Category Archives: Parents and Teachers

One ring to rule them all…

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The Ring is a rather unique collaborative novel born in the imaginations of the creative writing society at King Edward’s Senior School, Bath. The concept is simple. The novel follows the story of a mysterious golden ring from thousands of years BCE to the present day via Ancient Egypt, Shakespeare’s Globe, the wreck of the Titanic…and much more. The chapters are written by pupils, former pupils, teachers, parents, and some local authors (including me).  I also typeset the book for them. It certainly ruled my life for a while (80,000 words, 56 chapters, 41 different authors). But it is still my precious!

Here’s my story.

1911

Mary hadn’t meant for the fruit to topple out of the painting on the wall. She’d only been looking at it, thinking, What if? Apples, pears and plums thudded onto the mahogany dresser, like the sound of feet on stairs. The fruit was no longer two-dimensional or made of cracked paint, but round and smooth and sweet-smelling.

The boring dinner party conversation stopped abruptly and everyone turned towards the picture, eyes wide and mouths open. Mother tried to divert the guests’ attention by asking in a loud voice, “Do you think women should be given the vote?” But Mary didn’t get to see if it worked as Father took her hand and dragged her outside, banging the door closed behind them.

“When are you going to learn to be normal?” he hissed, his freckled face red with anger. “Go to your room. I’ll deal with you later.”

Mary pushed her hands deep into the pockets of her lace dress. She still remembered the stinging pain from being given several sharp swats to her palm with a tennis shoe when a stone lion disappeared from the Italian Garden and a real one had been found prowling through the local village on the same day. She sprinted up the stairs, her eyes bright with tears. She felt sick, knowing Father would keep his word.

For a long time she sat on the edge of the bed, waiting in the candlelight, still wearing her lace-up boots and the big bow in her brown hair. She could hear the sound of muffled voices and laughter in the dining room below; the party was still going on. If only she could run away and find a happy place to live where she could be herself.

Eventually, she picked up what was left of the candle and walked over to the bookcase. The guttering flame illuminated titles and authors’ names on the spines of the books. She ran her fingers over Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Grimms’ Fairy Tales and stopped on Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets by Edward Lear. Her hand tingled when she touched the cover, and a pins-and-needles sensation travelled up her arm as she pulled the book off the shelf. She flicked through the pages and stopped at the first black-and-white illustration: an owl with a small guitar, serenading a cat in a wooden rowing boat at sea. Stars winked in the night sky. She had a vague recollection of her mother singing The Owl and the Pussy-cat to her as a very small child, but she couldn’t be sure if it was a real memory or if she’d made it up for herself. Still, it was comforting.

As Mary looked at the picture she thought about the curved sides of the boat, the smell of 4c6ad17ccfa7d7830a50cafc2f162c261salt water and sweet honey, rough wood and silky-soft cat fur. She pictured the owl’s talons plucking the guitar strings and the sound the instrument made.

“The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat,” she whispered.

A boat, the size of a small ornament, appeared on top of the book. Mary quickly looked at the door and listened – no-one was coming. She turned back. The boat remained black and white and shaded in charcoal grey, as it had been in the book. The owl had a white, heart-shaped face surrounded by a ring of short dark feathers, black eyes and shaded upper parts, and he strummed a simple wooden guitar. The cat sat opposite him, staring into his eyes. She had the stripes of a tabby and a mark on her forehead resembling the letter M. A big jar of honey rested between them. Mary thought this an odd choice of food for a bird of prey and a cat. Surely, a few dead mice would be much more agreeable to them. Two oars stretched across the benches they sat on, dripping water onto the paper.

She continued reading. In the top corner of the page an island rose covered in bong trees with purple, heart-shaped leaves and hairy trunks. The owl and the pussy-cat went ashore and soon they met a pig with a tarnished ring, inscribed with tiny letters, at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling your ring?” asked the owl.

