Can carrots really help you to see in the dark?

Our lovely marketing manager Nicola Gray celebrates the publication of the paperback edition of Chickens Can’t See in the Dark by sharing a whole host of weird and wonderful chicken and carrot facts.

9780192756800_CHICKENS_CANT_SEE_DARK_CVR_JAN13This month we are celebrating the publication of Chickens Can’t See in the Dark in paperback, a fun story with the added bonus of encouraging kids to eat their carrots! It’s the tale of a plucky young chicken called Pippa and her quest to find the truth behind the Old Hens’ tale that chickens cannot see in the dark. Pippa stumbles upon the theory that carrots are the answer to her chicken conundrum and that a feast of carrots is all that is needed for night vision.

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 But can carrots help you to see in the dark?

It’s not just chickens who have believed that munching carrots have this beneficial side effect. During the Second World War, Britain’s Air Ministry spread the rumour that eating carrots helped their pilots to see Nazi bombers attacking at night. Although experiments had been conducted into carotene contained in carrots and night blindness, no enhancement of night vision was found. In fact, this rumour was used to cover the Royal Air Force’s latest radar equipment to prevent the Germans from finding out about their new technology.

The lie was so convincing that it spread amongst the English public who began to grow and eat more carrots to help them to navigate more easily during blackouts. So there we have it, it’s a myth.

Or is it? Carrots are known to contain lots of Vitamin A, an important vitamin for healthy vision, so there is an element of truth in Pippa’s carrot theory.

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Crazy carrot factoids

While we’re on the topic of carrots, I’ve got a few more facts up my sleeve to astonish and amaze:

  • Did you know that the world’s longest carrot measured 5.841 m (19 ft 1.96 in) and was grown by Joe Atherton, for the UK National Giant Vegetable Championship in Somerset?
  • Eating three carrots can give you enough energy to walk three miles. I’m not personally volunteering to try this one, if anyone else does please do let me know if it’s true.
  • Carrots can be found in colours other than orange. There are varieties in purple, white, yellow, and red.
  • The record for the largest amount of carrots peeled chopped in one minute is held by James Martin. He peeled and chopped 515 grams of carrots for a Children in Need special of Ready Steady Cook.
  • Off on a slight tangent, did you know that the fastest marathon dressed as a vegetable is 3 hr 09 min 21 sec and was achieved by Michael Neville dressed as a carrot at the Virgin London Marathon on 25 April 2010?

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Feathery facts

And for those of you who would like some enlightenment on our feathered friends, fear not, I also have a selection of top chicken facts:

  • The scientific name for a chicken is Gallus domesticus. The word chicken is of Germanic origin.
  • Believe it or not, according to one article, the chicken is the closest living relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex.
  • Chickens are not capable of sustained flight. Rubber chickens however are! A group of students in California sent a rubber chicken to an altitude of 120,000 ft to test the levels of radiation it would be exposed to.

It’s all well and good sharing these facts with you, but I now have an intense craving for carrot cake. I’m consoling myself that it must count as one of my five fruit and vegetable portions for the day. Or at least might help me see in the dark.

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Nicola picNicola Gray is Marketing Manager at OUP Children’s Books

 

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Chickens Can’t See in the Dark is out now in paperback, hardback and eBook format.

On national storytelling week: the power of storytelling

Liz CrossThis week has been designated national storytelling week, and that has turned my mind to the ancient art of oral storytelling. More specifically, it has set me thinking about books in which oral storytelling plays an important part – and what those books can tell us about the power of stories. I thought I would share my thoughts on three such books in particular.

Perhaps the most obvious example of a story about storytelling is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In this story Scheherazade saves her own life through the power of storytelling – by beginning a new story to the cruel sultan each night, but leaving it unfinished so that he has no choice but to leave her alive until the next day so he can hear the end of the story. This clever ploy rings so true because we have all felt that total absorption in a well-told story, and the almost desperate need to hear it through to its conclusion. Stories matter to us for so many reasons, but one of the most important factors has to be the fact that stories are complete in themselves, that they do come to an end, and then leave us to make sense of what we have heard. In our own lives we yearn to impose narrative order, looking for happy ever afters and final resolutions – but of course that is not how life works.

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Of course this is not to say that stories always end neatly, or in the way we might expect. A recent book in which oral storytelling plays an important part is Patrick Ness’s wonderful A Monster Calls. Here, the monster that comes to Conor tells him a series of stories, which twist off in unexpected directions, challenging all Conor’s assumptions and certainties. As Conor comes to realize, “Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn’t expect.” But for the monster and, eventually, for Conor, stories are about Truth – and while the stories go off in unexpected directions, they are never random directions: they are always heading towards the right ending, the ending that carries the Truth of that particular story. This has to be one of the most magical parts of storytelling, and the one that is hardest to analyse – that sense of completeness, of rightness, at the end of a well-formed story. The ending can be funny, or heart-warming, or startling, or heart-breaking – but it will just in some undefinable way feel right.

