The Language Time-Machine

Writer and lexicographer John Ayto gives us a glimpse into  The Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins, a fascinating insight into words and where they came from

Have you got a tabby cat? Brown or grey with dark stripes? If you have, do you know why it’s called a tabby? If not, you could guess a thousand times and never find the reason:

Many hundreds of years ago there was an Arab prince called Attab. He had a palace in Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, and the area round the palace was called Al-attabiya, in his honour. They made cloth there, and the cloth came to be known in Arabic as attabi. French took the word over, as tabis, and applied it to a sort of rich silk material. By the 17th century fashionable gentlemen in England were wearing this cloth, which they called tabby. They had their waistcoats made of it, and they were especially fond of ones with a stripy pattern. People must have thought these men with their striped stomachs looked a bit like striped cats, because by the 1660s the word tabby was being applied to the cats.

We use the words of our language to mean what they mean NOW, at the present time – it would be terribly confusing if we didn’t. But words have a life of their own, stretching back into the past – some just a few months long, but others many thousands of years, when they could look very different and mean something very different from what they do now. Finding out about them can be like wriggling down a wormhole to a different time, and discovering what sort of things people did and thought about back then.

Take the words we use for food and drink. There are an awful lot of them. Some of them are fairly new, like blondie and smoothie, but there’s a handful of words that transport us back over 8000 years to the times of our distant Indo-European ancestors, who lived in the lands north of the Black Sea: ale, apple, bean, dough, honey, leek, loaf, meat, milk, oats, wheat. They’re all words that had their origins at the very root of our language. We need to be a little careful with them, because they didn’t all mean what they mean now: the ancient ancestor of English apple, for example, meant simply ‘fruit’, and the ancestor of meat meant ‘food’. But they give us a window on the sort of diet – nourishing and healthy, but perhaps not very varied or exciting by modern standards – that people had in those days.

What do words tell us about the sort of domestic animals the Indo-Europeans had? Well, they certainly kept cattle, sheep, pigs and geese, because several modern English words for them can be traced back to those earliest times: cow, ox, ewe, sow, swine and goose (as well as beef – which comes ultimately from the same Indo-European word as cow – and pork). They also had horses (although the only traces of their word for ‘horse’ in modern English are equestrian and equine), and they seem to have had domesticated dogs (the word hound goes back to those times). However, they didn’t know anything about donkeys, chickens or cats: we can tell that because none of the words for them in modern European languages date back that far.

That’s using our language time-machine to take us as far back as it’s possible to go. But we can also travel to the more recent past. For example, if we look at words relating to flying and aircraft in the early days of aviation, from the balloonists of the 18th century to the first powered flight at the beginning of the 20th century, we can see quite a few that were adopted into English from French, such as aeronaut, aeroplane, aileron, fuselage, hangar and nacelle. Why should that be? Well, many of the pioneers of flying were French, so many of the terms used to refer to it were created in French, and all English had to do was borrow them. The language opens a small window on the earliest days of a new technology, and suggests that at that time English-speakers viewed it as something coming from across the English Channel.

If you want to take a journey on the language time-machine yourself, why not try and use it to see how Arabic science, mathematics and technology had a great influence on Western nations in the Middle Ages*; how a word can tell us that our ancient ancestors had religious ceremonies involving blood sacrifice**; or what sound they thought best represented a twisting, turning movement***.

* Arabic, p.256

** bless

*** wrong

John Ayto is a freelance writer and lexicographer. He has written many reference works such as The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of Modern Slang, and the Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms. He was a contributor to the Oxford Companion of Food. John has always had a profound interest in language and cookery. He lives in London.

Word Origins The Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins is out now.

Houses built out of air

Julia LeeJulia Lee tells us about her love of atmospheric houses that feature in books she has enjoyed throughout her life, and which have helped inspire one of the key locations in her debut children’s novel, The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth.

It was one of the great disappointments of my childhood that I didn’t live in a house like Green Knowe. (Other disappointments were that I couldn’t fly, or talk to animals—at least, not so that they took any notice.)
But back to Green Knowe—an ancient house and garden by a river, full of history, magic, tame birds and friendly ghosts. When I found out that Lucy Boston, the author of The Children of Green Knowe, was describing the house where she actually lived, I couldn’t get over her luck—or my envy.

Green KnoweIllustrations of Green Knowe by Peter Boston.

I grew up in a modern semi, in a road of identical houses, on the outskirts of London. So disappointing when it came to exploration, although we tried! No secret passages, cobwebby cellars, or attics stuffed with generations of junk and the odd piece of hidden treasure. No ghosts, or time-warps back to previous eras, either— our home was brand-new when my family moved in. Whenever we went on a trip I’d gaze longingly out of car and train windows, and make up stories about what it would be like to live in the places we passed. Country cottages, mansions, follies, farms: they all fed my hungry imagination.

I think this was why I’ve always loved books that centre around a house. Old favourites include The Secret Garden’s Misselthwaite Manor, with its long corridors and haunting night-time crying. Or Helen Cresswell’s Moondial, where heroine Minty slips through time when she visits an old manor-house. Another time-shift story, Penelope Lively’s A Stitch In Time, features a Victorian house which has become a rather unloved seaside holiday-let—but I longed to stay there!

As I got older I enjoyed the spoof-spookiness of Northanger Abbey, and the wonderfully haunting Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, amongst many others. I still get excited when I discover another “house” novel I’ve missed, or a new one is published. They always set me wondering about the places that inspired their authors.

