Spell with Pip: a fun new app to help children practise their spelling

With the new emphasis on spelling, punctuation and grammar in primary schools, including a test in year 6, it’s more important than ever to make sure that children have lots of opportunity to practise their spelling. We’re very excited to introduce Spell with Pip – a fun new spelling app for children from the team behind the world-famous Oxford Children’s Dictionaries.

There are lots of quirks in the English language which make it tricky for children to spell words correctly. Here at OUP our Children’s Dictionaries team has a huge database of children’s writing, so they can spot exactly the kind of spellings children often struggle with (read more about the Oxford Children’s Corpus here).

For example, silent letters can be confusing: the silent ‘h’ at the beginning of ‘which’ is often left out by children, and sometimes an errant silent ‘h’ finds its way into other words, making ‘whith’ and ‘whent’. Sometimes we blur certain sounds when we speak, which is reflected in spellings like ‘happend’ and ‘suprise’. Double letters often prove difficult, as spellings such as ‘realy’ and ‘untill’ show.

With so much to think about, spelling can be challenging for children. But help is at hand from a new feathery friend.pip

Meet Pip the parrot, star of Spell with Pip: An Oxford Spelling Game – a brand new iPad app which is so much fun that children won’t even notice they are practising spelling.

In the app, children use their finger to swoop Pip around the screen, picking up floating letters in order to correctly spell a word. Spell with Pip has spelling skills at its core, but it is also a real arcade-style game which is exciting enough to keep children practising and learning. Take a look at this short video to see Spell with Pip in action.

The 3,000 words in the app have been carefully sorted into levels, guided by our Oxford Children’s Corpus research. As Pip visits different locations around the world, from the Oasis to the Arctic, the words he has to spell become gradually harder. Our Children’s Corpus has shown this doesn’t just mean longer words, but also words with double or silent letters (‘accidently’), consecutive vowels (‘freinds’) or irregular endings (‘heared’). Spell with Pip provides a friendly, colourful environment to rehearse these tricky words and gain confidence in spelling skills.

oxford first dictionaryThe app is designed for children aged 4-8, or for any children who need a little more confidence in spelling. All the words are taken from the Oxford First Dictionary, and the app is suitable for users of both UK and US English.

You can download Spell with Pip from the App Store (a version for Android will be available in spring 2014).

We’d love to hear how you get on with the app. Happy spelling!

Spell with Pip

Oxford Children’s Dictionaries

Oxford University Press publishes English and bilingual dictionaries for children of every age. Find out more about our bestselling range on our website, including the Primary Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Dictionary and School Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar Dictionary.

9780192745378 9780192734211

Monkeying around with Oliver and the Seawigs – our first ever sea monkey intern!

This month we’ve had the company of a rascally sea monkey, who has escaped from the pages of Oliver and the Seawigs to learn what it’s like to work in publishing and help us in the lead up to Christmas. It’s been an interesting time to say the least, and it does seem suspicious how all our mince pies and office treats have been going missing…

Oliver and the Seawigs Christmas greetings

Our new recruit was very excited to begin counting down to Christmas. She braved the bus on the way in to the office and soon made her way to the Oxford University Press front gates. EEP!

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey on the bus

By the end of her first week, she was happily working away in the publicity office, sending out copies of Oliver and the Seawigs and teasing the new titles for 2014, such as Nikki Sheehan’s Who Framed Klaris Cliff?

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey press release

On the 5th December our office sea monkey placed an important call, ready to announce that OIiver and the Seawigs had been shortlisted for the Blue Peter Book Award! The announcement went out on the CBEEBIES channel that evening.

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey phone call

The next day she decided to make a show card to celebrate the Blue Peter news. But all that tape was very sticky and she got into a bit of a pickle in her excitement.

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey showcard

By the 9th December our well behaved monkey had been feeling a little mischievous and decided to have some fun. She ventured down to visit the editorial offices and ended up making some VERY IMPORTANT changes to a manuscript from editor Clare Whitston’s desk – EEP!

