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Writing ‘The Marvellous Moon Map’

The Marvellous Moon Map is a very exciting book for me – and not just because the fantabulous David Litchfield has done the stunning illustrations for it!

It’s because it’s a story which came wholly out of my head, without the structure of a fairy tale to steady my hand.   My own Moon Map to show me the way was made of lots of different things: songs, stories, a play, some advice, and something my daughter once said…

It began with just one thought, on hearing the beautiful song ‘Fuel Up’ by Oxford band Stornoway, about travelling on through your life -sometimes losing your way, but keeping on going – with the people you love beside you.

This led me to think of The Wizard of Oz, which I’ve always loved, and also Into the Woods – the idea of going into deep dark woods (either real or metaphorical!) and having friends help you into the light.

So I wrote this little snippet in my notebook:

 

And the spark was lit.

Around the same time, I was acting in a community production, Remainders, at the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford.

     Me (left) in ‘Remainders’ – with paper boats!

This show was about characters who were all fleeing a flood at the end of the world by huddling together in a library.  At the end of the play, they all sailed off together in a boat made from books. (It was quite a show!)   All this got me thinking about what it would really be like to be in a small boat on the ocean and how terrifying it would be.

My character also made lots and lots of paper boats with another character, so I got to know how to make paper boats VERY WELL INDEED.

A beautiful song, ‘Breathe Easy’, by Rachel Sermanni featured in the show, which I loved.

Finally, there was something my daughter once said (see if you can spot it – it occurs four times in the story!…) to throw into the mix.

With all this swirling around, I wrote some poetry, tried things out – and eventually Mouse appeared:

Bear followed soon after.  Now I had the characters, and I knew they were going on a journey, possibly involving a wood and a boat – but I couldn’t work out why, or where to!  (This is such an infuriating and magical part of writing: not knowing where the story is going, and continually trying to puzzle it out!)

Then one night, after going round and round in circles, I had a conversation with my friend Emma Webb, who is an hugely talented actor and director and had directed Remainders.  With great insight, she said, “Why don’t they make a paper boat and sail off in it?”  (THANK YOU EMMA!!!)

I went home, went to bed – and then instantly had to get up, with the story full in my head!

First pages of the midnight draft

I went downstairs in the dark with my notebook and it all poured out: that Mouse was looking for the moon, or a star, and made a map to find it – and Bear then folded up this map to make the paper boat, and they found the sun instead.

The story took many drafts – handwritten and typed – to get right.  I made a little dummy book to help me work out the shape of the plot.

    Dummy book with text developing

I wrote character studies of Mouse and Bear.  Some day I’ll tell you how they met…

But eventually The Marvellous Moon Map was ready, and I sent it off to my agent, Hilary Delamere, who sent it to Penguin Random House… Then David came on board, and brought the story and characters to life in a way I’d never thought possible, with such light, drama, tenderness and detail.  I feel very lucky to be working with him.

So next time you have the spark of an idea, catch it by the tail – for sometimes a story can come from a line in a song or a scrap in a notebook… 

Mouse and Bear are my old friends now – I can’t imagine a time when I didn’t know them – and I’m delighted to say they will set off on another adventure next year!

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Twisting Fairy Tales

I’ve been doing lots of school visits recently and it’s been so amazing seeing so many children making up their own characters, developing new plots and lit up by the power of stories.

I had a wonderful World Book Day week, visiting schools in Rainham, Romford, Bedford and Norwich, and before that in Ambrosden and many others.   I’ve even had someone dressing up as Very Little Red Riding Hood for World Book Day – doesn’t she look brilliant?!

I start by making sure we all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel. What are the key events in those stories? Who are the main characters?

For example:

Cinderella wants to go to the BALL

She has two UGLY SISTERS who are mean to her

She needs her FAIRY GODMOTHER’S HELP to go to the ball

She has to leave at MIDNIGHT – and she forgets her GLASS SLIPPER

We all know this because fairy tales have been told so many times in so many different ways, that it feels almost as if they exist deep within our brains without us even having to think about it.  But in our (Heapy and Heap’s!) version of the story, Very Little Cinderella wants to go to a party, the Ugly Sisters are scared of Cinderella rather than the other way around, the Fairy Godmother becomes a babysitter, who has her magic dismissed by Very Little Cinderella – and the glass slipper becomes a ‘lello boot’.

