The Magic of Children's Literature
I am due to post a book review - I haven’t written one for a month or so and have recently finished reading a novel. BUT the novel in question was Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce and it just doesn’t seem right for me to review such a classic. I’m not saying that there is no place for reviews of classics, not at all, simply that I don’t want to write a review of this one. I’m not sure why. Perhaps part of me feels that some of the magic will be sucked out if I try to dissect or distill this part of my childhood into something as seemingly trivial as a few paragraphs. Suffice to say that I loved the book as a child and have a warm appreciation for its charm and skill as an adult. The prose is beautiful, the escapism perfect. She was a woman of exquisite talent. That is all I shall say.
But reading the book rekindled something within me – a desire to reconnect with the primary school me, perhaps. Or even the simple yearning for the touch, feel and thrill of a little magic; magic that might just, if I close my eyes and wish hard enough, actually exist. So I thought back to the very first books which not only spirited me away but which left a little piece behind in my subconscious, contributing to the person I am today; a person who still hopes to find a touch of magic in the nooks and crannies of life.
This passage of thought led me first to Narnia and then on to Hobbiton. After a stay at The Chalet School it took me along the Yellow Brick Road and then on adventures with Mrs Pepperpot and The Famous Five. And I wondered how many of them, like Tom’s Midnight Garden, had won the Carnegie Medal.
So I checked.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the award, the Carnegie Medal is given out annually to an ‘outstanding book for children’, selected by librarians and information professionals. It began in 1936 and honours the memory of the Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). He had a great belief in libraries and established more than 2,800 during his lifetime. The first winner of the award was Arthur Ransome who won for his novel Pigeon Post.
I was a little surprised when I read the list of winners (available HERE). I hadn’t read as many of them as I’d expected. I’d spent so much of my childhood with my head buried in a book that I thought that the list would read like a roll-call of long lost friends. It wasn’t the case and I’m sorry to say that I had not heard of many of them. I was born in 1977 and so would have thought that the titles on the list up to, say, 1987 would have been familiar but, out of the awards given between the inception of the prize and 1987, I have read only FOUR of the books. That’s four out of forty-nine (some years the prize was withheld as no book was considered to be suitable). In case you are wondering, these are:
1937 Eve Garnett, The Family from One End Street
1952 Mary Norton, The Borrowers
1956 C S Lewis, The Last Battle
1958 Philipa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden.
Obviously I’ve heard of some of the other authors and a few of the books (Noel Streatfeild –who I have just discovered was a woman – was big among my classmates, I loved Swallows & Amazons but Arthur Ransome won for Pigeon Post which I have not read and I could never bring myself to read Watership Down – too many dead bunnies) but there are many names completely new to me. And where is E. Nesbit, Enid Blyton, L. Frank Baum? I haven’t studied the criteria for eligibility so it may be that some of these were not available for the award and, of course, having not read many of the winners, who am I to suggest that they weren’t more worthy than those I have mentioned? It just surprised me that’s all.
Perhaps I was looking too far down the list? Maybe I should take a look at books published when I was 10-15 (ie 1987 to 1992). Nope, haven’t heard of any of them. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps marketing wasn’t as developed then as it is now. I just liked what I liked and read what I could get my hands on. Other than the occasional brochure which came around school and the odd display in the library, I just picked titles off the library shelves at random and when I found a series I liked I stuck with it. Maybe it was partly because I moved on to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen before my tenth birthday. Who knows? I would be interested to find out whether the titles which have won the award over the past few years are known to the majority of children in the relevant age group.
So let’s just take a quick look at the rest of the list – the last twenty years, say. Actually, it is a little more familiar. Theresa Breslin, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Neil Gaiman, Patrick Ness. These are all names I have heard of, although I have to admit to having read only one of the books which actually won: the masterful The Graveyard Book from the rich and lurid imagination of the incredible Neil Gaiman. Again, there are some names missing from the list: J.K. Rowling, Michael Murpurgo, for example. I am assuming they made the shortlist at least.
So how many have you read? Do they represent your treasured bookish memories from childhood? Do they conjure up a place which once seemed as real to you as your own bedroom and which still exists, somewhere in your mind, teasing and tugging at the rational side of your brain? It can’t be real, there’s no such place. It was never real. It was just a story. Written in a book. A book with a light blue cover with a photograph of a scarecrow wearing a crown, a small tear in the top right hand corner. A book with cream pages which smelled of auntie’s perfume, which took me to a land of talking lions and lunchboxes which grew on trees. A land I visited often. A land I never really left.
Now that I have completed my first foray into the world of self-publishing (the technical bit, anyway; the marketing is still to come) I thought that I would share the hiccups I encountered and how I (mostly) got past them together with the aspects that I found to be easier than anticipated, as it can be all too tempting to part with money when perhaps you don't need to.
Things that I found easy:
1 Using the Word template which I downloaded from CreateSpace. I had no problems pasting my work into the template, messing around a little with font and line spacing and inserting blank pages where necessary to ensure that each new story started on a right-hand page. Simplicity itself and no corruption once I uploaded it into the system. I even got confident enough to insert drop caps at the beginning of each story and a deliciously gothic swirl on the title page.
2 Completing the tax information. I had been dreading this as I had read that I'd need to telephone the US to get a number (an ITIN or EIN or something, I never really got to the bottom of it) but it turns out that the system has been updated so that all you now need to do is fill out a few simple questions online and provide your UK NI number. Easy peasy.
3 Changing things - I uploaded dozens of versions of my interior manuscript and my cover. Each time took a couple of minutes and I was soon so used to it that I felt I could experiment with different ideas and see how they looked. Nothing is permanent until you say so.