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Geraldine McCaughrean’s new novel, The Positively Last Performance, published next week, is also packed with stories. In this wonderful, rich novel, Gracie and her parents move into a disused theatre in a seaside town. Only Gracie can see and hear the many ghosts that live there, and as she urges them all in turn to tell her how they got to be there, the power of the stories they tell transforms everything – for themselves, for the theatre, and for Gracie. This is a book in which the stories told fulfil a myriad different functions – they entertain (of course), they inform, they share secrets, they help the storytellers make sense of their own experiences, and they bring teller and listeners together in a truly meaningful way. It leaves us with a real sense of how storytelling is a powerful shared experience, and can be equally powerful for teller and audience. (And of course, it’s an enormously entertaining, enjoyable story in its own right – do get hold of a copy!)

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These are three extraordinary books in which oral storytelling plays an important part, each of which illuminates the power of storytelling in a different way. Of course there are also many books in which books themselves – real or imaginary – play an important part, and I will come back to some of those in another blog post soon. In the meantime, I am sure there are many more wonderful books in which the characters tell each other stories with all sorts of differing effects – I would love to hear your favourites.

Liz Cross, Head of Publishing, OUP Children’s Books

Liz Cross

Find out more about National Storytelling Week

Find out more about:

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights

A Monster Calls

The Positively Last Performance

Editing children’s books – a love story

Jasmine1Let me introduce myself. I’m Jasmine Richards and I have been a senior commissioning editor at Oxford University Press Children’s Books for four years. I have worked in publishing for nine years or so and one questions that I often get asked is: ‘how do you become a commissioning editor?’ I’ll do my best to answer that in this post or at the very least tell you a little bit about my path into publishing and why I think my job is AWESOME!

How I became a commissioning editor

Everyone’s route into publishing is different but I think they all begin with a passion for books. I have been a lifelong reader of children’s books. Indeed, the fact that I was still reading children’s books when I was an adult was my first clue that I should work in children’s publishing!

I studied English Literature and Language at Oxford University and learnt lots about analysing books and talking about them. After I left university, I worked for a year going to state schools around the country where I talked to young people about higher education and its benefits. I realized how important books were in terms of raising aspirations and how they had raised my aspirations as a child without me even really noticing! After that epiphany, I just knew I had to work with books.

I started off on the Penguin Graduate Programme. It was an eighteen month programme where I got to work in lots of different parts of the business—marketing, publicity, sales, a stint in the Penguin US office as well as children and adult editorial. Because I got to work in so many different parts of the business I was absolutely sure that I wanted to work in children’s editorial at the end of the programme.

After my time at Penguin ended, I took up an editorial position at a company called Working Partners where I developed and edited books such as Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest. I then moved over to OUP Children’s Books where I would become the editor of authors like Gillian Cross and Julia Golding.

What I do all day

I love being a senior commissioning editor at OUP because there is no such thing as a typical day. I can often be found in meetings, be they marketing meetings, cover meetings, or acquisitions meetings. I might be busy writing book blurbs or additional information for sales sheets, or maybe a piece of passion for a website, a letter to booksellers, or indeed a blog post like this!

A big part of my job is finding new talent and so that means reading new submissions. I love the fact that every time you are reading a submission you could be about to find the ONE—it’s a bit like speed dating and rather exciting (especially as I have never actually been speed dating)!

Another part of my job that I adore is editing manuscripts from authors already on our list.  I really enjoy working with authors and realizing their vision for a book.

Other elements of my job include negotiating with agents over contracts or talking to my colleagues about scheduling and progress of current projects. I’ll speak frequently to our rights team about possible angles to help pitch a book to foreign publishers and I’ll often be on the phone to an author talking about a new idea or how a book event went. I’ll attend book launches, writing conferences and book fairs.

If I’m honest, there’s really not enough hours in the day to do the job but it is always varied and stimulating and I get to work with books all day long (and get paid for it). Result!

Choosing books: how I fall in love

Now another question that I often get asked is: ‘what makes you acquire a book?’

And the answer is simple— I’ve got to fall in love.

In the first instance, it might be an idea that I’ve fallen in love with. An idea that makes you sit up and go WOW, that’s something a bit different.

A killer idea would make me dip straight into a script right there and then even if I have a million other things to do.

A good first line would keep me reading.

When I first started in this role, I had a wish list—dark fiction, thrillers, some classic adventure stories for 9+ readers. But the longer I do this job, the more I feel that genre is not my main focus. It is those books that refuse to let you off the hook that find their way into my heart.

That hook may be a driving plot that won’t let you put the book down. It might be characters that move you so deeply that you can’t stop reading because you need to know that they will be okay. It might be the way that a book makes you feel—happy, excited or scared and the fact that you don’t want that feeling to end.

These books don’t come along every day.   Authors who can make you laugh and cry, gasp and cheer all in the same novel are rare. Which is why when you find them, it is a bit like striking storytelling gold.