I highlight to children that if you want to twist a fairy tale, it’s important to keep some central parts of the story – but then to work out what you can change from this. To begin with, I always go right back to the original and work out What is essential to keep? What defines this story? (I use Philip Pullman’s Grimm’s Tale’s – which concentrate on the plot with breathtaking ferocity!)  I then work out what I can change, or twist, within the tale, to make it true from a toddler’s perspective. There is usually a key scene that draws me in, like Very Little Red Riding Hood standing up to the Wolf, Very Little Cinderella rejecting lots of magic dresses, or Very Little Rapunzel having an ouch-y time having her very long hair combed!

So, having established what is important to keep, I then encourage the children to think about what could change, and to draw and write about their own versions of a Very Little character.

And it’s wonderful to see their brains popping with characters emerging!…I’ve had Very Little Gingerbread Man, Very Little Belle, a Very Little Arial and lots of Very Little superheroes – from Very Little Batman to Iron Man.   I’ve seen a Very Little Victoria, many Very Little Harry Potters, a Very Little Harlequin Vampire, Power Ranger, Ninja Turtle, Horrid Henry, Gruffalo – even a Very Little Van Gogh (though I did draw the line at Very Little Hitler)!

Lots of gorgeous Very Littles by Year 1, Heather Avenue School in Norwich

It’s always so exciting seeing this moment of inspiration.  To get children writing, I think that it often helps to have an existing character or tale to think about, and a ‘Very Little’ hinge to start things off.   It helps to avoids that Blank Page of Doom where it’s often hard for children (or adults!) to think of what to write about. And once you’ve started on the path to your new character, there’s no stopping you…

The youngest of children can draw their own characters:

This was done by a pre-school child from Renhold Lower School – note the careful red boots!

The oldest can think more about who their characters are – and then start planning where their stories might go.

Lots of fantastic very new Very Little characters from Years 3 and 4 at Renhold School in Bedford…who all dressed up for World Book Day!

I had a wonderful day with Five Acres Primary School in Ambrosden, where we worked on one idea together, brainstorming Very Little Goldilocks.   The children then went on to make their own beautiful Very Little Goldilocks books, complete with Very Little map endpapers, blurbs and author biogs, and I’ve been lucky enough that they’ve just sent me some of their finished books.  There was such a variety of ideas, and they all twist the tale brilliantly!  In some of the stories Very Little Goldilocks rejects egg or toast instead of porridge; instead of chairs, she tries out TV programmes or colouring sheets – she even tried to find the perfect toilet!  (It’s a big yellow potty.)  One of them even travelled in time!

A huge variety of ideas on the same tale!

You can see of the children reading their stories aloud here.

I’m so thrilled to see so many new stories emerging, and so many children seeing themselves as writers and illustrators!   A HUGE thank you to all the schools I’ve visited…and here’s to many more!

ALCS Educational Writers’ Award

Yesterday I was here…

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Yes, the Houses of Parliament! I was there to attend the ceremony for the Educational Writers’ Award for my book Who Eats Who.  This award is the ONLY UK award for educational writing, so it was a real honour to be on the shortlist.

Who Eats Who is a non-fiction book for 6-7 year olds about food chains – and how we’re all part of them!  It’s included in Oxford University Press’s fantastic InFact series which also features books about space, the deep sea, making comics and puppets and the top ten worst ever jobs for children.  Check it out!

Who Eats Who had strong competition!

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The very brilliant Atlas of Adventures (on my Christmas list!) by Rachel Williams and Lucy Letherland won the prize, but I still got a lovely certificate and a book token from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale!

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Thank you ALCS and the Society of Authors for a wonderful evening, and for giving us the opportunity to celebrate the wealth of children’s educational publishing which so rarely gets a chance to shine in the spotlight.

