London in children's books

June 9, 2010 by  
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tiny-st-paulsThere’s a rich tradition of children’s stories set in and about our capital city, and it’s no wonder really, as London has it all. In Operation Robot Storm I’ve shocked the city by casting it into a new ice age, which meant I got to draw all the famous monuments covered in ice. Frankly, the chance to include London in a book was too good to miss. It’s always been close to my heart.

I remember being a tiny boy, wandering around the Natural History Museum in awe. I’d not seen anything like what was contained within its walls, and boy, even the walls were amazing and covered in grotesques. The first time I visited London and was able to remember it, it was bigger and more exciting than anything I’d experienced. Even the public transport was cooler than anywhere else. The Tube went underground?! When I was small, even hot, crowded trains coursing through hot, tight tunnels excited me beyond belief.

The city was magic. It was like entering Narnia, being so far away from my home town of Hereford. Everything I experienced there was different to everyday life (even down to being allowed to eat Cup-a-soups.) My grandparents would tell me about life in the war, my dad would tell me about his CND marches – it was even the place where Tottenham Hotspur played football (I was taken to Tottenham Court Road many times on route to the British Museum, and never once did I understand why I couldn’t see White Hart Lane Stadium.)

And now, as a writer, I can understand why London felt so magic to me all those years ago. It’s the tiny, wonderful details around every corner, which at night are lit up like a theatre stage. It’s the gigantic, stately and imposing buildings looming above you, laughing at your smallness. It’s the threat of dark deeds and nefarious crooks lurking in its tunnels and behind its closed doors, and whether it’s a contemporary London or a historical London, there’s always intrigue to uncover, stories to tell and magic bubbling under its surface.

Children aren’t worn down by its daily grind like us adult commuters. They only see the potential for exciting adventures and discoveries, and that’s why I thought I’d try and find all the children’s books with scenes based in or around London. It seemed like a fascinating way of seeing the city through the eyes of a child.

So here goes… I’ve tried to stick to one book per author, particularly if they’re from a series, but I imagine there are some writers that deserve more mentions. So have a look at the list below, and if you can think of any other titles, please say! Once I have a complete list (if there ever can be such a thing), I’m going to put them on a map. Should be a nice thing to do.

A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett (Seven-year-old Sara Crewe is sent to live at Miss Minchin’s boarding school in London)
Stoneheart – Charlie Fletcher (Scenes all over London, including a finale set upon the Monument)
Darkside – Tom Becker (Bethlem Hospital, and the underworld)
Black Hearts in Battersea – Joan Aiken (Simon enrols at the Marius Rivière Academy of Painting)
Numbers – Rachel Ward (They head to the London Eye, where a fateful occurrence takes place)
The Borribles – Michael de Larrabeiti (A magical ‘alternative’ London, Battersea?)
T.I.M. – Sam Enthoven (Admiralty arch and the Mall)
Operation Robot Storm – Alex Milway (Trafalgar Square)
The Devil’s Kiss – Sarwat Chadda (North London Junk shop)
The Enchanted Castle – E Nesbitt (Crystal Palace Park and dinosaurs)
Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London – Keith Mansfield (The Spirit of London spaceship is in fact the Swiss Re building!)
The Parliament of Blood – Justin Richards (British Museum and the Houses of Parliament are overrun by vampires)
When I was Joe – Keren David (Hackney?)
Un Lun Dun – China Mieville (set in an alternative London – crossover points all over the city)
A Christmas Carol – Dickens (not specifically a children’s book, but needed one Dickens)
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit – Judith Kerr (move to London at the end)
Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers (
Number Seventeen Cherry Tree Lane)
Coram Boy – Jamilla Gavin (the foundling hospital)
Archie’s War – Marcia Williams (East London)
The BFG – Roald Dahl (Buckingham Palace!)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis (Pevenseys evacuated from London)
A Dog So Small – Philippa Pearce (Hampstead Heath?)
Peter Pan – JM Barrie (The Darlings live in Bloomsbury, but obviously Kensington Gardens)
Mortal Engines – Phillip Reeve (London on wheels!)
The Wombles – Elizabeth Beresford (Wimbledon!)
The Dark Portal (The Deptford Mice) – Robin Jarvis (Deptford sewers)
Ruby in the Smoke – Philip Pullman (Wapping)
Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night time – Mark Haddon (Willesden underground station)
This is London – Miroslav Sasek (All over, but the Tower of London bit is best!)
The Underground Conspiracy - Catherine Storr (The Underground)
Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild (The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training)
Paddington Bear – Michael Bond (Paddington Station)
Time Train to the Blitz – Sophie McKenzie (Underground stations + …)
Goodnight Mister Tom – Michelle Magorian (Hackney Road)
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman (inspired by Highgate Cemetry)
The London Eye Mystery – Siobhan Dowd (London Eye)
The Tall Story – Candy Gourlay
Stormbreaker
– Anthony Horowitz (West Brompton Cemetery)
Smith
- Leon Garfield (newgate prison)
Amulet of Samarkand
- Jonathan Stroud (Hampstead)
Tanglewreck
- Jeanette Winterson (mammoths on Thames)
Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
- JK Rowling (10 Downing Street)