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey editing

Next she went to visit the home of Oxford Words to take a #selfie, as she’d heard that it was word of the year. Even if she really thought the best word ever was EEP! To make her feel better, the digital dictionary team added an entry to their app to explain the etymology of her sea monkey language.

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey selfie 1

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey selfie 2

She was so impressed with her award announcement and app entry that she decided to edit the front cover of Oliver and the Seawigs and add in her own ideas.  We’re not sure designer Jo Cameron was as happy with her changes, though.

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey designing

As Christmas crept closer, the sea monkey took to travelling in style and hitched a ride with one of the Oxford University Press reindeers to get to work.

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey reindeer

And judging by photos from our Christmas party, it looks like she is now right-hand monkey to Big Boss Rod Theodorou.

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey Rod

Our sea monkey intern has certainly been making a splash eeping about Oliver and the Seawigs. However, we have become increasingly worried that her time here may have just been part of a monkey master plan for world domination…

Oliver and the Seawigs sea monkey rights

First Oxford University Press, then the world!

Oliver and the Seawigs monkey takeover

Oliver and the Seawigs Christmas greetings wood cut

Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is out now.

oliver and the seawigs

If you’re feeling creative, take a look at this Oliver and the Seawigs Christmas present pack from Philip and Sarah, complete with gift tags and a knit your own sea monkey knitting pattern!

And the winner is . . .

Hooray! Richard Byrne won the picture book category of the 2013 Oxfordshire Book Award for The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur. Richard’s editor, Helen Mortimer gives us a run-down of the award ceremony.

The trophies

A rewarding afternoon for picture-book maker Richard Byrne

Although 360 children from 20 schools across the county were squeezed into the Amey Theatre at Abingdon School for the 2013 Oxfordshire Book Awards, when Richard Byrne picked up his marker pen to draw some instant dinosaur art, you could have heard that proverbial pin drop. Rather than make an acceptance speech, Richard chose to let his pictures do the talking. The whole audience was spellbound as the Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur took shape over four flip-chart sheets. First the tail, then the back end, the front end, and finally a smiling face with a ‘thank you’ speech bubble for all the children who voted Richard’s story about prehistoric friends, jellybeans, and sharing as their favourite picture book of 2013.

flip chart big dino-1

Flip-chart art as the Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur takes to the stage with Richard Byrne and pupils from Oxfordshire schools

Richard’s hastilysketchedosaurus was then the subject of an on-the-spot raffle and was won by Burford Secondary School where it is destined to take pride of place on their library wall.

R.J. Palacio – who won the primary book category for Wonder – had recorded a heartfelt video message for the children of Oxfordshire from her New York home.

And Anne-Marie Conway who won the secondary book category with her novel Butterfly Summer gave an entertaining insight into her life as an author. When asked what had been her dream job as a child Anne-Marie revealed that she had always wanted to be on the stage but that now, actually being on a stage, was proving rather daunting. But if she was nervous, she really didn’t show it, and she engaged the audience in a fascinating question and answer session.

Anne-Marie Conway

Anne-Marie Conway

A warm tribute

The audience was also treated to a warm tribute given by Piers Ibbotson in memory of his mother, Eva. He talked about her book The Abominables and how the manuscript was discovered after her death in 2010. It was published last year.  His words were utterly encouraging for any budding writers listening as he explained how his mother held a firm belief that children have a gift for telling stories and losing themselves in imaginative worlds. A gift that is all too often lost as we grow up. But not lost by Eva, who was writing up to the day she died and whose richly-imagined stories always recognize how brave, funny, and resourceful children are.

Piers Ibbotson

Piers Ibbotson

Pupils steal the show

But if I had to choose my favourite part of the afternoon it would be the pupil reviews for the winning books. Alex from Glory Farm School, Bicester loved the ‘bright pictures’ in The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur. He also liked the ‘way the words go with the pictures’ and said he would give this ‘funny book’ five stars. He ended his review with three well-chosen words: ‘laugh out loud’. And the audience did!

