Sakhalin Island is a large Russian island in the North Pacific, just north of Japan. It is home to sea-lions, whales, brown bears and lots of fantastic readers and writers. I had the pleasure of visiting Sakhalin International School last week – two days of exploring followed by two days of creative writing workshops.
On my first day Dutch teacher Miriam drove me out to Nevelsk in the the west of the island, home to a fine colony of sea-lions. Before visiting Nevelsk, my only understanding of sea-lions came from the characters Fluke, Rudder and Gerald in the film Finding Dory. Turns out the Finding Dory sea-lions were excellent examples of the species. Framed in the viewfinder of Miriam’s zoom lens, the Nevelsk sea-lions barked, yelped and pushed each other off rocks with perfect slapstick timing.
The following day three of us hiked a few miles along the Japanese railway. It was built in the early twentieth century, when the southern half of Sakhalin Island was under Japanese control. The railway has long gone, save for a few sleepers, nails and girders, but the route of the railway makes an excellent hiking trail through beautiful fir forests. I am used to taking mosquito spray with me on international visits, but on this hike we had to take bear spray with us. What sort of bears do you have on the Island? I asked Miriam. ‘The sort that eats you,’ she replied darkly.
We took a short detour off the railway to see Sakhalin’s famous mud volcanoes: pools of cold mud that bubbled sporadically as methane rose through up out of fractures in the rocks beneath. An other-worldly sight that would make a great setting for fantasy fiction.
On Wednesday and Thursday I had full days working with the students in the school. One of the most enjoyable sessions was with the very youngest class – 6 and 7 year olds. We read my book ALL ABOARD FOR THE BOBO ROAD and I told them about some of the real places that inspired the settings for the story. Then I invited them to come up with a ‘journey story’ set on Sakhalin Island. Here is the poem that came out of that workshop – the settings and the rhymes are all theirs.
Snowflake the husky dog lived near the sea
She wiggled and jiggled and pulled herself free
“Oi!” cried her owner. “Snowflake! Come back!
Come pull my sled or you’ll get a big whack.”
Snowflake went north and she saw a big bear
It reared and it roared and she got a great scare
Snowflake went south to the vast rocky plain
She stepped on a fossil and howled out in pain.
Snowflake went west where the sea-lions bark
She ran by the sea and she saw a grey shark
Snowflake went east to the flat amber beach
She dashed and she zoomed and she heard a loud SCREEEEEEECH!
“Oh no!” cried Snowflake. “My owner is here
He’s fast and he’s mad and he’s coming quite near!”
Snowflake felt homesick. She missed her dear friends.
She went to her owner.
I do find it hard keeping secrets, so it’s a great relief to finally be able to make this announcement. I have a new book out this September!
HILDA AND THE HIDDEN PEOPLE is a fully illustrated story starring Hilda, a blue-haired girl with a thirst for adventure and an uncanny talent for making friends with magical creatures. My book is based on the forthcoming Netflix series HILDA, which in turn is based on Luke Pearson’s popular comic book series. Over the last six months I have enjoyed getting to know this brave, kind-hearted girl and her friends. They’re wonderful characters to write, and I hope you’ll come to love them too. HILDA AND THE HIDDEN PEOPLE comes out in September and is published by Flying Eye.
This month I was in Tunisia at the kind invitation of The Carthage Classical Academy. I was very impressed by the school, which somehow succeeds in combining a warm, friendly atmosphere with a rigorous classical education, including the study of Latin, logic and rhetoric. You would imagine that this deliciously old-fashioned approach might stifle creativity, but on the contrary the pupils there were buzzing with high concept story ideas such as ‘The Five Minute War’ and ‘Aliens on the Titanic’.
There was even time for tourism. The director of the school took me to Tunisia’s largest museum, the Bardo Museum. Built in a fifteenth century palace, the Bardo is home to eight thousand exhibits, including one of the world’s biggest collections of Roman mosaics. I don’t think I have ever said ‘Wow’ so many times in the space of one hour. We walked past a mosaic of Ulysses strapped to his mast as he listened to the song of the sirens. We saw a partially destroyed mosaic of Neptune’s face, whose lively face and glinting eye made up for his incompleteness. Last of all – and best by far – we stood before the Bardo’s most famous mosaic, Virgil and his Muses.
The Virgil mosaic was discovered in 1896 in a garden in Sousse, and is the only visual depiction of Virgil that we have. He looks forty-something with hollow cheeks and widow’s peak, gazing out of the picture into the middle distance. No, not gazing exactly, for there’s an intensity to his regard – the brightest tile in the whole mosaic is the twinkle in the corner of his left eye. He has the vim and vigour of any author near the start of an exciting new project.
We suspect he’s near the start, because the parchment on his lap contains the eighth verse of the Aeneid: Muse, recount to me the reasons, What so wounded the divinity [that she forced a loyal man through so many hardships…] Virgil has paused in his writing, presumably waiting for muse or muses to recount to him some reasons. Luckily for him, two Muses are standing right there on either side of him.
The inscription in the Bardo museum has misidentified these muses as Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and Polymnia (muse of pantomime), but the one with the scroll and the toned biceps is much more similar to classical portrayals of Clio (muse of history) than Calliope, whilst the one holding the tragic mask is Melpomene (muse of tragedy). Whatever their specialist subjects, the two muses are inclining towards Virgil and intent on helping him out. Melpomene is clutching her cheek, so either she is overwhelmed by the tragedy of Dido and Aeneas or she has just realized, based on Virgil’s current wpm, how long she’s going to be stuck there.
