Horrid Henry: An apology

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Forgive me, o gods of literacy, for I have sinned. This is my confession.

About three years ago, my (then) eight-year-old son began getting into Horrid Henry. I don’t know how much the HH phenomenon is known outside the UK, so for the benefit of the blissfully ignorant: Horrid Henry features in a series of children’s books which have, by any measure, been a major publishing success story. They have been bestsellers, and have subsequently adapted into a TV series and a movie.

The books belong to a genre we might call gross-lit. The eponymous Henry is, to put it mildly, an anti-hero. He gets into trouble all the time, shows less than zero respect for his parents, teachers or any other adults, and hates his impeccably behaved brother Perfect Peter. He farts, belches, schemes and whines with total abandon. He is, in short, a grown-up’s nightmare.

Don’t get me wrong – I can see Henry’s attraction, especially to his peer group. He’s lively, rebellious and funny. And Perfect Peter is rather irritating. But I really didn’t like the books. For one thing, I didn’t think they were especially well written or original. The naughty, rebellious schoolboy character is nothing new – think Dennis the Menace or Just William, to give just two examples – and in my opinion he’s been portrayed with more wit and style before. The fact that all the child characters are always referred to by their alliterative nicknames – as well as Horrid Henry and Perfect Peter, there is also Moody Margaret, Vomiting Vera and many more – was a joke that quickly wore thin for me.

And Henry himself, I just found unbearably annoying. He’s staggeringly selfish He’s the sort of child who sucks up a disproportionate amount of effort and attention, to the detriment of the quieter, better behaved kids around them. He was certainly not anything like my idea of a good role model, much less a hero.

What’s worse is – and this might make me sound incredibly old-fashioned – there’s little sign of a moral compass in those books. There are too often no apparent consequences to Henry’s behaviour. He’ll do something selfish and bad, upsetting the people around him – and just get away with it.

So what did I do? (This is the confession part.) One day, I took all my son’s Horrid Henry books away. I didn’t think they were a good influence, or good literature. There are better books out there, I said; read those, not these.

Right. Rant over. I am of course conscious that I am not the target audience for these books. I am also aware that the average nine-year-old boy really does find farting and belching quite funny. Horrid Henry is obviously and unashamedly aimed at children of a certain age, and boys in particular. The books are also carefully and skilfully written to be easily readable for their age group, a quality which, as I reflected on in my last post, is both important and something that doesn’t happen by accident.

Three years on from my Horrid Henry book burning spree (OK, that’s dramatic license: I didn’t burn them, I just gave them to a charity shop), I know better now. My son has never been a great reader. He often takes scant interest in the written word. He doesn’t find many books he really likes. When he does, it tends to be non-fiction rather than stories – which is fine, as long as he reads, but I wish he loved fiction the way I always have. I have tried to introduce so many new books to him, with distinctly mixed results.

But he liked Horrid Henry books. So why on earth did I take them from him? What sort of fool was I? OK, I didn’t much like them. I still don’t. But they aren’t that bad – and they’re books. And if he reads them, he’ll go on to read other, different things. I can still introduce him to other options, without taking away the things he’s already enjoying.

Today I read an article that reminds us of the obvious: if children find books they love to read, then – guess what? – they’ll read more. And more; with all the intellectual, emotional and educational benefits that we know go along with that.

Now my son is allowed to read Horrid Henry again, along with pretty much anything else he wants to. It’s far more important that he learns to associate reading with pleasure and freedom, rather than only reading what I personally (and subjectively) consider to be good literature. In any case, he’s far, far more likely to come across unsuitable or harmful material on TV, or especially online, than he is within the pages of a children’s book.

So welcome back Horrid Henry, (almost) all is forgiven. Thank you for showing my son that reading can be fun after all. Just … just try to behave a bit better from now on, will you? Set a more positive example? No? …. Oh well. As you were, then.

 

Challenging Children: Long words or short?

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As a writer of children’s books, I’m always concerned about whether my prose is pitched at about the right level for its intended readership. You know: are any of the words too long, sentence construction too complex, cultural references above their heads, subject matter too ‘adult’?

This is compounded by the fact that reading ability varies so much. Well it does for adults too, of course, but when your target audience is as narrow as 8-12-year-olds or thereabouts then you don’t have to be especially off-target to miss it. If the bull’s-eye is an averagely competent ten-year-old reader, then your book may be beyond a struggling eight-year-old (at least without adult help), yet also not testing enough for a high-flying near-teen. (Then again, advanced seven-year-olds and some young teens might still be within range.)

For this reason (as for so many others) the sharp eyes of beta-readers and editors are invaluable. Then again, I’m a firm believer that kids shouldn’t be patronised, and that there’s also scope to stretch them a little. Indeed, surely that’s part of the value of reading. If they never come across new words, for instance, how will their vocabulary grow?

An example: an editor of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer picked up on the word ‘sumptuous’, used to describe an especially spectacular starry sky beheld by Danny one night. Would your younger readers know what that means, they wondered?  Might a simpler word be used in its place?

