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.
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 onAmazon or direct from the publisher as part of a reading pack.
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
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.
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.