Discovering Dave Cousins, author of 15 Days without a Head and new novel Waiting for Gonzo, was a golden moment for me.  I came across his writing in an anthology called Undiscovered Voices and immediately knew that I wanted to read more of his writing. Very soon after that first reading we put in an offer for his debut novel 15 Days Without a Head.

Waiting for Gonzo, Dave’s second book, follows the character of Oz and his move to a small village up north called Slowleigh. Oz has big mouth and it soon gets him into big trouble with Isobel Skinner the school psycho.

Oz is not a character that you will forget easily. He’s flawed yes but charming and funny, and underneath it all has a good heart. The cast of characters that surround him are also unforgettable. There’s Meg, Oz’s older sister who has a problem of her own which is getting bigger by the day. Then there’s Oz’s friend Ryan and a pair of notorious hobbit feet.

Dave’s writing manages to be funny and emotional, surprising and satisfying. There’s a lovely accessibility to his writing but you know every sentence has been crafted and honed. Don’t wait too long to read Waiting for Gonzo—you’re in for a real treat. And it is a reminder to me why I became an editor and how lucky I am to do the job that I do.


Jasmine Richards, Senior Commissioning Editor
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Waiting for Gonzo publishes in March.

Visit Dave Cousins’ website to hear the Waiting for Gonzo playlist, and watch the amazing Waiting for Gonzo trailer on You Tube.

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Exploring children’s language: the BBC Radio 2 500 Words competition and the Oxford Children’s Corpus

Today marks the start of this year’s BBC Radio 2 500 Words competition, run by the Chris Evans Breakfast Show. The competition asks children aged 13 or under to compose an original work of fiction of 500 words. The entries are judged by a star-studded cast of children’s authors, with the winning entries read out live on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show.  Find out more on the BBC website.

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We are extremely excited to say that we will be teaming up with BBC Radio 2 and BBC Learning to work with the competition for a second year, providing language research using our unique Children’s Corpus, our huge language database.

We will collect and analyse all the words in the stories entered into the competition, and with the help of the Oxford Children’s Corpus, explore the ways children use language today; pick out their favourite words, discover new words, and even look at how they use punctuation for dramatic effect!

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2012 findings: top words, invented words, and unusual words used by the children

Here are just a few gems from our findings from last year. There were some amazing invented words, impressive use of correct spelling, and fascinating regional and gender differences in the kind of language the children used.

You might also be interested to read the Guardian article Why children find it easier to spell ‘pterodactyl’ and ‘Hermione’, written by lexicographer and school teacher Jane Bradbury, which explores some of the most fascinating findings from the 2012 research. Jane was part of the OUP language research team for the 2012 500 Words competition.

Top words

  • Mum and friend were in the top ten nouns used by the children.
  • The most common noun was door – used 67, 783 times!
  • Technology has changed the way in which traditional words are used. While there are 1,124 instance of mobile, the vast majority refer to mobile telephones, while just 0.1% of refer to the traditional cot toy. Of nearly 300 occurrences of blackberry, more than half refer to phones rather than fruit.
  • Girls used the word school frequently – but it wasn’t in the boys’ top ten nouns.
  • Both boys and girls had cars in their stories (the word was used 21, 265 times) but boys were much more likely to mention exactly the type of car (Ferrari, BMW, Ford) than girls.

Spelling and punctuation

  • Children knew or took time to check the spelling of unusual or technical words. Children as young as 7 spelled pterodactyl, palomino, archaeologist, and spectacular correctly, almost 100% of the time. However, children had difficulty spelling more common words such as don’t and doesn’t.
  • The poor old apostrophe was often misused. But, the exclamation mark was used 351,731 times!
  • Adults are sometimes concerned that children’s spelling will be affected by ‘txtspk’ – but young writers ‘knew the difference’. It was only used when a text message was included in the story.
  • US vocabulary and spelling influenced the children’s writing, with some US terms existing alongside UK terms, especially in the 10-13 age group, e.g. flashlight, garbage truck, trash can, sidewalk, sneakers, soda, tuxedo. Both US and UK English appear in some sentences: They have a drink of soda each and porridge to help their brain power. I walked onto the cobbled pavement, opening the metal trashcan.

Invented words

  • The children are wonderfully inventive, particularly in their use of technology, e.g. apps are now being used as ways to enter a fantasy world, like the earlier rabbit holes or wardrobes. Genetic experimentation is another popular topic: He said that I was a clone spliced from a human and a reptile.
  • There are lots of brilliant similes: as saggy as a baboons bum; as tall as a dozen giraffes standing on top of each other; as soft as a new bought dressing gown from M and S; as puzzled as a baby doing proper fractions.
  • New and futuristic gadgets in spy and sci‐fi stories: fingerlaser, electrospecs, a zaporator (to shrink planets), a shrinkiniser, an electrostone (to disable electrical circuits), a shutdownotron, and a takeovertheworldinator; telepaper (visual newspaper), hologrammails, galactagraph, astro‐bus.
  • We also have amazing titles: How biscuits, mustard and prune juice can save the world…
  • And some fantastic story openers: It was the night I became a hero with my pyjamas turned inside out.

