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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: John Dougherty, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. The Great OUP Pig Scandal

I expect this is old news. The current affairs cycle has moved on, and the top story now is the fact that “Page 1: lies about poor people; Page 2: boring bit nobody reads; Page 3: woman in her pants” is still considered journalism in some circles.
However, before it all quietly fades from memory, I’d like to say a few words about The Great OUP Pig Scandal.
A pig, yesterday.
Image courtesy of www.publicdomainpictures.net
For those of you who didn’t catch the story - or in case it has in fact completely faded from memory already - here’s a summary. 
Early last week, during a discussion about free speech on Radio 4’s Today, presenter James Naughtie said the following:
"I’ve got a letter here which was sent out by Oxford University Press to an author doing something for young people.
“Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: ‘Pigs (plus anything else which could be perceived as pork’).

“Now, if a respectable publisher tied to an academic institution is saying you’ve got to write a book in which you cannot mention pigs because some people might be offended, it’s just ludicrous, it is just a joke.”

Some banned pigs, after the ban
Image from www.publicdomainpictures.net
I’ve got an awful lot of time for Mr Naughtie, especially since his unfortunate spoonerism involving the name and title of then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. However, on this occasion he got it badly wrong.
Firstly, I don’t think it was okay for him to name-and-shame an individual publisher like this, without asking for their side of the story first. The BBC can be quite stupidly cautious about putting both sides of a story, so for it to accuse a major publisher like this without immediate right to reply is quite bizarre.
Secondly, the wording as reported above (source: Huffington Post) doesn’t make it clear that these are not guidelines for general submissions to OUP. These are commissioning guidelines for their reading schemes which are sold across 200 countries. Such guidelines are quite common within the industry, and singling OUP out is simply unfair.
Thirdly, he jumps to the conclusion that the purpose of these guidelines is to avoid causing offence. This is quite simply wrong. Their purpose is to maximise sales. You will sell fewer books to, say, Saudi Arabia if they feature pigs or pork; and not just of the particular books that mention these subjects. Sales across the entire reading scheme will be affected, because who wants to buy a bit of a reading scheme?
An OUP book that contains no pigs,
but quite a lot of badgers.
 Fourthly - and in my view - this is where Mr Naughtie got it most wrong - he selectively mentions only the guidelines that refer to pigs and pork products. And, sure, they’re there. As are for instance, if I remember correctly, guidelines that request the author to steer clear of writing about witches or dinosaurs, because these subjects will affect sales in the good old bible-believing US of A. Where’s the outcry about “censoring” authors in order to not hurt the feelings of fundamentalist Christians? Mr Naughtie should have known that singling out a ‘ban’ on pigs like this would feed the subtle islamophobia that is currently much too common in our culture.
And finally: this ‘ban’ on pigs in books commissioned by the publisher is presented as some kind of assault on free speech. Can I just point out that the principle of free speech entitles a publisher to set their own commissioning guidelines? And also that nobody is stopping any author from writing whatever the hell they want, submitting to any publisher, and - if they can’t get a deal for it - publishing it themselves on the internet?
None of this, of course, stopped opportunistic attention-seekers like MP Philip Davies from calling for government intervention; The Independent reported him as saying, “The Secretary of State needs to get a grip over this and make sure this ridiculous ban is stopped at once.” I tried to engage Mr Davies on Twitter to ask how such government intervention would work, and how he could justify calling for legislation to stop a British business being allowed control over its own commissioning guidelines; but the only reply I got from him was an approving retweet of someone else saying that Mr Davies was not politically correct in any way. I think the word ‘politically’ may have been redundant there.
I suspect the remark that sums this whole issue up best was the one by Francis Maude MP on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. He began:
“Well, I hadn’t heard this story, and it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever come across.”
In other words: I know nothing about this issue and now I’m going to pontificate about how stupid these people are being.

Sadly, that’s been about the level of debate. 

John Dougherty's latest books, the Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, are published by OUP. They contain very few mentions of pigs, but could have lots more if he wanted them to. 
He has written reading scheme books for OUP and Harper Collins, and does not believe these books have ever been censored.
His first picture book, There's a Pig Up My Nose, will be published by Egmont next year.
For the first time in his life he phoned Any Answers last week, to talk about this issue, but didn't get on the air.

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2. The wonderful magic of author visits - C.J. Busby

Whenever I'm lucky enough to be invited to schools to give talks or run creative writing workshops, I always enjoy the visits, and get a fantastic boost from them. But it can sometimes be difficult for a lone author to gauge the usefulness or value of what they do on a school visit - after all, you rarely get the chance to hear what the children really thought of you. Are they just being polite when they say it was great? Are the teachers rolling their eyes behind your back? When they tell you about the last author visit they had, and how inspired the children were, are they drawing unfavourable comparisons? Are you really doing it right? So when I got the chance to volunteer as a steward at the Appledore Festival Schools Programme, near where I live, I jumped at it. I could get to sit at the back, and watch another author do their stuff! I could learn how it looks from the other side of the room, see some examples of what works, check out what other people do.

I'm so glad I did. Because what I discovered is that author visits are magical, wonderful and amazing, and there are probably almost as many ways of being magical, wonderful and amazing as there are authors. Both the authors I shepherded around north Devon were fantastic, and they connected brilliantly with their audiences - but they both did it in almost opposite ways.

John Dougherty is an old hand - he does a lot of author visits, and he's written a lot of books. His latest series - about brother and sister Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face and their adventures foiling the dastardly plans of a group of no-good scheming badgers - is pure silliness in the best tradition of Roald Dahl and Mr Gum.

John had the children rolling on the floor (literally) with his special brand of humour, guitar playing, singing and interactive mayhem. His talks were high octane fun, but he had some very important things to say as well - things like: you are all authors, all of you, because you've all written or made up stories, and that's what being an author is. Things like: there are no right or wrong books to read - read what you like, see if you enjoy it, try something else if you don't. Don't worry about people saying it's 'too old' or 'too young' or 'for boys' or 'for girls'. As he pointed out, no one shouts at a 70 year old reading a magazine saying, 'You're too old to read that! You're seventy! It's too easy for you! You should be reading Aristotle. In the original Greek!'

Lucy Jones is much nearer the beginning of her writing career - she's published two books, and she's currently working on a new one.  She doesn't play the guitar, or sing, and she didn't have the children rolling on the floor. But she did have them equally spell-bound.

Lucy talked about her early writing - and even read out a short story she'd written when she was seven, with her original illustrations projected on a powerpoint. She talked about the books she'd loved as a young reader herself, and the trials and hurdles of becoming a published author. And she read some extracts from her books - spooky, spine-chilling extracts which had the kids open-mouthed, wanting to hear the next bit...

She talked to them about how to write, how to build up ideas and believable characters, and she gave them a challenge - to come up with their own character, based on a picture. The twist was, that the character they were inventing was dead - they had to decide how he had died, and what sort of ghost teacher he would make, in the ghost school where her new story was set.

What struck me, sitting at the back, was just how excited the children were by the presence of an actual author - someone who'd written a real book! And how intrigued they were to hear just simple things, like how books are made, how the covers are designed, how long it takes an author to write a book, where do authors get their ideas from?! It was immediately obvious, as one of the audience, how valuable it was for children to be told, by someone who really writes books - you can do this too! In fact, you do it - every day! We get our work corrected by editors just like you get your stories marked by your teacher. It's more words, it takes longer, but it's not different in kind from what you do. And although very few of those children are going to grow up to be published authors, it gives them a new sense of the value of what they can do, what they are capable of, what they could aim for if they decided to. It reinforced the value and importance of stories and creativity of all sorts, whether it's their writing or their made-up playground games or their engagement with stories in books, magazines, TV, or computer games or films.

Traipsing round with my two authors, and watching the magic being kindled again and again in their sessions, I realised that I needn't have worried about my own sessions. Children's authors write for children, so they have a pretty good idea of what engages their interest, and how to talk to them. They are creative, clever people, with inventive minds and a way with words. When they tell a child, "That's a fabulous idea!" or "You see? You're an author too!" they give that child a warm glow that you can see from fifty yards away - a gift that will stay with that child for the rest of their life.

