‘Piglettes’ is out!

(… and I somehow managed to forget its date of birth, which is a bit careless and doesn’t bode well for the future if I ever have kids…)

So, erm, while I was in Spain for some work-and-holiday time, Piglettes, written by me and translated by me but published by the great people at Pushkin Press (thank you Daniel and Mollie in particular!), came out into the world!

And here it is!


It’s lovely and pink (but not too pink) and LIGHT, which means you can tuck it into your cycling shorts to take it around on a bike ride. Sorry, what? Why would you do that? Well, because that’s what it’s about. Cycling. And sausages. And ugliness competitions… also about gate-crashing the July 14th Presidential garden party at the palace of the Elysée in Paris.

It all makes sense, somehow, in the book. I think… Here’s the official summary:

Awarded the Gold, Silver and Bronze trotters after a vote by their classmates on Facebook, Mireille, Astrid and Hakima are officially the three ugliest girls in their school, but does that mean they’re going to sit around crying about it?

Well… yes, a bit, but not for long! Climbing aboard their bikes, the trio set off on a summer roadtrip to Paris, their goal: a garden party with the French president. As news of their trip spreads they become stars of social media and television. With the eyes of the nation upon them the girls find fame, friendship and happiness, and still have time to consume an enormous amount of food along the way.

Piglettes is strange for me because it’s new news and old news at the same time. It came out in French as Les petites reines in 2015.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

By then, I’d published a few books already, which had had modest echo (very very modest).

And then Les petites reines came out and within a year, my life (at least, the side of my life that’s French and writerly) had changed quite a bit. This is the part where I say that it was a bestseller in France and sold rights to the stage, the cinema and many translations, and also won tons of awards, including some of the most major national ones, and was on the IBBY International Honour list the next year. I also starting getting many more invitations to come speak to schools and in book fairs. It was the beginning for me of a much stronger involvement with the French children’s literature community, its debates, its questions, its politics, and its people. 

And more importantly perhaps, I started receiving many, many emails from young readers, and from their parents (and even grandparents) sometimes. And I still do, often. And I know it’s being borrowed hugely from school libraries, which makes me very happy.

Right, I have now said those things which are kind of required of anyone self-promoting I think. Ah no, wait, there’s more. There are already some really nice early reviews of the book in English – thank you SO much to the bloggers and journalists who have already read it – in France, word-of-mouth was absolutely crucial to the success of the book and I’m indebted for absolutely ever to the bloggers and vloggers who pushed it so much from the beginning. So here are some early comments here:

  • Did you ever stop to think and forget to start again?: There is a special place in my heart for young adult books that dance with joy over sausage recipes. What an utter treat this book is. I want to wrap my arms around it and never let it go.
  • Blogger’s Bookshelf:  This is an uplifting story, guaranteed to make you giggle. Beauvais handles the issues in this book with a light hand and an excellent sense of humour and I would definitely recommend it to all teenage girls and anyone else who wants a truly fun and funny read about friendship, growing up, and selling sausages in the French countryside.
  • The cosy reader: I absolutely adored this book. It was fun and sweet and heart warming, but it also tackled some pretty big issues-cyber bullying, disability and war to name a few, in its stride, dealing with them in a sensitive and refreshing way.
  • The book bag: I found this a rich and intelligent read, able to get away from the straightforward diary-of-the-journey format, willing to surprise us, and at least able to make us all (even me) fall in love with Mireille.
  • YS Book Reviews: This beautiful and funny book explores the troubles and triumphs of being a teen through the eyes of a witty, philosophical, and slightly awkward teen. … Mireille’s voice and character are wonderfully authentic with unflappable confidence and inelegant missteps mixed together for a potent storyteller on a journey of self-discovery.
  • On The Copper Boom‘s Summer Reading List! Alongside my friend Robin Stevens’ amazing Murder Most Unladylike, which I can only approve of…

I hope you like the book as much as the French readers seem to have done. I hope it’s a bit different to things you might have read before.

And more importantly I really hope it makes you laugh, because it was the whole point of the endeavour to begin with.

Happy reading!

Summer posts

As usual, this blog is half-asleep, even though I’d planned a grand blog post to celebrate what is, today, my 10-year anniversary of arriving in the UK. Funnily enough, after Brexit, my anniversary enthusiasm declined a bit, and I never got round to it.

