Seven Books from the Decade that Made Me an Author

Dave Cousins
Dave Cousins, over at the Fifteen Days Without a Head blog, is listing his best reads for 2010. It's a great list, do have a look!

I've been working on another sort of book list - New Year's Eve will complete the first decade of the 21st century and it's a significant decade for me because it was during this time that I discovered a burning desire to become a children's author.

One of the odd things about becoming an author after years of trying is when you first do your taxes, you can claim expenses to do with trying to get published from seven years previous to publication.

Winners of Our Tall Story Blog Competition

It's time to announce the winner of my blog competition which ended on the 15th.  I think I learned something about blog competitions .

1. Run it for only a short period of time. 

I announced my raffle back on the 10th of November with an end date of the 15th of December - too long!

At first I was energetically blogging and then I got so busy I had no time to update the blog. I actually forgot that I had a competition going on! But never mind, I had a lot of entries anyway. So I wrote out all the names on little slips of paper and put them in a Chinese hat.

The Kids Lit Quiz - a championship for the world's best readers

Happy participants at the South England Kids Lit Quiz
I first heard of the Kids Lit Quiz on Facebook when last year I noticed all my author friends were sending mysterious messages to each other - "Are you going?" "Which train?" "See you there" ... this year, I found myself attending not one but two heats of the Quiz - for Southern England in Warblington School on Wednesday and the London heat in Broxbourne High School on Thursday.

If you're reading this on Facebook and can't see the video, view it here

The Kids Lit Quiz was created 19 years ago by Wayne Mills, a teacher who turned his passion for reading (and clearly, quizzes) into a worldwide event.
"These guys are the best readers from each school," Wayne told me.
Says Wayne: "Many years ago I saw that children were not being rewarded for being good readers and I thought we've got to do something about this ... we've got to do something to extend those readers!"
He now takes the quiz all over the world - New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa and China - winners in each country this year are going to New Zealand for the world finals!

Authors are invited to help score or to compete against the children.
My author team at the Southern England competition was James Riordan (left) and Craig Simpson (right). The librarians at the meet took pity on us and sent in June Brooks (second from right) of Hampshire School Library Service to help us out. We were totally outgunned by the kids, coming in at fourth place.
The Quiz is fairly similar to a pub quiz, with a wildcard choice and themed sets of questions. At Warblington School, we had Harry Potter, orphans, fables, fishes (!!). At Broxbourne, we had Cities, Bears, Cats, and Poems.

Brighton and Hove High School
The girls from Portsmouth High School
More happy children.

The questions that Wayne concocts cover a gamut of possible reading: there are questions about comic book superheroes (I was really good at those - and I knew Sonic the Hedgehog), fables (Hah! The authors won over the kids on that one), classics, authors, cartoon spin-offs, pop culture, and of course Harry Potter (we authors were totally pathetic) - anything that a child might discover between the pages of a book!

Colin of Hayling Island Bookshop very kindly posed with my book! Hayling Island Bookshop claims it is the smallest indpendent bookshop in the UK - and bolster sales by bringing books (and authors) to schools
Oops! I cropped out the name of this school by mistake! But I can tell you the girl on the left with the flower in her hair goes by the lovely name of Candy, probably the best name in the world.
And these guys are from Dorset House, armed with drinks for the competition.

2 1/2. That was our score in the Harry Potter heat.
Added in later (don't know how I could forget): Arriving at the Broxbourne School with Keren David and Fiona Dunbar, the receptionist said:  "Authors? What are your names please?" So naturally we told her the truth: "Amy Tan, JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer." It was a temptation we couldn't resist.

My author team fared a lot better in the London meet - we won and got to have our picture taken for the local newspaper! ... admittedly, one of the reasons we did so well was because my team-mate Catherine Johnson seemed to know all the answers. Having said that, she dropped the ball by refusing to believe that the Spiderman movie did better than Batman in the box office which I shall never let her forget..
We just got Cathy to answer the sheets while we drew cartoons on the paper tablecloth.

Authors Fiona Dunbar and Sophia Bennett. Fiona was on my team with Cathy and Leila Rasheed.
When I Was Joe author Keren David and Sophia (pictured above) were on the OTHER author team. The losing team heh heh. Other members of the losing team were Anthony McGowan,  and Pat Walsh
A not very brilliant photo of score keeping authors Mark Robson and Tamsyn  Murray. I didn't manage to get a photo of the other authors in the London meet,  Ann Evans and Steve Feasey who nobly agreed to be markers.
Apparently, the London meet was the biggest ever in the UK, with 40 teams!
I was thrilled to see kids with reading away amid all the hustle and bustle. 

Thank you to Liz Bridge of Warblington School and Susan Shaper of the Broxbourne School for organizing the regional events that I attended. It looked like a Herculean task, but it was definitely worth it!

The UK finals will be next Tuesday, the 30th of November, 1.30pm at the Oxford Town Hall, attended by 30 authors. May the best readers win!

Why I Love Star Wars

Hilarious video on the origins of Star Wars. If you're viewing this on facebook, you can see the video here

1977. I was fifteen and the family went out to watch Star Wars.

The cinema was teeming. TEEMING. In those days the world wasn't paranoid about health and safety - and this was Manila anyway.

