Dear Candy Gourlay - letters from Ellis Guilford School

Dear Ellis Guilford Year Sevens,

I was thrilled when a big fat envelope full of your letters arrived in the post the other day.

It was really wonderful to meet you all last October in Nottingham.

Have you seen my blog post about the visit? I even made a Slideshare showing off all your artwork! You can read the blog post here .

Yes, I was excited! That visit was particularly special because you had actually read Tall Story. It's such a treat for an author to meet actual readers!

'Please write back!' you all wrote in your letters.

Well there are rather a lot of you so I thought I would write back via my blog.

The Super Typhoon in the Philippines

First of all, thank you so much for all kind thoughts and messages about the Philippines.

I couldn't believe it when that terrible storm hit us - I was a little bit worried that you guys might feel upset - after I'd shown you those images and told you all those stories of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in the Philippines!

My family was very lucky. They live in Manila and the storm only brushed against the city. Some of my friends had missing family in the badly hit areas though, and it took many days before mobile phone networks were working and they were reunited.

But still, there were very many lives lost. I watched a documentary last night where a dad described how his children were torn from his arms by the sea. It made me very sad.

The seas are getting hotter because of global warming and some scientists think storms will become stronger and stronger. The super storm was a wake up call for the world to start paying attention.

I heard that Ellis Guilford School raised a LOT of money for the Philippines. Thank you so much, I really really appreciate it. We need all the help we can get.

When I was very small there was an earthquake so strong that I was thrown from my bed. It wasn't as strong as the earthquake in Tall Story though. What did I do? I think I got back into my bed and went to sleep!

Witches and Psychic Surgeons

A lot of you wrote to say how much you enjoyed my stories about interviewing witches and psychic surgeons in the Philippines.

Heh it was very unexpected. I didn't expect my photographer to volunteer to be operated on by the psychic surgeon and I didn't expect the surgeon to extract her eyeball and wash it in a bowl of water ... but do you think it was real or was it a trick?

Well I'm glad you enjoyed the stories. I have to say though that the more psychic surgeons and witch doctors I met, the less I believed in that kind of magic. It made me realise that many people have no options in life and sometimes this kind of folk medicine is the only way to gain some kind of status in their villages.

On Writing

I was very excited to hear that some of you have taken up writing. Hurray!

I love your character! It reminds me of the aliens in Toy Story (except they had three eyeballs). And how about this little penguin? I love him!

It's not easy to write - so well done, you! When I'm having trouble writing a chapter, I remind myself that every story is about CHANGE. 

In every story, something must change. Spiderman started out an ordinary boy then became a superhero. Woody hated Buzz but at the end, they became best friends. Dorothy was lost in a strange world, but in the end she was found. So my advice to anyone writing a story is to focus on how your character will change.

Whenever I visit schools, there isn't enough time to really work with children on their writing (though I did manage to chat to a very remarkable boy who showed me his writing one lunch time when I was at Ellis). Recently I tried out something new at another school - the children wrote short pieces that they sent to me in advance and then I talked to them about their writing when I got there. Maybe we could do that next time!

Tall Story wasn't my kind of book

Thank you to those who told me you loved Tall Story - it makes me feel like all the work was worthwhile. But there were two who wrote to say it wasn't their kind of book. Thank you for being so honest.

That is so true! We are all individuals so we all respond to a book in a different way. I think the books I write reflect the sort of thing I like to read - lots of character stuff going on and not what you would call an action book. I don't really read crime thrillers but I once tried to write one - and it was TERRIBLE. 

I think I know what you mean by 'exciting' - you will probably love a book with a thriller element to it - my friend Teri Terry has written an exciting book called Slated - I think you might like that better! Or how about trying one of Scott Westerfeld's excellent trilogies - the Uglies quartet or the Midnighters. I loved those (especially the Midnighters). 

On Being an Author

Well yes and no.

It's hard because I have to get up every morning and just do my writing. There's no office to go to, and there's nobody to tell me to get on with it. 

But I love writing - how lucky am I to do a job that I love?

I don't know when the next book is coming out - I have to write it first and then find a publisher for it.

People ask me questions about my sales all the time but I don't know the answer because it's very hard to find out.

Publishing is all about waiting - waiting to be discovered by a publisher, waiting for the book to come out, waiting to know if it's been successful in the marketplace. Sigh.

What an interesting question! When I learned to read aged six, I decided that I wanted to become an author. I wanted to write books that children would love. But I didn't do that until I was in my forties! 

Do I sometimes wish I wasn't an author? Oh, sometimes when I'm finding it hard to write, I wish I was doing something else like directing movies ... or drawing comic strips ... or designing websites. But only sometimes. Most of the time, being an author is what I want to be. 

Funny you should ask about a sequel. I've written an outline for a sequel to Tall Story. But I want to write some other books first so I won't be doing that soon.

