As an author in school I sometimes pass round an invisible dragon so that children too young to read my books can observe it on the palms of their hands, describing what they see, hear and feel. Imagining. Most do, bright-eyed and captivated. Once I finished by telling them how outrageously naughty my dragon had been in another school. As my narrative ended, a small boy asked intently, “But did he really?” He’d seen that there was no dragon to see. Yet part of him believed.
I find that thrilling. But as adults we’re not so different when we read fiction. I recently returned to a Young Adult classic after about eleven years: Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses. It’s important, vivid, tragic and shocking. First time round I found it so compelling that I read it in the street – and yes, walked into a lamppost! But would my reading experience be different this time?
My mother-in-law remembers first footing at New Year in the north-east – by a dark-haired man with coal. Very bizarre! New Year’s Day only became a public holiday in the UK in 1974 but more than that, New Year’s Eve was a low-key affair except for those living close enough to Scotland to catch the spirit of Hogmanay. Now it’s globally competitive, and another reason to spend and consume. But it’s as positive or negative as the individual chooses to make it, with or without the fireworks.
ALIENS ANGELS was published last winter but I hope that my trio of Christmas stories will be enjoyed again each December: a new feature in the special ritual of a family Christmas. As I get older my own childhood Christmases seem like something out of a movie, the kind where the women have carved hair and wear heels and gloves indoors, and the men live in suits and smoke between dances.
Not that anything like this happened at my house. We were a jim-jams or cardigans family. But as I rerun it, minus all today’s technological gadgetry, it looks so long ago and faraway. Even though I live it again, as if the child in me never changed.
4:45 I wake and hiss along the landing to make sure my brother isn’t sleeping. We feel our stockings in the dark as if we don’t know exactly what’s in them.
5:32 Singing Away In A Manger as sweetly as we can, we pad downstairs and hover at the doorway of the big bedroom, to be told, “Happy Christmas!”. And to come back at six.
5:51 Christmas begins in Mum and Dad’s bed, with matching stockings unpacked to reveal a satsuma, chocolate money in a net bag, a pencil and a larky sharpener. Maybe a Pez dispenser, tricksy pen or Knitting Nancy. My parents know better than to include bows, ribbons or decorated hair slides because I hate my wild hair as much as my turned-up nose.
When GORILLA DREAMS was published I invited children in fourteen local schools to use their imaginations and ask themselves what gorillas might dream of doing or being. They could show me in an artwork, poem, story or dance – and they did! Illustrator Mary Casserley and I were amazed by their creativity and commitment. Some clearly spent hours creating their entries – patiently and skilfully – and the delight shone through. I wonder what adults would find to say if you asked them what gorillas might dream about.
I’ve been wearing a gorilla mask a lot lately – in Waterstone’s, at shows and in school halls. And this morning in my living room, to see how practical it is to do an on-the-spot gorilla dance without falling on my large rubbery nostrils. The GORILLA DREAMS promo tour has been crazy, hectic fun, and with a competition encouraging kids to be creative, it’s not over yet.
I haven’t created animal characters before – unless you count Oops the ongalong and Nimmo the mobe along with a small dragon called Mayerling (“Maya, Maya, can’t breathe fire!”). They’re complete fantasy; sometimes reality and magic intersect. Of course I did research on gorillas.
Did you know a male gorilla has an arm span of up to 2.6 metres?!! They have unique fingerprints like us and they’re desperately endangered. It was all really fascinating background but I knew my gorillas at gorilla school would be at least a little like kids. So there’s Gertie the Scrabble champion who uses long words like finesse but doesn’t actually have any.
I went to the Alopecia UK London Awareness Event recently, and gave a little speech over lunch introducing myself as ambassador for a small charity doing wonderful work.
I was also there with books and a display about what I can offer as an author with alopecia visiting a school where a pupil has alopecia too. That’s a small but important word: too. Being among 200 other alopecians was a new experience and I loved it.
There’s something great about people who’ve lost their hair, young or old, male or female, whether or not they’ll vote Green like me or share my passion for George Eliot or peanut butter. I love getting to know their stories, all of them different. Every conversation I had was an education.
Not long ago I went to a London exhibition about identity and it was a mind-boggling cross-science mix. I was especially interested in the twin studies and the nature/nurture question. How alike are twins who aren’t raised together? Is blood really thicker than water – or thinner?
In my new YA novel published by Candy Jar, Fizzy and Kim aren’t twins but by the end that’s how they feel. The starting point of this story was a news item I saw a few years ago about a mistake in a Russian hospital, and that’s why I’ve dedicated the book to those real-life girls who have bonded through the melodrama. My characters are fictional of course, and the idea was to create two girls whose lives have been completely different up to the point when the truth is uncovered – and whose personalities and attitudes are very different too. Yet their growing bond has to hold the narrative together in the midst of a series of emotional earthquakes!
I’m a technophobe who once scorned Facebook, thought blogging was for nerds and declined to tweet when Candy Jar said I should.
Now I’m a social network eco-warrior. And I’m blogging because, as my lovely Magic Oxygen publishers pointed out, it makes sense. I love words. They can work in different spaces and in different ways. So here’s the first blog, about words.
They can hurt. Once in the playground when I was eleven, a friend waited for me to join her and then said, “Your legs are like tree trunks.” She was skinny and pretty but I’m sure she’s learned empathy now. A few careless words can have a huge impact. Maybe I wouldn’t have been picked up from college to be fed at home without them. But maybe without them I couldn’t have written about bullying, or low self-esteem – or the destructive power of words!