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1. An Awfully Creative Adventure Meg Harper

I’m laughing this morning over Andrew’s 6 monthly skips! So that’s why our garage is stuffed to the gunnels! I’ve missed a trick there! I’m also taking a welcome break from the huge task of getting a house that has been ‘lived in’ (ehem) by 4 teenagers ready for the market. Anyone wanting a large family house in Warwick, step this way! It has new carpets throughout except, of course, in my study – another place stuffed to the gunnels and impossible to empty for the day. So my new study carpet is – guess where? In the garage!
Today, however, I really want to write about a school project that I’ve been engaged in intermittently all academic year. This was at Limehurst High School, a middle school in Loughborough which is definitely the pleasantest, happiest secondary school I have ever encountered and where it was a privilege to be the visiting author. There are times when I question the value of author visits. If it’s a case of the ‘author talk’ delivered to every class in the school, I wonder what lasting benefit there will be. I am far more excited by being invited in to run workshops or, as in this case, to be a partner in a long-term project.
The brief at Limehurst was to run a workshop with a small group of year 8s, teaching them the nuts and bolts of story writing so that they could teach a slightly larger group of year 7s, who would then write a story suitable to be turned into an animation for year 2s from a local primary school. Nothing too complicated then! As so often, I found myself deconstructing what I do myself (principally by instinct in my case) in order to make the vital elements clear enough for young people to absorb and cascade down to their juniors. Fortunately, I often write short stories, not simply novels, and I also have some very limited experience of writing animations – so I felt competent enough to know where to start. As so often, however, I learned as we went on. I was there as consultant when the years 8s taught the year 7s and was alongside them as they thrashed out their plots and wrote and edited their stories. I sometimes think I don’t know very much about creating story but as we worked, I appreciated that I really do know what I’m doing. I know where to cut and prune, I know what’s needed to lift a plot and to keep the pace. I know how to create the crisis and how to satisfactorily resolve. And I realised what a mammoth task the young people were facing – and yet again, how ludicrous it is that year 6s are expected to write short stories for their SATS in a mere 45 minutes. Grrrrrrr!
In the end, the year 7s had the barebones of two workable stories so we asked if they could animate both. Fortunately, the lovely Leo and Theo of Lunchbox Films were ready to give it a whirl and the school was confident they could provide funding – so the year 7s set out on the laborious task of animating their stories. A couple of weeks ago the big moment arrived. The year 2s from the local primary school arrived for the premiere – and so did I! You can see the results here.
http://www.lunchboxfilms.co.uk/project.php?url=tanes_tremendous_trumpet

http://www.lunchboxfilms.co.uk/project.php?url=goldilocks_baldilocks

My next task is to see if my agent’s interested in submitting the original stories to publishers. I’ve edited them in conference with the young people and have kept as much of their original wording as I can. I was thrilled by how engaged they were with that process – but then, we were doing what I wish schools could do more. A real task for a real purpose. There were lots of really memorable moments but it all felt very worthwhile when one of the participants said, ‘I used to think I was no good at English but doing this project has made me realise that I really am.’


www.megharper.co.uk

2. Creating Pisstory Meg Harper


There used to be a beautiful garden on the corner of our road. Not the sort of cottagey, lush, chaotic garden I’d rather like myself but a traditional, rather formal combination of greensward and floribunda roses with a few tastefully placed specimen shrubs. There was also a gleaming penny farthing as a feature, incongruous but appealing, always delicately outlined with tiny fairy lights at Christmas.
The creator moved away last year and yesterday the new occupants committed an act of dire destruction. Diggers arrived and the entire garden had gone by 11am. Perhaps the owners are going to create something wonderful themselves. Judging by the number of huge white delivery sacks sagging in the wreckage, however, I suspect that they want something low maintenance – a parking lot, for example.
Far be it from me to decry progress or personal freedom of choice. The new owners clearly need something other than a formal garden and fair enough; it is their property. Nonetheless, I wept over the glorious rose bushes which I hope have at least reached the municipal composter and I find myself asking questions about our responsibility to the community in our public acts. That garden gave me great joy and I used to tell the creator so when he was out there tending it. He still lives locally so he will have the pain of seeing that his work has been destroyed. How much should we reign in our personal desires out of consideration for others? A big question. How much value should we put on that which already exists when it stands in the way of something new? It’s a question which town planners and developers constantly battle with and which Capability Brown and his sponsors didn’t seem to consider at all!
What has all this to do with children’s books?!
The other day I did one of my occasional reccies in Waterstones. What’s being promoted, what’s new, what haven’t I read that I should have etc etc. To be honest, I was appalled. There was nothing like the wide selection carried by my local independent. That’s normal but this time the range was even narrower than usual and the blocks of books by the usual suspects were vast. More shocking, in my opinion, was the increased shelf-space given over to the Snot and Bogey brigade. The desperation to publish books that boys will read is getting alarming. Humour revolves around poo and flatulence (we now have the adventures of a farting dog, for goodness sake!) and history is degenerating into pisstory. I’ve recently had a short fictionalised biography of Elizabeth 1st published. ('Elizabeth 1st - The Story of the Last Tudor Queen') Imagine my delight at my most recent school visit when I was approached by a child who wanted to ask a question about it. And the question? Was it true that Elizabeth 1st had used the first toilet ever? Elizabeth 1st must be one of the most formidable personalities our national history offers – and a child’s interest has somehow been reduced to where she went to the loo!
It seems to me that what happened to my neighbour’s garden is happening to children’s literature. In pursuing current agendas (getting boys to read at any cost, for example) we’re trashing a great tradition. I think of the heritage that lies behind the early readers that are being churned out now and I’m asking questions. I’m a left-wing, liberal, armchair revolutionary but I’m also a Christian (albeit a heretical one!) and I’m thinking about what it says in Philippians 4: 8 ...’whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excelle