Tall Story seemed like the obvious title because Tall Story is about a boy who is very tall. But I was also playing around with the idea of the Tall Tale - a kind of folk story from the United States. I loved tall tales when I was child growing up in the Philippines where all our books were imported from America. And I particularly loved the tall tales about giants. My favourite tall story is this one, about a giant called Paul Bunyan (this is a nine minute cartoon from 1958):

Yes I do! I love it when people give me lovely little things to remember them by. I keep them all in a big scrapbook. I'll blog about it someday.

Thank you so much for all your letters, your drawings and your messages about the Philippines.

I 'm sorry I couldn't reply to each and every one of you but I hope you enjoy this reply. I really enjoyed visiting you - and I do hope we will meet again. Thank you to the pupils of 7a (En3), 7b (En2), 7c (En3) and of course, Mrs Julia Foster, who did all the herding!

Lots of love,

Love is not all you need - celebrating 25 years of hard labour

What a feeling! It was the best day.
The other day, my husband and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.

It seems like such a long time ago now, and looking back on that day - fairy lights twinkling on the coconut trees outside the church, we really had no idea what the next 25 years would hold for us. I had not imagined three children. I had not imagined living in London this long. Nor had I imagined who we would become, what we would be like.

So getting here is something of a miracle.

Multicultural is not about difference but inclusion - why the children's book world has to be a coat of many colours

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, my son came home from kindergarten proudly waving a drawing of our family. He'd drawn himself, his dad and his siblings with bright yellow skin. And mummy? He drew me with BLUE skin.

Clearly, he'd noticed that mummy was a different hue from the rest of the family. And there was nothing wrong with that.

I am pleased to report, as my husband and I approach our 25th wedding anniversary next week,

Thank you. You gave £55,124.73 for the Philippines

I am still overwhelmed by the incredible kindness of so many strangers. Those who donated their books, school visits, paintings, character names and many more. And those who bid so enthusiastically,  with such great humour, egging each other on, building the excitement. And those who got in touch later to say they would still donate the money even though they lost their bids. And Keris and Keren who brought them all together.

Monster Typhoon in the Philippines - it's not just our disaster


Donate directly to the Philippine Red Cross Emergency responders are already providing hot meals and relief items
Save the Children "We deployed a rapid response team to Tacloban and will be distributing emergency kits"
World Food Programme Working with government to restore telecoms and sending fortified biscuits
Good links and advice about giving from Rappler 
You've probably heard by now that over the weekend, the Philippines was devastated by a typhoon of such monstrous proportions that concrete buildings collapsed and tsunami-like storm surges drowned shoreside towns and villages.

To the right is information on how you can help. Thank you in advance for your compassion


Two summers ago, my son Jack, then seventeen, spent more than a month working with other young people at

Not One But TWO School Librarianssssss of the Year 2013

This is a looooong report ... so here's a menu!

My trophy picture with the School Librarianz of the Year, John Iona and Hilary Cantwell. I like this picture even though my head looks massive and Hilary appears to be eyeing someone suspiciously off camera. John was a very experienced smiler, so all his photos looked great. Taken by the nice official photographer whose name I didn't get.

Okay so by now you've probably heard that this year, we've got not a School Librarian but SCHOOL LIBRARIANSSSSSSS of the Year. I went last year (because I'm kind of into libraries) and they must have noticed me slinking around because this year they asked to be guest speaker and present the awards.

I was extra pleased to be invited because I wanted to tell the story of a tiny school library-building charity I've become involved with called the Sambat Trust, I wanted to show how in a world where libraries are sometimes regarded by schools as a luxury, in other places they are a matter of survival. Here is a short video juxtaposing images from the Sambat Trust's work in the Philippines and some words from my speech. It stars inspirational school librarian Zarah Gagatiga who travels everywhere there is a need for a school library.

Here I am giving my speech. That's a Sambat Trust library on the slide. Thanks to Michael Thorn of Achuka for the photo.

Michael Thorn, over at Achuka, was much quicker at the journalism than I was - here is his report on the fabulous day (with great photos that actually have me in it - I took a lot of photos, but I couldn't do any coverage when it was me on the stage)


Ginette Doyle
I can't tell you how moving the day was - so pleased for the two librarians - "NOT joint winners,"exclaims SLA Chair Ginette Doyle, but each to their own deserving the accolade of SLA School Librarian of the Year.

Hilary Cantwell wins for her evidently noisy and inspiring work at St Paul's Community College in Waterford, the Republic of Ireland.

And smiley John Iona won for initiatives such as Reading Games and for building and supporting the curriculum in Oasis Academy in Enfield, Middlesex where up to seventy per cent of the students have English as a second language.

The day was not just about people but about place - for what is a librarian without a library? The Library Design Award was won by Carterton Community College in Oxfordshire, a small secondary with 560 students.

It was a heavy duty shortlist. Presentations proceeded at a brisk gallop - it's been such a good year that the slate ended up with one more SLY finalist than last year plus a special design commendation for Nansloe Academy's magical Story Garden.

