The Meaning of ‘Arpeggio’

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The dog has a pretty good vocabulary, considering that he is, after all, a dog. For a long time I thought he understood only simple, single words such as ‘sit’, ‘down’ and ‘no’. Then, a few months ago, I saw him trying to get into the kitchen. The door in front of him was shut, but I knew that around the other side of the kitchen there was an open door. Without thinking, I said, ‘Go round – the other one’s open.’ He looked at me with complete comprehension, nodded and then turned, trotted purposefully away and disappeared into the kitchen through the open door at the other end. I sat, open-mouthed, listening to the familiar sound of him jumping up at the kitchen worktops. Was it a coincidence? Was there one word in the sentence that he’d latched on to – or had he understood the whole thing? Since then I’ve seen him respond in a similar way to other sentences, so I’m pretty sure that he understands a lot more than he should. Mind you – he is exposed to a lot of complex language. I never talk down to him as if he is just – a dog. I chat to him, the same as I would to anyone else.

Children also need to be exposed to a lot of language to extend their vocabularies. There’s been a lot of talk about this recently amongst the children’s writers’ community, and mainly because of the acceptance speech that Geraldine McCaughrean made, when she received this year’s CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature. In her speech, she spoke at length about what she perceived as the ‘dumbing down’ of children’s books, by publishers. She said that, in her opinion, without exposure to complex language children would have ‘brains far less receptive to the acquisition of vocabulary’. I think that she is completely right. As she said, ‘we master words by meeting them’.

My first memory of wanting to read by myself, is that of sitting up in bed holding a Paddington book. I think it may have been ‘Paddington Abroad’, as that was always (and still is), my favourite Paddington chapter book. I couldn’t wait until I was capable of reading the words myself, rather than having to wait until a grown-up had some time free to read it to me.

The reason I was so keen to read the Paddington books, was the type of language used – I loved it! In writing the books, Michael Bond hadn’t ‘written down’ to children, but rather, had used the language that I imagine he would have used in any situation, whether children were there or not. Words such as ‘itinerary’, ‘consult’, ‘particular’, ‘commissionaire’, ‘immigration’ and ‘circumstances’, were strewn happily across the pages, and I hoovered them all up, asking an adult to tell me what they meant when I needed to – but mostly working it out for myself by looking at the rest of the sentence and the context. It felt as though Michael Bond was writing the books as if I, and the other children who were reading them, were his intellectual equals. He trusted us to work it out for ourselves, as and when we needed to. Rather than changing the words to others that might have meant nearly the same thing, such as ‘ask’ instead of ‘consult’, or ‘doorman’ instead of ‘commissionaire’, he spoke to us on his own level, and in the process, gave the Paddington books their unique feel and a lot of humour, and gave us, the readers, a huge amount of new vocabulary. I even learnt my first French words from ‘Paddington Abroad’; they were ‘escargot’ and ‘gravillons’ and I’ve never forgotten them.

I was very pleased to see in the most recent, and sadly to be the last, Paddington picture book (a book aimed at children aged two and up), the use of the word ‘arpeggio’ – a word that I’m still not one hundred percent certain of the meaning of, despite my daughter’s violin lessons! But I can’t help wondering; if the author had been anyone other than Michael Bond, would the publisher have let him get away with including it?

But maybe what works for me – or the dog – isn’t right for everyone. Certainly there are children who need, or just prefer, a simpler structure; children who either want or need to be able to access the story easily, and without long words that they may find off-putting. To me, it seems very important to have both types of book available – some with, and some without, complex language and words that are likely to be unfamiliar. And why not – there’s plenty of room in the world for children with different needs and preferences, with varied senses of humour and dissimilar styles of learning – and hopefully plenty of room for a wide range of books… not to mention lots of different types of dogs, too.

…and if you can tell me the definition of ‘arpeggio’, please do!

