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Monday, 26 January 2015

Gingerbread Men and Hot Cocoa

A nine-year-old girl has turned the clock back almost seventy years to write a touchingly perceptive story about two young evacuees.

Anya's story

Anya Baxter, a pupil at Kirkham Grammar School in Lancashire,  wrote the delightfully titled Gingerbread Men and Cocoa when she learnt how World War Two affected the people of Britain. The story follows an eleven-year-old girl and her six-year-old sister as they leave their mother and father to live with strangers far from home.

The story evokes a difficult time in our country's history when  children were expected to behave like adults - and most of them, thankfully, did.

To me, Anya's writing and  thought processes are far in advance of her years. As someone who has a passionate interest in the Occupation of the Channel Islands - my father was evacuated from Guernsey with his younger brother in 1940 - I thought I would share this with you.

Gingerbread Men and Hot Cocoa
Anya Baxter
aged nine

I was feeling sick. Outside it was getting darker and darker. We were nearly there. The train went over a huge bump.  My stomach did too! I began to look out of the window to see my surroundings. All that was around me was trees bushes and green farmland. I wonder if I'll live on  farm, I thought. I started to fiddle with my long, brown hair. My mother had put it into a plait to make me look presentable. I took my plait out carefully and put the bobble around my wrist.

Eventually we got there. We all clambered off the train. My teacher told us to walk towards a small group of houses. There in front of us stood lots and lots of adults. I looked down at my little sister, she was only six. She looked as scared as ever. Her little black cardigan barely fitted her and her long grey skirt was too tight at the waist. I was eleven. I  knew my sister might be separated from me, but I knew she would be brave. One by one the rest of the children around me and my sister got chosen.  Every now and them my sister gave me a nervous glance.  Now the only children left were a young brown-haired girl, a small blond boy and my sister and me.  I stared at the adults who were left. Not one of them looked as nice as my mother. I began to wonder what my mother was doing at that moment.

A man pointed at me and my sister. My stomach did a flip! He didn't look very rich at all.  I felt a shove on my back. It was my teacher. Slowly and steadily we walked towards the man. He picked up our bags and beckoned me to follow him. The man lead us to a black van. He loaded our bags into the van and told us to get in. It wasn't a very long journey.

 My sister kept looking out of the window at the back of the van. Suddenly the van stopped. We arrived at our new home. It didn't look as I thought it would. We were told to get out of the van. Nervously I placed a foot on the smooth gravel and climbed out.  In front of me was a neat lawn and six symmetrical flower beds. We walked up to the front door and stepped inside the house. The man's wife was lovely. She had made us some gingerbread men and hot cocoa. They were delicious. The man's wife lead us through the old house to our bedroom. It was quite small, but quite spacious.  For tea we had fresh tomato soup and homemade bread. I thought, when I went to bed that night, about where tomorrow would take me and what would happen.

Do let me know what you think of Anya's story.

Monday, 19 January 2015


Carolyn and Katie Clapham

Make 2015 the year you  rediscover reading.

So say the owners of a thriving independent bookshop as major booksellers report record sales in physical books during the  recent holiday period.

Carolyn and Katie Clapham opened Storytellers, Inc. in the seaside town of St Annes in Lancashire in 2010. At the end of last year the mother-and-daughter team expanded their popular children's book shop into a 'book place for everyone,' stocking everything from YA through to adult fiction and non-fiction. They are now anticipating a busy year ahead.

The shop's original aim was to provide children with a welcoming environment in which to meet, read and play.  Creative director Katie, formerly production editor of a medical journal, works with local schools on writing and reading projects. Managing director Carolyn took the plunge into business after more than twenty years experience at a senior level in the civil service and in the private sector.

The owners are very proud of their professional calendar of children's illustrators, which takes pride of place in the shop window.  Now in its third year, the calendar features many pieces of original artwork from award-winning illustrators and new industry talent.

Free illustrations were donated by  Emily Gravett, Steven Lenton, Tim Hopgood, Mini Grey, Chris Haughton, Lucy Cousins, Chris Judge, Mo Willems, Tom Percival, Rebecca Cobb and Lydia Monks to support The Illustrations Calendar 2015.  Every month the shop sends books and worksheets inspired by the illustrator of the month to participating schools in the area.  In addition several other  bookshops stock the calendar to run their own Illustrated Year project with school customers.

Carolyn and Katie also run a popular Fiction Book Club for adults where local readers meet to discuss their 'book of the month.' This month's choice is Naomi Wood's best-selling novel Mrs. Hemmingway, which brings to life in extraordinary detail the four wives of Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest writers of our time.

Naomi will be joining the book club's evening session to discuss her work.  Members pay £7 (including the book rrp £7.99) and non members are also welcome for a £4 entrance fee. Storytellers, Inc. also run two junior book clubs, a teen club and a group for adult readers who enjoy books written for a slightly younger audience.

Meanwhile the shop is championing the new World Book Day award which celebrates reading for pleasure in schools. Five schools will get the opportunity to win up to £10,000 worth of books for their libraries, thanks to the generosity of James Patterson, author of the popular Middle School series.