Here are the finalists:

School Librarian of the Year

Library Design Award

Sally Cameron
Marymount International School, Rome
Caterton Community College
Hilary Cantwell
St Paul's Community College, Ireland
Comberton Village College
Lyn Hopson
Don Valley Academy, Doncaster
Wyndham Park Infants' School
John IonaOasis Academy, Enfield


I know, I know - they call them 'learning resource managers'. But I'm sorry ... they are still librarians to me. So anyway, here are some photos of some power librarians:

Tricia Adams, SLA director, seemed unflustered and smiley despite the fact that she'd organized the whole thing. Alec Williams graced us with his dulcet compering again - here, he falls on his knees before Tricia in act of unadulterated worship.

Barbara Band, who organized the famous Mass Lobby for Libraries and a previous School Librarian of the Year Honours Listee, and Sue Shaper who chairs the SLG National Committee and runs the Kid's Lit Quiz North London Finals (coming soon - woo hoo!)

Tricia, Joy Court (fresh from announcing the UKLA longlists), Ferelith Hordon, former chair of the CILIP Carnegie, and Ann Lazim of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education
I have loads of photos in a Facebook Album which I will embed at the end of this post - if it doesn't work, you can find it here though you have to log into FB I think). But before I praise the winners, I just have to share this photo:

Author Stewart Ross spoke on behalf of sponsor Raintree Publishers ... and took the opportunity to flash the audience with the cover of his new book. Now that's self-promotion!


Carterton Community College had a sad but all too familiar story to tell.

It's previous headteacher took the decision to scrap its library. When a new headteacher, Niall McWilliams, arrived in 2008 he was "devasted" to discover that the books had been taken out and the room turned into an engineering classroom for 15 students.

He recalls: "Dismay turned into despair when we discovered that so many of the books - the non-fiction ones in particular - were thrown into skips. To me, this short-sighted act simply proclaimed that we placed little value in education. That we had no expectations or ambitions for our students ... the heart of our school had been ripped out."

When they set off to build a new library they asked the students for suggestions. "Not dull and boring" was one. And: "No primary colours". They resurrected boxes of books that had been in storage. No catalogues had survived "so every box was a surprise".

From the Carterton Community College photo gallery
It was not a big room so everything at the centre of the room could be moved, the key word being FLEXIBILITY. From the Carterton Community College photo gallery

There had to be access to the garden outside for reading in the summer months. From the Carterton Community College photo gallery

Congratulations to Carterton Community College!


When her colleagues at St Paul's Community College informed her that they were nominating her for the School Librarian of the Year Award, Hilary Cantwell responded stroppily. "You're wasting your time," she told them. The other nominees would be hardcore inspirational types, whereas she was "just trying to get the students through the door!"

Which was the point really. Because, as St Paul's fast cutting video presentation demonstrated, Hilary had succeeded in creating a library that became the beating heart of the school. There were children reading but there were also children drumming, playing board games, playing darts (!!!!)

(The photos at right and below are screen grabs from St Paul's presentation at the SLA event)

"I had to change the concept of the library as a restricted quiet space just for reading and study," says Hilary, who gained her expertise in schools and public libraries in New york before joining an Irish government programme to create school libraries.

So ... I take it she didn't say SHUSH?

Dental hygiene event.
Congratulations, Hilary! (I'd love to go to your library!)


John's library is "Open for all" - which means he is a very, very busy man, delivering Oasis Academy's Extended Project Qualification programme as well as supporting curriculum planning. He created The Reading Games, an enticement to read for pleasure, with rewards along the way - and runs a book club where you are guaranteed ... cake! He ferries children to shortlisting events, runs author and poet visits, and is the official information literacy hand-holder for staff.

Congratulations, John, I'm exhausted just reading about what you do.


The Nansloe Story Garden in Cornwall didn't meet the official criteria for the Library Design Awards but the judges were so blown away by the imagination and resourcefulness of the primary school, driven by an enthusiastic librarian Heather Foster and visionary principal Charles Field that they gave them a special commendation and next year will open up the award to accommodate such creative endeavours.

Before: a covered area that had turned into a dumping ground,

The school consulted students. Here is one design p roposal.

Another design proposal.

The Time Tunnel Entrance

A Hobbit House big enough to fit a class
Congratulations to Nansloe Academy! I'm dreaming of visiting your Hobbit House someday!

If your school library could do with a boost in the form of a much needed face lift, new book stock or some professional expertise, the Siobhan Dowd Trust is giving way £6,000 and two £3,000 awards for libraries in need. You need to demonstrate evidence of need, coupled with enthusiasm and a good plan for your library and how it would make a difference to pupils. Winners will be announced a the June 2014 SLA Weekend Course in Manchester. Click here to find out more on their website

More photos below embedded from Facebook - if you can't see the embed, click here.