However, as the new academic year is just starting, let me  – literally in-between two supervisions – post a tiny update with some blog posts I’ve written over the summer on other platforms, mostly about (surprise!) children’s literature, some academic, some not so much:

As always, I’m much more active on my French blog. And as always, a lot has been happening on the French side. I can now announce, however, that my French YA book Les petites reines, which I’m apparently allowed to call a bestseller, and which has sold to the cinema, the theatre, and won a good bunch of major national awards in France (yeah, yeah, bragging is bad, don’t do it, etc.) – that novel, then, will come out in Britain in summer next year thanks to Pushkin Press; carefully, perhaps clumsily, and to no small degree creatively, translated by me.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, sausages, rural France, and friendship. It won’t have that cover in the UK.

More on that, including title and cover, closer to the date.

The Sesame Seade series, meanwhile, has crossed the Channel in the other direction: it will come out in French next year with publisher Rageot. I still don’t know what they’ll call Sesame! (not translating that one)

Next supervision about to start! Till next time…


An unearthly amount of voices, whispering: Creative Writing with Young and Even Younger Students

Last week, thirteen young teenagers and their English teacher took a coach from Hull to the University of York. What happened next will amaze you.

(How am I doing for buzzfeed-like academic blogging?)

What happened next for the students of Kelvin Hall was an afternoon of creative writing in the company of 2nd-year undergraduates, all enrolled in the Children and Literature module of the Education degree.

The group was composed of the most enthusiastic young storytellers and writers from Years 7-9 in the school – and the point was to get them to write, with the help of undergraduates who’d been taught for two terms about children’s literature in theory. This was an opportunity to interact in practice with actual young readers and producers of texts.

Each undergraduate was paired with one of the Kelvin Hall students (by some favourable twist of fate, they were in equal numbers) and the writing started…


They looked optimistic at first. Maybe it sounded like it was going to be easy.

Close Encounters with the Third Years

It wasn’t. (They looked happier at the end, though, I promise. This is their concentration face.)

The event had been organised by Amanda Naylor, who lectures that module at York, and by Ryan Eskrett, who teaches the children at Kelvin Hall. Two other English in Education lecturers, Nick McGuinn and me (Clementine) were there to help set up some of the writing activities.

Me, clearly trying to compensate with my long necklace for the lack of dangling card necklacey thing

Me, Amanda and Ryan. Nick isn’t on the picture because he was taking it, but as I realise now, clearly the true reason was that he wasn’t wearing a long-necklacey-thing likethe rest of the gang.

We got them to write flash fiction, which, in case you don’t know, is like short stories, but shorter. Like, really much shorter, we’re talking a story that’s as long as… No, no, not that long. No, really, even shorter. Almost there… Yep. Exactly.

Flash fiction is a really interesting kind of text to write because it forces you to condense into a very small space all the central ingredients of an actual story: characterisation, narrative arc, atmosphere, distinctive style. It’s hard. Anyone can be a novelist, but you have to a pretty good writer to write flash fiction.

To get into the mood, we started with the famous 6-word-memoir: your life, in six words or less.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Before you start accusing me of PowerPoint nepotism, I should specify that I have no idea who Sylvie Beauvais is, but she happens to write flash fiction.

Now, to be fair, one would expect that the younger you are, the easier it is to pack your life into six words. Presumably, a two-second-old child could just write ‘Born,’ and that would be about it (though it would doubtlessly trigger some media interest). But the undergraduates and high school students had apparently got much more to say than Ryan (‘Marking. Eat. Sleep. More marking’, was, I think, his memoir) or than myself (‘Still not writing real literature, sorry’):

A cocktail of strange and boring.

Maturely developed peculiar sample of youth.

I love coffee, coffee is life

(Bit concerned that a young teen should be drinking so much coffee already, but at least it’s not whiskey, I guess.)

Then, for the remaining hour and a bit, the Kelvin Hall students and our second-years worked on an actual flash fiction story – less than a page, for some less than half a page.


This picture is so picturesque I’m kind of worried about putting it online as it will doubtlessly be used by every university in the world in every single undergraduate handbook forever.


Thinking of things to write about (with a photographer on your right and an undergraduate on your left; but no pressure)


Pretty much what I’d like my life to be like: reclining on a comfortable chair while a nice young person types up my stories into a Word document.

