Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Pointless books?



There's a game show a friend introduced me to recently called Pointless. It's on at a time when I am usually in full writing flow, but in the name of research I took a break from my latest epic at tea time to check it out, and I'll admit to being hooked.

If you haven't seen the show, contestants have to guess which of a list of possible answers is the 'pointless' answer... i.e. the one fewest people (or nobody in the case of a truly pointless answer) gave to that question, when asked. So you might have a question like "Name a movie starring Sean Connery", and the general public are polled beforehand for answers. These are then displayed on a list for the contestants along with a few red herrings. Obviously the most popular answer on the list is also the safest, since it is likely to be correct. The danger of going for one of the more obscure answers is that it might be wrong, and there are big penalties for getting it wrong - an extra 100 points in the game as well as the shame of making an embarrassingly common mistake like this contestant who thought Jane Eyre wrote Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The winner is the contestant who scores the lowest, so those extra 100 points need to be avoided at all cost! Since only 100 people are polled, even going for the most popular answer on the board will net you less than that, and the sample is usually spread between several possible answers.

Anyway, you get the idea. This is one game where being the obscure outlier is an advantage, so my unicorn felt perfectly at home, although the game is harder than you expect because not only do you need to know which answers are correct, you also need to guess what most other people might give as their answer and then do the opposite, which is a bit like guessing what readers might want to read before you write the words and then... er... doing the opposite? This made me think about books, and how many of them would be pointless answers in a children's literature version of the game.

Here's a sample book question for you:
Name a book with a young wizard hero.

1. Harry Potter and the... (you've at least seven to choose from) by JK Rowling.
2. The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.
er...

I'm struggling already.
Can you come up with some more?

And one I can provide at least one obscure answer for:
Name a book containing a unicorn.

1. The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle
2. Spellfall by Katherine Roberts

Any more? I'm sending my unicorn off to take a look at those lists on Goodreads...

I am NOT pointless!

Meanwhile, if your book turns out to be a pointless answer, and that is making you feel a bit pointless too, my unicorn suggested I leave you with this quote from Gandhi:

"Whatever you do will seem insignificant, but it is very important that you do it because nobody else will."

Monday, 11 July 2016

Favourite children's books - poll vs personal


Every so often, someone will come up with a list of books everyone (or every child) should read. This week it is the BBC's turn following a local radio poll.

Often, as this list shows, the books that make it on to such lists are classic titles - books that have been in print for years and republished many times because they prove so popular. So if your favourite book is not on this list, don't despair. It's always difficult to judge a newly published title against such classics, since some titles that seem mega-popular with the reading public today will later sink into obscurity, and perhaps even vice versa... I don't have a crystal ball!

I find this particular list quite interesting. Harry Potter is there, along with the more old fashioned Famous Five. So far, so predictable. Both are popular choices for middle grade readers. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows complete the middle reads for the more traditional. I never really got on with this type of book as a child, although admit to enjoying Harry Potter and - to a lesser extent - Wind in the Willows later as an adult reader.

Then we have The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Roald Dahl's BFG, and Julia Donaldson's Gruffalo for younger readers (children's lists are always very diverse). I am not sure any of these were around when I was that age... perhaps the Roald Dahl? I don't have very strong memories of my picture books, but can remember quickly getting on to illustrated Ladybird books such as Ned the Lonely Donkey, followed by Ruby Ferguson's Jill books and Judith Berrisford's Jackie titles, since I was pony-mad at the time and could read independently before I went to school.

For older readers, we get The Lord of the Rings (which you'll see on my personal teenage favourites list over on the right). I first read this book when I was 16, and since then I've read the complete LOTR trilogy eleven times over the years, which just proves how long JRR Tolkien's epic fantasy has been around! To my shame, I still haven't got around to reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the other more mature read on this list... my parents' fault, no doubt, for letting me read what I wanted, and not what I should or what everyone else was reading.

And finally, we get the Holy Bible. It's a best-seller and certainly counts as a classic text, being the most ancient of all of the choices... but it's still a slightly surprising pick for a children's reading list, particularly in our multicultural society. If the thought of giving the entire Bible to an 8 year old is rather daunting, there is some good Biblical fiction around - such as Geraldine McCaughrean's Not the End of the World based on the Old Testament account of Noah's Ark.

What this list does show is the importance of the fantastic in children's literature, and perhaps that means I have never grown up since I still enjoy reading (and writing) fantasy. Five of the books that spoke to me as a teenage/YA reader are over on the right... Anne McCaffrey, author of the Crystal Singer, also wrote a series of Dragonrider books, which were originally published for adults but would also be good for confident readers aged 10+.

So have you read all of the books on the BBC's list?
Which was your favourite book as a child?

Monday, 20 June 2016

A Song for the Summer Solstice

This feels like a powerful week. Today we have the summer solstice (longest day, shortest night of the year), celebrated traditionally by the druids at Stonehenge. For the first time since 1967, tonight is also the night of the strawberry moon. If you go outside and look at the sky around the time this post goes up, maybe you'll even see it. (It's about strawberry picking, apparently, not blood... unlike the red moon in my Genghis Khan trilogy!)

The unicorn celebrated the solstice in his own way by visiting the Spirit of the Green Man at Tintern in the Wye Valley, where he was so enchanted by the music playing in the shop, he insisted (at the point of his sparkly horn) that I buy a CD on the spot. The lady on duty did not know which CD was in the system, though, so it was up to me to choose one... drawn by the cover, I chose Damh the Bard's "Antlered Crown and Standing Stone" with suitable solstice music.


Serendipity was clearly at work here in more ways than one, since one of the tracks on this enchanting CD turned out to be Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood, whose first verse lyrics so strongly reflect the other big event of this week - the European Union Referendum on Thursday - I wondered if it had been written specially, although it seems this particular song was written in response to a different situation regarding Britain's forests back in 2012.

You can read the full lyrics and purchase the Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood from Damh the Bard's website, or buy the complete album from www.paganmusic.co.uk


And if that has fired you up for a few final EU Referendum thoughts before the big vote, I will attempt to unpick the facts affecting authors over at Authors Electric tomorrow... but right now, I'm going outside with the unicorn to look for that strawberry moon!

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