Category Archives: blog tour

MG Review: The Boy, The Bird and The Coffin Maker by Matilda Woods

The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker, Matilda Woods, (Scholastic, May 2017)

Today I’m part of the blog tour for this dazzling debut.

Genres in the mix: magical realism, fairy tale

Age target: MG (9-12)

Story basics: (from press release) Alberto lives alone in the town of Allora, where fish fly out of the sea and the houses shine like jewels. He is a coffin maker, spending his quiet,solitary days creating the final resting places of Allora’s people. That is until the day a mysterious boy and his magical bird arrive – fleeing from danger and in search of a safe haven…

Tito is wary, fearful and suspicious of kindness, but as the winter days grow colder and darker, Alberto’s home grows warmer and brighter. Can Tito and his bird be sheltered from the town’s prying eyes and the shadows of their past?

A magical story of life and death and of how hope can burn bright in a place touched by sadness.

The emotional ride: a beautiful read, which pulled at my heartstrings in several places. Although it doesn’t shy away from death (the coffin maker switches job to coffin maker in the first prologue-like chapter when his wife and children die!), as the tone is very fairy-tale like, child readers will handle it well, I feel – there’s plenty of death and drama in Grimm, after all, even our fairly sanitised versions.

Hot buttons/classroom opportunities: this would make a lovely class read, with plenty of chances for ‘what should they do?’ type discussions (so SMSC opps) as well as the chance to unpick and explore the fairy tale style and allusions (but see Minerva Reads’ post on this tour for more detail on that topic – she’s already covered it so well).

Narrative style: as mentioned already, the style is very much that of a fairy tale. It’s lyrical and gentle and feels like a fairy tale world, in which anything is possible. The tone allows for some heavy themes to be tackled without heavy-handedness.

Main characters: the two human characters mentioned in the title are brilliantly drawn and it is easy to empathise with both. Child readers are bound to warm to Alberto, and to want Tito to trust him (as did I). Tito’s reticence is palpable, and although it is quite a while before the reason for it is revealed, it is always credible.

Hearthfire rating: 9/10 A scorcher!

The Boy, The Bird and the Coffin Maker is out now in the UK from Scholastic, who provided me with a review copy.

@ScholasticUK     @Matildawrites

The tour continues tomorrow at The Reader’s Corner

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

Blog Tour: Flexing Your Creative Muscle with Maz Evans

Today, I’ve got Maz Evans here as part of her Who Let the Gods Out blog tour (see below for more on the fab Greek-mythology-based romp for 9+)

As our heartfelt New Year promises to nurture physical muscles languish at the bottom of a selection box, I propose that now is a good time to turn our attention to a different muscle – our creativity.

No, I’m not high on my gluten-free, alkaline, low-GI protein smoothie – creativity is a muscle like any other. Use it often and it will become more powerful. Let it waste and no amount of supportive underwear can help it.

Think about it. At some point in your life, maybe you’ve learned to play an instrument or taken up a sport? You weren’t born with these skills. You may have had some natural ability, but in order to fully realise it, you had to practice. The more you play the violin, the less your neighbours want to move. The more you practise your penalty shoot-outs, the fewer windows needed replacing. The more creative you are, the more creative you become.

When I run my Story Stew workshops, I always start by asking everyone if they believe themselves to be a creative, or non-creative person. Various hands go up – as does a sigh of disbelief when I tell them there is no such thing as a non-creative person. But you have to be creative to get through a day on planet Earth. You solve problems – creative. You tell stories – creative. You persuade people to do things for you – creative. You probably tell at least one lie – wrong, but creative.

Next time you’re writing a story, force your creativity to work harder. If you’re writing about a man who wants a dog, why not make him a woman? And she’s a hippo. And she actually wants a parsnip. But she lives on Jupiter where no parsnips will grow. And unless she delivers a parsnip trifle by 3pm, the Lesser-Spotted Krinkenshlob will eat her favourite orange stripy hat…

As demonstrated, you may come up with a load of rubbish. Sometimes your first idea is your best. But somewhere in the mental seed-tray, an idea might start to germinate. At the very least, now your brain is warmed up, you will make your original idea more inventive. Your brain is busy and looking for an easy solution – make it work harder.