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The Water Cooler

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Writing can be a lonely task. Sometimes I look at our dog and wonder if he occasionally finds his work lonely, as well. He is an only dog – he does get to meet lots of dogs when he goes out for walks, of course, but it’s not the same as having other dogs around all the time. Most of his ‘dog work’ – helping me to edit my writing, clearing up any crumbs on the floor, and making sure that all the food is stored safely in one place (his stomach), takes place without the aid of any furry friends to help him. With this in mind, a few weeks ago we took him to a Tibetan Terrier festival in Leicestershire, to give him a chance to meet loads of other dogs – all at once, and all roughly the same size as him. He had a wonderful time with all the other Tibetan Terriers who came along – playing, sniffing, and presumably working out which of the other dogs were his cousins, aunts and uncles. It was great fun to see so many of them having fun together in one place, but then we went back home and he returned to life as an ‘only dog’.

Writers often find themselves in a very similar situation. The majority of writers are ‘only writers’ – most households can’t afford to keep more than one at a time. Writers, after all, are expensive to feed, and notorious for polishing off the coffee supplies at lightning speed. With a dog, you can usually find a high cupboard where expensive food and beverages can be placed out of reach, but it’s not often so with writers.

It’s true that most writers love spending time alone – and we probably need to like doing that at least a little bit, in order to get any writing done at all. But there comes a time, at least once a day, when you stare at the laptop and think, ‘Is this right? I need someone else’s opinion’. If I was still working in an office, I’d just poke my head through my colleague’s door, or maybe wander along to the kitchen or the water cooler, to see who was taking a break and might be prepared to listen to whatever I’m stuck on. But when you’re the only person in the house it’s not that easy, and this was something that I struggled with when I first started writing – where to find colleagues who I could consult for advice, and who would understand what I was trying to do?

Then I discovered SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I can’t remember how I first came across it, but when I did, I joined straight away. It’s an amazing organisation, operating across the globe, but with regional chapters as well. Through their workshops, Facebook groups and critique groups, I was immediately put in touch with hundreds of other writers – some with years of experience as published authors behind them, and some, like me, just starting out, and many of them have become friends. All of a sudden I had a water cooler to go to, whenever I needed to, and it’s completely changed the speed at which I learn as a writer. There are just so many people to learn from!

So if you’re a writer, and you haven’t already joined a writer’s group, club or society, consider doing it – you might find yourself wondering how you ever managed to lift a pen, or switch on a laptop without it!

 

Abracadabra! Magic in children’s books

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Dogs believe very firmly in magic – if I pretend to pull a treat out from behind my dog’s ear, he will truly believe that that is where I found it. And if I make something ‘disappear’ by hiding it under a cup, then he is confident that I have made it vanish for ever (in case you’re wondering – no, he didn’t pass this particular test in ‘Measure Your Dog’s IQ’!). If I could make the chair levitate several inches off the kitchen floor he would accept it as just another one of my amazing skills, probably without even batting an eyelid.

A bit like when my children were small and magic tricks were ‘magic’, but not ‘tricks’ – just truly magical. There’s a lot of magic in children’s literature, and fantasy is one of the most popular children’s genres with good reason. We all love a bit of escapism, but often for a child, the magic in the books they read is real. When I was small and reading the E. Nesbit books, I believed that there was really no reason why I couldn’t find my own sand-fairy to give me three wishes, if I looked hard enough in the right places. Maybe even a phoenix and a magic carpet, to take me on my own adventures. Because of this, I think that when writing for Middle Grade children or lower, there’s an important thing to remember – for the child reading a fantasy book, the magic might be real – and why shouldn’t it be? – So it helps to make it realistic!

All the children’s books I’ve written or am currently working on – whether chapter books for 7 to 10s or Middle Grade for slightly older readers – feature magic in some way, but usually set into an otherwise very commonplace world. I love the idea that, like in E. Nesbit’s books, we can have what at first glance appears to be a normal, everyday modern setting, where the characters are believable children who do normal things and use ‘down-to-earth’ language, but as you get into the story you find that there are elements of their world that are magical – whether this is a sand-fairy, a phoenix, a flying carpet, or – in my case – a magic bronze pendant. These magical items or characters lift the reader out of the ‘normal’ world and into a new, exciting place where anything may become possible – and believable. And you never know – for some children, this might make any difficulties that they are experiencing in the ‘real’ world, easier to cope with.

