Gah-la dah-ling

This is a very belated post. We actually went to the Gala last Thursday. When I say ‘we’, I mean me and Alex. Because my husband was actually invited too! Woo! It’s a rare and lovely thing.

Which brings me to the invitation. It arrived in a bottle. Wrapped up in straw in a box. A message in a bottle. It was SO. EXCITING. But to what? And why?

Turned out, it was a bash organised by The Book People, to celebrate children’s books. They held it as part of a festival at the Royal Festival (appropriately enough) Hall. And it was for ‘the great and the good’ of children’s publishing. And, apparently, me and Alex. No idea how we made the list. Don’t care. It was a chance to don our gladrags, stand *this far* from Patrick Ness and Michael Morpurgo, admire Philip Ardagh’s umbrella, see Jackie Wilson (Dame Jacqueline to you and me) sneak off early, chat – actually CHAT – to Robert Muchamore over a James And The Giant Peach Bellini and eat food provided by Jamie Oliver.

Here’s what it looked like:

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There were about 400 of us there, and it was lavish. Children’s publishing doesn’t do lavish outside of Harry Potter movies, but on Thursday they did lavish in spades. The attention to detail was amazing. The canapes were based on Captain Pugwash (or Treasure Island, can’t remember: they were sea-based, anyway). The wine said ‘Drink Me’. The pudding was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There were colour-themed candles and sweetie jars on every table.

And there were speeches. Lots of speeches. Lots and lots and lots of speeches. (The best one was by Anthony Horowitz.) All about books and reading and how important it is for children to have a chance to read books they love. And that was really what we all had in common: passion for children reading.

Which I think is why, despite ourselves, we love The Book People. And the general feeling at my end of  the table anyway, was that, despite ourselves, we do. One of the reasons they can afford to be so lavish is that they sell books at a massive discount, which means our royalties from them are not lavish at all. But the reason they are so successful is that they pick books that people want to read, and they back them, and they make them really affordable, and easy to find (you may have seen them in your school or office), and package them beautifully. And it’s hard to have a problem with that.

In my case, they were the first to sell the Threads trilogy as a series, beautifully wrapped, for £4.99. Which meant I could tell children who’d loved Threads in their local library that they could get all three. So much more appealing to the author than some other booksellers (not my favourite independents), who thought it would be a good idea to sell book 3 on its own, without access to the other 2, and drove this particular author INSANE with why-the-hell-would-you-do-that frustration.

Seni and Ted, the movers and shakers behind The Book People, love books, and on Thursday it showed. A whole bunch of book-making people loved them back. And then, after all the speeches, we said goodbye to our friends, moved out into the starry London night, hoped that one day there would be another night like this, and went home.

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Oh dear – it’s been a long time since the last blog. And it’s not as if lots of interesting things haven’t been happening.

In January there was the Chicken House Big Breakfast, for example, which is the annual post-Christmas bash that Barry Cunningham hosts in London for publishing friends. It was full of writers, editors, publishers, scouts and bloggers, all busily catching up over coffee and croissants. I spent two hours non-stop talking (apart from during the book readings – one of which was done quite spectacularly by Miss Chicken House dressed up as a cat.)

Even so, there still wasn’t time to chat to everyone. But there were some lovely moments, such as Siobhan, my US editor, giving hints about the US cover of The Look, which will come out there next year, and one of the guests outlining the plot of a brilliant book she wants to write. Writing is generally a solitary profession, so it’s always wonderful to be surrounded by friends who care about books. I’m not sure how we managed to drag ourselves home.

(Actually, I didn’t. I went on from there to the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. If you can go – go. It definitely helps if you like trees, though. David has created lots and lots and lots of images trees, many of them on his iPad. The best ones, though, I thought, were his videos of driving through tree-fringed lanes in different seasons. If you want to go to Piccadilly and imagine yourself in the heart of the English countryside, it’s perfect.)

