pleasure to drop in on one of my very favourite schools – Scissett Middle School, near Huddersfield. So, I thought I’d share a couple of pictures from a recent visit, when I ran writing workshops for two Year 8 groups. The stories they’ve written in response to the sessions have now been entered into a competition which the school has asked me to judge.

I’ve been to Scissett several times over the years, to run workshops and give talks and readings. The staff always make me very welcome and the students are reliably attentive, engaged and a real pleasure to work with. A credit to themselves and to their school.

Scissett 2Indeed, two characters in my upcoming YA novel, Twenty Questions for Gloria, are named after two of the school’s former students, as a prize for a competition I ran at Scissett a couple of years ago, and in which more than 80 of the students participated.

I’m grateful to Linda, the librarian, and Maura, one of the English teachers, for giving me permission to use these photos on my blog.

Awards honour

I’m delighted and honoured to announce that I have been asked to join the final panel of judges to pick the overall winner of the 2015 Costa Book Awards. As reported in previous posts, I was a member of the judging panel for the children’s category, which I will now be representing when the prestigious £30,000 prize for book of the year is decided ahead of the awards ceremony in London next month.

Costa-Book-Awards-logoThe five winning books from each of the categories – Novel, First Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children’s – will be announced on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row on January 4th (with a prize of £5,000 for each author) and one of these titles will go on to be declared the overall winner at a star-studded event at Quaglino’s restaurant, in St James’s, on January 26th, to be hosted by presenter and broadcaster Penny Smith. The nine-strong panel of judges will meet that afternoon to discuss the books and reach a decision.

Chair of the panel will be James Heneage, the historical novelist and founder of the Ottakar’s bookshop chain. The other judges are: Jane Asher, actor and author; Katy Brand, writer, comedian and actor; and Janet Ellis, actor, broadcaster and writer, as well as the five writers who will be representing the award categories which they helped to judge – Julia Copus (poetry), Louise Doughty (novel), Matt Haig (first novel), Penny Junor (biography) . . . and me!

Costa-Book-Awards-logoThis will be my second visit to the final Costa awards ceremony, having been invited as a shortlistee in the children’s category, with Flip, in 2011, when the overall winner was Andrew Miller’s novel, Pure. My abiding memories of that evening (through a haze of seemingly limitless free champagne) are of eating too many lemon-curd mini-doughnuts and standing in the cloakroom queue in front of Ian Hislop. Who says a writer’s life isn’t glamorous?

Sophie’s world

Hayley Long picMy time as a newspaper reporter and features writer ended many years ago but I had to brush off the journalistic cobwebs this week to write a piece for Books for Keeps. I was commissioned by the excellent children’s book magazine to interview the teen/YA author Hayley Long (pictured) as part of a series of articles about the four writers shortlisted in the children’s category of the 2015 Costa Book Awards, for which I am one of the judges.

Sophie someoneI spent a very interesting and enjoyable hour chatting to Hayley about her work and, in particular, her wonderful novel Sophie Someone, which is on this year’s shortlist and is written in a code of her own invention.

Here’s the opening sentence of my article to whet your appetite: “Hayley Long is already a well-known noodle in the teenage bucket whirlpool but Sophie Someone promises to open the dormouse to an even grottier readership.”

To find out what on earth I’m talking about, and to read the feature in full, please click on this link to the Books for Keeps website.

Festive spirit?

As a spin-off from my involvement as a judge for the children’s category of this year’s Costa Book Awards, the nice people at Costa asked me to write about my favourite festive read.

The piece has been published as part of a Christmas promotion in their latest newsletter, which is distributed to two million members of the Costa Coffee Club loyalty-card scheme. So I thought I’d share it with the, er, somewhat fewer subscribers to my blog. As you’ll see, below, my favourite festive read isn’t very festive at all.

Dandelion Wine coverDandelion Wine
by Ray Bradbury

My Christmas read is an homage to summer. Let me explain. As a boy, once I’d outgrown Blyton and the Beano, I read little else but science fiction – specifically, John Wyndham and Ray Bradbury.

So, one Christmas, I was delighted to find Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine among my presents. I was about twelve – the same age as Douglas Spaulding, the novel’s hero. I say ‘novel’ but, strictly speaking, it’s a sequence of semi-autobiographical stories which fictionalise summertime episodes from Bradbury’s childhood in small-town Illinois. I recall none of these details, by the way; I’ve had to Google them.

