Dear teachers

I understand that your capacity to invite visitors into your school is much reduced this term, and maybe further ahead as well. All the same, I want to let you know that I’m still available for visits, either real or virtual. Happy to engage with your class via Zoom/Teams if need be.

Drop me a line any time to discuss possibilities, or email Yvonne at Authors Abroad.

Warm wishes,

Steve

PS The display of Titanic memorabilia above was in Year 6 at Freeland C of E Primary School in Oxfordshire – just one of many amazing Titanic displays I’ve seen in your classrooms over the last few years.

Drawing lockdown

Lockdown is not good for writing. For one thing, I can only write when I’m relaxed. For another, I am only productive if I get uninterrupted time to feel my way into a writing session.

Research and editing seem to use a different part of the brain. I’ve done some non-fiction research and various Hilda edits since the start of lockdown and they’ve been straightforward enough. But first draft fiction? Forget it.

I get grumpy when I’m not doing anything creative, so I’ve turned to drawing instead. I’m never going to be an author-illustrator, but I’ve started messing around with a dip pen and a bottle of ink, and am enjoying it just as much as I used to when I was a boy.

So here goes: a cartoon chronicle of lockdown:

Lockdown Block
Hope
Homeschool
Joe Wicks for Seniors
Goldilocks

Take a break

March update

Dear friends, what a difference two months make. Re-reading my start-of-year newsletter, it seems absurdly carefree. All of us are affected by the various challenges presented by Covid-19. It is good to see friends and neighbours pulling together to help vulnerable members of their communities.

The closure of schools means that all of my school events this term have been cancelled or postponed. I do hope to offer virtual school visits at some stage. Watch this space for videoed talks and workshops.

A LOT of children’s books are going to get read over the next few weeks. If you can’t get to a library, the Libby app is brilliant in bringing your library to you.

For parents needing further literacy resources, the industrious librarian Mr Maxwell at Glenthorne School has compiled this useful list:

Reading & Literacy Resources 

Authorfy (www.authorfy.com) Free to join, contains several videos of authors reading from their books, creative writing challenges and much more. 

Book List (https://bit.ly/3b6O8oY) A searchable list of over 200 books that are popular at Glenthorne. Unless otherwise stated, all books are suitable for ages 11+. 

Booklings Chat (www.soundcloud.com/booklingschat) Hear Glenthorne students interview 30 different authors when they visited the school. 

BookTrust Book Finder (www.booktrust.org.uk Click “Books & Reading” then “Book Finder”) Great resource on finding books on a wide variety of genres. 

British Library (https://bit.ly/33tLmas) Make your own mini book with instructions from the British Library. 

English Media Centre (https://bit.ly/2xInjsE) Free Home Learning Pack for Key Stage 3 students. 

Goodreads (www.goodreads.com) Free to join, students can write their own reviews of books they have read, find book lists, take part in quizzes and discover new books to read. 

Grammar Cereal (www.classroomcereal.com) Practice your grammar with downloadable short stories. 

NPR Comic on Coronavirus: (https://n.pr/33s261Q) A short comic book and 3 minute podcast for kids that will help dispel fears, bust myths and reduce panic surrounding the coronavirus. 

Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) Project Gutenberg offers over 50,000 free e-books in various formats.

Reading Realm (www.thereadingrealm.co.uk) Creative writing resources that can be used with a free app. 

Reading Zone (www.readingzone.com) Book reviews, competitions and activities for all ages. 

Scholastic Learn at Home (https://bit.ly/33rFZss) Four new learning experiences posted every day for a wide range of ages. 

Toppsta (www.toppsta.com) Giveaways and hundreds of book reviews and activities for a wide variety of ages.

Warmest good wishes to you and yours. Keep home, keep well, keep reading.