MenabillyMenabilly in Cornwall, one of the houses that went into Daphne Du Maurier’s creation of Manderley

Clemency WrigglesworthHardly surprising, then, that when it comes to my own writing, I really love being able to create a house—any house I want, anywhere I want—out of thin air. The Great Hall at the heart of The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wigglesworth looks “as if a child had tipped everything out of a brick-box, determined to build a house, however strange the result.” I wanted it to be rambling in the extreme, a hotch-potch of eras and architecture, with plenty of scope for secrets and hiding places.

I like touring old houses, and now I can call it research. Give me a guide-book that includes a floor-plan and I’m in heaven! But there are always areas that are off-limits. When I make up a house I can go into every room, and poke around the stairwells and cupboards and corners to my heart’s content.

West DeanThe walled kitchen garden at West Dean, with cottage and glass-houses.

Image: Jim Buckland.

As I worked out what my heroine Clemency got up to, first below stairs and then venturing beyond the servants’ quarters, I had no trouble picturing her surroundings. A pink drawing-room and a blue-drawing room; stuffed tigers and stuffed birds; a round tower full of trophies; a Victorian kitchen garden laid out with elaborate neatness. I may have overdone the double double staircase in the hall, though, as I can’t find anything quite so complicated in real life.

Winter PalaceHere’s a modest example: the Winter Palace, St Petersburg.

But then the Great Hall isn’t based on any real place. I enjoy making things up too much to limit myself to that. I’m sure that houses I’ve visited and read about and seen on screen have gone into the mix, with ideas and images stored somewhere in the back of my brain. Gosford Park and Brideshead Revisited, perhaps, though not Downton Abbey, as my book was completed before that ever came to our televisions.

I must say that the working parts of a big house—nurseries, kitchens, pantries, passages—fascinate me far more than the grand public rooms. Because I strongly suspect that had I lived in Victorian times, like Clemency, I would have been toiling away below-stairs, rather than lounging about above.

Julia LeeJulia Lee has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. She wrote her first book aged 5, mainly so that she could do all the illustrations with a brand-new 4-colour pen, and her mum stitched the pages together on her sewing machine. As a child she was ill quite a bit, which meant she spent lots of time lying in bed and reading (bliss!).

Julia grew up in London, but moved to the seaside to study English at university, and has stayed there ever since. Her career has been a series of accidents, discovering lots of jobs she didn’t want to do, because secretly she always wanted to be a writer.

 Julia is married, has two sons, and lives in Sussex.

 Find out more about Julia on Twitter.

The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth is out now. Clemency Wrigglesworth

NOTES ON IMAGE SOURCES

• Peter Boston illustrations: www.polymathperspective.com/?=175

• Photo of Menabilly: www.dumaurier.org/memories.html

• Winter Palace staircase: www.saint-petersberg.com/palaces/winter-palace

• The walled garden at West Dean College – image taken by Jim Buckland the Head Hardener at West Dean College, West Sussex

A brand new chapter for Frozen in Time!

FIT

Ali-Sparkes-001

It’s hard to believe that four and a half years have shot by since Frozen in Time was first published in January 2009. For its launch I dressed up in a 50s style frock and convinced my family to clothe themselves similarly (the menfolk objected but the frocks didn’t look bad), hired a Wurlitzer jukebox and got some dancers to jive around outside Waterstones in Southampton’s West Quay.

I had a really strong feeling about the book – that it would prove to be my bestseller to date. And I wasn’t wrong. It went into a second edition in its first week.

I’d spent a lot of time researching the story of Freddy and Polly, a brother and sister who are frozen in time, cryonically, by their genius scientist father—and then discovered in the 21st century by Ben and Rachel. Although the story is not set in the 1950s, Polly and Freddy have just stepped out of that time into now. For them, as they’re woken up, June 1956 was just yesterday.Polly

In the months spent writing it, I went onto BBC local radio and put a letter in the local paper, asking people to send me their memories of growing up in the 1950s. I believe the essence of all the letters and emails I received really added to the authenticity of Polly and Freddy.

But I had an even better ace up my sleeve. My mum and dad. Polly and Freddy are actually my mum and dad, you see. Kind of. Pauline and Frederick Sparkes (now aged 69 and 70) were aged 12 and 13 in 1956. What better source?

Here’s little Polly—actually somewhat younger than 13—around nine, I would guess. Like Polly in the story, my mum, by this stage, was growing up without a mum of her own. Hers died when she was nine and she was brought up, in part, by her older sisters, Rita and Pat. She felt that lack of maternal guidance very keenly and turned to a well-loved weekly paper for girls entitled GIRL for advice—which offered the ‘Mother Tells You How’ column. GIRL

Polly in Frozen in Time also reads GIRL and knows a great deal about how to run a household as a result. The chapter where she teaches Rachel how to wash up properly was such a joy to write. I felt for Rachel, with her slapdash attempts at housework, as Polly put her to rights. But I cheered for Polly. She’s completely right, you know. You DO need a long handled mop and some really hot soapy water!

with dogFreddy, also, is such a boy! Like my dad (pictured here in the open shirt when he was about 11 or 12), he is an ace rollerskater. Dad told me all about racing around the streets of Millbrook in Southampton on skates—just metal soles and wheels which you attached to your shoes with leather straps and buckles. The gaps between the flagstones would play merry heck with your axles over time, leading to metal fatigue until they occasionally snapped (often at high speed).