So if you're an author, and you do school visits - take a bow, you are making a difference! However unsure you may feel abut your sessions, you are touching the children you talk to in ways you probably don't realise. And if you're a teacher or parent or librarian - beg, borrow or steal the money from the school budget (or PTA jumble sale?) for a local author to visit your children. Or even better, have a look to see if there's someone available to be your Patron of Reading. That one visit will kindle a magic that will inspire those children for the whole school year and beyond.

C.J. Busby writes fantasy for ages 7-12. Her most recent book is Dragon Amber, published by Templar. The first book in the series, Deep Amber, was published in March 2012.

"A rift-hopping romp with great charm, wit and pace" Frances Hardinge.



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3. TIME TO MAN-UP! – Anna Wilson

A couple of things have happened this week which have made me think about how I promote myself as a writer who also happens to be a woman. I would like to share these things to get your opinions, which I know will be many and varied!

On Wednesday 26th March I went to an event organized by the wonderful Bristol Librarians. It was, as much as anything, to say a fond farewell to Margaret Pemberton and to thank her for her inspirational and tireless work in the Library Services over the years.

It was also a fantastic opportunity for authors to network, as it was advertised as ‘Speed-dating with Librarians and School Teachers’ – every bit as scary as it sounds, but not quite as dubious.

We children’s authors were invited to bring along samples of our work and be prepared to talk about our books and what we can offer for events. Every five minutes or so, a bell would be rung and the teachers and librarians would move on to another author. Clearly the idea was for us to sell ourselves convincingly in a succinct and engaging manner in order that the teachers and librarians would remember us, buy our books for their establishments and hire our services for events.

I was on a table with Che Golden, whose Mulberrypony books are hilarious, action-packed tales about (in her own words) ‘evil’ ponies - definitely ‘not your average pony books’. She has also written a series about ‘homicidal’ fairies, the first title of which The Feral Child, has sold in the US and already has a large fan base. Sitting with us was Rachel Carter: her debut novel for 9-12s, Ethan’s Voice, has been extremely well received. Rachel is a Bath Spa graduate from the MA course, Writing for Young People. She is a talented writer with more stories in the pipeline.

So, of course, the three of us sat there telling the teachers and librarians how marvellous we were, blowing our own trumpets and generally setting out to impress . . .

Did we, hell. (I know Che and Rachel will agree, because we discussed it afterwards!) We were bashful and self-deprecating, we had brought no books to sell and we shared each other’s business cards as we had not thought to bring much in the way of promotional material.

Then there was John Dougherty: he had a stack of books to sell and a pile of beautifully put-together, carefully thought-through leaflets which helpfully and concisely laid out what he does, how much he charges, what a school can hope to get from a day with him and how good he is at doing it. He had added selected quotes from happy readers, teachers and librarians who could testify to how good he was and what benefits his visits had brought to their schools. It was brilliant! And it gave a very professional impression. (I have since showed his leaflet to friends and family who have said, ‘Why don’t you do this?’ Why, indeed?)

Che and I also discussed events and festivals with Wendy Meddour (author of the wildly funny Wendy Quill books). Wendy said at one festival she was on after two well-known, hilarious male authors, and that it made her anxious as it was ‘like following two stand-up artists’.

I went home thinking, ‘Why is it that women writers do not put themselves out there as confidently as men?’

The next morning the headline below featured in the Guardian. It provoked some heated debate on Facebook amongst a few female authors I know:

Discover the Booktrust 2014 Best Books awards shortlist!
David Walliams, Jeff Kinney and Jonathan Green [sic] make the shortlist for the Booktrust's Best Book awards – which children's books do you think should win?

Apart from the glaringly obvious mistake that it is in fact John Green’s name on the list, not the mysterious Jonathan, the thing that riled me and more than a few of my friends was the lack of women’s names in the headline. If you scroll down through the shortlist, you will see many prominent women writers included on the list, some of whom (Lucy Cousins, Joanna Nadin, Sarah McIntyre, for example) are well-known, well-loved writers who have already won or been nominated for prestigious awards, and so are hardly also-rans who deserve to be tacked on after the men.

Both the article in the Guardian and the ‘speed-dating’ event made me wonder about how we women promote ourselves. I know that in an ideal world it would be great if there was an entirely level playing field to start with, and it would also be lovely if publishers did not leave the lion’s share of promotion to us authors who really only want to get on and write rather than be cajoled into the role of performing monkeys . . . But with John Dougherty’s leaflet sitting on my desk and Wendy’s words about men’s events being ‘like stand-up’ ringing in my ears, I did wonder what I could do to change things for myself.  

My husband works in the food industry: I asked him if women were as backwards at coming forwards in business as I felt I was in the book world. His reply:

‘Oh yes, the women I work with admit that if they have only 20% knowledge on a certain subject, they will hold back until they feel they know about 80% before they voice an opinion, whereas I would say that men are happy to chip in confidently with their views when they know only 20% of what they are talking about.’

This would certainly back up what teachers have said to me about the differences in male and female behaviour in the classroom, too. Girls will tend to sit quietly and wait until they are sure they know the answer, whereas boys will have a go even if they are not 100% (or even 80%) confident.

So, I have made a decision. If I want people to take my writing seriously, pay me what I charge for events and (maybe one day) put my name in a newspaper headline, I shall have to take a leaf out of the men’s book and talk myself up a bit.

As Caitlin Moran says in her marvellous book, How to Be A Woman:

The boys are not being told they have to be a certain way, they are just getting on with stuff.

Now, where is that excellent leaflet of John Dougherty’s? I feel a copy-cat session coming on . . .

Find me on the web at http://annawilson.co.uk

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4. Why do we believe these things? - John Dougherty

Image © LostMedia
Ever since the beginning of my involvement with the publishing industry, I’ve had the suspicion that its thinking is full of ‘accepted truths’ that are, in fact, not true. My suspicions are growing.

One of these so-called accepted truths - shall we call them SCATs for short? - is the idea that “boys won’t read books with a girl as the central character”. I was involved in a conversation recently where this was asserted as fact.

- Hmmm, I said; but is that true? After all, boys read Mr Gum, and the hero of those books is a girl.
- Yes, came the reply, but it’s sold on Mr Gum himself.
- The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe? It’s Lucy’s story, really. If there’s a central character, it’s her.
- Yes, but there’s Peter and Edmund and Susan, too, so it’s a gender-balanced story.
- Northern Lights?
- Yes, but Pullman’s exceptional, isn’t he?
- The Hunger Games?
- Well, sometimes a book comes along that just breaks all the rules.

…and so on. 

Interestingly, the person who most strongly made such statements also quite blithely said that their company does no marketplace research; they just trust in instinct & experience.

This is not to denigrate anyone involved in the conversation; they’re all good people who have achieved much in the world of publishing, and it was a privilege to talk to them. But it did get me wondering - is there in fact any real evidence to support the idea that boys won’t read books about girls? Or is it simply an unfounded myth that has gained traction and now won’t let go?

On the same day, I responded to a tweet from the inestimable Let Toys Be Toys campaign about their Let Books Be Books initiative. They’re building a gallery - which is here and growing; do take a look - to challenge this idea. Examples there, and others I’ve spotted or thought of since, include:

  • Alice in Wonderland 
  • The Silver Chair
  • Matilda
  • the Sophie stories
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • A Face Like Glass
  • Peter Pan & Wendy (interesting, isn’t it, that since Disney the title has been shortened to Peter Pan, when really it’s Wendy’s story?)
  • The BFG
  • Mr Stink
  • the Tiffany Aching books
  • The Story of Tracy Beaker
  • Sabriel
  • Fever Crumb

And there are more. Does anyone honestly think boys won’t read Geraldine McCaughrean’s wonderful The White Darkness or Not The End of the World? Is Tony Ross’s Little Princess really rejected by half the toddler population? Does the possession of external genitalia truly impede enjoyment of The Secret Garden?

