Beverley Birch at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s April gathering hosted two exceptional women writers, both ideally placed to talk with insight and experience about the very specific nuances and skills involved in the subject of writing for children.

Special Guest: Judith Heneghan

Being the Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival and a highly regarded and extensively published specialist of children’s literature, Judith Heneghan was ideally placed to open Tuesday’s proceedings.  Judith is a Senior Lecturer and also a Programme Leader on the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing provision where she has taught since 2006.  To date she has written 50 nonfiction books as well as feature articles, novels and shorter fiction for children.  Previously to her role at Winchester, she worked as a commissioning editor of adult nonfiction and a freelance editor of children’s nonfiction.

Judith’s enthusiasm for Winchester’s annual Writers’ Festival was infectious.  She explained that its aims for this year were to build on its past successes and to inspire, encourage, educate and to facilitate learning for all the delegates. Networking opportunities for novice and experienced writers attending this year’s festival will be more extensive than ever, as will the list of contributors from the greater writing world.  Contributors will include luminaries from some of the best known publishing houses and literary agencies in the country as well as the wonderful author and broadcaster, Lem Sissay.  Further information about the planned programme, along with competition and other details can be found here: http://writersfestival.co.uk/

Main Speaker: Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch is a prolific author of critical acclaim having produced in excess of forty books.  Her prodigious output includes picture books, novels, biographies and retellings of Shakespeare.  Her publications have been translated into more than a dozen languages.  They are in the admirable position of being amongst the top ten per cent of books borrowed from UK libraries.

Beverley’s own childhood years were spent in East Africa where the wide open spaces of Kenya afforded the opportunity for formative and adventurous experiences largely free from the interference of adults.  She eventually left Africa for England to study for ‘A’ levels before graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Economics and Sociology.  After graduation she started to work as an editor and in 1981 she became a full-time writer.

As would be expected of someone with the breadth and depth of Beverley’s professional literary experience, her talk was packed with insights into what being a  writer entails and what writers have to do to produce work of real merit.  Of course, ‘merit’ in writing is a subjective quality but Beverley’s appraisal of what it really means was grounded in a plethora of practical and theoretical examples.  ‘We need to constantly refresh our understanding of why we need to write’ she told her audience and then explained that this writing should be centred on exploring the underpinning themes of the stories that writers create.  All stories, we were told, have specific, fundamental themes that should challenge child readers to see things anew. In doing this, it should enable children to reposition themselves in the light of these new, vicarious experiences.  But what are these themes?  They are many and varied and over her long career Beverley has seen all of the following underpinning the work that she has been involved in either as a writer herself or as an editor for others; love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, redemption, loss, maturation, power, obsession and corruption are all on the list.

Beverly was at pains to explain that this was by no means a definitive list but that whichever of these themes was at the heart of a story,  they should be rendered in a way that is suitable and accessible for children.  The narrative gravity associated with these thematic issues should be apparent to discerning writers as they produce their work and this in itself is indicative of the fact that ‘writing for children’ is not a euphemism for dumbing down the literary responsibilities of the author.  If anything, these responsibilities should weigh more heavily on children’s authors than they do on those involved in other aspect of producing good writing.  Beverley said that children’s authors should ‘dive inwards in the process of writing and that in doing so they should trust their subconscious to render a story that is both important and transporting for the child’.  She concluded by offering some sage advice for those starting out on their publishing journey.  Writers should not write in order to seek or support the contemporary ‘hullabaloo’ that seems to be endemic in the contemporary literary scene for ultimately that hullabaloo is ephemeral.  Rather, writers should stay true to themselves and produce work that will endure beyond the here and now.

Surely this is what great writing is all about.

April 2017 Competition Results – Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch was shortlisted three times for the Branford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent and, as a prolific author, she was also nominated for the Carnegie medal. Hampshire Writers’ Society is most appreciative to Beverley, who graciously came to our rescue by agreeing to be our April adjudicator as well as our speaker. In return, our members managed to supply entries that made it difficult for her to choose the usual two highly commended places. The competition, ‘Write a children’s story, inspired by a well-known story for children’, meant that after choosing 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, Beverley was unable to decide and ended up choosing four additional pieces to praise.