In the story one of my favourite bits is the rollerskating chase scene where Freddy and Ben must outskate Roly and the Pincer twins in their modern in-line rollerblades—using just flimsy 1950s strap ons. I know just how brilliantly Freddy can skate because I’ve seen my dad do it, many times, over the years. There was a time in the late 80s when local kids used to come round to the house to ask if my dad would come out skating!

But where my parents differ from Polly and Freddy is the poshness. Polly and Freddy are only partly based on them—the more real part, I like to think. The slightly less real but just as entertaining part is inspired by Julian and Anne out of The Famous Five. Enid Blyton had a huge influence on me as I grew up. Her adventure, Five Go To Smuggler’s Top, was what turned me into a bookworm after a difficult start with reading and writing.

Reading some Enid Blyton to our sons a few years back, we found the stories were still great—but sometimes hilarious in ways that Enid had never intended. The language and the style were very firmly stuck in the 1950s and some of it was pant-wettingly funny. I got to thinking about those characters—Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and Timmy the Dog. How would they cope if they were suddenly fast-forwarded in time to the 21st century? It would blow their minds!

And how would the 21st century cope with them? Kids who went around with neatly parted hair, saying things like ‘Gosh!’ and ‘I say!’ and ‘Never fear, Aunt Fanny—I’m going to call a constable!’

From this Frozen in Time grew. It had all the ingredients of a good Famous Five story. Four children, underground passages, spies, bike rides, a puppy—even a missing scientist. But it also had Pot Noodle, tattoos and piercings, junk food, and some very sinister events (one or two of which, I’m wickedly proud to say, made some readers really scared!)

I had a good feeling about it from the off, but even I couldn’t have known it would up and win the Blue Peter Book Of The Year Award in 2010. That elevated it from my personal bestseller to a full on bestseller, hanging around at the top of the book sales charts for months. It didn’t hurt that it was featured on national telly—and I got to go on Blue Peter twice! Since then it’s spread all over the world and been translated into several different languages. It’s the one that every nods and goes ‘Aaaah yes!’ about whenever it’s mentioned.

jolly good showIt’s even spawned a theatre show. I’m just about to start touring this… Check out www.alisparkes.com for more information in the coming months.

And to top it all, OUP has given it this gorgeous makeover for summer 2013. I loved the original cover by David Frankland but I also adore this new one, from James Frazer…

fit old lookFITIt’s very NOW and yet still THEN, if you know what I mean.Truly, though—GOSH!

Ali-Sparkes-001Ali Sparkes grew up in Southampton and despite some exciting months in London and even more exciting months in Lowestoft (where she really experienced life on the edge), still lives in Southampton today, with her husband and two sons.

She has worked as a singer, journalist, broadcaster, magazine editor and the spangle-clad assistant to a juggling unicyclist (frighteningly, there is photographic proof).

Ali has many children’s fiction titles published by Oxford University Press including her SWITCH series, her award-winning novel Frozen in Time, and her heart-stopping adventure series about a group of teenagers with special powers, Unleashed.

Visit Ali’s website

Follow Ali Sparkes on Twitter

Are you telekinetic? Do Ali Sparkes’ fun quiz and find out!

Ali-Sparkes-001CAN YOU MOVE THINGS AROUND JUST WITH YOUR MIND?

DO ALI SPARKES’ FUN QUIZ AND FIND OUT…

A NEW telekinetic is in town! The thrilling adventures of Tyrone Lewis are out now in Ali Sparkes’ new summer must read, Out of this World.

Shapeshifter fans will have met Tyrone in the last two books of the Shapeshifter series, when he shows up as Gideon’s Telekinetic Tutor… but nobody knows exactly HOW Tyrone got his powers.

Until now.

Out of This World, set seven years before the emergence of Dax Jones and the other Children Of Limitless Ability (COLAs), tells you how.

9780192794123_OUT_OF_THIS_WORLD_CVR_JUN13

But maybe this is no big deal to you. Maybe YOU are already a TELEKINETIC.

Answer these questions and discover the TRUTH…

Q1. Can you move things with your brain?!

1. No. Don’t be stupid.

2. Yes. I just head butted a One Direction pencil case across the room.

3. Sometimes I think I can—when I squint at something really hard and hold my breath and make this noise which kind of goes ‘Wuh-wuh-wuh-weeeeeeeeeh.’ I made a pen roll off a desk once!

Q2. When you get angry, do metal objects seem a bit shifty-abouty?

1. No. Human objects seem a bit inmyfacey-annoy-ey.

2. Yes. Especially when I throw them around!

3. Kind of. I found some forks stuck to the ceiling after I’d had a row with my best mate…

Q3. Have you ever freaked out friends or family by bending spoons or other cutlery?

1. No. Why would I want to bend cutlery? What has it ever done to me? Apart from that time when a teaspoon got stuck in my eye… and that was probably more my fault that the teaspoon’s. I don’t hold grudges against dining implements. That way lies madness.

2. Yes! There was this time, right, when I was whacking myself over the head with a soup ladle… and after about a minute it was all bent! The ladle. Not my head: duh—that’s made of wood, that is. Could this be the wonder of telekinesis? I once set fire to my trousers too. Is that pyrokinesis?