The cinema packed us in, people sat on the steps, sat on each other's laps and in the back, there were people standing, craning to see the screen over each other's shoulders. Those were also the days when people would enter the cinema at any time - sometimes arriving in the middle of the show and then leaving in the middle of the next screening.

I was in the standing only section, with my baby brother, Armand -  who must have been three - in my arms. I found a way of leaning on the rail behind the rearmost seats and half carrying half leaning Armand against it so that he could see. I saw most of the film from behind his sweaty little head.

I guess I must have been impressed by the special effects, I wasn't terribly wowed by Princess Leia's hairdo, I do remember thinking, Han Solo, gosh. "So. What did you like most?" I asked Armand as I stumbled out of that cinema, my arms burning from two hours of keeping him holding him up to see the screen.

I looked down to see his eyes shining. He was still wrapped up in the world of Star Wars.  "Darth Vader," he said. "I love Darth Vader!"

It's a bit magic being there when someone discovers a passion - Star Wars emerged to become a key element of Armand's childhood - and I can see now how much he enjoys sharing it with his own son. It makes videos like this - made with tongue firmly in cheek - make total sense!

Star Wars has shuffled into the realm of stuff that was hot and now is not. In fact, Star Wars is probably naff, uncool, cliche and oddball - adored by the likes of overweight obsessive Comic Book Guy in the Simpsons. But it will forever give me a warm glow in the tummy.

Everyone's got little memories buried somewhere, little blasts from the past that trigger that glow.

I can never hear a Donnie and Marie song without remembering a best buddy from college days who adored the toothy duo. So I watched a recent Donnie and Marie special even though they'd ripened from this:

to this:

 And I don't mind revealing that when I'm homesick, I sit all alone in my writing shed listening to old Hajji Alejandro songs - Hajji Alejandro was a teen heartthrob in 1970s Manila who was the cause of my sister's downfall in Chemistry. Dig those trousers:

The truth about Star Wars and Donnie and Marie and Hajji Alejandro is not that they have been of lasting educational value, or that they imprinted me with any appreciation of the high-blown arts ... it's that they've left me with a blast of happiness that I can summon on blah days - a gift that will last me for the rest of my life.

Christmas raffle! I am giving away one copy of the UK hardback of Tall Story to commenters who are not based in the United Kingdom; and one copy of the illustrated Philippine edition to commenters who live in the UK! I've been collecting the names of commenters since I posted 'I Was a Librarian's Pet and Other Stories'. The raffle ends on the 15th of December. You get a name in the raffle with every post you comment on (one ticket per blog post). If you follow me on blogger, you get an extra ticket! (Desperate bid to boost audience figures)

Christmas Book Plate for Tall Story

Creating downloads and fun marketing stuff for Tall Story has become an integral part of my procrastination regime.

If you're planning to give Tall Story away this Christmas, how about sticking this book plate on the inside?

You can get the full resolution image to print from here.

If you want me to send you a signed book plate, contact me via my website.  Enjoy!

Christmas raffle! I am giving away one copy of the UK hardback of Tall Story to commenters who are not based in the United Kingdom; and one copy of the illustrated Philippine edition to commenters who live in the UK! I've been collecting the names of commenters since I posted 'I Was a Librarian's Pet and Other Stories'. The raffle ends on the 15th of December. You get a name in the raffle with every post you comment on (one ticket per blog post). If you follow me on blogger, you get an extra ticket! (Desperate bid to boost audience figures)

Ten Things I Learned on the Tenth Year of SCBWI British Isles (Scoobeebee)

This weekend we celebrated the tenth birthday of SCBWI British Isles – SCBWI stands for Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

The acronym, carefully crafted by writers, has morphed on lesser tongues than mine into Scooby (and if we add the British Isles part it would be Scoobeebee, but maybe we should pass on that one).

With ten years under our belt, there's a big story behind SCBWI but here's the story of us in a short video which we screened at the fabulous mass book launch and soiree at our evocatively named Onwards and Upwards Conference.
Defying Gravity is performed by my niece Nicole Ramos, accompanied by TJ Ramos

Well everyone's talking about the conference - and the bloggers amongst us have decided to post our Ten Things We Learned. Here are mine:

1. Speed Critiquing Focuses the Mind. My online critique group took advantage of the big Critique Meet to have our first face to face meeting. It was fantastic - though it took some getting used to Nicky Schmidt as a flesh and blood person. I had come to think of her as an avatar. We only had two minutes each to crit each piece and boy, did we fly!
Jackie, Jeannette, Jeannie, Nicky, Kathy, Me and Ellen

2.  It's  impossible to blog in a hotel full of authors. My roomie, hyper illustrator Sarah McIntyre and I tried all night to get online but according to the wi-fi info, all the bandwidth was being hogged by a certain Marcus Sedgwick. Sarah  finally managed to blog when she got home.