Said the Piggy, “I will.” He wriggled it free of his snout and handed it over.

The owl wiped the ring on his feathers and the cat admired it and purred with pleasure.

Mary smiled at her. “If you’re going to get married, can I be your bridesmaid?”

She was so lost in the story that she didn’t hear her bedroom door open.

“You’re in so much trouble, young lady.” Father’s bellowing voice made her jump.

Desperately, she tried to squeeze the book shut, but neither the creatures nor the bong trees would lie flat. She tried to push them down with the palm of her hand. The owl pecked her little finger and the cat clawed her skin; they weren’t going back into the book without a fight.

“Please, I’m trying to help you,” said Mary.

Her father lunged forward, holding a tennis shoe. He grabbed Mary with his free hand and smacked the characters into the air with the shoe. They tumbled over and over; the owl let go of the ring as it stretched its talons towards its sweetheart.

“Let me go!” Mary pulled herself free.

She reached for the owl and the pussy-cat and, as she did so, the ring grew bigger, and then it slipped onto her finger. The moment it touched her skin it turned from black and white to dazzling gold. It was as bright as the sun. The three characters disappeared into thin air with a pop and a moment later Mary vanished from the room too.

 

*

 

Mary found herself standing alone on a soft white beach. Bong trees rustled in the breeze and the air smelled of coconut and the sea. The pig sat in the boat, but there was no sign of the owl and the pussy-cat – she would give them the ring the next time they met. She now examined the ring more closely. It fitted her finger perfectly and a few words ran along the shiny gold band: Mary sailed away for a year and a day…

She hesitated for a brief moment and thought about home. Then she smiled, climbed into the wooden rowing boat next to her new friend and set off on an adventure.

 

The Ring will be on sale from October 13th in Topping bookshop, Bath.

This story was first posted on my author blog.

Copyright (c) 2016 Kim Donovan. Ring image: Pixabay/ColiN00B. Original illustration of the Owl and Pussycat by Edward Lear

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The black, the white and the grey

 

The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. And when it comes to children’s literature the power of words to shape the attitudes of the child reader is awesome. Should well-written stories (classics, even) be scrubbed clean of sexism and racism? The characters with derogatory names re-invented? Should the offending books just be piled up in a public place and burned? Might be tempting, rather than have your child read that Mary in The Secret Garden thinks that “blacks are not people”.

But what about the role of those outdated books in highlighting thoughtless attitudes and in educating children in the way things used to be? In The Daily Beast the suggestion is that if publishers, librarians or teachers simply withdraw offensive books then they are of course indulging in censorship, which could lead to a distortion of history. Anna-Marie Crowhurst is a great fan of Enid Blyton and as a child adored the quirky, outdated language and the jolly japes the children got up to. But she clearly grew up in a thoroughly enlighted household because at the age of nine she already knew that a story in which girls always did the cooking was “silly”. To my shame there is a host of classic children’s literature out there which reveals racist and sexist attitudes which I hadn’t ever spotted. Do we bin them all? If so we would be depriving children of E. Nesbit, the Barbar stories, Tintin, TS Eliot, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl, to name but a few.

img002        The Greater Good is a really thoughtful and interesting American website which reiterates the idea that—with a few exceptions—many stories are simply reflecting the times they were written in and can be seen as history up for discussion. The valid point is made that very few people are wholly bad or wholly good and therefore many stories are simply introducing young readers to a complex world. Laura Inglis Wilder, writing about the Americans setting up a homeland in the mid West, wrote about real life as she and her family saw it. Her own history. And that included indigenous people who were described as “dirty and thieving”. Fertile ground for discussions with children: Why did people think like that? Does that make them bad people? Are we different now? Why?