8 Comments on Creating Pisstory Meg Harper, last added: 5/12/2011
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3. How I was arrogant and became more humble by teaching creative writing - Meg Harper


One of the things I have done today is think about what I might do with my creative writing class which meets once a month – haven’t quite decided yet but I have a vague idea and I’m looking forward to it. The class lasts for 2 hours and we always over-run.
A few years ago I would have vowed I would never teach creative writing. I would never be part of a writing group. What? Go back to English teaching after discovering the liberation of drama teaching? No way! Sit around listening to wannabes read their dire stuff and be part of a back-scratching circle that hasn’t got the guts to say please go away and take up crotchet instead? Gosh, I was arrogant! Now I love both the teaching and the listening, I have started another (very tiny) writing group for people who want to write their autobiographies (thank you, Leslie Wilson for that lovely idea) and I am awe-struck by the talent of some of the writers and their dedication. Not only that, I am humbled by being part of a group, the bedrock of which is people who will graciously accept criticism and apply it and also give it where necessary with gentleness and sensitivity.
So how did I get from there (arrogant and dismissive) to here? (impressed and humbled)
Like a lot of the bits of my work portfolio, this happened by chance. The creative writing tutor at The Mill Arts Centre where I run the Youth Theatre, resigned suddenly. There was a gap. You write books, don’t you Meg? You’re a qualified teacher? Could you possibly.....? That was nearly three years ago. In the intervening summers I’ve run 2 intensive 3 days workshops where a tiny group has written and self-published an anthology of their work via lovely (if clunky at times) www.lulu.com. (Incidentally, is it just me but has the P&P multiplied a hundred-fold?) And what a learning curve that has been! For me, a spin-off looks like a new publication with A&C Black but I’ve yet to sign the contract so I’m not holding my breath!
It’s not all awe and wonder, of course! One aspect I didn’t anticipate is that whilst members come and go, I have two members who have been with me from the start and two other long-standing members – and there’s an overlap between the creative writing group and the autobiography group – so each session has to be new and original. There’s no re-cycling of old lessons! The downside of this is that every so often it does my head in and panic ensues! I’m primarily a children’s fiction writer – so what gives me any qualification whatsoever to teach poetry, travel writing, crime fiction, etc etc etc? The upside is that I have to jolly well find out! And it is very interesting and good for me. Last time we were dwelling on an idea culled from the Myslexia short story competition that a satisfying story is one in which change takes place, preferably within an intriguing context. It turned out to be quite a contraversial idea and led to an interesting discussion, not to mention some very original story plans.
So what will Saturday’s class hold? I don’t know yet – but the hour we devote to reading and commenting on what the members have brought along will be fascinating. Some will have taken what we did last time and worked on that. Others have on-going projects and they’ll share the next bit. I’m really hoping Stewart will have written the next instalment of his Sci-Fi novel and that Rebecca’s children’s novel is as funny as last time. But the best bit for me will be John’s poetry. I am gradually making a collection of his stunning poems. I am very happy to write the stuff I write – fluent, readable, light, accessible. But I cannot help being envious of those

6 Comments on How I was arrogant and became more humble by teaching creative writing - Meg Harper, last added: 2/11/2010
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4. An Awfully Big Hedgehog Adventure! Meg Harper




Way back in January, I landed a job with Creative Partnerships – now here I am, a short way into it. If you’re full-time writer with no interest in taking on one of the many para-writing jobs that exist, you may want to give this blog a miss. If, however, you wonder what on earth Creative Partners get up to, then read on!
I’m working in Blackbird Leys, the biggest council estate in Europe (apparently) on the outskirts of Oxford and my brief, together with Vergine, a storyteller and Lisa, a visual/spatial artist, is to see how we can use the outdoors to enable children in Foundation and Year 1 to express and communicate better and to make connections. What a challenge that is! We are all well outside our comfort zones – all experienced as artists in schools but none of us particularly au fait with the very youngest, all of whom are in the earliest stages of literacy or are pre-literate. I found myself reading the optimistic words of the literacy framework for the children I’m working with:
“... children in pairs or individually (possibly then working with a response partner) write their own simple patterned texts (on paper or on screen), developing their writing by adding a few further words or phrases from a given beginning, following a specific pattern or within an appropriate frame. Outcomes are then shared and discussed.”
and wondering which planet the writers are living on Nonetheless, believe it or not – we have actually hit that particular target and are very proud of our two poems about Rats and Rabbits who we all know live outdoors (and we’ve played some excellent outdoor games about them) even if we’ve never seen them in the wild. We might see some on our planned trip to the local nature reserve, though I’ve been warned we’re more likely to see (and carefully avoid!) litter, discarded condoms and worse!
Why, you might be wondering, why does the government think three artists none of whom have qualifications to teach very young children, can have any impact here? Why not just draft in some extra teaching staff? And why, you might be wondering, would any sane writer want to leave her garret to go and engage with this?
Because (hallelujah!) we are creative thinkers! For once there is some cheer! Researchers have worked out that the next generation will have to be flexible, adaptive, innovative thinkers to thrive – and which people have those transferable skills? Artists, of course! It’s true enough, isn’t it? Where do you get your ideas from? What made you think of that? How d’you come up with such interesting plots? And so the skills we have as creative writers are invaluable for pursuing creative enquiry questions because we will keep thinking outside the box, coming up with the quirky, considering any and all ideas before we progress. And believe me, we so need to!
Vergine, Lisa and I are on a steep learning curve working out what’s going to work