3. One can never have enough book launches. Tall Story has already had a book launch in Waterstones, Islington Green, in Power Books in Manila and in the Philippine Embassy off Trafalgar Square ... but I still had the best time ever at the mass book launch held on the first night of the conference. In fact, it was extra great celebrating with my fellow authors and illustrators.
Such fine, fine, people - the book launchees were Jon Mayhew, Donna Vann, Lee Weatherly, Me, Anita Loughrey, Jane Clarke, Sheena Wilkinson, Savita Kalhan, Sarah McIntyreEllen Renner, Keren David, Lucy Coats, Maxine Linnell, Mike Brownlow, Tamsyn  Murray, Jason Chapman and John Shelley (click to see whole picture - let me know if i missed anyone)

4. It's the STORY. So after years of rejection and banging your head against publishers' doors, schmoozing librarians and booksellers and other authors, here's the big ask, here's what can open the door: a really really good story, well told. That's what they want. Watch the trends, network like mad on Twitter, stalk agents - ultimately the best thing you can do to get published is write a GOOD STORY.
The lovely David Fickling despite a wall-to-wall life (and missing the spectacular Rugby Union game which England won against Australia 35-18 woo hoo!), made time to be the inspirational lynchpin of the mass book launch. "You make things," he said. "Don't forget."

5. It's not about you, it's about them. Well that's what I always say when I do talks about websites. When people look you or your book up online, they are not looking for some self-indulgent claptrap about you. They are looking for themselves - what about you would they identify with? What other stuff can you give them about your book? Can they engage with you? So when you build your website, think about who you're building it for and what they want from you. It will save a lot of time.
Ha! They thought I knew what I was talking about!

6. Twas the Market What Done It. What do publishers want? A unique voice. Then why do you publish samey stuff. Erm. The booksellers want it. Why do you booksellers want it? The market want it.  ... you get the picture. All you can do is try to be the ultimate ultimate stand-out amongst all those unique voices out there.

7. Social marketing is more social than marketing. You might have to be downright slutty ... but you've got to get your name out there because someone's got to do it.
Keren David 

8. There's a bigger picture out there. It's not just writing and craft and getting published. There's the importance of reading, saving libraries and bookselling in the age of digital. It's a whole new level of stalking for aspiring authors and illustrators.
 Our panel for the State of the Nation (the children's book nation of course) featured Waterstones children's book manager John Cooke, independent bookseller Clare Poole, publisher David Fickling, David Blanch, editor of Carousel and Rachel Levy, librarian and judge for the Carnegie Medal

9. We all are in a different place from when we first attended the conference. Every single person I met the first time I attended a SCBWI conference many years ago are in a different place. A better place! We have won prizes, won book deals, published books, and signed up with agents. So many book people, so much good news. It's an incredible thought for someone attending the conference for the first time.

10. Children survive conferences. At least mine did. Nobody broke anything. The house didn't burn down. None of them were missing (although my husband did try to hide one of them for a laugh). And Simon Cowell did a good job keeping them occupied while I was gone. Thank you, Simon.

THE SCBWI STORY In the 1970s, children’s writers Steve Mooser and Linn Oliver were working on a massive children’s series and thought it might be a good idea to join an association of children’s writers. They hunted high and low, finding associations for crime writers, romance writers, mystery writers, writing plumbers, airline executives who are novelists, corner shop short story writers, farmers who write ... there were writing organisations of all shapes and sizes, but none for children’s writers. They created SCBWI (the ’ I’ for Illustrators came along a little bit later when they realized that children’s illustrators shared the same passions and many of the same issues). Forty years on, SCBWI has chapters from Mongolia to Europe. It continues to be the ONLY organization that supports both published and UNpublished writers and illustrators.

Christmas raffle! I am giving away one copy of the UK hardback of Tall Story to commenters who are not based in the United Kingdom; and one copy of the illustrated Philippine edition to commenters who live in the UK! I've been collecting the names of commenters since my last blog post I Was a Librarian's Pet and Other Stories. The raffle ends on the 15th of December. You get a name in the raffle with every post you comment on (one ticket per blog post). If you follow me on blogger, you get an extra ticket! (Desperate bid to boost audience figures)

Other blogs posting their Ten Things and blogging about the Conference
Who Ate My Brain by Nick Cross
Claudia Myatt
Fifteen Days Without a Head and Other Stories by David Cousins
Life Beyond by MC Rogerson
Jabberworks by Sarah McIntyre
Almost True by Keren David
Notes from the Slushpile by Teri Terry
Kathryn V. Evans by Mrs Bung
Scribble City Central by Lucy Coats - part one and part two (parts three to six coming soon!!!)
Julie Day
An Awfully Big Blog Adventure by Ellen Renner
Anita Loughrey's Blog
Rebecca Colby's blog
Sue Eves
Katie Dale
Miriam Halahmy
A Novel Way by Tina Lemon
Absolute Vanilla by Nicky Schmidt

I Was a Librarian's Pet and Other Stories

Tall Story has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal - if you've never heard of it, this is awarded by children's librarians and is the oldest and most prestigious children's prize for authors in the UK.

Before everyone leaps about and begins drinking startling amounts of alcohol, I have to point out that it's a  long list. Emphasis on lo-ong. I tried to count the nominations but I got confused. I think it's about 50. And the names on the list are stellar - Garth Nix, David Almond, Meg Rosoff, Sharon Creech, Louis Sachar, Geraldine McCaughrean, Michael Morpurgo, Jeannette Winterson for goodness' sake! And on and on.

