World Book Day 2018

World Book Day 2018 falls on Thursday 1 March 2018. I have been booked by a school for World Book Day itself, but am still free the rest of that week, if your school would like me to visit for talks or workshops. And of course I am open for bookings throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, so do get in touch any time.

Going on holiday to France tomorrow. At least, mostly holiday. I will still be writing each morning, trying to finish off my current YA novel about a spectacularly rebellious chess prodigy.

Wishing all my readers an enjoyable and relaxing summer. See you on the other side.

Margate Stories

I went to Margate last week to run an Able Writers Day at Holy Trinity and St John’s Primary School. After a rollicking day of story writing with Years 1 and 2, I shambled along the sea front towards the station and was very struck by a long stretch of ‘Margate Food Stories’ murals.

These murals were painted LIVE by artist Sophie Herxheimer, in conversation with local people. What a dynamic, exhilirating, terrifying way to paint.

Sophie’s art got me thinking about the importance of location in our lives. Although I set most of my stories in West Africa, story settings don’t need to be exotic. If you write what you know, your stories will be vibrant, authentic, local and emotive. If you write about places and people you aren’t familiar with, you will produce insipid settings and flat characters. It happened in Marrakech but it might just as well have been Margate.

And how about these graven poems? Writer Suzannah Dunn did a writing workshop with local children back in 1997, and these standing stones were the result.

Those were some of the murals and standing stones I fell in love with in Margate. What about your own home town? What are the unique local memories and feelings which you could commit to wall, canvas, stone or paper?

8 Children’s Books about the Titanic disaster

Many children are fascinated by the story of the Titanic and it is often studied in primary schools as a window onto early twentieth century history, particularly in Key Stage 2. Today is the 105th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, as good a time as any for some recommendations of good Titanic books.

Survivor: Titanic by Stephen DaviesBefore I go on, I should declare an interest. My own Titanic book came out earlier this year. Survivor:Titanic is published by Scholastic as part of their new historical fiction SURVIVOR series. Jimmy from Ireland and Omar from Lebanon meet aboard the Titanic and are exploring the ship together when tragedy strikes. The book is written for reluctant readers, but can be enjoyed by anyone 8+.

Here are eight of the best children’s books about the Titanic – four non-fiction and four fiction – in no particular order.

Non-fiction

1. Story of the Titanic

Story of the Titanic by Steve NoonWhen it comes to portraying the details of this disaster, show don’t tell is key, and cutaways are definitely the best way of showing the inside of the Titanic both before and after the iceberg struck. Steve Noon’s book is highly recommended by Titanic geeks on Encyclopedia Titanica, as well as on Amazon. A real feast for the eyes.

2. Titanic (Eyewitness)

More Show-Don’t-Tell from another sumptuous DK picture book. Really brings the story alive with anecdotes, secrets, facts and puzzles. Perfect for homework projects about the Titanic tragedy.

3. On Board the Titanic: What it was like when the great liner sank

on board the titanic - shelley tanakaTanaka’s book uses real historical characters to tell the story. Jack Thayer’s account is particularly interesting. He was seventeen at the time of the sinking and was one of the few men to stay on the Titanic until the very last minute and still survive. A thrilling true-life story.

4. Inside the Titanic

Ken Marschall made a name for himself for lavish illustrations of books about the Titanic, and this is probably his best one. Like Steve Noon, he uses cutaway illustrations to make readers feel they are actually inside the doomed liner. The real-life accounts of passengers focus on the children aboard the Titanic, which is a particularly compelling (and harrowing) approach.

Ken’s paintings almost seemed to be stills from a movie that hadn’t yet been made. And I thought to myself, I can make these paintings live. It became my goal to accomplish on film what Ken had done on canvas, to will the Titanic back to life.

James Cameron

Fiction

There are dozens of children’s books set on the Titanic, including several time travel offerings where a modern-day hero gets transported back to 1912. The four I have chosen are not time travel stories, but they have all proved popular with young readers.