8 Comments on An Awfully Big Hedgehog Adventure! Meg Harper, last added: 4/12/2010
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5. A Little Rant about Picture Books Meg Harper





I’m preparing for a library workshop on Friday – the theme is Cops and Robbers because my latest book, an early reader, is called ‘Stop, Thief!’ So we’re going to bring it to life with props and hopefully no actual theft and read other Cops and Robbers stories and make board games and the like. Hence, I have been re-reading wonderful old ‘Cops and Robbers’ and ‘Burglar Bill’ by Janet and Allan Ahlberg – and once again I am thinking, ‘What’s happened to picture books with subtle, delicate pictures and rich, satisfying texts of more than a few words?’ Ones that feature people rather than cutesie blob-like animals in garish colours? What’s happened to books like the ‘Church Mice’ series by Graham Oakley or classics like ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes or wonderful, satisfying cartoon picture books like those of Philippe Dupasquier and Posie Simmonds? To the gentle pastel palettes of Helen Oxenbury or John Burningham? I support my wonderful local independent bookshop Warwick Books which though marvellous is tiny so maybe I should be visiting a bigger store – but the impression I get is that the vast majority of picture books now feature brash illustrations and minimal text. Some of that text is excellent, of course, and we’re seeing some wonderfully quirky exceptions such as the work Emily Gravett, but my over-riding impression is that the richness and diversity of picture books is diminishing. Picture books are a wonderful source of ideas for drama with young people but I’m struggling to find new ones these days. I leapt with glee on ‘Library Lion’ by Michelle Knudsen illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, the other day. Here we have delicate, evocative touching pictures and a ‘proper story’ which held me gripped and I know children will love – and it even has a wonderful, thought-provoking message embedded.
I don’t think I’m being an old fuddie duddie who can’t move with the times here. I know children are bombarded with technicolour TV and so perhaps publishers think that they need to compete with all that brightness and bittiness. I’m not suggesting we dump delightful Nick Sharratt or eschew Elmer. I’m just asking for more substantial stories in picture books and more variety in characters and styles. I’m quite happy with anthropomorphosis at its best – who can forget Jill Murphy’s hilarious Large family of elephants or Mick Inkpen’s Penguin Small who meets the Neverwasanocerous? But I’m fed up with endless blobby creatures with unmemorable characters and only a passing resemblance to the animals they’re supposed to be, especially when nothing much happens to them anyway!
Perhaps publishers could take a look at some of the work coming out of the Cambridge MA in illustration from which SAS member Sue Ferraby is just graduating. www.cambridgemashow.com
Those are her pictures, heading this blog. I’ve been a fan for years.
Do take a look at the web-site above. Haunting pictures and the hint of enthralling stories to go with them. I wish!

www.megharper.co.uk

8 Comments on A Little Rant about Picture Books Meg Harper, last added: 2/24/2011
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6. The Benefits of Collaboration? Meg Harper

I have three professional lives:
1. As an author
2. As a creative practitioner, engaged in a whole range of free-lance projects, from one day author visits, to term long residencies, to drama/literacy workshops in museums and other locations.
3. As the director of a youth theatre.
Today, I write from life 3, with about 20 minutes left before the arts centre foyer starts filling up with 75 young people, aged 5 – 16, about to perform their second and final night of the Mill Youth Theatre Showcase. Last night went very well, with only one glitch when I suddenly got a message from the technician – one of my most senior members had managed to get himself hand-cuffed in the Green Room! My mind instantly flew to that ghastly scene with the cuffs, the axe, the water and a desperate Leonardo ‘Titanic’ but as I was stage managing as well as directing there was nothing I could do. ‘But there are no handcuffs in this show!’ I protested ‘There are now,’ said the teccie, sardonically. It was left to the house manager, the bar staff and the jewellery teacher (rudely plucked with file from her class) to attempt to get the demented boy out of the things and to stop insisting that if they didn’t Meg would kill him! Fortunately, he’d locked himself in by only one wrist so in the end they gave up, strapped it out of the way with elastic bands and told him to put on his sweatshirt to cover it. Let’s hope he really has learned not to play with the props now! We’ll move the footlights too – that way we might avoid the heart-stopping moment when one character kicked over a chair and nearly smashed one! Oof. My hair is greyer today.
So what’s all this go to do with life number 1? Collaboration, that’s what. Long ago, when I took this job on with just 3 members of an ailing youth theatre, I decided that the only way forward was to become a devising company. We would make up our own plays. That way we’d avoid the painful problem of children learning scripts and then ‘delivering’ them, rather than speaking in a normal, (if loud!) manner. We’d also be able to avoid ‘main parts’ and kids hanging around getting bored. My aim would be to keep everyone on task for as much time as was humanly possible and for every child to be involved as much as they possibly could be. In any case – how many plays suitable for children to perform, do you find with casts of between 8 and 16 characters, with all the parts reasonably equally weighted?
That was the thinking – the result has surpassed my wildest dreams. Ten years later, we have 6 mini companies within The Mill Youth Theatre, all producing their own devised performances twice a year. At first I hunted desperately for stories suitable for adaptation – but even that was difficult. Now, however, we start with a stimulus – music, a picture, some impro, a story – and we take it from there. It can be very scary. At about week 3, I am always panicking that this story isn’t going to come together and we won’t have a play. I certainly thought that this term, especially with the story about the ghostly lighthouse that appears and disappears at random and traps people inside it! It sounds perfectly reasonable now but it didn’t at the time!
But my point is that the stories the children devise with my help are far more imaginative and unusual than anything I could come up with on my own. They amaze me. And so I have begun to revise my view of such companies as Working Partners and their method of creation. We know that they are very successful – and I can see why. A group will come up with far more ideas than an individual will – and with far more creative solutions to plot problems. On occasions we vote for the next step in the story – we did for the end of our creepy play about ‘The Blue Hands’, inspired by a photograph 'Hand of Betty', by local artist Steve Gold, www.stevegold.co.uk and ended with the ‘good’ Blue Hand turning out to be a trickster with her own agenda for overthrowing the Blue Handed regime –

