Perfect 10

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Until this month, I’ve had a regular monthly blog post on the great children’s author site, Girls Heart Books. I’m sure I’ll be back blogging for them soon, but meanwhile, here’s my last post, about how some of my favourite Olympians have inspired my writing:

‘Nadia Elena Comăneci was born in Onești, Romania, (formerly known as “Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej”) in the Carpathian Mountains on November 12, 1961.’

So begins the Wikipedia entry for – up to now – arguably the greatest female gymnast in the world. I was 10 when Nadia Comăneci got her first perfect 10 on the uneven bars in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. She was 14. It was one of those moments. A girl – like me – was the best in the world, the best ever, the best possible at what she did. (She went on to get a whole lot more perfect 10s. They had to change the scoring system.) No-one could ever take that away from me. Girls rocked. They were powerful. Even little, light girls, like me. They had hidden powers.

I never forgot.

You can read the rest here.

How about the rest of the Girls Heart Books site? If you look around, there may be lots to inspire you too.

A summer of writing – and Winning Like a Girl

I can’t believe it’s July already. This has been the busiest term – starting a new book, with a new publisher, researching mid-nineteenth century London (fabulous and fascinating), teaching like mad (I have the best students, seriously), and fitting in school visits and festivals when I can. Last year I was busy finishing Love Song and felt I didn’t get out enough. So this summer I’ve been making up for it.

Yesterday was the last visit, and the furthest afield (except for Edinburgh), in Sheffield. I gave three talks that summed up everything I’ve been up to recently. First up was a workshop on book illustration to Year 12, talking about the importance of a cover in selling a book, the thinking behind the rejacketing of most of my books this year, and why my favourite book covers often say the least about what’s inside. The artwork the girls at Sheffield High came up with was brilliant. I only wish we’d had longer so they could have finished their book covers. Several of them, I think, could have been better than the original:

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Then it was time to talk to Year 8 about how I became a writer and where my inspiration comes from. They had so many great questions afterwards, and I spotted a few passionate writers in the crowd. I love talking about how books are made, and about the things I love to write about: music and art, girls and friendship. But best of all is knowing that someone in the audience is going to go home and write her own story tonight. I’ve done my words. It’s her turn now.

And then, at last, it was my last Winning Like a Girl talk of the year, to 100+ Year 9 girls, who crowded into the room, listened brilliantly, stood up and participated, knew loads of great stuff about women and history, asked some fabulous, searching questions, and generally gave me lots of  hope for the future of womankind.

You were amazing, Sheffield High. I hope I get to come back one day.

I’m going to miss these visits over the summer. But meanwhile, you can catch me at YALC in London on Saturday 30 July, at the Wigtown Festival in Scotland on 1 October, or in Bath, talking about music with Robert Muchamore on 8 October.

Have a great summer. In these troubled times, make sure you smile and share a little happiness.

Sophia xxx

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Writing competitions! Lots!

Are you writing a poem, a short story, a play, a novel, a screenplay …?

Are you under 16, over 16, or even 16 exactly?

Would you like some amazing industry professionals to see your work, and possibly even publish or perform it? Lots of people are looking for new writers right now. Some great competitions end soon, so get your skates on …

Chapter 1

I became a published author by winning a competition. It was the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition, and you can find out more about it here, including Barry Cunningham’s writing tips. He discovered JK Rowling, so he knows a thing or two … The competition is closed for this year, but if you’re still polishing your children’s manuscript, keep an eye on when it reopens later in the year for 2017.

If you can’t wait, ITV’s Lorraine has just launched a nation-wide hunt for the next bestselling author for 5-7s. You’ll need to send in the first 1000 words of your masterpiece by Monday, 29th February – so not long now – and may appear on TV.

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There are loads of other writing competitions around meanwhile, and here are just some of them. Thanks to Joan Lennon on Girls Heart Books for the details on these two

“The Betjamen Poetry Prize – it’s for poets aged 10 – 13 and the deadline for submissions is 31 July 2016, so you’ve got plenty of time.  But there’s lots on the website to get your poetic juices going, courtesy of Indigo Williams, so have a look.

500 Words – a story writing competition for ages 5 – 9 and 10 – 13.  The deadline for this one is much closer – 25 February 2016 – so you’ll need to get your skates on.  There are some good prompts and interesting articles on this site too – well worth a visit.”

The BBC Writers Room is of course full of opportunities for plays, film scripts and comedy.

The Sky Blue Theatre Company even have a video about their British Theatre Challenge!

And finally, Creative Writing Ink has a wonderful list of competitions for everything from poetry to playwriting to fiction to sitcoms.

Whatever it is you’re working on, there is probably a competition you could enter it for, where you might be lucky and get shortlisted and get some invaluable feedback. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get far this time. Having the courage to polish your work and enter is what matters. You might at the very least make friends with fellow entrants (I did). And you’re bound to learn a lot from the process – even just imagining what the judges might be thinking, and making your work as great as it can be to impress them.

Good luck, and let me know what happens.

Sophia xxx

The best Valentine’s day present …

Valentine’s Day

This year we’re staying in. My present is time. Time, and a discovery I made years ago … The best pudding in the world. Not too heavy, easy to make.

You don’t have to do this just for a lover. You don’t have to have a lover at all. You can do it for friends, or just for yourself. Sometimes Valentine’s Day is all about looking after you.