I SURVIVED is historical fiction, describing ten year-old George Calder’s battle for survival. Lauren’s book is gentle fare, especially considering the terrible setting, but it is well researched and enduringly popular.

Michael Morpurgo’s KASPAR PRINCE OF CATS is an absolute classic. Insired by Michael’s time as Writer in Residence at the Savoy Hotel, this book is charming, evocative and unpredictable, and it deals with mature themes in a very elegant way.

I can’t survey children’s books set on the Titanic without mentioning POLAR THE TITANIC BEAR. Another classic with beautiful full-page colour illustrations. Polar is a teddy bear, of course, and this is the Titanic as told through his eyes. Starts with him being sewed and stuffed in the factory and ends with- well, that would be telling.

TITANIC: MY STORY by Ellen White is the thrilling story of a young orphan Margaret Anne who can hardly believe her luck when she is chosen to accompany wealthy Mrs Carstairs aboard the great Titanic. This is a really good read, but something of a slow burner. It takes a while for Margaret Anne to get aboard the Titanic. When she does, the story is unputdownable.

If you are a teacher in the UK and your class is studying the Titanic, I would be happy to visit. My Titanic presentation covers the background to the tragedy, the research involved in writing historical fiction and some tips on writing exciting action scenes. Do contact me for more details.

SAHARA DISCOVERY and SAHARA SURVIVAL now available for pre-order

Reading Planet is an exciting new reading programme from educational publisher Rising Stars. Aimed at Reception and KS1, it is based on the latest literacy research. My new books SAHARA DISCOVERY and SAHARA SURVIVAL are in the Galaxy strand of the programme.

SAHARA DISCOVERY is non-fiction. It introduces some of the people who live in the vast Sahara, in particular the Tuaregs. Discover what it is like to live, play and work among the Tuareg people and their camels.

SAHARA SURVIVAL is fiction. Ali and Amira are excited to help their dad deliver a plane, but they have no idea that their journey across the Sahara desert is about to turn into a fight for survival. (Because it’s written for six and seven year olds, both the plane crash and the ‘fight for survival’ are pretty gentle).

Both books are illustrated by the talented Egyptian-born illustrator Hatem Aly and they fall in the Purple level of the reading series (see below). They can be pre-ordered individually on Amazon or direct from the publisher as part of a reading pack.

Five years since the occupation of Timbuktu

Even though the word Timbuktu is often used as a metaphor for a primitive place far from civilization, Timbuktu is a real city with a glorious history. When Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages, Timbuktu was a centre of African civilization, trade and scholarship.

The city’s recent history has been less glorious. This week marks five years since Timbuktu was invaded by Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda militants. Five years since the town’s Sufi population began to suffer the imposition of sharia and its ghoulish punishments. Five years since the town’s famous librarians started an ingenious smuggling operation to save thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts from destruction.

Today there is both good and bad news from Timbuktu. The bad news is that bandits and radical Islamists are still present in the region, launching sporadic attacks on the town and its peacekeepers. The reach of extremist teaching throughout the Sahara is expanding, not contracting.

The good news is that in Timbuktu itself, many of the World Heritage landmarks have been restored. Local craftsmen have rebuilt many of the shrines to the saints of Timbuktu, and the instigator of their destruction imprisoned for nine years. The exquisite ‘Door of Heaven’ in the Sidi Yahya mosque has been repaired. The values of Timbuktu, its so-called ‘seven gates’, remain intact: tolerance, honour, dignity, generousity, hospitality, honesty and justice.

And what of those famous manuscripts? Currently in exile in Mali’s capital city Bamako, the manuscripts are being well looked after. The Herculean task of cataloguing and preserving these ancient texts continues.

Blood & Ink is fundamentally a thriller and a love story. As a thriller it contains chases, smuggling operations and a locked-room mystery. As a love story it features a Malian Romeo and Juliet, drawn together in spite of their cultural and religious differences.