5 Comments on The Benefits of Collaboration? Meg Harper, last added: 4/3/2011
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7. An 'Improper' author? - Meg Harper


Ho, ho, ho! A ‘proper’ author, hey, John? I’ve just got in from work – that’s ‘proper’ (!) work (with predictable pay) at the arts centre where I run the youth theatre and where I’ve just spent an hour, not sitting in the sink writing, dammit, (see Sally Nicholls’ post) but up to my elbows in the sink because it’s Christmas, they’re short-staffed and I couldn’t leave the bar staff fast disappearing behind a mound of washing up and a queue of stressy-looking Joe Publics. The dance director and the director of the senior youth theatre have both hand run-ins with the technician in the last couple of days, he’s not best-pleased with me either and this is only the start of the week with the end of term performances by all the theatre and dance groups. Will I still be here on Thursday morning? Or will I have been a) duffed up by the technician? b) thrown into the canal by angry parents? c) closeted in a nice, quiet padded cell – hmmm….maybe they’ll let me have some paper and a pencil in there?

This week has also included a day in college training to be a counsellor and a morning in a comprehensive school being a counsellor, quite a lot more time at the arts centre, a fair amount of time still attempting to save the life of Eric Cathey – he’s not off the hook yet, though readers of my last post will, I hope be pleased to hear that he was granted a stay of execution with only four and a half hours left to live – and all the usual cooking, washing, ironing and general to-ing and fro-ing that life with too many teenagers involves. (This week we had a fall off a moped and a 1am ‘Can you check my UCAS entry?’ stunt to add to our flagging interest in their manic existences.)

So you can see why I was gleefully announcing on Monday to my Facebook friends that I had written a chapter! And on Tuesday, I’d written two! Hallelujah! The only reason I managed that was because I ring-fenced December to write! Ho, ho, ho! (again) So what will next week hold? Well – Monday and Tuesday morning I’d booked for writing – but unfortunately, the lovely woman who was going to arrange the publication of stories that my creative writing group wrote in the summer has been ill ever since – so I’m going to make my first venture into Lulu publishing and do it myself. Hey ho – maybe another chapter the following week then….

Proper author, John? Well, if that’s fullish-time and getting invited to publisher’s parties (wot are they?) then maybe not. But if seizing any fair-sized block of time to get on with it counts, in a passionate, frantic kind of way (and then falling asleep over the keyboard because life is too interesting to go to bed when I should!) then yes, certainly! I’m not really moaning – I’d be useless at sitting at my desk everyday – I’m just having a mildly frustrated episode. At least I don’t suffer from writer’s block. I never have time for it!

I say all this to convince myself, of course. I have difficulty being a ‘proper’ wife and a ‘proper’ mother too - and I certainly haven’t got a ‘proper’ job! That’s nine to five, isn’t it?!

6 Comments on An 'Improper' author? - Meg Harper, last added: 12/10/2008
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8. Minding the gap




I’m having a life crisis! I won’t call it a mid-life crisis because, although I am mid-life and this is all about work and emotion and mental state, mid-life crisis suggests something you do once – whereas I have tended to lurch from one crisis to another ever since home-educating my children stopped being the main thing I did and my portfolio of writing, youth theatre and counselling re-placed it - always with writing novels feeling like ‘the most significant thing’.

But oops! Talking things through with a friend who is a life coach last week, I came to the realisation that things have changed. Although I still enjoy writing and want to carry on, I have lost the absolute ‘die for it’ passion that I once had – or at least, I have for writing lengthy fiction. Hand on heart, the book that I’m most proud of and which gives me the biggest sense of personal satisfaction is ‘Wha’ever – the teenager’s guide to spinal cord injury’ published by the Spinal Injuries Association and unavailable except through them.

And why is that? Why, whilst running a children’s book group, teaching creative writing in a variety of contexts, being a member of two book groups myself, has writing fiction slipped down my pecking order of Things I Would Die Rather Than Not Do. Is this just a knee jerk reaction because my agent doesn’t like my latest opus – and actually, neither do I?

No, I think not. There are many, many factors in the mix and it took me two and a half hours to unravel them with my friendly life-coach – but what may be relevant here on an authors’ blog is the difficulty in getting what you want to write published by publishers! For many years, I was published by Lion Hudson, the only Christian publishing house publishing specifically for the secular market – so although spirituality was an important and very welcome thread in the mesh I wove, it wasn’t expected to be a dominant theme in my fiction – indeed, that would have been unacceptable. But last year Lion Hudson stopped publishing children’s fiction and although I have had books published by other publishers, gaps that suit me are hard to find – and the point is, that I’m not sure I want to look! For me, the real joy is in writing what is on my heart and what is challenging my mind – whereas it seems to me that, very understandably, the way publishing now works is that a gap is spotted and writers try to fit their writing to that slot. Maybe that’s a very controversial thing to say? I don’t know – it’s just what I perceive to be the case. Let’s see if anyone comments!