So this February, resolve to tone up your creativity and whip your ideas into shape.

Because let’s be honest. It’s got to leave a better taste than this smoothie…

@MaryAliceEvans

Maz Evans runs creative writing workshops for all ages. For more info visit www.maz.world.

Elliot’s mum is ill and his home is under threat, but a shooting star crashes to earth and changes his life forever. The star is Virgo – a young Zodiac goddess on a mission. But the pair accidentally release Thanatos, a wicked death daemon imprisoned beneath Stonehenge, and must then turn to the old Olympian gods for help. After centuries of cushy retirement on earth, are Zeus and his crew up to the task of saving the world – and solving Elliot’s problems too?

Who Let the Gods Out is Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for February and is out now from Chicken House.

 

UK Crime Review: Burned and Broken by Mark Hardie

Today I am part of the review tour for a new UK crime novel, out in e-book this week.

Burned and Broken, Mark Hardie, (Sphere, e-book out Jan 2017, paperback May 2017).

Genres in the mix: crime, police procedural

Age target: adult

Story basics: (from the back cover) A vulnerable young woman, fresh out of the care system, is trying to discover the truth behind the sudden death of her best friend.

The charred body of a policeman – currently the subject of an internal investigation – is found in the burnt-out shell of his car on the Southend seafront.

To DS Frank Pearson and DC Catherine Russell of the Essex Police Major Investigation Team, the two events seem unconnected. But as they dig deeper into their colleague’s murder, dark secrets begin to emerge.

Can Pearson and Russell solve both cases, before more lives are destroyed?

Mark Hardie was born in 1960 in Bow, East London. He began writing fulltime after completely losing his eyesight in 2002. He has completed a creative writing course and an advanced creative writing course at the Open University, both with distinction.

Review-in-a-tweet: An intriguing, if not always easy read, which certainly keeps you on your toes. No by-the-book crime thriller!

Narrative style: This is one of the things that makes this book different and, at times, difficult. The perspective/point of view shifts every chapter, and sometimes more frequently, not always with a clear anchor to indicate whose viewpoint we’re in within the first sentence or so. This said, the range of perspectives and ‘insider views’ offered as a result of this is useful and certainly adds to the intrigue, but I do feel it could be handled more tightly at times.

The material at the end of the book says that the author is a fan of both crime and literary fiction, and I think that shows in what he’s doing with the book. This is a relatively unusual crime novel in some ways, in that it is trying to avoid some of the conventions (which it perhaps sees as cliches). At times, however, it felt a bit too much like hard work, as I found myself lost as to whose ‘head’ I was in or even a little unsure as to what had just happened. Not one for late night reading when you’re dozy…

Main characters: I grew to admire DS Pearson, although I wasn’t enamoured of him at first. He doesn’t fit established crime series ‘types’ for the main character, which is nice – in a few key ways, this book does ignore/avoid conventions – and he isn’t always likeable, but not in a maverick cop/tough guy way. I really liked DC Russell though, and she had my sympathy from the start. I thought Hardie did a good job of painting a conflicted female character in a tough spot without resorting to the kinds of cliches male crime writers often have. Donna (the ‘vulnerable young woman’) also avoided some obvious cliches in her presentation I think and although her sections were often tough reading, I feel they were done well.

Hearthfire rating: 7/10 A book to cosy up with

Burned and Broken is out now in e-book format in the UK from Sphere (Little, Brown Books), who provided me with a review copy.

Accepting a review copy does not affect my view of a book and I only finish and review books that I feel able to recommend.

I’m counting this review towards the British Books Challenge 2017.

The blog tour continues tomorrow with these blogs taking part.

UKYACX Blog Tour Post: Killing Books from Dan Smith

It’s almost time for this year’s UKYACX event (formerly known as the UKYA/UKMG Extravaganza). This year, it’s headed north to Newcastle. I’ve been to the last two and they have been brilliant experiences.  A day celebrating reading and writing for young people: what could be better?

