What can I say? This is the fourth year that I have been privileged to judge the short stories written by children ranging from age 5 to much much older. It’s a delight. I’m always surprised by the variation, the voices, the twists and the tears. This year I was bowled over by ‘The Pirate Builders’, starring Saw-handed Stuart, and ‘Mrs Bishbosh’, the posh lady who dresses from the charity shop, ‘Pig-girl’, too quirky to adequately describe, and a spooky halloween tale with a surprising finale. The Battersea Dogs’ Home story made me cry and ‘The Two Donuts’, written by Oliver aged 5 at the time, was full of character. In the oldest age group the very accomplished winner was unfortunately unable to attend but we applauded her entry about the country being overthrown by a mysterious lady. Second and third places were stories exploring sanity and death, all good stuff.
Meeting the children is great and afterwards there is always an opportunity to chat as we enjoy the food provided by the Deer Park Hotel – go there for a weekend break, it’s a blast from the past.
I hope to continue as judge until the day I am replaced by one of the children who has won in the past and is a fully fledged published author.
Dick Dobbins, this crazy management trainer that I met on a course when Unilever were trying to mould me into something useful, said “If you want to fly with the eagles, Don’t scratch with the turkeys.” I didn’t take any notice because scratching and flying seemed equally attractive, but last night I had the pleasure of a company of eagles and flying amongst them was a high point.
First up was Sarwat, creator of a book I am going to have to read that mixes Indian mythology with paraphernalia from the Pitt Rivers Museum (go there – it’s in Oxford) and turns it all into an adventure.
Moira Young, Winner of the Costa 2011, shared the time, effort and craft that went into the novel Blood Red Road. I was pleased to hear she hadn’t just knocked it off while she drank coffee. Professional on every level.
The Golden Eagle in our midst was illustrator, Chris Fisher, with a portfolio that left his talent in no doubt. His rendition of Michael Rosen’s nonsense was excellent but didn’t get the laughs achieved by Hot Cross Bums.
I got home to find the Three Bears had eaten my tea. Never mind, eagles aren’t that fond of chilli con carne.
I am very pleased with the wonderful piece of artwork handed to me yesterday at the Appledore Book Festival. Charlie, from the local primary school, had not only read one of my books but had been inspired to draw her favourite character – Bee. The picture is going up on the wall of my study.
It was lovely to be invited to be part of Appledore’s literary fest, and interesting to visit for the second time, the first being over forty years ago. All I can remember from the childhood trip was losing my crab line to an ocean liner. I’ll remember a lot more about my author visit, mainly the laughing, the boy who uncannily answered all the questions about my past correctly, the poor librarian with no voice, the penultimate scene in the story Years 4 and 5 made up with me in which Matthew and Ella (our characters) shared a spot of cooking with the rats in the sewer and came up with a delicious chocolate cake! Not what I would have thought of but that’s the joy of it all.
The afternoon was finished off with tea from a pot in a china cup at Polly’s house which has an amazing front door with five keyholes to mark all the locks from all the years. Polly is the school’s organiser who put me on the list of authors, so thank you, Polly.
Off to Hillcrest School today to be entertained (I hope) by Year 6. Hotwells Primary tomorrow. Wonder whether anyone will have anything Tribish for me . . . a sculpture of Copper Pie made from beef crisp packets, a charcoal of Fifty, from the embers of all the fires he’s started . . .
I knew it was going to be fabulous the minute I got out of my car. Cakes, barns, smiley people, sunshine, picnic tables, chickens and straw. Matt aka Mr Festival showed me round, a coffee found its way into my hand and happy chat took us up to 10.30am – time to entertain. But not before the local photographer snapped me with a few of the children from the audience. Must learn to smile to order.
So, we had a great group of parents and young ones filling the calving shed and off we went, creating the story of Lower Shaw Farm, our venue for the day. In my dustbin I’d chosen some farm-related objects so we had a tractor, a pig, the tardis (clearly some unrelated), a duck, a robin and a cow. The story’s finale featured a stampeding herd, entirely appropriate given the beautifully decorated calving shed we were sitting, standing and wriggling in. All good stuff. I met a lovely lady called Angela James who wrote The Golden Moonbeam and her friend, Des, who invited me to appear on Swindon People Talking, which is very kind as I’m from Bristol. I’d liked to have stayed all day, but AS levels started on Monday and Chemistry needed my attention at home. There’s always next year . . .
I don’t often pick up my dustbin and shake it but I was captured doing just that at Lanesborough School. An all boy audience made for a lively day running three workshops with Years 3, 4 and 5. We had great fun and everyone was nice, teachers and pupils. I wouldn’t want anyone to think my stomach rules my reviews but I have to mention that lunch was delicious, a meat pie with a salty sauce, new potatoes and broccoli followed by a bunch of grapes. After that I took up residence in the library and signed books, always a pleasure. Ravi, the fan of the Tribe books who suggested I be invited, arrived and I was delighted to give him a free copy of Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks, signed to my best publicist! I was in very good company. The day before they’d been entertained by Philip Reeve.
