Prehistory in fiction 

This is not a normal blog post. In fact it’s not a blog post at all but is instead a request. I am working on a large project gathering fiction and poetry titles for young people set in specific historical periods. As you can imagine I already have a long list, but I can’t do it all without the wonderful input of the hive mind – that’s where you come in. 

This is the first of ten posts designed to gather your input in the comments field. This thread is for children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory. Please add your favourite titles below (and feel free to chat with each other) I won’t be able to reply to everyone, but massive thanks in advance for all your help.

Remember – children’s and YA fiction and poetry set in prehistory (from any country) but as historical as it can possibly be. 

Thanks! 

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Tardis Destinations – Companion’s post by author Helen Grant

Helen Grant

Helen Grant

For this post we welcome aboard our Tardis YA author Helen Grant. Helen writes the most wonderfully scary and atmospheric books and her latest (Demons of Ghent) is due out today. It is the second book in her Forbidden Spaces trilogy, the first being Silent Saturday, and the latest in a rake of fabulously scary books. I am a great fan of Helen’s work and so am thrilled to read her choice for a Tardis Destination, and a tale of a delicious mystery…. over to Helen!

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Tardis Destinations from Helen Grant

 If I had a Tardis, I know exactly when and where I would go: the city of Ghent in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), 1426.

 Although I spent every summer in Belgium as a teenager, I never visited Ghent until 2011, when we were living in Flanders. I fell in love with the city instantly. It has such a strong sense of times past: there are many beautiful old guild houses, magnificent churches and even castles. If you stand at the top of the keep of the Gravensteen castle, you can see the three famous towers of Sint-Baafs cathedral, the Sint-Niklaaskerk and the Belfort (city belfry).

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort

Sint-Baafs from the Belfort


It’s amazing to think that if you had stood there five centuries ago, you would have been able to see that same view.

 Ghent is also intersected with canals. There is one particularly beautiful waterfront area called the Graslei where the gorgeous old buildings are reflected in the glossy water.

Graslei, Ghent

Graslei, Ghent


Altogether, it is an enchanting city.

 When we visited it in 2011 I was working on the first of three books set in Flanders, and I decided there and then to set the second one in Ghent. It is hard to write convincingly about a place when you have only spent four hours there, so I went back for a week in December 2012, and spent days walking about, taking photographs, writing notes and asking questions.

 I loved everything I visited in Ghent, but the place that spoke to me most of all was Sint-Baafs Cathedral. Built in the 14th-16th centuries, it is a massive Gothic church with a huge square tower, a vaulted crypt and lots of interesting side chapels. Best of it, it houses the Ghent Altarpiece, the enormous panelled painting sometimes called ˝The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.“ It was largely this painting that convinced me that I wanted to set a book in Ghent, and indeed it features in my new thriller Demons of Ghent.

 
Demons of Ghent
I’d like to go back to Ghent in 1426 because I would love to satisfy my absolutely raging curiosity about the Ghent Altarpiece! There are so many unanswered questions about it. It is described as being by ˝Van Eyck“ but there were two Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan, and nobody seems to know for certain who contributed what to its creation.

 Hubert Van Eyck was the elder brother and he is thought to have been commissioned to create the Altarpiece around 1420. However, he died in 1426 and the work was apparently taken over by his younger brother, Jan. It was evidently completed by 1432 because that year it was installed in the Vijdt chapel in Sint-Baafs.

 Over the years there have been many theories about who was responsible for what part of the painting. It has been made much harder by the fact that there is virtually no other surviving work by Hubert for comparison. He is thought to have started a painting called The Three Marys at the Tomb but someone else finished it – perhaps Jan. There is  a latin verse on the painting’s frame that praises Hubert and describes Jan as ˝second in art“, but this might be a piece of brotherly generosity. In the past, Hubert’s very existence has actually been questioned, because of the lack of evidence of his work.

 There is also a weird story that Hubert Van Eyck’s right arm – presumably his painting arm – was cut off after his death and preserved in a casket over the cathedral door. The rest of him is buried somewhere else in the cathedral. How strange is that?!

 I think writers, with our overactive imaginations, make great conspiracy theorists. I heard all of these disparate details – the confusion over who painted what, the death of Hubert before the painting was finished, the severed arm thing – and some truly wild explanations suggested themselves to me. Some of those ideas became the backdrop to Demons of Ghent.