Then I started thinking about my own childhood reading. I was a very insecure boy, bullied by my classmates, and gender-shaming was one of their weapons. I learned early on that anything that marked me out as insufficiently masculine was to be avoided. So did that mean I didn’t read “girls’ books?” Nope. I just read them in secret. I rather enjoyed Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl and St Clare’s series, for instance, and Pollyanna; and truth to tell if gender wasn’t signified on the cover in some way then it didn’t even occur to me to ask if the central character was a boy. The two things that sometimes stopped me from reading books about girls - or being seen to read them - were:

  1. the fear of being shamed
  2. being given the message in some way that these books were not for me

In other words, there was nothing about either me or the book that made us a poor match. It was external pressure that got between me and those stories. And despite what my classmates would have had you believe, I don’t think I was a weirdo.

This isn’t the only SCAT that restricts young readers and the adults who write for them. Malorie Blackman recently challenged the idea that white children won’t read books starring characters from minority backgrounds. And where did we get the idea that children won’t read about adult characters? Have we forgotten how successful Professor Branestawn was in his day - or that children are happy to read about King Arthur’s knights, or Heracles, or Superman? 

Do we really believe that children are so closed-minded as to only want to read about characters like themselves? Do we honestly think so little of them? And if we think it true that children need characters to be like them even in age, colour and gender before they can identify with them, why are we happy to give them stories about rabbits and hedgehogs and guinea-pigs, about water-rats and moles and toads and badgers? Is there any sense at all in the assertion that a boy will identify with a different species more readily than with the opposite sex? That a white child will happily imagine himself to be a dog or a pig, but balk at imagining himself as black? 

We need to challenge these SCATs. They’re bad for books; they’re bad for readers; they’re bad for our society. So thank goodness for Let Books Be Books. Thank goodness for Malorie Blackman. Thank goodness for those people who are prepared to say, “Is there any actual evidence for that?” - and let’s agree to be those people ourselves.

And if we ever feel unsure of our ground, and wonder if maybe the SCATs are right, let’s remember a film industry SCAT recently reported by Lauren Child. Let’s remember that she was told a Ruby Redfort film was out of the question, because a female lead in a kids’ film is box-office poison.

And let’s remember that the highest-grossing animation of all time is now Disney’s female-led Frozen.


John's latest book is Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers (OUP)

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5. Worth the Wait - John Dougherty

Image © LostMedia
It's pretty rare to have your very first submission accepted for publication.

I certainly didn't. My first submission was a series of four picture book scripts about a teacher called Mrs Daffodil and the strange things that happened to the children she taught. Inspired to write them by some of the children in my own class, and inspired again by their responses when I read them to them, I sent the manuscripts off to a bunch of agents and I waited.

And, slowly, the rejections began to come in.

Except that one agent didn't entirely reject the stories. She told me that picture books are pretty expensive to produce and no publisher is likely to take a chance on a series of them by a previously unpublished author; but she did like them, and felt that if I reworked them as a single book of four stories they might stand a chance. Despite the fact that she was gearing up for maternity leave and so wasn't taking on any new clients, she took the time to give me a bit of advice about submitting the stories directly to publishers - and, crucially, gave me permission to use her name in approaching them.

So I did. And, again, the rejections began to come in.

Except that one editor didn't entirely reject the stories - or, rather, didn't entirely reject me. I had a letter from Sue Cook, then at Random House, telling me that although she couldn't use these stories, she liked my writing enough to want to see more from me.

And so began a period of years during which I would write stuff in my spare time - when teaching and, latterly, being a dad allowed me enough of the right sort of spare time - and send it to Sue, who invariably took the time to give me genuinely useful feedback and guidance. One of the stories I half-wrote during this time was The Legend of Bansi O'Hara, a fantasy-comedy which got completely tangled up in its own sub-plots but in which Sue still saw enough to encourage and advise me.

And then, finally, after Sue had suggested I try writing a school-based story for Random's Young Corgi range, I came up with Zeus on the Loose, and - after a bit more guidance from Sue, and a couple of rewrites - it was accepted for publication, more than six years after I'd first sent off those Mrs Daffodil stories.

"Wow!" said a friend, when I told him. "You've worked for such a long time for this, haven't you. It really shows that if you want to do something, you shouldn't ever give up."

It's been twelve years since that first acceptance letter, and more than ten since my first book was published. I have eleven published books now - including Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy, much reworked from the original - and another five finished and due for publication in the next year or so.

And it's been about eighteen years since, naive and hopeful,  I first sent off my Mrs Daffodil's Class stories. Eighteen years during which, occasionally, I'd read my favourite of the four on a school visit and tell the children that not everything you write as an author gets published, but that I still hoped this one might do one day.

So imagine my excitement, just a few days ago, to hear that Egmont has made me an offer on it. It's my first picture book deal, and - while I have other unpublished picture-book MSs in the figurative bottom drawer, many of which i still very much believe in - it feels somehow fitting that it's for one of the stories which, all those years ago, started me off on the road towards publication.

It reminds me to never give up.


 John's latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, is illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP

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6. Pockets of hope - John Dougherty

I was at the ALCS panel discussion at the House of Commons about which Anne Rooney blogged last week, and it was pretty sobering. The figures as revealed by the ALCS survey are grim: since 2005 authors' median income has dropped by 29% and the percentage of authors making a living solely from writing has declined from 40% to 11.5%.

Yet ALCS also finds that "the wealth generated by the UK creative industries is on the increase... the creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion per year to the UK economy". In fact, it would appear that while authors are being paid less, publishers are doing quite nicely - a situation that the General Secretary of the Society of Authors describes as both unfair and unsustainable.

Meanwhile, dark mutterings and rumblings grow about literary festivals charging ticket prices and paying organisers, booksellers, musicians and entertainers - but not the authors. There's something quite absurd about all of this - the very people who create the product's value not being themselves valued.

Chipping Norton Literary FestivalThere are, however, pockets of hope. The evening before the ALCS discussion I was at another event, at The Ivy in London. This one was organised by the Chipping Norton Literary Festival, of which I am proud to be a patron, and they'd organised it in order to make a very special announcement:

From now on, any profits made from the festival "will be split equally between all authors involved."

I should say that ChipLitFest, as we like to call it, already has a reputation for looking after authors properly - great accommodation, a fabulous green room, lovely meals, and so on - and many other festivals would have rested on their laurels. But from its inception only three years ago, the organisers have been aware that without authors there is no festival; and if anyone should be rewarded for the festival's success, it's the people who create the content.

 Any chance of publishers following suit?


 John's latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers, is illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP.

 Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic Porcupine will be published in August.

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7. These Island Stories - John Dougherty

Do you remember the Opening Ceremony? It’s a measure of its impact that I don’t have to say which one, or what it opened. You know what I’m talking about. For days - perhaps weeks - afterwards, the country seemed like a warmer, friendly place.
I don't have permission to use any photos of the Opening Ceremony.  So here instead is a picture of some cake, courtesy of Michael at www.foodimaging.co.uk

Of course, not everyone felt this way. Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens on several occasions derided it as ‘a social worker’s history of Britain’, a phrase which I found revealing in its oddness. Does Mr Hitchens believe that social workers don’t have a right to history, or that their history is somehow inferior to other people’s? Does he think that a person who spends his or her working life looking after the needs of others is somehow less worthy than someone who spends his working life writing opinions for a newspaper with a less than glorious history of bending the truth, not to mention supporting parties with less than pleasant ideologies?

It’s the sort of question that is all too pertinent in these days of Gategate, the scandal of the Government’s Chief Whip apparently calling a police officer a “pleb”. The whole row has that sense of “some people are better than others, not because of who they really are but simply because of their station in life”, which unpleasantly echoes Hitchens’s ‘social worker’ jibe. I’m reminded, as the row unfolds, of how the Opening Ceremony made me feel.

You see, I’m not the only one to have reported unaccustomed feelings of patriotism after watching the Opening Ceremony; and I think I know why. On previous occasions on which I’ve been asked to feel patriotic, the feelings were supposed to be stirred by things that, well, don’t stir me. I quite like the Queen, I suppose, but I don’t feel the country would necessarily be a worse place to live if someone else were our Head of State instead. I never think, “I love being British because we have an army and some big ships!” or “gosh, isn’t it great that we once sent emotionally damaged ex-public schoolboys out all over the world to impose their values on whatever cultures they found there!"