I discovered this translucent apple tart recipe years ago in Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat book. Now my version of it looks like this …

apple tart

For this recipe, you will need:

Time (not much), a freezer, a shallow tart tin of some description, pastry, an apple, a grater, some butter … Ideally, Nigella’s How to Eat.

HowToEat

Nigella does it better than me. I love the way she describes her hostess, at the party where she discovered it, making the pastry in advance and casually grating the apple in between courses while she chatted. I wanted to be that hostess – so in control, so convivial, so on top of her game. I’m not sure I ever have been. And my kitchen is tiny so I can only chat to one guest at a time, and only then if they come and find me. But that’s was the dream anyway. And this time my husband can nuzzle my neck while I grate. Multi-tasking – it’s what I was made for.

Translucent Apple Tart
from ‘How To Eat,’ Nigella Lawson, adapted from Jane Grigson’s ‘Fruit Book’.

1 quantity of sweet pastry, enough to line a shallow 23cm flan tin.
60g salted butter
60g caster sugar
few drops vanilla extract (or use vanilla sugar)
1 egg
1-2 apples, peeled and grated – preferably sour i.e. Granny Smith.

-Preheat oven to 210C
-Melt butter and sugar together over a very low heat, so they are barely warm. Remove from stove and beat in the egg.
-Add the grated apple and stir thoroughly into the butter mixture. You may prefer to wait until last minute to peel and grate the apple, to prevent any browning.
-Pour and spread over the pastry-lined tin and bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown. Lower the heat for 180C and cook a further 15-20 minutes until golden on top.
-It is best to wait until the tart has settled a little before eating it. Warm is better than hot, but cold is also good.

I have never known this tart not be gobbled up in one sitting. If you have two tins, make two. Serve with creme fraiche or Greek yoghurt.

If you don’t have Nigella’s sweet pastry recipe, you can always use thinly rolled shortcrust, or very thinly rolled puff. (If it’s too deep, the puff will expand to vast proportions, chucking all the apple out of the tin. This is what happened to my first batch of mince pies at Christmas, and it was very exciting. The second batch were great, though. Not pretty, but delicious.)

For a full list of How to Eat recipes, check out:

http://www.nigella.com/books/view/how-to-eat-13/recipes

 

How to be magic at pancakes

I was shopping in a supermarket on the King’s Road a few days ago and I noticed it. The first few signs. Big bags of flour on the promo shelves. Sugar. Eggs. Squeezy bottles of golden syrup … Pancake day is on the way. Easter’s not so very far behind.

ingredients

Can you make a pancake? Can you flip it? Can you turn those simple, cheap ingredients (you don’t have to use the golden syrup) into something delicious and fun that takes five minutes and seems like a celebration and a gift, every time?

If you can’t, it seems impossible: something experts do, with aprons and frilly white hats. If you can, it’s like magic.

When I was growing up, Shrove Tuesday was slightly about pancakes, but mostly about Giving Something Up. I’m all for the power of self-denial, but last year my littlest, Tom – then eight – was asked to do something different at school. Instead of Giving Something Up, the was encouraged to Learn Something New. Tying your shoelaces. Juggling. A poem. The ukulele …

Panake day

We decided to learn how to make pancakes. I found a recipe online and we tried it. Our first couple were terrible, but by the fourth or fifth we were brilliant. Actually, Tom was brilliant. He’s a natural cook and he quickly became more reliable than me. He makes them now, and I help them with the flipping. It’s quicker than making cupcakes, and involves a lot less sugar. Try them with sliced banana and raspberries … mmmmmmmm.

pancakes

Here’s that recipe:

You will need:

100g plain flour
2 medium eggs
300ml milk
1 tbsp sunflower or other vegetable oil
pinch salt

Lots of pancake recipes say you need to prepare the batter in advance – but you don’t! You can make this batter and use it straight away.

  1. Put the flower and salt into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the middle with a spoon.
  2. Crack the eggs into the well, then pour in about 50ml milk and the oil. Start whisking from the centre, gradually drawing in all the flour. (We use a hand whisk)
  3. Once the flour is incorporated, keep whisking until you have a smooth, thick paste. Add more milk as necessary.
  4. Get the toppings ready! We use Nutella, jam, golden syrup, and lemon and sugar. But not all on the same pancake at the same time! (Or not often …)
  5. Finishing the batter: add the rest of the milk in a smooth steady stream, while whisking. (It’s quite good if one person can pour while the other whisks it in.) This will give you thin, crispy pancakes. If you want them thicker, don’t add all the milk.
  6. Heat the frying pan over a moderate heat, then wipe it with oiled kitchen paper. We tend to use about a tsp oil per pancake.
  7. Add a ladle-ful of batter to the pan, tilting it to create the thinnest, widest area you can. Leave to cook for 30 secs. This feels like a long time but trust me, you’ll need it. Then flip. If you’re a pancake genius, you can do this with the pan alone. Or use a fish slice. We tend to use a wide plastic spatula, which does the job well.
  8. Cook the other side for at least 30 secs, then lift to check if it’s the right golden colour. Once it’s ready, turn out onto a plate, cover with yummy stuff and eat!

If you’re cooking Nutella pancakes, it can be helpful to add the Nutella while you’re cooking the second side. Then it will gently melt and be easier to spread along the pancake.

I also rather like the look of these this year:

healthypancakes