Of course an enlightened and positive antidote is to actively promote books which combat racism and sexism. I found a great website called A Mighty Girl which suggests lots of books containing strong and successful girls and women, including the true stories of Rosa Parks, Billie Holiday and Malala. I particularly like the choice of the word “mighty”, which makes a change from “feisty” and “strong”. The Guardian offers an extensive list of children’s books which promote diversity, including one with the lovely title Amazing Grace, another about the life of Stephen Lawrence, and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s story called The Unforgotten Coat. I love the idea that a children’s book can challenge and educate us all on the subject of difference in its widest sense, and that it’s never too early to start talking about the issue. How lucky we are to live in an age where these things are openly discussed by children, parents, teachers, writers and publishers. Now what about a children’s picture book about combatting the rise of racism since Brexit?

 

 

 

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Walking on Gold at The Roman Baths

Signing books at the Roman Baths

Book signing at The Roman Baths

One of my happiest mornings this month was spent at The Roman Baths with a roomful of children scribbling away furiously. Some wore tunics, some wore togas: all were bursting with exciting ideas for an adventure story inspired by Bath’s Roman coin hoard.

Curator David Baker set the scene with Roman coins to handle, pottery, jewellery and a list of common Roman names.

Once we got started on our stories, the air was filled with a hum of creative energy. There were some fantastic ideas for dramatic beginnings with some truly wicked-sounding baddies. Story middles raced along, packed with twists and turns of the plot. And we agreed that surprise endings – or happy ones – were our favourites, and the ones to aim for in our writing.

I hope I’ll be reading everyone’s finished story soon on The Roman Baths website – and I hope you’re enjoying reading Walking on Gold!

Janine Amos

Co-founder, Electrik Inc

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Exciting Ways to Celebrate World Book Day

WBD2014_lime_leftWorld Book Day is a celebration of books and reading, which is marked in over one hundred countries. At Electrik Inc we love to see children enjoying stories and we’re often invited into schools on this day to read from our books, facilitate creative writing workshops and generally join in with the fun! Here are some ideas from Kim and Kay if you’re looking for inspiration. Happy World Book Day!

Kim Donovan

Produce a School Anthology. This World Book Day I’ll be helping to launch a very special anthology of short stories and poems written by two hundred pupils from King Edward’s Junior School, Bath. My little publishing nest, Squawk Books, is the publisher of this amazing book and I couldn’t be more proud. It’s called Knock Your Socks Off! On World Book Day the children will take centre stage, reading their stories to friends and family, answering questions and, of course, signing books!

Guess the Book. Here is a clever way to get children thinking creatively about their favourite books. Pupils choose a story and tell the class about it using a box decorated in the theme of the book and filled with clues, such as a bottle with a label tied round the neck with the words “Drink Me” for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Bedtime Stories for Reception, Year 1 & 2. Why not hold a bedtime event in the school hall during the early evening? Make the room comfortable with gym mats, project glowing stars onto the ceiling and ask the children to bring in duvets and pillows. Give them an early midnight feast and then settle the boys and girls down for a story-telling session. Libraries could do their own version of Night in the Museum with guest appearances from book characters for a fun bedtime event!

Hold a book quiz. Stage your own show like University Challenge with teams representing a class or house, starter questions – “on the buzzer” – and bonus questions for the team who answered the question correctly. The questions might relate to books that have been studied by the whole class, contemporary and classic children’s literature or featured authors. For the picture round you could show the pupils cover illustrations and ask them to name the titles of the books. The music round could be on stories that have been turned into films – their music tracks. Don’t forget to say, “It’s goodbye from X (losing side), it’s goodbye from Y (winning side) and it’s goodbye from me.” I found the University Challenge theme tune on televisiontunes.com.

Kay Leitch

Take Two Books
Consider a fun afternoon event, where children take two books to school with them. One is their absolute favourite, which they would never swap – and they must tell everyone why they love it so much.

The second is a book they like but are happy to swap, and they must tell everyone why, and put it into a pile for ‘swaps’. There should be a pile of books the children want to swap, so everyone can take something from this pile, if they want.