And yes, as a piece of historical fiction, the novel by necessity explores the theme of violent jihad. I had the honour of participating last month in the Cologne literary festival, where I read and discussed the novel with teenage festivalgoers. Their questions went right to the heart of the matter. What are the causes of radicalisation? Is religion itself to blame? Was I nervous about the controversy my book might cause? Finally – and essentially – what is the solution to Islamist extremism?

At a recent conference in Vienna, Timbuktu’s chief librarian Abdel Kader Haïdara was asked this same question. He replied that he looks for solutions in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves. ‘Many of these ancient Islamic manuscripts deal with conflict resolution, including many which have not yet been translated or published. I am hopeful that the manuscripts will one day foster a better understanding of the world of yesterday and the world of today, as well as the promotion of tolerance and a culture of peace.’

I am not nervous about the controversy my book might cause. Controversy entails discussion, more useful than any awkward silence. My highest hope for Blood & Ink is that, like the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves, it might foster understanding, tolerance and peace. My rather more modest hope is that it proves a gripping, exhilarating read.

This post was written as a guest post for the Aladin Verlag blog: link

School Visits in Saudi Arabia

I’ve just come back from ten days visiting schools in Saudi Arabia. Thanks to Authors Abroad for organizing the trip and to the three schools for their warm welcome: the King Faisal School, the American International School of Riyadh and the British International School of Al-Khobar.

Carsten Niebuhr
I was excited to visit Saudi Arabia, not least because I have a tenuous family connection with the country. In 1761 a young German cartographer called Carsten Niebuhr set off to Arabia as part of a six-man academic expedition organized by the King of Denmark. The trip was fraught with illness and quarrels (recounted in lurid detail in Thorkild Hansen’s book Arabia Felix), but it did prove to have some academic usefulness: Niebuhr’s transcription of the cuneiform inscriptions at Persepolis proved to be a key turning-point in the decipherment of cuneiform.

Carsten Niebuhr was the only member of the expedition to return to Europe alive. As his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson, I am very glad he did.

Back to the twenty-first century…King Faisal School is a boys’ school in Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter. During my visit the boys showed great imagination developing stories set in Riyadh and other Saudi settings. The day after I left they held a Young Author event, where students sold their own books in Arabic or English.

The American International School of Riyadh has a beautiful new campus on the north side of the city. I met lots of enthusiastic readers during a packed schedule of assemblies and workshops, and even managed a selfie with Readosaurus Rex, the pride and joy of the Elementary Library.

School starts and finishes early in Saudi Arabia, so I had plenty of time in the afternoons to lose at Risk to my host family and to explore downtown Riyadh: the beautifully preserved Al-Masmak Fortress, notorious ‘Justice’ Square and the dizzyingly tall Kingdom Tower. The black and white photograph below is from 1951 and shows a street of barbers and dentists in a street near Al-Swelem Gate (wince).

One night my hosts treated me to dinner at Nadj Village. We sat on plush Arabian carpet and feasted on camel meat and flavoured rice, surrounded by Arabian antiques. I thought of my seven-greats grandfather and imagined him enjoying just such a meal at the Ottoman court in Jeddah, in a pre-oil pre-Saud pre-warplane Arabia.

Arabia Felix indeed.

Blood & Ink at lit.Cologne 2017

Thanks and warm wishes to all the Cologne secondary students and teachers who came to my Blood & Ink reading at the Altes Pfandhaus yesterday. Schools are sometimes nervous about frank discussion of radicalisation, but not so yesterday. Your questions and comments were intelligent and thought-provoking. I hope Blood & Ink does well in Germany and that it helps to promote empathy and peace at a time when both are sorely needed.