Looking to the Future

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Sometimes, when I’m having a bit of a ‘down-day’ on the writing front, I think about the possibility that I may never get a children’s book traditionally published. When this happens the dog always jumps in (literally, usually!), and with a few kind licks, assures me that I’ll get there in the end. Then he settles down next to me, rests his chin on his paws, and gives me a look of reassuring confidence. However, despite his earnest assurances, it remains a possibility that traditional publishing may permanently elude me.

In my experience, writers all have wobbles – days when that we’re writing seems rubbish; when we might have had one too many rejections come bouncing into our inboxes, or maybe a less-than-perfect review. On these days, it seems that traditional publication will never happen. We’re all aware that for some of us this will be true, but it’s impossible to say whether that unfortunate group will include us or not.

When a day like this comes along, I try to think about why I’m really writing in the first place – is my main aim to be traditionally published? Well, it would be wonderful, but surprisingly, no, it isn’t the main reason I write! Do I want children to read the books I’ve written and self-published, enjoy them and find themselves drawn into another world as they read? Well, yes, I do! And what about the books I’ve written but not self-published, and not yet found a traditional publisher for? Well, I think it would be nice to think that in the future – maybe a few generations into the future, even – my descendants might dig them out of a dusty, old box in the loft, read them and enjoy them.

I can imagine the scene – my great-great-grandchildren, sat around in their futuristic living room, holographic screens hovering magically before their eyes. Suddenly another great-great-grandson shimmers into the room, silver future-suit all agleam, and makes an announcement. ‘Hey, guys, look at this!’

The rest of them raise their eyebrows quizzically, and then look with distaste at the dusty bundle being held aloft. ‘Ew! What’s that? It looks all dirty!’

‘No, this is really interesting – I’ve found some stories written by great-great-grandma Rosevear, up in the loft. Look, they’re printed on paper and everything!’

They lean forwards. ‘Paper? You mean what they used even before ebooks came along? Not a hollo-book?’

He brandishes the bundle and dust showers onto the floor, before being rapidly sucked up by an eager housework-bot. ‘Yes. People could print stuff off onto paper whenever they wanted, in those days. Paper wasn’t rare like it is today… I think in those days there were still trees growing in some areas, even – waiting to be made into paper.’

They nod sagely. ‘Oh, yes! Of course that was before World President Trump cut them all down to build the Space Fence… So, what are these stories about?’

He passes the pages round, and they all marvel at the feel of the sheets between their fingers, before squinting their eyes up to read them. ‘Hey,’ someone says in a moody tone. ‘The back-light isn’t working on this page!’ He bends lower in an effort to read it.

After a few minutes one of them puts their paper carefully down on the floating coffee table, next to the cup recylcator. ‘I like this stuff – her stories are quite good!’

‘Yes,’ chimes in someone else. ‘I wonder why she didn’t let a publisher make it into a paper book – you know those fiddly ones they had with lots of bits of paper stuck together?’

‘Oh, yes’, says another. ‘She really should have thought of doing that. I guess she didn’t want to. But maybe, if she could write stories like this in the olden days, we can do it now! Someone pass me my hollopad and thought-transcriber – I’m going to make a start right now!’

A buzz of excitement goes round the room as they all consider the possibility of writing their own stories…

Hmm… If I can give a good reading experience to some children right now, with my self-published books, that’s great – but if I can also leave a legacy of stories for future generations of my family to enjoy, then that will be even better!

Gold dust – learning from other writers

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Since I started writing children’s books, I’ve been casting around for some good advice about how to write more effectively, and some of it has come from unexpected places. Often it’s the dog who gives me the best advice, as you might have picked up from previous posts. In fact, without his input, I don’t think I would have been able to write anything at all; even though at the moment he is gazing out of the window, lost in thought and doubtless planning his own novel.

Recently however, some of the most useful tips I’ve picked up have come from writers that I hadn’t read for many years, and a short time ago I read two really helpful books, which I have reviewed below.