To make this even more interesting, invite along a local author, who can bring their own published book to talk about and do a Q&A session on. They can bring a book they want to swap, too, and tell everyone why.

Write A Story With Your Favourite Character
Take your favourite character of all time and write a story with them in it. This doesn’t have to be from the same kind of story the character is from. In fact, it’s more fun if you put them in a completely different kind of story. Imagine the Gruffalo as a policeman… or a dentist … what would that be like? A bit like fanzine stuff. Have fun.

Murder Mystery Day
All pupils who want to act a part, put their names into a hat. Pull six (or more) pupils’ names out: one is the victim; one is the murderer; one is the detective; one is the detective’s not-very-bright sidekick. Two (or more) are witnesses who tell conflicting stories…

Just for starters: you could write a script where it becomes clear that the murderer and one of the witnesses know each other and are covering for each other. The murderer keeps changing his or her story and it becomes clear they don’t have an alibi. The not-very-bright sidekick keeps missing clues. That kind of thing makes it fun for everyone.

Anyone in the participating class can ask questions.

If you want to share what you’ll be doing on World Book Day, or if you have any ideas you think children would love, use our Comments box and let us know. It would be great to hear from you.

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Stretching my Wings

This year I’ll be flying a little further away from my virtual home at Electrik Inc, our collective of children’s writers involved in Professional Independent Publishing.  I’ll still be very much part of the group and will continue to write books under that logo and support Janine, Jenny and Kay with their stories. But I’m also ready for other/new challenges and have two exciting projects in progress.

SQUAWK - RED (2)My own little publishing nest, Squawk Books, is about to become the proud publisher of a whole school anthology, which I’ve been helping King Edward’s Junior School to write. Knock Your Socks Off! is the title the children picked for their book of short stories, poems and illustrations, and the name couldn’t be more apt. The book certainly does for isbn agencywhat it says on the tin! I also had my socks knocked off by the way the children grasped the opportunity to be published authors with both hands. I saw pupils working in the library before school on their stories, a reluctant writer not only produce a brilliantly funny piece but start planning a whole series for his character, and children discussing story ideas and helping each other in the playground. It’s been a lot of work but incredibly rewarding and good fun. I can’t wait for the launch on World Book Day!

My second solo project is to write and publish my first book for adult readers. One of the reasons I chose ‘the third way’, where a writer independently publishes some books and uses a traditional publisher for others, is that I thought it would allow me greater creative freedom to write what I wanted to write. So do expect different things from me! The story I’m currently working on, called Misdirection, is inspired by my writer friends at Electrik Inc. I’ll tell you more about the book another time, but it involves suffragette - bath in timea special group of real-life suffragettes who unconditionally supported each other in their common goal to win women the right to vote. I’ve had unconditional support from Electrik Inc with publishing the St Viper’s series and it is a privilege to work on their books too. Although I’m flying solo for this adult book I know that just below me my fellow inklings are stretching out a safety net – just in case.

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Kim Donovan

http://kimdonovanauthor.wordpress.com

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Super Books for Boys

Ch4altIn a time when children are reportedly reading less than ever, what we need are story heroes who stand together and take on the fight. In a small way, my young evil geniuses at St Viper’s School for Super Villains  have been helping to save the day — they’ll be annoyed when they find out I’ve been calling them heroes! Readers tell me they can devour a St Viper’s adventure in a weekend (they take me months to craft and the illustrator to draw) and I know there are other super stories out there, which make kids want to read.

So here’s a novel idea: writers telling their readership about other books they would enjoy. Their competition! I know what my 7 – 10 year-old readers want from a St Viper’s story: plots to take over the world, plenty of action, use of super powers, cool gadgets, friends working together, tongue-in-cheek phrases, lessons in diabolical laughing, a fast pace … and I’m knowledgeable about what else is available in stores. We don’t have to work alone, do we? The time has come to join forces. We strike for victory!