Looking forward to 2014

The ceremony finished with a now traditional mass countdown to launch the selection process for next year’s award and an invitation to ‘let the reading begin!’

And finally . . .

Everyone then left the auditorium and headed over to the dining hall where Richard and Anne-Marie signed for their fans.

Top-drawer author!

Top-drawer author!

Fuelled by coffee and chocolate cake, by the end of the afternoon Richard had doodled over 160 Finlays.

signed book

Worth the wait: a proud owner of a just-signed book complete with a unique dinosaur doodle

And he got to meet Lucy and Caitlin from Watlington Primary School who had earlier been on stage to introduce Richard to the audience.

richard with caitlin and lucy

Richard with Caitlin and Lucy from Watlington Primary School

The whole afternoon was a wonderful and celebratory event and thanks are due Lynne Cooper, Jacky Atkinson, and all the committee for making it happen.

The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur is out now.

really big dinosaur

The First Rule of Time Travel: Don’t Kill Grandad!

Polly Shulman shares the challenges of writing her time-travel novel, The Wells Bequest, a story full of fantastic objects from popular science fiction stories and packed with fascinating time-travelling conundrums!

I thought the hardest part of writing a time-travel novel would be getting the historical details right. I was wrong. The hardest part was dealing with the paradoxes.

The Wells Bequest

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

In The Wells Bequest, my characters work at a very unusual library—one that lends out not books, but objects. Want to try playing a tuba or see how you would look in Marie Antoinette’s second-best wig? You can borrow them from the New York Circulating Material Repository. Hidden in the repository’s basement are several Special Collections. One houses working, magical objects from fairy tales (this was the subject of my previous novel, The Grimm Legacy). The Wells Bequest involves the repository’s collection of working gadgets straight out of science fiction: starships, shrink rays, invisibility potions, and so on. But the star of the story is the time machine from H.G. Wells’ classic novel. My characters use it to visit Nikola Tesla—the world’s greatest (real-life) mad scientist—in his New York City lab in 1895, on the eve of the fire that destroyed it.

Sadly, electric taxis like this one came into use in New York City in the late 1890s, a few years after Tesla’s lab fire, so my characters ride in a horse-drawn cab instead

Sadly, electric taxis like this one came into use in New York City in the late 1890s, a few years after Tesla’s lab fire, so my characters ride in a horse-drawn cab instead

Getting the historical details right was very important to me. I searched 19th century newspapers for stories about Tesla and his contemporaries, read biographies, hunted up old restaurant menus, pored over photos and train schedules, and stalked through Tesla’s neighborhood with antique maps to see how the streets had changed. I even interviewed a transit historian to find out how people got around town back then. What were the fares for horse-drawn omnibuses? How about trolleys? Where did you buy a ticket for a ride on the elevated railroads, and did the ticket clerk punch it and give it back to you or just keep it? Even if nobody else ever noticed, I wanted to get things right!

But all that research was a walk in the park compared to keeping the time-travel paradoxes straight. The most famous one is the Grandfather Paradox: Suppose you use a time machine to travel back a few decades and kill your grandfather before he meets your grandmother. Then your mother will never be born, so you yourself will never be born, so you will never use a time machine to travel back in time and kill your grandfather. That means your mother will be born after all, and so will you, which means you will be able to use that time machine after all and kill Grandad, so you won’t be born, so you will be, so you won’t be…

H. G. Wells’ novel was no help with this particular paradox. His character uses the machine to go forward in time, not backwards. Going forward in time doesn’t raise nearly as many difficulties—after all, we’re all traveling forward in time all the time!

Inventor Lewis Latimer, who improved Edison’s light bulb, invented a toilet for trains, and introduced my characters to Tesla

Inventor Lewis Latimer, who improved Edison’s light bulb, invented a toilet for trains, and introduced my characters to Tesla

Related puzzles kept popping up all over my story, driving my editor crazy. We would have dialogues like this:

My editor: Wait! How could Leo and Jaya find the time machine in London in Chapter 13? I thought it was in the repository in New York the whole time! Is it a different time machine?

