Blog

I went to Belfast last week and took part in the kids lit quiz, which was a fabulous occasion, hosted by Wellington College and compered by Wayne Mills, the energetic New Zealander who created the quiz and now darts around the globe from his home in Auckland to heats in far-flung countries, wearing his inimitable hat.

I was baffled by most of the questions. (I can’t remember many, but Wayne has posted some previous questions on his website.) Luckily, I was on a team with Tanja Jennings, the librarian at Wellington, who has an astonishing knowledge of children’s books past and present.

In the end, a nerve-racking tiebreak was won by Wellington, who will travel to England to participate in the final in Oxford on 27th November.

After the quiz, I stayed in Belfast for a couple more days and went to four more schools – Thompson, Kells & Connor, St Paul’s and St Bernard’s – many thanks to everyone who organised the visits and came along to hear me speak.

Istanbul

I’ve always wanted to go to Istanbul. I was planning to go there this autumn, in fact, and read a lovely little book to prepare myself: The Bridge by Geert Mak.

He’s a Dutch journalist who spent some time – weeks? months? – hanging around the Galata Bridge in Istanbul. If he’d been a clumsier writer, he could have turned the book into a heavy-handed discussion of the bridge’s symbolic position between West and East, Europe and Asia. Instead, he describes the scene and the locals with a wonderfully light touch. One day, I’m going to see it for myself. One day…

I remembered The Bridge this week, because I was sent a copy of one of my books in a language that I couldn’t recognise, let alone understand. I had to open the title page even to discover that it was a Turkish translation. The thought of Grk in Istanbul made me want to jump on a plane and go there myself.

Here are the Turkish editions of A Dog Called Grk…


…and Bearkeeper…

In last Saturday’s Guardian, I reviewed Scat, Carl Hiaassen’s latest book for children.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal condemned Hiaasen for polluting young minds with ecological propaganda. In Scat, he even points his readers towards Edward Abbey’s classic novel of eco-terrorism, The Monkey Wrench Gang. (I’d be fascinated to know if any of them actually read it; Scat’s teenage protagonist does track down a copy, but falls asleep after a few pages.) Whatever your political alignment, you’ll find nothing dreary or didactic about Hiaasen’s writing; Scat is a funny and furiously fast-moving novel populated by engaging characters and fuelled by a strong sense of moral outrage.

You can read the full review here.

Publishing a book often feels like throwing a stone into a pond: there’s a little splash, a few ripples, and then it’s gone. If you’re lucky, the splash will be reviews and even a prize. Perhaps the ripples will include some letters from readers or visits to festivals. And then… nothing.

But books have a life of their own. Long after the book has been published – sunk to the bottom of a pond, languishing among the weeds, forgotten – someone will read it. They’ll find a lone copy languishing on a dusty shelf in a library. And, once again, your words will come alive.

I recently got an email from a friend, a composer. Many years ago, she asked me to write some words to accompany her music. Two actors recorded the words. The piece was performed. And that was that.

Now, she wrote to me to announce, it has been performed again at a festival in Toronto.

The fate of these words – written and recorded so long ago that I can hardly remember anything about them – made me feel enormously optimistic. It was as if this particular stone’s ripples had bounced back and forth across the pond, never fading, never disappearing, continuing for years.

If you’re interested, here is some information about Juliet, who wrote the music, and here’s an intriguing picture on a flickr page of someone who went to the festival.

I’ve just come back from a fantastic day in Winchester, where I talked to a hundred and fifty children from several schools in the city. Many thanks to everyone who came along – I hope you had fun – and to P&G Wells, the excellent independent bookshop, who organised the event.

Earlier in the summer, I had a fantastic few days at the Edinburgh festival. I did three events, which were great fun, but only managed to see one; the extraordinary exploits of the Gruffalo, performed by Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler and a large cast of their friends and relatives: a joyous hour of songs, sketches and costumes.

Over the next few months, I’m going to be visiting schools and libraries in London, Belfast, Andover, Walsall and as many other places as possible. See you there? And if you’d like me to visit your bookshop, library or school, please get in touch.

The Philosophical Baby

I’ve just reviewed Alison Gopnik’s fascinating and provocative book, The Philosophical Baby, for the Guardian. Here’s the first paragraph…

Like any proud father of a small baby, I seem to spend half my life staring into her eyes, wondering what she’s thinking and feeling, trying to imagine how she experiences the world. Until fairly recently, scientists and philosophers would have told me that the answer was simple: I might as well stare at a pigeon, because babies are no more intelligent or profound than the dumbest animal. But, as Alison Gopnik explains in her inspiring new book, “there’s been a revolution in our scientific understanding of babies” and we now know that, in many ways, “young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults”.

You can read the full review here.

How would you start?

A couple of days ago, I received this email.

Hi Josh
I have read a lot of your books and really do like them.
How would you start writing a book?
I am now on an edge of writing a book do you have any good tips for me?
Thanks
Kirsten

It’s a very good question and one that puzzles me regularly. I wish I knew the answer. And it raises all sorts of other questions too. Where do you start a book? With a character? A situation? A scene? A snatch of dialogue? And why do you start a book? Aren’t there enough books already? Why should you add to the pile? What can you do that someone else hasn’t already done better?

I’m just about to start a new book myself and I hardly know how to begin answering these questions. Or how to begin the book.

Whenever I start a book, I spend days, even weeks, pacing around, peering out of the window, washing dishes, flicking through books, playing on the internet, and doing just about anything apart from sitting at my desk and putting words together to make a story.

I have to remind myself that all this uncertainty is not merely creative, but necessary.

Order comes out of chaos.

Eventually.

And if you’re lucky.

When I talk to my friend Eric about starting a book, he always says the same thing: just start writing. Let your subconscious take over. You’ll be surprised by what comes out.

I can’t really offer any better advice.

Anyway, I do know how to start writing a blog: answer an email that you’ve been sent by a stranger. Thank you, Kirsten, for your message. And good luck with your book. I hope the words flow fast, the pages pile up and publishers come clamouring to your door.