Happy New Year

Warmest wishes to all my readers for a happy and productive 2020. Looking forward to reading lots of great new fiction this year, and to writing some more of my own stories as well. September sees the long-awaited release of Hilda season 2 on Netflix as well as the publication by Flying Eye of the first of three brand new Hilda books written by me and illustrated by Seaerra Miller (numbers four, five and six in the series).

Since visiting Cairo with Authors Abroad last year I have become obsessed with Ancient Egypt. I have surrounded myself with books on the subject, am learning to read hieroglyphs and am haunting the British Museum like a very tall, camera-wielding spectre. Here’s hoping that something creative will come out of this obsession in the not too distant future.

In the meantime, I have loads of school visits planned for this term and next, both in the UK and further afield. My Key Stage 2 Titanic-themed workshops (based on my book Survivor: Titanic) are popular and space in the diary is rapidly diminishing, so please do enquire sooner rather than later if you’re a teacher wanting to organize a visit. Drop a line to Yvonne Lang at Authors Abroad yvonne@caboodlebooks.co.uk.

A special shout out to Sayes Court Primary School in Addlestone and Ditton Park Academy in Slough who I’m glad to serve as patron of reading this year. I’ll be keeping an eye on all new mid-grade and young adult fiction coming out over the next six months, and shoving plenty of recommendations your way.

One rather special book I discovered over the Christmas break is Pharaoh’s Fate by Camille Gautier and Stephanie Vernet, illustrated by Margaux Carpentier. It’s a thrilling story set in Ancient Egypt where YOU play the part of detective, following clues and deciphering codes in order to foil a plot against the pharaoh’s life.

Keep adventuring and keep reading!

Venus de Milo – a poem

This poem is part of a longer one I wrote for my mum’s 70th birthday. The crossword clues are from the London Times, 5 August 1949.

In an incandescent corridor

perched on a folding chair

Ron Tippett’s ink-stained fingers

rake through crinkly brylcreamed hair

All there is for him to look at

is a worn No Smoking sign

a desiccated cheese plant

and a dog-eared London Times.


The crossword might distract him

from the cacaphonic noise

“They do not pay for seats in stalls”

That’s easy: CHOIR BOYS

“Their business is a blooming sell”

could FLORISTS be the word?

and “Stymie on the table”

must be SNOOKER – that’s his third!


“Venus de Milo does not need it”

(two words, five and four)

Could it be WRIST WATCH? No, too long.

BOARD GAME?

APPLE CORE?


She doesn’t need a SPACE SUIT cos she won’t be blasting off

and she doesn’t need a COUGH DROP cos she hasn’t got a cough

You could try her on a PEACE PIPE but the Louvre says No Smoking

and she has no use for STEEL WOOL – she leaves her pans a-soaking.


“Venus de Milo does not need it”

(Two words, five and four).

That clue is really nagging him

He’ll have to think some more.


Venus doesn’t need a CHECK BOOK cos she’s got no way of cashing ‘em

She lives in dread of ITCHY FEET – she’s got no way of scratching ‘em.

No AGONY AUNT can help her, she’s a hypergloomy Gus,

and she doesn’t need a GRAVY BOAT, cos honestly, who does?


Our Venus needs no VOICE MAIL to keep track of any messages

It’s hard to set a MOUSE TRAP without brachial appendages

She doesn’t need a WEDGE HEEL – it would make her feel unsteady

And she doesn’t need a POKER FACE, she’s wearing one already.


She doesn’t need a LIGHT BULB cos she wouldn’t reach the switch

And she doesn’t need a DRESS RACK cos she never wears a stitch

She doesn’t need a TRAIN FARE cos she’s got no place to go

and she doesn’t need a SLIDE RULE (she’s got a Macbook Pro).


KOALA? PANDA? GUMMI BEAR? She’s just not into bears.

And she doesn’t need a STAIR LIFT for she’s not allowed upstairs.

PHONE BOOK? CHILD CARE? DEBIT CARD? Perhaps a FUNNY BONE?

You really don’t need much when you’re a goddess made of stone.


“Ronald!”

