Quickbits - Nepal, Win a School Visit, Book Binge

By Candy Gourlay

Feel free to use this badge to help
raise funds for the Nepal Earthquake


Here, in the safety of my home in London, where the ground does not shake one bit and no invisible power is building up beneath the ground and no tsunamis of snow threaten to tumble down upon my head, it is hard to imagine what conditions are like for the survivors of last week's earthquake in Nepal.

I have heard that there might be an Authors for Nepal auction similar to Authors for the Philippines when our islands were struck by a super typhoon two years ago now. I will post here when I know more.

Meanwhile, please let the professionals get to work, our role is to raise funds to help our Nepali brethren back on their feet.

I made this badge - feel free to steal it and post it on your blog or social media. Thanks to Marina and Enrique on Flickr for making the image available on Creative Commons.

You can give to:
The Disasters Emergency Committee
The Red Cross here.


The Siobhan Dowd Trust donated a generous amount of money for two of the school visits I auctioned off at the Authors for the Philippines campaign. I fulfilled one of them last year -- a visit to a school in the Philippines.

The Trust is now offering the other school visit to UK schools. If you'd like me to visit your school, you can apply to the Siobhan Dowd Trust here. See you in the Autumn!


Now that my work is no longer in progress and is now being read by publishers (fingers crossed, everyone!), I should start writing my next book. But last week I found myself staring at the screen, reading, painting the masonry outside my house ... anything but getting on with the job at hand. I think it's a way of clearing my head of the book I had just finished so that I can focus on the next book.

Anyway, I had quite a reading binge -- mostly of Kate DiCamillo books. I discovered Kate when Shine was nominated for the Guardian Prize along with Kate's Flora and Ulysses last summer.

I read F&U and loved it. When I heard that my friend Yoko Tanaka illustrated Kate's The Magician's Elephant, the story of an elephant who magically appears in a village and changes a boy's fortunes, I HAD to read it.

One of Yoko's illustrations. Beautiful.

That was the beginning of the binge. When I finished the magical, lyrical Magician's Elephant (with Yoko's sad and beautiful drawings), I had to read another Kate DiCamillo IMMEDIATELY.

So I read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane - about the adventures of a self absorbed rabbit who is lost at sea and how he learns to care.  Oh my. It was so meltingly warm and full of love, I had to read another one.

I read The Tale of Despereaux, about a mouse who falls in love with a princess. It made me feel even greedier for more DiCamillo.  I read her debut novel Because of Winn Dixie, about a stray dog who helps a girl make friends. I loved that too! More! More!

There's only one more novel left - The Tiger Rising. I stopped myself because if I read it now, there would be nothing left to read. So I'm saving it for later.

Instead I read Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, about the aftermath of a pandemic. No, it's not a children's book, but older teens might enjoy it. It was gripping and beautifully written (I like beautifully written, plot isn't enough for me). You can read the review here if you'd like to try it. I couldn't put it down.

Because I'd been reading all those Kate DiCamillo books, Amazon has begun recommending a lot of award winning American middle grade books. Since I was resisting my last DiCamillo, I thought I'd dip into one of those recommended titles.

I'm now a third into The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart -- why  have I never heard of this book? It's brilliant so far and I think I can confidently recommend it even though I'm not yet finished!

I'm going to be busy writing again soon, which means less reading. Ah well. Till next book binge ...

Where do you get your ideas?

By Candy Gourlay

Here I am celebrating my birthday
last Sunday.  
On Writing Dual Narratives | I thought Filipinos were not allowed in books

When I was a beginner author, unused to meeting readers, the question Where do you get your ideas? baffled me.

In the classroom I can be asked the question up to three times in a row, the children not paying enough attention to notice that it's been asked before.

It is a question asked automatically, and so relentlessly I sometimes wonder if the asker is truly interested in the answer.

Recently, I've begun to think that it's not the question readers really want to ask.

Readers are moved, angered, engaged, amused, affected in so many ways by a piece of writing. And I think what they really want to know, is WHY.

Why does this book that you've written make me feel like this? Where did you get that ... that THING that affected me in this way?

One day I had lunch with a friend who'd just read Shine, my second novel. 'Oh Candy, it's got the thing you had in Tall Story,' she said.

And she looked at me with such emotion and understanding that I was almost defensive. What thing?