But you know what? I don't care! Imagine, me on the same list as Geraldine McCaughrean whose book The White Darkness I still carry around in my bag just in case I need to dip in for inspiration.

And what about Louis Sachar? I was doing my taxes the other day - as a first time author, I am allowed to claim back the past seven years of book buying for the sake of my art. And guess what I found in my Amazon receipts seven years ago? Holes by Louis Sachar. That book made me SO want to write. It made me buy every single book Louis Sachar ever wrote!

And Garth Nix? What about him? I read Sabriel again last summer. When I got to the end, I went straight back to the first page to start reading again. Yes, it was that good.

I could go on and on about that long list. In a way it doesn't matter if I get on the short list (well, it matters but I'm trying not to think that far ahead), because forever and ever now I'll be a "Carnegie-nominated author"  - someone who got to sit at the table with the greats (even if it was a very big table).

And you know what else makes the Carnegie so great? It's the award given by children's librarians!

There's a lot of stuff about the dire state of libraries in the news these days. Librarians are like guerrillas in the shadows, with books as their weapons. They are struggling against economics that do not value books - as well as the overwhelming force of other media taking children away from reading. You might want to read this Guardian piece about the future of British libraries

Libraries have always been in dire straits - and some more than others. Becoming a published author has made me more aware than ever before of how the struggle to bring books to children is a gritty battle fought by book lovers on the ground - like Anthony Mariano who has made it his mission to build children's libraries in elementary schools in the Philippines.

Anthony has set up a foundation called the Sambat Trust to create bright, reading spaces to replace the ancient book dumps he found in some schools - one library, he was dismayed to discover, stocked titles like Preface to Econometrics and Reflectorized Soybeans: Growth, Production and Longwave Radiation Balance. No no no!

Anthony's work has turned this library:

Into this:

View the story of this library in a slideshow

It takes one book to change someone's outlook on life. And the someone who delivers that life-changing book could be a librarian near you.

I was the librarian's pet at my school - Miss Evelyn Diaz was her name. I must have been nine? Eight? Twelve? I am of the age now where the memory is all a blur. But I remember the books. Towers of them! We were only allowed to borrow two at a time but Miss Diaz kept some under the counter for me and when nobody was looking stamped me through with four, five, six in one go.

As a grade schooler, I loved the mystery serials. I borrowed every single serial there was - The Beverley Gray Mysteries, The Hardy Boys, The Nancy Drew Mysteries, The Bobbsey Twins, The Judy Bolton Detective Series and those mysteries by Enid Blyton starring Freddie Algernon Trottesville (Fatty, for short).

Miss Diaz made me feel special - like we shared between us this golden treasure that noone else had access to in the school. When I begged to add just one more book to the pile, she was amazed and excited. When I brought the books back, she was delighted that I had read them so quickly.

I found out recently that my mother secretly visited Miss Diaz and scolded her for giving me too many books, asking her to limit the number I took home. Mom thought I was reading too much.

I was at a library event last summer in which the opening remarks were delivered by a supremely articulate and confident young girl, Madina - who talked about how one book (it was in fact, in French and an adult book) transformed her from someone who pooh-poohed books to a voracious reader. I was waiting in the library after the event, when I saw Madina collecting a stack of books to take away. Aha! A librarian's pet!


Maybe it's vanity but one of the reasons I write for children is because I remember what it's like to be totally, absolutely blown away by your first FANTASTIC book. I remember the feeling ... and how I want to be the author that awakens that ravenous love for reading in a child. (As I write, I've got tears in my eyes, remembering how awesome the feeling of reading my first good book was - what a GIFT!).

But who's going to put that book into a child's hand?

A librarian.

So thank you, Miss Evelyn Diaz wherever you are, for ignoring my Mom.

You gave me the world.

Christmas raffle! I am giving away one copy of the UK hardback of Tall Story to commenters who are not based in the United Kingdom; and one copy of the illustrated Philippine edition to commenters who live in the UK! I'll be collecting the names of commenters from now on and the raffle will be on the 15th of December. You get a name in the raffle with every post you comment on (one ticket per blog post). Nice, well thought comments, hear? Happy commenting!

Thinking of Kareem Abdul Jabbar on Black History Month

Rafe Bartholomew talking about the Filipino passion for basketball that inspired his book Pacific Rims Can't see the video? View it on YouTube

Several people here in London have told me that their children have taken up basketball after reading Tall Story.

Wow! It thrills me that I might have shared something of Philippine culture to my young readers. I know, I know, basketball is an American game for tall people that might not suit a country of such diminutive stature. But it's a Filipino passion. (watch the video above)

One friend said her seven-year-old son (seven!) has read Tall Story twice and was so taken by the basketball subplot that he has taken up basketball. Someone asked him to name his favourite player.

He replied without a pause: "Kareem Abdul Jabbar!"

(If you haven't read Tall Story yet, a key character is such a mad fan of Kareem Abdul Jabbar  (pictured left) that he takes to calling himself Jabby)

The someone was impressed. Fancy a seven year old, English boy naming a player from the 1970s!

When I was writing Tall Story, I needed a hero for my basketball-mad characters. I couldn't pick a current basketball star because that would date my novel before it's even been published.