What does linger is the atmosphere – a surreal, magical quality conjured by the stories’ blurring of realism and fantasy. And an evocation of place so vivid the images smudge the recesses of my memory like chalk on a badly wiped board. Even now, forty-odd years later, I can’t retrieve a gift from under the tree on Christmas morning, or open whichever new book I’ve been given, without catching a summery whiff of Dandelion Wine.

Mean to teens?

Why are writers of young adult fiction so mean to their teenage characters? That was the question posed at a workshop which I co-hosted in Durham last week at the National Association of Writers in Education annual conference.nawe-logo Well over a hundred delegates from all over the UK, Europe and as far afield as the U.S. and Australia attended the three-day gathering at the city’s Radisson Blu hotel.

This was my first time at a NAWE conference. And it was a pleasure to make my debut alongside the children’s and YA author Liz Flanagan, whose Creative Writing PhD I’m supervising at Leeds Trinity University, in delivering the session to an engaged and lively group of fellow writers and teachers. Liz recounts the workshop much better than I could on her excellent blog, so please click on this link to find out what we had to say on the topic.

Costa contenders

Having kept my lips sealed, I’m pleased to be able to go public about the Costa judging now that the shortlists have been announced. As revealed in an earlier post, I was one of three judges for the children’s category of this year’s Costa Book Awards – alongside Melissa Cox, of Waterstones, and Andrea Reece of Books for Keeps.

Costa titles uprightOver the past few months, we’ve been reading the 149 novels for children and teenagers which were submitted by their publishers (the biggest entry in all five categories). We whittled them down to an unofficial longlist of 12 then, in the restaurant of a swish hotel in London earlier this month, we met to decide the final four books which would make it on to our shortlist. Each judge began by declaring his or her own top four. It turned out that two novels appeared on all three lists – so that was nice and straightforward. Just two more slots to fill.

Of the remaining eight books, several were favoured by two judges – so much of our discussion focused on those titles. In the end, it came down to four close contenders for the last two places and (after more debate and deliberation) we came to an agreement. An amicable one, I should say, though not unanimous. There was no falling out or tub-thumping – indeed, I was struck by how smoothly the three of us reached a decision, despite some well-articulated differences of opinion. Of course, we focused on the writing, the characterization and the storytelling, but also – as per the Costa brief – we considered which books we’d enjoyed the most.

Costa-Book-Awards-logoIn the end, we settled on a shortlist of which we’re all proud. The quality of entries was very strong and at least a couple of the ones we set aside might well have made the shortlist in another year. The winner of the children’s category will be announced on January 4th and will go on to contend with the winning books in the four other categories (Novel, First Novel, Biography and Poetry) for the overall Costa Book Award, with a prize of £30,000, which will be announced at an awards bash in London on January 26th.

All twenty books from the five shortlists are pictured in the pile above. For full details of the shortlists in each category, please click on this link to the Costa Book Awards website. And here is the shortlist for the children’s category:

The lie treeAn ingenious and atmospheric gothic tale, set in Victorian England, which tells the story of a teenage girl, Faith, who sets out to solve the mystery of her father’s murder . . . and to uncover the secrets of the magical ‘lie tree’. As well as being a compelling story, the book tackles some big themes: feminism vs patriarchy and evolution vs creationism, to name just two. The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge‘s seventh novel, is published by Macmillan Children’s Books and has also been shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Award.

Sophie someone
After living in Brussels since she was little, Sophie Nieuwenleven discovers that her family’s ‘new life’ in Belgium is built on a past of dark secrets and elaborate deceit. Too afraid to tell the story straightforwardly, she resorts to inventing a vocabulary of her own – a clever, highly skilful linguistic feat which makes the novel great fun to read. I imagine the author had a lot of fun writing it, too! Sophie Someone is published by Hot Key Books and is Hayley Long‘s second Costa-shortlisting, following What’s Up With Jody Barton in 2012.

An island of our ownLife is tough for Holly and her brothers after their parents die. Struggling to fend for themselves, their hopes are raised when they become embroiled in a curious quest to track down a hoard of jewellery bequeathed to them by an eccentric aunt who has left only a set of photos of unnamed locations as clues to where the inheritance is buried. A charming, heart-warming adventure. Sally Nicholls has won several prizes for her previous novels and is also shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Award for An Island of Our Own (Scholastic).