But what Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce did, bless them, was to provide an alternative narrative of which I could feel proud. Free universal healthcare! Black people and white people having babies together and nobody even thinking it comment-worthy until that twerp Aidan Burley and, yes, the Daily Mail point it out! Creativity in writing and music and art! Children’s literature, for goodness‘ sake!

I suppose, really, that what it did for me - and this is hugely significant, considering that I grew up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles - was to tell me: it’s okay to be British my way, whatever that means to me. If I want to prefer a social worker’s history over a right-wing pundit’s history, I can. It doesn’t make me a “pleb” who needs to ‘learn my place’.

So why am I mentioning this here, so long after it’s all over? Well, I just felt moved to point this out:

Literature, and perhaps particularly writings for children and teens, do this as well. Can you remember, during your childhood, reading something in a book and thinking, “But I do that, too!” or “That’s just how it feels!” or “So it’s not just me!”

I can. And the lesson of the Opening Ceremony is that that’s important. Enormously important. Children’s writers do many things, but one of the best things we do is to say to children: “You know - it’s okay to be you.”

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8 
He will be appearing at the Cheltenham Comedy Festival on November 17th 2012.

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

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8. I'm not being funny... by John Dougherty

Firstly - sorry for the late arrival of this post! We usually like to get our blog entries up first thing, but sometimes life gets in the way.

Now - about not being funny:

Funny is what I do. I'm one of those irritating people who has a witty quip for almost every occasion, even when something a bit more thoughtful might be more helpful. I love it when someone reviews one of my books with the words "I laughed as much as my kids did". I don't, generally, find being funny all that difficult.

Except, of course, when that's what's expected of me.

An editor at an educational publisher recently asked me to write a funny book. Most of our books have an element of humour, she told me, but we want this series to be really laugh-out-loud funny. Send me some ideas.

Could I think of anything? Like heck I could. I racked my brains, I thumbscrewed them, I jammed them into the iron maiden... all I got was instantly rejectable ideas. Being funny is like being in love - as soon as you start focusing on the state itself, or trying to analyse it, you're no longer doing it; you're doing something else instead. Indeed, a potentially funny idea loses all its potential to amuse as soon as you start trying to make it actually funny.

Well, I came up with some ideas in the end; and of course I came up with them by forgetting about thinking up funny ideas and doing something else instead, for several days in a row. And one by one I jotted them down, making sure not to worry about whether they were any good. And then I rather apologetically sent them off unfiltered, and got a reply back that began: "Wow, you’ve given us loads of great ideas here!"

Rob Brydon once said something to the effect of, "People say, Oh, my mate's really funny, you should have him on your panel game. But the question is not Can you be funny down the pub? but  Can you be funny at 7.30 every Tuesday evening for at least half an hour?"

There's a lesson in there. And for me, it's: When you appear at the Cheltenham Comedy Festival, make sure to have some funny things to say prepared in advance. 

Oh, and: Don't worry about trying to be funny. Just write. If you're funny, it'll show.

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8 
He will be appearing at the Cheltenham Comedy Festival on November 17th 2012.

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

2 Comments on I'm not being funny... by John Dougherty, last added: 10/30/2012
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9. Patronising without patronising - John Dougherty

I’m going to be a patron!

Okay, that doesn’t look very exciting written down, but I think it is. I’ve signed up for a new scheme, the brainchild of Tim Redgrave, head teacher at Ysgol Esgob Morgan in St Asaph, North Wales. The idea is that a school adopts an author as Patron of Reading, to develop a relationship with the school and its pupils and to foster and promote a culture of reading.

The idea came to Tim following a hugely successful visit by my friend Helena Pielichaty. This doesn’t surprise me at all; I’ve had to spend a ridiculous amount of time this week alone telling my daughter to put down that blimmin’ Girls FC book and get dressed/have your breakfast/brush your  teeth/get in the car.

Anyone who knows anything about my views on education knows how important I think reading for pleasure is. It’s the key; there’s so much more evidence to support its foundational role than just about anything else. So I’m delighted to be part of this scheme. I could witter on about it for pages & pages, but I think instead I’m going to direct you to Helena’s blog, where she explains the whole thing. Please take a look - you'll be inspired!

And if you’re a teacher or school librarian looking for ways to promote reading for pleasure, or an author wanting to get involved, please contact Tim via the link on this page to add your name to the list of potential patrons!

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

1 Comments on Patronising without patronising - John Dougherty, last added: 12/4/2012
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10. Happy New Year, from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure - John Dougherty

Happy New Year!

I expect some of you are still in bed and fast asleep. I expect I am, too. It's lovely being able to schedule posts in advance. Of course, it means I have no idea what sort of New Year's I had, since I haven't actually had it yet. But I'm sure it was great.

You might have noticed that we took a longer than usual Christmas break this time around. We're back now, stuffed full of turkey or the vegetarian equivalent and ready to hit the new year running.

This year we're posting on Sundays too, so in 2013 every day will be an Awfully Big Blog day! We hope you'll join us, and point your friends here for our awfully big mix of wisdom, wit & whimsy from our current roster of 30 contributors. And if you missed yesterday's close-of-year post by Penny Dolan, do take a look at it now!

 I hope 2013's good for you. I'm looking forward to it. In January, I'll be:
  •  writing most of a book
  • getting established in my new position as an official Patron of Reading at a primary school - more news on that soon
  • trying to organise my life a bit better and spend more time with my family
  • getting out running a little more
 How about you?

 John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

2 Comments on Happy New Year, from An Awfully Big Blog Adventure - John Dougherty, last added: 1/1/2013
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11. Censoring a Children’s Book - John Dougherty

Censorship is a tricky area, isn’t it?

Generally speaking, it’s a Bad Thing. I fume as much as the next author when I read one of those articles about a US school board voting to remove To Kill A Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the library because of some imagined unsuitability. I thought the Daily Mail was a bit off with its recent suggestion that teen fiction dealing with issues like terminal illness or self-harm qualifies as “sick-lit” (and, no, I’m not going to provide a link; it’ll only encourage them to do it again).

And yet, occasionally, I’ve found myself censoring children’s books.

I don’t mean that I go through them with a marker pen deleting the ‘unsuitable bits’; and I certainly don’t mean that I remove books from my children’s book shelf, but… well, let me give you the most recent example.

I’m currently reading Watership Down with my kids (they’ve got older since the photo was taken, as have I). My daughter, now aged 10, wasn’t sure about it at first, but they both seem to be really enjoying it now. And so am I; I loved it when I was about their age, and I’m loving reading it again. But a few nights ago, I ran into a sentence that made me feel a little odd when I first read it, and makes me feel extremely odd now.

For those of you who know the book, when Hazel & his companions are in Cowslip’s warren, their hosts ask if one of them will tell a story. And the next sentence reads:

“There is a rabbit saying, ‘In the warren, more stories than passages’; and a rabbit can no more refuse to tell a story than an Irishman can refuse to fight.”

When I encountered this sentence as a child - well, I can’t remember exactly how I felt, but I know it made me pause. I’m Irish - Northern Irish, to be specific - and I’ve never felt particularly inclined to physical violence. Yet here it was, in a book - a terrific book, at that: just an aside, here’s something we all know about Irishmen. They’re violent. Why on earth should the author say that?

So it made me a bit uneasy then. It makes me more uneasy now, not least because in my first proper job - in England - I worked with a colleague who was convinced that Ireland, and especially Northern Ireland, was a horrible violent place. A lot of our clients were troubled young men, but my colleague took it as read that being Irish - or, in the case of one client, merely having an Irish father - would mean a particular predisposition towards violence. It was a dreadful belief to find in someone who was generally thoughtful and intelligent, and in the end it rather poisoned our working relationship.

So the sentence I’ve quoted above is, for me, problematic - as problematic as would be a sentence suggesting that Jewish people are prone to parsimony or black people to idleness. But I’d forgotten about it until… well, until I reached it.