At the end of the afternoon, each Kelvin Hall student had their own flash fiction story printed, and both groups seemed delighted with the experience. Amanda and Ryan’s idea of bringing high school and higher education students together was brilliant: original, fruitful, fun, and remarkably easy for the three of us as we just sat in the back of the class and talked about academisation while they worked.

Here’s a particularly spooky and atmospheric example of flash fiction, by Axel:

Thursday, 5th 1901.

Dear journal,

After investigating the manor in which my young brother, Marcus, vanished I found myself close to death (or worse). The manor which housed my loving sibling which is upon the Quaking Mountain that, I have uncovered, houses an insidious force. This hideous goliath resides within the terrain of the mountain which explains why it constantly shakes. This horrendously coloured colossus has a disturbing amount of extremities and an unearthly amount of voices, whispering.

I’ve learnt from the remains of my dearest brother and thousands of other small remains that this beast expels acidic vomit upon it’s hostages to devour its prey. The manifestation of pure malevolence calls itself ‘Eloth’. This crustacean-like being rasps horrific yet interesting conversations which echo through the cave, bouncing of the rocky walls. It’s dark in here but overtime my eyes have adjusted to this darkness. I can see the waxy remains of my brother staring back at me.

The creature is currently singing me a lullaby in its unknown language, in a way it is ethereal, I’m feeling the need to rest…

Disturbing amounts of extremities, horrific yet interesting conversations, acidic vomit: sounds uncannily like those parties after academic conference dinners. Interestingly, the students chose very many different genres to tell their stories, from diary entries to letters to tales to prose poetry. Flash fiction is very modulable, and the groups were extremely imaginative and open-minded in their choices.

This is just a little window on the kind of thing that goes on in universities, alongside all the life-saving, paradigm-shifting, Ted-talk-worthy things you hear about on the news. In-between all the big, muscular, über-funded customised random trolls – sorry – randomised controlled trials – there’s daily, small-scale, zero-budget events, involving local communities and real people – enthusiastic teachers and academics, motivated undergrads, keen children.

And while they won’t feature on The Conversation, they stick in individual memories and bring a little bit more good to the world. That afternoon in the computer lab of Alcuin College, University of York, thirteen new stories were born.

Thank you Amanda and Ryan for setting up the event, and Nick for the pictures! Thank you also to the children and their parents who have given their permission to be featured on the pictures in this blog post, and to Axel for the stories.

Publishing is not a charity

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, November 2015; original post has interesting comments.]

On November 14th, at the IBBY UK conference which took place at Roehampton University (see reports there), Nicky Singer gave a fantastic, passionate, moving talk about her struggle to get a ‘quiet book’, as she called it, published in the UK – a struggle which eventually led her to crowdfund her work, which worked beyond all expectations, ending up with Island, a novel with a cover designed by Chris Riddell.

Lest you should think that this was a fairy-taleish sort of talk, Nicky sternly reminded the audience at the end: “Crowdfunding is not a long-term solution. It worked this time but I won’t be able to do it each time I want to publish a not-easily-marketable book. And it ate up nine months of my life. Nine months when I had to teach myself how to raise money, promote the book, reach out to people. I don’t want to spend nine months of my life doing that; I’m a writer – if I don’t write, I die.”

She could barely finish her sentence as she was choking back tears – and then she actually started crying. Her emotion was extremely contagious, and I don’t think I was the only one in the audience who welled up. It was extremely poignant, and indeed it should be extremely poignant, to hear about an enthusiastic, sensitive, committed writer having so much difficulty getting a good book out. The kind of book that many children will cherish and reread: the kind of book that was written with passion and talent. But the kind that isn’t franchisable, and would not have sold in the tens of thousands.

The kind of book we’re constantly told by the publishing industry is funded by the big bestsellers. You’ve heard this as much as I have. “We need the big bestsellers because they fund the quiet books”. Thanks be to the big bestsellers! Glory be to thee, benevolent worldwide franchise! It’s thanks to them that they exist, those authors whose books do not sell in the hundreds of thousands. They are constantly reminded that they’re indebted to those big franchises.