Me: No, it’s the same one. It’s just on an earlier trip. It’s crossing paths with itself.

My editor: How can it be an earlier trip, when they’re both there now?

Me: Time machines can be two places at once—that’s what time machines do.

In the end, all we could do was laugh—which is what I hope everyone will do when they read The Wells Bequest.

The Wells Bequest is out now.

The Wells Bequest

Polly Shulman profile picPolly Shulman has written about edible jellyfish, Egyptian tombs, infinity, blind dates, books, brains, centenarians, circuses, and cinematic versions of Jane Austen novels, for The New York Times, Salon, and many other publications. She edits news stories about fossils, meteors, the ocean, the weather, and the planets for Science magazine.

Polly collects Victorian jewellery, puts cayenne pepper in her chocolate cookies, and reads forgotten books with frontispieces.

She grew up in New York City, where she lives with her husband and their parakeet, Olive.

Winnie the Witch and Wilbur fancy dress – inspiration for children’s Halloween costumes

Halloween is nearly upon us, and what better way to celebrate than by dressing up as the mischievously magical Winnie the Witch and her black cat Wilbur!

To make a Winnie the Witch costume

First of all find a blue dress, purple cardigan and stripy tights with a string of shiny beads.

Winnie’s hat

winnie hat

You will need:

  • Blue, yellow, orange and purple paper
  • Scissors
  • Pencil
  • Black felt tip pen
  • Glue stick
  • Hole punch
  • Elastic
  • Hat template from the Winnie the Witch website

Instructions:

  • If you don’t want to use coloured paper, just print the hat template on white paper and colour it in. Simple!
  • Print out the hat template twice – tape together and use as one whole template, onto blue paper, then cut out.
  • Copy the ‘stripes’ template on to a folded piece of purple paper and cut out. Unfold the semicircle and put to one side.
  • Copy orange and yellow stripes on to a folded piece of yellow and orange paper. Cut out. Unfold the semicircles. Then carefully cut along the yellow strip so it is in half again.

winnie hat elements

  • Cut out the moon and star from the template on yellow card.
  • Glue everything on to the flat cone and leave to dry. Then go over all the lines with a black felt tip pen.
  • Attach the hat together with some double-sided tape and/or a stapler. For a little extra touch, push a small bit of rectangular paper through the hole at the top of the hat and bend to one side!
  • Use a hole punch to create a hole on either side of the hat to tie the elastic to, to secure under the child’s chin.

Winnie’s hair

winnie's hair

You will need:

  • Black card (long enough to fit around a child’s head – A1 or A2)
  • 2 x A1 sheets of black sugar paper
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Stapler
  • Sellotape/double-sided tape for neatness

Instructions:

  • Measure a length of card around the child’s head. Tape into place so you have a card ring that fits perfectly around their head (the one in the photograph is 5cm deep).
  • Tape another piece of card across the top of the ring. Repeat on the other side so you have a cross.
  • Cut two more pieces of card and place diagonally over the cross. Staple into place. Then attach the last piece of card to cover any gaps so you can have the basis of your Winnie hair (like a skullcap).

winnie hair work in progress

  • Now the fun really begins! Fold two A1 pieces of black paper like an accordion for Winnie’s frizzy hair. Gently pull the ‘accordion’ apart and cut into the strips.
  • Attach the strip around the top part of the hair ring with double-sided tape or use a stapler. Then attach pieces from the top of the head, down. It doesn’t matter if there are different lengths or widths of hair, as that adds to the effect!

