The ‘Can-Do’ Kind of Attitude

In a lot of my cover letters, when applying for jobs, I write that I have a ‘can-do’ attitude. This is true, I do. I decide I want to do/learn/get/make something so I do/learn/get/make it. The most recent example of this is my youtube channel, I decided I wanted to learn how to edit videos so I dived into it head first (a few new videos are in the works!).

But this approach does not always work.

Over the last two days I have been avidly proofreading Jenny‘s manuscript, The Lightning Tree, ready for her to begin querying with agents. An almost 50,000 word feat which she completed in four months, writing for three hours each day, while living in Vancouver. The manuscript is sound, I found a few typos and maybe three sentences which needed a bit of tweaking but other than that it is more than ready to land in the IN trays of however many agents she chooses to query.

I have known for almost four years that her writing is incredible (three of those spent at university in Chester under the brilliant tutelage of Francesca Haig and the rest of the English Department – we heartily recommend and I am a massive suck-up), so had high expectations of her manuscript. Not only did she meet those, but she surpassed them.

What does this have to do with my ‘can-do’ attitude? Jenny has achieved something which even my ‘can-do’ attitude seems to shiver in fear from. I am writing a novel but like some other aspiring novelists, I get distracted. I thrive on deadlines and challenges and things with purpose, undertaking university work or ‘actual job’ work doesn’t make my attitude run and hide but this thing, this novel that I have embarked on out of love and imagination makes my attitude retreat into a corner, quivering and whimpering. It is the one thing that my ‘can-do’ can’t do … or at least has trouble with.

It was in reading The Lightning Tree, talking to Jen and thinking about the manuscript I am itching to finish but seem to be scared of that I formulated a plan. A completely ridiculous but perhaps so ridiculous-and-challenging-that-it-might-just-work sort of a plan.

I recently mentioned the Hot Key Young Writers Prize in one of my blog entries, and last night I made the decision that I was going to enter. This morning I sent off my first 4000 words, synopsis, bio and entry form – after a hefty edit of the start of the novel, which has been going on for a while. Now, I have until October to finish writing and editing the rest of it just in case I am long-listed. I had been considering entering for a while, so luckily, those words were ready.

But Emma/Elou/Memma/whatever-you-happen-to-call-me what about the other things, university/work/youtube/photography/anything-else-you-might-mention-that-I-happen-to-do? Well, I am nothing if not up for a challenge. See what I mean by so ridiculous-and-challenging-that-it-might-just-work?

So there it is, what do you do when your ‘can do’ is having a wobble? Something ridiculous and exciting all at the same time.

If you want to know more about Jen and The Lightning Tree, she’s just set up a brand new blog! I suggest you follow it. She can also be found on Twitter.

A blog-related update: while sharing a few blogs on twitter, I remarked that I felt like a ‘child catcher’ only nicer and with blogs instead of children. It is with that in mind that I have decided to start a feature, named The Blog Catcher (complete with a silly little banner, probably), in which I share the interesting blogs I read/stumble upon. These may not always be publishing and/or book related but they all promise to be interesting.

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Without Exception: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Children’s Books

The thing I love about OICPS is the variety of speakers that we have the pleasure of listening to, I may have said this before (probably on Twitter) but it holds true and today was no exception. Today’s session was on diversity and difficult topics in children’s publishing. Beth Cox, of Without Exception and Inclusive Minds, talked us through how publishers can be more inclusive, what is being done and how she, and we, can help.

The session started with a word association exercise, which really got us into the inclusive brainspace. We were given four words: traveller, girl, gay and disabled. I have to admit that the exercise did make me feel like a bad person, every word that popped up in my head affirmed a stereotype – I class myself as a pretty open person, I don’t like to rely on stereotypes and prefer to get to know a person before I make a judgement but this exercise didn’t show that. I think everyone felt the same. This led into Beth’s talk really well. Her first point: Authors and Illustrators have unconscious bias just like everyone else and this may be reflected in their work.

Children are open, children do not carry the biases that we gather as (young) adults via the media. As such, these stereotypes and unconscious biases should not feature in children’s literature and it is (or should be) the job of the publisher to ensure their books are bias-free. Having bias does not make you a bad person (we are not bad people because we engender stereotypes in a word association game, but if we try to spread that bias, well, that’s an entirely different board game). It is important to ensure that the work produced by authors and illustrators (illustrators especially in regards to younger children) does not promote stereotype. Visuals are incredibly important to young children, it is essential for a child to be able to see a character that they can relate to.

Beth commented that a lot of the publishers she talks to tell her that they do not publish issue books but diversity in publishing is not about issue books, it is about inclusion. It does not have to be a main feature it just has to be there. We were shown some brilliant examples from picture books, in one image there were at least two same-sex couples (one of which had a child), various different races, a wheelchair user and more. None of these characters were mentioned in the text but just by being there for a child to find, the book is showing children that they are normal.