 I’d love to travel back to 1426, just before Hubert Van Eyck died, and see what was happening. Did Hubert hand over the brushes and the pots of oil paint to Jan when 95% of the painting was finished, or did he leave his younger brother with little more than sketches? If I could ask Hubert about the rest of his now vanished oeuvre, what would he tell me – perhaps even show me? Did his contemporaries really think that Hubert was the greatest and Jan was second best – or was that a piece of humblebragging from Jan? Did they really cut Hubert’s arm off his cooling corpse and stick it in a box over the door, like a particularly grotesque bit of interior decor?

 Maybe Jan stood there watching while they sawed the arm off, thinking, “Ha, that will serve you right for leaving me with a handful of sketches and six years’ work on your blimmin’ design.”

 That’s the main reason I’d go back, to find out what really happened. But there’s one other thing about the Ghent Altarpiece that fascinates me.

 The central focus of the painting is the Mystic Lamb on its red-and-gold altar. On either side of it are crowds of saints, prophets, pilgrims, hermits and so on. In total the painting has 170 figures gazing into the central panel at the Lamb, or casting their eyes down, sometimes to read holy books. Amongst the red-robed clerics at on the right, a single bishop stares out of the painting at the viewer, his head inclined, a challenging expression in his eyes.

 When I first noticed this figure, I found him distinctly creepy. Are we, the viewers, meant to notice him? Why does he, alone, attempt to connect with us? Is there some significance to his challenging gaze? I’ve often wondered – all the figures must have had models, so was there something special about that one? Did Hubert, for example, put himself into the painting? Since the only portrait of Hubert I’ve been able to find was a woodcut made long after his death, there is no way to know now. Unless….I had a Tardis.

Useful links:

 http://closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be   A website showing the Ghent Altarpiece, with the ability to zoom in on any part of it.

 http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/the-demons-of-ghent-forbidden-spaces-trilogy-book-two/9780552566766   Random House website entry for Demons of Ghent, including click function to read a sample of the book.

 http://www.helengrantbooks.com   My author website.

Ask A Librarian – “Help, I’m not that good at reading!”

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Over the years a lot of parents have come to me to quietly ask how they can help their child with reading when their own reading is “not good enough.”

First, let’s start by taking a little time to put that into perspective. I’m not going to bore you with depressing (and suspicious) national statistics, we’ll just have a little positive thinking instead. A lot of adults lack self-esteem in their reading due to poor or incomplete schooling in their own childhood, or lack of higher level development in their adult reading – they simply don’t do it much and so haven’t improved. Lacking self-esteem means that people see themselves as worse readers than they actually are. That is a shame, but it certainly does not mean that you lack the skills to support your child’s reading. Every parent that I’ve worked with in this situation has turned out to be a far better reader than they thought they were – they just lacked self-esteem and practice.
As an experiment I once took a group of struggling teen readers and we used school assessment guidelines to assess the reading levels of various pieces of common adult reading materials – Nuts, Loaded, Hello, OK and the red top newspapers, the kind of thing most often found in their homes. They were surprised to discover that these averaged out at a level 5 – which would be the level expected from a bright ten year old. So it’s not surprising that adults are not finding that their reading ability is improving in adulthood – the material they are reading is not going to help.
But, that’s still ok (no pun intended) you don’t have to be reading War and Peace to help your child with their reading, and you certainly don’t need to be forking out large sums of cash to buy into expensive schemes. Put the self-doubt to one side, you are the perfect person to help your child with their reading because you have the one thing that a scheme or reading package doesn’t – you have their love. Your child loves you and that means that they want to please you and make you proud. At that all important pre-reading stage they will listen to you and that is when you can get books into their lives – before they are reading at all.

Start off by setting the scene – have books in your house so that you can build a reading and booky atmosphere and environment. You can get books cheaply from charity shops and boot sales, and a library ticket is free! You can sign a tiny baby up to the library and borrow books so that they can develop their sight by looking at bright colours and wonderful images in picture books before they even know what words are. The very first step towards your child enjoying reading is to make sure that they see books around the home all the time.

Next, learn with them! If you are really not sure about how they are learning to read at school, be honest and make an appointment with the teacher to chat about it. I have never met a teacher who would not be understanding and helpful to you with this. They too want what’s best for your child’s development and they will help you to help them. They can show you how reading is handled in the school and can give you strategies to support and encourage your child.