I should emphasise that I did take that editor’s advice probably 90% of the time; and even when I didn’t, I always thought carefully before rejecting it. I’m certainly not suggesting they were wrong to ask the question. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. But ultimately, the author themselves has to make the decision. The editor’s opinions are always to be respected (you’d be wasting both their time and yours if you didn’t) but they are never the last word.

In the end, sumptuous stayed. I love that word. It’s so, well … sumptuous. An extravagant, opulent, overflowing kind of word; but crucially, for me it was the very best one for the job in that particular sentence.  Another place, another time, I might have agreed with the editor and changed it.

Of course, as I said above, it’s a matter of balance. Too many new, long or challenging words might discourage the young reader. The prose should be accessible; and after all it’s there to tell the story, not get in the way, jump up and down and shout, ‘look at me, aren’t I clever!’. Too many pauses to consult the dictionary are bound to obstruct the reading experience and prevent the child’s full immersion in the adventure.

It’s a similar thing with sentences. I tend to keep them short and simple more often than not. But the odd longer, more complex sentence is no bad thing, and the variety should serve to make the text more interesting – and, yes, challenging. In that sense, it’s little different from adult fiction.

If the young reader gains in knowledge and ability through your book, that’s a wonderful thing. I’d love to think that some kid, somewhere, might one day say, ‘Dad, thanks, that dinner was sumptuous!‘, just because they read Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer.

 

Reading: speed or slow?

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Have you heard of the slow reading movement? I hadn’t until I came across this article recently. It was in the Wall Street Journal and you need to subscribe or log in to read the whole thing, but here’s a quote:

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn’t make it through a book anymore.

“I wasn’t reading fiction the way I used to,” said Meg Williams , a 31-year-old marketing manager for an annual arts festival who started the slow reading club. “I was really sad I’d lost the thing I used to really, really enjoy.”

Apparently there are ‘slow reading clubs’ popping up all over the place quite, er, quickly. And there’s something pleasingly counter-cultural about the whole thing. In these days of reduced attention spans, changing reading habits on electronic devices, blizzards of tweets and sound bites, not to mention the ever-increasing time pressure more and more people find themselves under, the idea of immersing yourself in a good book in quiet companionship with like-minded souls is more than a little appealing. Isn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable, after all? Are we sometimes putting too much pressure on ourselves to read too much, too quickly? So that something that’s supposed to reduce our stress levels actually starts to have the opposite effect?

Funnily enough, a few months back I started on a book about speed-reading – which (just to demonstrate how fickle I can be) also struck me as a thoroughly good idea. After all, writing swallows up huge chunks of time, but us writers are also meant to keep reading too – and since writers generally love books that’s no great hardship, except that too takes yet more time. So the promise of doubling or tripling my reading speed, of being able to devour book after book and still have precious writing (and oh yeah, day job, relationships, food, sleep, etc.) time to spare, is an alluring concept.

However, I never finished the speed reading book (I struggled to find the time – yeah, I know: irony overload) and now I seem to have mislaid it. Ho hum.

So should I be reading fast or slow? I guess it depends on what I’m reading. If it’s non-fiction – if it’s for basically cramming facts into my brain as quickly as possible – then a way of doing that more quickly seems to make a ton of sense. But fiction? That’s more for pleasure. And if I’m reading something really good, lovingly crafted, I’d like to linger over it a bit more. Only if I’m reading something I’m not really enjoying – but still want or need to finish for some reason – would I want to speed up too much.

Bottom line, then, is it depends. I guess I don’t want to worry too much about how slow or quick I’m reading. I’m reluctant to put pressure on myself either way. I need to dig up that speed reading book, finish it and see if it equips me with something useful. But I hope it’s something I’ll be able to switch on or off as the occasion demands. I’d really hate it to rob me of the ability to linger over a good book.

Because when I’m reading a good story, I’m going to try not to dash on to the next page or the end of the chapter too fast. Fiction is made to be enjoyed and appreciated. Who knows, I may even join one of those slow reading clubs one day … but I’m in no hurry.

 

Introducing … Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer

Flying saucer

What would you do if a flying saucer landed outside your house?

Danny Chaucer is lonely and bored. Nat Ford is the new girl at school and spends half her time trying to dodge the bullies. Nothing interesting ever happens in their dead-end village. Nothing that is until one still, starry night when something happens behind the trees at the end of Danny’s garden. He’s not quite sure what – except that suddenly everyone seems to be looking for something, including the sinister Captain Frost.

There might be only one way to escape – and that’s up …

That’s my first stab at the blurb of my new book, provisionally titled Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. (No idea whether that title will survive; I just like the fact that Chaucer rhymes with Saucer. Opinions welcome!)

You’ve probably worked out it’s a children’s book. More specifically it’s aimed at roughly 8-11 year olds. This is a departure for me, as BASIC Boy and Falling Girl are 11+ up to YA territory. So why have I gone younger for the new one? Well there are several reasons.