And look, there’s already a Christmas tree beside Big Ben!

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Oxfordshire Book Awards, 2015

Yesterday, Sue Heap and I had the honour of attending the 2015 Oxfordshire Book Awards where – very wonderfully – Very Little Red Riding Hood won the award for Best Picture Book.

Sue and I with our magical OBA cake!

Sue and I with our magical OBA cake!

I grew up in Oxford (my old Middle School was a stone’s throw from the Oxford High School, where the ceremony was held), and I still live here, so to win this award – voted for entirely by children from 30 schools in Oxfordshire – is a real honour for me. My parents and my family (who have all inspired me to write in so many ways) all came along, so it was a particularly special afternoon.

OBA Awards

We joined a brilliant list of winners: Robin Stevens won the Primary Novel Award for Murder Most Unladylike, Marcus Sedgwick won the Secondary Novel Award for She is Not Invisible, (unfortunately he couldn’t join us for the ceremony) and Jo Cotterill’s Looking at the Stars was Highly Commended.

A huge thank you to the Oxfordshire Book Awards team, who gave us flowers, prizes – and of course lots of cake (always very important)!

Here we all are with our fab cakes!

Here we all are with our fab cakes!

But this was probably the best part of the afternoon for me…

OBA 2015 at Oxford High School

….meeting so many children, all fired up by a love of stories and wanting to talk to as many authors and illustrators as they could!  One even brought in her own sequel of Very Little Red Riding Hood to show us (Very Little ended up eaten by a crocodile!).  A group of children also came up onstage to show us their pictures they had painted, inspired by the book: a huge cuppatea; some vivid Little Reds; a properly funky Grandmama.

The team at the Oxfordshire Book Awards do wonderful work, sparking up a life-long love of reading in children, and encouraging the use of schools and libraries across the county.   This ceremony showed they are doing a marvellous job: the joy and enthusiasm of all the children who came was both infectious and inspiring.

A huge thank you to everyone from Sue and I – and a VERY large cuppatea (and a slice of cake).

Cake, celebrations…and cracking creations!

What a few weeks it’s been!  Sue Heap and I launched Very Little Cinderella at the magical Story Museum in Oxford with a proper picture book party.

Do you think she's doing a good of cleaning?

Hmm, do YOU think Very Little Cinderella’s doing a good of cleaning?

It was a delicious celebration, complete with balloons, cake…and the creation of a picture of the Very Big Woods, to which EVERYONE contributed!

drawing-in-progress

drawing-in-progress…

 

The finished Woods, done by everyone!

…the fantastic finished Woods!

VL Blackwell's

Sue and I then had ANOTHER party (well, you can never have too many) in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Broad Street, Oxford. There was more reading, drawing, signing – and a Very Big Cake!

(We also got to have a cuppatea in the ‘Gaffer’s’ old, perfectly preserved room, and sign the Big Blackwell Book, autographed by everyone from Maurice Sendak to Seamus Heaney – what an honour!)

I then went on to visit the lovely Leaf Café and Bookshop in Hertford (cake AND books? Who could ask for more?) and the utterly fabulous Chicken and Frog Bookshop in Brentwood.

Chicken and Frog window

Chicken and Frog did a spectacular window display which made me beam with pride!

(I came out from both shops with a big bag of books – so much temptation!)

 

Holy FamilyI visited a gorgeously costumed Larkrise Primary on World Book Day, and last week I visited Holy Family School, Witham in Essex, complete with brand new puppets and the Very Little song!  (Thank you to the great team at Just Imagine for organising and selling books!)

But amongst all the cake and celebrations, the truly wonderful thing about the last few weeks has been seeing children’s reactions to the Very Little stories and the way they quickly make up their own characters and plots – from the very youngest children, all the way up to the biggest, coolest KS2 kids!

Here is Very Little Cinderella “on her way to a fancy dress party”:

She's got fabulous face-paint!