1st Place: Cass Morgan – Mrs Bilious

2nd Place: Kristin Tridimas – A Koala Named Sydney

3rd Place: Matthew Cross – George and the Dragon

Highly Commended: Annie Vine – The Wild Colt

Highly Commended: Linda Welch – Unexpected Treasure

Highly Commended: Ant Ridgeway – Friends

Highly Commended: Kim Howard – Mirror, Mirror

1st Place: Mrs Bilious – Cass Morgan (Inspired by Roald Dahl’s Matilda, or, more specifically, by Miss Trunchbull and the chapter, ‘Bruce Bogtrotter and the Cake’).

Beverley Birch: This was altogether strong. The punchy opening brings the situation instantly to life, the child point of view keeps us locked in the story through a distinctive sense of voice, good narrative flow and pacing. And a tricky situation for the child characters to escape (always appealing), is enlivened by effective and efficiently used imagery. A definite winner!

Winner First

At 11:57, putting a handful of insects into the lunchbox of Mrs Bilious was funny. At 12:03, the reality was hilarious. At 12.05, it was the worst thing they’d ever, ever done.

Simon shuddered as he looked at Joel. His best friend’s left eye stared in horror. His right winked as something scuttled across his eyelash. Hands clenched to the chair seat, shoulders high to his ears, Joel’s cheeks puffed out wide. Two ants emerged from the corner of his mouth, ran across his face, over his ear and into the safety of his hair.

Hot breath blew onto Simon’s cheek. He turned towards the cherry-cheeked face of Mrs Bilious. She leaned in close. Through cement-coloured teeth came odours of sugared tea and half-digested digestives.

‘Eat up,’ her voice whispered.

‘No.’

‘Sandwich-spoiling brats will be punished. Now, EAT UP!’

Her yellowy eyes sizzled and locked onto his. There was nothing he could do but scoop his hand into the lunchbox. Ants scurried and hurried onto his hand, up his arm and into his sleeve. Others dropped to the table in their bid to escape. The unlucky ones stayed where they were, with no idea what was coming.

Back leaned Mrs Bilious. Every part of her blazed in delight; her mouth tight in a triumphant smile, her eyes agog, her grey curls bounced in anticipation. Even the hairs in her nostrils quivered in glee.

Simon closed his eyes, opened his mouth and threw in the ants.

If they were mad before, now they were livid. Up the insides of his cheeks they darted, over his tongue, through the gaps in his teeth. It was like popping candy gone horribly, horribly wrong.

He wanted to spit out. He had to. But the smell of tea and digestives wafted in his nostrils. There was no going back, and he knew it.

2nd Place: A Koala Named Sydney – Kristin Tridimas

Beverley Birch: A very close second. Koala’s eye-view and voice has great appeal, laced with a wry humour. Excellent command of language, and pacing, and sets the scene, backstory and predicament swiftly without losing momentum.

Winner Second

It was hot and uncomfortable inside the human girl’s bag. He had been bashed and banged and now seemed to be travelling along something which kept changing direction. And to make things worse, he only had one cough sweet left. He’d saved it for emergencies, wrapped up in his bandana.

Great Aunt Victoria had been very clear. ‘Don’t let anyone see you, or they’ll send you back. Even worse, they might put you in a zoo!’

Surely one quick look wouldn’t do any harm?

He hooked his claw round the end of the zip and pulled. Poked out his nose. This place smelt of plastic and metal and tired people. He put his eye to the opening. He was moving slowly past a forest of legs. For a second, he thought back to his gum tree home in the Australian bush. He could smell the eucalyptus. Hear the kookaburras.

His home was gone now. The bush fire had destroyed it.

A pair of familiar pink legs swam into sight.

‘Dad, it’s my bag!’

He shrank back down inside.

He seemed to be flying but then there was a big bump.

‘You wait here while I get the suitcase. I shouldn’t be long.’

Footsteps, going away. People talking. The rattle of wheels.

The screech of a zip.

The zip!

The girl’s face was inches away. Her eyes were open wide.

‘What are you doing here?’

He gave her his friendliest smile. ‘G’day!’

She yelped and jumped back.

A second later, her face came close again. ‘You can speak!’ she whispered. ‘What’s your name?’

He clicked and whistled. ‘That means Climbs to the Edge in koala.’