To make a Wilbur costume

No Winnie costume is truly complete without her faithful cat Wilbur by her side. Create the perfect costume for siblings or friends, or even a playful parent!

wilbur headdress

You will need:

  • Black card
  • Green, pink, black and blue paper
  • Scissors
  • Double-sided tape
  • Pencil
  • Glue stick
  • Stapler
  • Ruler
  • White pencil
  • Wilbur head template from the Winnie the Witch website

Instructions:

  • Cut out a strip of thin black card, long enough to wrap around the child’s head. Staple or tape together.
  • Cut out Wilbur’s head shape, then fringe the edges slightly for Wilbur’s fur.
  • Use the eyes, nose, teeth and ears from the template. Draw round the eyes on to green paper, nose on to pink paper and ears on to black and blue paper.
  • Glue the eyes, nose, ears and teeth to Wilbur’s head. Add some pupils to his eyes, white whiskers and mouth line with the white pencil.

wilbur headdress 2

  • Then attach his head to the headband. There you have it!
  • For the rest of Wilbur’s costume, wear a black jumper trousers or leggings and shoes. Another idea for Wilbur’s face would be to use face paints.

Abracadabra, everything you need to make this Halloween magic!

Download PDF instructions

We’d love to see pictures of your mini-Winnie and Wilburs – share your photos on Twitter @OUPChildrens

For lots of Winnie the Witch fun, visit www.winnie-the-witch.com

Why not start off your Halloween night with a brand new tale from Winnie the Witch?

In her latest picture book Winnie sets sail for a swashbuckling pirate adventure!

winnie's pirate adventure

For older readers, try Spooky Winnie, or Winnie’s Halloween Gift Pack, which contains two brilliant Winnie books and a pumpkin orange trick or treat bag.

spooky winniewinnie's halloween gift pack

Being Boris

Tim Warnes on the joy of illustrating the Boris books and his inspiration behind some of the characters.

© Tim Warnes 2013

© Tim Warnes 2013

I love working on the Boris books! They’re such great, warm-hearted stories, that working on Boris Gets Spots was like going back to an old pair of cosy slippers – comfy and relaxing! And I have to say I think Boris is rather an inspirational character. He’s gentle, kind and helpful. He gets his chance to really shine in Boris Saves the Show, when he’s the one who is fast enough and strong enough to rescue the preschool class, who have got stuck in the mud on their way to the summer performance.

_MG_0785One of the things that’s refreshing about the Boris books for me as an illustrator is having to create an authentic classroom setting, where much of the stories take place. At first this was quite daunting since I struggle with seeing, let alone drawing, perspective. (Is there such a condition where your brain can’t discern whether a line in a room is going up or down? If there is, I think I have it.) As a result much of the scenes are quite flat, almost like stage sets, with the characters coming on from the wings. Anyway, I took masses of photos of my sons’ primary school for the first book, and I’ve used these consistently for reference ever since to create a genuinely chaotic classroom feel, with lots of details. My best find had to be the drawings stuck onto the tadpole tank at school of a shark and puffer fish – you can spot them on the goldfish tank in Miss Cluck’s classroom in Boris Gets Spots.

© Tim Warnes 2013

© Tim Warnes 2013

In Boris Gets Spots we are introduced to Farmer Gander (who I modeled on a Chinese goose). He’s visiting Miss Cluck’s class with some of his produce – like a miniature mobile farmer’s market, obligingly pulled by Buttercup the cow! Does it seem odd to you that the cow retains her natural bovine qualities, whilst everyone else gets to wear clothes? Actually, now I think about it, all Miss Cluck usually wears is a pair of spectacles, although in this story she sensibly dons an apron and oven gloves when she bakes some treats for her poorly class, who have come down, one by one, with chicken pox! (I told my editor, Helen, that my youngest son called it ‘chitten pops’ when he caught it. She must have told Carrie because this phrase ended up in the final text!)

It's tricky painting mice this tiny, and children at readings always comment on how SMALL they are. The smallest brush I use is a 2/0 which is really, really thin.

It’s tricky painting mice this tiny, and children at readings always comment on how SMALL they are. The smallest brush I use is a 2/0 which is really, really thin.