So I went through the players who were such a part of the game's history, they would never be forgotten. and ultimately picked Kareem Abdul Jabbar (the seven foot two inch Laker who invented the dunk and the sky hook - see a video). Michael Jordan is in Tall Story too, but that's another blog post.

It just so happens that it's Black History Month in the UK.  Not to be confused with Black History Month in the United States which is celebrated in February.  Setting aside a month to remember the contributions of a racial group leads to some controversy - shouldn't black history be part of the mainstream?

But let someone else work that out. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the month's good intentions. Heck, Tall Story's big idea is what this month is all about: It's not how you look but what's inside that counts.

Browsing through Kareem Abdul Jabbar's website, I found a video in which he uncannily articulates something my eight foot tall character Bernardo would say:
When somebody asks how tall I am I hope they realize that it's not what's on the surface that makes a person stand tall. It's what's below the surface. It's not the colour of the balloon that makes it go up. It's what's on the inside that makes it rise. Consequently it's my humble desire that world will see me not as seven feet two inches tall but seven feet two inches deep. Wanna be inspired? Watch Kareem give a talk at the TED conference
Footnote: the last time I visited the Philippines I discovered that the word jabbar has become part of teen slang - when someone says (and I'm very roughly translating Tagalog here): "Whew! That game was so fast I'm totally jabbared!", the verb jabbar refers to armpit sweat stains! Who would've thought?

Health and safety or clever comment? Ai Weiwei's sunflower seed debacle at the Tate Modern

"Are you sure it's not deliberate?"

That was my reaction when I heard that the spectacular sunflower seed installation by Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei has been cordoned off for health and safety reasons.

View amazing photos of the original, uncordoned installation here

It's an installation of 100 million sunflower seeds each hand-crafted  in porcelain and painted by a Chinese worker - "an image of globalisation both politically powerful and hauntingly beautiful" writes Adrian Searle in a five star Guardian review.

When Mao was in power sunflowers were ubiquitous features on propaganda posters, with Mao as the sun to which the flowers all turned.

There are a lot of tongues tsk-tsking that British obsession with health and safety has ruined the interactive nature of Weiwei's installation.

But has it?

Seems to me it adds another layer to the piece.

Here is a roomful of sunflower seeds, made in China. I grew up in Southeast Asia, and to me the installation represents the collective identity - the We mentality of the East contrasted against the Me-myself-and-I of the West.

When the barriers went up, I wondered if this was what Weiwei intended - to represent the Western response to such a show of collectivity.

Far from being a disappointment the health and safety barriers represent the ultimate in interactivity - revealing how one culture processes another.

Perhaps Weiwei planned it all along.

Auto-tuning the news - how marvelous!

My blogs gone quiet ... that's because I'm writing hard - gotta turn my new novel in before Christmas! But until I get back to ya, I still hope to post a few ...

My friend Addy Farmer (author of Siddharth and Rinki) told me about this amazing new mash-up craze of auto-tuning news reports like this:

... into edgy music like this:

I am constantly astonished and thrilled by the creativity that comes out of the internet - but mashups like these underline the need to redefine copyright, intellectual property and all our conceptions of ownership to keep the creativity coming.

More good stuff - a youtube video of a guy going mental over a double rainbow ... here's the auto-tune:

Thanks Freya Townley for supplying the links!

ADD: SCBWI friend Mio Debnam sent me this one - so cool!

Here's the news report it's based on.

POSTCARD FROM MANILA: imagining a Philippines in which all children love to read

With luminaries of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People on National Children's Book Day. Photo courtesy of Zarah Gagatiga

National Children's Book Day poster
I'm back in London after an amazing month in the Philippines launching my book, meeting people from all walks of the children's book industry, and learning so much about books and reading in my own country.  I was lucky because I arrived in time for National Children's Book Day - which is celebrated every third week of July to commemorate the publication of our national hero Jose Rizal’'s first picture book The Monkey and the Turtle in 1896 (interestingly it was published in a London publication, Trubners Oriental Record!). I delivered the keynote address to the Philippine Board on Books for Young People at the Museo Pambata. Here it is - I only wrote an outline sort of text and did a bit of ad-libbing so this is not exactly as delivered but the heart of it is all here.

All you amazing people are here today because of one thing: Books.

And the only reason I am here standing before you today, wow, delivering a speech with my hair combed and wearing this lovely if itchy outfit is because of one thing: Books.

I am here because last month, something amazing happened to me. My book, Tall Story, was published by Random House in the UK and the reviews so far have been fantastic.
UK edition of Tall Story
When dreams come true, it doesn’t get any better than this.

But wait.

Tomorrow, something even more amazing is going to happen.

Another dream is about to come true - something I’ve been dreaming of since I learned to read: Tall Story is going to be published in the Philippines!
Philippine edition of Tall Story
I can still remember the excitement and thrill of realizing that several words made a sentence and several sentences made a paragraph and paragraphs made chapters and chapters made wonderful satisfying stories called novels.

I was six years old and I was delighted.

I remember that feeling so well. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if a child opened a book that I wrote and was just as amazed and delighted.

When you are learning to write – and I have discovered that learning to write never ever ends – you get a lot of unsolicited advice.

