Who am I?

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Mmm books - they taste good in my brain. So I decided to work in publishing and feed my habit. So now for a living I read wonderful children's books and tell everyone how great they are. It's called publicity! Many thanks to Oliver Jeffers for the name inspiration and header image.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

A bit of Book Eating down at McDonalds

*DISCLAIMER* Obviously, I am professionally linked with this, so I wouldn't be slagging it off as an initiative anyway but I promise I genuinely do think it's really interesting and in my eyes free books are definitely a good thing here. So this is really just my opinion or I wouldn't write anything about it up here. Just so that's out of the way!

A week or so ago, the news was announced that McDonald's would be serving their Happy Meals with a side of literacy - 9 million free Michael Morpurgo books will be given away in place of the usual plastic toys. As The Guardian said, not everyone found this an "appetising" deal - ho ho. Not usually known for its philanthropic, moral or indeed healthy values, like it or not McDonalds could technically be seen as January's biggest book retailer with this deal - although of course the books will be free. Indeed many would question if a fast food restaurant was the right place to promote literacy and if this was really all a cynical marketing ploy. 

Well, with positive support from the National Literacy Trust, who said - "We are very supportive of McDonald's decision to give families access to popular books, as its size and scale will be a huge leap towards encouraging more families to read together." and Booktrust who commented - "This partnership with McDonald's Happy Meals and HarperCollins sends a really powerful message that reading is for everyone," it seems that officially it's the nutritionists getting cross. The Daily Mail quoted the Children's Food Campaign, who said - "At a time when we have a childhood obesity epidemic this is clearly an inappropriate marketing strategy." Unfortunately it looks like an illiteracy epidemic and an obesity epidemic are knocking heads here. 

So firstly, is McDonald's an appropriate place for a book promotion campaign? When I was at university and writing my dissertation, I was horrified by the trend towards supermarkets becoming the UK's biggest book retailers - their ranges were narrow and at the time, the thought of books alongside tins of beans was highly unappealing to my literary sensitivities (largely it was this article that had me feeling it was all a bit gross - the power of Wall-Mart to make or break a brand!). However, now I'm aware that in fact many busy mums and dads who wouldn't normally venture into a book store, or think to buy their child reading material, may now do so if they can get it whilst they get their weekly shop. Also, just because a supermarket is the biggest retailer of something, doesn't mean it is the best - if you want quality, range, advice and atmosphere then you'll head down to your local indie. I hope! Ideally the volume of books sold in supermarkets helps to support a broader range of retailers and titles.

Similarly, while I might wish that this scheme could be implemented in libraries or a book shop or other literacy related venue, the point of this campaign is to reach those who don't normally enter such environments. According to McDonald's stats, eight out of ten families visit the chain and so the opportunity to target children is unavoidably enormous. 

But is it a cynical marketing ploy? Now of course, whilst publishers need to make money like any other business, can we at least agree the product is something worth marketing? Even if we were rubbing our hands together and gleefully mulling over all those children wanting to buy books, the outcome is still a positive one. But in fact, after a presentation from the team at HC who created the deal, I thought it really was a labour of love. Special sales and editorial worked closely together, with Michael always involved and consulted. Amazing lengths were pursued in order to comply with the regulations required and print the books in time and to a high standard. Literacy was always considered, right down to the POS promoting the books in the restaurants and the website that will accompany the books. The Happy Meal box itself includes a voucher to go to WHSmith and get two other titles for £1 each, also by Morpurgo. Every effort has been taken to ensure it's a love of books that is grown from this scheme.

I couldn't agree more with Jack Sallabank at the National Literacy Trust who said their interest "is not related to the number of Happy Meals sold. Nine million books will be distributed to children during the campaign. In a society where one in three children don't own a book, this type of campaign will be hugely effective," I don't really believe that anyone goes to McDonalds and buys the Happy Meal for the toy - even as a child I was definitely more interested in the nuggets than whatever swivelling plastic creation was next to it. So, conversely, I don't really believe many customers will go into McDonalds in order to get a book for free. If it was the book they wanted, they could buy all six adventures in a bind up, which has an RRP of £7.99. I haven't had a Happy Meal in a few years, so I'm not sure how much they are, but if they're still about £2 then you can purchase the book for less money than six Happy Meals. 

All I'm saying is that yes some people may question the moral integrity of partnering with McDonalds, of course and if you think it's a terrible idea, that's fine - and I'm happy the whole thing has created the discussion. But in my opinion, children are currently eating at McDonald's regardless and so if we can put a book in their hands whilst they're there, then all the better. If even a 1% of the books are taken home, read, and enjoyed and spark the reading bug, it will be worth it. 