If either child had been leaning on my shoulder, silently reading along with me, as they sometimes do, I’d have had no option. But it so happened that they were reclining at opposite ends of the sofa with their feet on my lap. Which gave me a choice, and a second in which to make it.

I went for the easy option. I censored. I read the second half of the sentence as “no rabbit can refuse to tell a story” and read on.

Did I do the right thing? I don’t know. Perhaps I passed up an opportunity to talk about prejudice. My children are sensible enough to question this sort of statement. Probably both of them would say, “that’s silly’; my son, now at secondary school and becoming more interested in societal issues, might say, “that’s racist, isn’t it?”

And to be honest, I still don’t know quite why I did it, or even for whose benefit it was - theirs, or mine.

What would you have done?

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

13 Comments on Censoring a Children’s Book - John Dougherty, last added: 1/22/2013
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12. Oh, Deary Me - John Dougherty

By and large, children's authors are a friendly bunch. We tend to be nice, and helpful, and whilst we come in various levels of forthrightness there are very few I have ever met and not liked, even when we have been in disagreement.

So I hope it will be understood how much it pains me to say that Horrible Histories author Terry Deary has lately been behaving like a great steaming prat.

For those of you who may have missed the row, it begins with Sunderland Council, like so many others, considering sweeping cuts to the library service - including closures - in order to save money. According to the Sunderland Echo, "Sunderland-born Terry Deary welcomed the plans". The Echo goes on to quote Deary as saying that libraries "have had their day... The book is old technology and we have to move on, so good luck to the council.” The following day Deary told the BBC that the closures were "long overdue".

Not unsurprisingly, a lot of authors got a bit cross about this. Now let me make one thing clear: I fully believe that Deary has the right to express his opinion. But that being so, others have the right to express their opinions of his opinion, and many did.

One such has been Alan Gibbons, tireless campaigner for libraries and the importance of the book. You can read Alan's statement here. I think it's pretty measured, all told, and addresses Deary's points, such as they are.

Deary's response? He rudely refers to Alan as "that Gibbon bloke", responds to his offer of a public debate with the offensively dismissive "in his dreams", misrepresents his comments, and with enormous irony accuses him of making "offensive personal remarks".

Oddly for someone with such sensitivity to "offensive personal remarks", Deary also claimed to the Independent that the authors who were criticising him were "the ones with small minds to match their small talents". Riiiiiiiiight. That would be authors like the small-minded and untalented Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Julia Donaldson, David Almond, Joanne Harris, Matt Haig...

I think that what distresses me most about all of this is that Deary seems to think he's being clever and radical, when in fact all he's doing is chucking about unsubstantiated and inflammatory assertions and then getting cross when people rise to the bait. But I get the feeling that this is his modus operandi.

Back in October 2011, I happened to hear Deary on Woman's Hour, debating with Susan Greenfield on the subject of traditional books and new technologies. Norwegian researcher Anna Mangan also contributed, citing empirical research that suggested that printed matter supports reading comprehension better than screen technology. Deary's response? He dismissed the research as "quite laughable" and "deeply flawed" and the researcher as "just another Luddite". The clip is worth a listen simply to hear Greenfield challenging Deary on his inconsistencies.

And inconsistent he is. The Independent article I linked to above has him saying both :

"It is for me to challenge the established, failing, unfair, irrelevant established order. It needs to be opened up for public debate,"


"I haven’t the time to expend hot air on a meaningless discussion that would change nothing; nor have I the inclination to discuss a topic that no one really cares about."

He also, having made the remarks quoted above, says in another interview "I never attacked libraries," despite, in an interview with The Guardian, claiming "libraries are cutting [authors'] throats and slashing their purses".

And this seems to be the nub of the matter. Deary - one of the UK's most-borrowed authors - appears to believe that if libraries didn't exist then every borrowing would translate into a sale, and instead of £6,000 per year PLR, he'd be making an extra £180,000. Well, I can tell you, Terry - speaking as a not enormously high-earning author whose ten-year old reads even more than I do - that that's just not true. If libraries didn't exist, I'd have to read less. And so would my children. And so would all the other children who depend on libraries. Deary is attacking libraries, despite his protestations; and in doing so, whether or not he realises it, he's attacking literacy. And attacking them with arguments which are flimsy at best, and at worst simply unfounded.

Deary is already a fierce critic of schools - in one interview suggesting that children "should leave school at 11 and go to work" - and has previously called for schools to be banned from using his books, and there is for me a huge irony in his now adding libraries to his hit-list. Because I very strongly suspect that were it not for all the teachers and librarians who have championed his books, few of us would ever have heard of Terry Deary.

Two comments to finish with: firstly, I trust that Mr Deary - should he ever deign to read this post, written as it is by someone he would doubtless dismiss as having a small mind and a small talent - will not accuse me of having called him a great steaming prat. I haven't. I have accused him of lately behaving like one, which is quite different.

And secondly: petty of me, perhaps, but I can't help but be amused by this.

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8

His most recent books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig

6 Comments on Oh, Deary Me - John Dougherty, last added: 2/16/2013
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13. Perfect Spheres & Right Angles - John Dougherty

It’s been a busy couple of weeks. Those around World Book Day always are. I’ve been at the Whatever It Takes Author Week in Leicester, the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow, and schools in Gloucestershire, Surrey, Essex & Nottinghamshire.
I’ve also been at the International School of Aberdeen, where in addition to some of my usual sessions they asked me to do a few sessions on poetry for older children.
I don’t normally work with groups above primary-age - simply because I don’t often visit schools that aren’t primaries - 
The scene from my hotel window!
and the last time I did instructional work on poetry I was a teacher rather than a visiting author; but, well, I thought, why not? Because I’m really nervous about it, a voice in my head replied, but I ignored it and got thinking.
Planning has never been my forte - too much of it and I find it difficult to adapt on the spur of the moment - so I decided the best plan was to fling a few ideas into the cauldron of my cerebrum, stir them round, and leave them to stew.
One thing I knew I was going to need, though, was a practical sort of joining-in activity that would get some kind of response from the group without putting any pressure on the individual. I settled on bubbles.
The simple bubble-wand was one of my main props as a supply teacher. I got the idea from a former colleague, the lovely Mrs Pam Hotchkiss (hello, Pam, if you’re reading this!). It’s beautifully simple. You blow some bubbles, get the kids to describe them, ask them to elaborate on the description, and take it from there; and one of the lovely things about it is that it adapts for any age. I, er, hoped. I’d never tried it with secondary-school kids.
Well, I tried it with the first group - 8th-Graders: 12-14 years old, I suppose, though they looked bigger and older than that. They’d been great, but there had been a certain amount of Teenage Cool in the room. Until I took out the wand and blew.
“Ooooh! Bubbles!!!” Instantly, some of their reserve just, well, popped. It was great. We talked about them in general terms, got a few words to describe them - fragile, colourful, that sort of thing - and then we began to differentiate.
As the conversation developed, it became clear that these meant different things to different children. One said they reminded her of pink skies in the morning; another of unstable chemical compounds. 
One girl said they reminded her of funerals. There was a bit of nervous giggling around her. I asked her why.
“Well,” she said, smiling, “at my friend’s funeral they blew bubbles over the coffin, and we’d been all sad, but suddenly it was happy again.”
That was a moment, I can tell you, and it wasn’t the only one. At another point during the session, the subject of the bubbles’ endings came up. We’d been talking about how they drift down. 
“And what happens then?” I asked.
There was a pause, during which I waited for the usual reflections on mortality. And then one boy put his hand up.
“Yes,” I asked.
“It gets adopted by the floor.”

9 Comments on Perfect Spheres & Right Angles - John Dougherty, last added: 4/8/2013
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14. The reasons for signing - John Dougherty

I always feel awkward mentioning the book signing.

It’s not the actual signing that’s the awkward bit; it’s the selling. When I’m booked for a school visit, I send the school details of what I do and add, “At the end of the day I do a book signing.” I often feel embarrassed bringing it up; I know it means more work for one of the teachers, and I worry that they’ll think it’s just about me making money.