Someone’s calling him! It’s time to sally forth

and The Times is now discarded on the disinfected floor.

Those Barratt boots are galloping towards the sunlit ward

Moving fast as Water Biscuit on a firm dry summer course.


And there’s his wife! And there’s the nurse! And there’s the tiny cot!

Well, well, well (as camels say), what a perfect girl they’ve got!

Oh my, thinks Ron, she hasn’t got much ELBOW ROOM in there

then suddenly he laughs out loud and leaps into the air!

Training with London’s Chessboxers at Islington Boxing Club

Leah Baxter, the hero of my new novel Chessboxer is an international chess master and also something of an athlete. She can run a five-minute mile. She can jab a punchbag seventy-four times in thirty seconds. She can jump a skipping rope a hundred times before screwing up.

I wish I had half of Leah’s athleticism and hand-eye coordination. I would love to be able to jump rope even ten times before screwing up. As it turns out I can jump rope precisely zero times before screwing up.

It’s Saturday morning and I have come to Islington boxing club, to spend some time flailing ingloriously with a skipping rope. Experienced chessboxer Matt ‘Crazy Arms’ Read skips effortlessly at my side, encouraging me with kindly advice. ‘Jump up just before the rope reaches your shins,’ he says. ‘You’ll get the hang of it soon.’ And later (since I show no sign of getting the hang of it), ‘Put both handles in one hand and just twirl the rope by your side.’

As well as being embarrassed by my lack of coordination, I am also somewhat starstruck. The fifteen other skippers in this gym are the best-known chessboxers in the UK – Gavin ‘Grievous Bodily Farmer’ Paterson, Cameron ‘The Hurt Locker’ Little, Roger ‘Cannonball’ Baxter, names I’ve become very familiar with these last five years.

After an eternity of entanglement, I get to play some chess. This is the essence of chessboxing training – moving from high-intensity cardio work to blitz chess and back again. But with my heart still pumping from my fumbled attempts to skip, I can’t remember any decent lines for white in the French Defence Advance Variation. I’m making it up as I go along, and soon I am haemorrhaging pawns.

‘You thought you’d be meeting Leah, didn’t you?’ I whisper.

‘It’s fine,’ Matt chuckles. ‘At least you write a damn good game.’

I’m pleased by the compliment because I always wanted Chessboxer to be read and enjoyed by people who know their chess, as well as by those who’ve never picked up a knight in their life. In writing first-person POV from Leah’s perspective, the challenge was to shoehorn myself into the shoes of a chess master and convey in writing the intense drama of high-level chess. If Crazy Arms enjoyed the book, I must have done something right.

Gavin calls time on the chess round and we move on to boxing – or in my case, a beginners lesson with boxing coach Zowie Campbell. ‘Stand at forty-five degrees,’ he says. ‘Hands up to your face. Elbows tight to your rib cage. Bend your knees. Now take a step forward and drag your right foot behind.’ It turns out that even the most basic punch, the jab, has a dozen separate components. ‘Twist your right foot as you throw the jab,’ says Zowie, demonstrating. ‘Pretend you’re stubbing out a cigarette butt on the ground…twist-twist.’

As the lesson progresses, I am struck not just by the complexity of basic boxing technique, but also by the poetry of it. As Iron Mike scowls down at us from a poster on the wall, Zowie takes us through a drill that would not sound out of place in a Hilaire Belloc poem: Step forward, jab, jab, uppercut, jab…step forward, jab, jab, left hook, back.

Also getting his first taste of boxing today is Matthew Lunn, an accomplished chess player and commentator. After our lesson, I make the mistake of challenging Matthew to a game. He lets me play white, gives me a huge time advantage on the clocks, and then mercilessly steamrollers me, delivering checkmate before I’ve even castled.

Gavin calls the switch and it’s time for the punching bags to get a battering of their own. ‘Bend your knees, not your neck,’ Cannonball calls over to me. ‘And stop sticking your arse out. Watch Matt and Cameron if you want to see good technique from tall people.’