And now to find a way of drawing them on a map…

The Rainbow Orchid 2 and a spot of mapping

June 3, 2010 by  
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We’re nearing the launch date for part two of Garen Ewing’s brilliant Rainbow Orchid series, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview last week. It looks amazing, as I knew it would. And most wonderful of all, we realised we’d both drawn almost exactly the same maps describing our characters journey. Like the top and bottom of a playing card, Garen’s map showed the route away from Britain, and mine showed the route to Britain. With planes and everything.

alexgaren_may2010_planes

Maps are where it’s at. I tell you.
(Thanks to Garen and Ellie for the ace photo, and added planes…)

Operation Robot Storm and new book syndrome

May 18, 2010 by  
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yetis-cutoutSo then, it’s just a few weeks now until the yetis hit the shelves. As many of you will know, up until now I’ve only really had one story published – the Mousehunter trilogy. Of course, it’s three books, but that’s really only one story and one bunch of characters.

It’s the strangest feeling knowing I have a whole new ‘thing’ coming out. It’s scary, for sure. As a writer, releasing a book is a little like placing two years of work in front of the world, and allowing everyone the opportunity to say whatever they like about it. That work involves decision-making and puzzle solving, and who knows if you’ve taken the right course? I guess it’s like having a child and seeing it through to adulthood, knowing that when you gave it chocolate cake at the age of a year, it may not have been the best choice you ever made.

At least with a book, you can rewrite the beginning as many times as you like.

But to be completely honest, I’m incredibly nervous all over again. New characters, a slightly younger audience perhaps, and this time lots and lots of my pictures. I’m tempted to say that with the premise of a band of yetis who have to save the earth, it can’t possibly fail, but books are the strangest of beasts. Some climb a long gradual slope, some slip into puddles. Who knows what’s in store for Albrecht, Timonen and Saar?

Whatever happens, I’m still in awe of writers who create standalone novels. They must feel like this every single time a book comes out!

So if you’re bored, go visit the Mythical 9th Division website, and take a step nearer to following the Way of the Yeti. It’s the only way to go.

Operation Robot Storm trailer

April 20, 2010 by  
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It’s taken a lot of work, and I still want to tweak it, but here’s the trailer to the first Mythical 9th Division book. The one with yetis in.

And the winner is…

April 9, 2010 by  
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It’s turned into spring, finally, and there seems to be a real buzz in the air. That’s not from wasps either, thankfully. I’ve sent off the next draft of Yeti book 2, I’m about to sort out Mythical 9th Division website ready for the June launch, and all in all life seems excitingly furry.

And so, regarding the last post on here, I’ve now done the draw, and the winner of the Curse of Mousebeard is Fritha over at Tigerlilly Quinn.

Having just checked out the blog, Fritha makes amazing badger badges. Who could ask for more?

The Curse of Mousebeard gets a great review in Kirkus!

March 30, 2010 by  
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I’m suitably over the moon today, as I learnt that the Curse of Mousebeard got a great review in Kirkus. I can’t link to the full review, sadly, but here’s a snippet!

“The author’s unique vision—imagine a composite of Jules Verne, Jorge Luis Borges and Hergé—matched by stronger writing chops make this second title in the energetic series a recommended pick for young readers in search of new worlds to explore.”

It’s released in the USA on 7 April, and don’t forget, you can win a scribbled in copy here!

Win The Curse of Mousebeard!

March 25, 2010 by  
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curse-handdrawn


With the impending release of the American hardback edition of the Curse of Mousebeard, published by Little Brown, I thought it would be nice to offer up a copy as a prize. So if you fancy the chance of winning this copy – with very special drawing inside, as seen here – all you have to do is link to this post in a blog, or tweet about it.