But where are all these quiet/ politically committed/ socially aware/ aesthetically daring books that we are told get funded so generously by the big bestsellers? sure, there ARE some, but I’m not the only one who doesn’t think there’s enough of them. Julia Eccleshare, in an equally passionate talk at the International Research Society for Children’s Literature conference in August, denounced the sameyness, indeed the copycattiness of much of children’s literature production in the UK, and deplored the domination of a tiny number of authors, genres and types of books. And every single author I’ve talked to about this has had a similar experience: a manuscript or proposal rejected because it was too quiet, or too niche, or too different. Why is it so difficult for Nicky, in a world of publishing bountifully funded by bestsellers, to publish her book with a traditional publisher?

David Maybury, in his talk that same day, gave us a few clues: no book will be a bestseller if you don’t invest at least £30,000 in its promotion. These days, he added (I think it was him, but I may be wrong), you can more or less buy your way into bestseller lists. And we authors all know, though we don’t mention it very often in public, that publishers split books into two groups: those that will become bestsellers, and those that won’t. Those that will are the ones for which there is fertile ground: they might be a bit like another recent bestseller, or very intense/ adventurous, or likely to be turned into a film, etc. They’re ‘hot’ books. And they put their money and promotional push where the ‘hot’ book is. Some books, but very few, are surprise bestsellers.

Well, in this context, it’s not exactly shocking that bestsellers should ‘fund’ the quiet books. It’s only fair, seeing as they’d had a head start the whole time.  No?

But perhaps that’s not the right way to look at it. Perhaps those ‘hot’ books are just more funded and more pushed because that’s what a majority of people want, so that’s what brings in money. And UK/US publishers are very relaxed with the idea that publishing is mostly about the money. That’s another oft-repeated mantra of publishing: ‘Publishing isn’t a charity’. We hear this over and over again. So quiet books which don’t make money shouldn’t actually expect to be funded, even by bestsellers. This is a business. Why would we make books that we know will not sell?

Because we will have made them. I think we really, really need to adopt a different attitude to failure and success. A quiet book, a politically committed book, a book about a slice of society or a theme that doesn’t appeal to everyone, succeeds by the very fact of its existence. We need to be much more open to the possibility that a book might sell less than a thousand copies and still be a success, because that book exists.

This isn’t just wishy-washy let-everyone-have-their-chance hippie dreaming. It’s not like this initial openness to ‘failure’ would mean never making back that first investment. Because a thousand quiet books that sell a thousand copies each will be ten thousand quiet books spreading their quiet ideas and quiet tone, which gets readers, and, perhaps more importantly, the publishing industry itself, used to the idea that such books are not pointless luxuries or a waste of money, but an important slice of the market.

No one’s asking publishing to be non-profit, but it’s not true that it’s simply enslaved to the market and condemned to producing ‘what sells’. It can create its own readerly niches. It can foreground its values. It can pave the way for difference. Children’s publishing needs to stop hiding behind the claim that it’s ‘not a charity’. It needs to accept the fact that it has social and a literary responsibility beyond money-making.

At the peak of the refugee ‘crisis’, for want of a better word, Fred Lavabre at Sarbacane, my French children’s publisher, issued a rallying cry to the whole of children’s publishing in France. Being children’s publishers, ‘We have a social responsibility’, he said, ‘to talk about this to children’. This launched a never-before-seen collaboration of 57 publishers (!), who published in just two months a picturebook promoting empathy, respect and welcome for refugees, Eux, c’est nous (They are us), written by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Serge Bloch (two major figures in children’s literature), with a lexicon by Jessie Magana and Carole Saturno. All proceeds to a refugee charity.

They were going to print 70,000 copies, they had to print 100, 000, by popular demand (especially from bookshops).

It’s been top of the children’s bestseller list since it came out.

EDIT: thank you to Pippa Goodhart for drawing my attention to Nosy Crow’s similar initiative, with Refuge, written by Anne Booth and illustrated by Sam Usher. I should add that my point was not necessarily that everything’s better in France, but that it is possible to act in a way that reflects one’s awareness of the social responsibility of being a children’s publisher. I’m not surprised Nosy Crow did this, by the way. Amazing.

