Stories on Saturdays: Kaspar – Prince of Cats

Title:         Kaspar – Prince of Cats
Author:     Michael Morpurgo
Publisher:  HarperCollins
Published: Sept 2008
Genre:      Children’s (historical)

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says…
‘I’ve done a picture of the ship we’re sailing home on next week.  She’s called the Titanic…’

They say cats have nine lives, and that’s certainly true of Kaspar.  From the glamorous suites of the Savoy Hotel to the servants’ quarters in the attic, and from a crowded lifeboat to the hustle and bustle of New York City, Kaspar proves that no cat is too small for big adventures.

But then this is no ordinary cat.  He’s Prince Kaspar Kandinsky – the only cat to survive the sinking of the Titanic…

My verdict: A great read with lots of surprises 
(recommended for 7+ yr olds)

I’ve been reading this one with my 7 yr old at bedtime, and it went down a storm.  It was her first Morpurgo, and she’s keen to read more.

Johnny Trott is a bellboy at the Savoy and it is his engaging voice that tells us Kaspar’s (and his own) story.  We soon warmed to Johnny, whose past and feelings are interwoven effectively with his narration of the story’s events.  Other characters were equally masterfully drawn, including an enigmatic Russian opera-singing Countess, a vindictive Head Housekeeper and a mischievous but warm-hearted wealthy American girl.

Period detail, especially the contrast between high and low classes of the time, is clearly-drawn and absorbing.  My daughter certainly learned a lot.  The few chapters dealing with the Titanic voyage transported us there with depictions of sounds, smells and sights and we were gripped by the account of the sinking.  The younger among us were particularly excited that the story included Things that Really Happened – although I suppose that could create confusion in some young readers, especially if they’re reading alone.

What I especially appreciated about the book is its gentleness.  It deals with some fairly mature themes and concepts, yet it does so in a non-threatening and relatively comfortable way.  I don’t know if my daughter would have coped well with reading it on her own, but it was a great read to share and prompted many worthwhile conversations.

So, this rates for me as a classic children’s book, taking you out of reality and into someone else’s experience.  And, as a bonus (and speaking as a teacher), there is additional educational value in the historical aspect of the book.

This is my first review for the Bookette’s British Book Challenge.  It’s not too late to sign up to review British Books in 2011 – entry closes 31st Jan.

Home on Tuesday: Dog Days

Over the past week or so, we’ve all heard each other telling the dog that getting her was the best thing we did in 2010, or some similar phrase.  She’s really improved our lives, so I thought I’d spend a family blog post extolling the virtues of canine companionship.

This is her on the first day we got her, on August 1st.  Look how attentive she already was to hubby (he was recognised by her as Pack Leader straight away, so she’s not that smart).

She came to us from the Dogs Trust in Kenilworth, all ‘done’ and chipped and de-infested.  We were happy to get a dog from them as they don’t destroy healthy but difficult-to-house dogs, and we wanted a rescue rather than a particular breed.  She seems to be largely (if not completely) Patterdale Terrier, although we’ve learned that since she moved in.  Which leads me to the number one benefit:

Having a Dog is a Sociable Thing
People talk to you when you’re walking a dog, and if you frequent the same places, you see the same people. There’s a whole community of dog people out there, and a lot of them are friendly.  For those of a more masculine persuasion, having a dog with you also makes you instantly less threatening to others, especially the elderly, families and women out alone.

The need to walk the dog is also great family time.  We’ve always enjoyed walking as a family, but the kids had started to be less than enthusiastic about such outings.  Now, though, it’s a very different story.  Who could resist frisbee fun?

Having a Dog is Fun
As well as aforementioned frisbee frolics, who can resist:

  • laughing at the dog’s ridiculous repertoire of grumbles and assorted strange noises?
  • the joy of running for its own sake, chasing with a crazy dog?
  • cuddling on the sofa with a furry friend to stroke?
What was the best thing you did as a family last year?