The first one is ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’ by Terry Pratchett (Doubleday, 2014), the famous English fantasy author, who sadly died last year. I’d read some of his Discworld novels a few years ago, but I found ‘A Slip of the Keyboard’, very different; to start with, it isn’t a novel, but a collection of essays giving his views on everything including writing, animals, and death. Amongst it all, I found some wonderful tips for writers, including his views on what you should read in order to improve your writing, what fantasy is, and how difficult it is to write humour well.

The second author I came across with a wealth of brilliant tips for writers was Stephen King. I’d read some Stephen King books as a teenager, and had found them entertaining, but I hadn’t read one for years. Then another writer recommended that I read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King (Scribner, 2000), so I gave it a go. It was a fascinating book which is roughly divided into three sections. The first section is really autobiography, and includes Stephen King’s childhood, how he started writing, and how he dealt with those inevitable, initial rejections before hitting the big time. The second section is his advice to writers, which is very extensive, but includes his views on different forms of dialogue attribution, and the use of ‘show not tell’. The third section of the book talks about a terrible accident that he was involved in, how he dealt with it, and finally recovered from it, and, ultimately, how he then returned to writing.

If you find particular writers inspiring, or have picked up brilliant writing tips from other books, let me know! And good luck to the dog, with his novel – or whatever else he’s planning – as he sits there lost in thought. I hope he’ll decide to go for it – just so long as it doesn’t involve tearing anything up!

Braving the Spiders

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Recently, I got a bit stuck with the plot for my new children’s book, and started casting around for inspiration. I had my inspiration box to give me some ideas (see https://catherinerosevear.wordpress.com/2018/01/19/the-inspiration-box/), but I was still unsure how to move on. Looking through the bookcase, I started seeking for books that I hadn’t seen for a while, and then I remembered – loads of them were still in the boxes they’d gone into when we moved house a few years ago, and they were… horror of horrors… in the loft.

I don’t like the loft. To start with, there are spiders up there, and I’m scared of spiders. Secondly, the loft ladder is quite wobbly, and when it’s in position, it’s immediately at the top of the stairs. On the rare occasions when I’ve been up there, I quite like another adult to be not only in the house, but standing on the stairs holding the phone, with their finger hovering over the ‘9’ button, just in case I plummet the full depth of the stairwell to an almost certain doom. But, there were certainly a lot of boxes of books up there, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to have a look at them. Hmm, I thought – maybe I should be brave and go up for a rummage about.

I waited until another adult was in the house and then told the dog my intentions. He seemed interested in the idea that there might be another room in the house. Could he come too? I explained that it would be best if he waited downstairs for me to return from this dangerous expedition, but I agreed that if I found any dog biscuits up there, I’d bring them back for him.

The loft ladder came wobbling down and I climbed apprehensively up it, fumbling around for the light switch at the top. The dog watched from the hallway, fascinated, as I disappeared into the unknown. For him, it was as if I was climbing the ladder at the top of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree, to see what strange magical land would be there. He could only hope that I’d come back down before the land moved on, sweeping me away, never to return.

Clambering from the top of the ladder onto the loft floor, I suddenly remembered another reason why I didn’t like it up there – it’s not an easy space to walk around; the head height is designed for hobbits, and the width of the boarded-out floor is ideal if you are the same width as a pencil. Certainly there was no room to turn around. I glanced about apprehensively, checking for cobwebs. I couldn’t see any blocking my route to the books at the far end of the wooden boards, but you could never be too careful. I started inching my way along until, finally, I reached the boxes I wanted. They were covered in dust and pretty battered, but I pulled the first one towards me, opened it and looked inside. Hmm, there were quite a few books in there that I’d forgotten I had. I put my hand in and then pulled it immediately out again. What was that?! Something had crawled over my hand!

A careful look showed that the box was half full of books and half full of flies – recently woken from hibernation, by the look of it, and not best pleased about it either. I wrapped a scarf round my hand and, grimacing, pushed my hand back in. I pulled books out as quickly as I could. Once I’d got a good haul, I tucked them under my arm and started reversing back down the loft towards the ladder, bent double so as not to bang my head on the roof. It felt as though I was bowing my way out of a royal presence.