Let me know you’ve done so by commenting at the bottom, and I’ll put all the names in a hat and draw out the winner. I’ll pick the winner at the start of April, when The Curse of Mousebeard officially goes on sale in the US.

I will post the prize anywhere in the world!

Heads up for Operation Robot Storm

March 16, 2010 by  
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new-yeti-logo

The yeti storm is gathering momentum in my house. Not only have badges for all 9 mythical divisions been drawn, but extra little bits and bobs have sprung into life thanks to the wonderful designer at Walker Books.

I’m busier than ever now, and I guess that’s because it’s only a few months until Operation Robot Storm is released, and the Mythical 9th Division is unleashed into the world. I can’t quite believe how quickly time flies.

I may have to start work on my yeti outfit…

The Crystal Palace Children's Book Festival is back in action

March 2, 2010 by  
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festival-twitterprofIt’s been touch and go as to whether I’d run a festival this year, what with serious book deadlines and a very real new baby to look after, but now that I’m a bit more settled it’s been decided that I’d be stupid not to do it all again. Unlike last year’s festival, though, we’re moving the date to October (we almost have the weekend set – I’ll post a date as soon as I can!).

There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that it gives me more time to make it as good as can be. Last year’s was so successful that we’ll keep the format much the same, and simply do it better. So there’ll be a day of workshops, author readings/signings and a great illustration/comic exhibition. And it will all be in aid of children’s books and comics.

So there’s the obvious twitter feed, and I’ll soon update the website with new info.

It’s exciting to have it all back on the road again!

Have adult readers hijacked children's books?

February 14, 2010 by  
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I noticed yesterday that the new-ish Mark Haddon book, Boom!, came wrapped with a black band suggesting it was “for children of all ages”.  I’m intrigued. There’s a quote on Amazon from the Bookseller review: “A hilarious adventure by Mark Haddon, who has an innate and dazzling rapport with his target audience”. I guess if I work with those two statements, I could naturally come to the conclusion that his target audience is everyone. Or, at the very least, that’s who his publisher wants it to be.

There’s a huge number of adults that read and like children’s books. I’m one of them. I like to think we’re a discerning bunch, and possibly know a good story better than readers who put up with pages of wobble and drivel in adult books. How many adults will finish a book simply because they’ve started it, and not because they’re enjoying it? I bet you those books are for grown-ups. It rarely happens with children’s books – okay, Harry Potter’s “100-page hanging around in a tent” in the Deathly Hallows bored me to tears, but I still got to the end.

But when you see publishers actively selling children’s books to an adult audience, I think there’s a problem. “Children of all ages” doesn’t wash with me. It seems confused, and that can’t be good for anyone, author or reader. One of the reviewers of Boom! on Amazon helpfully writes: “As soon as it arrived I realised that I had made a big mistake because this is very clearly a children’s rather than an adult’s book.

This readership crossover issue clearly works both ways. Adult’s books packaged as children’s books are as confusing to kids as children’s books for grown-ups.

I was recently chatting to a bookseller about Bog Child, by Siobhan Dowd. The book’s beautifully written, and I’m sure we’ll see it on the BBC as a Sunday night drama at some point soon, but we spoke about it winning the Carnegie prize and she told me how in shadow reading groups within schools, the children just didn’t get it. So how did it win the prize if the children didn’t enjoy it? It was voted for by adults, of course.

Now that’s possibly a different problem – children’s book prizes being voted for by adults, who have different sensibilities to a child – but it highlights the confusion that’s created by not targeting a readership. With children’s books, writing for a set audience is usually imperative to success, and if the book breaks out into other markets, so be it.

But I think the fact of the matter is that children’s books are now judged differently, as much as to how they’ll be received by adults as children. Because of this, children’s titles are often reviewed with an eye to the adult reader, which can be incredibly unhelpful.

I write children’s books for children. It’s lovely if adults like them but they’re not who I write for. It’s unlikely my stories will ever make school reading lists, mainly because I want children to enjoy them. I want my books to be fun and exciting, and I hope they help children think that books are great to read.

I remember I am David sending me to sleep at school, and that’s an awful thing to say. Children’s books shouldn’t do that. They should excite, inspire, and make children readers for life. In contrast, shortly after finishing that book, we read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator in class and I loved it. To me, that says a lot about how to get kids to enjoy reading – save history for the history class.

So let children’s books stand and fall on whether they’re good children’s books for children. If they’re brilliant, adults will like them anyway.

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