 Unusual words

  • There is a fantastic range of sophisticated words used throughout the stories. Many are surprising because they are very unusual or showed very creative ways of using descriptive words, e.g.

BOYS 9 YEARS & UNDER: galactical, pyramidal, spherical (words relating to space and shape) elven‐cloaked, trench‐like, spectre‐like (illustrative compounds), cerulean‐blue scaly wings, titanic white serrated teeth (phrases)

BOYS 10‐13 YEARS: ominous (used to describe a character’s goatee beard), caliginous, cybernetic, fathomless, labyrinthine, pulchritudinous, bloodsucking, bone‐shattering, dragon like, horror‐struck, piranha‐infested, soul‐warming, terror‐stricken

GIRLS 9 YEARS & UNDER: apotropaic, crocodilian, lachrymose, rancid, sumptuous; He did make lots of crocodilian friends at the zoo

GIRLS 10‐13 YEARS: acrid, bodacious, caliginous, nefarious, parsimonious, stentorian, vulpine, maggot‐infested, saliva‐cobwebbed, wraith‐like.

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Our continued involvement with the competition for 2013 will help deepen our understanding of children’s language as part of our on-going language research and inform our dictionary compilation programme. We are also sure that we will continue to be inspired by the creativity and inventiveness of children and their use of language.

Find out more about our unique children’s corpus, our children’s dictionaries range, and our free dictionary resources.

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The Heart of the Ocean: White Dolphin and Saving our Seas

The wonderful Gill Lewis shares her thoughts on a matter close to her heart, and central to her fantastic novel White Dolphin: the protection of our oceans and sea life.

Gill LewisWhen was the last time you scrambled over rocks on the beach and probed deep into the pools of water left by the ebbing tide? We’ve all felt that sense of excitement and wonder to step barefoot into these mini other-worlds, searching for strange creatures in the swathes of seaweed and beneath rocks and pebbles; transparent bodied shrimps, snakeslocks anemones with luminous green tentacles, limpets held tight fast against the rock, small crabs and maybe even a starfish or two.

Rock-pools give us only a small glimpse of what lies beneath the waves around our British coastline. The seabed is alive with all forms of bizarre and wonderful life, in living landscapes as dramatic as those on land. There are mountains and deep valleys, towering cliffs jeweled with anemones, caves hiding sea-monsters, forests of kelp, vast underwater deserts of sand and mud. Our reefs are home to bright corals and sponges, feather stars and sea fans. All these delicate habitats provide breeding and feeding grounds for bigger fish, which in turn feed the bigger fish and birds and mammals found around our shores. We have breeding bird colonies so vast that you can hear and smell the birds a mile out to sea. We have resident pods of bottlenose dolphin, visiting whales and orca.

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It was my own chance sightings of dolphins around our shores that inspired the initial idea for White Dolphin. Yet, as I began to delve deeper into research about dolphins I began to discover the dangers they face; from capture for the meat and the entertainment trade to degradation of their habitats from overfishing, pollution and acidification of the water.

Our insatiable desire for fish has depleted our global fish stocks. All around the world, we have bigger fishing vessels going after fewer fish. These vessels have the technology to map the underwater landscape and search for shoals of fish. They can mop up every last fish, pulling dredges across the seabed, destroying the delicate sea floor. They pull nets capable of fitting three jumbo jets inside. Fish stocks are collapsing. Some have gone already. It’s not just the fish that are affected. Many mammals and birds are killed too, ensnared in nets and on long baited lines.

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All this paints a fairly bleak picture. Yet there is hope for the future of the seas.

And so White Dolphin became Kara’s story, about a girl fighting to save the reef in the bay of her hometown from overfishing and destruction by commercial dredgers. She knows the reef must be protected to ensure the fishing community and the oceans have a future. Kara also carries the hope that there can be a future for our seas, by belief, determination and by never giving up.

Alone, her voice goes unheard, but as she finds out, many voices can make a difference.

Kara’s story was inspired by true stories of marine conservation from around the world; the Lyme Bay Reef Project, Goat Island Bay reserve in New Zealand, protected reefs in St Lucia. In these protected areas, the ‘spillover effect’, where fish stocks are replenished and spill over to non-protected areas have positive impacts on commercial fishing and increase the health of the marine eco-system.

Currently, less than 1% of the oceans have some form of conservation status.

If 30% of the world’s oceans were protected, we could have healthy seas and sustainable fishing for now and for future generations. FOR. EVER. 

Common Dolphins

We all love to see dolphins leaping out of the water, but the problem brewing beneath our seas has been out of sight and out of mind for too many years.

So what can we do?

We can buy seafood from sustainable and well-managed fisheries. We can ask our fishmonger or look for the blue Marine Stewardship Council label on the packaging.