There was a temporary glitch at the top of the ladder, when my hair got caught in some fly paper. I made a big effort not to panic, yanked my head away and started down the rickety ladder, the precious books held tight. As the dog watched me slowly returning from ‘Loftland’, his eyes grew wider than I’d ever seen them before, and as soon as I was back downstairs, he sniffed my ankles keenly. Wherever had I been, and thank goodness I was safe! But, more importantly, did I find any biscuits up there?

Once the ladder had been put away, I settled down on the sofa to see what I’d got. I seemed to have found some great, if quite dusty, books – there was a nice copy of The Voyage of the Beagle’ by Charles Darwin; ‘The Complete Illustrated Stories of Sherlock Holmes’ by Conan Doyle; a big, colourful book called ‘The Pirates’, that had previously belonged to my granddad, and finally, a huge hardback containing the William Morris Kelmscott Chaucer, which was full to the brim with prints of fantastic woodcut illustrations and illuminated letters. I hadn’t seen these books for years – it was like having a birthday! Plenty of reading to keep me going for a good while anyway – or at least until I came up with some more plot ideas for my own book!

‘Telegram for Catherine’ – Why have I got so many messaging services?

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As a children’s writer, I spend a lot of time communicating with other writers, schools, and the publisher for my self-published books. But I often think that I spend too much time reading and sending messages and emails. A while ago, I looked at my mobile phone and realised that almost the entire top two rows of icons were messaging services of various kinds, and it made me think about how much time each day I spend reading emails, texts, etc. I started wondering if they were all really necessary, and I had a look at which ones I had. There were text messages and emails (of course!), but also Messenger, Facebook notifications, ParentMail, Ebay notifications, WhatsApp, Twitter notifications and finally Voicemail (in case anyone should actually want to physically speak to me). A lot of them double up as well – if there are several Twitter notifications I haven’t opened yet, Twitter will send me an admonishing email telling me to look at them, and so will Facebook, ParentMail and Ebay. A lot of these notifications pop up as banners on the home screen of my phone, as well, just to make sure I don’t miss them – or at least they used to, until I realised that I could turn them off in settings. But there are so many, it’s hard to keep track.

The other day my phone started making pinging noises, which is unusual; I don’t normally like my phone to make a noise unless someone is actually ringing me. When I looked at the home screen, there right in the middle, was a notification instructing me to look at my ‘news’ app. Why? If I’ve got time on my hands and I want to read the news, I’ll do it without being prompted, thank you very much!

Sometimes it feels as though I’m a slave to all these various methods of communication, and although I can appreciate that it’s necessary, and a lot of the messages are ones that I want or need to see, it really does seem a bit much sometimes. I can’t help wondering if the great and powerful now employ not only a PA, but an additional full-time PA, whose sole job is to monitor and respond to all the various messages that arrive, every second of the day.

The dog has no such problems managing his incoming communications, or indeed, his outgoing ones. He occasionally receives cards in the post for his birthday, and when he does, he absolutely loves reading the cards and ripping up the envelopes, but usually the only communication he finds acceptable, is face-to-face. If a member of the family is away and rings up in the evening to say hello to everyone, we often hold the phone to the dog’s ear, so the absent family member can chat to him. He doesn’t think much of this at all, and will usually narrow his eyes suspiciously at the sound of the disembodied voice, before huffing loudly and stalking away to a quieter part of the room. Not for him, the task of checking and responding to messages and emails each morning – he can just get straight on to his mid-morning nap.

I’m sure that in the ‘olden days’ people weren’t bombarded with messages all the time, and they all seemed to survive well enough, most of the time. In many of the black and white films I’ve seen, boys in smart uniforms were often to be seen wandering around the lobbies of fancy hotels, shouting ‘Telegram for Mr Brown, telegram for Mr Brown!’ Of course, Mr Brown, if located, would usually give the telegram boy a generous tip for his trouble, but everyone seemed to find it perfectly acceptable that there would be some messages that they wouldn’t get until later, if then.