The problem with inclusion comes when the ‘not average’ character is made too special, in Wonder, which is a book I love, Auggie is given an award not because he is exceptional but because he has a disability. There is a risk of going too far. Every main character is made special in some way (it is the nature of being a main character) but even in fantasy settings authors must be realistic. It is in writing that sentence that I have realised a sad fact: it might be realistic. A child in a ‘normal’ school when they, themselves, are not the average student may well be given such an award in real life. Not because they did anything worthy of recognition but because they are different, often all these children want is to be seen as normal (to themselves they are  normal). There are exceptions of course but the point is: characters, people, children should be the treated the same way regardless of whether they are disabled, ill or of a different race.

Another problem that arises is the tendency to ally disability with evil wherein all good characters are perfectly healthy; bad characters with deformities, unlike-able characters described as ‘crazy’, ‘mental’, ‘lunatics’.

She then went on to talk about young adult literature, wherein some issues are resolved too quickly and publishers/authors are sometimes unaware of restrictive judgements about gender. An example of a series which does not restrict gender is The Hunger Games with strong, female Katniss and sensitive, cake-decorating Peeta; it is not assumed that, because Peeta is interested in cake decoration, Peeta is gay. Quite the opposite, he is in love with Katniss. 

I hope that I can enter the industry and bring with me some of the messages we were given in today’s talk, I hope to be part of a future in which there are children’s books which deal with difficult subjects effectively and without bias (there are some that do this fantastically but, arguably, not enough), which present non-average characters as normal human beings, not something that should be tip-toed around and coated with bubblewrap.

It is with that thought that I leave you and offer you this link to a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, which we watched during the talk, it’s brilliant and I highly recommend watching it. Later, I will be blogging more on difficult subjects and how they are explored, watch this space.

The Phoenix Comic: Marketing in Children’s Publishing

The Phoenix is a new weekly comic for children, it was launched in January 2012 and finds its home in Oxford. Its origins lie with The DFC, a comic from David Fickling which is no longer being published, but the creative team still exist (at the heart of The Phoenix).

We were joined by Ross Fraser, a fairly recent OICPS alumni, who is now Head Marketing Manager at The Phoenix Comic – a fact which, in itself, is comforting; he was in our figurative shoes about two years ago. Ross talked us through The Phoenix, what it is, the magazine and how they market the comic itself. Each issue contains serialised stories (like the popular The Pirates of Pangaea storyline); recurring stories, which do not necessarily follow a set storyline (like Bunny vs. Monkey); Phoenix features, stand-alone story specials (Ghost Ant, The Princess and the Peanut Butter Sandwich); puzzles; and non-fiction (like Corpse Talk, which Ross described as ‘in a nutshell Horrible Histories crossed with Parkinson’ much to the amusement of the class).

He split the current children’s magazine market into negatives, which included

  • cultural belief that comics are inherently worthless and carry with them stigma of geekery
  • lots of competition
  • effects of global recession still being felt
  • phenomenon of children getting older younger
  • high churn rates

and positives

  • the current trend for comic book related movies internationally
  • increase in the perception of literary value in comics
  • increase in sales via subscription models
  • 8-12 year-olds are on the whole too young to move to other forms of entertainment
  • increased recognition for ‘visual literacy’ in both schools and libraries nationally

Going on to talk about the challenge faced by The Phoenix to create a culture of comics in the UK, while countries like the US and France already have considerable weight placed on comic books the same cannot be said about the UK. To enable them to do this, he explained, they had to look at their existing platforms and how they could improve them – what else could they do. Brand loyalty is important for such an endeavour, especially when it comes to comics. We were led through the various things The Phoenix does to encourage brand loyalty in both its readers and their parents (including the successful Phoenix competitions which always receive many entries).

The comic is distributed through various channels; he mentioned an event at the Oxford branch of Waterstone’s back in November, I remember seeing the vibrant window displays and wishing I had time to go and have a look – I was either going to or coming from my internship at Berghahn. I was interested to learn that the digital version of the comic is created in Tokyo by a company that has not before dealt with fiction.  A lot of emphasis was placed on the nurturing of independent bookshops, their integration with the community is paramount to the success of The Phoenix.

Finally, before taking questions, he explained why The Phoenix do what they do: passion and a love of stories; he said something very poetic about story culture and how stories are inherent in everything, which I wish I had written down.

We have a lot of speakers at the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies and they are all incredibly interesting, I was much impressed by the design of the slides in today’s talk, most speakers come with standard slides from their company (which is brilliant for the purpose) but the slides from The Phoenix were all uniquely designed and laid out much like their website (with little hints to what awaits in the comics). A thoroughly enjoyed and engaging talk.

Tomorrow in #DLL13 we are being joined by Mark Rogerson from Electronic Enlightenment. Keep an eye on the blog for a write-up.

Transmedia: Harry Potter and Wonderbook

Children’s, how I love thee.

Oxford Brookes University was involved in the creation of the Wonderbook technology, specifically the skin recognition software or coding, I’m not quite sure, used in J.K. Rowling’s Book of Spells.