MSC label

But no fish stocks are truly sustainable at current levels of fishing. Ours seas are at risk of becoming devoid of fish, and filled with jellyfish and slime instead.

So we need lobby MPs and the government and fight for clean seas and marine protected areas and for intelligent laws that protect our oceans and promote sustainable fishing. We need to sign petitions such as the online Wildlife Trust Living Seas Petition Fish.

Maybe then, our voices will be heard, and maybe then, we can make a difference.

Gill Lewis

Gill Lewis spent much of her childhood in the garden where she ran a small zoo and a veterinary hospital for creepy-crawlies, mice, and birds. When she grew up she became a real vet and travelled from the Arctic to Africa in search of interesting animals and places. She worked in Cornwall for several years and spent many hours of her spare time in the cold Atlantic, learning how to fall off a surfboard.

She now writes books for children. She lives in the depths of Somerset with her husband and three children and writes from a tree house in the company of squirrels.

Visit Gill’s website

Follow Gill on Twitter

The stunning White Dolphin is out now.

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Gill’s debut novel, Sky Hawk, was published to much critical acclaim and has been translated into twenty languages.

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And look out for Gill’s forthcoming novel, Moon Bear, publishing in May.

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Phonics explained

In 2012 the government introduced an annual phonics check for all children in England in year 1, which supports the synthetic phonics method of teaching reading in schools.

You may feel unsure about how to approach helping children learn to read using phonics. In this post we’ll be explaining briefly what phonics is, along with some information on the phonics screening check. We hope you find it helpful!

You’ll find lots more information on phonics at www.oxfordowl.co.uk

So what is phonics?

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Synthetic phonics is a method used in schools as a way of teaching children how to read.

Children are taught to read letters, or groups of letters, by saying the sound(s) they represent. Children can then start to read words by blending the sounds together from left to right to make a word.

There’s a really useful video on the Oxford Owl website, where phonics expert Ruth Miskin explains what phonics is, along with some top tips on getting started with phonics.

You can listen to the correct way to say the sounds in the Phonics Made Easy section of the Oxford Owl website, as well as how to blend the sounds into words.

The Year 1 Phonics Screening Check

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The Year 1 Phonics Screening Check is taken individually by all children in England in Year 1 (children age 5-6) in June. It is a short, light-touch assessment used by teachers to ensure that children are making sufficient progress in their phonics skills and are on track to become fluent readers who can enjoy reading for pleasure and for learning.

The handy Phonics Screening Check FAQ guide on the Oxford Owl website, from phonics advisor Laura Sharp, provides lots of information on the check. The most important thing to remember is that it is a check, not a test, and is designed to identify whether a child needs any additional support so that they don’t fall behind.

Phonics support at home

There is a wealth of free support and advice on phonics on the Phonics Made Easy section of the Oxford Owl website.

We also produce a range of useful resources for parents wishing to support their child’s phonics learning at home, based on how children learn at school.

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For some fun phonics practice at home, My Phonics Kit is specially developed for 6 year olds. It contains 3 full-colour phonics workbooks, a CD-ROM with interactive eBooks and activities, reward chart, stickers, and leaflet for parents with information about the phonics screening check and features the much-loved Read with Biff, Chip and Kipper characters.

We’ve had lots of great feedback on the kit from parents; here are just a few from Mama Syder, Read it Daddy, and Mad House Family Reviews

 my phonics kit

Complementing My Phonics Kit are My Phonics Flashcards. Young children learn best when they are having fun, and these playing cards help practise phonics skills by reading words and playing games.

my phonics flashcards

We also publish a unique Oxford Phonics Spelling Dictionary, where words are ordered by initial phonic sound, with subsections to show how the same sounds appear in the middle or at the end of a word. This makes it easy to explain how ‘sun’ and ‘Cinderella’ both start with the ‘s’ sound, and how ‘dance’ has the same ‘s’ sound at the end.

 my phonics dictionary

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And don’t forget, you’ll find lots more information on phonics at www.oxfordowl.co.uk

Chaos lurking in the everyday: Matt Dickinson on Chaos Theory

Everest climber, adventure film maker and author extraordinaire Matt Dickinson joins us to discuss all things Chaos Theory. Over to Matt . . .

mattTwo BIG reasons to celebrate! (Well…three actually)

It’s a New Year and the Mayan doomsday scenario was wrong (so far—phew!)

And . . .

My new book Speed Freaks (the 3rd Mortal Chaos book) is just out!

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And, as if that isn’t enough, in a few days time I’ll be leaving for South America and a climbing expedition to Mt Aconcagua (6959 metres)—the highest peak in the world outside of the Himalaya. I’ve been training like crazy for this demanding climb, which has a reputation as one of the coldest and windiest on the planet.

But that doesn’t mean I went easy on the Christmas Pudding—all climbers know that they should arrive at Base Camp six kilos overweight (it helps your body deal with the cold—ahem, it’s true, honest!)