‘I’m Jenny. You need a real name.’ She looked at something above his head. ‘I’m going to call you Sydney.’

He was safe.

3rd Place: George and the Dragon – Matthew Cross

Beverley Birch: This is a clever, funny take on the traditional tale, bringing both George and the dragon instantly to life, each with a distinctive voice and a convincing relationship that promises fun ahead.

Winner Third

A chilling roar caused him to raise his shield. Instead of fire, the cavern filled with thick white smoke and a fizzing sound. George stepped softly towards the source. It was a young dragon, squeezed into a whalebone girdle, its wings and legs tied with rope. He crept forwards and drew his sword.

“Hello.” It said in a low rumbling voice. George paused, he wondered whether he could kill something that said hello to him. “Look, this is rather embarrassing. If you could be a good fellow and cut me down, you may choose any treasure you desire.” George hesitated, then raised his sword and severed the ropes. The dragon prized itself from the girdle before sitting on its hoard. “All I want is a peaceful place to hibernate, a comfortable hoard, and the occasional sheep for a snack.”

“Oh, the kingdom ran out of sheep.” George sat opposite the dragon, his shield close just in case.

“They sent their own kind instead – who does that? Why not a goat?” The dragon burped another cloud of smoke and fizz.

“Your breath poisoned a nearby village.”

“Eating humans gives me terrible indigestion. I had to take antacids.”

“Why did you keep eating the tributes?”

“Humans are like chocolate, I can never have just one.” George pulled a packet of jelly babies from his backpack and offered one to the dragon. “Yuk, how can you eat those?”

“So how did you get stuck in the…girdle?”

“The princess jumped me when I left the cave. That girl is malicious, no wonder the king left her as a tribute.” The dragon appeared deflated.

George eyed an ornate wine bottle among mound of treasure. An idea spread from his mind into a smile on his lips. “I have a cunning plan, put the girdle on again.”

Highly Commended: The Wild Colt – Annie Vine (Inspired by Jill’s Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson)

Beverley Birch: A good, tight narrative style which brings the setting, character, and particularly the colt’s character and terror instantly alive. A good sense of audience here.

‘He’s eight months old. Sire’s a half-thoroughbred and Dam’s a Welsh Mountain,’ said Tom, his cheerful voice unusually tense. ‘First saw a human six days ago. Had a heck of a job getting him into the horsebox.’

A powerful hoof assault made the box quiver. Edie peeked through the eye-slat. The colt’s neck muscles were so taut they made his head twitch upwards. His wide eyes relayed his fear – no pools of melted chocolate – they were steely black with whites that resembled human’s. His muddy, matted coat, now dry and cracked, had turned into dragon scales, sliding smoothly as he moved. Barbs shortened his tail – the web of hairs gripped them like cossetted treasure.

Edie’s fingers itched to caress, to reassure, to calm.

Don’t worry, little colt, you’re mine now. You’re safe.

‘Help me with the door,’ ordered Tom.

With the latches straightened, the door slid open.

The colt leapt from the back of the horsebox into the gaping hole of light.

Tom’s shock was audible. ‘Lucky I backed up and opened the gate.’

Edie’s heart flipped as she watched the rump muscles gather and stretch as the colt bolted away. Despite his nervousness, his poise was faultless. Once he realised he was safe, he would hold his tail confidently, not hanging like the flag of a lost battle.

‘Look at that stride,’ admired Tom. ‘You’ll be winning the gymkhanas with him.’

The colt slowed to a trot. Lean, smooth legs stretched.

‘Or the dressage…’

Galvanised, the colt broke into a canter and raced towards the wooden fence.

Edie gasped. If he rammed it, the wood would slinter into deadly spears.

His timing was perfect, forelegs rose with tucked hooves. He cleared the fence gracefully.

Edie bit her bottom lip. ‘I think my dream of showjumping has just become a reality.’

Now all she had to do was catch him.

Highly Commended: Unexpected Treasure – Linda Welch

Beverley Birch: Lovely flavour and rhythms, enhanced by quirky detail and swiftly conveyed, convincing characterization of a boy and his grandfather with the promise of interesting action to come.