Buy Blood & Ink: Die Bücher von Timbuktu on Amazon.de

The Secret of Mulan

Yesterday I received copies of TALES OF HIDDEN HEROES, Pearson’s new Bug Club Comprehension title. It contains two stories, one by Malachy Doyle and one by me, beautifully illustrated by Teresa Martinez.

The Secret of Mulan is a retelling of an old Chinese poem about the girl Mulan, who saves her father from certain death by going into battle his place. I enjoyed spending time with the Mulan legend and studying the character of Mulan herself, an ancient oriental forerunner of today’s badass YA heroines. I haven’t got around to watching the Disney treatment of the story but I love the various Chinese versions of the tale (link). Fascinating to see how the story evolved over the centuries: Mulan herself remains surprisingly constant but the arch villain changes to reflect the taste (or rather distaste) of each new day. In my retelling I have returned to the baddie of the original poem – the fearsome bandit Flying Swallow and his weaponized bronze cymbals.

TALES OF HIDDEN HEROES is not yet available for pre-order, but I’ll let you know when it is.

New Books and Events in 2017

2017 is shaping up to be a busy year of book releases and school visits. First up, the books:

SURVIVOR: TITANIC (Scholastic) comes out this Thursday, and is the first in a new gripping series of first-hand surival stories.

SAHARA DISCOVERY (Rising Stars, 28 April) is a non-fiction book about the Tuareg people of the Sahara. See featured image above.

SAHARA SURVIVAL (Rising Stars, 28 April) is a story about a Tunisian family whose plane has to make an emergency landing in the middle of the desert. Both books are beautifully illustrated by Hatem Aly.

BLOOD & INK is coming out in the US in September, published by Charlesbridge. Cover to be revealed soon.

Later in the year, Pearson UK are publishing my retelling of the well-known Chinese story of Mulan. I loved writing this one and am very excited about its publication.

As for school visits, the diary is filling up fast. Author visits in schools inspire children to read widely and also to write for pleasure. At the time of writing I still have three days available in the week of World Book Day 2017: 27 and 28 February and 1 March.

DateSchoolLocationActivity
10 JanuaryWest Leigh InfantsBristolWorkshops
16 JanuaryArk Priory ActonTalk
3 FebruarySt Matthews CofEBradfordWorkshops
20 - 25 FebruaryInternational SchoolsLagosTalks and Workshops
27 FebruarySydenham High SchoolSydenhamBook week visit
2 MarchCasterton Sedburgh CumbriaBook week visit
3 MarchBilton JuniorRugbyBook week visit
9 MarchCardwell PrimaryWoolwichBook week visit
10 MarchNotre-Dame PrimaryPlumsteadBook week visit
13 MarchCologne Literary FestivalCologneTalk
19 - 31 MarchInternational SchoolsSaudi ArabiaTalks and Workshops
23 MayHome Farm ColchesterAble Writers Day
24 May
St Anne's Catholic SchoolSouthamptonTravel Writing workshops
15 JuneHoly TrinityMargateAble Writers Day
22 JuneWilliam Cobbett JuniorFarnhamAble Writers Day

You can find more information about my school visits (including content, rates and testimonials) by visiting the Author Visits page on this site. Alternatively, for details of my Able Writers Days, please go through the events agency Authors Abroad.

The Locust Curse

David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II continues to fascinate and instruct. Last week’s extraordinary footage of a locust swarm in Madagascar brought back horrific memories of the 2005 locust invasion in the Sahel, including our area of Burkina Faso. The locusts destroyed the crops of many thousands of people, prompted a huge relief effort (most of my work in Djibo that year was with the Red Cross and the World Food Programme) and inspired my second book Sophie and the Locust Curse, a story of creativity and resourcefulness in the wake of catastrophe.

“Watch out! The locusts are coming!”

A terrifying army of locusts is devouring crops in one village after another. Gidaado’s village is next. When the locusts arrive, Gidaado will need all his wits about him. He will need his friend Sophie, his three-stringed guitar, and an albino camel as fast as the harmattan wind.