Sunday Writing: The Old Year and the New Year

So, it’s the time of year when we naturally look backwards and forwards in our lives.  In examining my writing life over the past twelve months, my initial reaction was “I haven’t done any” because I haven’t produced any kidlit or YA fiction.  However, this is a fairly typical example of ignoring what I have done, which is:

  • found a new market for English teaching resources, which I’ve enjoyed doing quite a lot of work for and which I hope to continue working with in 2011
  • finished a time-consuming commission of e-learning material for the new English GCSE for Nelson Thornes
  • produced a teacher’s guide to Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs, which is newly on the specification for English Language and Literature A Level, for ZigZag Education.  I’m pretty pleased with the finished product after their helpful editorial suggestions, and it’s been receiving really good reviews
  • continued to write for the fantastic emagazine (for A Level English students)
  • come up with some ideas for a YA novel, including a three-act plot plan and some character sketches 
  • started this blog (in December), subscribed to loads of writers’ and writing blogs and found lots of cool writing types to follow on Twitter

This last point led me to sign up for Better Writing Habits, which has had great advice so far.  Yesterday in thinking about my bad writing habits, I realised that I tend to discount writing related to teaching as somehow not ‘real’, hence my belief that I’d achieved nothing in 2010.  I also realised that I’ve been scared of what I see as ‘real’ writing (actual stories) because it’s riskier – which is plainly daft, since I’m a happier person when I’m doing it.  I had produced a few picture book stories and a kidlit novel, which are lost now (the USB stick with them on has been hidden in my house somewhere, either by evil goblins or by a helpful ghost who did it for my own good), and have a small collection of rejections (including one with a Personal Comment, yippee!), but I need to get started again.

So, my 2011 writing goals (newly made SMART, as per advice on Better Writing Habits) are:

  • to work on my novel for at least 15 mins a day (I believe giving myself permission to do ‘just 15 mins’ will frequently lead to more time writing); outlining first, and then writing
  • to complete a draft of said novel by the end of April, and to complete revisions by the end of June (the ultimate goal is to have something I can start submitting to agents in the summer)
  • to continue to produce teaching-related work (since that currently sells and I do enjoy doing it once I stop procrastinating) – I will devote 3x 1 hr sessions a week to this work
  • to blog twice weekly
  • to continue to research and generate ideas for new non-fiction/freelance markets, with the ultimate goal of actually placing work in at least 2 new places in 2011

Mission Statement, or something …

‘Mission Statement’ sounds a bit grand really, but I am excited because (drum roll, please) 
I’ve figured out what this blog is for.  

I’ve been finding it hard to write for, and clearly this is because its purpose was, well, muddled.  I’ve further realised that this was because I am, in fact, muddled – and that maybe this is ok.  I’m pretty sure there are other people out there who are also muddled.  It can’t be the norm to have just one interest, surely?   Don’t we all lead complicated lives these days?

My plan is to rotate blog posts on four main themes:

  • writing
  • parenting and family stuff
  • reading
  • myth, folklore and the supernatural

I can’t do four posts a week at the mo, but I’m going to aim for two a week, so I’ll visit each topic once a fortnight.

How do you organise your blogging?  Do you think it’s best to run discrete blogs on different themes, or mix it all in and see what happens?

Photo by Filomena Scalise.  Find more of her work at

‘Tis the Season …

to run around like a headless crazywoman, snapping at anyone who suggests it is in fact the season for rest and calm?  Preferably not.  I must say that since I discovered (and initially obeyed) Flylady a few years ago, I’ve managed to enjoy this time of year a lot more.  A little planning every day through most of October and November means that it’s not a scary thing that creeps up on you from nowhere.  I remember seeing a brilliant catalogue cover a couple of years ago (a Hawkins one) that read something like “We would like to remind our customers for whom it is often a surprise that this year Christmas will fall on December 25th”.  Funny, but often horrifically true.