Meanwhile, I’m not giving up as a writer – but I am valuing much more the different ways I write (of which there are many!) and looking at expanding them. That feels like the sensible thing to do right now. Until my next life crisis, that is!

1 Comments on Minding the gap, last added: 2/17/2009
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9. My mind is boggling!



I am having a hectic time! Well – what’s new? If I will insist on the portfolio life-style rather than knuckling down to a ‘proper job’ what do I expect? But right now, I feel a bit of a fraud contributing to this blog because the actual author bit is taking a very back seat – partly because I’m playing that lovely waiting game (you know, where the editor takes many moons longer to read and decide about your story than you took to write it – my best was a 500 word story that took 2 hours to write and 5 months for the editor to decide to publish it!) and partly because I’m doing all the para-writing stuff – working in schools, heritage education, youth theatre, adult ed and jolly old grant applications.

Anyway…today has been a youth theatre day and the bit that I think is of relevance to other children’s authors is the enormity of kids’ ideas. In my youth theatre, we devise our plays, sometimes from existing stories, sometimes from scratch. There are many challenges but it’s certainly a dynamic way to work and very empowering for the young people to see their ideas transformed into theatre.

Now let’s look at one example. My mind is boggling over it. Fair enough, our starting point was one of the pictures of Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’. (If you don’t know this brilliant work, see my footnote* and track it down!) The picture shows a house apparently launching into space. Right. Fine. But how did we get from there to a point where we have a play in which the children of the house have a nanny from the new All-Male Nanny Agency who happens to be an alien and whose evil plan is to abduct the children, take them to his planet, mutate them into aliens like himself and use them to breed so that his dying race will survive?????? And why is the crazy scientist (who rescues the children) who is developing pills to help you breathe where there is no oxygen, obsessed with a craving for meatballs!!!! And why is my imagination so tame and lame that I would never think of any of all this in a month of Sundays and even if I did, I would think it was too mad to include in a story or ever get past an editor? But the fact is, the children have no problem with the madness, they love it – and there are authors out there who are canny enough to know this and to convince editors that writing about killer mushrooms who eat your Gran or cows in action is the stuff of best-sellers for kids.

I need to overcome my craziness allergy. I’m entirely happy to help kids create what they will on the stage – so why do I get all sensible when I turn to the page? (Hmm…my book 'Fur' about Grace who started getting furry when she hit puberty on account of her mother being a Selkie was a bit mad – maybe there’s hope for me yet!!!)

* The concept of ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ is that an unknown illustrator took samples of illustrations from 14 stories to a publisher, each with a mysterious caption. The publisher was very interested and asked to see the remaining pictures and the stories – but the illustrator never returned….14 pictures, magnificently drawn, from 14 mysterious stories…it is a wonderfully rich resource. Google it!

PS. The photo is me and friends on the top of Ingleborough, the third of the three peaks of Yorkshire, which we climbed recently as a sponsored walk for Samaritan's Purse 'Turn on the Tap' campaign. Just 24.5 miles with rather a lot of ascent. We had a great time but Karen (left) who is a bowel surgeon did at what point say 'What made me think this would be more fun than looking up other people's bottoms all day?'!!! If you'd like to sponsor us retrospectively go to http://www.justgiving.com/chbc_walkers Thank you!

1 Comments on My mind is boggling!, last added: 6/15/2009
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10. It's a violent world - get used to it! by Meg Harper

Tonight I've been reading Gillian's excellent post about knife crime, hot on the heels of the horribly disturbing report about the two brothers who attacked two other boys, hitting one on the head with a sink, forcing them to commit sexual acts and leaving one so battered he was unconscious. Last week I was at the Edinburgh Fringe watching a profoundly moving piece of theatre entitled 'In a thousand pieces' about sex traffiking – girls lured into thinking they will be moving to education and a better life and ending up being carted from British city to British city where they are raped 50 times a day and never see the outside world. As a volunteer school counselor in an inner city school, I have heard stories not so disturbing that they'd hit the Misery bookshelves, but far too violent and unpleasant to be accepted by a YA publisher. One of my own sons has been mugged twice. At the weekend I was at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival, listening to a talk about the myth of redemptive violence in Disney movies – time and again we see the only solution to the bad guy being to kill him or her. You worry about violent video games? Saturation in violence starts much younger than that – aren't you worried about that? That was the question being raised.

'But,' said a teenage voice from the floor, 'it's kill or be killed.'

'It's a violent world,' said another young man. 'You've got to get used to it – the sooner the better. Then it's not such a shock later.'

I got chatting to the latter young man on the way out. 'You really think that, do you?' I said. 'That it's a violent world – get used to it?'

'Yeh,' he said. 'There's nothing you can do – you've just got to get on with it. It's human nature.'

'But,' said a friend who was with me (a published poet incidently!) 'so's adultery. Should we just get used to that too?'

'Yeh,' said the young man. 'You might as well.'

On the other hand, I had a youth theatre parent complaining about the use of the word 'bastard' in a YT play being created by 12-14 year olds because she didn't want her daughter to grow up too soon- and I'm sure the editors I've met would be on her side.