2012—a great (but Chaotic) year

How many school events did I do last year? Truth is, I lost count. But it could easily be seventy or perhaps even more. Falkirk, Manchester, Dundee, Ipswich, Taunton, Coventry . . . promoting Mortal Chaos and meeting a lot of cool people. It’s all a bit of a blur. Thank goodness for Sicilian Lemon cheesecake and Skinny Lattes at Cafe Neros all over the land; I couldn’t have survived without it!

I spoke to pupils at every type of school—and every age group—but the most frequent question was this:

Is Chaos Theory real? Does the ‘Butterfly Effect’ really exist?

Well they certainly do! You are living proof that the smallest tiny variations in the way something starts can lead to big changes later on. Just as a butterfly flapping its wings in the jungle CAN cause a hurricane to rip through the USA, so are all the vital characteristics that make you YOU caused by miniscule  variations in the chemical codes on your DNA.

Small events really do lead to big and unpredictable consequences—you only have to check out a few news websites to find that out for real.

The Seagull/Baguette debacle!

This is a good example of chaos theory at work; the day a baguette dropped by a seagull shut down mankind’s most prestigious science experiment.

How strangely ironic that a tiny piece of bread could cause such mayhem. And who dropped that piece of bread in the first place? I can feel a future Mortal Chaos storyline coming on already!

Deer run horse race

Three wild deer get freaked out by the crowds at a race track and end up running the race! But what would have happened if the horses had been on the track at the same time? And what caused the deer to get so lost?

I love the way the commentator just keeps doing his job.

The dark side of chaos theory

Many people have asked me if it is really possible that big accidents can happen because of small events in nature (as happens in every Mortal Chaos story). The answer to that one is definitely yes, as this tragic chaos event from Africa demonstrates.

Why was the passenger carrying the croc? To sell it? For food? How had it been captured? How did it escape on the plane?

A proposal—just an idea from yours truly

In fact, while we’re about it, why isn’t chaos theory taught as a subject at school? In my opinion that would be a great idea; how many other scientific subjects can embrace biology, mathematics, logic, philosophy and current news stories all at once?

Will we one day see ‘Chaos Theory Studies’ as a GCSE choice?

I certainly hope so—it would be hard to imagine a more intriguing and mind expanding subject!

Matt Dickinson

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Matt Dickinson is a writer and film maker with an enduring (and sometimes dangerous) passion for wild places. Trained at the BBC, Matt has filmed many award-winning documentaries for National Geographic television, Discovery Channel and Channel 4.

As a director/cameraman he has worked with some of the world’s top climbers and adventurers, joining them on their expeditions to the Himalayas and beyond. But Matt’s proudest moment was filming on the summit of Mount Everest having successfully scaled the treacherous north face of the world’s highest peak.

He was only the fifth British climber ever to do so, and this experience led to the publication of Matt’s best-selling first book for adults The Death Zone.

Visit Matt’s blog

Follow Matt on Twitter

Like the Mortal Chaos Facebook page

Speed Freaks, the latest Mortal Chaos adventure, is out now! And don’t forget to experience the thrill of Mortal Chaos and Deep Oblivion

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Authorship as autobiography: Joanna Nadin and Rachel Riley

Joanna Nadin on that hallowed object, the teenage diary, and the influence of her teenage years on the hilarious Rachel Riley Diaries.

Joanna NadinOne of the most-oft asked questions of writers is: “Is the book autobiographical?” Or “Is there any of you in there?”

The easy answer is that every book contains a little of its author: these are, after all, words we have sweated, cried, laughed, sometimes screamed over. But in the case of My So-Called Life, what’s on the page is pretty much all of me. Well, of the thirteen-year-old me that was stuck in a small market town in Essex non-affectionately known as Suffering Boredom.

Joanna Nadin teen photo

Joanna as a teenager

I had started out trying to write a tragedy. The kind of book I had devoured as an orphan-obsessed teenager (and adult), the kind involving star-crossed lovers, or mysterious benefactors, or just an ill-advised night in a nightclub in Camden. But the thing was, I had never experienced any of these things, been to any of these places, at least not until I was old enough to know better, and be constantly checking my watch to make sure I could get the last tube home. As Rachel says:

“Why is life never like it is in books? Nothing Jacqueline Wilson ever happens to me: I am not adopted, my mum is not tattooed, I am not likely to move to the middle of a council estate or be put into care. My parents are not alcoholics, drug addicts or closet transvestites. Even my name is pants.”

And so I went back to my own diaries I had kept at school, in the hope of unearthing something, anything wracked with even a tinge of tragedy. I found this:

5 October 1985
Went to Stephen Howell’s 16th at Wenden’s Ambo Village Hall. Drunk dubious champagne that Lucia won at the bingo in Spain. She and Boo went as Madonna. I went as me because mum won’t let me wear fingerless gloves. Anyway it was totally depressing as the love of my life i.e. Nick, is going out with Big Debbie B. And she does IT.