Meanwhile, The Look is set to come out here in just over two weeks. Anyone who’s ever had a book about to come out knows that this bit is WEIRD. The Chicken House team have been busy organising a blog tour and a schools tour, planning some exciting stuff for later in the year and sending out the book to reviewers. But nothing will actually happen until March, when it’s launched. I can’t wait until I see it on a bookshelf, finally. Or to hear what readers have to say about it. A book doesn’t really feel alive until it’s been read, and one of the wonders of the internet is discovering how readers respond.

And then, of course, I’ve been working on book 5 – which, in my laptop documents folder is officially called ‘Book 5’, although it’s developing a subtitle of DTFG. If it all works out, I’ll explain what that stands for down the line. It will certainly be a more controversial title than, say, Sequins Stars & Spotlights.

Some of the highlights of the last few weeks, though, have been admiring other people’s work. This has been a cold, dark season, peppered with stressful exams and a stressful economy at home, and tales of despotism and torture abroad. I admire everyone who’s tackling the economy and the despots (and the exams, frankly, including my eleven year-old), but also all of the artists who’ve managed to break through the fog of misery with pictures, plays and stories. Without them, how do we make sense of what we know?

Apart from the Hockney exhibition, there was the middle act of Noises Off by Michael Frayn at the Old Vic, which had my eleven year-old – as I hoped – in tears of laughter. There was Matilda The Musical at the Cambridge Theatre (story by Roald Dahl, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin), which has become an instant classic. We all adored it. At the end, the five year-old said ‘I might have to cry because it was so good.’

There was The Fault In Our Stars by John Green – the best YA book I’ve read in recent months. It stares teenage death hard in the face and is life-affirming and quite brilliant. It includes two teenagers kissing in the Ann Frank museum in Amsterdam, to the soundtrack of Otto Frank talking about his daughter. And you’re rooting for them all the way. That’s how good it is.

Tonight I’ll watch Call The Midwife on BBC1, which I haven’t seen yet but which has managed to attract 10 million viewers over a mere 3 episodes. (More than Downton Abbey did at the time, and with far less publicity.) I can’t think of anything nicer than seeing Miranda Hart in a hat and sensible shoes, setting off on a bike to save lives on behalf of the NHS. Why did nobody think of this before?

Then it’s the BAFTAs. They played a crucial part in the writing of Threads and the awards season always brings back my weeks of frantic plotting. It took ages to get the various award timings to fit in with the events in my characters’ lives, so that a certain dress being worn to the Oscars, held shortly after the BAFTAs, would have the emotional impact I wanted it to.

That was three and a half years and four books ago. So much has happened since then! But for now, it’s back to the writing …

One of our dinosaurs isn’t missing*

I have one of the smallest kitchens in the world. You can stand in pretty much any part of it and touch pretty much any other part. Sometimes – like when you’re unloading the dishwasher – this is great: you only have to reach out an arm to find the appropriate cupboard and put things away. You don’t even have to move your feet, never mind actually walk anywhere. At others – like when two of you want to do anything in there at the same time, or you want to cook and chat to a child or a guest, or you want to find a place for a new mug, it’s impossible.

However, the minuteness of my kitchen is a small price to pay for living in London. Sometimes. And yesterday was one of those times.

The day dawns cold and frosty. Christmas is approaching. The children are on holiday; I need a dose of culture. I make a picnic, sling it in a backpack and we head for the bright lights. By which, of course, I mean the V&A. I want to see quilts (something to do with the new book) and I have promised the boys lots of lovely old weapons to keep them happy.

On the way, there is a slight misunderstanding. Tom hears ‘V&A’ as ‘DNA’, which reminds him of the bit in Jurassic Park when the canister of dino DNA is stolen by the sweaty baddie and ends up floating out to sea. Tom doesn’t have a problem AT ALL with the sweaty baddie being eaten alive by an angry dinosaur in the process: he’s just worried about that canister. I keep on having to reassure him that it’s OK.