Carolyn believes that children love to touch and feel books. 'If they are introduced to reading at an early age it can be an interest that lasts a lifetime,' she says. 'We hope as many families as possible will be visiting their local bookshops during 2015.'

I hope so too.

Storytellers, Inc.


Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Read this letter - it might make you want to write your own!

'I have made such a nice little purchase today - two little girls of seven years old, rather ugly, and one of them dumb.'

This startling letter was written in 1839 by a Emily Eden, a respected upper class English lady, whilst staying  in Calcutta with her brother who was Governor General of India at the time. The  content is  truly shocking, not but just because it seems barbaric by today's standards, but because as an articulate  means of communication, it is a lesson to us all.

Whilst doing some research into the lost art of letter-writing recently, I came across my original copy of Olga Kenyon's fascinating book  800 Years of Women's letters which is packed so full of revealing epistles that would be impossible to read in one sitting.

Eden goes on to say : The natives constantly adopt orphans - either distant relations or children that they buy - and generally they make no difference between them and their own children; but these little wretches were very unlucky. Describing their sorry state she adds: they have not a stitch of clothes on and one of them is rather an object, the man has beat them so dreadfully, and she seems stupefied.'

In an illuminating foreword to the book author P.D.James, the prolific crime writer who died at the end of last year, writes: 'No literary form is more revealing, more spontaneous or more individual than a letter.'

In this book you can find letters from Elizabeth 1, Queen Victoria, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf in correspondence with each other, and Florence Nightingale exclaiming 'There is not an official who would not burn me like Joan of Arc if he could, but they know the War Office cannot turn me out because the country is with me.'

All this leads me to think that letter writing is an art that has been lost altogether by today's generation.  Not unlike a short story or piece of prose, the letter of the nineteenth century, for example, was full of imagery, description, consideration, prophecy, indignation, love, pain and a whole host of emotions that we seem to have lost the ability to describe.

I still have copies of the letters I sent to my own grandparents when I was a small child which inevitably started with I hope you are well and went on to describe whatever it was that I had done at home or at school that week.   The letters sometimes took hours to perfect, but they were carried to the letterbox with a strong feeling of pride and satisfaction.  Was this, then, the beginning of my story telling?

And if people are no longer writing letters, but just texting 'RU ok? CU 2nite,' how will they elucidate their feelings in the future?

Instead of making teenage pupils learn about subjects that have long ceased to be relevant to their lives, how about getting them to write letters: letters to themselves, to their families, letters to politicians, to people they admire, to world leaders, to anyone they feel could make an impact on the future.  What do you think?

My original version of the book which has been reprinted many times.
It is still available from the link below.

Emily Eden's  letter, part of which is reprinted above, was first published in her book Up the Country, Letters from India: 1983 (Virago Travellers)


Monday, 5 January 2015

The year I (almost) forgot how to write..

The year I became an author was the year I forgot how to write. Well, almost.

I've been an avid writer since the day I could hold a pen and, after a career as a freelance journalist, had one more dream to fulfil: to become a published author. In 2014 that dream came true with the publication of Baggy Pants and Bootees, a time slip novel about one girl's  search for her GI father. And that's when the problem started.

So what exactly became  more important than writing? First of all there was the advance publicity. Not too difficult, you might think, for someone with my background.  But writing about what's going on in the world and writing about yourself are, well, very different things.

My mother always told me not to blow my own trumpet (fortunately I'm not musical) so self promotion is not on my list of inherent characteristics. Neither is emailing friends and family (and anyone else I can think of) to tell them about my latest career move.

And why did no-one explain to me that twitter, unlike its name,  was anything but frivolous and took longer to build an audience than a busker in a snowstorm. Social media  became social mediation in our house as my on-line presence almost  trebled overnight. 'I'm writing,' I would assure my other half when he caught me logging on at 3am. But then how could I ignore that lovely lady in California who just might want to hear about my forthcoming tome? Or the facebook friend who remembered me from A-level English? Maybe she was ready to rediscover her love of reading? Was it any wonder that I got my 'likes' mixed up with my 'follows' - a very dangerous thing to do, apparently.

What happened next? Well, the novel was published in e-book format and gradually started to climb the Amazon charts. This was when a 'card' ceased to be simply something I bought for a birthday and became an acronym for Checking the Amazon Ratings Daily. Believe me, it can be very time-consuming.

On top of that, I had nothing to show my friends and family; no physical book (yet) with its carefully designed cover, no bookshop window to gaze in, no 'personal' gifts to post to my friends...Instead I had to carry on 'marketing' which, according to my publisher was the best thing a 'novice' novelist could do.

So, I got myself invited to some lovely book clubs, gave  talks here and there, featured on a few blogs, (yes-even got myself on the radio) did some more marketing and caught up with my reading.

Finally it was time to launch the paperback. What a wonderful moment that was. I could tell you all about it but I've still got some more marketing to do...And I'm sure there's something else on my list of New Year's resolutions.

Oh yes - I must remember to write.