The first piece of advice of course is: if you want to write, write.

No problem. I’m a journalist. Madali lang yan That’s easy. When I was the London correspondent of Inter Press Service (a news features service for the developing world), I wrote two 600-word articles a day and still managed to get home by 5.30 to cook dinner for my family.

Marami pang ibang advice There’s a lot more advice.

Show don’t tell. Don’t write the boring parts. Write what you know.

Write what you know …

With my first novel, I wrote what I knew. My hero was a 13-year-old English boy who liked to skateboard ... very similar to my skateboard mad son. My setting was the neighbourhood in North London where I live.

But my character time-travelled to World War II, which I knew nothing about. So I researched World War II. It took me three years to write the novel.

It was rejected by maybe many literary agents and publishers before an agent took me aside. She said, why are you writing about an English boy with an English setting when you are a Filipino?

The truth is, I was afraid. I was afraid that Filipino characters and settings would not be attractive to British publishers. Baka ma-turn-off sila. They might be turned off

The agent told me that a debut novel had to have a lot of the author in it. The fact that I was Filipino made it difficult to sell the character, setting and concept of my novel.

The issue was practical: the publisher would find it hard to market a Filipino author whose novel shows no sign of her identity.

That was the point when I gave myself permission to put the Philippines into my writing.

But it was still a long journey – it’s nine years since I became serious about writing for children. And I had to write three more novels before Random House bought Tall Story.

During the time I was writing and writing – and getting rejected at every turn – throughout, I had the sense that I was learning a very important lesson but it was hard to put it into words.

Only recently I found it written down in a book on plotting by James Scott Bell. He said:
It’s not about writing what you know, It’s about writing WHO YOU ARE.
If you were to read Tall Story, or any of my other novels (which I hope someday will also see print), you would see what I mean about writing who you are.

In Tall Story, a boy yearns to be with his family who lives in the UK. In Volcano Child, a girl yearns to be with her mother who works as a maid in England. In Ugly City, a dystopian fantasy, parents must go and children must stay.

Write who you are.

Clearly, who I am is someone who misses her family.

Only when I allowed myself to delve into places that I haven’t even shown myself, did my writing improve. What’s fascinating is that those little pieces of me in the writing make readers go “Me too! I know how that feels!”

All good books should be about write who you are.

What about children’s books? Why do I write for children? What makes them so special?
Girls rush for the pink shelves at a book fair in Angelicum School.
When you think about it, a child’s reading experience must be so pure – everything is fresh and new and never been heard before.

Adult readers by virtue of being adults, view stories through the prism of their PAST. Children have no past – so for a child, reading is about the FUTURE. It’s aspirational. When children read, they ask themselves, who am I? Can I be that character? Can I wave a wand and make magic? Can I fly? Can I go to far away and secret places?
Boys checking out the new Wimpy Kid at Angelicum's book fair
The author Richard Peck says:
"If a child can’t find himself on a page early in life, he will go looking for himself in all the wrong places."
This is why we read to our children (and if you don't, it's never too late to start): We are helping them find themselves.
Reading to a Grade Three class at Xavier School. Photo by Ellinor Ferriol
When a child of any age listens to the voice of a beloved adult reading anything - an ABC book, a chapter book, a picture book – it is not just a voice that he is listening to; he is listening to an older generation. An older generation whispering about the possibilities that lie ahead. Of what he or she can be, of what he or she can do.
Reading to Mater Carmeli school. Photo by Ellinor Ferriol
We must read to our children for as long as they will let us. Reading is not a passive act. It’s a dialogue. It’s a relationship. When we read to our children, we take them by the hand and lead them to a better place.

Words on a page nurture IMAGINATION like no other media. The reader is not handed a fixed prescription of what characters and setting look like. There is no theme music to tell the reader what emotion to feel. Reading demands a certain vision – that the reader create the scene, be the character, feel the feelings.
Xavier School. "Imagine you are eight feet tall!". Photo by Ellinor Ferriol
And what is imagination but the ability to see one’s self outside the narrow world that we live in?

Imagination enables us to BELIEVE that our world can be a better place.

It empowers us to conceive of a future far greater and better than the one that we live in now. And if we can imagine it, maybe we can make the world a better place.

Think of a Philippines in which all children love to read ... and because they read, all children can imagine a Philippines without chaos, without violence, without corruption, without poverty. 
And think of the future that children like that will build.

Imagine what a GREAT nation we would be if ALL our children read books.

The mind boggles.

Kids rush to grab a place in the photo after my talk at Xavier School. Photo by Ellinor Ferriol
But these are difficult times for the children’s book industry.

Children’s Books have become a global industry dominated by massive publishing houses based in rich countries. Money can only be made if a book can be sold to many different cultures and as a result, there exist picture books in which car steering wheels are not on the left or on the right but in the middle - so that the book can easily be sold to another country. Books become global brands - generic to the masses.

In England, where I live, you will find it hard to find a picture book featuring the icons of British culture – the red pillar mailbox, the double decker bus, even certain kinds of common birds … because for a global business there’s no money in a book that can’t be resold to another country.

