Friday, 21 December 2018

The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson

2000, fluent reader, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, ages 9-11, ages 10-13 

The first person narrative by a young girl, Dolphin, features her manic depressive mother Marigold, nicknamed "the illustrated mum" because of her many tattoos. Dolphin and her older sister Star have to be a mother to their own mother. The mother soon becomes a burden to the two girls. Not only is she bi-polar, but she doesn’t always come home at night. The girls confront a severe mental illness and have to be in charge of their own world.
We have here a first person narrative from a very young person. First person narratives are normally for teens and young adults. Even the younger child is more grown up than the mother. As Marigold gets yet another tattoo, we get a real sense of her being the child and of narrator Dolphin being the adult. Star rejects the parenting role when she and Dolphin argue about her weekend away. Finally Marigold paints her body all over with white paint in order to bury the tattoos and become a good mother. Dolphin has to cope with this on her own. As Marigold is taken away in an ambulance, she sinks further. While Marigold is in hospital Dolphin has to fend for herself and avoid social services. Marigold does come home after her birthday. She insists on making cookies for the girls. They are still more adult than her, however, as she takes a childish delight in the cookie-making endeavour and spoils at least two batches. The kitchen is a total mess.        
Marigold’s mental health problems are always a challenge: she cuts herself and gets blood-poisoning but the girls dare not take her to A & E because they are afraid she’ll be sectioned. We learn that Marigold has already been institutionalised and that it didn’t go well.
Marigold is dysfunctional in all sorts of ways. She manages money badly and we suspect she has stolen a credit card. She is often irresponsible. She insists on taking Dolphin to Brighton to look for Star’s father Micky. She has no clue as to exactly where he lives but she does know that he has a live-in girlfriend. Dolphin becomes tired and hungry as they wander around Brighton aimlessly. Dolphin cries and Marigold slaps her. Micky actually drives Star back. Marigold makes an effort to seem normal but he doesn’t give her a second glance. We feel her sadness. There is a real threat to the family unit. Micky has asked both Star and Dolphin to live with him but Dolphin wants to stay with Marigold. The reader knows that when Star goes to Micky for a second weekend she is not coming back. We suspect Marigold knows this as well and young people have to witness an adult crying. Later Marigold is in denial as she buys new clothes for both girls and paint to redecorate their room.               
Life is frequently bleak for the two girls. The rental firm takes their television back because Marigold hasn’t kept up with the payments.  
Star finds her role as substitute parent hard. This leaves the even younger Dolphin with a lot of responsibility. Marigold has not come home after she went out to celebrate her birthday. The girls find a curious comfort in relating horror stories to each other. There are some good times but Marigold never realises when it is time to stop playing
As if life isn’t bleak enough, Dolphin is also bullied by other students at her primary school. She upsets Ronnie Churley because they both get 0/10 for a letter-writing exercise in which she had failed to participate properly. The bullying is brutal. 
They can’t really ask friends round to the house. Their flat is small, even though it is actually the best one they’ve ever lived in. Their neighbours are elderly. The flat is otherwise nice enough but it means Dolphin has to go to a difficult school. Marigold reaches out to one of Dolphin’s classmates, Tasha. It falls flat. Marigold and Dolphin are rejected by both Tasha and Tasha’s mother. Even the fairy story that Dolphin and Marigold share is Hansel and Gretel, a gruesome offering where there is cruelty to children and the children commit murder.
When Micky, Star’s father, comes into the story, it difficult for Dolphin. She does not know who her father is and Marigold won’t tell her. This gives us the clue as to why Dolphin narrates the story. She is the outsider and it is painful. Surely even the younger reader feels pain on Marigold’s behalf when Star’s father Micky pays for Dolphin and Star to go to Brighton but not for Marigold. It becomes Dolphin’s problem, again, however. Because Marigold has to stay at home, so does Dolphin.             
We do see some mitigation in this text. Marigold’s biscuit-making and cake-making are an act of love. Dolphin sees the angel cookies go into the oven as “real works of art” Later when they turn the left-over cake into a gingerbread house Marigold and Dolphin play together making the house and inventing a story about two mice living there.
Dolphin becomes tough. She can hand out the insults too. She names one boy Owly Morris because of his thick-lensed spectacles.  When Kayleigh names her “Bottle-nose” she names Kayleigh “Camel Breath”. She actually befriends Owly and starts calling him by his real name: Oliver. Oliver helps her to find her father, Michael. Michael wants to do everything by the board. He wants to contact social services and discuss having Dolphin to stay with his family. It doesn’t happen straight away, however. Dolphin has to go to a foster home to start with. We’re not allowed to become too complacent. Star is also brought to the foster home and she and Dolphin have a terrific row. However, Auntie Jane, the Foster mother, manages to help them to laugh at themselves.  