UKYACX

Dan SmithTo celebrate this fantastic event, two blog tours are running simultaneously, with YA and MG authors discussing books, writing and libraries. Here at the hearthfire, we’re fortunate to have Dan Smith, author of Big Game, My Brother’s Secret, My Friend The Enemy and latest book: Boy X, about a boy who wakes up to find himself kidnapped on a tropical island – and he’s been injected with a mysterious chemical. Anyway, without further ado, here is what Dan wanted to share with us today on the theme of creating readers.


As she moved around the room passing out the new class reader, my English teacher told us that we were about to read a classic novel. It was brilliant, she told us, and we would love it. I was twelve-years-old, an avid reader of adventure stories and thrillers, and I looked down at the cover with excitement. This new book, with its jungle scene and roughly drawn, spear-carrying boys, held so much promise. Where was this story going to take me? A jungle island? A survival adventure?

Well, as it turned out, it took me through weeks and weeks of dull English lessons as my classmates and I took turns to read a few lines or pages. From time to time we would stop to discuss the themes and messages and . . . blah, blah, blah. And when the weakest readers took their turn, stuttering and stumbling, every word saw my eyelids grow heavier. The pages dragged through autumn term and into spring term. It took a LONG time to read that novel and I thought it was The Most Boring Book. Ever.

School killed that book for me, as it killed many others following it, and it could have killed the very idea of reading for pleasure. If those lessons had been my only contact with books, then I would always have associated books with the boredom of sitting in class. But I was lucky enough to have parents who read a lot. My background was one in which reading had become a major source of entertainment, so I was able to walk away from that classroom and pick up another book which I could read for myself. For pleasure.

I was also lucky that my school ran a monthly book club. Mr Johnson would sit at the back of the school ‘library’ beside a table laden with books of all kinds, and I would look through them and choose which ones I might like. Mr Johnson would smoke his pipe (we’re going back a few years) and talk with enthusiasm about the books. He would make recommendations, and helped me to be excited about books and about stories.

For me, that’s the importance of a school librarian. It’s the importance of an English teacher (or any other teacher) who knows the difference between reading for study and reading for pleasure; who understands that we need to encourage young people to read books they want to read. I appreciate the importance of studying novels, of teaching young people to be analytical and to ask questions. I understand the stress of targets and literacy levels, but we need those librarians and teachers who also haven’t forgotten what novels are really for; that there are no ‘right’ books or ‘wrong’ books and that, yes, novels develop our empathy, encourage creativity, help us to see a new world, and so many other things besides, but that their main function is to entertain us – to make us laugh and cry, to gasp in excitement, or tremble in fear.

Before anything, reading should be a pleasure.

Oh, and that book I read in class? I have since read it for myself, many times, and it’s now one of my favourite novels. If you think you know what it is . . . put your guesses in the comments below!


Thanks Dan (and I’m pretty sure I’m familiar with that book, having had a similar experience…).

If survival in the jungle type adventures are your thing, and you haven’t read Dan’s books, you should definitely add his titles to your wishlist. His website is here. He also writes thrillers for adults.ASh McCarthy

Check out the UKYACX MG BLOG TOUR POSTER and @UKYACX for more info on the blog tour or event.

 

Guest Post from Emma Carroll, author of Strange Star: Why Gothic Fiction Is Still Relevant Today

Today I’m very pleased to welcome Emma Carroll to the Hearthfire. She’s here for the last stop on her blog tour for the fabulously gothic middle grade novel Strange Star, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and highly recommended.

It could be the blurb for a YA novel: a group of friends on holiday, a thunderstorm, a night in with drinks, ghost stories, the simmering tension of who fancies who.

It also describes one of the most famous gatherings in literary history. When Mary Shelley (then Godwin) stayed at the Villa Diodati with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley in June 1816, the idea for ‘Frankenstein’ was conceived- that’s one theory, anyway. There are many others- she was inspired by her mother’s death, the loss of her own daughter, a dream where she brought her dead baby back to life, the frustration of being fiercely intelligent in a male-dominated world, jealousy. Such a rich mix of ‘possibles’ only adds to her allure.