Adapt at your own risk

[Originally published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure]

This is one of my French books, La louve, fabulously illustrated by Antoine Déprez:

When I say ‘fabulously’, I mean it in both senses of the term: they’re brilliant illustrations, but they also reproduce very well the fable-like feel and texture of the story. La louve is an original story, but it is what is generally called a literary fairy tale – a new story made to feel like it’s a classic folk or fairy tale.

This might be why, when La louve recently appeared in the White Ravens list at the Munich International Youth Library, it was described as ‘a retelling of a Russian folkale’. To my knowledge (and that of my Russian friends), it isn’t. There are many folk and fairy tales around the world that involve transformation, wolves and curses, but this one isn’t a retelling of any one in particular.

After La louve, however, the publisher, Alice Editions, has asked us to work on a second opus which would be an adaptation or reinterpretation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I immediately agreed, because I’ve been fascinated by that weird tale for a long time. So I started to think about how to do it. The idea was not to retell the tale, but rather to write an original story inspired from, or reactivating or reimagining, the tale.

I soon realised it was an enterprise fraught with interesting peril. First I thought I’d focus on the rats, perhaps make the main character one of the rats. But immediately, a problem emerged: the glacial contemporary political and ideological connotations of a narrative that involves hordes (“swarms”?) of rats “invading” a village, spreading an illness, being thrown out, and drowning. The portrayal of a population identified as parasitic, swarming the streets of a nice little traditional village and taken away to die – in the water – in exchange for money, has a very unpleasant ring to it; or at least, it should, to anyone who’s even vaguely concerned with what’s happening in the world today. You’d have to be the most candid person on Earth not to realise.

A simple retelling of the story just about gets away with those connotations, because the literal explanation proposed by the story – the plague – works sort of fine, and you can sort of turn off the metaphorical reading. But with an entirely new story, you can’t claim innocently that you don’t mind that extra layer of meaning. It just invites itself, whatever you do.

So of course you can play with these political connotations, and turn the story on its head, getting the rats to be the good guys in the story; the misunderstood, the oppressed and the silenced. You can even write an interesting story where the plague is an invention of the humans to create suspicion against the rats. You’d turn the story into a politically committed tale, preaching compassion towards a marginalised group.

Yeah. But it’s a really tricky thing to pull off, because in this roman à clefs you’re still identifying a group of people as rats – whether or not you’re arguing that it’s someone else’s vision, that’s pretty dangerous.

I know Art Spiegelman’s done it. I’m not Art Spiegelman though.

In other words, I couldn’t see a way of adapting the Pied Piper of Hamelin story without grappling with the metaphorical political implications. And while I’d be happy to do that in another context, it absolutely wasn’t what I wanted this particular book to be. It was supposed to be like La louve: intemporal, slightly frightening, low-key and poetic. Not political.

So I took the story differently. I decided to get rid, so to speak, of the original tale, by putting it in its entirety on the first page. The story begins with a young girl whose grandfather tells her the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. And then the story starts, seemingly unconnected to the tale. But it loops back onto itself… and connects, at the very, very end, with the very, very first page.

Dealing with this adaptation, I felt like I’d spent quite a while, at least a month or two, thinking about how to catch it, a bit like you would observe a scorpion thinking of the best way to pick it up without getting stung, and getting it to do what you want it to do. Coincidentally, the YA book in French I’m currently working on is also an adaptation. And there again, I spent many train rides looking out of the window, thinking of how to catch that particular scorpion.

I’d be curious to hear your stories of adaptations, retellings or reimaginings of classical tales or novels – I’m sure there are many around, as it’s quite a common thing to do.

News and Mayhem

It’s been a very long while since I last wrote anything here; Russian and Spanish (see post below) have enjoyed a very durable top spot on this blog. Most of the action has been happening over there on my French blog, which I keep up much more diligently than this one. But a lot of things have been happening since this summer, bookwise (academia-wise too, but I’d better talk about it separately).

Firstly, The Royal Babysitters, or rather Les royales babysitters, came out in French in August. This was the very first time ever that I ever had a book translated from English to French – and it wasn’t by me, but by the very talented Amélie Sarn. She did it so amazingly that I actually laughed when reading it, which is no small feat since I’ve read the damn book something 24540536 times in English.

royalesfrancaisesThen The Royal Bake-Off came out in September. In that third book in the Anna, Holly and Pepino tetralogy (that’s four books), the three aspiring holy-moly-holidayers go to Americanada (on an uncomfortable Kryin’Air flight), where the Emperor, Sam – who is also King Steve’s brother – has organised a huge baking competition between various royals around the world. The tasks take place in the Grand Yeswecanyon, the N.H.E.A.G.A.R.A falls (the Nobody Has Ever A’crossed the Gigantic Awful River Alive Falls), and a spaceship. Many invasions are repelled and enemies puréed.