Yet it’s an important part of the visit. 

What I talk about varies from school to school and from session to session, but something I always make sure to emphasise is the fun of reading. Reading for pleasure is, I believe, absolutely key, and if I leave a school having turned just one child on to the idea that sitting down with a good book might actually be fun, then I’ve achieved something.

But in order to sit down with a good book, that child, er, needs a good book. They may already have some at home, of course, but they may not; and if a child has been enthused about reading by an author, they may want to read one of that author’s books. In that moment there’s something special about it, and if the book is signed by the author that makes it even more special. So I think that any good author visit should include a signing session.

Not every school sees it that way, of course. Once, when I was arranging a school visit through a third party, I mentioned the book signing and the message came back, “The head says he’s not willing to have poor children pressured into buying a book.” To be honest, I wish now that I’d replied, “Well, I’m not willing to visit a school that doesn’t value reading a bit more highly than that, or where the head is so rude to someone he’s never met,” because the visit, as it turned out, was one of my all-time worst; it really felt I’d been invited as some kind of window-dressing.

But sometimes a school simply hasn’t thought about it.

One of the schools I visited a few weeks back hadn’t. When I mentioned the signing, the teacher with whom I was liaising replied, “I don’t think we’ll do the signing, because we’re using the hall after school for clubs and so on and it might just be one thing too many.” 

Well, I felt awkward, but I wrote back explaining why I felt the book signing was important and that we could use a classroom, and, thankfully, she saw my point and agreed, and on the day helped me with the practicalities of the signing.

Afterwards, she said, “We’ve never done a book signing before, but that went really well, didn’t it?” and we got to talking a bit more about why it matters. And I told her about one of my most memorable signings ever.

It had been in a school that really hadn’t got behind the idea of the signing at all. “Our parents don’t really respond well to that sort of thing,” they’d said, and I could tell that this was code for, “Well, you can try to sell some books if you like, but we’re not going to put any effort into making sure the parents know about it.”

So after school I set up my little bookstall, and… nobody came. I waited for fifteen minutes or so, and then began to pack up. 

Just as I was about to start carrying the books out to the car, the doors of the hall banged open and a boy burst in. He was sweating and panting, but when he saw me there his face split into a huge grin. He’d run all the way home to get the price of a book, and he’d run all the way back again, desperate to buy one and worried he’d missed me. Something about the visit had really connected with him, enough that getting a signed book really, really mattered. And making that sort of connection with potential readers, I told the teacher, is something you can’t put a price on.

She agreed, and we chatted some more, and then I thanked her, and started to carry my books out to the car.

I was loading the last box in and about to shut the boot, when she appeared in the car park. But she wasn’t alone. With her was a dishevelled, red-faced boy, panting and sweating. And she looked at him, and gave me a knowing smile, and I realised.

He’d run all the way home, and back again.


John's latest book is Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Badness of Badgers (OUP)

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15. Attack of the Flying Authors - John Dougherty

I must have been mad. Gloriously, bonkersly, wonderfully mad. Whatever possessed me to suggest I mark Save Our Libraries Day by becoming a Flying Author?

Not literally flying, I hasten to add, despite the misleadingly Bigglesish publicity picture. No, the idea was that I dash around the county, doing quick 20-minute sessions at each of the libraries that are endangered by the, let's be frank, utterly irresponsible and ridiculously short-termist cuts proposed by Gloucestershire County Council.

Unfortunately, it's a big county. And there are a lot of endangered libraries. Under the present plans, 29 of the county's 38 libraries are likely to suffer huge reductions in service, with up to 17 of those likely to close altogether. Not to mention the mobile libraries, which soon no one will be able to mention except in the past tense. Yes, they're getting rid of the entire mobile library service.

Anyway, it soon became apparent that I wasn't going to be able to do more than 9 in a day. And that was without stopping for lunch.

Thank goodness, then, for Cindy Jefferies, who quickly donned her own metaphorical goggles and flight jacket to become Flying Author number two. The marvellous, hardworking and very lovely people at Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries began to get very excited - and it didn't end there. As the days rolled by, more authors, poets, illustrators and storytellers joined the squadron. Not all of them were technically Flying Authors - some stayed at a single library for a day; some could only give an hour or two of their time - but all of them helped to make it a huge success. They were, in no particular order:

  • Marcus Moore
  • the heroic Katie Fforde, who did several events despite having spent the previous night sleeping rough for charity in a public park!!!
  • Hannah Shaw
  • Sue Limb
  • Jamila Gavin
  • Alice Jolly
  • Shoo Rayner
  • Chloe of the Midnight Storytellers
  • Jane Bailey
  • Chris Manby
  • Philippa Roberts
  • Graham Mitchell
  • Vicky Bennett
  • Peter Wyton
  • Roger Drury
  • John Bassett of Spaniel In The Works Theatre Company
[and if I've missed anyone off this list, please email and tell me and I'll add you! Sorry if that's the case, but there were just SO MANY OF US!]

By the time Saturday 5th Feb came, we had something planned in EVERY SINGLE LIBRARY IN THE BOROUGH!

Well - except for the two that are closed on Saturdays. And the one in the prison.

But those aside, we had a right rollicking day of events to look forward to. You can see a fuller, but possibly still not quite complete, list of events (plus weblinks) here.

8 Comments on Attack of the Flying Authors - John Dougherty, last added: 2/8/2011
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16. Putting Pressure on Pupils? - John Dougherty

I love doing school visits.

I love writing, too, but it would drive me mad if I spent all my waking, or at least working, hours alone in my shed. I like - no, I need - to get out there and perform, too.

I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. I suspect it’s proximity to both World Book Day and the end of the financial year that leads to the annual rash of bookings throughout late February and much of March; but whatever the reason, it’s been great to get out of the confines of my admittedly lovely shed and meet both children and staff at a real variety of schools, from Gloucester to Bedford and from Leicester to Exeter.

There’s always the occasional niggle in school visit season. Inevitably, at some point, somebody at some school somewhere will do something to cause offence. When this happens, it’s important to keep things in perspective. What was said may not have been exactly what was meant; that omission was probably a genuine oversight; teachers are busy people who should be forgiven for not always being able to keep every single plate spinning. Yes, I’ve just driven for two hours to get here; but she may have spent the last forty-five minutes trying to control an uncontrollable Year 5. And, of course, while the best school visits - the ones where the children have been prepared for my visit and are excited about meeting a Real Live Author - are also usually those on which I get treated like a celebrity, it’s important not to let that go to my head and expect the red carpet treatment everywhere.

There was, however, one niggle from this round which has stayed with me, and I really don’t think this one is down to me being a diva (or whatever the masculine form of diva is. Div, probably).

You see, I always finish my school visits with a book signing. Yes, it’s good to earn a little extra income from selling books - most of us aren’t terribly well-off - but that’s not why I do it. Nor is it to soak up a little more adoration - very often it’s when they meet you one-to-one that they say something that brings you back down to earth. No, the book signing is much more important than that.

More than anything else, the reason I do school visits is to promote reading for pleasure. I’m passionate about it. I believe that a school - especially a primary school - that doesn’t at least try to get its pupils reading for pleasure is failing in one of its most important duties. And in my sessions, I do my utmost to link reading and fun.

For me, the signing session is an important way to do that. If a child has been inspired by the day, and is bursting with fresh enthusiasm about reading, it’s good to provide the option of a focus for that enthusiasm; and a book signed by The Author can be just the thing. It can become a treasured, even a totemic, item, invested with significance.

Obviously, not every child will need such a focus - many of them will have books at home that already have particular significance, and for many some all books will be equally special, signed or not. But the signing session means that children are at least offered the option of buying a book which, for some, will be their first Special Book - and, for some, might even be their first book of any sort.

So what’s my niggle? It’s that one o

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17. The Kindness of Authors - John Dougherty

This is a story about a little boy, and his favourite author, and the difference a few moments of kindness can make.

