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 email@example.com.
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.
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%)
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.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me for further details.
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.
Last week I had the pleasure of visiting two international schools in Kazakhstan: QSI Almaty and QSI Astana. Thank you to staff and students at both schools for making me feel so welcome, and to Authors Abroad for organizing the trip.
I spent last week in Doha, Qatar, at the Gulf English School. On Monday and Tuesday I was in their Junior School, Tuesday and Wednesday in the Infant School and Thursday in the Secondary School.
With its illuminated skyscrapers and man-made beaches, Doha is sometimes described as a mini-Dubai, although it’s hard to think of it as a mini anything. The skyline is awe-inspiring. On my first night there I walked through the West Bay area of the city and soon had a crick in my neck from all that looking up.
‘Reading takes us places we’ve never been before’. That was the theme of Book Week. My workshops transported the children far away from the fluorescent lights of Doha to the wonderful Saharan country of Niger, where pale giraffes roam wild and fishermen cast silvery nets across a silent river.
We read the book DON’T SPILL THE MILK and then the children worked on pages for their own book DON’T DROP THE MANGO. They used their knowledge of Qatar’s vast desert to dream up new adventures for Penda.
If you would like me to visit your school, whether in the UK or overseas, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. See my school visits page for details.
Two of my books are published in German by Aladin Verlag: BLOOD & INK and TITANIC: 24 STUNDEN BIS ZUM UNTERGANG. I just got back from a short tour of Austria, where I had been invited to talk about my 2015 book Blood & Ink, a book that is ever so close to my heart. As Austria’s new far-right government closes mosques and deports dozens of Turkish imams, now is a good time for frank, wide-ranging discussion of the issues surrounding political Islam. Blood & Ink is a useful springboard for such discussion because all of the characters in the novel are Muslim. No clash of civilizations here. No east versus west nonsense. Just two manifestations of Islam confronting each other within a remote, walled city.
In Vienna on Wednesday I was hosted by Büchereien Wien as part of their Lesofantenfest reading festival. It seemed fitting to be presenting Blood & Ink in Vienna because Timbuktu librarian Abdel Kader Haidara was here himself not so long ago, talking about how solutions to ethnic and religious conflict might be found in the Timbuktu manuscripts themselves.
On Thursday I took the train up into the mountains to Radstadt a pretty walled town surrounded by majestic peaks. I was the guest of BORG Radstadt, discussing Blood & Ink with students in years 8 and 9. Big readers, some of them, and a real pleasure to spend time with. It was warm and bright in the mountains – Bei uns wärmer als in Afrika, proclaimed the local newspaper headlines. Good for the blooming flowers, bad for those living in the mountains, where winter sports are so essential to the local economy.
On Thursday afternoon, the wonderful Peter Fuschelberger from Literaturhaus Salzburg took me to see his childhood haunts in Bischofshofen. A peaceful town known for its chocolate-box beauty and its dizzying ski jumps, Bischofshofen is one of the most important venues in the ski jumping World Cup. On the way up the mountain Peter told me about his sixteen-year-old nephew Florian, already an accomplished ski jumper. Seeing the jumps and hearing about Florian made me long to write a YA novel set in the world of ski jumping. There’s one already (GRAVITY by Juliann Rich) but I suspect there’s room for a second.
On Thursday afternoon I had a short tour of Salzberg, including the gardens of Schloss Mirabell featured in the Sound of Music. Then on Friday I did two talks at the Salzburg Literaturhaus. The young people at these two talks were especially forthcoming and we had worthwhile discussion not just about political Islam but also about empathy, research and cultural appropriation. When is it appreciation and when is it appropriation? Such a hot topic right now. The young people at these events really impressed me with their acuity and common sense.
Thank you to all the students who came to my readings in Austria, and to the fab teachers who accompanied them. Warm thanks also to Martina Adelsberger at Vienna Main Library and to Peter Fuschelberger of Literaturhaus Salzburg. Three days in Austria was not enough, and I look forward eagerly to returning.
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.
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.