If children don’t see themselves on the pages of a book they will look in all the wrong places

In the UK, publishers are very worried about the e-book, the iphone and the ipad, and wondering what impact the new technology would have on books made of paper and glue.

Here in the developing world, such gadgets have created a technology gap. If reading requires expensive hardware, who, in a country that struggles to feed so many mouths would be able to afford to read?

If a child can’t find himself on a page, he will go looking for himself in all the wrong places.

And then of course we are finding it harder and harder to answer the question children ask us:
Why should I read?

Children are only right to ask. There are so many other things for them to do. There’s the cinema, there are DVDs, there’s the internet ... this young generation has entertainment on tap. They are technically skilled in a way that people of my generation and older cannot even begin to imagine. They are, frankly, awesome.

So why should they read? And why should you, teachers, librarians, poets, illustrators, authors, parents, why should YOU encourage them to read?

This is a piece of writing by Richard Peck that I found on the internet. I’ve shamelessly borrowed it, adapted for my purposes and called it The Reader’s Creed:
• You should read because one life isn't enough, and in the pages of a book you can be anybody.
• You should read because the words that build the story will become yours to build your life with.
• You should read not for happy endings but for new beginnings; You are just beginning yourself and you could use a map.
• You should read because you have friends who don't, and young though they are, they're beginning to run out of material.
• You should read because every journey begins at the library, and it's time to start packing.
• You should read because one of these days you’re going to get out of this town, and you’re going to go everywhere and meet everybody, and you want to be READY.
And here’s the bit that I’d like to add to Richard Peck’s wisdom:

You should read because YOU are Harry Potter, YOU are Spiderman, YOU are Nancy Drew. You are Edward of Twilight, Oliver Twist, Bernardo Carpio, Pippi Longstocking, Jo March in Little Women, and Darna.

The hero of this story we are living in, this world, is YOU.

And oh how this world needs heroes like you.

Maraming Salamat po.
Thank you

POSTCARD FROM MANILA: What we do for love

Everywhere in Manila, one senses the struggle to make a living.

I live in a place called Cubao, on the edge of a slum, and every corner literally teems with people and activity.

The road in front of our house has been ripped up to replace drains with bigger pipes, broken bits of road are piled high on either side, leaving one dusty lane for vehicular traffic. This has all been done by bare-chested men with tiny shovels. No digger in sight. This will take forever, my mother says grimly. My brother-in-law palms a bit of cash over to the men so that they would tidy up our frontage, widen the path for cars.

On the pavement in front of my neighbour’s gate, the tricycle drivers await passengers. There’s a man standing there shouting out their availability – he gets a few pesos for his pains. A boy of about 11 with a wooden box on his arm is selling the drivers cigarettes by the stick.

Two of my mother’s neighbours have set up shop, tables covered with plastic table cloths, pots of food, selling lunch to passers-by. They’re a bit like lemonade stands, except these are adults trying to make a living. They spoon the food into plastic bags for the customer to take away.

In England, the struggle to make a living happens invisibly, quietly, behind closed doors.

In the Philippines, it’s in your face.

I remember my own struggling, as a young reporter earning a wage barely enough to cover my expenses.

It was an exciting time in the Philippines, the decline of a dictatorship and the start of a new era.

I went everywhere, witnessed history in the making, then went back to the camaraderie of our news room to assemble the magazine. I was writing!

On Thursdays, everyone stayed until the wee hours of the morning, putting the magazine to bed – it came out on Fridays. These were pre-digital days, so the galleys were typset, laid out by hand, then filmed. And any corrections were stripped into the film later.

Afterwards everyone piled off to an all-night breakfast place for hot bibingka (pancakes made with coconut and salted eggs) or tapsilog – a breakfast of cured meat, rice and eggs.

It was a fantastic job. No hour was too late, no distance too far to gather information, no story too dangerous (it wasn’t courage, just youthful enthusiasm).

I felt blessed even though the money was only a little better than peanuts and not as tasty.

My friends and I got around the tricky problem of making ends meet in various ways.

Too proud to live with my parents, I shared a one-bedroom (bedroom is a relative term ) flat with other girls who worked for the same magazine. On some nights there were three of us, on others there were five. We all slept on mattresses laid out on our sitting room’s pocket handkerchief floor.

It helped that press conferences in the Philippines always involved some kind of catering. By attending at least three conferences a day, I covered all my meals. When my best friend and I wanted to sample a new restaurant, we would order one coffee and sit there for an hour sipping the one cold cup.

To supplement my income, I wrote press releases for a friend who was a publicist. I interviewed pop stars and drew a weekly cartoon strip for a woman’s magazine. I scripted small talk for a pop singer to do between songs. I dubbed in the voices of American extras who had moved on before their movies had finished. When I realized I could get paid for pictures as well as words, I acquired a camera and took photographs when I was on assignment.

No job was too small, as long it meant I could continue to be a reporter.

And that’s why I felt so blessed.

My work was not a struggle even if I struggled to make a living because I was doing it for love. It’s one of the great things about my new, second career, writing for children.

The JK Rowlings and Stephenie Meyers of the children’s book industry are incidental. Yes, there is money in it – but money is not why children’s authors write.

In the main, we don’t do it for money. That’s why we are the lucky ones. We aren’t wage slaves. We do our work for love.