As part of the Stoke Newington Festival in June, I did a panel event to mark the 200-year anniversary of that portentous night in 1816. Though there wasn’t a thunderstorm, the venue- a beautiful Elizabethan church- was suitably gothic. Grass grew waist- deep in the graveyard outside. Inside, was all black beams and carved wood seats and walls pock-marked with age. There were no lights, only candles. It was perfect.

The panel -Sally Gardner (Tinder, The Door That Led To Where), Eleanor Wassenburg (Foxlowe), Karen Lee Street (Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster), and I- were writers whose work is gothic-influenced.  Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent) was also meant to join us, but sadly was sick. (cue: gothic ‘thwarted dreams’ moment as my fangirling hopes were dashed!) Chaired by journalist, critic and unabashed ‘Frankenstein’ fan Suzy Feay, we discussed Shelley’s inspirations and how the gothic still shapes writing today.

And is it still a relevant genre, we pondered? Was it not all red drapes and swooning ladies in nightgowns? Had the gothic not become pastiche?

No, in short.

Any genre that gives voice to a minority will always have a place. In many ways the gothic is a code, a language, a metaphor if you will, for what it is to be vulnerable. Writers like Angela Carter recognised its overtly feminist, post-modern narrative. Monsters aren’t always truly evil; victims aren’t always weak. There are challenges, desires, emotions- all of which feel, on first reading, to be familiar story tropes, yet on closer consideration speak of anguish in a way that might otherwise not be heard.

For me, Shelley’s masterpiece does exactly this. Who the true monster is, isn’t quite clear. Many critics say the disfigured creation rejected by its ‘father’ represents Shelley herself. Her appearance was the means by which others judged her, so much so that ‘Frankenstein’ was initially published under Percy Shelley’s name. She took inspiration from the growing Abolition movement. She was aware of the limitations imposed by race and gender. Her relationship with her father was strained, cool, her marriage troubled by jealousies. She craved acceptance and belonging, just as her monster does.

Shelley’s use of gothic allows her to speak at a time in history when society wasn’t listening. Two hundred years on, we still judge by colour and gender. In these post-Brexit times, we’re nervous of outsiders, people who don’t quite ‘fit’.

Gothic fiction gives dissenters a voice.

Emma is a former English teacher whose middle grade novels either fall into the historical genre or have a strong link to the past. She’s written about circuses, fairies and ghosts and all focus on children having a difficult time. She is published by Faber & Faber in the UK.

URTS blog tour: Where I Write by Louise Gornall, author of Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Rose3I am so excited to have the fabulous Louise Gornall, author of the equally fabulous Under Rose-Tainted Skies here today (and it’s the first day of my summer holiday today – how symbolically freedom-celebrating is that?). If you haven’t heard of this book, (where have you been?) there is some info at the end of the post but it is high on my recommended list for this summer and has been out about a week now so – you know what to do. Anyway, here is the lovely Louise herself, to tell you a bit about her writing – specifically, where she writes:


Louise GornallGood morning, guys! Thanks for having me over. Of all the questions I’m asked about writing, ‘where do you write?’ has to be my favourite, simply because the answer is always changing.

Right now, as I write this, I’m sat on a deck, surrounded by hills, bordered by trees and endless green fields. I’m in the Lake District, a short walk away from the Beatrix Potter museum, with five of my best friends — they’re squeeing and splashing around in a hot tub. I’m going to join them in a second, but I just wanted to jot down some ideas about my new book that I had last night, and I really wanted to cross a couple of things off my to-do list before we leave tomorrow and my bank holiday is snatched away by family fun times. That’s not sarcasm. In my village there is a parade and a fair and, beside Christmas, it’s probably the best day of the year here.

Where will I write tomorrow? I think maybe out in the garden. We’re having some uncharacteristically warm weather in the North West, and you guys know how it is over here, you gotta catch it before it disappears and you start seeing Christmas in September. But if it is too cold, I’ll sit on scatter cushions, on the floor, in a small space between my bed and bookshelf. I do have a desk, but I can never seem to get comfy at it, and if I’m not comfy, I will forever be distracted and write nothing.