3. Yes, I have. I also floated the bent spoons around in a little circle while everyone screamed and someone fainted. Probably shouldn’t have done that.

Q4. Have your telekinetic experiments ever led to trouble with the authorities?

1. No. I am extremely well behaved. I consider other people’s feelings and think that floating stuff about in the air in a way which      might alarm anyone is reckless behaviour. Generally I try hard to avoid this kind of thing and I’m appalled at the way Ms Sparkes’ books encourage such foolishness. I’m not a spoilsport. I am perfectly well balanced, thank you. Perfectly.

2. Well, let me see… I’ve been done for heading a ball repeatedly at someone’s window and then, when they opened the window to complain, their face. (Well, I didn’t ASK them to open the window, did I?) Does that count? I mean—it’s still moving things with my head, innit?

3. Help! Help! I am being chased by a man and woman in suits, with tasers, who say they’re from the government! They want to test my brain!!! HEEEEEEELP!

NOW TOT UP YOUR RESULTS AND READ THE ANSWERS

MOSTLY As

You seem a little sceptical about the potential of the human mind. And generally quite cross. Of course, nobody has yet proved that telekinesis really exists, but it could happen. Lighten up a bit. And don’t give in to that teaspoon. Show it who’s boss.

MOSTLY Bs

Sorry. We don’t think you’re telekinetic… but we are concerned about the level of violence in your life. Perhaps the process of meditation, which many believe may aid the process of telekinesis, might also allow you and your pyromaniac alter ago to discover inner peace. Please do not head butt One Direction pencil cases. They don’t mean to be that annoying—it’s just in their contract.

MOSTLY Cs

It would seem you ARE telekinetic. Turn around and stare hard at a bin or something and spin it down the road, tripping over your government pursuers, and then leg it somewhere safe before considering your next move. Have you tried doing a little aerial display with a bag of Nice ‘n’ Spicy NikNaks? That’d be a laugh! Or melting a pylon. That’d be HILARIOUS!*

* OUP does not in anyway condone the melting of pylons with your mind. Please DO NOT try this at home.

Out of this World is out now – watch the book trailer!

9780192794123_OUT_OF_THIS_WORLD_CVR_JUN13

How writing saved my life: Janet Hoggarth on writing Gaby’s Angel

Author photo - Sept 2012I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. I was supposed to be an iconic artist or a world-famous DJ spinning the wheels of steel in front of a crazy festival crowd. Writing was a complete accident. It wasn’t an accident that I learned to actually write – we all have to do that. It was an accident that I ended up doing this as a job. I was really an editorial assistant at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, battling through press releases and making lots of mistakes proof-reading manuscripts. Stop the press (literally!)! There’s still a comma in the wrong place on page ninety-two of Harry Potter. Doh, too late…

While making lots of mistakes my boss noticed that my jacket blurbs were quite good for someone who had been told at college to drop the Creative Writing module because ‘You can’t write in a colloquial manner in this class.’ Or indeed write at all. Course duly dropped. So it was a bit of a shock to find that the writing style I had adopted as an eleven-year-old and basically not changed since was a plus point and not negative as previously informed.

Barry, my boss, liked my writing so much that he asked me to write a joke book with my brother (who is a talented poet) and the process was reminiscent of us as kids creating fake newspapers for our parents to buy (an obsession that lead to writer’s cramp and colouring-in claw). The book did really well. And that’s when the seed was planted: maybe instead of being a world-dominating DJ aka Phat Biffa (my DJ name), I could be a writer instead. A lot less glamorous but at least I wouldn’t have jet lag all the time from touring and get tinnitus from mixing banging beats in my headphones. So I eventually gave up my now proper job (I had acquired an office all of my own and a list of books to commission) and Became A Writer.

Well, Becoming A Writer meant panicking a lot because instead of me nagging authors for a synopsis or the sample chapter or to Please Finish That Book or I Won’t Pay You, it was me being nagged. Argh! I churned out loads of books (now all on Amazon for 1p, relics really), got married, had three kids back to back and didn’t work for a long while. My brain was lost in the young baby wilderness years. Then out of nowhere I found myself single with three children under five. It has to be said that was a low point. Distant dreams of DJing resurfaced. Maybe I could still make it big? The kids could come with me on tour. I would make enough money for us all to live in a mansion with a pool. Or maybe I could start writing again…

9780192745484_GABYS_ANGEL_CVR_JUN13I was having a really tough time, like Gaby in my new book Gaby’s Angel. Struggling with being a single parent, I was feeling very sorry for myself one morning on the school run, forcibly dragging all of us there and out of the house. Just as I was crossing the road with Danny in the pushchair and the girls tagging along a voice spoke to me. (Honestly, this is not made up!!!!) It was in my head, but didn’t sound like my voice. It said: ‘You are going to write a book called Gaby’s Angel about a girl who’s best friend dies.’ I stopped the pushchair and listened for what came next. ‘The dead friend sees that Gaby can’t cope without her so comes back as her angel to help her find a new best friend.’ That was it! I ran all the way to school and all the way back, chucked Danny in a playpen and wrote the synopsis in half an hour, like a woman possessed.

In the book Gaby receives white feathers from Emily, her dead best friend, as messages to not give up and carry on with life. One day I got in the car feeling so terribly sad and uninspired about writing and there on my seat was a perfectly formed white feather. How had it got in? It wasn’t there before. I took it as a message to keep going. Even if an errant seagull had pecked his way in and shed it while scavenging for ice cream, who cares? It worked. My ‘angel’ feather spurred me on that day.