Then, enjoy it. We are lucky enough to be living in a golden age of children’s literature. I have worked with children’s books for over a quarter of a century and I have never seen finer books than those being published today. Some people keep harking back to children’s books that were published a century ago but these (though undeniably great) will not interest a modern child. Their world is completely different to those books and reading for pleasure at a young age hinges on the ability to identify with the characters and the story. Books written today will speak to your child in a language that they understand. It doesn’t matter that your child has not read some heap of antiquated classics, maybe they will later, maybe not. In my experience most of the adults who claim to have read the classics have actually seen the movie!

Modern children’s and young adult fiction is stunningly good and varied. I haven’t read a so-called “grown up” book in ages as most of my reading material is for younger readers – and it is superb! High quality books for young readers are published all the time and some of the best writing around is to be found in books for children and young adults. Seriously, read it yourself and share the experience with your children, you won’t regret it! Challenging, thrilling, beautifully written and rewarding books fill the shelves in every bookshop and library. This means it can be a bit of a minefield choosing, so ask the librarian which books are the ones most enjoyed by readers.

Don’t rule out series books, and certainly don’t allow snobbery to creep into your choices. Boys particularly love series books, and there are some that could hook your child for a very long period of time as they wait for the next one along, and devour a huge string of stories. This is all about reading for pleasure, forming a reading habit, and it should be fun. Your child should be allowed to pick up a book that catches their eye and give it a go. It might be something you don’t like… tough!

Most of all the best thing you can do as a parent is to help your child see reading as a pleasurable and everyday activity. It’s not homework, it’s not a lesson, it’s simply something that always happens in your home. If books sit at ease in your family, then reading will become a natural part of your child’s life and a habit they carry with them always.

You do not need to be a “good” reader to support this at home, but you do need to be a book lover – and the two are not the same!

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If you are genuinely concerned about your own literacy levels, or those of someone you know, there are many courses that will support you and help adults in this situation. You are not alone and it is important to remember that. You can find out more information about adult literacy courses by using this link to the National Literacy Trust website or call the Gov.uk courses guide free on 0800 66 0800 .

Thomas Taylor Interview – Getting to the Hart of the matter.

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It was hard to know where to start with this interview as there is so much I want to ask! I think I’ll start at the beginning with a question that is one of my favourites.

What (or who) did you want to be when you were seven? What sort of kid were you, what entertained you as a small person?

 Hi, Dawn, and thanks for interviewing me. This is a fun question to start with.

Do you remember Joe90? I looked a bit like that, only scrawnier and with NHS specs. I was a loner, who secretly wanted to be either Doctor Who or Luke Skywalker, or – if possible – both. Lego and small metal figurines were everything to me. Girls were a long way off.

 ·I always find that question fun, but I can’t quite picture you as Joe90! So you were very imaginative as a child, good start! You illustrate your own books and covers, and your background is in illustration, but your books are wonderfully written – which discipline do you prefer; illustrating or writing?

Thanks for the compliment. As for which I prefer, it has to be the one that’s going the best at any given moment. That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but they are so different that it’s hard to compare. In general, I think I find writing comes slightly more easily, but only once the ideas are flowing. These days I think of myself as a writer who also draws.

 ·I am glad to see that you are still creating picture books (my daughter loved George and Sophie’s Museum Adventures when she was little!) A lot of your books you have written and illustrated yourself, but when you are working with an author on a picture book, how does that process work?

 It’s nice to hear someone remembers George and Sophie!

There isn’t much to the process, beyond being sent roughs and invited to comment at various stages. It’s rare to meet the illustrator these days. Choosing the right illustrator is a vital part of an editors’ job, and I’ve learnt to trust them, however long it takes. My next picture book, Too Many Tickles (out in Feb next year with Macmillan), was written over four years ago – it took that long to match up an illustrator with the text. Penny Dann was definitely worth waiting for though.

 ·I suppose that there will always be people connected to books that the creators don’t get to meet, but it must have been a strange (and wonderful) experience having David “The Hoff” Hasselhoff reading yours and John Kelly’s picture book, Jack’s Tractor, aloud on CBeebies. How on earth did that come about?

 It was strange and amusing all at once. I remember as a child watching David Hasselhoff as Nightrider (in my breaks from being a timelord or a Jedi knight). As for how it happened, I didn’t even know it was happening at all until someone on twitter said they’d just watched it. At least, I knew the BBC had bought the broadcast rights for Jack’s Tractor, because I’d signed a contract six months earlier, but I’d since forgotten all about it.