4 The cover. OK, creating the cover wasn't simple (I'll do a separate post on how I produced mine) BUT CreateSpace really does give you the tools for at least having a go yourself. If you surf through the 'Cover Creator' you can select one of a number of standard layouts into which you insert your pictures and your text. Many of them look formulaic, however, and as I wanted something slick I was delighted when I reached the end of the list of possible covers and found one which was essentially blank but gives you the correct overall dimensions and assists with the placing of the spine. I therefore took the dimensions into Photoshop and created a full cover there. When I then imported it back to Cover Creator, I could use the guidance provided to ensure that the spine and barcode were in the correct place.
Things that I found difficult:
1 Getting started. Those first few weeks reading everything I could lay my hands on about the process really confused me. Looking back I'd have been better reading less and just having a go. As it turns out I didn't need much technical know-how and mysterious things like gutter margins and print bleed were taken care of by the Amazon templates.
2 I was pleased with the JPEG I produced for the cover (front, back and spine) and it can be viewed HERE. However the print quality of the covers produced by CreateSpace isn't perfect. They did replace the proof copy, saying that it was printed outside 'acceptable parametres' but there was no improvement and all copies have been the same. Basically the tree isn't visible on the back cover. I love the inside of the book though. I think the cream paper looks good and suits the mood of the stories.
3 The biggest hiccup I had was in the conversion from CreateSpace to Kindle. My reading had led me to believe that this would be easy. Just press the big blue button, everyone said, and Amazon will do it for you. Well, not really. I pressed the button and the e-version which was produced was riddled with errors. The table of contents was all over the place, the gothic scroll at the front was off centre, the drop capitals had gone haywire, indents were erratic. It looked unprofessional. I am sure these are easy to fix if you know anything about computers, coding and perhaps something called Calibre (?) but to a technical dummie like me with very limited time available, it was a nightmare. Here's what I did:
a. I removed the manual table of contents used in the CreateSpace document and inserted an automatic one using the Word function. I used the 'Heading 1' style to create the title for each story and linked up the TOC using this method. I still had problems though. Depending on where I clicked on a story heading in the TOC, only certain words from the title would show up when I was taken to the story. For example 'Beneath the Brushwood' became simply 'Brushwood' and 'We All Go the Same Way Home' was just 'the Same Way Home.'
b. Cue more headscratching and searching of the Blogosphere. In the end I removed the centering from the headings and relinked them to the TOC and that seemed to work so bye bye pretty centred headings.
c. I removed the gothic swirl and the drop capitals. Basically I stripped out anything remotely fancy which was fine for a book like mine but made me realise that anything with graphics would be a lot trickier.
d. That seemed to sort most of it. It looked pretty good on the Kindle... and Android (there is an 'internal reviewer' accessible via your KDP account which simulates reading experiences on a multitude of gadgets) but why oh why was it wonky again when viewed through the Ipad simulator? Back to the Blogosphere where I learn that the Amazon system doesn't work so great with the Apple system. Fabulous. In the end there was nothing I could do about the fact that the title page was displaying in a much smaller font than was really appropriate (I'm sure people with more know-how could have fixed it) BUT the system had indented ALL of my paragraphs. Even my first lines. Now this I struggled with as it looked like I just didn't know the rules of grammar or formatting or whatever you want to call it. So I searched and searched again until I discovered this article: http://www.cjs-easy-as-pie.com/2011/03/how-to-avoid-kindle-automatic-first.html which explained to me that the indent was only inserted where there was no existing indent. So if I inserted a tiny indent, the smallest you can manage on your system, then it will override the automation. It means that the first lines will be slightly indented but visibly less so than genuine indents for new paragraphs, dialogue etc so at least there is a difference for the reader. I tried it (instructions as to how are in the article) and it worked sufficiently well for me to finally admit that it was as good as I was going to get it and that I was ready to go. To be honest, I was actually pretty chuffed with it by this stage. Massive thanks to the person behind that article.
e. When I finally went live with it, the 'Look Inside' feature gave me a headache. On both the print and Kindle versions, Amazon had made the table of contents 'live' by inserting hyperlinks but the links ran straight through the centre of the story titles making it look as though they had been struck out. I was beginning to get frustrated at this point as I had gone to such pains to appear professional yet there were glitches occurring at every stage. But then I took stock and reminded myself what a wonderful facility it is overall, even if quality control is lacking in places. In the end I complained via the message centre who confirmed that I could ask for the links to be removed or fixed. I did this a couple of weeks ago but it has still not been fully remedied.
And am I happy with the final product? Well, yes, I am. I am pleased with and proud of the stories and I can live with the quality of the cover. It looks great electronically and I suspect I am being fussy over the print. The print still offers a wonderfully tactile experience, with yellowed pages which remind me of the books I used to read as a child. I read the proof copy cover to cover in just over 2 hours when it arrived and I had tears in my eyes at the end. So yes, I am happy with it. The challenge now is to get it out into the world and begin to discover what other people make of my little labour of love.
Good luck with yours and if you think I can help, just ask. x
UK paperback HERE US paperback HERE
UK e-book HERE US e-book HERE
Easily found on all Amazon and Kindle websites globally by searching under 'BM Keeling'.
’In the darkness the harbinger sings,
Of death, destruction,
The end of all things.’
An injured soldier crosses a moor in the midst of a storm, a man chases an elusive woman through the streets of York, four children play in an abandoned house on a crumbling cliff top... Containing eight chilling stories of love, despair, loneliness and redemption, Into Dust is a collection of supernatural tales which will have you lighting a fire, reaching for a drink and, of course, locking your door.
I love most types of fiction - crime, mystery, fantasy. Oh, and historical fiction of course and middle-grade books and, well, you get the picture.
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