She’s got fabulous face-paint!

wearing a beautiful dress:lovely dress

and here she is on various modes of transport to get to the party:

and on a skateboard!

and on a skateboard!

on a bus

on a bus…

 

on a train...

on a train…

Sue’s wonderful drawings seem to nudge children into their own creations very quickly – with fantastic results.

Older children really get the idea of the stories being a twist on a fairy tale – and quickly spin off into their own full-blown versions of pre-school characters causing chaos!  Having ‘Very Little…’ as a prompt seems to help avoid the usual ‘what do I write about?!’ dilemma, and within a few minutes on my tour of KS2 classrooms in Holy Family School, there were the beginnings of Very Little Alice In Wonderland, Very Little Jack, The Three Very Big Pigs and the Very Little Wolf, Very Little Ariel, Very Little Gruffalo, Very Little Mario, Very Little Ben 10 – the list went on and on!

Here’s a brilliant story map of Very Little Thor, who uses his hammer as a dummy and sleeps in a glowing cot…

Very Little Thor

and, finally, I have to share the story plan of Very Little Romeo and Juliet, who have too much apple juice at a party, get drawn into a fight – but end up going to the same pre-school nursery.

VL Romeo & Juliet

Yes, in the grand fairy tale tradition, even Romeo and Juliet end up ‘happily ever after’!  With a cake or two, I’m sure.

Once Upon a Time

Last week I went to see Into the Woods at the cinema.  This was not just a normal night out at the pictures. No, this was a Big Deal.

Let me come clean. I’ve loved this fairy-tale musical with a proper ache for years and years and years. It was one of the Wood-y touchstones for Sue Heap and I on the day we met, thinking about where the Very Littles might live. I know the songs so well that it was like having a personal secret revealed when I heard Red Riding Hood singing ‘I Know Things Now’ on the radio the other day.

If you don’t know it, Into the Woods is a mash-up of fairy tales by Stephen Sondheim which goes beyond the usual happy ever after. It has a cast of witches, giants and bakers all trying to make their own way or bring up their children. It brings fairy tale characters to life with all the complication, argument, fear and joy that real life brings.

To add to this, I’d just played Jack (as of And the Beanstalk) in a fabulous community panto, so this particular story in the film seemed more than usually familiar. I found myself sympathizing with Jack as he banged on about magic beans, giants, harps and hens to his disbelieving mother, and thinking that stories are a bit like beans – magic beans. A tiny thing which, given warmth, light and a lucky sprinkling of rain, can grow into something enormous and take you up into a spectacular, unknown sky. But of course you have to believe in them at their bean-like beginnings – which is when they are often at their most plain, brown and unpromising.

Teresa Heapy as Jack in panto

Me as Jack, complete with the perfect pantomime cow, mysterious pedlar and the all-important magic beans!

I’ve often turned to Into the Woods when I’ve found myself in difficult or unknown times and found it full of comforting and startling truths.   So I was, of course, in a right old flood of tears at the end in the cinema – but found it was for different reasons than when I first saw it in my teens, or when I last saw it, before I had children.

Perhaps this is because Into the Woods has fairy tales at its heart – stories that seem to expand, like water-soaked crystals, with sparkling relevance to your life whenever you encounter them. Fairy tales are about survival, love, evil and kindness; about brave, wicked, and foolish characters all continually trying to find the path, make their fortune, tell their story.

So maybe it’s the chance to revisit these fairy tales that is so important to me. It’s these age-old stories that echo down my spine:

‘Into the woods

to mind the wolf,

to heed the witch,

to honour the giant,

to mind,

to heed,

to find,

to think,

to teach,

to join,

to go to the festival!’

But what Into the Woods also does is to give each of the cast of these tales a voice (which the plot-driven originals often don’t).   And in its wonderful collision of characters, it makes you feel that that, on any journey through their everyday Woods, a hero or heroine can always count on friends or family to help them through the forest, push through the dark trees, and find their way out.

Along with the odd pantomime cow, of course.

‘Into the woods…

then out of the woods –

and happy ever after!’

 

 

Just Say Yes!