 ·Let’s get out and about, I know that you do brilliant school visits, and most authors have a hell story and a heaven story about their school visits – can you share any of yours with us?

 My worst school visit was one of my first. I turned up at the school having verbally agreed to ‘visit a few classes’ over the course of the day, only to be given a schedule that had me spend half an hour with each of EIGHT classes of all key stages, with no time allowed to dash between them. When I finally reached the end of the day, a complete wreck, I was handed paintbrushes and some pots of unsuitable emulsion and asked to paint part of the school mural! I was young and stupid enough to say yes. I didn’t get home till after dark, having been kicked out by the school caretaker. Moral of the story: agree in advance, in detail, what you will and will NOT be prepared to do.

 ·Oh my word! Wise advice for all of us doing school visits! In the last few years you have been concentrating more on books for older children, kicking off with Dan and the Dead in 2012. Dan can see ghosts and speak to them, and in this very witty and entertaining story he helps ghosts sort out their problems. I am greatly drawn to your work because we share a fascination for ghosts. So what fascinates you about ghosts?

 I’ve never been attracted to the scary side of ghosts, partly because as a small child I got a bit freaked out by the idea of them. It was only later that I realised the link between ghosts and time travel – that ghosts were a possible point of contact between the present and the past. I’ve come to find that idea deeply fascinating. After all, if Hampton Court Palace really is haunted by Catherine Howard, being freaked out by her seems a terrible waste of a perfectly good spook to me. I’d rather hear what she has to say. Or scream… 

 ·I love that, and share that thought, imagine what you could ask her! I’d be too busy taking notes to be scared (unless it was particularly gory, or was trying to kill me – I’m a bit of a wuss when it comes down to it)
Your book for older readers – Haunters – is a thrilling adventure with wonderfully original concepts like dream-terrorism and the ability to time travel through dreams, more ghost-like episodes…. How different was it writing something so much darker? Is there another Haunters in the pipeline?

 Dan and the Dead was written using conventional ghost story material left over from writing early drafts of Haunters, which is in many ways an inverted ghost story. I found Haunters very difficult to write, not least because I wrote the first draft without doing any plotting at all! You don’t panster your way through a story that involves two changing interconnected time-lines, you just don’t. It took me years to straighten that tangle out and turn Haunters into the fast-paced thriller it is today. I’m very proud of the book now, but it nearly blew a fuse somewhere in my brain. I learnt a hell of a lot in the process though. As for a sequel, I have plotted out a second book called ‘Dreamers’, but I had another unrelated story by then, one that was calling much more loudly. I’ve written that now, but I don’t want to talk about it until I hear back from my editor. All I’ll say is, it has drawings in it. Oh, and only one timeline. 

 ·Speaking of drawings, I’m very excited to see that you are collaborating on a graphic novel project with Marcus Sedgwick. Scarlett Hart looks brilliant, and I’m really enjoying your blog where you share sneak peeks at the work in progress, the sketches so far are fantastic! Are you enjoying the process, and how different is it working on a graphic novel?

 This project is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. In many ways I’m coming home, since graphic story-telling is where I started as a teenager, and the world of comic books has always beckoned. I often think I should have gone into comics after art school instead of illustrating picture books. Either way, it’s taken me along time to find my way back there.

 As for the process, it feels like the classic ‘you write it, I’ll draw it’ relationship on one level, but Marcus and I are very much co-creators of Scarlett Hart. We just have our own domains, that’s all. He often suggests changes to the look of the book, and I feed through to him any narrative ideas I may have. Actually, it’s an especially fruitful relationship because I know about writing process myself, whilst Marcus draws very well, and understands the project visually. Anyway, we haven’t killed each other yet!

 ·OK, I’m afraid we can’t have an interview without asking you about THAT cover (in case you have been living in a cave, Thomas was the illustrator of the iconic first cover for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.) That must have been an exciting time for you, but what are your feelings on it all now the dust has settled?

 Harry Potter has cast a long and sometimes chilly shadow over my career. I try to keep my distance from it now. You can read more about my uneasy relationship with HP on my blog.

 ·Good response, and the post about it on your blog offers up a lot to think about for young illustrators. What advice would you give to young writers/illustrators starting out now? What should they look out for when starting out on this long creative road?

 Both writers and Illustrators need to practice their art all time. Writers should also be reading insatiably, while illustrators should be constantly looking at what’s new in their field. Neither should worry about style (as I did, endlessly). Your own personal style will develop out of practice and will be as unavoidable as growing up.