Don't they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

Don’t they look adorable together? All the credit to Bloomsbury, and of course the amazing Becka Moor.

I also finished A Very Royal Holiday, which is the last book in the series – scheduled to come out next April – and which turned out to be my personal favourite, so I’m particularly looking forward to seeing that one in print.

French-book-wise, this summer has been a busy one for my latest YA novel Les petites reines. We sold the full rights to the cinema in September, and a film script is currently being written, which is an exciting and weird thing to happen. It’s been nominated for lots of awards, and the book will also represent France for ‘Writing’ on the IBBY international honour list, nominated by the children’s literature people at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, whom I feel very grateful to for chosing it.

It's about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

It’s about bikes, black pudding, rural France, and friendship.

Meanwhile, my and Antoine Déprez’s picturebook La louve, which had slipped by unnoticed when it first came out at the same time as Les petites reines, has gathered steam. It’s been nominated for one of the top children’s book awards, the Prix des Incorruptibles, and recently I saw that it’s in the White Ravens list of remarkable international children’s books at the Munich Youth Library. I’m delighted about that, because it’s a book I’m particularly fond of and which works very well with children. I love reading it to whole classes when I do school visits. Antoine and I are currently preparing another one together.

couvIMG_20140204_142431Last but, proverbially, not least, and leaping back to the English side, I can announce the release in May 2016 of a book of detective short stories in which I have a story myself – it’s with Egmont, it’s edited by the astonishingly talented and murderously imaginative Robin Stevens, and it looks fantastic, look:

Mystery and Mayhem front coverGorgeous gorgeous cover, amazing all-female crime club, and deliciously murderous stories – not all murders, also thefts and other kinds of crimes. Mine is very definitely a murder though. Or is it? Look out for Mystery and Mayhem when it comes out next year and you’ll know all about it.


Characters’ faces

The lovely Helen Fennell, in a blog post which you can find here, asks other readers if they actually ‘see’ characters’ faces precisely. She says, ‘faces seem to elude me for the most part, I imagine almost the “essence” of a person rather than any great detail’. She then goes on to wonder, ‘Do authors have a very clear idea of what their characters look like? Can they create an image in their head akin to a photo?’

And then asks (in the Britishest way possible): ‘If it isn’t too impertinent a question, what do you imagine when characters from books take their place inside your head?’


One solution: hiding faces under huge hats.

This topic chimed with me because I, like Helen, never see detailed characters’ faces when I read – nor when I write. This is all the stranger as, firstly, I’m a very visual person, an amateur doodler and an avid reader of comics, and, secondly, I ‘see’ places and surroundings in a very precise way, however little they might be described.

Unlike Helen, I’m not very easily influenced by film adaptations (though when a book is heavily illustrated, I’m influenced by the drawings), so the Harry in my head isn’t in any way Daniel Radcliffe . However, he isn’t either a very different person with precise features; his face is just a blurry ovoid thing, with glasses and a scar and a ‘shock of jet-black hair’.

harryglassesI’m very sensitive to colour in my everyday life, and mildly synaesthetic (colour/ letters, /numbers and /sounds). Some characters are patches of colour rather than faces; this seems to be triggered by the writing style and atmosphere. Characters in novels by Colette, Beauvoir, Larbaud, Nabokov ’emit’ a lot of colours for me.

In my own books, I very rarely describe main characters. There’s strictly no physical description of Sesame Seade in any of the books, for instance. For me, she wasn’t much more than a mass of hair whooshing around on purple rollerskates. When we were ‘briefing’ Sarah Horne for the illustrations, my editor called me to ask what Sesame looked like, and I didn’t really have an answer.

Yet when Sarah sent the first illustration, I immediately ‘recognised’ her.  It was ‘as I’d imagined her to look like’, yet I hadn’t imagined her to look like anything specific.