I find all this profoundly depressing and I'm sure we all ask ourselves about our role as writers here – observers, moral guardians, activists, entertainers? But my other question is where are the books that reflect this world? I haven't read 'Crossing the Line' but it sounds like it does. Bali Rae's books do I think and possibly Kevin Brooks' and Keith Grey's – but there aren't many. When I suggested a series of books about a gang of young kids, such as those who kick around our estate, unsupervised and at hours of the night abhorrent to parents who are doing bedtime routines which end in a story and a kiss, my agent just laughed. No publisher would publish them because it is middle-class parents and librarians who buy books and they wouldn't want young children reading about dodgy street gangs, apparently. So we all end up reading about a very nice world inhabited by remarkably nice people to whom nothing terribly beastly ever happens – or we read fantasy. Sorry – is there a difference? Isn't it all fantasy?

I haven't met many editors but inevitably they've all been very well- educated and have been well and truly middle class. (They've all been stick-thin too, which is very annoying seeing as they have a sedentary lifestyle!) Most of them have been young and haven't had children. A significant number seem to be products of independent rather than state education. Do they know what it's like to be a kid growing up in today's violent world? I only have the vaguest of insights myself, despite having 4 teenagers and despite spending a large part of my working life working with young people. And we wonder why such a minority reads books.

It's great that 'Crossing the Line' is out there. But where are the books for younger children reflecting our modern world? Is there a raft of books that I have missed? Who is going to publish them? Supposing they are published, which librarians will stock them and which teachers will be bold enough to read them to their classes? And, most importantly, who is going to write them?

One of the endless conundrums of fiction. Do we read it to escape reality – or to embrace it? Do our readers want time away from their lives – or the reassurance that others have been there too?


PS. Sorry there's no picture! My computer died today and I'm using my husband's - and he doesn't have photos of me!!!

14 Comments on It's a violent world - get used to it! by Meg Harper, last added: 9/6/2009
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11. Shall we keep silent?



Hurray, hurray, I did some writing today! I was only polishing up a short story that is my contribution to the anthology I’m publishing for my summer school creative writing group (Good old Lulu!) – but it made me feel I can justify my presence on this blog still! I read some of the recent posts and I am bowled over by the sheer single-mindedness of some of you, writing, writing apparently all day long, be it on Facebook, Twitter, your own blogs, other people’s blogs or even something you might actually submit to an agent. Words, words, words. Voices, voices, voices. Talking, talking, talking.
As a result, I’m thinking that this is a forum where I can raise something that is much on my mind at present. I had thought not – because I had not thought you are people for whom it would make a difference to be silent – but of course it would! You are anything but silent in countless different ways.

So where are we going here? OK - an explanation!

I am much troubled by the issues of people trafficking, modern slavery and bonded labour. My most recent novel ‘Piper’ tackled the slavery issue obliquely. The central characters were faced with a dilemma – would they choose enslavement and relative safety or freedom and the likelihood of death? It appears to me that, despite the efforts of Stop the Traffik and the Anti-Slavery Campaign, there is very little attention being paid to these appalling and widespread practices – so it is in my mind to mount an awareness raising campaign. I recently went to a workshop run by Eugenie Harvey, of ‘We are What We Do’, the outfit she set up to create the book ‘Change the World for a Fiver’, followed by the ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ campaign and more recently the book ‘Teach your Granny to Text’. According to her, I should test out my bright idea for changing the world on a group of ‘normal’ people and get their feedback!
Well, I don’t want to insult ABBA blog readers by calling you ‘normal’!!! You are clearly far from that! But I can’t really think of anyone I associate who is ‘normal’ really, so forgive me testing out my thinking on you!
My counter-intuitive idea for making a noise about those whose voices are silenced by their oppressors behind hidden doors in a succession of anonymous locations - is to use silence. In terms of non-violent direct action, silence seems to me to have immense appeal. My idea is to encourage people to be silent in their workplace to draw attention to the plight of those who are silenced as they work as slaves – silenced by those who ensure they are voiceless by denying them any form of communication with the outside world in surroundings where the language is not their own. Consequently, even their screams are silent.
Which is where we get back to whether writers at work are silent or not. And it seems to me that you are not. Many of you talk to the outside world through a variety of Internet applications throughout your working days. So I can certainly ask you if you would stage as silent protest, backed up in advance by explanatory notes on your web-pages or Facebook profiles. And I can ask you what you think of the idea:
• do you think it would seed and spread?
• what are the things I need to think about?
• how could I make the ground fertile and make the silence that I sow run rampant?
• Should I see this simply as awareness raising, directing people to the excellent work of various anti-slavery/people trafficking lobbies or should I, for example, target a particular piece of legislation?
• Should I aim for a Day of Silence on which people could do as much silence as they wanted to – or should I ask people to make regular briefer, silent protests whilst spreading the word – or both? Or something else?