It was lovely to go back to St. Anne’s Park Primary and see the Year 4s that I worked with last year. It was as though we were old friends. I spent a whole morning working with 25 children on openings, dialogue and endings. All of the children, even those for whom it was tricky, summoned the courage to stand at the front and read their lines aloud. Each child developed their own story using one of the Tribe characters from my books. The only given was that the Triber had to go missing, the rest was up to them. I really enjoyed the morning as there was less frantic hurrying than there is in the usual TM Alexander storymaking workshops!
I’m really not sure how it came about. We were having a nice afternoon, quite noisy but productive, and suddenly we found ourselves in a situation with some angry monkeys, that is, our characters did. The children from Years 5 and 6 at Sidcot had created bit-dipsy Cissy the Singer and clumsy-footballer Taylor but through some unfortunate events the protagonists ended up in a rainforest surrounded by a monkey mob. There was obviously only one thing for it, Cissy had to sing them to sleep. Now when we’re making up stories in my workshops I do like to take advantage of all opportunities so surely we needed someone to sing. I had a go. Poor. So I looked to the audience. Luckily there is no lack of confidence amongst the children of Sidcot. By the time we’d wrapped up the story three children had joined me at the front to attempt a version of the putting-angry-monkeys-to-sleep song. Here is the first to take up the challenge:-
She did a grand job. As did the other monkey warblers. It took some determination to get back on track after the singing, but I read an excerpt of Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks and thankfully all was calm again. After a Q&A where we debated the use of ‘said’ as opposed to ‘remarked’ or ‘exclaimed’ there was book signing, and as can be seen from the pic, the book I’d read from was the most popular choice.
It’s been a busy couple of days. I was very pleased yesterday to go and see the wonderful teacher that is Bridget Norman in her new school. I met two Year 6 classes and we had a good time making up characters to star in our story. We had a goth, and a punk with green hair and piercings. It’s a non-uniform school, as you can see, and had a happy vibe. I read from the Tribe book, Monkey Bars and Rubber Ducks, and then in answer to a question told the true and tragic story of how my Olympic hopes were dashed by a catastrophic knee injury. I left out the gore as once before I went on a bit too much and a child had to leave the room!
After a meeting at my children’s school I finally managed to complete the edit of my next book and sent it off to my agent at David Higham. Always a good feeling.
Today I drove down the M5 in the pouring rain to a very pretty school in Wellington that oozed calm. It was unbelievably quiet. I watched the KS1 children leave assembly in complete silence, smiling, but quiet. Whatever it is they do in that school to make it so tranquil, they should bottle it. I saw Years 3/4 first and was pleased to discover they could make a noise when requested. They were excellent story makers, used all the information about the characters and laughed at my jokes. Result!
Years 5/6 came next and we started off a story with a chameleon and a pipe. It’s not easy to know where to go from there. Luckily there were hands up every second of the hour we spent together so they sorted it out themselves. Despite being in the same school the two workshops were very different in flavour. The younger ones wanted to get it right, and the older ones wanted laughs or destruction.
So, three workshops in two days. In the Q&A at the end, children always ask me which of my books is my favourite. Like my workshops, they’re all my favourites.
What an excellent selection of writers. I’ve just received this photo showing the winners of the short story competition, the organiser – a farmer and writer – and me. This is the third year that I have judged the entries and not only has every year produced entirely different themes, structures and surprises but every awards evening has had its own particular flavour. This year we had hecklers – very enjoyable – and rather too much horror. Honiton and District Writers Group have extended the competition to include older children, hence the darker nature of the tales. The 2011 winning stories are to be assembled in a book. I can’t wait to see it.
The Honiton and District Writers’ Group short story competition for children has been running since 2009, the same year my first book was published. So I like to think we’re in it together. I’ve judged all three events and enjoyed both the reading of the entries and the presenting of the awards. The 2011 event was held on Monday evening at the “quintessentially English” Deer Park Country Hotel – a charming, entirely hidden away venue in Weston, near Honiton. I was told by the organiser (the awesome John Carter, farmer, writer, very nice person, wearing an Irish weave waistcoat for the ‘do’) to be there for 6.30pm to get the Tribe books and certificates signed. I was on time. Unfortunately everyone else was early so the invitees had the pleasure of watching me concentrating on getting the names right while trying to keep up some sort of banter. You really can’t stand at the front of an audience and not speak, even if they are early. I read a little from each of the winning stories and you could see the crowd were very impressed by the ideas, the excellent openings, the clever structures and the dialogue. We had an evil clock, a wicked noblewoman with mysterious attire, an unexpected dinosaur encounter, goblins, a shed with a ghost, mermen, a spooky piano teacher, a monster and a dog called Bravo Plums. The children were very excited to have won a prize and seemed rather pleased to meet me as well, so that was a bonus. After the formal prize-giving, there was a buffet with everyone’s favourite – hot sausage rolls – and much more. I hope I talked to all the children and their families. I certainly had lots of photos taken which is the worst aspect as I can’t smile naturally, unless I do it naturally, if you get me. I met a champion swimmer, a chemist, an illustrator and a runner who’d just broken a record. I left with a bunch of flowers and the memory of another great evening with nine prize-winning authors, all between the ages of 8 and 14. I’m already looking forward to next year, John.