Adele Geras writes:
I have been very interested in the Great Series Books Debate, and I hope it’s not too late to join in. I’m speaking here as a writer whose first book ever was a Hamish Hamilton Gazelle, and who has since written another 13 series books, of one length or another.
The reason I enjoy writing such books is this: they are the only place where one can publish pieces of prose of a short-story length. There is a dearth, not to say a complete absence, of outlets for children’s short stories. Sometimes a kind editor will invite you to contribute to an anthology, but what if there’s a story you wish to write which is not a full-length novel, nor a picture book text? What if your idea will suit a length of 2000, 4000 or 7000 words? The only people who will even read such a story are series editors.
Whenever I teach a Creative Writing class, one of the things I try and emphasise is the importance of recognizing what sort of material you are dealing with. Is what you have in your head best expressed as haiku? A three-volume novel? A sonnet? A novella? It is knowing this which sorts the wheat from the chaff, artistically speaking. that quite respectable fiction (no names, no pack drill …) is short-story ideas are padded out to novel-length, and occasionally you will meet a short story which is packed full enough for an entire mini-series.
I have to say that restrictions of length, far from being a barrier to creativity, focus the mind in exactly the same way as, say, the 14-line form does, when you are writing a sonnet.
I have also to say that if there is a formula for these books, I haven’t found it. They are hard to do well. I’ve had several turned down. I’ve never written them because they are money-spinners, nor because they attract critical attention, nor because shops stock them in large numbers. .. they don’t! The 13 I’ve published have not exactly carried all before them.
Only two have reached paperback. One (The Coronation Picnic, 1989), which is a particular favourite of mine,got not one single review as far as I’m aware, has not even covered its advance and has, it seems, sunk without trace. Still, I continue obstinately to believe that it, and others (Tea at Mrs Manderby’s, Beyond the Cross-stitch Mountains, Nina’s Magic and the forthcoming Toey) are just as good as anything else I’ve written.
Because I like writing short stories, I’ll continue to write for the series. One of the best books I ever read was a Gazelle by William Mayne called The Toffee Join in which some children made toffee with their grandmother – and that’s all! It was an inspiration which I still remember.
Thanks to all of you for making people think about these books. All the best,
Carolyn Tanfield writes:
Following your debate on series books, I was reminded of their usefulness in regard to aiding a child’s independent choice of reading material. Their format is readily recognised, and a success with one often spurs on a reluctant reader to choose from that series again.
One caveat, though. When I order from a series I do order within individual titles. Quality may vary within the best series.
Good layout and illustrations matter too, as well has physical y well size and chapter length. The books should handle well (Hazel Townson summed this up perfectly in her article ‘The Manageable Book’ BfK 61 March 1990)
Knowing the choice is theirs lifts the pressure from children who may still be anxious about going-it-alone with their reading. Series can do much to build their confidence.
Jean Ure writes:
What a mingy rotten swizz! I suggested to you ages ago that an article comparing the school stories of yesteryear with the school stories of today might be a good idea, so when I saw that such a one was due to appear in the September BfK I thought oh brilliant good egg and jolly japes and all the rest of it – especially as Bob Leeson seemed exactly the right person to choose.
Well! What a measly disappointment! All he did was cover the same old ground as has been covered a dozen times before- almost nothing about any of the modern counterparts to Angela Brazil, Elinor M Brent-Dyer, Enid Blyton et al. Grange Hill was the only one that got a look in. No Trebizon, no Marlowes, no Egerton Hall, no Peter High, no S*T*A*R*S (for better or for worse) no Pete Johnson …nothing.
I suppose now, sadly, the moment has gone, at any rate as far as BfK is concerned.
Poor Bob! The ground he covered was very much to my specification so blame me, Jean, not him. Anyway, who says the moment has gone for more consideration of current examples of the school story? Watch BfK in ’93 …
Margaret Al-Sayed writes:
I am a regular reader of Books for Keeps, and have usually found that your magazine shows an awareness of the problems of racism in children’s books. I was therefore disturbed to find in a review by DB, whom I take to be David Bennett, of The Year of the Leopard Song, two references to the ‘dark forces’ in Africa and ‘dark, potent, tribal magics’. I do not find it acceptable to think of Africa as the dark continent, it is time we rid our minds of the stereotype of Africa as ‘dark’ and tribal. I haven’t read the book which was being reviewed, but felt the review itself was not sufficiently sensitive to the possible issues and was certainly written in unsuitable language. Please could you ask your reviewer to be more careful in future?
David Bennett replies:
As I state in the last paragraph of my review, one of the themes of the book is the conflict between the conception of Africa of the past and the reality of the present – the very theme of your complaint. My use of the phrases to which you object was in accord with the content and language of the text. Certainly the word ‘dark’ is in no way intended as suggestive that Africa is a dark continent. The adjective is used in a description of forces and tribal traditions, which might be applied to any civilisation in my opinion! My Thesaurus provides very few alternative adjectives that would be appropriate in this context and these too would no doubt cause you just as much offence.