McDonalds will be giving away Mudpuddle Farm books with Happy Meals until 7th February. http://www.happystudio.com/ 

Friday, 20 January 2012

Carnegie review number 6 - White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick

Oooooh it's a goodie! I've been meaning to pick up Marcus' books for actual years - I remember being at some SYP event in Foyles before I got into publishing and I was going to every book talk I could find. Marcus was the only speaker who was a kid's author and he asked if anyone worked in children's publishing. I'm pretty sure I put my hand up like a right nerd even though I wasn't technically employed yet! I thought it was interesting he'd worked for Walker before he became an author, so knew the technical side of things (also, later found that lovely Jonathan Stroud also worked for Walker before becoming an author, so it's a trend clearly!). Then a wonderful friend at Norwich Library, who gave me massive help in getting in to publishing, also recommended his books (cowabunga, if you're reading this). So it's been something I've been getting around to for a while...

Well I'm going to have to gradually acquire the whole backlist because White Crow was an absolutely brilliant read. Naturally written in an extremely graceful and vivid descriptive style, it was not only beautiful but very thought provoking. And having taken one whole unit on the American Gothic at UEA, and thus considering myself an expert, I can tell you it's very gothic! A fascination with death, themes of doubles, creepy houses... oh and a crow! All of the above are major gothic symbols.

White Crow is a story about a teenage girl who moves to a small coastal town for the summer with her dad. For reasons I won't divulge and spoil, Rebecca and her father's relationship is very strained. She soon meets Ferelith (rumoured to be named after the brilliant librarian! Now if that won't get you a nomination what will!) a strange, lonely and extremely intelligent girl who seems preoccupied with thoughts of death, the afterlife and the gradual ruin of the town as it falls into the sea. Another story runs alongside this modern day one, of a rather naughty priest in the 1700s who is involved in some grizzly work by a French doctor who is also preoccupied with the afterlife.

I found when I first started reading I was expecting this book to be quite whimsical and romantic as I didn't know much about it, but it quickly turned into a tense, chilling, gothic thriller with a deep philosophical element. It's really not a long book at all, and so packs an awful lot of thought and description into a succinct narrative. I found every time I had to put this book down I couldn't stop thinking about it and was mulling it over after finishing it too. Having a proper think about death and what happens next is something I don't often do - I tend to look sideways, above and around it. Really thinking about it can only last a few minutes before I feel like I'm leaning over the edge of something I can't really balance on. If you ask me, the real magic of books, and particularly children's books is that feeling that you're being shown something for the first time and taking a perspective you'd never imagined before. Whether, as adults, it's not really the first time, that feeling in a great book is just magic. White Crow really had that and prodded my brain into thinking over things I usually avoid. That's why I would say this is not only a major contender for this year's Carnegie but a genuine crossover title that adults and children alike should read.

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick is published by Orion and is out now in paperback. It is longlisted for the 2012 Carnegie Medal.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Off Topic Review: The Fear by Charlie Higson

OK I got distracted - The Fear is not on the Carnegie long list. We could have a whole debate about why (But WHY? Do I need to go set up a horror prize? Why should books like this have to have their own prize though? Anyway...) but I just really. Wanted. To. Read. It. I have been quite obsessed with these books since the first one came out in its shiny foil skull covered glory. After the second one came out I was working at Bath Children's Literature Festival so managed to see an event with Charlie Higson and Nick Lake and worked myself into an embarrassing fangirl state in the signing queue. But now my hardback of The Dead says "Don't have nightmares" in it, which is worth it!

The Fear is the third in a series penned by Young Bond author, Fast Show comedian and former UEA student (I'm going to start a list - oh UEA!) Charlie Higson. Already well established as a children's author with the Young Bond series, Charlie took a leap into the world of more grizzly teen/YA writing with much success. Zombies were the new vampires, so they said - I can't agree that zombies have taken off as widely as vamps yet, but they sure have infiltrated many levels of entertainment and often on more of a cultish level. For example the unlikely combination of dystopian steampunk zombie romance Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel.

These books are set in a contemporary London, ravaged by a mysterious disease which has turned everyone over fourteen into a flesh hungry zombie. These zombies aren't just a bit green - they're positively repulsive with rotting bodies, pus filled boils and bits falling off left, right and centre. Charlie demonstrates the look here. The kids featured in the books are bang up to date urban teens, who chat along with slang that even I, modern yoof as I am, didn't always understand. But no worries bruv, I'm no mug and I'm bare down with the speak now.