I guess I can pretty much write anywhere, too. I don’t really need a computer as I draft on my phone with Google Docs. Ooh! And in bed. I like writing in bed. You know when it goes super quiet and dark, and your mind starts thinking of all the story things? I love it when that happens — and I have my phone right beside me, so I can tap out a few lines of thought before I go to sleep.


Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Thanks, Louise, it’s always so interesting to hear people’s actual writing practices. So you don’t need just the right chair in just the right place? I love the idea of you writing outside, surrounded by friends – sounds great (if a little noisy/distracting for me… I’m not tied to place either, but Must Have Quiet – via headphones and white noise/instrumental music if necessary).

Here’s how Goodreads summarises the novel:

Norah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.

Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.

I’ll be reviewing this one properly soon, but here are my initial thoughts on finishing:

Fabulous account of agoraphobic teen with OCD – don’t think I’ve ever seen anxious thoughts so perfectly delineated. Everyone with an anxiety disorder will want their friends to read this to help them understand. But of course, this is no ‘handbook on OCD’ – it’s a story first and foremost, and above all, I enjoyed following Norah’s tale as she deals with the boy next door and his intrusion into her (extremely limited) world. I’ll be recommending this one a lot.


URTS blog tourThank you so much to Louise for visiting. Tomorrow, she’ll be at Escapism From Reality. She can be found online on Twitter and at her website.

Thanks also to Chicken House for providing a review copy and the fabulous Nina Douglas for tour organisation.

 

Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues (YA Shot Blog Tour with Ellen Renner)

cropped-yashotcolourlesssmallAre you aware of the YA Shot event? It’s a fantastic Arts Council-sponsored event taking place next week in celebration of libraries and young people’s literature. 71 YA and MG writers are appearing in 3 venues across Uxbridge on Wednesday 28th October. There is also a programme of blogging and vlogging workshops for those who want to learn more about this area.

This thought-provoking post on the world of fantasy writing from Ellen Renner appears courtesy of YA Shot and demonstrates the high quality of material that you can expect on the day.

*****

Rewriting the World: Fantasy and Social Issues

I write in order to understand. Writers stand outside the world and watch it spin. We study this amazing, contrary world we live in and ask: Why?

Why do some people do bad things, and others good? Why is society organised the way it is? Does power always corrupt? Is history doomed to repeat itself? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where do I fit in? Can I make a difference?

These are the very questions children ask of themselves and the world as they grow up. Writers simply never stop asking. Perhaps we never truly grow up. The first job of a story-teller is to entertain (otherwise no one will listen!); the second, to ask the hard questions.

Castle of shadowsAll of this is why I predominately write fantasy, although my debut novel, Castle of Shadows, could more accurately be described as alternative history. I wanted to write about power and politics set in a time of great technological and social change. In fact, I wanted to put a mirror up to our own world while keeping a necessary distance. So I created a world based on 1830s England but free from its history. Castle of Shadows was written just after the Iraq War and, not surprisingly, features political shenanigans and a weapon of mass destruction.

My most recent boTributeoks, Tribute and Outcaste, are straightforwardly within the fantasy genre, with all its related world-building. It was both liberating and terrifying to realise that the only limits were those of my imagination. But too much freedom can be a trap and I chose my ‘magic’ carefully and made sure it had logical limits within the story. Instead of potions and spells, my magic-users have a genetic ability to transform matter (telekinesis).

I wrote Tribute because I wanted to explore issues that have haunted me since I was a child: racism, sexism . . .all the ‘-isms’ which are an excuse for the all-too-human tendency to scapegoat segments of a society as ‘other’. In other words: the failure of empathy. It is no coincidence that my main character, Zara, is gifted – or cursed – with extreme empathy. She has no choice but to rebel against the evil she not only sees, but feels.

In this book – and especially in Outcaste – I explore the group-think mentality which allows genocide to happen, which enables members of a self-defining group to de-humanise those who do not belong. I’m extremely proud that Tribute is endorsed by Amnesty International.