 

Tim Warnes photoAward-winning illustrator Tim Warnes shares a studio at his home in the Dorset countryside with his wife, illustrator Jane Chapman. They have two young sons. Tim spends a lot of time helping at the village school and his careful observations can be seen in all the authentic details of an infant classroom and also in the way he has successfully captured the solicitous, motherly demeanour of Miss Cluck and the mannerisms of the little pupils in her care. Tim is best known for illustrating the Little Tiger and Santa books for Little Tiger Press. I Don’t Want to go to Bed! won the Nottinghamshire Children’s Book Award in 1996 and I Don’t want to have a Bath! won in 1997.

Find out more about Tim and his work at www.chapmanandwarnes.com

See more behind-the-scenes Boris stuff in the Boris photo album!

Boris Gets Spots is out now.

Boris Gets Spots

A Haunted Idea

 William Hussey, author of Haunted, talks about where ideas come from…

IMG_8361

‘Where do you get your ideas?’ That’s the question writers dread most, because, you see, often it’s as much a mystery to us as to anyone!

How does the first spark of a story ignite? I believe that the writer’s unconscious mind does most of the work: half-listening to that phone-in show on the car radio during which a caller’s dilemma triggers the bare bones of a plot; snatching a glimpse of that poster on the Tube which suggests a character or scenario; a dream which suddenly connects one distant memory from childhood with a more recent experience and crafts from the two the starting point for a story. But here’s the thing: in many cases, writers find it impossible to track back to the precise moment when the idea came to them.

HAUNTED

For my new supernatural thriller, Haunted, I’m in the rare position to tell you exactly how I got the idea

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

I love reading biographies – opening that window onto another life and breathing in the loves and losses, achievements and disasters of a stranger. I was reading a biography of the brilliant inventor Thomas Alva Edison (the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ – creator and developer of, among many other scientific miracles, the light bulb, the movie camera, the telephone and the record player) when my eye chanced upon a tiny detail… and a startling fact.

In 1920 Edison claimed to the press that he was on the verge of inventing a telephone for talking with the dead! Now, Thomas was a great practical joker, especially with journalists, so when he died ten years later and no evidence of this ‘Ghost Machine’ could be found among his detailed laboratory notes, everyone thought he’d been pulling their legs and the story was pretty much forgotten. But this bizarre claim got me thinking…What if…? (Now that simple question is the starting point for all ideas that eventually become books). What if Edison wasn’t joking? What if he really did invent the Ghost Machine? What then became of it? In the interviews he proclaimed the machine boldly to the world, so why would he afterwards never mention it again? Did something awful, something terrifying happen when he first tested it? Yes, I thought… But Edison was as vain as he was brilliant. Could he really bring himself to destroy such a remarkable device?

Hello...? Is anybody there...?

Hello…? Is anybody there…?

And so I wondered, what if the Ghost Machine is still around? And what if it turned up in a small English town in dead of winter? A town cut off by a snowstorm, maybe… Yes! (I was getting excited now!). And what if someone was using this diabolical device to call back the spirits of the dead to our world? The hungry departed, who, arriving in the helpless town of Milton Lake, begin to possess the living, one soul at a time…

So there you have it. After the initial idea struck there was, of course, a lot of work to do. I had to come up with loads of exciting twists and turns, as well as a mystery with, I hope, a shocking solution. I also needed a strong main character to drive the story forward. This last challenge was perhaps the most daunting and rewarding. For the first time I’d be writing from the point of view of a female hero, the determined and damaged Emma Rhodes…

But to learn more about Emma, the dangers she faces, the lessons she learns, and the devastating secrets she uncovers, well, you’ll just have to read the book!

IMG_8361William Hussey has a Masters Degree in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. His novels are inspired by long walks in the lonely Fenlands of Lincolnshire and by a lifetime devoted to horror stories, folklore and legends. William lives in Skegness and writes stories about things that go bump in the night…

Follow him on Twitter @WHusseyAuthor or visit his website.

Read Turn Her Face to the Wall, a special short story by William.

Haunted is out now.

HAUNTED

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

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