Sarah's first drawing of Sesame

Sarah’s first drawing of Sesame

French philosopher Clément Rosset talks about those moments when we think that someone looks like someone else, and then are incapable of saying who; we resort to saying ‘he’s got one of those faces’. Or when we see on screen an actor playing a character from a book, and we scream, ‘that’s not what she looks like at all!’. And yet we don’t have in our head any precise idea of ‘what she looks like’.

Or, we see for the first time the face of a radio presenter, and it can’t be them, surely not! That’s not the face we assigned to that voice. But what was that face? Not much more than a blur – but we’re adamant that it’s not that one.

This is, Rosset says, moments which evidence the ‘existence’ of invisible visions; an intimate conviction that we are referring to something (a perception, a thought, an image) when we are in fact referring to nothing at all, or not much. This ‘thinking about nothing’ is much stronger than reality, because reality is unfavourably compared to it: Daniel Radcliffe is much less Harry Potter than the not-much in my mind.

In Rosset’s view, which is connected to his wider theory of reality and its double, the invisible is eminently superior because it is ours, infinitely malleable, and always future; reality, in its visibility, is solid and boring. It is ‘the thing that we dream of when it is far, and which disappoints when it is close’ (45).

Better look at things far away than at this repulsive husband.

Better look at things far away than at this disappointing husband. (Caillebotte again)

Rosset’s explanation, though, fails to explain why I, on the other hand, immediately ‘recognised’ Sarah Horne’s Sesame, and why I do sometimes (and I’m sure many of you do too) ‘recognise’ book characters in the form of the flesh-and-blood actors, with no or very little effort.

Helen is right to say that the ‘essence’ of the person (or character) is important. I ‘recognised’ the spirit of Sesame in Sarah’s drawing, and it’s precisely because I had no vision of her – because she was ‘invisible’ or ‘not-much’ in my mind – that the image was so cosily accommodated by my imagination.

What about when characters are heavily described? I’ve noticed that I tend to skip or not take into account physical descriptions. There are ideological problems, though, with this tendency. Infamously, the character of Rue in Hunger Games was at the centre of a racist storm in recent years when it emerged that she’d been Black the whole time. This was news to many readers, who had masterfully avoided the moments in the text where this was made clear. Rue had been by default white.

We’re often asked by students and pupils ‘who we would cast’ as our book characters (presumably also because many people think that having one’s book adapted into a film would be a writer’s deepest joy, and it’s very hard to convince them otherwise). Recently I did a school visit in France for one of my teenage books, where the students had ‘cast’ famous actors and actresses in the roles of the main characters, and asked me whether I agreed. It was an interesting exercise but I didn’t feel I could help much.

ImpressionIn the book, there’s absolutely no physical description of the narrator. Her name isn’t even mentioned. The teenagers had tried to imagine what she might look like. They’d had a poll in the class, saying how many people ‘saw’ her as having ‘short hair, mid-length hair, long hair’; ‘blond hair, brown hair, black hair’; whether she was ‘short or tall’ (she was by default white). They asked me for the right answer, but of course, I didn’t know.

Back to the desktop

Hello again, after a rather long break. This summer, I had fake holidays (=conferences) and real holidays (= real holidays). After two months of June and July spent working quite intensely on my monograph (the final revisions of which I submitted at the end of July), I went to the International Bakhtin Conference in Stockholm at the end of July, disguised as a Bakhtin scholar (which I’m not). There, I was the discussant at a panel given by my colleagues Maria Nikolajeva, Eve Tandoi and Faye Dorcas Yung on Bakhtinian approaches to children’s literature.

Awful place for a conference.

Awful place for a conference.

The highlight of the conference (apart from a textbook example of mansplaining I had to endure from a charming middle-aged professor) was the re-enactment of Mikhail Bakhtin’s doctoral viva, in which Maria played one of the external examiners. All the genders were switched, so Bakhtin himself was played by a young female academic with absolutely spot-on facial expressions of weariness and annoyance at the objections s/he was receiving.

Can you imagine having your PhD viva re-enacted? Yeah, me neither. But then it certainly wouldn’t make such good drama. Despite Maria’s character’s insistence that ‘to refuse Comrade Bakhtin the title of Doctor would be ridiculous’, poor Mikhail only managed to get the equivalent of a Masters’, in part because of the non-political nature of his work. A female comrade from the audience (played by a male British Bakhtin scholar) had indeed bemoaned the shocking lack of references to Marx and to Lenin in the analysis of Rabelais.