When I was a child most people, but not everyone, had a land-line. The hand-set for this would be rented at an astronomical cost, from the phone company, and it would sit regally on a table in the hall, from which it could never be moved. But when you were out and about, no one could get in touch with you at all. I can remember SOS messages being broadcast on Radio 4, usually along the lines of asking if Mr John Smith could please get in touch with Central Hospital, where his brother was seriously ill. I always hoped that the right person heard the message, but I knew that, sadly, there was a very good chance that many of them never did. Similarly, when, in my early twenties, I came back to London after six weeks in Thailand, I felt quite apprehensive on the plane – what if there had been a family tragedy while I’d been away? I’d had no communication with anyone in England for weeks; anything could have happened.

Thinking back to those days, I realise that instant and constant communication can be a very good and helpful thing, but surely there’s a limit somewhere to how much time each day I should spend keeping on top of it all? Anyway, enough ranting on – I can see from my phone’s home screen, that while I’ve been writing this I’ve received twelve emails – I’d better go and read them all!

Character development in children’s writing – how hard can it be?

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Something I’ve been struggling with lately, in writing, is character development. Recently, I sent off a manuscript to an agent, but instead of getting back the standard ‘your manuscript is not right for us’, email, this time I got a more detailed response. This agent told me that she liked the idea and the writing, but she found the main character boring. What? I was astounded! What was wrong with my main character? But I had another read through the manuscript and after a few hard looks at it, I had to admit that she could be right – the personality of the main character wasn’t really that interesting, and I wasn’t always making it clear why she behaved as she did.

How could I do something about this? Luckily, I had just joined a writer’s critique group, so I took the manuscript along, and got some good feedback. When I got home I re-wrote the manuscript with the suggested changes, but it still felt as though something was missing. I had another think about it, and realised that I didn’t really know what made my main character tick at all. I had to do something about this, but what?

Browsing around for advice from other writers, I came across a really useful Facebook thread that dealt with how writers can get to know their main characters, and it gave a suggestion that I thought I could try, even though it sounded strange… The advice was to interview your character.

Hmm. But, how can you interview someone who doesn’t really exist?

Various people contributed to the thread, and suggested questions to think about – what response would your main character be most likely to give? Some of the questions were –

  • What are their favourite and least favourite foods?
  • Are they neat and tidy, or a bit messy?
  • Are they quite uptight and controlling or a bit more free and easy?
  • How would they react to waiting in a bus queue?
  • What do they do to recharge their batteries?
  • What do they keep in their pockets?
  • If they had a magic wand, what would they wish for?
  • What do they want more than anything else?
  • Where is their favourite place?
  • What is their ideal job?
  • What does their bedroom look like?
  • What is their favourite animal and why?
  • What is their biggest regret?
  • What lies do they tell themselves, and why?

I decided that I would have a go at it, but before I could get started, the dog suggested that I should try the questions out on him, first.

Hmm, right, okay…

  • Q. So, what are some of your favourite and least favourite foods?
  • A. What do you mean by favourite? All food is great, isn’t it?
  • Q. Are you neat and tidy, or messy?
  • A. Tidy, of course. What do you mean, my toys are all over the floor!
  • Q. Are you controlling or easy-going?
  • A. Easy-going – unless there’s food involved!
  • Q. How would you react to waiting in a bus queue?
  • A. I don’t think I’d have any problem with that at all – so long as there are plenty of people to make a fuss of me, while I’m waiting – and maybe some snacks to keep me going.
  • Q. How do you recharge your batteries?
  • A. Plenty of beauty-sleep, and as much food as I can get!
  • Q. What do you keep in your pockets?
  • A. Are you serious?!
  • Q. Hmm. Moving on… If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for?
  • A. More food… and the chance to chew the wand.
  • Q. What do you want more than anything else?
  • A. A few moments alone with the kitchen bin.
  • Q. Where is your favourite place?
  • A. In the pub, having a huge meal, with a few ice-cubes to refresh my palate between courses.
  • Q. What is your ideal job?
  • I’ve always thought I’d make an excellent sheriff dog. I certainly suit the hat!
  • Q. Really, I didn’t know that! Anyway, next question – what does your bedroom look like?
  • A. You’re standing in it – some ill-informed people call it the kitchen.
  • Q. What is your favourite animal?
  • A. Me!
  • Q. What is your biggest regret?
  • A. Not rushing quickly enough to eat that pie that fell on the floor, before it was taken away.
  • Q. What lies do you tell yourself?
  • A. I never tell lies – I’m always a good boy. Can I have a treat now?