Sam has just turned nine, and he asked for a birthday cake shaped like a platypus, for two reasons: he’d seen platypuses on his recent Australian holiday, and he’d read in Mr Gum & the Goblins that Andy Stanton’s favourite word is ‘platypus’. It’s a bit of a running joke; in every book the favourite word changes. Sam knows that, but still…

Anyway, this is where I come in. Sam is a friend of mine - he and his family live across the road from me - and so is Andy Stanton. I was lucky enough to find myself on a discussion panel with Andy a few years ago, on which occasion I prostrated myself before his comedy genius and he was kind enough to offer effusive words of praise about my Zeus books, and, well, I like to feel we bonded.

So I texted Andy with a brief explanation, asking if he’d mind sending me a text that said Happy birthday, Sam and something about platypuses. It would, I thought, be quite special to show it to Sam round about candle-blowing-out-and-cake-cutting time.

Andy, bless him, texted back immediately with the generous message: Give me a ring from the party and put him on the line and i’ll say hi.

Sam, of course, was awestruck. He was a touch monosyllabic at first; and Andy had to loosen him up a bit:

Andy: Hello? 
Sam (shyly): Hi.
Andy: Is that Sam? 
Sam (lost for words): Yeah.
Andy: Do you know who this is?
Sam (still lost for words): Yeah.
Andy: Yes, that’s right; it’s Jacqueline Wilson.
Sam (little smile appearing like sunshine through the clouds): No you’re not! You’re Andy Stanton!

And they chatted for a minute or two - with Andy doing most of the chatting - before Sam returned to the party, and to the envy of his friends (including one who muttered, “I bet it’s not the real Andy Stanton, it’s just someone pretending to be him!”).

So - what’s the big deal? Successful author does nice thing for kid. So what?

Well, the ‘so what’ is that Sam can be painfully shy - and up until a year or so back, he was  selectively mute. He often finds conversations with adults difficult, and he’s never - I’ll repeat that: he’s never - managed a phone call of that length before except with his mum or dad. Phone calls and conversations with adults are, by and large, things of stress rather than joy for him.

Yet this was special. Sam’s been upset about not getting tickets for Andy’s event in Cheltenham this year; but that night, when they were talking about the party, and the games, and

11 Comments on The Kindness of Authors - John Dougherty, last added: 9/24/2011
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18. Creative Differences - John Dougherty

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be thoroughly alarmed by the late Diana Wynne Jones.

I went to see her at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. In response to the inevitable question about her next book, she said that it would be published in February and was about a child who goes to visit relatives in Ireland only to find that strange things connected with Celtic mythology begin to happen.

"Eeek!" I thought; and at the end of the session I approached her with a question of my own.

"How do I tell my publisher," I asked her, "that my next book, about a child who goes to visit a relative in Ireland only to find that strange events connected with Celtic mythology begin to happen, is going to bomb because Diana Wynne Jones's book about the same thing comes out a month earlier?"

Well, she was absolutely lovely. She told me that this sort of thing was always happening, and that she was sure my book would be completely different from hers. Which, as it turned out, was completely accurate: I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Game, and my Bansi O'Hara and the Bloodline Prophecy was - thankfully! - nothing like it.

I'm thinking about this now because I've just read a terrific book about a boy who accidentally summons an ancient deity. The deity accepts as a prayer something which wasn't intended to be a prayer at all, manifests before the boy, and asks for worship and sacrifices. In the story that follows, the gods are shown to be capricious, self-centred and arrogant, with little regard for the rights and feelings of mere mortals.

If you're familiar with my work, you might think I'm describing my first Zeus book, Zeus on the Loose. But many of you may guess that I'm talking about Wishful Thinking by Ali Sparkes - and if you haven't read it, I can thoroughly recommend it. It's very different from Zeus - much more of an adventure and less of a comedy, though it does have some genuinely funny moments - and is clearly aimed at an older readership. It's also beautifully structured, and includ

15 Comments on Creative Differences - John Dougherty, last added: 11/4/2011
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19. Big Fat Fibs and the Big Fat Fibbers Who Tell Them* - John Dougherty

It’s going to be an unashamedly political post today, folks; but before I begin here are a few pictures from my recent visit to Delhi for the Bookaroo festival:

Big thanks to Jo Williams and the Bookaroo team for inviting me and for organising such a great festival, and to the British School in Delhi for sponsoring my events!

But while I was having such a terrific time in India, hanging out with the 2 Steves and making some lovely new international author friends, events were moving on apace with the campaigns to save our libraries.

Campaigners on Judgement Day
As you may know, on 16th November Mr Justice McKenna ruled in the High Court that Gloucestershire and Somerset County Councils’ plans to drastically cut our library services were unlawful on equalities grounds. “Hurrah!” we all said, as the judge quashed the plans, and told the councils they had to go back to the beginning and start again.

So, what’s the problem? Well, here in Gloucestershire the council’s statements about the High Court judgement have been somewhat austeritical with the truth.

On the day of the judgement, council leader Mark Hawthorne told Channel 4 news that the judge had ruled that the council had not breached its duties under the 1964 Libraries Act - an assertion he repeated on BBC local radio the next day. He has also been widely quoted as saying that “the most important thing here is that the judge said that there is nothing wrong with our plans to transfer some libraries over to communities”.

Nice for the council if it were true. In fact, as explained here, this is based on a misreading. All the judge was saying was (a) it’s for the Secretary of State, not him, to decide whether the council’s plans comply with the act, and (b) since community libraries fall outside statutory provision, they’re not relevant to the act. You can have 100 libraries handed over to communities, or none: the question is, do the council’s own libraries meet the requirements?

Okay; but we can see how

5 Comments on Big Fat Fibs and the Big Fat Fibbers Who Tell Them* - John Dougherty, last added: 12/7/2011
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20. The Power of Stereotypes - John Dougherty

Stereotypes can be really useful to a writer. You want to quickly communicate exactly what sort of person this is? Just pop in a few generally-recognised characteristics, and the average mind will fill in the rest.

So, for instance, you give a character bad breath and equally bad teeth, and chances are the reader will identify him as a bad person.

Or give her blonde hair, long legs and a high-pitched giggle, and you’ve got a bimbo. See? There’s even a specific word to match the image! And just one little detail can make a big difference: replace the giggle with a sly, sulky pout and, hey presto, instant High School Queen Bitch!

Then there’s this one: a young black man in a hoody wandering through an expensive, exclusive gated community at night. He’s got his hood up and is walking slowly, muttering to himself. There’s something in his hand. So: burglar, probably on drugs. Possibly armed. Definitely dangerous.

The problem here, of course - as some of you will already have worked out - is that real life doesn’t deal in comfortable stereotypes. And the character I’ve just described wasn’t a character. He was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old who had every reason to be in the expensive, exclusive gated community, since he was staying with his father who lived there. And he wasn’t actually talking to himself; he was on his phone, using a handsfree headset. And he was walking slowly because…

You know what? I don’t know why he was walking slowly; and actually, it doesn’t matter. At all. There’s no reason anyone should have to explain anything about Trayvon Martin’s behaviour that night. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. Walking slowly isn’t a crime in Florida, where the gated community is; nor is talking on a mobile phone; or carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles; or wearing a hoody; or wearing your hood up; or being young, black and male.

Yet now Trayvon Martin is dead. He’s dead because he fitted another man’s stereotype of villainy; and because that man was licensed to carry a gun.

And because Florida has a law that allows anyone to use deadly force if they believe themselves to be in danger of death or serious injury, the man who shot Trayvon Martin has not been arrested or charged.

Stereotypes. They should come with a warning.

You can read more about the Trayvon Martin case here, and you can sign a petition to have his killer prosecuted here

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8.

His latest books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant

6 Comments on The Power of Stereotypes - John Dougherty, last added: 3/28/2012
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21. Whatever it is, it's still wrong - John Dougherty

Having overslept a little, I'm just packing to go off to the Wychwood festival in Cheltenham, to hang out in the Children's Literature tent with the likes of Philip Ardagh, Jamila Gavin, and our very own Elen Caldecott & Cindy Jefferies. So today's post is going to be a relatively short follow-on from my last one, with other people doing most of the talking.

The destruction of our library services continues apace, and there have been a number of developments over the past couple of weeks.