I don't want to ruin too much of the plot in case you haven't read the other books but I will say this - you have to be prepared for some gruesome deaths and that any character could, at any time, die. Horribly. It's so much fun to watch the kids hole up in some of the big sights in London including the Imperial War Museum, The Tower of London and even Buckingham Palace. Apocalyptic visions are pretty rife in teen fiction at the moment but I haven't read something else set so firmly in an environment I really know, and reading The Fear, I could picture the streets they were walking along, the alleyways the zombies appear from. Endlessly enjoyable.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this latest installment in the series - waiting for the next one is what always gets me as they're completely addictive, fast paced, thrill filled books! I vote we put Charlie and Will Hill to an Xbox off to see who wins and put this zombie/vampire debate to the test once and for all.

The Fear by Charlie Higson is out now in hardback, paperback will be out in April. It follows The Enemy and The Dead in the same series.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Carnegie read number 6 - Caddy's World by Hilary McKay

In my quest to read all the titles on the Carnegie longlist, I have come to a particular favourite of mine. I have LOVED the Casson Family adventures ever since reading Saffy's Angel back in 2002. Well I think it was 2002 as that's the year it says inside my old copy. But I definitely read it as an actual tween so I can tell you from the target audience's perspective, and from a grown up's perspective, these books are PERFECT.

I think I came across Saffy's Angel because my dad had heard something about it on the radio - good old bit of PR work in action there. Anyway when I came to reading it, I fell in love with family and how kooky and unusual the characters were. Not only was it sweet and funny but it was so emotional and I always looked back on it fondly as a book of magic and wonder. The Casson family are a complete treat - lots of eccentric children with an even more eccentric artist mother and a progressively more and more absent artist father. Each child has been named after a swatch on a paint chart hung up in the kitchen - Permanent Rose, Saffron, Indigo and Cadmium. Each child has such a rich story to tell, full of the discoveries of growing up, particularly with the extra independence they gain from having such a charmingly dotty mother - who still loves them dearly, but has difficulty keeping a track of them all the time! You can read all about them in their own titles in the series.

Caddy's World is actually a prequel title, coming before the five other titles which explored the family in the years after Saffy's Angel was released. Caddy is the oldest sibling and mostly seen as a teenager or university student in the other books so it's really lovely to see her as a 12 year old. If you know the other books you'll see a few explanations for Caddy's quirky ways in this snapshot of her childhood self. I adore her group of friends in all their extreme differences from each other - the kind of friendship group you can only have at that age I think. Poignantly, Caddy is forever wishing that things would never change but of course nothing ever really stays the same.

I don't want to give too much of the story away as it's such a wonderful read - lots of people have been asking me about books to interest keen reading girls who don't want to get into teenage talk about boys and kissing - this is perfect. Things do get tough in the Casson family sometimes, but for an 8-12 year old I'd say this is the best way to learn about those tough times - within the framework of a gorgeously characterful story, full of plenty of humour, hope and every day magic.

Caddy's World by Hilary McKay is out now in hardback and is long listed for the 2012 Carnegie Medal.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Carnegie meal number 5 - My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher

I've been resisting this one for a while - I think pretty much every kids publisher had wanted to publish it and there had been a lot of pre-publication chatter and hype which always makes me a little cautious of the finished product! I wasn't surprised to see it on prize lists as I had perceived it to be "worthy" and topical from the plot descriptions. However I was really pleasantly surprised with this book.

The plot follows 10 year old Jamie whose sister Rose was killed in a terrorist attack. Her twin sister Jasmine survived and is left to live within their now fractured family with Jamie. Their father has become bitter and angry and often blames their mother, who is distant and disconnected from the family. The father has also grown to distrust any muslims, believing them all to be terrorists and is struggling to cope with his grief through heavy drinking.

The story is told very genuinely from a child's point of view - in this it reminded me of one of this year's big adult books, Room by Emma Donoghue. His voice is very innocent and it's heartbreaking to see the family's disfunction through his eyes. As the children left behind in tragedy, Jamie and Jasmine find themselves more neglected and invisible rather than more cared for. With a move to the countryside, Jamie also finds himself forming a tender young friendship with a girl at his new school, but there's just one problem: Sunya is a Muslim.

Jamie experiences so much in this book and it isn't necessarily all the big problems he has to deal with which are the best bits of the story - small triumphs against the school bully and moments of realising how much his sister is doing to help him along behind the scenes - these are the bits that really got me. Well and a scene with a cat which made me weep for a good 20 minutes... But my point is, this book isn't really about a family affected by a terrorist attack. It's just about a family - it doesn't matter what caused their fractures, because what comes after could be scenes from any number of family's difficulties. It's so beautifully observed and heart-touching, and not really an issue book in the way I was expecting. The nearest book I could compare it to would be Moon Pie by Simon Mason which has a similar family set-up and is equally wonderful!

I do think this book really deserves all the praise it has received - ignore the attention grabbing stuff about terrorism (and sorry, but I'm not a fan of this cover at all...) and read it as a sensitive and touching examination of a family in trouble.

My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece is out now in paperback and is long listed for the Carnegie Medal.