The re-enactment

The re-enactment (with “Bakhtin” in the middle, and Prof N. in yellow)

Stockholm was staggeringly hot – pretty much 30 to 33 degrees the whole week. I actually fell asleep in an aftenoon talk, which had never happened to me before. But this meant that we got more than the usual side-tourism done – we even swam almost everyday in the beautiful bay, including on the Baltic Sea side which was petrifyingly cold.

I then went on actual holiday. When you’re an academic, talking to other academics, there’s a kind of understanding that if you’re going away somewhere nice, it’s probably for a conference. So if someone tells you, ‘I’m going to Hawaii tomorrow,’ the correct reply is, ‘What’s the conference going to be about?’. Not so in August, when I managed to spend a week in the tiny village in the North of France where we have a small holiday house, and then a full two weeks in Rome.



and South

and South

My Roman holiday wasn’t tourism-only, though, as I’d decided to spend every afternoon working on the first draft of my next French teenage novel, and thankfully managed it. I’d been working on it for over a year, but very on and off – contrary to my English work, in France I don’t get contracts before I write a book, which means no deadlines – so writing them is always very low on my to-do list, even though I enjoy it a lot. This new novel is, contrary to my first two (very grim) YA books, a comedy.

What now awaits me as I’m back in Cambridge is a daunting to-do list, both on the fiction side and on the academic side. I’ve got several ‘Revise and Resubmit’ or ‘Revise with major corrections’ articles to, well, revise and resubmit. I have to do the index for my monograph. I’ve been contracted for two more books in the Royal Babysitters series with Bloomsbury, which I need to write between now and April.

It's already in my house, making friends with its older sibling Sesame

The first one is already in my house, making friends with its older sibling Sesame

The first book, The Royal Babysitters, is coming out on September 11th and I’m going on a small promotion tour with a number of schools. I’m also doing a few festivals here and there, and going to Lake Leman next week for a big book fair, this time mostly for my French books.

I’m also bracing for what is going to be a heavy year in terms of teaching. I’ve taken on many new lectures, including in the fields I’m now branching into – sociology and philosophy of childhood and education – and I will also be teaching Creative Writing courses (on children’s fiction) at the Institute of Continuing Education in Cambridge. I’ll also keep supervising, though probably not as much as the years before as my teaching load is too big already. I will probably miss it a bit, as I’ve been enjoying supervising undergraduates more and more, and was particularly spoiled last year with some very bright, very motivated students.

I hope you all had a nice summer too, and leave you with what was, to me, the most stupefying thing in Rome – and a reminder not to forget about sensuality and beauty while in the midst of frantic term-time…



Royal Cover!

Hurrah! We’ve got a cover for The Royal Babysitters! and it’s as yellow as royal jelly, and as energetic as the story inside. I’m absolutely thrilled with it – look at that!

Royalbabysitters_CVRand the whole thing:

Royalbabysitters_CVR-page-001-1All thanks to the great Becka Moor and the Bloomsbury designers…

It’s got everything a good cover needs: a prince with ice-cream cones stuck behind his ears, a very large number of royal babies, a robot sea monster, a snake and a zeppelin piloted by a mad king. Therefore, I call it an extremely successful cover.

Since it’s been approximately a very long time since I told you about this series, here’s a reminder of the story:

In another world not quite at all like our own, though very like it in other respects, but mostly not, although a little bit, the King and Queen of Britland are going on their annual day of leave to the Independent Republic of Slough. As a result, they are in urgent need of a royal babysitter for their two three four numerous little princely toddlers. Coincidentally, Anna and Holly Burnbright are in urgent need of two thousand pounds to go on an intergalactic holiday they’ve seen advertised in the newspaper. Great summer job opportunity, no?

Uh oh, it’s also the day King Alaspooryorick of Daneland has chosen to invade Britland…

The Royal Babysitters is out in September and will be followed by The Royal Wedding-Crashers in April, when Anna, Holly and Prince Pepino will be off to Francia.

And yes, I promise, I’ll update this blog soon again. I’ve been revising my monograph. I might talk about that, because it’s so thrilling it’s almost worthy of its own Buzzfeed article.