Fantasy, for me, is a Petri dish in which I can place elements of our own society and culture them in isolation and watch them develop. Sometimes unexpected things grow in the dish. It isn’t surprising that the world of Tribute is unfair and violent, or that the non-magic are enslaved by those with telekinetic power. But I was shocked to discover that this terribly dark society had a single positive aspect: one silver lining to the cloud of oppressive evil. As I explored the logic of my world, it became clear to me that since women mages are as powerful as men – and cannot therefore be dominated physically – that there would be little reason for sexism to exist inside their society. Which means that when the main character – magic-user and rebel Zara – flees to the non-magic world of the Makers, she is in for a rude shock. That story is told in the sequel, Outcaste.

Sadly, fantasy still seems to suffer from a twentieth-century bias amongst the critical establishment. This, despite the fact that, when used well, fantasy is one of the best literary tools for asking those difficult questions. It is a device which allows writers and readers sufficient distance from our messy, complicated lives in which to think more clearly. Fantasy, used well, is a direct descendant of the great world mythologies. The best examples of its practice deserve to be read with thought and care, in the realisation that – in the hands of a good writer – nothing is more ‘real’ than fantasy.

*****

How brilliant was that? Thank you so much, Ellen – and YA Shot, for that great post. If you want to find out more about Ellen’s writing, she is published by Hot Key Books and there is a fabulous review of Tribute by SF Said on the Guardian Books site, in which he says:

Two things make or break a fantasy novel: the magic and the world. In both these respects, Ellen Renner’s Tribute shares something with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, stories that gave us an original conception of magic and a richly imagined world, using the genre to say something deeply resonant about our own world.

Review of Raising Steam for the #TerryPratchettBlogTour

I’ve been reading Discworld since around 1991, when I was a sixth former, and it’s been a big part of my life ever since. My Dad, sister, brother-in-law and husband are all also big Discworld fans and we’ve even been to a couple of conventions/events. My elder daughter has read the Tiffany Aching YA series and plans to start reading the ‘grown-up’ ones this summer after GCSEs, and my 11 yr old is loving The Wee Free Men, the first YA title, reading as I write.

This post forms part of the Terry Pratchett Blog Tour, organised by Viv at Serendipity Reviews in tribute to one of the UK’s best-loved authors. The brilliant blog tour banner (to the left) was designed by Matt at Teen Librarian.

Raising SteamRaising Steam is the 40th Discworld novel and the 3rd to feature Moist Von Lipwig. If you haven’t read earlier novels, especially those featuring Moist or the Watch, you may find small spoilers in this review, for which I apologise, but when reviewing such a late-series title, it’s not really possible to avoid.

I found Raising Steam to be a brilliant example of many of the things I come to Discworld for. Unlike many fantasy series, the Discworld stories do not take place in a fixed, vaguely medieval setting; the Disc progresses, and Raising Steam is a perfect example of this. The core of the story is about the taming of steam and the introduction of locomotion – the brainchild of new character, Dick Simnel (although you may have noticed that his father, Ned Simnel, appears in Reaper Man – I didn’t at first, not having read that title for about 20 years).  Naturally, the Patrician needs some element of control over such a technological advance, and so Moist becomes involved.

I loved Dick’s character and his relationship with his work – one that will be familiar to anyone who knows an engineer or spare-time tinkerer. The engine he creates and brings to Ankh Morpork to show what he can do is a superb example of Disc technology, with a kind of magic of its own.

As always, progress on the Disc is challenged – in this case by grags, traditionalist, fundamentalist dwarfs who oppose Ankh Morpork’s melting pot of races and are suspicious of technology. Adora Belle is featured both in her role as Moist’s wife, but also as manager of the Clacks, since the grags are committing terrorism by burning down Clacks towers.