The English word ‘agony’ comes from the Greek word agon, meaning ‘contest’. The final contest of the morning – the last delicious agony – is two laps around Elthorne Park and a sprint up Hazelville Hill. ‘Keep your gloves on,’ grins Gavin, ‘and I’ll be shouting at you to keep your guard up all the way.’

For lap, read lumber. For sprint, read stagger. I’m so grateful to Gavin and Matt for their willingness to induct an out-of-condition author into the mystery of chessboxing, but this final uphill sprint is killing me, and I can’t help thinking of the scene in Chessboxer where Leah encounters her gym equipment nemesis: Jacob’s ladder. ‘After three minutes, my muscles are burning,’ she says. ‘After ten minutes, I no longer know my own name. After fifteen minutes I want nothing more than to crawl into a deep dark ditch and die.’

In her often quoted book ‘On Boxing’ (1987), Joyce Carol Oates wrote this: ‘The punishment a person must endure to become even a moderately good boxer is inconceivable.’ Inconceivable, perhaps, but I do feel as if I’ve had a glimpse.

Chessboxer comes out on Thursday 3 October 2019, published by Andersen Press.

London Chessboxing’s next event Oktoberfist takes place on Saturday 5 October 2019.

I chatted with Gavin and the two Matts for this episode of their excellent Chessboxing podcast.

Chessboxing training happens every Saturday morning at Islington Boxing Club.

Author visit for KS2 classes studying the Titanic disaster

cover design: Two Dots Studio

If you are a Year 5 or 6 teacher and your class is studying the sinking of the Titanic, please note that I now offer a Titanic-themed author visit. We can do this right at the start of your Titanic unit (as a hook to create interest) or later on when the children have already been studying the topic for some time. It may be that your pupils are already reading my book Survivor: Titanic but this is not essential.

A recent report by the National Literacy Trust highlighted the positive impact of author visits. Pupils who had an author visit this academic year:

  • Were twice as likely to read above the expected level for their age (31% vs 17%)
  • Were more likely to enjoy reading (68% vs 47%) and writing (44% vs 32%)
  • Were more likely to be highly confident in their reading (37% vs 25%) and writing (22% vs 17%)

Content

The day starts with an hour-long assembly for the whole year group. We do a Titanic-themed quiz (harder or easier questions, depending on how much the children have already studied the topic) and then discuss the importance of primary sources: photographs, deck plans and survivor accounts.

Jack Thayer

I tell them about four of the passengers in particular: Jacques Futrelle, John Jacob Astor, Al-Emir Fares Chebab and Jack Thayer. We look at Jack Thayer’s exciting first-hand survival narrative, which influenced Jimmy’s escape story in my own book. After the assembly, I lead a historical fiction workshop with each class. These workshops last either an hour or ninety minutes.

Titanic-themed writing workshop with author Stephen Davies

Over the course of the workshop, I guide pupils in planning their own survival stories set aboard the Titanic. We work on characterization, suspense and show don’t tell. The workshop is punctuated by short bursts of speed-writing by the children. By the end of the day, pupils should be well on the way to completing the first draft of a short story, a task which could perhaps be completed or redrafted for homework.

The day ends with Q & A and then children have the opportunity to share some of their writing. I give plenty of affirmation and encouragement, along with gentle suggestions for improvement. When I do Titanic themed KS2 visits, pupils often end up wanting their own copy of Survivor:Titanic. I am happy to bring copies with me for sale and signing.

Testimonials

Steve’s visit was brilliant; it was a really engaging day that left our Year 6 pupils excited to write.  It was great for them to see the process a real author follows when planning a new story and showed them the importance of knowing their characters!  Steve created a great atmosphere for learning, celebrating everyone’s ideas and pushing them to think more deeply.  The stories produced as a result were excellent and really showed that they’d taken his advice on board. 