It took a long time to write the book. I gave up twice and didn’t write for months because I was too exhausted or busy or DJing. But during those times I would remember the feather and the voice and would eventually flip open my laptop and make myself write. And after two years it was finally finished!

So for me, writing Gaby’s Angel was like a life raft. It kept the kids and me afloat. And they are incredibly excited to see a final copy. And so am I because it represents more than just a book. Like Gaby, it represents surviving the bad times and coming out the other side smiling older and wiser. Only not so much of the older if you don’t mind…

Author photo - Sept 2012

Find out more about Janet Hoggarth on Twitter, Facebook, and on her website.

Gaby’s Angel is out now.

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Horsing around: editing our bbbrilliant new pony series

Life-long pony enthusiast and OUP Children’s Books Editorial Assistant Helen Bray joins us to talk about the experience of editing Che Golden’s brand new series for pony-mad children, The Meadow Vale Ponies.

If someone had told me when I was a child that a job existed which satisfied both a love of books and a love of horses, I would’ve thought they were thinking of a wild dream they’d had of a library filled with ponies hoof-deep in picture books . . . with themselves as Head Librarian – giving away carrots as bookmarks.

And although that actually sounds quite appealing (note the ‘mad’ in ‘pony mad’) there is a real job where you can celebrate a love of stories AND a love of all things equine—it’s MY job!

It was Che Golden’s new book Mulberry and the Summer Show that proved this to be true.

Meadow Vale Ponies logo

Che’s new series is called The Meadow Vale Ponies, and stars a girl called Sam and the beautiful, Black-Beauty-esque, mare, Mulberry. Unfortunately, Mulberry is also the grumpiest little pony at the Meadow Vale Stables. In that way, she reminds me of a pony I used to know. Tinkerbell was almost pure white and barely bigger than a Great Dane. Sounds adorable, right? WRONG. Let’s just say she bore more similarity to Hook than Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell!

 Tinkerbell – who, if you look closely, is eyeing up my fingers wondering if she can get away with the excuse that she thought they were carrots...

Tinkerbell – who, if you look closely, is eyeing up my fingers wondering if she can get away with the excuse that she thought they were carrots…

Sam is quite nervous about learning to ride—ponies are big, powerful animals after all. Sam’s nerves get the better of her in her first lesson, when she’s unceremoniously dumped at the feet of her stern riding instructor by an overexcited pony.

It’s easy for me to sympathize with poor Sam here, as the first hack I went on with my favourite pony, Cobweb, ended in me being dumped on a grass verge next to a bemused gardener after a hair-(and mane!)raising gallop.

Me and Cobweb before the excitement

Me and Cobweb before the excitement

As Sam is trying to console herself, she hears a strange little voice saying the most bizarre things . . . but it’s only her and the Shetland ponies in the barn—surely it’s not the little Shetland, Apricot, speaking to her?!

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Sam can talk to ponies because she listens to what they have to say. And any pony-mad rider will know that there’s a lot of truth in this—horses have as many opinions, likes, and dislikes as their riders. The horse I ride at the moment, Beau, is no exception: every time it rains she tells me she doesn’t like it by galloping around the field until I let her take shelter in her stable; every time I pick out her rear hoofs she tells me she doesn’t like it by farting on my head; and every time we jump she tells me she loves it by charging at the fences and clearing them as if they were the Puissance Wall at Olympia!

Mulberry tells Sam she doesn’t like her nervous riding by performing her famous Sliding Stop:

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Thankfully, Beau seems unaware of the tricks that Mulberry delights in playing on Sam, such as the classic hold-your-breath-while-the-girth-is-done-up-so-the-saddle-slips-when-your-rider-tries-to-mount. I did used to ride a horse called Dolly who did exactly that, though. And a pony called Laddie who had a Sliding Stop even more impressive than Mulberry’s. And there was Pepé, whose party trick was trotting backwards . . . quite amazing really, but a bit embarrassing when the rest of the lesson are going the other direction! Holly was perhaps the most terrifying of all—she could do 60 bucks a minute—although that might’ve just been in response to the sparkly hoof polish I insisted on putting on her . . .

Despite all of this, for some reason that is surely only madness or love, these mishaps never seem to put us pony-mad riders off. Perhaps it’s because when things go right, it’s the best feeling in the world? Or perhaps it’s because through getting to know each other—however turbulent it might be, you and your pony become the very best of friends? For Sam, it’s because when she rides Mulberry well, it feels like flying. Learning to ride Mulberry teaches Sam that she has to trust her pony, and trust herself.

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Working on Mulberry and the Summer Show has been such a joy for me. The story is funny and heart-warming, and it’s just so easy to become completely immersed in the world of The Meadow Vale Stables. The realism Che does so well is perhaps unsurprising when you learn that she is as pony-mad as they come, and her lead characters are, in fact, based on her own daughter and the first pony she really loved, Brie. When Che asked her daughter why she insisted on riding Brie even though she kept throwing her off, her response was ‘because I love her!’. And you can’t argue with that now, can you!

Che’s daughter with Brie – the inspiration for Mulberry’s character

The first book in The Meadow Vale Ponies series, Mulberry and the Summer Show, is out in July, with further titles in 2014.