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

2017, YA, Key Stage 4, Key Stage 5, ages 14-17

 Aza has some mental health issues. She has what she and her therapist describe as intrusive thoughts.  Voices tell her to avoid situations that can introduce germs into her body. This leads at one point to her drinking hand sanitizer. It makes kissing problematic. She also has a festering wound on her finger where she has picked off a callous. She constantly changes the plaster on this and obsesses about keeping it clean. 

Alongside all of this she is a normal adolescent, struggling with relationships, with her mum, her best friend and almost boyfriend,   Davis.

In addition we have a mystery story.  Where has Davis’s father disappeared to?  Billionaire Russell Pickett has gone into hiding as the law is onto him.  Davis has to care for younger brother Noah.
As ever, John Green offers us a character with whom we can empathise. 

At the end of the book is a list of organisations that can help those who suffer from mental health problems.    

Wednesday, 5 December 2018


These have been around for a while I’m thinking, but the word has only recently been established. It describes those authors who are not only fantastic writers but who then proactively market their work. They show that they are business people in every aspect of their work.


Car salesman attitude

I’ve frequently said that we writers have to be quite dual-aspected; it may be fine to spend one part of the day wrapped up cosily in our garrets, penning the best work ever.  Then we have to become extrovert, assertive, strategic and maybe even a little bit manipulative. It doesn’t feel natural to a creative practitioner. But this attitude can also make a difference to how we react to rejections; we might come to regard these as rewrites. 


Imposter syndrome

I have to admit I’m not so keen on the marketing side of things and I know I’m not alone in this. I find it much easier to promote other people’s work than my own.  Am I really a writer? Should I really expect the public to want to pay to read my work?
Now hang on a minute. Most of my rejections these days say that the writing is good. I have more than 48 works in print and that includes a handful of full length novels. I have two post-graduate degrees in creative writing and a university saw fit to employ me full-time, eventually at senior lecturer level, and even though I’m now retired they keep getting me back for odd jobs. Come on, woman.  
Of course people should pay to read my work. As they should pay to read yours.
So what does this authorpreneur look like?


She pays her taxes and knows when and what to claim for expenses.



She engages with her readership through blogs, talks, launches, school visits and posts on social media.


Advertising strategies

She will use free or paid-for advertising strategically. She will keep records of this and work out which options work the best.


Professional help   

She knows when to get professional help with PR.


Genuine use of Social Media

She will use social media wisely – it is not all about “buy my book, buy my book”.  She only likes what she genuine likes and only spends about 20% of her time there on direct or indirect promotion. The rest of the time she is just herself or indeed promoting others.

Wants, needs and benefits

In her interaction with her readers she is aware of their wants and needs and offers them benefits.  What do they gain by buying her book, joining her mailing list, hosting her on a blog or attending her event? However, she is savvy enough always to include a call to action.

Building her brand, platform and mailing list

She does this more and more skilfully. Yet she works with what she enjoys most.  She is careful not to spam her readers and always to offer them something worthwhile.

Retaining objectivity about reviews and sales figures

She knows that the only valid reaction to poor reviews or sales figures is to regard them as useful information and do something to change what is happening. However, she must also learn to recognise trolls and not be over-worried by them.    



She is disciplined about ring-fencing her writing time and is consistent in demanding to be paid for her work, though also knows when a free gift may be an effective loss-leader.  

Are you an authorpreneur?

Town is Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith

2018, pre-school, Key Stage 1, ages 0-4, ages 3-5, ages 5-7, Kate Greenaway  Prize 2018, 

This is a landscape picture book and thus easy for the parent and child to share.  As usual in picture books the story the pictures tell more of the story. The ratio of text to picture is what we would normally expect for this sort of book.

We also have the normal amount of repetition: when (I wake up) it goes like this, my father is digging coal  … 

There is a mixture of double spreads, single spreads and pages that contain multiple pictures. The double spreads generally give a strong sense of place: the family home, the town, the mine where the protagonist’s father digs and the sea. The single spreads and the pages with multiple pictures are more concerned with activities.

In some ways, however, the text may appeal to a more advanced learner. The protagonist’s observations are quite sophisticated. He thinks about his father’s work and realises that one day it will be his turn.   

The author also provides a note at the end of the text explaining what it was like for children who grew up in mining villages. 

Only Remembered edited by Michael Morpurgo

2014, fluent reader,  Key Stage 2, Key Stage3,  ages 9-11, ages 10-13, lower secondary, upper primary, adult  

This is an edited collection of commentary on World War I, or the Great War. It consists of short articles by influential people such as politicians, writers, actors and producers – and most quote some fiction though this is rarely children’s fiction.  

It is a little surprising , then, to find it in the children’s  section of the local library and one can’t help wondering whether it is simply the name Michael Morpurgo that has caused that to happen. 

On the other hand, this is still very readable by the upper primary and lower secondary child. Each section is short and thought-provoking.  The book would also be useful in the classroom where the Great War is being discussed.   

The articles are grouped into three sections:  At War, At Home and After.  

Ian Beck’s illustrations enliven the text. 

Between them, the texts offer a balanced view.