For me, the most shocking one is probably the revelation that Surrey County Council, having justified their plan to offload their libraries on to undertrained volunteers on the grounds of cost - "The initiative is part of the county council's aim to keep all 52 of its libraries open despite the fact other local authorities are closing branches across the country due to financial constraints" - have now blithely admitted that it will save no money at all. Not a penny. So why the hell are they doing it? Why have they wasted taxpayers' money on a court case? Why are they trying to downgrade such an important public resource?

It begins to look as if these closures are ideological. But whose ideology? Yes, most of the councils that are closing libraries are Conservative-controlled; but if we put this down to Toryism, how do we explain the disgraceful behaviour of Labour-run Brent Council, with their secretive, heavy-handed night-raid and acts of cultural vandalism?

Perhaps it's not ideology. Perhaps it's idiocy. Perhaps, as Philip Pullman says, our libraries are in the hands of people who simply don't understand them. Or perhaps all our major political parties are now infected by the same stupid, greedy philosophy which says that unless you can see exactly how much money something is making, it has no value.

Whatever the reason, something has to be done before it's too late, and the person who should be doing it is Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. But he's doing nothing. He can't even be bothered to reply to campaigners' letters.

So I ask again - what's wrong with Ed Vaizey?

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com.
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8.

His latest books include:

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22. 7 - John Dougherty on Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey

I don't know if you heard Ed Vaizey's recent appearance on Radio 4's Front Row, during which he claimed that there's no library service crisis (and I ended up shouting at the radio)?

Clearly the man was unaffected by our seventh most viewed post, in which I sang a satirical song about how useless he's been at looking after our libraries:

What's Wrong With Ed Vaizey? - John Dougherty

See you at 1:00pm for number 6!

2 Comments on 7 - John Dougherty on Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, last added: 7/10/2012
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23. Phads, Phibs & Phonnix - John Dougherty

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24. A Death in the Library - John Dougherty

Once, the first thing you saw as you came through the door would be a large semicircular counter behind which librarians would stand, dealing with customers or ready to help while others buzzed about busily from shelf to customer to desk. Before long, you’d know them - librarians and library assistants: skilled; knowledgeable; professional - by sight, at least, and they would recognise you, and exchange a pleasant word.

The bookshelves were tall enough that you’d have to reach up to the top shelf, and they filled up the library and were packed with books, so tightly you’d need both hands to squeeze browsed unchoices back into their places; and every time you came, there would be new treasures hidden on those shelves - here a book you’d been longing to read; there another you didn’t know you were looking for until you found it.

The children’s section, too, was bursting with the new and the old. Brightly coloured cushions in animal shapes invited you in and made you welcome.

There was life there. Then the council made its plans.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they ripped out the counter, leaving fade-marks on the carpet, and stuck up racks of battered DVDs: films you’d seen already, or didn’t want to.

 “We’re improving things,” they said, as they sent out redundancy notices, and hid the few remaining staff - or the volunteers who replaced them, or the temps brought in for the day from other branches - behind a small table round the corner.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they tore out the tall shelves and wheeled in small ones, four-tiered trolleys which still seemed suddenly too roomy for the few books that remained.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they inserted automatic tellers which check out your choices but never see your face or learn your name.

“We’re improving things,” they said, as they hollowed out our libraries and left them to rot from the inside.
Now, the first thing to meet your eye is the trolley of old stock for sale. You can visit, browse, borrow without a single human encounter; when someone deals with you, it may be someone you have never seen before, and never will again. The gaps in the shelves gape like those in uncared-for mouths with diseased gums, and the forward-facing books do nothing to hide the decay. The brightly-coloured cushions have faded and sagged out of shape, and will not be replaced.

And one day, they will tell you that no-one uses libraries any more; and they will not ask themselves why that might be; and they will close and lock the doors forever.

Remember this, when they tell you they are investing in the community, and in the future.

Remember this, when they talk of their commitment to education; to driving up standards; to literacy and reading levels.

Remember this, when they stand on your doorstep, smiling and asking for your vote.

9 Comments on A Death in the Library - John Dougherty, last added: 9/8/2012
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25. What I did on my summer holiday in the real world - Anne Rooney

Fabulously serious logo by Sarah McIntyre
I got back from my summer holiday last night. I went to CWIG, which is not an obscure Welsh village, but the Society of Authors Children's Writers' and Illustrators' Group conference. It happens every three years in different cities, and this year it was in Reading.It was called 'Joined-up Reading'. Is that 'joined-up reading' or 'joined-up Reading'? Who knows. Maybe both.

Normally, we writers and illustrators spend our days, doing what we want, bossing around people  who don't exist and skiving work to chat on Skype/Facebook/twitter about the work we should be doing. We're not used to being with other people all the time, or doing as we're told. We're not used to having to get dressed before working, eat at regular times, use a knife and fork nicely or sit quietly without telling a bunch of lies. But a conference is a proper organised thing with set mealtimes, talks to attend and other people to interact with.

So why do we go? Holiday!

CWIG is a delight. Full of old friends and potential new friends, a chance to gossip, eat, drink and whinge. If any snippet of useful information leaks in, that's a bonus.

Nicola Davies, unfazed by being
elbowed by a giant ghost - all in a
day's work for us
CWIG is just writers and illustrators - it's not somewhere to look for an agent or publisher. And so no one has to be impressive, there's no point in showing off, and we can all just relax. It's a time for singing silly songs and drinking the bar out of wine. (We did that on the first night; the last time I was party to drinking a bar out of wine was in Outer Mongolia in 1990 on the day the Iraq War started.)

I loved it. But like all the best holidays, it had its grumble-points. The food was poor, the bar was hopeless, the cabaret compulsory (hah! we laugh in the face of compulsory!), the coffee undrinkable (that's serious) and the microphones non-functional. The Germans took all the sun loungers and there was tar on the beach. Oh. Hang on.

But we don't get this stuff every day, unlike, say, manager-type-people who are forever going to conferences and staying in the Scunthorpe (or Dubai) BestWesternMarriotHilton hotel. Indeed, most days we don't get interaction with another human being who actually exists. To be in a whole room of around 100 people, none of whom can be given green hair or three arms on a whim, is quite a novelty. CWIG is a weekend away in the real world.

Only our invisible friends were
skiving outside
But look - we can play in the real world, too.

We talked about the state of publishing (in turmoil), of what the hell the government thinks it's doing with libraries (wanton armageddonising), of the progress of e-books in children's publishing (mollusc-like in its rapidity) and whether Allan Ahlberg's glass contained red wine or Ribena (who knows?) And heard the usual disingenuous comment from a publisher that there's never been a better time to be a children's writer.

Now for my holiday snaps. Don't shuffle like that. You might like to visit the real world one day.

Here is our venue: a very plausible-looking Henley Business Centre at Reading University.

We had proper signage, just like real business people. Well, perhaps not quite like real business people.

Just in case we didn't know where to walk ...

.... and where to dance, there were some stick people drawn on the floor.

(Obviously the nice people at Reading know that all writers - and  especially illustrators - speak fluent stick.)

We know how to dress. Alan Gibbons and John Dougherty, as usual, wore shirts chosen to burn out the eyes of Ed Vaizey. I won't dazzle you with those. Sarah McIntyre chaired her session in the best conference hat I have ever seen. [What do you mean, 'what's a conference hat?']

 Allan Ahlberg brought his teddy.

And he had a drink on the stage, though his wasn't see-through, like they usually are when you see conferences on TV.

We all transacted our own little bits of networking and business. I secured a promise from Catherine Johnson to translate some text into Jamaican Fairy and asked Jane Ray if I could commission a dodo from her.

So you see, we do know how to do it.

I had a wonderful time, but holidays can't last forever and it's time to settle be back into speaking stick and bossing around a steam-powered autamaton and an orphan in a boat. Sigh.

(If you would like to read a more informative account of what happened at CWIG, you could turn to David Thorpe. I'm sure more will appear, and I'll update this list later in the day/week/millennium.) 

Anne Rooney
(Stroppy Author)

16 Comments on What I did on my summer holiday in the real world - Anne Rooney, last added: 10/7/2012
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