That afternoon we had a long conversation about the themes that run through both books. Loneliness. Separation. Being left behind. Being different.

I'm beginning to think that this is what people want to know when they ask about ideas. What they really want to know is: Why do you write about these things? But not knowing how to articulate the thought, they just ask where I get my ideas.

The truth is: you might start with an idea, but a book is more than that. "(Ideas) aren't that important. Really they aren't,' writes the author Neil Gaiman. 'Everyone's got an idea for a book, a movie, a story, a TV series.'

It's not the idea but what you do with it. For me, writing a book is like having an intense dialogue with myself. At every point, I find myself asking why. Why is the character like that? Why would that happen? Why do you care so much you can write tens of thousands of words about it?

I keep asking why, I keep searching for answers (and sometimes not finding them), until the book is done. Really, it's a three way conversation between me, the author; the characters I created; and the readers still to come.

Toni Morrison, one of my favourite authors, has been doing the media rounds recently, promoting her new book God Help The Child. It seems no journalist can interview her without referring to the conversation she's been holding with her reading public since she started writing.

... not only is God Help The Child about its own characters, it is about the conversation Morrison has been having with her readers for decades. In A Mercy, set in the late 1600s, a slave begs a traveling Anglo-Dutch trader to take her daughter with him, hoping that the child will be relatively safer under his ownership. Beloved, set almost two centuries later, examines the exacting and haunting cost of an escaped slave, Sethe, slitting her young daughter's throat rather than letting her child be captured by slave hunters. And, of course, the entire reading of God Help The Child is colored by its relationship to Morrison's debut novel The Bluest Eye. Saeed Jones, NPR
We all suffer from secret wounds, I think. Toni Morrison became a favourite author of mine because her books ask questions that pick at my own secret hurts, freshening the wounds so that I can't forget.

Click on the image to listen to me chat with
Leslea Newman in The Conversation
A couple of weeks ago via a phone link from New York to a BBC radio studio in London, I met Leslea Newman, who made LGBT history by publishing Heather Has Two Mommies, a book that has had a controversial life.

We were the featured guests of the BBC World Service programme The Conversation, hosted by Kim Chakanetsa and produced by Deiniol Buxton. You can listen to our episode here.

Deiniol (back) and Kim at the BBC studio where we recorded the show

Here's Leslea telling the story of how she came to write Heather Has Two Mommies simply because someone told her she couldn't find any books that reflected their family situation.

Looking at Leslea's books, it's clear to me that Heather Has Two Mummies was no one off. Leslea's entire body of work (57 books!) comes from the same heart that wants to embrace those that society tries to push away.

For me, one of the excitements of reading a book is discovering the hidden heart of the author. I believe other readers must have the same desire -- even if they don't know how to put it into words.

You might also be interested to read a piece I wrote for the Guardian last week: Growing up, I thought Filipinos were not allowed to be in books

On Writing Dual Narratives

By Candy Gourlay


So yeah, I'm guesting on #ukmgchat this coming Thursday. #ukmgchat is a Twitter discussion group that chats under the hashtag every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. EXCEPT my guest appearance is on a !!!Thursday!!! just to confuse everyone.

When my friend Miriam Craig invited me to lead a discussion on dual narratives, I got a little bit spooked. What did I know about dual narratives? My nervous tweet:

Miriam replied cheerfully. "You've written two books that are both dual narrative in different ways."

But! But! But!

Miriam was unfazed: "And then outside of that, you've read zillions of books that use various different narrative viewpoints, and you will have your opinions on what works and why."

Gah! Gah! Gah!

Miriam continued: "And you've had the experience of seeing how all sorts of different kids have interpreted and reacted to the dual narrative element in your books."

Hmm that Miriam sure is wise. I agreed to do it and now that I've gone through that door of no return, I thought I'd ruminate in anticipation.


Because it obviously needs it. I wrote Tall Story in Dual Narrative because it was OBVIOUS that the story needed a dual narrative. Tall Story has two heroes telling two separate stories that come together and their stories are co-equal. It has two settings and it's a culture clash story - what better way to show a culture clash than to hear the clashing voices of the protagonists.

Because you're juxtaposing different versions of the heroine. One of the books that inspired me to write novels is the Carnegie winning A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly (It's called Northern Light in the United States). There is only one voice, that of Mattie Gokie, an impoverished1906 teenager who must choose between marriage and pursuing her dream to become a writer. But the story alternates between an earlier Mattie, struggling to look after her family, and Mattie, just a few months later, after she gets a job. One thread is in past tense and the other in present tense. It makes for an intriguing story!