Turning off that critical voice

This post originally appeared on the wonderful Picture Book Den website: http://picturebookden.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/just-say-yes-turning-off-that-critical.html

I’m doing a comedy improvisation course at the moment. Yes, me – picture book writer and editor – doing comedy impro like Whose Line Is It Anyway! I still find that quite amazing to write down.   I did it (partly) to take myself out of my writer-ly comfort zone where I forever fiddle with individual words for picture books…and instead to explore spontaneous storytelling.

For in this case, impro, with the brilliant Kepow Theatre Company, is less about “Tell us a joke about a toaster! Now!” and more about character and plot – creating stories out of thin air.

So how does this feed into writing picture books, on my own, on a Monday morning?

I think the key thing is that it reminds me to tell That Voice on my shoulder to go away. You know, That Voice. The one that says “Well that’s no good, ooh, not original enough, that’s far too obvious, blimey, what were you thinking?!” (Or is that just me?!)  In impro, our great course tutor, Kevin Tomlinson, tells us to switch off that inner critical voice and, crucially, to instead say “Yes! And?…” to every suggestion.

Sometimes, both in impro and in writing, I’m finding that the most obvious things are the right things. Rather than listening to a manic inner voice screaming “Come on! More Original! More Creative!” it’s about finding the truth of what would happen. When I’m writing picture books about characters who are two years old, I have to keep reminding myself to go for the reality of what they would do. Would they really scream at this particular point? Would they actually go ominously quiet?  Similarly, in impro (particularly in the early stages of a scene), audiences don’t really want that envelope in your hand to contain a magic spell for invisibility. They want it to be a letter, or a job offer, or a will.

Every Monday evening, our supportive group – all of whom start out with nothing in our heads – end up in stories where we’re two inches high, exploring underground laboratories, or heading off to the moon.  And we’re finding that improvising satisfying stories spontaneously is truly thrilling (especially when we do it in front of a live audience). Yes, it can be a terrifying place in your blank head, in that moment before you speak – but when a scene flies, it’s fantastic.

Very Little Red Riding Hood

Very Little Red Riding Hood (two years old) has a wobbly moment.

On the other hand, sometimes the most obvious thing isn’t right, and you need to be highly creative and imaginative. But having a positive Voice which says ”Yes! And?…” to every thought doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a boring story. Instead it prompts you to think – what would move the plot forward?   What if they opened that door, looked into that box, went into that wood?… In impro, you continually have to move the story on instead of ‘blocking’ it by saying “No” (internally or externally!). You have to go down that dark corridor (where you can hear something licking its lips) – whereas in real life you’d very sensibly run away!

Turning off That Voice also means that you get to delve right inside your head and see what truly bonkers things pop out. In one picture book story for me, this was an enormous multi-coloured monster who kept causing chaos whilst a normal family was trying to have breakfast. And sometimes in impro, you can find yourself being interrogated by an invisible giant who is trying to kill you…

Whichever way it takes you, it’s a great release to tell That Voice to sit down, shut up and let you get on with what your brain offers up.

Now sometimes, of course, as a writer, the critical Voice is helpful. When you’ve got a story written and you’re happy with most of it, you need that Voice to needle out what’s not working and be quite hard and honest. But first you have to get the first draft written down. And for that, I personally need my critical Voice to take a long spa break somewhere very far away. (This is a particular issue for me, as I’m also a freelance commissioning editor.)

My critical voice relaxing by the poolSo now I’ve got a new Voice on my shoulder when I’m writing those first drafts. It prompts, it encourages. It dares me to create new characters, to tease out the reality of existing ones, and to take them to weird and wonderful places.

What the...?And I’m just about to perform in another impro show. (In the last one, I became a woman obsessed with tropical fruit, who ran over her two-timing ex-lover with a double-decker bus, specially hired for the purpose. I spent a good few days wondering where that came from.)

I’m already feeling terrified and excited in equal measure.   But I’m looking forward to the new stories we’ll create.   And hopefully the new Voice will shout “Bravo!”

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