Or maybe I should just keep quiet and get back to my writing? : )

www.megharper.co.uk

21 Comments on Shall we keep silent?, last added: 10/2/2009
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12. Doing Moral Outrage


When I was young and dreamt of being a children’s writer, I never imagined it would take me to China but that’s where I have recently been, invited by the British Schools of Beijing and Guangzhou to do my author/drama practitioner stuff for 3.5 days. Of course, by the time I’d added a couple of days sight-seeing in both Beijing and Hong Kong plus my time in transit, the whole trip took 11 days and I doubt if I’ll have made much profit but I have had an amazing, mind-expanding trip, moments of which I’ll never forget (especially three of us crammed into a motorised rick-shaw built for two, being driven down three lanes of heavy traffic in the Beijing rush-hour. Or my encounter with a taxi driver who, quite typically in Beijing taxi drivers doesn’t know where anywhere is but isn’t going to lose face by admitting it!)
This, however, is not the place for a travel blog. What of all of this, is relevant to children’s writing? Well....possibly the books I read. Late at night and on journeys, there was the luxury of time to read. On the flight out, I sweated my way through ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. Very gripping. I would like to write gripping books for children, but without making readers nauseous with terror, without depicting scenes of violence degrading to women, without having a mind which pictures these things. I see from the sequel sample that the opening chapter is more of the same. Thanks but I think I’ve got the message!
With some relief I turned ot ‘The Roar’, the summer choice of my children’s book group by newcomer Emma Clayton. I enjoyed it. I had issues with the structure and the ending, all too frustratingly set up for what I expect will be a trilogy, but there was much to admire, not least the terrifyingly convincing picture of another world where the rich have quite literally built on top of the poor, condemning them to a life in the dreadful ‘Shadows’, a subterranean world of mould and darkness and squalor.
And then there was Leslie Wilson’s ‘Saving Rafael’, a refreshing spin on the holocaust novel – which I dropped in the bath! Really sorry, Leslie, but at least I was so gripped that I carried on reading and kept it in a plastic bag!
What connects there 3 books? Well...moral outrage, I think. It’s there in all of them. Steig Larsson, though I question his methods, is quietly ranting about violence against women and fraud, the strong terrorising those they perceive as weak. Emma Clayton is outraged by what we are doing to our world, both physically and socially. And Leslie, of course, is outraged by the holocaust – by our inhumanity.
We bloggers are all creators of story. We are all entertainers. But so many of us are also something else. Reflectors. Commentators. Prophets. Preachers. Voices crying in the wilderness?
So what, as I turn to story making again, be it on page or stage, should I be writing about? I could do moral outrage a-plenty after this trip. I have been treated with the utmost respect and courtesy throughout my stay in China – but supposing I had been a Chinese writer during the cultural revolution? Hmm. And Chairman Mao is still hugely honoured as a great hero by the ordinary Chinese. In Hong Kong I found a market full of stunning tropical fish, hung up in plastic bags, terrapins and turtles in tiny crates and puppies for sale in Perspex boxes measuring about 60cm beneath little dog jackets bearing the words. ‘We love all pets.’ Not far away, another market sold caged birds by the hundred.
A couple of weeks before I left, I stopped a child from kicking a plastic water bottle around during our break at Youth Theatre.

0 Comments on Doing Moral Outrage as of 1/1/1900
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13. Getting people to do it!



I spent fifteen minutes this morning chatting to a free-lance journalist writing an article called ‘So you want to be a writer?’ for ‘Cerys’, a magazine for 12-16 year old girls. Inevitably, I was asked for my top 3 tips for budding writers. ‘Read lots!’ is always my number one ‘Do it!’ is probably my second – I meet so many people, some of them in the creative writing class I teach who claim to want to write but don’t actually make the time. But my third – well, there are lots of things I could say. Today we were chewing the fat about what got me into writing in the first place and a big catalyst for me was doing very well in one of those ‘prize is getting your book published’ competitions run by Faber. That boosted my confidence and I went on from there. But I was also reminded that a big encouragement as a child was winning the story writing competitions in our local newspaper, ‘The Stockport Advertiser’. I have no idea how many people entered (probably very few – my brother-in-law is currently a dab hand at winning all sorts of goodies in newspaper competitions because he’s realised that so few people enter them) but I was highly delighted by the publication of my stories and the prize of a book that always followed. Once I even had tea with local author, Joyce Stranger, who generously gave me signed copies of two of her hardbacks. That was very thrilling. Her advice to budding writers was to live a broad and rich life – she didn’t seem too impressed with my plan to go to university to study English and maybe I should have taken heed!
I’m curious about the effect the competition winning had. I am not normally a person who enjoys competition (like Katherine, commenting on Sarah Molloy’s blog, I’d prefer to see us all as colleagues rather than rivals although, being realistic, I appreciate that it really is a competitive market out there and we can’t all be winners!) but it certainly gave me a spur as a young writer, partly, I suppose, because books of my own were scarce and I loved the prizes as well as the publication.
And so I have fallen to wondering about whether we could be encouraging young writers in this way? I’ve done some judging of school and bookshop competitions and it can be a deadly task, bringing back shades of the marking that killed a lot of the joy of being a schoolteacher. But I’m still wondering. Should we be setting competitions on our own web-sites? Occasionally from here? In collaboration with local bookshops? Or papers? Should we be nagging our publishers?
I’m pondering. What can we the writers of now, be doing to encourage the writers of the future? Or doesn’t it matter? Are they all so text happy with their Facebooking and mobiles and MSN that they don’t need any encouragement from us to write, even if the writing they do is not quite like ours?
Now I’m going to go away and consider whether I should be offering recreational creative writing to kids as well as to adults...hmm...about time I did some of own writing too, or I’ll be guilty of what I accuse others of and never actually ‘doing it’! (Though I might go and enter a competition in a local newspaper...hmm...a day at a luxury spa might be nice...and I could take a notebook and pretend I was writing.........!)