Ms Jelley, Year 6 teacher, King’s Park Academy, Bournemouth

Stephen Davies has visited our school twice now, and on both occasions the children have been truly inspired. The topic of the Titanic intrigues the children and Stephen’s presentation, knowledge and explanation of how he researched the historical event to write his novel captivated them. The writing workshop engaged all pupils and enabled them to create their own character and consider ways to bring them to life, which resulted in the children producing some outstanding pieces of writing. They thoroughly enjoyed the day because of Stephen’s inspiring words and the time he spent talking to them about books, authors, their interests and his experiences. Fantastic, amazing and inspiring are some of the words used by our children to describe the day, with many commenting that they are now considering becoming an author in the future.  

Ms Rochelle, Year 6 teacher, Park Hall Junior School, Walsall

We couldn’t recommend Stephen enough. His knowledge of Titanic was extraordinary and the children were engrossed with the stories and knowledge he could share. The aim of the session was to learn more about the Titanic but also to support our children with story writing. Stephen’s workshop was invaluable. The children were very excited to write their stories and use the advice given from Stephen – their stories were out of this world! ​

Ms Foster, Year 6 teacher, Manor Community Primary School, Swanscombe

This letter is a thank you for the amazing assembly and class workshop. I found both sessions really inspiring. I appreciated your picking me to get up and share facts about the Titanic. I felt really proud. Another thing that I enjoyed was the class quiz. It was a shame that our class lost. I enjoyed designing my own character that I could later on use in my own survival story. One of the best parts was transferring my planning into an amazing story.

Kerim, Year 6, King’s Park Academy, Bournemouth

Steve visited our group of Y6 pupils as part of our history topic where we were exploring different sources of evidence linked to the Titanic. During his visit, he exposed the children to a range of primary sources such as deck plans, photos and survivor accounts, introducing the children to life on board the ship. As a result of viewing these sources, the children were able to imagine their own character and setting for a short piece of narrative in the first person. Steve also told the children about a young man on board called Jack Thayer who was the inspiration for his own character ‘Jimmy’. The children were incredibly engaged by Steve’s presentation, enjoying the opportunity to ask further questions about the Titanic and listening to him read a few chapters from his book. 
It was a fantastic day which brought our topic to life and sparked the imagination of our children. We would definitely recommend anyone embarking on this topic to invite Steve in!

Years 6 teachers, Mosborough Primary School

To book a Titanic-themed author visit, please write to Yvonne Lang at Authors Abroad: yvonne@caboodlebooks.co.uk or contact me for further details.

Related post: 8 Children’s Books about the Titanic Disaster

Visiting the KAUST school in Saudi Arabia

At the beginning of April I visited the KAUST school in Saudi Arabia, to encourage secondary school students in their own creative writing. Exciting to find so many keen writers among them, including some who are using Wattpad to work on their own novels.

KAUST (the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) is located an hour’s drive south of Jeddah and occupies 14 square miles of Red Sea coastline. In a row of towering seaside laboratories, scientists pursue cutting edge research in impressively mysterious disciplines such as laser diagnostics, chemical kinetics and supercomputing.

The rest of the campus is tidy and somewhat sterile – hundreds of identical, cream coloured staff houses and insipid crossroads where careful, considerate drivers wait for their traffic light to turn green. On my second day at KAUST I was riding a borrowed moped to the school and ended up hopelessly lost among those bland intersections. Five minutes before my assembly was due to start, I was rescued by a kind librarian, who had come out in her car to search for me.

I love international schools and the KAUST school was no exception. I worked with eighteen classes of warm, funny, globally aware students – all of them wired to tell stories, even (or perhaps especially) the less academic ones. I’ve added a few photos below, as well as a couple of testimonials on my author visits page.

Sincere thanks to Catherine de Levay for rescuing me from the neat streets of Pleasantville and for overseeing an otherwise enjoyable visit. Thanks also to Authors Abroad, who are so good at organizing international escapades for authors and poets.