Right – that’s the dog done. Now it’s time to get to know my main character…

 

(With thanks to Jenny Shippen, Michele Simonsen, Mandy Rabin, James Nicol, Andrew Guile, Kathryn Evans, Emma O’Brien, Tracey Mathias Potter, Kathryn Kettle Williams, and everyone else I may have missed, who contributed to Jenny’s original SCBWI British Isles Facebook post).

The Beano – Eighty Years Young

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A few years ago, the dog, along with my son, achieved a level of fame that they had previously only dreamt about; they had their picture printed on the letters page of The Beano! Outside the UK, it’s possible that quite a few people exist who have never heard of The Beano, so for their benefit, I’ll clarify that it is a children’s comic – but not just any old children’s comic.

The Beano, published by DC Thomson, has actually been around since before the Second World War. Although we have a lot of old copies of The Beano in our house, I certainly don’t have an original copy of issue Number One, from 30th July 1938. In fact, a couple of years ago, I saw a newspaper article which reported that a first issue had sold at auction for £17,000! However, I do have a reproduction of this first issue, which DC Thomson produced in 2003, to mark this iconic comic’s 65th anniversary. It’s an interesting read; there are some aspects of the first issue, such as some references which we would now consider racist, which would, quite rightly, never be included in a modern-day comic. Also, the threats of being ‘whacked’ with a parent’s slipper or the teacher’s cane, which was often featured in the issues I read in the 1970s and 80s, are also, thankfully, long-gone. But although much of the comic has changed, and only one original character is still featured (Lord Snooty), some of the long-forgotten personalities such as ‘Big Eggo’ the ostrich, ‘Uncle Windbag’ and ‘Whoopee Hank, the Slap-dash Sheriff’ still look fun today.

Today’s cover star in The Beano, is Dennis the Menace; he has ruled the roost on page one since the 1950s, and has since been joined by his dog, Gnasher (an Abyssian Wire-haired Tripe Hound who arrived in the 1960s), his pig, Rasher (who first appeared in the 1970s) and his little sister, Bea (who came along in the 1990s). In my house, the dog rather fancies himself as Gnasher, and in all fairness, he does look quite a bit like him when his fur is nearly ready for a trim… even more so, when he’s wearing the traditional menacing colours of red and black stripes.

Why has The Beano been successful for so long? As a writer this question interests me, because when you write something, it’s important to remember how quickly it might become dated, if you’re not careful. Looking at The Beano, I think it’s because the main characters in the first issue made their mark with the pre-war kids of the day by cheering on cheekiness, and ensuring that the kids in the comic-strips always challenged the authority of the adults. They didn’t usually win in the end, but at least they enjoyed themselves trying! This is something that kids through the ages have always loved. Also, it’s a comic that has managed to move with the times without losing its intrinsic sense of fun. My children look forward to ‘Beano day’ with as much enthusiasm as I did in the 1970s.

In 2013, DC Thomson put on an exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London, to celebrate the comic’s 75th anniversary. It was great, and I think I enjoyed it as much as the children did. Incredibly, this year will be the comic’s 80th anniversary. I can hardly believe that it has been going for that long, and can only hope that DC Thomson will take the opportunity to put on some more Beano-themed events. For myself, I’m wondering what they will do to celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2038 – now that will really be something to write a blog-post about!

 

Clothes Shopping for Dogs

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I don’t know why, but recently I’ve had a fancy for buying clothes for the dog. I’ve always hated seeing animals dressed up, and I definitely won’t be buying him any fancy-dress outfits or little boots (not this year, anyway!). A few months ago I’d bought my dog a rain coat, and very useful it is too, especially as his fur is so thick and takes so long to dry out. But I’d never before considered buying him something non-practical to wear…

I’d recently finished the latest round of edits on a new story I was writing, so I decided to have a few days break from the lap-top, before starting on it all again. Taking the dog out for a walk, I saw a local dog walk by, wearing a jumper, and I was struck by how nice he looked. I checked online, and within a very short time had ordered a bandana in a rather fetching red and white paisley print. When it arrived I put it on the dog straight away; he looked fantastic. I took a photo of him, and it was a good thing I did – only a few days later, I accidentally left the bandana lying around on the coffee table, and it was spotted, picked up and torn up into a hundred pieces within about five seconds. Maybe he didn’t like my taste in fabric patterns, and if so, fair enough, but I persevered and sent away for another one – red with white stars this time, and this one hasn’t – as yet – been chewed up.