One of my favourite things about the Discworld is its very clear messages about diversity (again, relatively unusual in the fantasy genre where women often function as eye candy and ‘exotic foreigners’ are the limit of racial diversity) and this is very firmly reasserted here with the increasing integration of goblins into Ankh Morpork’s modernist society. At the same time, the grags and the ideas of radicalisation and tradition are a means of raising disquieting questions about the demands of diversity and the extent to which identities are lost/replaced/evolving in mixed society.

Anyway, I could blather on all day about things I loved about this book (and I haven’t even mentioned the brilliant humour!). Suffice it to say that this is a very fine latest episode for the Moist and Guards strands of the series in particular. If you’re already a Discworld reader, definitely read it. If you’re new to the series, there’s a great guide to the various strands here (there’s a chart to follow if you scroll down). Personally, the Witches are my very favourite, but I’ve enjoyed each and every one of the Discworld novels. I genuinely think Discworld has something for everyone.

The True Face Curriculum by Siobhan Curham

true faceSiobhan Curham is on a mission to help teens find their true selves, with her fabulous book True Face, which came out last week. I’m so happy to have her guest posting here at the Hearthfire today.

I asked her what her dream curriculum would look like (and I so wish we could implement this in schools right now – it looks brilliant!).

One thing that baffles me about the education system is that it’s so geared towards preparing us for our adult lives: cramming our heads full of knowledge, training us to pass exams, providing us with qualifications, and yet no time, or very little, is spent looking at who we actually are. Instead of tailoring education to fit the unique needs and talents of the individual, we’re forced to squeeze ourselves into a ‘one size fits all’ system. Only it doesn’t fit all at all.

And when you combine this with the pressure from the media and society to look and act and think in a certain way, it’s all too easy to lose sight of our true selves before we’ve even left school. Then, when we do leave, we can end up in jobs and relationships and lives that make us feel unhappy and uncomfortable because they just don’t fit.

Losing sight of my true self when I was a teenager caused me to drop out of uni and end up in a job that I hated. It took me years before I regained the confidence and clarity to remember who I truly was and follow my true calling as a writer.

So, if I could give school curriculums a TRUE FACE make-over, here’s what I would do…

Finding Out Who You Truly Are

There would be regular sessions designed to help students identify who they truly are. They would frequently be asked questions such as: What are your passions? What are your talents? What are your strengths? so that their academic education could be adapted accordingly to ensure that they shine.

Feeling Good About Your True Self

Building on the findings from the previous section, I would help students feel good about their own unique talents and characteristics and strengths – even if they didn’t match those deemed the most aspirational by society. Especially if they didn’t match those deemed the most aspirational by society. The world desperately needs more free-thinking, free-spirited people. It does not need any more reality TV stars.

Having a Healthy Body Image

To counteract the air-brushed images we’re constantly being bombarded with by magazines and the media, students would be taught that true beauty exists within all of us. And that to live our best, most fulfilling lives, we need to eat for vitality, exercise for fun and revel in our so-called ‘imperfections’.

Turning Wounds into Wisdom

Students would also be given the tools to turn any painful experiences into lessons to live their life by. Turning wounds into wisdom is one of the most freeing things you can do in life and absolutely vital for happiness during the teenage years.

Overcoming Your Inner Voice of Doom

During the school years you can often become plagued by your ‘inner voice of doom’ – the voice in your head that tells you that you’re just not good enough, popular enough, attractive enough, clever enough. I would provide students with simple techniques to counteract this inner voice and encourage them to create an inner voice that is way more supportive.

Making and Being True Friends

There are few things more depressing than reading the statistics about bullying in schools, so a substantial part of the True Face Curriculum would be focused on creating a culture of encouragement and support. There would be regular Random Acts of Kindness days and mentorship schemes.

Mindfulness Techniques

With anxiety, self-harming and depression amongst young people all massively on the rise, there would be regular lessons in basic mindfulness techniques so that students would have the tools to help themselves when life gets tough.

Studies are showing that meditation has a transformative effect in the classroom and on students’ lives, so I would make this a daily practice.

Finding Your True Calling

Lots of time would be spent studying inspirational women and girls from all walks of life and all different professions. So that when teenage girls are surveyed about what they want to do when they leave school 70% don’t reply ‘be famous’ (as they did in a recent poll). My goal would be to have 100% answer that they want to in some way create, adventure, pioneer and explore.