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Photograph (c) Lou Abercrombie

Photograph (c) Lou Abercrombie

Che Golden is a graduate of the Masters course in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University and her two great passions are writing and horses. Che’s first horse was Velvet, a huge, black Irish cob who not only taught Che how to ride, but taught her two little girls as well. Now, they own Charlie Brown, a rather neurotic New Forest pony, and Robbie, a very laid-back Highland pony.

Visit Che’s website

Helen Bray is Editorial Assistant at OUP Children’s Books

Helen and Beau

Remembering the suffragettes: Julie Hearn on Hazel and Emily Wilding Davison

This week marks the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, an activist who fought for women’s suffrage in Britain, famously stepping in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Author Julie Hearn joins us to talk about Emily, the suffragettes, and the inspiration behind her novel Hazel.

For a while, years ago, I lived in a bedsit down The Old Kent Road. The walls were the faded mauve of wisteria.  I bought a green silk throw for the bed and a junk shop chair and chest of drawers, which I painted toothpaste white.

‘Suffragette colours,’ my mother said.

‘What?’

I hadn’t ‘done’ the suffragettes at school.  I don’t think they had crossed my radar at all. I was nineteen years old and taking everything for granted.  Further education.  Independence.  My right to speak as I found and do as I pleased.  Everything.

Older now, and more enlightened, I recently went all out on eBay to secure, for myself, an Edwardian shoe buckle of green and white enamel set with purple stones.  And it pleases me to know the facts behind the fact that Carlisle Park in Morpeth, Northumberland, has been planted, this summer, with  Purpleicious Veronica, White  Bell Campanula, and the variegated greens and whites of carefully chosen hostas.

This year marks the centenary of Morpeth suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s death.  Hence the colours in the park.  And the flurry of commemorative events being held, this month, across the country.  And the new edition of my fourth novel, Hazel, which begins with the ill-fated action that ended Emily’s life.

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Emily Wilding Davison was a leading militant in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She believed that deeds, not words, would get women in this country the vote. On June 4th, 1913, she joined a crowd of spectators at the Epsom Derby with two suffrage banners concealed beneath her coat.  Grainy newsreel footage shows her stepping onto the racecourse, and raising her hands, as horses thunder past.  She is kicked and sent flying by Anmer, a thoroughbred owned by King George V.  She died in hospital four days later, without regaining consciousness. She was 40 years old.

‘In her mind she saw, again, the kick and the fall.  The woman had resembled an ungainly bird flying through the air like that with her black coat billowing. A stoned crow. A smashed rook. A blackbird hit by a pea-shooter.’  (Hazel, p. 10)

I never set out to put real people in my books. They turn up, like actors with no pre-arranged audition, while I’m researching a time or a place. It started with a few poor souls who were shown as ‘monsters’ at Bartholomew Fair at the beginning of the eighteenth century (Follow Me Down). Then Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General swaggered into The Merrybegot, followed by a young and utterly charming Charles II. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is ‘The Italian’ in Ivy. And in my seventh novel, Dance of the Dark Heart (to be published by OUP in April 2014) fantasy and history do a fairly resounding ‘high five’ when the Devil’s son plays the fiddle for the fifth wife of Henry VIII.

Emily Wilding Davison got into my notebook, and my head, very soon after I began researching Hazel. At that point, I knew a lot about Hazel’s mother, Ivy (the protagonist of my third novel) but nothing at all about Hazel herself. The story needed to be set at a time when Ivy might, conceivably, have had a teenage daughter, so I’d written 1910-1915? in big red letters, on the first page of my notebook.

I didn’t want to write a war story.  I didn’t think I could.  So 1913 became the year I looked at first—and that’s where I found Emily, slipping under the railing at the Epsom Derby.

As usual, following one thread led to another. Before long, my notebook was filling up nicely and my head buzzing with questions. I saw Hazel and her father watching the race and knew, at once, that Hazel was a ‘little princess’—a pampered, naive girl knowing even less than I did, at her age, about the ways of the world.

And I thought: what if Hazel’s father turns out to be a serious gambler? What if he loses money—a LOT of money—at this race and has some kind of a breakdown as a result? What might the repercussions of that be for Hazel?

It was enough. I began to write.

Recently, I gave a talk about Emily Wilding Davison and Hazel at a girls’ school in Bristol.  I wore my Edwardian shoe buckle on a velvet choker; a purple skirt, white blouse, and dark green boots and cardigan.

‘I didn’t just throw myself together this morning, girls,’ I said to a group of year eights.  ‘What do I mean by that?’

‘Suffragette colours!’ chorused around fifty young, female, voices.

Emily would have been proud.

Julie Hearn1

Julie Hearn used to be a journalist. After her daughter was born she began a degree in Education but switched to English after suffering a panic attack while attempting to teach maths to year six.

She went on to complete a Masters Degree in women’s studies at Oxford University, where something she read about a young girl who was shown as a fairground ‘monster’ in the 17th century inspired her first novel, Follow Me Down.

Since then Julie has written many novels. She has been nominated four times for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, the UKLA Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.

Julie lives in Oxfordshire where she writes full time (most mornings anyway) in a pink and green office in her garden.

Find out more about Julie’s ‘Emily and Hazel’ school and library talk here, which explores the Suffragette Movement through fact and fiction. You can contact Julie via her website.

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Hazel is out now.

