Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Crying game

I have a theory that there's a breed of authors who thrive of the tears of their readers. Like some kind of evil yet enchanting fairies they haunt your thoughts with their words and then steal in at your most vulnerable moments and capture your tears in a crystal vial to fuel them through their next book.

I just saw a poster for A Monster Calls by the ever-emotive Patrick Ness on my way to the office just now and I started tearing up just looking at the words on the poster and thinking about the half-finished copy that kept me up till 1am last night even though I knew I'd be woken at 5.30am (for the record I squeezed in another couple of chapters then as well). Yes - only half finished and still the poster made me cry.

Other writers who have reduced me to tears include Laurie Halse Anderson, Robin Jarvis (the final chapter of The Oaken Throne has shaped my belief of how books should end), Jerry Spinelli, Gabrielle Zevin, Rodman Philbrick and Richard Adams (even someone I once described as an ‘emotionless automaton’ cries at Watership Down – still).

I adore books that make me feel – so I’d really like to know of any other authors out there who might be able to reduce me to tears at the turn of a page. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Why I commissioned... WILLA AND OLD MISS ANNIE

Berlie Doherty is a double Carnegie Medal winner for Granny was a Buffer Girl (now published by Catnip) and Dear Nobody but this book for younger readers was also highly commended in 1995 – perhaps because it is utterly wonderful.

We publish much of Berlie's backlist, as well as her new Peak Dale Farm series, and Willa and Old Miss Annie was a combination of the two – a backlist book that feels consistent with her new series. As with Peak Dale Farm, this book, a collection of three stories that read as chapters, is illustrated by Kim Lewis and her classic style accentuates the events of the stories perfectly.

The stories tell of the unusual friendship between young Willa and her elderly neighbour, Miss Annie. The pair are united by their love of animals, specifically a goat, a pony and a fox. Berlie is an author who knows the importance of honesty in the relationship between author and young reader and shows no fear in holding a mirror up to human nature. As a consequence Willa and Old Miss Annie touches upon the cruelty that can arise from ignorance and selfishness yet gently demonstrates how relationships can be forged in misunderstanding only to grow into something rewarding. As with everything Berlie writes the language is both perfectly clear and perfectly clever with gentle wordplay forming an integral part of each storyline.

Everything I’ve read by Berlie has been a pleasure but when I first read this, it delighted me beyond my expectations. But you have been warned: I cried. Yes, I am a big softie.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Why I commissioned... MILICENT'S BOOK

OK, so I want to be particularly clear as regards this title: I had nothing to do with the commissioning of this book. I wish this had been my catch but all credit must go to Andrea Reece who left Catnip at the end of 2009. She fell in love with Charlotte Moore's writing before I was even a glint in Catnip's editorial eye and commissioned her to write this semi-fictional work based on the diaries of Milicent Ludlow.

This book was a while in the making as Charlotte was working on a monumentally consuming non-fiction work for Viking about her family home. Milicent's diaries formed part of her research for Hancox: A House and a Family and as a consequence of the in-depth research into Charlotte's family background, Milicent's Book glows with the depth and intrigue of a BBC period drama and the snippets of gossip and family intrigue put the tabloids to shame.

But it is the language that takes my breath away: “Orphan. What a lonely word. It sounds like ‘forlorn’ turned inside out.” Charlotte's voice, writing as 14-year-old Milicent, has that wonderful juxtaposition of naivety and wisdom reminiscent of every teen girl the world over. The writing is so evocative that I marvelled at how someone could come up with such insightful and beautiful prose whilst maintaining immaculate narrative clarity.

Filled with promise, despair, family tragedy and the most delightful touches of levity, this is a book anyone would be proud to have commissioned. Thank you, Andrea.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

A Rant About Reading Lists

Right, so everyone’s heard of Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s list of recommended reads for primary schools? If you haven’t, then that sentence sums up the proposition pretty succinctly.

Lots of very respectable writerly types aren’t too pleased at this idea and you can read about them on the Guardian’s website here. If you want to read a disreputable editorial type’s opinion, then read on…

I think a government sub-committee coming up with a definitive list of books for school children to read is lazy. It requires a quick trot through some classics and perhaps whamming on a couple of contemporary bestsellers that everyone knows can get some kids reading. Job done.