Although I might not be in charge of the curriculum (and writing this post has made me really wish that I was!) all of these subjects are covered in TRUE FACE and my talks and workshops for schools.

You can find out more over at the TRUE FACE website.

See what I mean? How much more meaningful could school be with Siobhan in charge? Thank you so much, Siobhan, for visiting the Hearthfire today. If you have or are a teen and like the sound of these ideas, I would strongly recommend grabbing a copy of True Face.

Following Your Inner Compass: Q & A with author Andrew Norriss

Jessicas GhostAndrew Norriss’s brilliant new Middle Grade (9-12+) book, Jessica’s Ghost, is out now and I highly recommend it. We are fortunate enough to have Andrew visiting the hearthfire today to answer a few questions about this book and his interesting writing career (did you know his other writing includes sitcom The Brittas Empire and kids’ TV series Bernard’s Watch?).

Jessica’s Ghost tackles a weighty subject (depression and suicide) for young readers; where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s not an idea I consciously chose. I would not have dared. I was trying, as an experiment, to write a story without all my usual pre-planning, so I began with the idea of a ghost (with no idea why she was a ghost) and just started tapping away. I was halfway through the first draft before I realised she had killed herself (it’s curious how this was never really up for debate) and was thoroughly alarmed. This is not my usual territory, and I was not at all sure I had the ability to make my story remotely convincing.

That does sound alarming! Francis is a great character. How do you create a character like that? Did he arrive, fully-formed, or did you have to work out what would make him different?

Arriving fully formed just about sums it up. Again, to my surprise. I know nothing about clothes, design or fashion and there was a lot of hasty searching in books and on the web for good phrases and words that might make it look as if I did. What I did know, however, is that passions like these can appear at a remarkably early age, so I imagined Francis finding back numbers of Vogue when he was four, and demanding a sewing machine for his eighth birthday. And just a few weeks back I found an article in the paper about a famous designer who had done exactly that.

What would you say to someone who says children’s books shouldn’t raise difficult issues directly?

I have some sympathy with this but, like so many things in life, you can’t make a hard and fast rule about what can and cannot be put in books. Even in Narnia, war kills friends and mothers have cancer. Maybe it’s not so much the subject that matters so much as how it’s treated. And most important of all, of course, whether it’s a good story.

Yes, didactic ‘issues-driven’ books don’t really work for any age group, adults included – story is definitely the most important thing. Jessica’s Ghost is, first and foremost, a good read and I think that’s how you can ‘get away with’ raising these issues with this age group.

You have written in a range of media and genres in your career; how much is that a conscious choice?

After deciding that I was going to take the writing thing seriously, the first piece I wrote was a situation comedy for television and, to my astonishment, managed to sell it. I wrote sitcoms for 10 years, with my friend Richard Fegen and then, as mysteriously as the urge had arisen, it simply disappeared, and I found myself writing other things instead. Like books for young people.

I don’t know why this happened, but I have come to realise that there is an inner compass in all of us, telling us which star we have to follow – like Francis wanting to design clothes – and it is a foolish person who, for the sake of money or fame or to please their parents, tries to go in a different direction. We really have about as much choice about where this inner compass will take us as we do in choosing which direction is north. To a quite remarkable extent we go where we have to go…

Do you have a fixed writing routine? (e.g. number of words per day, set hours for writing etc)

I never went for the idea of a set number of words, but I always found a time limit very useful. I usually made sure it was not too long as well. Four hours was a good day…

What advice would you give to young writers?

The best advice I ever found on writing was given by Robert Heinlein (science fiction writer). He said there were only three rules to follow for a successful career in writing. Number one was to write something (he reckoned that was where 99% of would be writers fell down). Number two was to send it off to a publisher. And number three was to keep on doing numbers one and two… Made sense to me!

Thank you, Andrew – such interesting answers. If this has whetted your appetite for a quirky MG read that offers depth without ever feeling heavy, I can definitely recommend Jessica’s Ghost.