If you like St Viper’s  why not try:

Magic Ink  by Steve Cole

Twelve-year-old Stew Pender loves super heroes as much as his grandfather, a once famous comic book artist, and spends his time drawing comic characters including his alter ego: Stupendous Man. When his grandfather goes to the great comic convention in the sky, Stew and his family move into his home. On the first night in the house, Stew is woken by a cartoon pig in a top hat and cape. This isn’t a figment of his imagination. In the attic, where his grandfather used to draw, Stew finds a bottle of magic ink, which brings characters to life. But it’s not all fun and games, the creator of the Magic Ink — the wizard Merlin — is imprisoned in a cave in a land of myth and monsters and needs Stew to draw super heroes to save him.

I say: It’s quirky, great fun and the idea’s brilliant. Unlike St Viper’s and NERDS (see below), most of the action comes at the end of the book, but there are lots of hooks to keep readers turning the page and the pace is spot on. Steve Cole is the author of the well-known series Astrosaurs.  Magic Ink is suitable for 8+ readers.

Atomic. The Madness of Madame Malice  by Guy Bass. Issue 2.

Ten-year-old super-powered twins Jonny and Tommy Atomic have a super hero father and a super villain mother. They live with their father, Captain Atomic, Aunt Sandwich who’s a hamster and Dogday, a super-intelligent dog on an island in the sky. Their mother is an inmate at The Stronghold, a high-security super prison, until she breaks out to spend time with her darling boys. In this book, one of the twins is drawn to the dark side and the other the light as they spend quality time with her. She frees all the animals in the zoo, turns their school to rubble and rips the roof off Icy Joe’s Delectable Dairy Den so they can fly to the front of the ice-cream queue. The story follows a predictable path until the end where Bass reveals their mother’s true dark colours.

I say: The storyline is simple, the chapters are short and there are lots of illustrations to break up the text. The book would be enjoyed most by my younger and less confident readers (7+). It’s also a suitable story for parents to read aloud. In book 3, Bass hints that the boys will become their father’s sidekicks. I hope that as the series develops we’ll see the children use their super powers a lot more. But what I think my readers will really like about this book is that it’s part novel and part comic. They’ll also like the super cool cover!

NERDS. The Villain Virus  by Michael Buckley. Book 4.

Michael Buckley is the New York Times bestselling author of the Sisters Grimm series and NERDS is a great read, too. In this book, the villain population rockets as a virus sweeps the world, which makes people develop insane alter egos. Ordinary folk start planning the destruction of the planet, building doomsday devices, wearing ridiculous costumes and calling themselves the Terrible Tornado and such like. Kids from the NERDS secret spy society are given the job of saving the world. They are all underdogs and what’s nice is that their weaknesses are all turned into super strengths. For example, Wheezer — Matlida Choi — can fly and blast enemies with her asthma inhalers. In this story, Flinch takes centre stage. He’s hyperfast, hyperstrong and just plain hyper (a bit like my son!) and I must say hyperbrave to be shrunk and injected into the bottom of a master villain near the end of the book.

I say: the story is great fun and has lots of action — KA-POW! It feels like an animated cartoon, which is also how I see St Viper’s.  NERDS is suitable for 8 + readers.

Cartoon Kid  by Jeremy Strong. Title: Zombies.

All of Mr Butternut’s class are super heroes — that’s what he told them in their first lesson. There’s Cartoon Kid, Big Feet Pete, Exploding Girl and many others. They are actually ordinary children, but in moments of crisis the book changes to a comic strip and the kids transform into heroes in cool super suits. Afterwards, we find out what really happened to them. There are three short stories in this book. In the first story, Cartoon Kid (Casper) gets the pupils out of a tight spot with Masher McNee and his Monster Mob by scaring them with the dead bat he’d brought in for Show and Tell. In the second story, the school inspectors pay a visit and are not impressed with what they find until Mr Butternut saves the day with an inspiring history lesson. Then in the last story, Cartoon Kid tries to be a hero (even if this is out of self-interest) by painting his sister’s bedroom with a water blaster. The underlying message behind Cartoon Kid is that anyone can be a super hero.