The Meaning of Life: Joanna Nadin on funny books

Joanna NadinI have always ‘done’ funny. Both as a reader, and a writer. As a child, I snorted through every page of every Dr Seuss, laughed until I cried at Russell Hoban’s inspired creation Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong in her iron hat cooking mutton sog, and the mere mention of the East Pagwell Canal from Professor Branestawm was enough to render me insensible.

Laughter is a tonic, it’s therapy. Quite literally, as there is no greater closure than the writer’s revenge of turning the adults who belittled you, or the children who taunted you mercilessly for having hair like Leo Sayer and second-hand skirts, into grim-faced moustachioed ladies, or moronic underachievers called Kylie (yes, both of them, and no I won’t name the inspirational bullies behind the characters, but suffice to say I didn’t bother to change one of the surnames).

A few months ago, I was asked by The Guardian to write a piece on my top ten favourite ‘funny’ books for young children. Of course I said yes, a) because my self-esteem is sufficiently low and my ego sufficiently enormous that I am easily flattered, b) because I like going through my bookshelves and ensuring they are still in excellent alphabetical order, and c) because I like thinking about funny things.

And so I did, think about them I mean, not just the books themselves (though that was a delight), but about the concept of ‘funny’ and its place in fiction. Because I’ve found that funny is, oddly, frowned upon by certain people, and certain schools of thinking. These are the people who would have you believe that ‘issues’ books—books that make you ‘feel’, that make you ‘think’ (usually about grim things)—are somehow more worthy of your time, and of praise, and prizes, than ones with jokes in.

People like my old ‘O’ Level teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything, when he caught me reading one of my own books under the desk instead of the syllabus text sat sullenly on top of it. It wasn’t so much the act of disobedience that riled him, I think, than the subject matter. My chosen book was George’s Marvellous Medicine—so much more interesting than the turgid (or so it seemed to me at the time) Silas Marner.

But what these people—and there are many, from teachers to parents to peers—fail to get is that funny books can be just as worthwhile, and just as potentially life-changing. They make you ‘think’, they make you ‘feel’. But they make you laugh while you’re doing it. And sometimes, that can make the drama all the greater, the truth all the starker.

Funny books are important—from getting reluctant readers engaged in a story, to keeping the attention of those with short attention spans, to simply making us feel clever when we get the joke. Shakespeare did it; Austen did it; Dahl did it, not just in his children’s books, but throughout his tales for grown-ups too.

I’m not claiming to be in their ball park, I’m not claiming that The Meaning of Life is life-changing, but I am convinced that, for at least two hundred-and-something pages, it will make life fun. And that makes life good. And that, surely, is what it’s all about.

(And if you’re interested in just what my top ten funny books for 5-8s were, you can read about them here).

Joanna Nadin

Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.

Follow Joanna Nadin on Twitter

Find Joanna Nadin on Facebook

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The third Rachel Riley Diary, The Meaning of Life, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in  Jul and Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

Too Small For My Big Bed – behind the scenes with Layn Marlow

Layn Marlow

I love the comparison that’s often made between picture books and theatre.  I’ve always felt shy about being on stage, but in illustrating picture books, I discovered I could be director, stage designer and a whole cast of actors, all from behind the scenes.  For my latest book, this analogy even helped me discover a new way of working.

A change of scenery

I’d already collaborated on six picture books with Amber Stewart as author.

Books by Amber Stewart and Layn Marlow

Books by Amber Stewart and Layn Marlow

                  

Each one saw a cast of small woodland animals, sensitively tackling subjects significant to young children: a duckling starting school, a rabbit losing her security blanket, a little mole learning to try new foods.

In each case, I approached the illustrations in the same way; using a dip pen, then fine brushes, to apply thin layers of acrylic paint onto smooth board.

Layn Marlow artwork

© Layn Marlow

I gave the rural scenes some botanical detail, which I hoped would draw the reader into the animal’s world.  It was all very green and pastoral – like the best bits of my early childhood.  But our seventh book left that familiar landscape behind…

New actors

Too Small For My Big Bed portrays a mother tiger’s tender relationship with her growing cub, Piper, as he struggles to overcome his nightly fear of being alone.

Too Small For My Big Bed UK hardback

Suddenly, I had an even smaller cast to work with, (two!), although of course, the actors were much bigger.

When developing any animal character, I usually start by sketching real animals. Then I try to modify and infuse their bodies with the more human expressions of the character in the story. (This often involves some acting in front of the mirror!)

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

Tigers are not easy to observe in real life, even in captivity, so I’m greatly indebted to the marvellous John Downer film, Tiger – Spy in the Jungle.

Tiger: Spy in the Jungle DVD cover

Tiger Spy in the Jungle. Director, John Downer. Narrator, David Attenborough. BBC, 2008. DVD

The narrator, David Attenborough, has described it as “the most intimate portrait of tigers ever seen”, which made it the perfect way for me to research mother and cub behaviour.

Setting the stage

The film also enabled me to see what the ‘jungle’ looks like. It was made in India’s Pench National Park, home to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  Having never travelled to India myself, I was surprised to see only limited greenery. In fact much of the Pench landscape looked just as Amber Stewart’s text describes – Golden Grasslands and Red Rock Ridges – colours more evocative of a tiger’s fiery coat.  I realized these warm hues would contrast well with the deep ultramarine blue of a night sky, and so my new palette was chosen.