Today, we of Children’s Publishing hopped on a shiny, blue U1 bus and land-rocketed off through the winding countryside to Wheatley campus to view a demonstration and have a go on the game ourselves. (I say ourselves, I didn’t play but instead sat in the audience quietly squirming and working up the courage to inform the room that it was, in fact, the move button that has to be held down when casting a spell.) Hilarity ensued as the game was experienced for the first time and ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ was yelled enthusiastically at the screen.

This may not sound like much of an academic experience. Can it be that you can have fun while learning? Surely not, I hear you mutter. Welcome to the world of Children’s, where the lessons are fun and sometimes involve all-new technology! Once we were done with the demonstration we discussed Harry Potter and its vast storyscape. Before we began the discussion, I’m not sure any of us realised quite how big the franchise was and how much it relied on transmedia.

For those who may not be quite so publishing-savvy transmedia storytelling is a way of telling a story across multiple medias or platforms. A book may be coupled with video content, or expanded with a video game. Each different media is not retelling any part of the story but instead adding more depth and continuing the story. Book of Spells, for example, does not follow Harry and his companions but instead places the player in that world and expands on the overall mythology of the series.

I found this idea fascinating, the whole concept of transmedia demands to be explored and is something I would much like to look into (or even work with) further. I would like to know the limitations of this approach to storytelling, in theory there aren’t any but without researching this I can’t say for certain. That said, I am not sure how much I engage with transmedia on the user end of the spectrum. When I read, I do just that: read. If I am taken with the story, once I am finished, I will bound over to tumblr and search the tags for interesting tidbits like fan-made graphics but this isn’t transmedia. This is ‘fanmedia’ – a term which I may have made up.

When I read The Hunger Games and then watched the film, I flocked over to the website to find out which district I would belong to (I got my Panem ID) and I read all of the fictitious news bulletins – I did this because I knew they were there. I had seen it, again, on tumblr and decided to give it a go but I wouldn’t’ve gone looking for it otherwise.

I’m going to make an effort to seek out transmedia more, I might write more about my findings here. A project, perhaps.

Open Book, when OICPS Children’s does Radio

Between giving my Dad a topical, appropriate and somewhat hilarious (if I do say so myself) birthday card and a very short story, and formulating an argument for my Children’s research article (which is harder than it might seem), I thought I would come here and update my blog, since I haven’t for a little while. This, however, will not be a long entry due to the aforementioned argument formulation.

Today was the day we ‘performed’ our first Children’s assignment; a radio show. While I am emphatically not a fan of public speaking and the thought of doing the assignment terrified me more than I would like to admit (but admit it, I shall), I did greatly enjoy listening to the radio shows of the other groups in the class. Topics included: the taboo of poo in children’s literature, homosexuality in children’s literature, the censorship of racism in re-releases of classic children’s books, the affect of library cutbacks on children’s publishing, the importance of reading at home, and the attempt to break away from stereotypes in children’s publishing.

The scripts were engaging and often brought out a giggle or two throughout the rest of the class, especially when amusing accents were involved. It was an interesting alternative to the usual presentation style of assignment (though no less nerve-racking).

Barefoot Books, Oxford: I found myself in Wonderland

I found myself in Wonderland by Elou Carroll

I found myself in Wonderland by Elou Carroll

Last weekend, I popped into Barefoot Books to pick up a copy of The Snow Queen and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, when asked if I wanted them to be gift wrapped, I proudly announced that the books for me; I read them that very same day and they read as beautifully as they look. Barefoot is a beautiful place, and a publisher I would very much like to secure an internship at (fingers crossed for my application!) and perhaps one day work. The studio is not just a bookshop. It’s like a day out; if I had children, I wouldn’t take them there just for a look, I would take them there for an experience. We would stay there for hours (and then buy everything).

In the words of Leah Lesser from the Barefoot blog:

When was the last time you walked inside a store and felt as if you had entered a different world, or stepped inside your favorite story?

When I stepped into Barefoot, I found Wonderland, Narnia, Neverland… I was in another place, plucked right from somewhere magic. As soon as I stepped through the gate, I bubbled with excitement and as soon as I opened the door my face was taken over by the most gigantic grin. Everything was so bright and colourful and the first thing you hear is children giggling in the back. One child was so excited about the books that he couldn’t stop running around and almost told his dad which book he would choose for him for Christmas. I don’t think I have ever seen a child so excited, let alone so excited in a book shop.

It was beautiful to see and that little boy is one of the reasons why I would love to work in children’s publishing. To make a child that happy, that awed about books, would be a wonderful thing.

Below is a video of the studio in question. While you can’t feel the magic properly until you’ve been there, this can give you an idea.

I have never seen a book shop I have loved so much. I am collecting a street in my mind, a street filled with beautiful book shops. Some are old, some are new, some I’ve not yet visited  but Barefoot sits at the top, on a hill, a bright light with the wind rushing whirring around it like rustling pages.

Barefoot books: The Snow QueenBarefoot books: The Twelve Dancing Princesses