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.

Don’t Spill the Milk artwork

Back in September I enjoyed visiting Bishop MacKenzie in Lilongwe, Malawi. It is now Book Week there and Year 4 have been doing some wonderful paintings inspired by DON’T SPILL THE MILK. Well done, all of you!

If art is your thing, you may also enjoy these ALL ABOARD colouring sheets, drawn by Christopher Corr. Click on an image to download a printable pdf.

colouring1

colouring2

How to Write a Chase Scene

Have you ever walked down a deserted street and had the feeling of being followed?
Have you ever dreamed you were being chased?
Have you ever had to run away from real danger?

In addition to my other school sessions, I now offer an hour-long secondary workshop on how to write an exciting chase scene. This works well with years 7 to 9, particularly boys. The aim is to provide an enjoyable writing experience whilst also imparting useful fiction tips.

The session begins with a three minute montage of chase scenes from films: The Matrix, District 13, Walking with Beasts and the now-famous iguana vs racing snake scene from Planet Earth 2. This stimulates general discussion of chase scenes in fiction: Why do we enjoy them and how do storytellers maximize the excitement of these scenes? I elicit from the students a set of instructions for writing an exciting foot chase. We discuss techniques such as close POV, show-don’t-tell and maintaining pace.

Students work in groups to create a chase scenario for the beginning of a thriller, and then do ten minutes of speed writing, employing the techniques we discussed. Four students read their work aloud. We discuss what is already effective and what could be even better.

For more details on my writing workshops, please email Trevor Wilson at Authors Abroad: trevor@caboodlebooks.co.uk

Survivor: Titanic

Told from the perspective of a twelve year old Irish boy in third-class, Survivor: Titanic is a new book for reluctant readers aged eight plus. It comes out on 5 January 2017 (published by Scholastic) and is now available for pre-order on Amazon.

I really enjoyed planning and writing this one. I spent hours poring over deck plans of the ship and trying to come up with the most dramatic, adventure-filled story I could, without either shying away from or glamourizing the tragedy of this real event.

I found the following video particularly helpful during my research: a highly accurate real-time animation of the sinking. An extraordinary reconstruction of one of the most terrible maritime disasters in history.

Oscar Wilde, Jerome K Jerome and PG Wodehouse – my all time comedy heroes

My favourite comedian writing today is John Finnemore, eponymous hero of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme on Radio 4. But my all time comic heroes are Oscar Wilde (of course), Jerome K Jerome and PG Wodehouse. As luck would have it, they all have blue plaques in Chelsea, so I made it my goal this morning to visit all three on my morning run.

‘You run like an ostrich!’ my Fulani friend Hamadou used to tell me, by which I suspect he meant loping and gangly rather than able-to-reach-forty-mph. And so bright-eyed and ostrich-like I set out across Battersea Park and over Chelsea Bridge, sprinting in search of the three funnymen. At around the 5k mark I located Oscar Wilde’s plaque on Tite Street and then headed east a few blocks to find Jerome K Jerome.

I am sorry to report, I was defeated by Wodehouse’s townhouse in Knightsbridge. Rasping and gasping I staggered up the King’s Road awhile, but stopped well short of Walton Street and turned dejectedly for home.

This week the ballot result for the London Marathon comes out. I entered the ballot some weeks ago in a fit of optimism, and now have somewhat mixed feelings about it all. If I get in, my first training run next week will be a second struthionine attempt at the Three Comics run. Watch this space.

School visits in Lilongwe and Blantyre, Malawi

Just back from a wonderful two week trip to Malawi, organized by Authors Abroad. I visited Lilongwe in the centre of the country and Blantyre in the south. I am very grateful to the five international schools which hosted me there, to the students at Saint Andrews who regaled me with folk tales, and to the Morse family who took me to see the Majete Wildlife Reserve – a truly magical day.

Here are some pics of my time in Malawi. Most of the animal photos are by Tracy Morse.