Because you're juxtaposing two worlds. Half Lives by Sara Grant is one of those thrillers that keep you up late at night. Two stories interweave: one set in the past - the story of a group of teenagers who take shelter inside a mountain while apocalypse destroys the world outside. And the other set in the future - the setting is recognisable, but the world is transformed. The deliciousness of this novel is the slow trickle of evidence from the story set in the past that gives you endless aha moments.

Because the backstory is taking over the main story. Sigh. This happened to me. Shine was really meant to be told only in one voice. But one of the minor characters kept trying to take over the story. I tried desperately get rid of her (Kill your darlings!) -- but she was so strong, so compelling, that even my editors wouldn't let me chop her out of the story. In the end, my editor Bella Pearson came back from maternity leave and sensibly suggested that I give her a share of the spotlight. Which is why Shine has a subplot told in the second person point of view (!) and at first there doesn't seem to be a connection but it all comes together in the end.

Because inside their heads is where the story is happening. Take the wonderful Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, a lot of the action between the two characters happens in the same space, but it's what their thinking that drives the story. Getting inside their heads is what we the reader want to do, and the dual viewpoint intensifies our emotional engagement with Eleanor and Park of the title.

Because you don't want to report a really juicy story, you want to tell it in the moment.  Bog Child, Siobhan Dowd's post humous Carnegie winning novel, is set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. 18 year old Fergus is struggling with exams when his brother, in prison, goes on hunger strike. While Fergus' troubles are going on, archaeologists find the preserved body of child dating back from AD 80 in a bog. Siobhan could have easily chosen to report the story of the bog body but why do that and bore the reader? Instead the story of the bog child is revealed in Fergus' dreams, made all the more dark and emotional by being properly dramatised on the page.

Because switching perspective saves all the exposition in the world. I use the word delicious a lot when I talk about books and there is no more delicious and delectable book than Flora and Ulysses by Katie DiCamillo. The entire book is written in third person, but the viewpoints switch between Flora, who admits that 'For a cynic, I am a very helpful person'. The other viewpoint is that of Ulysses, a squirrel named after a vacuum cleaner who emerges from brain damage with super powers and extreme joy. 'It was astonishing,' he thinks after waking up from his accident, 'Everything was astonishing. The setting was illuminating each blade of grass.' You could write this in a different way - you could explain that Flora thinks she is a cynic but doesn't act like one, and you could describe how the squirrel's brain began to think in a different way after his accident. But why bore your reader? Why not make your reader experience what it's like to be in the head of a superhero squirrel?

One thing that had not occurred to me, as a children's author, was that child readers might struggle to get to grips with a dual narrative. Adding that extra storyline to Shine for example, bumped it up to young adult (not just because of the dual narrative but because the subplot had an adult sensibility).

Indeed, visiting Year 6 school children (10 and 11 years old) recently, I found plenty of readers who had no problem with switching between voices -- who enjoyed the contrast and the story structure. And I also found readers who struggled with it, finding the changing voices confusing. Thank goodness for teacher enthusiasm, these readers got it in the end. I lent the schools audiobooks of Tall Story, which seemed to help.

I love the challenge of the dual viewpoint. I love telling two stories at the same time, through two different voices, and then watching the separate strands interact and surprise, one revealing surprises about the other until they melt into a single delicious whole.

But be warned, if you're a pantser (a writer who doesn't plan or who plans very little), you will have to put on some y-fronts once in a while to make this dual narrative thing work. The magic (and the fun) is in plotting out the arcs of the two stories so that their peaks and troughs interact in an exciting way.

The climax of a dual narrative would involve a collision between the two stories - great fun once you figure out how to do it!

And of course you will have not one but TWO endings that must leave your reader feeling satisfied and yet loathe to let go.

If you'd like to share your own writing experiences with dual narrative, or a favourite dual narrative book, join us on #UKMGchat, Thursday, 9 April, on Twitter, 8 to 9 pm GMT. How to join? Read this.

If you liked this, you might enjoy my post How We Live Now, looking back on changes to the children's book world since I started trying to get published. Read it in my blog on writing Notes from the Slushpile.