7 Comments on Getting people to do it!, last added: 12/16/2009
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14. Bonding with the Big Outdoors



OK, I know Creative Partners doesn’t pay the going Society of Authors’ rate for author visits but I’ve just accepted a job with them. Will you all forgive me? I’m not proud. Times is hard and the work will be fun and you will know by how that I simply can’t resist the temptation to do everything that has to do with writing that isn’t actually writing. (I did write three chapters in the last two days, honest!) Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the ‘enquiry question’ set by the school. A storyteller, a visual artist and I will be helping years 1 and 2 and their teachers to explore the question:
‘How can we use the outdoors to enable children (and adults they learn with) to better express and communicate ideas, thoughts and feelings and make connections?’
My first thoughts are about exploring what they mean by that question – especially ‘make connections’ – but come on, folks – what do you all think? How do you use the outdoors to better express etc etc? Do you? Don’t you? Are they barking up the wrong tree? (Ho, ho, ho!) Personally, I find a brisk walk of a morning an essential part of a writing day – it’s great mulling time. I don’t mean I thrash out ideas that way, though I have a friend who does, but it just allows my mind to go into freefall, wandering all over the place in a relaxed sort of way and I think that’s very helpful and fruitful. It’s also moderately helpful in the battle against writer’s bum! But how useful a brisk walk would be in a big group, I don’t know – and almost inevitably, we’ll be doing group activities. Of course, I’m already thinking along more structured lines – building willow story-sharing arbours, thinking outdoor theatre, planning story trails (there’s a lovely one all laminated and ready to use if you go to Hackfall Landscape Gardens up near Ripon – see my photos) – but how do we as writers use the outdoors? I’ll be fascinated to hear. For me, places are often the inspiration for a story or creep in there somewhere. A long time ago I visited Chastleton House in the Cotswolds and was inspired to write ‘The Ghost in the Gallery’, partly because of the astonishing interior but also because of the spooky, neglected topiary garden. Stockport’s amazing air-raid shelters tunnelled into the sandstone banks of the Mersey sneaked into ‘Piper’, Thurlestone Bay in Devon provided the beach in ‘Fur’ – but this isn’t really about helping me to better express and communicate – it’s more about ‘where do you get your ideas from?’
I am intrigued. Perhaps they have a gut feeling that these small children, living on a fairly grim estate, are creatures of the TV and the play station and need to be outdoors. I would agree – but whether to help their expression and communication, I don’t know. I am excited and challenged and eager to find out. I will be on a journey of discovery and I hope to let you know what I learn. Certainly Forest Schools of which there are now quite a few in the English state system, find that the amount of time and activity spent outdoors has hugely beneficial effects on children’s learning and well-being. I find it fascinating. The stereotypical view of the writer is of one beavering away in his or her study – an indoor person.

10 Comments on Bonding with the Big Outdoors, last added: 1/17/2010
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15. Glad, glad, glad...

I’ve just read John’s ‘Pollyanna’ blog and boy, do I need to hold it in mind right now. Writing fiction? What’s that? Most of my writing time (I also run a youth theatre, am training to be a counsellor and spend far too much time doing school visits!) in the last week seems to have been taken up by sending e-mails, letters and Facebook messages because I have a penfriend, Eric Cathey, on Death Row whose execution date has been set for November 18th. I’ve recently been given the go ahead by his attorney as writing ‘can do no harm’ so am writing as much as I can in an attempt to save his life. The chances of my writing – or anybody else’s writing – making any difference are so slim (this is Texas I’m talking about and they’re executing two a week at present) that I almost feel like not bothering and working on the kids’ novel I’m trying to draw from the horror. (‘Wow! That’ll be a big seller then, Mum,’ says my sixteen year old daughter. ‘For 12-14 year olds? You think?’ She wanders off, shaking her head at her mother’s lunacy.) But my husband, the one who does the real work around here and funds my craziness, is sanguine. ‘You’re a writer. You have no choice. That’s what you’re here for.’ He doesn’t mean the fiction.
It was 85 days ago that I heard the news. There are 26 left out of a friendship that has lasted over 3 years. My latest letter arrived yesterday. Eric’s unit is on lockdown (all privileges, including hot meals, withdrawn because someone misbehaved – this isn’t the place for more detail) but Eric rejoices that he has been allowed a visitor, is glad that he is in good health at present and writes:
‘Yesterday my friend 6:6 fixed us something to eat and I swear, I never thought chilli and corn chips ever tasted so good! : ) So I got a chance to eat a good meal while listening to my favourite team win their first game of the season!’
Eric has been in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for eleven years now, with no TV, just a radio. I think he could empathise with Pollyanna at the worst moments! What a continual and very present reminder he is to me to value my smallest blessings, including, as John points out, the support of my community. (The phone goes – it is a friend, bless him, checking that I am OK. Timing, hey?) Eric values the friends he makes shouting through the doors and the bars of the exercise areas, the few visitors who can visit once a week and talk to him through the plexi-glass and the letters from his eight penfriends. Even on Death Row the survivor makes community. Those that cannot, for whatever reason, lose their minds.
So yes, John, let us be deeply Pollyanna-ish in our gladness for whatever we have and most of all for the support of our communities – and, as we are writers, let us be particularly grateful for the communities we make through our writing.
If anyone does want to write or e-mail in defence of Eric, I would be very grateful. Personally, I don’t care if he’s guilty or innocent of the murder of which he was convicted; I am against capital punishment. But Eric has always claimed he is innocent and there is doubt about the ‘safety’ of his conviction, which has been the subject of several petitions. The details you will need are as follows:

Governor Rick Perry,
Office of the GovernorP.O. Box 12428Austin, Texas 78711-2428

e-mail: publicrecords@governor.state.tx.us

Eric's convict number is #999228. He 37 years old and is an inmate of the Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas.

11 Comments on Glad, glad, glad..., last added: 11/8/2008
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