26 October 1985
Have got off with Guy.

7 November 1985
I really like Guy.

8 November 1985
Have decided to chuck Guy. Karen is going to tell him for me at work tomorrow.

It’s not Romeo and Juliet. It’s not even ITV drama. But the thing is, there is a kind of tragedy to it. Not the kind to take a vial of poison over, more the kind to mope about listening to The Smiths to. But it doesn’t make it any less devastating – the stakes still feel as high. No, my first kiss wasn’t on a balcony, to a background of violins, with a boy I was meeting in secret because our families were at war. It was at a lower school disco, to the sound of Spandau Ballet, with a boy who kept pigs. But I still couldn’t eat or sleep afterwards. Or go near the school farm without thinking I might “literally die” from sheer excitement and embarrassment.

Joanna Nadin teen picture 2

And so that’s what I wrote about. Small town lives. The ones that don’t usually get immortalized in print. And we’re all in there: my friend Jude became Scarlet, Stuart became Sad Ed (though in real life he has never had upper arm issues). I won’t say who the Kylies are based on, but they were very real, and very mean. My family is there too – though it’s me, not James who can sing the books of the bible off by heart – I do have to get some revenge on him for being sick on my Noggin the Nog book aged five.

So this really is my so-called life. Welcome to it . . .

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.

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The first Rachel Riley Diary, My So-Called Life, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in March, May, Jul, Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

The story comes first: teaching playfully in picture books

Picture book author Ann Bonwill on the key to tackling preschool social issues in picture books (without need of a soapbox)

annWhen my editor, Helen, expressed interest in a sequel to I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, I was thrilled. I had come to love my characters, Hugo and Bella, and the chance to write about them again was exciting.

hugo and bella

Endpapers for I am not a Copycat!, featuring Hugo the hippo and Bella the bird

But while their first story had come to me rather easily, the second one did not follow that same path. I found it challenging to stay true to the characters, voice, and tone of the first book while simultaneously crafting an original storyline and adding enough new elements to make things interesting.

Helen and I agreed that there were two aspects we wanted to keep consistent in the books. The first was the technique of telling the story almost entirely through dialogue. This proved to be enjoyable, as I have a lot of fun hearing the voices of Hugo and Bella in my head. The second aspect was less enjoyable – the task of examining a preschool social issue and (I shudder to say it) teaching a lesson about it.

As the mother of a four year old, I am surrounded by preschool social issues. Observing my son playing with a friend generates a laundry list of social skills that he is beginning to negotiate – how to share, how to take turns, how to open a juice carton without squirting the other person. I had no end of options for social issues to examine, but what did I want to say about them? What lesson did I want to teach? Or, more to the point, did I want to teach a lesson at all?

Teaching a lesson is the kiss of death in picture books. If you’ve read aloud to a group of children and tried to hold their attention, you know that making an overt point must be avoided at all costs. Children need story, not lecture. After all, would you rather relax in the bath with a juicy novel or a self-help book? (Please ignore that I’m writing this in January, when we’re all optimistically leafing through the pages of self-help . . . think back instead to the hedonistic days of December when all you wanted to do was avoid yet another family gathering by escaping into the world of a book, preferably with chocolate close at hand.) Children are no different from us. If anything they need less didacticism in their books than we do, as they are force fed it all day long by a culture that attempts to civilize them at every turn.

That said, the reality is that all my favorite picture books teach a lesson, in that they impart some basic truth about life and give us an example of how (or how not) to respond to it. Even a book that appears to be wholly about fun is sending the message that it’s good to let your hair down now and then. I Don’t Want to be a Pea! certainly has something to take away. It is, at its heart, a story about compromise, about putting friendship first, about making yourself happy by making someone else happy. But I didn’t set out to write about compromise, and therein lies the difference.

Hugo and bella falling out

Spread from I Don’t Want to be a Pea!. Hugo and Bella can’t agree on what to wear to a fancy dress party

In my mind, the distinction between a didactic book and one with a message is that, with a message, the story comes first. The ‘lesson,’ if we need to call it that, grows out of the story in a way that isn’t forced and preachy, it just is. If the story doesn’t come first, we run the risk of losing our audience, losing the magic.

So, imagine my surprise when I found myself trying to do just this – trying to craft a story around a moral rather than letting the story speak moralistically for itself. Usually when I write, the story drives me. The characters, tone, voice, and yes, message, evolve as I go. With the sequel, I already had the characters, tone, and voice, and I knew that I needed a similar type of message. Danger zone.

After abandoning a few drafts as hopelessly didactic, I returned to my rule. The story must come first. I stopped thinking about the issue I’d chosen to tackle (copycat behavior) and focused instead on the antics of a hippo and a bird at the swimming pool, doing synchronized swimming of all things. Writing dialogue helped immensely with this, as I was able stay in the moment through their playful language. I was back to my story.

hugo and bella synchronized swimming

Spread from I am not a Copycat!  