YAWN. This isn’t how adults read books, is it? You can actually watch how reading works by looking at the blogging community. Bloggers read each others’ reviews and ask each other for recommendations via twitter and they post their opinions on Goodreads and online retailers. Why? Because this is how recommended reading actually works – by recommending from personal experience.

Personal enthusiasm for books is what sells them to potential readers, not a finite list of things you “should” read. How many people like being told “You should read this” versus “I absolutely loved this book and I think you will too”?

That’s not to say that I don’t think it’s important for the government to take an interest in literacy (libraries, anyone?) and maybe a list of sorts is the way to go, but let’s not make it rigid. Perhaps give librarians/teachers examples of books that the government think are worth reading (because there’s only ten of those, right?!) as a starting point. The teachers and librarians could then expand this into an ‘Think you’ll like this? Then you might like this…’ selection tailored to the children they know, based on the books they enjoy themselves.

If anyone is stuck for inspirational reads to recommend then there are books specifically designed to help you out (The Ultimate Book Guide by A&C Black for example) and there’s a whole community of book bloggers out there sharing the love. Teachers can log on and check them out. Actually, for that matter, so could Mr Gove…

Friday, 6 May 2011

Why I commissioned...DETECTIVE BROTHER

Detective Brother is the third book in Pete Johnson's Jamie's Amazing Cape series for 7-9 year olds. The first was a re-issue of his excellent Bug Brother, but at Catnip we don't do things by halves (or thirds in this case) and we loved the characters in Bug Brother so much that we commissioned Pete to write two brand new adventures for them, Invisible Brother and this.

Written in the first person from Jamie's perspective I think any reader can instanty identify with Jamie's relationship with Harry. Jamie's a good kid, the sort of son parents would be perfectly happy with if it weren't for his younger but – grr – taller brother, Harry, who's always winning sports trophies, squealing on Jamie when Jamie tells him to go away and generally bugging his brother. When Jamie discovers a magic cape that grants him 7 wishes a day (but not necessarily every day – it's a tempermantal magical object), he thinks this should change things. It doesn't. Harry is still just as much of a pain as before, more so in fact because, like younger brothers everywhere, he wants what his older brother has.

I love this series for the chuckle-worthy bickering between Jamie and Harry – Pete Johnson captures the perfect tone for squabbles and his dialogue is used to great effect set against a narrative that glides along at exactly the right pace. As the cape causes more trouble than it's worth you're drawn into off-the-wall adventures where the characters behave just the way the reader might. Jamie's sensible bestie, Reema (who is shock horror a girl), provides "brilliant ideas" to get the boys out of trouble and into (slightly batty) Aunt Nora's good books.

Lively line-drawn illustrations by Mikes Gordon and Philips add that little bit of visual humour, helping along the imagination and providing that all important break for the slightly timid reader.

A series with excellently empathetic characters and one of the key elements for a book aimed at this age: a direct line to the funny bone.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Why I commissioned... THE DEEPING SECRETS

Twitter-style summary: A traitor lurking in their midst threatens village life during WW2 casting a dark and deadly shadow over Molly, Abigail and Adam's holidays.

The Deeping Secrets is the second novel set in Victor Watson's (fictional) Cambridgeshire village of Great Deeping; a follow-up to his beautifully written debut, Paradise Barn, which was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award.

I know it marks me out as a grammar geek, but it the thing I love most about this book is Victor's use of sentence structure and punctuation. This technical mastery is what makes the narrative sing for me. It seems simple - and that's exactly the desired effect - but to deliver such simplicity is anything but. As an editor, I can't help but admire such skill.

Contained within such accessible writing are some very complex subjects. Confident in the intelligence of his young audience, Victor presents an insight into a villainous mind right from the outset - juxtaposing the children's innocent desire for an untainted Easter holiday against psychopathic traitor whose "hidden" Nazi sympathies threaten to consume him from within.

As with
Paradise Barn, it's the attention to detail in characters' astute and amusing observations, and descriptions of the setting that draw the reader into the world, making Great Deeping a very satisfying place to inhabit. (Albeit a dangerous one...)

Victor is also adept at pace, slowing down to the dawdle of a day spent doing little but achieving a lot and speeding up, weaving together disparate POVs in a tight, fast, frenzy of action. There's a stand-out passage in which multiple viewpoints are cleverly played against the reader's own knowledge, which elicits (in me, at least) philosophical musings on chance and circumstance.

A book that truly respects its audience, which in itself deserves respect.