 Too Small For My Big Bed palette

In the spotlight

In Too Small for my Big Bed, the close relationship between mother and cub takes centre stage.  This is what gives Piper the feeling of security he ultimately needs to find independence. I tried to echo this intimacy in the gestures of the tigers, but I also wanted to strengthen their presence in the compositions.  So, rather like applying stage make-up, I intensified the outlines of my pencil drawings by printing them with black ink onto watercolour paper.

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

Previously I’d dismissed watercolour as a pale and unforgiving medium. Now I found deep, rich inks to use, and learned to be slightly less respectful of the high quality paper.  I worked over the ink areas with coloured pencil, acrylic paint and even collage.

With the spotlight on the tigers, I really began to treat the landscape more like a stage set. I enjoyed creating rubbings of various textures and seeking out other collage materials from which to build the ‘scenery’.

Too Small For My Big Bed collage materials copy

Even though I’d long been aware of the theatrical analogy, somehow this time it felt to me like a real liberation.

A star performance

My favourite phrase in Amber Stewart’s text comes when we first see Piper fall asleep in his mum’s bed, ‘spread out like a small star’.

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

I’ve already found that children love to identify with Piper as a character. They feel rightly proud of how they’ve grown and of all they’ve learned to do.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of bringing Amber Stewart’s little tiger to life, and in doing so; I think I may have grown a bit myself!

Children wearing tiger masks

Layn Marlow

Photo © Tom Greenwood

Born in Essex, Layn Marlow studied Art History at Reading University. She then worked in libraries, and lived in Belgium for some years with her young family, before returning to university to gain a first class degree in Illustration. She has been writing and illustrating picture books ever since.  Her books have won a number of awards, sold over a million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 20 languages. Layn is particularly inspired by the natural world, and now lives in Hampshire, where daily walks with her dog, Rufus, are essential.

Visit Layn’s website and Facebook page.

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Too Small for my Big Bed is out now in hardback. The paperback edition is out in August.

Meet the mother and daughter team behind Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom: Wendy Meddour and Mina May

Hi! And thank you for asking us to join you on this blog. So here we are: the mother/daughter team behind the Wendy Quill books – working EXTREMELY hard. Mina May is slaving away on her iPad whilst I am doing VERY IMPORTANT writerly work:

Wendy Meddour and Mina May

Wendy Meddour and Mina May working EXTREMELY hard

You see, because Mina May is only eleven, people are always asking us: ‘What was it like doing a book together? Was it really hard?’ I’m tempted to say: ‘Oh yes, of course. What with all the deadlines and having to produce pictures for a professional designer’:

Mina and Karen Stewart

Mina May with our very professional designer

And having to submit manuscripts to an editor who is ever-so strict . . .

Mina and Jasmine Richards

Illustrator and Wendy Quill editor hard at work. Again.

 But then I realise that I have to stop pretending.

Because the truth is, we’re having an absolute blast. Our designer and editor at OUP are AMAZING. And Mina May and I LOVE creating Wendy Quill together – she’s a little bit of both of us, I think. We’ve got the same sense of humour – so are giggling all over the place and having a bit of a ball.

This is how it works:

Mina May: ‘Were you really a crocodile’s bottom, Mum? You know, in actual real life?’

Me: ‘Erm. Well. Sort of, yes. It was for my school play: Peter Pan and Wendy. My head wasn’t big enough to fit under the front bit, so I had to go at the back.’

Mina May: ‘Oh no!’ *giggling* ‘But why weren’t you picked to be “Wendy”?’

Me: ‘I have absolutely no idea. I mean, I should have been Wendy. I am a real Wendy. I even look like a Wendy. And the girl they picked had straight black hair, which everyone knows is completely wrong for Wendy in Peter Pan and . . . ’

Mina May: ‘Aw, never mind Mum. I bet you were a great crocodile’s bottom.’ *Starts drawing on iPad* ‘How about this?’

Wendy Quill as crocodile

Artwork from Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom © Mina May

Me: ‘Oh my giddy Aunt! That’s unbelievable!!!! That is just what it was like!’

Or, to take another example . . .

Mina May: ‘So what do “The Girly Gang” actually look like Mum? Have you written that chapter yet?’

Me: ‘No. Not quite yet. But basically, they all have their ears pierced and wear pointy shoes. It’s part of their “Girly Gang” Rules. Oh. And they’re really scared of rats.’

Mina May: ‘So kind of like this?’

Wendy Quill girly girls

Artwork from Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom © Mina May

Me: *squeal* ‘Ahhhh! Exactly like that! You’ve done it again! Perfect.’

Then we send it to our designer, the brilliant Professor Karen Stewart – and she puts the images all cleverly on the page. And then my editor, the lovely Jasmine Richards (with the gymnastic abilities, editorial brilliance and completely ‘natural arch’), reads my Wendy Quill chapters and tells me if I’m ‘cooking on gas.’

If I am ‘cooking on gas’ (and being Wendy Quillish to the core), we all get very excited and eat lots of cake! And then we get even more excited when we see the final product, tadaaaa:

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And then we say, ‘Can we do another one? Please?’

So no. It’s not hard. It’s a DREAM. And we don’t really want it to stop.

Here’s a little ‘Behind the Scenes’ video so that you can see us in action. We hope you giggle over Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom just as much as we giggled over making it.

Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom is out now. Also available as an eBook – in full colour!

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