I say: It’s exactly what I expect from a Jeremy Strong book. Cartoon Kid  is funny, age-appropriate and suitable for children who are starting to build confidence with reading. Readership: 7+.

Vordak the Incomprehensible. How to Grow Up and Rule the World.  Scott Seegert

A comical step-by-step guide on how to bring out your inner evil and take over the world. Instructions include: how to select a gut-wrenching evil name, communicating with your arch-nemesis, picking a super menace mask and buying the right super villain lair — typically, I chose the most expensive one: an orbiting space station!

I say: It’s a fun read and I can see my older readers liking it (10+). The book’s packed with illustrations, lists and diagrams (I loved the Many Faces of Evil) and it may appeal to reluctant boy readers. But it does cross the invisible line I set for St Viper’s.  Some parents may not like how Vordak the Incomprehensible encourages children to grow the evil that exists inside of them. This book will appeal to my younger readers but it really is for older kids who know not to take the advice seriously.

St Viper’s School for Super Villains

If you are not familiar with my series, you can read about it on this site or please visit Amazon for more reader reviews.  Thank you!
http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_10?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=st%20viper’s%20school%20for%20super%20villains&sprefix=St+Viper’s%2Caps%2C292&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Ast%20viper’s%20school%20for%20super%20villains

Kim Donovan

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Despicable Me, Responsible Me

My eight-year-old evil genius was seriously unimpressed with one crucial thing that happened in the films Despicable Me and Megamind: the bad guys turned good.  So it would seem that Despicable Me 2, the sequel, is wrongly named – there is now nothing at all despicable about the main character. It is more Responsible Me. Gru, the villain turned hero of the original, is now a devoted dad who cross dresses as a pink fairy to save his daughter’s birthday party and makes jam instead of trying to take over the world.

‘This isn’t good,’ said evil son (now nine), shaking his head and looking like there was no hope for Gru. Clearly he likes his villains to stay evil.

I can see the same challenge ahead for my own book series, St Viper’s School for Super Villains. My young readers like the fact that the super villains in training are bad – it makes them exciting. But some of my more responsible, grown up readers would like to see all the characters become heroes in the end to send out the ‘proper’ message to children. Good always wins through in the end, right? Who shall I upset?

Fortunately in Despicable Me 2, the writers have made Gru’s life as a stay-at-home dad more interesting by having him recruited by the Anti-Villain League, which has its HQ in an underwater submarine. In places the film has the look and feel of The Incredibles.  The story has quirky scenes and cool gadgets. Gru’s secret agent partner, Lucy Wilde, has a lipstick taser.  Personally, I’d have made it a lip salve lightsaber, which when twisted grows into a long white laser beam (Hmmm … maybe a copyright issue). The Anti-Villain League have decided it takes a villain to know one and Gru’s first and only assignment is to find the master criminal who has stolen a lethal serum which when injected into a fluffy bunny does the equivalent of feeding a Mogwai after midnight.

The film is not amazing but it is certainly good family entertainment with lots of slapstick humour. The kids I saw in the cinema all looked engaged and laughed along with the story; as did evil son.  I saw no-one playing on their mum’s iphone (I did actually see this in a children’s theatre the day before). My super hero husband only nodded off for about five minutes (a record for a family movie) and there were several genuinely funny moments. Most of them involving the stars of the film, by some distance, who are the horde of little yellow ‘minions’.  If they ever get bored helping Gru load the washing machine, they will be welcomed with open arms to be villainous at St Viper’s School!

It may not be any more despicable than the first film, but the entertainment is just as good.  Take your young villains along for a laugh and even they won’t be too disappointed by the happy ending.

Kim

 
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