Doing things for love is the best way not just to make a living, but to have a life.

Even if it’s a struggle.

POSTCARD FROM MANILA: Somewhere Over the Rainbow

The Philippine edition of Tall Story launches in Manila next week so I am winging my way from London to Manila via Amsterdam.

There is only one other child on the flight – a baby in a sling carried by a tiny Filipina. It’s a good bet that they will be on the same direct flight to Manila from Amsterdam.

The baby gazes around her with round eyes that flicker from grey to brown. Her cheeks are a much paler shade than her mother’s . Clearly her dad is pink skinned, just like the father of my own excited two, who are desperate to get on with journey. A two-tone child – just like my own!

In Amsterdam, when KLM calls Philippine-bound passengers forward, the word “melting pot” comes to mind as the very Filipino melting pot melts eagerly into the queue.

The mums are various shades of brown, black-haired and almond-eyed. Like me.

The dads – well. There are all colours of dads. Here a black father with tall, strapping walnut sons, the peaks of their baseball caps turned backwards and white cables flowing from their ears. There, a slim blonde girl with her brown mother’s full lips, a head and shoulders taller than her mother. All colours of babies, fuzzy haired, curly haired, hairless.

I imagine the excitement of relatives back home, cleaning their houses, laying out extra bedding, cooking stews in advance, setting alarm clocks to wake them at cock’s crow to beat the rush hour to the airport, dreaming of the gifts that the guests no doubt will bring.

Last week, on Facebook, the author Malorie Blackman launched a huge discussion by declaring her opposition to the term “mixed race”. I, personally, have never liked the term – every single person in the world is a mixture of some sort. Which means even the concept of race is becoming muddled.

I learned a new word last year. Heterogenous. My neighbour, a doctor, remarked at how heterogenous Philippine society is. As in not homogenous. I didn’t know there was a term for it. Aren’t all island nations like that? Voyagers passing through inevitably leave traces of themselves in the population.

With the immigration phenomenon in the Philippines and so many of us living abroad, Filipinos have become just like the voyagers of ancient times, leaving traces of ourselves wherever we live and work. A global gene pool.

Methinks the colours are blurring.

Getting on that plane was a little bit like wandering into a Filipino rainbow.


Flights to the Philippines are always exciting affairs.

These are not people returning from blah business trips or from routine holidays abroad.

We are exiles on reprieve on our way back to the motherland.

One overhears a common thread. “How long since you’ve been home?” And the answers are mind boggling.

Ten years. Six. Four. Two.

The hand-carried bags are mind boggling as well. Having been away for so long, we return with all our missed opportunities and good intentions packed into our bags. How can a 25-kilo baggage allowance account for the years of unexpressed affection and yearning? The gift of ourselves translates into pasalubong (roughly translated: homecoming gifts), in quantities that measure our homesickness, guilt, despair and love.

And of course, love weighs a ton. No baggage allowance could ever measure up to an immigrant’s homecoming.

So we stuff what we can into our hand carry. My non-Filipino friends often ask me why in any airport terminal in the world, there are always Filipinos wandering around dragging ridiculously heavy bags.
Now you know why.
Soon after we board our KLM flight from Amsterdam to Manila (14 hours! Hup!) I am touched by the sight of an elderly woman, walking with difficulty, on the arm of one of the stewards. He is carrying her bag. How kind, I think to myself.

When they get to her seat, he turns to her. “Do you speak English?”

She smiles and nods. She is so grateful.

He points at her bag. “Well I want you to know: this is unacceptable.”

She continues to smile as if she doesn’t understand.

He raises his voice. “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. You cannot expect me to lift this ...” he lifts and drops her bag with a thump (Is that the splinter of breaking china bought for Brother Johnny and his new wife? Is that the tinkle of cracked perfume bottles procured at great sacrifice for Sister Del’s teenage daughters?)

His voice rises to a roar: “THIS IS TOO HEAVY, you understand me? UNACCEPTABLE!” And he lifts the bag up to the baggage compartment and slams it onto the shelf (the laptop that took a year to save up for – will the nephew still be able to use it?).

My sixteen year old’s eyes are wide, shocked that someone would use that tone with an elderly person. “If it was too heavy for him,” he says, “I would have helped her instead.” My boy’s gone home to the Philippines many times. He knows that there is much to carry besides the luggage.

Dialogue races in my head.

I could have jumped up and insisted on taking the bag and shamed him into politeness.

I could have reprimanded the steward, said something smart and fast and cutting.

But it’s too late. All I can do is turn round and say apologetically, “He should not talk to you like that. You didn’t deserve it.” The other Filipinos sitting around are tut-tutting and saying lame things like, “How could he?” “How mean!”

As compatriots, we feel it our responsibility to make the old lady feel a little bit better.

The old lady just keeps smiling and says something like. “It’s okay, that’s how it is.”

And we all smile and nod because of course, that’s how it is. And we are – all of us – just as guilty of flouting airline baggage limits.

We all go home knowing that the weight of our hand luggage is totally unacceptable. And will ever be.

Because no matter how much pasalubong we carry home, there is no gift or object or token that can even begin to make up for the weight of our absence.