So, if you’ve driven yourself (and/or your family) mad over this holiday period, I’d strongly recommend having a look at the Flylady’s advice.  As a typically reserved Brit, I find some of the American sentimentality a bit ‘in your face’, and the christian flavour sometimes comes across as a little heavy-handed for my taste, BUT the woman is annoyingly right about many, many things.  Although her focus is on housekeeping and home organisation, the effect of following her system and reading her daily emails is much more about self-esteem and feeling on top of things, rather than being constantly vaguely overwhelmed.

Working out is always worth it

The workouts I’m referring to are, of course, writing exercises.  I’m always impressed with how refreshed I am after such work, and even if it takes me away from the big WiP, the effect of my increased enthusiasm on the work rate demonstrates that it’s worth it.  Without fail.

I think sometimes we can be too focused on our word counts, targets and long term plans.  We daren’t take away our writing time to play – yet often it’s the very thing that would invigorate both us and the current WiP.

Some of the exercises I’ve had fun with have come from:
The Five-Minute Writer, Margret Geraghty
The Writer’s Idea Book, Jack Heffron
The Write-Brain Workbook, Bonnie Neubauer

It can also be good to do exercises based on your current WiP.  You can write extra episodes in a character’s life to help you understand them – or to exorcise an idea that just doesn’t fit in the novel.  Or you can try out different scenarios for getting your characters where you need them to be.

So, to stretch (sorry ;-)) the metaphor to its fullest, writing exercises can be like a warm-up, flexing your creative muscles and easing you into the real work.  They can also help you to avoid burn-out by adding variation to your schedule.

Here’s a couple of fun exercises I devised with my creative writing group for Hallowe’en:

  • Practice ‘show, don’t tell’ by writing a paragraph in which a character is scared.  You must demonstrate their fear as many ways as possible and avoid the word ‘scared’ and its synonyms.
  • Write a poem, a brief monologue or a flash fiction piece inspired by an unusual phobia.  A handy list of phobias is available online at the phobia list.

Joined up thinking? …

I cannot believe that our libraries are in danger from the same government who claim to want a return to a ‘traditional’ curriculum and ‘traditional’ values in teaching and assessment.  How can this be?

On the one hand, we are told that spelling, grammar and punctuation should be assessed on all GCSE and A Level papers with marks deducted for errors, whilst on the other, the rich resource of reading is being pulled out from under our feet.

This is such shortsightedness and an incredible threat to our culture.  While I could not wholeheartedly accept the ‘return to tradition’ rhetoric around kings and queens and Dickens and Austen, it’s lunacy to deprive people of access to good and varied reading material.

Yes, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey, I blame you.  Maybe you should speak to one another – like the writing blogosphere is today.

As a parent, I use the library regularly with my two girls (currently 7 and 12), who value it for its offer to try something new, to take a risk in your reading with an author or genre you’ve never come across before.  And now that real bookshops are crowded off the highstreets in our cookie cutter shopping malls, libraries are more important for this than ever.

As a teacher, I often encourage my students (sixth formers taking A Level English) to use their local library – to encounter a dictionary that fills a whole shelf, to access a wide range of written language for analysis, or to use the internet or even just a quiet place when it’s tricky to work at home (you try studying for A Levels when sharing a bedroom and having no online access at home).

These are just the immediate concerns that I as an individual have – where will my girls find those happy stumbled-upon treasures, and how can our college library offer everything my students need?  Others have eloquently blogged about wider concerns – see the links below as a starting point, and/or check out the #cftb (Campaign for the Book) threads on Twitter.

So I’ve got this blog now…

and what do I do with it?  I hope this will become a place where I can share thoughts about a wide range of subjects that interest and affect me: mostly writing, language, teaching, family life, paganism and tarot (although I’m not ruling out the possibility of other subjects!)

This first post will need to be short.  Beginning is always harder than continuing, and I’m up to rewrite number five already.  Clearly, it’s time to just get this ‘out there’ before I completely paralyse myself and abandon the blog altogether.

Personal blog: mostly bookish, plus some dogs, feminism and whatever else occurs.