 ·So true, I think that finding your voice only happens when you stop straining to hear it.
So what next? When can we expect to see Scarlett, and is there more Dan in the pipeline?

 I’ll need most of 2014 to produce the art for Scarlett (gulp!). The publication date is some time off yet (and I’ve been told to keep it secret).

I’m writing the third Dan adventure right now, and will blog about it soon. I’m a bit coy about works in progress, I’m afraid, but I can tell you that in contrast to his subterranean brush with death in the catacombs of Paris (Dan and the Caverns of Bone), Dan will need a good head for heights in Dan and the Shard of Ice.   

 That sounds thrilling, and I’m trying not to speculate (spoilers!) Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, I’m massively looking forward to Scarlett Hart and will be keeping an eye on your blog for more sneak peeks.

 Thank you, Dawn! And good luck with your own excellent writing and projects.

 Stop press….The new website for Scarlett Hart is under construction and you can follow the whole process for yourself here. It is up and running and added to all the time, so bookmark it for news along the way.

If you are looking for the definitive answer to the question of who is the mysterious wizard on the back cover of Philosopher’s Stone – easy, it’s here! Mystery solved.

 

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Fever…..and here’s the pitch…

Fever

I have long since lost the excitement of the brown package containing a brand new proof copy.  A good number of these find their way to my desk and my procedure for dealing with them is this – squeeze it. If it is a thin book then I tend to open it straight away as I guess it will be a book for younger readers and may well offer me something I have not read before.  If it is a thick book, I pile it up to one side and will get round to it….eventually.  This is because these once exciting jiffy bags all too often contain yet another YA title banging out the same old tired formulaic content.  Tragic romance, vampires, wistful looks, agony filled embrace, more vampires, sobbing in dark corners, tragic and failed lives, more vampires…. yadda yadda yadda….oh yes, and more vampires….

A couple of weeks ago I received a copy of Dee Shulman’s Fever (Razorbill, pub April 2012) Interesting tag lines (“The Fever Is Coming”  – “Two worlds.  Two millennia.  One love”) made me give it a skim and take it home.  The accompanying letter and blurb promise many things – “Time travel with a romantic twist” – and assure me that the book is “whipping up a rights frenzy”

Well, that’s the spiel – what about the book?

Fever is the story of two young lives crossed at a moment in parallel time.  Eva is a dazzlingly smart girl from the modern day, and Seth is a gladiator from Roman London, AD152.  Their lives are tragically both linked and held apart by time, and each is desperate to find what has become of them, and the other.

I feel that I am not really doing the book justice with such a basic explanation, but I genuinely don’t want to give too much away for the reader.  The story is very vivid and the character building is both strong and natural – you really get to like Eva and Seth and quickly bond with them. 

In Eva we have a rare thing; an academically gifted female character who is instantly likeable.  Her intellect means that the text is never dumbed down; in fact I feel that it is bravely academic in places.  Frankly this is a blessing in this market place – my own teenager is bored rigid with being treated like a snog-fest addict with a brain the size of a Minto – and she is not alone. For all of those teenagers who have been patronised by other YA fiction and feel like this, hurrah, a book for you!

Seth is….well…. he’s beautiful.  A gladiator honed for combat and trained to kill and stay alive, he is at his peak physical fitness when disaster befalls him because he falls in love. He is instantly likeable and we all, umm, love him.

Eva and Seth are inexorably linked through time and, though they can feel this, they can’t explain it or make sense of it and both of them do everything they can to attempt to discover what has happened to them.  The medical scenes are superbly researched (I had to look some things up as I was curious about the virology talked about the book) as are the scenes set in Roman Londinium. This gives the book a depth and sense of gravitas that many YA books are sadly lacking.

Fever is an undeniably passionate book, and pretty sexy too without ever being cloying or drifting into that ghastly genre of tragic and depressed teens sucking face and crying all over the place. Fever is, quite simply, a captivating and passionate time-slip love story with a ghostly twist (and no vampires!)

I found myself dreading the end as I drew close to it because I knew that it couldn’t possibly end the way I wanted it to in the few pages left. But it did, and I’m very glad that it will be a trilogy.

Fever by Dee Shulman is out 5th April 2012 with Razorbill (Puffin)

416 pages

Isbn 9780141340265

e-book 9780141972183