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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School visits

I’ve been doing a few school visits recently – all of them lovely. Yesterday, for example, I was at St Albans Girls’ School (STAGS) in – unsurprisingly – St Albans, and on Monday I was at Hitchin Girls’ School. I really enjoy them. They’re the best opportunity I get to meet my future readers and find out what they’re up to and what they’re interested in.

If you’ve ever wondered what an author visit is like (at least, one of mine, anyway), here’s a great writeup of a visit I did earlier in the month from the girls at Dr Challoner’s in Buckinghamshire. Thanks very much, girls!

New discovery – the shoe box

Well, you live and learn.

On Tuesday, I visited Farnborough Hill in Hampshire. Not just any old school visit – not that they ever are just any old school visit, mind you. This was the school where my mother was head girl, fifty-one years ago (Hi, Mummy, if you’re reading this) and where one of my goddaughters is in year 10.

They suggested that I give four workshops and a talk. I suggested that if I gave four workshops and a talk, I would be muttering unintelligible drivel by the end of the day, as four workshops is a lot of workshops. However, they bravely decided to risk it and I agreed to give it a try.

Here we are at the beginning of the day, when I’d like to think I was sounding quite coherent. We are drinking hot chocolate and talking about books. YES!

Do I look as if my mother is watching me from just out of shot? She was. She came to visit with me. It was very lovely, but you can so tell she’s an ex-headgirl. Here I am pretending that I’ve forgotten that my ex-headgirl mother is RIGHT OVER THERE LISTENING TO EVERY WORD I SAY.

Anyway. After the hot chocolate my mother nipped off to London to do lots of fun stuff, and I got down to the workshops, which involved creating mood boards for various of our favourite characters, requiring lots of paper, scissors, old copies of magazines and Pritt. Also fun. Very fun actually. I can only hope the Year 7s and 8s enjoyed it half as much as I did.

But here’s the thing. I’d asked them to do some preparation before I came – thinking of which character they’d like to illustrate and pulling together some images that might represent their complicated, multi-layered personalities. I’d assumed they’d all bring magazine cuttings and postcards, but they didn’t. Lots of girls arrived with beautifully illustrated shoe boxes, or boxes of other sorts, and inside the boxes were objects they’d gathered from home to represent their chosen character. Bracelets and trinkets, spectacles and handcuffs, feathers and leaves …

My favourites were a padlock and some tea bags. Character? Dolores Umbridge. The tea bags were for her cups of tea and the padlock was for the Quidditch brooms. There were also printed out copies of some of her decrees. Quite wonderful.

As Carrie Bradshaw would say, it got me thinking. My mood board is a nightmare to cart around with me. It’s about a metre wide and nearly as deep. As soon as I try and move it, thinks start to fall off. And I can only attach things to it that are flat. A mood box, which is effectively what the girls had invented, is so much more practical: small and portable; just as good at containing useful, inspirational stuff; and it can hold objects as well as pictures.

I’m not sure how coherent I was by the end, but I was certainly inspired by the girls. That’s the thing about school visits: you go in to try and educate them (actually I don’t – I go in to try and remind them that reading and writing can be SO MUCH FUN) and they end up educating you.

Boxes. Who knew?