I turned my attention to other dog clothing, and, it being close to Christmas, decided that I’d like to get him a Christmas jumper. Asking around, I heard that the pet shop attached to my local garden centre had some Christmas jumpers for dogs in stock, and so a few days later we both hopped into the car and drove over to have a look.

The dog was excited as soon as we got out of the car, and as he dragged me into the shop, I heard a lady in the car park remark, ‘He’s in a hurry!’ He certainly was – there were so many toys, chews, and bags of dog food to be investigated, and he wanted to get on with it straight away. A large, blue parrot watched our sudden entry suspiciously, from his perch on top of the till. Holding the lead as firmly as I could, I reined the dog in, and, still with one eye on the parrot, asked an assistant if they had any Christmas jumpers in stock. Apparently, they did. The assistant led us to a stand covered in festive woollies, but I was a bit concerned that they all looked a bit small. What size did he think my furry friend would need, I enquired. Drawing himself up to his full height, and brushing some dust off his invisible lapels in the manner of a Saville Row tailor, the assistant told me that my companion would need to be measured. He spun on his heel and swept away, returning moments later with a tape measure. I watched with interest as he instructed his client to stand still. There was a brief tussle, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was a good thing he only needed to measure the dog’s back; if he’d tried to get his inside leg measurements, there might have had a lot more trouble. Eventually, wiping the sweat from his brow, he told me that we would require a jumper between eighteen and twenty inches long. We had a look; which one would fit him? But what a shame – they were all too small.

Never mind, there was another garden centre, with yet another pet shop, only a short drive away. We thanked the assistant and jumped back into the car.

Going into the next shop, I made the mistake of stopping just inside the door to have a look at a stand covered in dog calendars and diaries. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the dog starting to lift his leg against a Springer Spaniel calendar, and I pulled him away, just in time. This trip really wasn’t turning out to be as relaxing as I’d imagined. Again, I asked an assistant if they had any Christmas jumpers in stock, and again, we were escorted to the right isle. At first it looked like there were only a few jumpers on display, and I thought we might be disappointed, but the assistant reassured us that she had loads more in the back, and she rushed away. When she came back she was carrying a huge black bin-bag which was stuffed full of jumpers, and she tipped them all out onto the floor at our feet. There was an amazing selection – some had reindeers on, some holly, some bells and some Father Christmas. I picked one up to read the label, but what a shame – these ones weren’t sized in inches but were labelled, small, medium, large, etc. Yet again, I didn’t know what size he would need.

I thought the dog was probably medium-sized, so I picked up a medium jumper and held it up against him; it was tiny. Medium indeed – maybe for a cat! The assistant saw the problem and immediately asked if he could try some on. Could he? Yes, of course he could, but getting him into clothes that I hadn’t yet paid for, without him snatching playfully at them with his sharp teeth, was another matter. Again, the assistant came to our rescue. Would it help if she fed him treats to keep him still, while I wrangled his front legs through the arm holes? The dog nodded enthusiastically. He was pretty sure that it would help a lot.

After emptying the best part of a pot of treats, he was finally dressed in a jumper that fitted him. It was labelled ‘XXXL’, which seemed incredible, as he is only slightly bigger than a spaniel. Surely, factories would never dream of labelling human clothes so inaccurately; I certainly would think twice about buying a clothing brand in which I only fitted into ‘XXXL’. The dog, thankfully, didn’t seem concerned about it, and he trotted happily alongside his new best friend, as she made her way back to the tills, treat pot in hand.

When we got home we tried it on again, and he certainly looked festive. Now, outing over, it’s back to the laptop for a bit more editing. Or should I just have another quick look online, first… Who knows what else I might find to add to his wardrobe!