It is fitting that this mosaic of Virgil should be on display so near to the ancient port of Carthage, because of the important role in the Aeneid played by Queen Dido of Carthage. In Book 4, the passionate love affair of Dido and Aeneas is interrupted by a message from Jupiter, reminding Aeneas of his destiny to found a city in Italy. Aeneas sets sail from Carthage and Dido stabs herself on a funeral pyre with Aeneas’ own sword. During her death throes she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas’ people and her own, basically predicting the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. “Rise up from my bones, avenging spirit!” she cries, which would have made early readers of the Aeneid think of that most fearsome of all Rome’s enemies, Hannibal himself.
In case his Roman readers missed the allusion, Virgil makes it even more explicit in Book 10 of the Aeneid. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says:
The time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome.
I stood for a long time looking at the Bardo’s mosaic of Virgil and his Muses. This idea of muses hovering at the writer’s shoulder is as insistent as it is ancient. One of the first questions I fielded at the Carthage Classical Academy (like any writer at any school visit) was ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I need to think of a satisfying answer to this question, because I currently find myself roving from the flippant (‘from the ideas shop on the high street’) to the prosaic (‘you need to develop story antennae and be constantly on the lookout for inspiration’) to the honest-but-useless (‘I don’t know’).
For my money, the best modern conception of the writer’s muse is the following paragraph from Stephen King’s masterpiece On Writing – a Memoir of the Craft. It’s just the right mixture of the prosaic and the ephemeral, and it makes me laugh every time I read it.
There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement kind of guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think it’s fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist, but he’s got inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the mid-night oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.
When I learned to touch-type in my late twenties, that was the paragraph I used as my ipsum lorem filler text. I must have typed it out hundreds of times. I love his portrayal of a fundamentally antisocial muse that possesses cigars and bowling trophies instead of scrolls or flutes or tragic masks.
Is the capricious, part-time muse of Stephen King incompatible with the intent and softly sighing muses from that Virgil mosaic? By no means. Virgil’s Aeneid did not come to him at night in a flash of divine inspiration – he was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to write it. And that commission was not a ‘Write me something beautiful’ sort of commission but rather a ‘Write me some decent propaganda that will unite the empire and Make Rome Great Again’ sort of commission. In accepting the emperor’s bidding, Virgil was already committed to a certain amount of grunt work, no doubt with a deadline to focus his mind.
Muse, recount to me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity, how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive this man tum tumty tum…and even if you don’t recount a word I’ll write it anyway cos that’s what writers do.
We had a good break in a cottage in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, over the holidays. I spent much of it asleep in front of a woodburning stove, occasionally waking up to play Ticket To Ride with the girls or to read a few more pages of the Rub of Time, a delicious collection of essays by Martin Amis.
Also on my bedside table Being Read pile is The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, which my sister Debbie gave me for Christmas. It’s one of those books like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas where pretty much anything you say about it constitutes a spoiler, so I’ll refrain, except to say it’s clever and thoroughly engrossing. Thanks Debs!
Back to work, now, and another year of writing and school visits awaits. I’m currently doing rewrites on my YA novel about a rebellious chess prodigy. I have a list of possible titles for it, but none of the candidates thus far are screaming CHOOSE ME! Tricky things, titles. Often the very last thing to fall into place.
Next week I start outlining Book 2 of an exciting new fantasy series. I’m not allowed to say anything about that project yet but will no doubt shout about it from the rooftops come September, when Book 1 is published.
School visits: I do have one day still available in World Book Week – Wednesday 28 February. Let me know if your school is interested in a visit that day – see here for details.
A very happy new year to anyone reading this. Hope it’s a good one for us all.
Thrilling news recently – Torben Kuhlmann is illustrating the German edition of my book Survivor Titanic. The Hamburg based author-illustrator is best known for the modern classic Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse. Here is a sneak preview of his Titanic illustrations. Such attention to detail.
Just back from Dubai, where I had the privilege of visiting the Dubai Modern Education School for their Book Week DMES Reads. In keeping with Dubai’s reputation as a city of superlatives, the largest book I have ever seen lay open at the front of the assembly hall (pictured above).
For two days I worked with classes from Grades 3 to 8. Most of the kids I met spoke excellent English for their age but one question I fielded did make me laugh: a friendly Grade 4 boy who asked, ‘How many years have you wasted writing books?’ Before I could drown in existential angst, his friend nudged him and hissed ‘SPENT, you mean SPENT!’
Dubai is known globally for its construction addiction. Once home to 25% of the world’s cranes, it now boasts dozens of improbably tall buildings – a good destination for an improbably tall author. Here’s a short timelapse video of 20 years of building in Dubai.
On Monday afternoon I went up to the 124th floor of the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, and stared out across the city in a state of vertiginous jetlagged awe. Rather than pondering the hubris of mankind, I was mostly daydreaming about the dizzying Burj Khalifa scene in Mission Impossible 4.
On Tuesday night we went to the Al Madam Horse Stables in Sharjah. We were treated to a sumptuous lamb barbecue, Emirati dancing and an impromptu oud recital by a Grade 12 student (video below). The oud music made me think of Al-Emir Fares Shebab, the famous Lebanese oud player who died in the sinking of the Titanic – a noble soul who inspired the character of Omar’s father in my book Suvivor Titanic.
For the evening in Sharjah, my new friend Khaled Mohammed lent me his spare kandura, the white robe worn by Emirati men. Light airy garb for an evening in the desert.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Dubai and would love to visit again one day. Warm thanks to all the staff and students at DMES, to librarians Miss Dorothy and Miss Kout, and to my kind hosts Alison and Mike.
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.
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?
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.
Before 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.
1. Story of the Titanic
When 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
Tanaka’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.
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.