Jessica's ghost
A teenage boy, Francis, is sitting alone on a bench at school when he is joined by the ghost of girl called Jessica. And so begins a beautifully told story about friendship and salvation as the mystery of Jessica’s death casts light into the dark corners of the lives of Francis and two other children who join their unusual ‘gang’. Funny and moving in equal measure, Jessica’s Ghost is published by David Fickling Books. Andrew Norriss is a past winner of the Whitbread (now Costa) children’s award for Aquila in 1997.

Swindon in pictures

Last week’s trip to Wiltshire for the Swindon Youth Literature Festival was hugely enjoyable. I spent a day at The Commonweal School where I gave talks and readings to two year groups – Years 8 and 9 – and ran a creative writing workshop for a group of 26 Year-9 boys. The students at the talks were attentive and engaged and asked lots of interesting questions and I was impressed by the enthusiasm and imagination shown by those who took part in the workshop. They were a credit to their school.

I’m grateful to my excellent host for the day, the Library Resource Manager, Annette Whatley, and to Josie Williams, the school’s Community Arts Development Officer and Press Liaision Officer for granting me permission to use some of the pictures she took during my visit.

Here’s a selection of them to give you a flavour of the day:
Swindon pic 2
Swindon pic 1
Swindon pic 3
Swindon pic 5
Swindon pic 4

Heading for Swindon

A busy November continues with a trip down south this week for the Swindon Youth Festival of Literature 2015. The festival, in its eighth year, is a week-long celebration of reading, writing and creativity, run by librarians from the town’s 11 secondary schools and including many leading names from children’s and teenage fiction.
Swindon festival logo 2
On Tuesday, I’ll be spending the day at the Commonweal School, in Old Town, giving two talks and readings – to the whole of Year 8 and Year 9 (nearly 500 students in total!) – and running a creative-writing workshop for a group of Year 9s. I’ll also be signing copies of my two YA novels, Flip and Never Ending, and having lunch with English teachers and librarians.

Other guest authors and illustrators at this year’s festival include Phillip Reeve, Sam Angus, Elen Caldecott, Phil Earle, Anthony McGowan, Alexander Gordon Smith, Virginia Bergin, Fred Blunt, Cliff McNish, Joffre White and Steve Cole, the new writer of the Young Bond series. As well as author events, the programme – which runs from November 6th to 13th – includes quizzes, writing and illustration competitions and other creative and interactive activities at the participating schools.

London calling

I’m looking forward to spending a couple of busy days in London this week. On Monday I’ll be calling in at my publishers, Walker Books, in Vauxhall, for a lunchtime meeting with my brilliant editor Mara Bergman, equally brilliant agent Stephanie Thwaites, of the Curtis Brown agency, and some other lovely Walker folk to discuss plans for the publication of my new YA novel, Twenty Questions for Gloria.

Walker Books logoThe book comes out in February, so we’ll be talking about all the promotion, publicity and marketing malarkey as well as plans to arrange for me to visit schools to give talks and readings around the time of publication. Hopefully, Walker will have a cover design to show me – they’ve been working on different ideas and have run various drafts past me, so I’m very excited to see what they’ve come up with. I had similar meetings at Walker ahead of the publication of Flip and Never Ending and am always made to feel very welcome . . . they lay on a very nice lunch, too!

Then, on Tuesday, I’ll be heading off to a swanky hotel on Park Lane for the meeting of the judging panel for the children’s category of the 2015 Costa Book Awards, with my fellow judges – Melissa Cox, Head of Children’s Buying at Waterstones, and Andrea Reece, a children’s books reviewer and Managing Editor of Books for Keeps. We’ve spent the last few months reading more than 140 novels for children and teenagers and have whittled them down to an unofficial longlist of twelve titles.

Costa-Book-Awards-logoOur task at the meeting this week is to agree on a shortlist of four, which will be publicly announced on November 17th, once all of the other category panels have met. The winner of the children’s section will go on to compete with the winners of the other four – novel, first novel, biography and poetry – for the overall Costa Book Award. The category winners are announced on January 4th and the overall winner on January 26th.

Having been shortlisted for the children’s prize with Flip in 2011, it has been fascinating to be on the inside of the judging process. I’ve been particularly struck by just how many excellent books are being written for young people – narrowing all of the entries down to the longlist was difficult enough but choosing a shortlist and winner will be tougher still. There’s a lot at stake, too, for the writers – each category winner receives £5,000 and is in with a chance of the £30,000 overall prize. And I know from experience what a boost it can give to a book, and to its author, just to be on the shortlist. No pressure on the judges, then!

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