So anyway, obviously by now Tom assumes we’re going to see not patchwork, but dinosaurs. But at this point we are in South Kensington and we can see the beautiful, multicoloured towers of the Natural History Museum across the road from the V&A. So I promise him both. I also remember reading recently that the Natural History Museum used to be so blackened and ugly from coal soot (it was like that when I first knew it as a schoolgirl) that the council wanted to pull it down and start again. Instead, there was a campaign to save it and for years it was under scaffolding, while they sandblasted off all the soot. Up until then, we had always associated Victorian architecture with dark, lumpen ugliness. But suddenly, when the museum was eventually revealed, we realised that after all, those Victorians were really REALLY good. The Natural History Museum is one of the most beautiful buildings in London, AND it’s got a skating rink outside at the moment AND it’s got dinosaurs inside. Moving ones. What’s not to love? As always, I mentally thanked Prince Albert – the Steve Jobs of his day – for having the idea and making it happen.

But first, the V&A. As usual, we fell in love with everything in the shop. Then we asked a nice man at the members’ desk where the quilts and weapons were. He sadly informed us that they only had quilts on display for a one-off exhibition and there are none to see now.  Also, they don’t really ‘do’ weapons at the V&A, as it’s all about ‘the applied and decorative arts’ – not killing people. But I knew better. I took the boys to the Japanese section, because those eighteenth century Japanese artists knew a thing or two about applying the arts to Samurai slung swords, blades, daggers, armour and really scary helmets. There were two cases of them. Job done.

There was also, as it happened, a temporary exhibition called ‘The Power of Making‘, celebrating all sorts of crafts, from dry stone walling to saddle making, dress making, gun making (more guns – hah!), 3D-printers (the future), cabinets, bicycles, artificial eyes, shoes with guitars on … And yes, there was a quilt, with direction-sensing er … sensors on it, so it could map the shape of whatever it was thrown over. Also some needlework, done by British officers captured by the Nazis and containing a secret code. It was PERFECT. We could hardly drag ourselves away.

After some restorative cheese and peanut butter sandwiches, we headed off for those dinosaurs next door. We spent ages in the dinosaur section, watching the pretend moving ones, admiring the bones of the very dead real ones, learning far more about them and their times than we ever intended to. Tom bought a cuddly stegosaurus called Steggie and we were done.

Harrods was a bus ride away. We used to go there for the Krispy Kremes, but they don’t do them any more. Instead, we happily window-shopped, the boys posed beside a couple of teddy bears that were at least four times their size (and cost £2000 – go figure), and I managed to buy a secret Christmas present without incurring shipping charges, so I actually saved money.

All in all, we were out for most of the day, before driving home across my favourite bridge (Albert) – working again and lit like a Christmas tree. We learned loads. We saw lots of beautiful, beautiful things. The children were enchanted and so was I. Apart from shopping, the total cost was one bus fare.

As I say, a tiny kitchen is a small price to pay.

* And in case you don’t know the film already, do look out for ‘One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing’. It is mad, and funny, and features the star diplodocus of the Natural History Museum. Not many films can say that.

London in the sunshine

This was the scene at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in Kensington, on Tuesday:

London in the sunshine. It couldn’t have been more perfect. (Well, it could if the costume galleries had been open, but they’re shut for refurbishment at the moment. They’ll reopen in spring 2012 and I’ll be at the front of the queue. The shop, meanwhile, was, as always, fab.)

London has been through a lot recently, like other British cities. But what has shone through in the last few days is what a beautiful place it is to live, and how full it is of people who love it, and care about it, and will do what it takes to make sure that goodness prevails.

Which reminds me of the tough but vulnerable girls I imagined meeting up at the V&A a few years ago, and whose story I was talking about while we sipped our coffees in the sun.

People banding together in the face of adversity, and making the world a better place.

This is a now-famous picture taken at Clapham Junction, near where I live, that afternoon. They had come from all over to take part in a massive cleanup operation.

On Tuesday, and much to our own surprise, London was a great place to be.