The first is that, when I was a kid, I did actually daydream about having my own flying saucer, of being able to just take off, to cruise though the skies and up to the stars, soaring far and above my problems. Of course I’d be the envy of everyone. Probably it’s the classic introvert’s dream – to be liked and admired, but also to be able to get away, to stand apart. Cool at last.

(Mind you, that’s not quite how it works out for Danny, Keeping the saucer secret is going to be one of his biggest problems – a lot of people will be very interested in something like that.)

The second reason is simply that, like a lot of writers, I want to try my hand at different things. (One day I’d like to write an adult novel too, but not just yet.) I don’t think I’ve finished with YA, but I want to see if I can write for children. The fact that I have two boys, aged six and ten – both of whom need some encouragement to read very much – is part of the motivation too.

I believe children’s literature is tremendously important, and writing it well is a talent sadly too often underrated. To create stories that children can understand and relate to, without patronising them, to inspire and to instil a love of reading – what a wonderful thing that is.

Third, I think this concept has good series potential. The first book sets the scene for more to come. I mean, there’s lots of places you can go in a flying saucer, right? And it does seem that, if you want to sell some books, having a series is a definite advantage. Producing more, shorter books, more frequently, makes sense to me as a strategy. (I also have some marketing ideas – not unrelated to the age of my sons.)

And finally, I have a sneaking suspicion that space is going to get bigger over the next few years. (Well it’s already pretty big, but you know what I mean.) We are less than five years away from the fiftieth anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic first step on the surface of the moon. There is the fairly imminent prospect of the first commercial space flight, and perhaps a manned mission to Mars in the not too distant future. And that’s just from the US and Europe – who knows where China’s ambitions will take them?

And have you heard about NASA’s flying saucer? It’s all happening you know.

I’m aiming to have Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer finished in early 2015. The first draft is done, the second is underway. Next time I’ll talk about my approach to the writing, what I’ve done so far and how I plan to get from here to publication.

Does being a writer affect your enjoyment of reading?

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It’s often said that it’s important for writers to keep reading stuff that other people write. This helps us to keep improving our own craft, and may also serve to keep us in touch with what’s current in the genres and markets that we ourselves write in. This should not be especially onerous for most writers, given that we’re generally a pretty bookish bunch anyway.

I agree totally with the above. However I’ve realised I have two problems that have affected how much I read, and my enjoyment of it. The first it the most obvious: time. What with writing swallowing up the hours, plus the day job and everything else, reading can easily become a causality of the highly inconvenient fact that there are only twenty-four hours in a day.

The second is perhaps less obvious, and something I’ve become more aware of recently. It’s basically this: as someone who’s been writing seriously for a few years, I’ve inevitably begun to read books as – well, a writer. That means I’m now much more keenly aware of how stories are structured, how plots develop, the words that are used, the point of view, and so on. All the stuff that we learn and think about and discuss as writers.

Of course to a great extent, that’s the point. When we read outstanding books, with brilliantly-drawn characters, involving storylines, cracking dialogue, economic and cliché-free prose … we learn valuable lessons. We hope this will rub off on us, that our own writing will progress as a result.

The problem is, we will probably also start to notice the not-so-great things elsewhere. Clichéd prose, over-use of adverbs, typos, unconvincing plot developments, padding – that will all also start to jump out at us.

The last novel I was reading, I had to stop because I decided the standard wasn’t high enough. I hope I don’t sound arrogant when I say I concluded that the author wasn’t any better than me, and in a couple of respects maybe not quite as good. It was actually a pretty reasonable book in many ways, professionally published, and was well-reviewed on Amazon. But there were some aspects of it, some deficiencies, that were starting to grate on me. And I concluded that, with time so precious, I need to focus on higher quality.

Last year I read another – again, conventionally published – that I did actually complete but wasn’t greatly impressed with. There were a couple of errors that shouldn’t have appeared in a professionally-edited book, and the author had one unhappy habit (i.e., over-using a variety of speech verbs) that I found increasingly off-putting. And this was a well-established and reasonably successful writer.

Of course, I can’t expect to love every single book I read, or to enjoy everything that others do. It’s a much too subjective business for that. But I’m now asking myself – has being a writer in some way reduced my ability to simply enjoy books? Do I over-analyse everything I read? Do I now see faults when previously I would have overlooked them?

The answer is – I’m not completely sure. I think it might be true up to a point. My standards may be higher than before – but they probably need to be. My reading diet needs to be good.

But, having said that, in the past I’ve given up on books too – but probably didn’t realise why a particular story wasn’t engaging me. Now I’m more likely to see why, the exact reasons I don’t like it, when before I’d have just said it’s boring or something like that.

And if a book is really good, especially well written, then I will still enjoy it. Then I know I’ve struck gold, and that as well as enjoying the experience it might also help to nudge forward my own writing. Such books are truly inspiring and one of the great pleasures of life.

What do you read? Do you look at books differently as your own writing has progressed? Do you sometimes give up on books, or do you always plough on to the end?