In the end, I am not a Copycat! does have a message. Sometimes it’s fun to be the same. Sometimes it’s fun to be different. Sometimes it’s just fun to make a splash. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate.

ann
Ann Bonwill is the author of eight picture books, including Bug and Bear, Naughty Toes, I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, and I am not a Copycat!. She grew up in Maryland in the United States, surrounded by good books from her mother’s library and good food from her father’s kitchen. Books and food still bring a smile to her face, especially enchiladas with extra guacamole. She shares her life (but not her guacamole) with her husband, son, and crazy corgi dog.

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I am not a Copycat!, Ann Bonwill’s latest book, is out now, illustrated by the wonderful Simon Rickerty.

Hugo the hippo is annoyed about Bella the bird constantly copying what he does. But then, at the swimming pool, Hugo discovers that when his moves are perfectly copied by Bella, their friends are very impressed indeed . . .

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Hugo and Bella first appeared in I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012, and chosen by Julia Donaldson as one of her favourite picture books of 2011.

Hugo and Bella are getting ready for a fancy dress party. Because they both want their own way, they can’t agree on a costume and they almost don’t go to the party at all. In this laugh-out-loud comedy of manners children will discover that compromise is what makes any friendship tick.

The problem with superpowers . . .

What would your perfect superpower be? Ali Sparkes shares hers . . .

ali

Fly? Be invisible? Able to spit acid? Or control other people’s bowel movements..?

I get asked a lot about the superpower I would choose if I could have one, so I’ve given it a lot of thought.

Most people fancy flying or telekinesis (being able to move things with the power of your mind) but hmmmm, I’m not so sure. They both seem like the kind of powers you’d be chucked in a concrete bunker for possessing . . .

If you want a nice life you really need to go for a superpower which won’t freak people out too much. Like . . . Instant Buns. You just stare hard at an empty plate and . . . fwip fwip fwip. . . a plateful of hot buns! Brilliant! Everyone would be your friend, especially if you could do assorted types of buns. And you would never go hungry and could set up your own bun shop with very low overheads.

buns

*sigh* I can see I’m not getting you excited. Hungry, maybe, but not excited.

OK – so how about the power to SILENCE those really annoying continuity announcers who shout STUPID, OVEREXCITED THINGS over the emotionally charged music at the end of the brilliant film you’ve just given two hours of your life to?

You know what I mean. End of amazing and slightly sad movie . . . music swells . . . we’re left with a retreating view of mountains at sunset . . . and. . .

HEY! Don’t forget to stay tuned for news of KATIE PRICE’S latest boob job on KATIE, KATIE, OH DEAR GOD IT’S EVEN MORE KATIE! – right after the break!

I mean, yes, there’s the MUTE button but then you lose all the music and the atmos too.

So. . . SUPER-INSTANT-AUDIO-EDIT-POWER anybody?

No?

How about it instantly turns the continuity announcer into a bowl of jelly at the same time? Yeah?

But that would be unkind. After all, they’ve got to earn a living somehow. It can’t be easy in that little cupboard. They probably secretly yearn to be doing the news on the BBC . . .

When I came up with the assorted superpowers for the COLAs in the Shapeshifter series. . . and now again in Unleashed . . . I knew that most of them were going to be troublesome. The worst is poor Mia’s power – being able to heal people. Imagine that. Imagine if you really could. It would be the most amazing thing but also the most terrible. You would forever feel it was your duty to be helping save people, just because you could – even though it cost you so much in energy and time and made you weak and ill if you overdid it. You’d be surrounded by the sick and ill, all desperate to use your gift. Your life would not be your own. You would really HAVE to keep that power secret.

And of course, telekinesis – as Luke and Gideon find out yet again in their brand new adventure out this month (Unleashed: Mind Over Matter) – is a whole bundle of problems once it gets out. Their talent for moving things with their minds is so amazing and so scary that they end up going everywhere with government minders, like the royal family! I’d hate that.

So, every time, I decide it’s got to be Dax’s power of Shapeshifting. Into animals which are not remarkable in the UK. Dax can fly, swim, run, scent danger and see 20 times better than in his human form whenever he’s shapeshifted. He can look after himself and his friends with his hunting skills and escape all kinds of danger.

And then he can become human again and seem very normal. Perfect!

Yup. Shapeshifting for me and before you ask, yes – to the same forms that Dax shifts to. I’ve thought about this, remember?

How about you? Would an amazing superpower really be worth the loss of anonymity – or the normality among your friends and family? Would the responsibility of it flatten you? Would enemies forever come after you? Would your own people for ever want to use you for their personal gain..?

Come on. Admit it. You’re weighing up Instant Buns again now, aren’t you?

ali

Ali 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 new adventure series about a group of teenagers with special powers, Unleashed.

Visit Ali’s website
Follow Ali Sparkes on Twitter

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Unleashed: Mind Over Matter is out now. Unleashed: Trick or Truth and Unleashed: A Life and Death Job will be published in April and August this year, with further Unleashed titles due for release in 2014.

Unleashed_series

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