Jamie loved weekends with his Granddad. He picked him up from school on Friday afternoon and they had fish and chips for supper, straight out of the wrapper.   On Saturday morning they got up early and drove to the Municipal Dump.   The sign on the gate said Household Waste Recycling Centre but Granddad said it had been the Municipal Dump ever since he was a little boy himself (about a hundred years ago, Jamie thought). Jamie was supposed to stay in the car because there were cars and lorries manoeuvring about the yard, but he was allowed look around the small shop where they sold some of the things people were throwing away.

‘People buy rubbish?’ he asked incredulously, and Granddad laughed.

‘One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. You never know what you might find.’

Today Jamie bought an old binocular case that was just the right size to hold a bottle of juice and a banana for school. The man only charged him 25p and Jamie hurried back to the car to wait for Granddad.   As he knelt on the seat and looked out of the back window he saw another little boy climbing over the back fence of the tip.   No-one else seemed to notice him slide into one of the skips, but as Jamie watched, he saw him throw a piece of corrugated plastic out of the skip, and climb back out again. Jamie got out of the car and went over to him.

‘You’re not supposed to be wandering around, it’s dangerous. What do you want that for, anyway?’

‘Roof,’ the boy said.

‘Cool! Are you making a den?’ Jamie asked, not waiting for him to answer. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Stig,’ he said, and disappeared back over the fence, dragging the plastic behind him.

Highly Commended: Friends – Ant Ridgeway

Beverley Birch: A very effective voice (a donkey) brings the reader convincingly into his state of mind and character, with some light touches of humour. Tightly written with a good narrative flow.

I’m bored. I’ve been standing alone in my field all day. There’s an itch on my back. I tried rubbing against the fence but I can’t quite reach it. The three ponies in the next field are eating grass. Lovely shiny coats they have. Not like mine, rough like tree bark. I trotted over to say hello.

‘Eeeaw, eeeaw’.

One of them looked up, tossed her mane and carried on munching. The other two took no notice as if I wasn’t there.

It’s cold today. Wind and rain have soaked me to my bones. My shelter blew down. There are trees where the ponies are. Not here. So I’m standing all alone, head down.

Wait. Who’s that climbing over the gate in his yellow coat and hat? It’s the boy. He’s got that little animal in his hand, the one which doesn’t move. Says it’s his bear, whatever that is. Says it has very little brain. That bouncy puppy’s with him too. Wish I could wriggle under the hedge like him. I’m too big. Don’t like his nippy teeth. Seems to think my hooves are for nibbling. Last week, he ate my best thistle. I was saving it for breakfast. He didn’t like it. He started yelping, pawing at his mouth. If he’s not careful, I’ll bite him. Or maybe I’ll kick him.

‘I’ve bought you a birthday present,’ the boy said.

Is it? I thought. Wasn’t that a long time ago? I swished my tail. ‘It’s a pot. It had honey in it. We had to eat it ‘cos it was a long journey.’

He put it on the ground.

‘There’s a balloon too. Sorry it popped on the thorns.’ I glimpsed aflash of red inside the pot.

‘Eeeaw, eeeaw.’

The boy laughed.

Not alone anymore.

Highly Commended: Mirror, Mirror – Kim Howard

Beverley Birch: A clever and successful send-up of several fairy tales, with life seen from the point of view of the mirror fed up with the fairyland beauty leagues. Dry humour and quirky detail – lots of fun in this.

The lack of manners upsets me most. I never get a ‘good morning’ or a ‘how are you?’ It’s always “Mirror, mirror on the wall….”

Of course I’m on the wall. A heavy chain and some hefty nails make sure of that. They aren’t interested in me. No one ever compliments me on the carved wood of my frame or says ‘wow, have you been polished?” They only want to know one thing – where they rank in the fairyland beauty leagues. They have no imagination. They must be able to say something other than “…who is the fairest of them all?”

As if I’m going to tell them what I really think. It can be tough, but I always try to find something positive to say. Not because I care about how the silly self-obsessed things feel. I can’t risk someone getting upset enough to start throwing things. I’m made of glass. I’d never recover if someone smacked me in the face with a hairbrush.

I was chatting with Cinderella’s glass slippers the other day. The one who stayed on her foot is too smug for words, but I really feel for the other one. She was convinced she was going to shatter when those big ugly sisters tried to stuff their fat feet inside her. And she still hasn’t got rid of the bloodstains. Fortunately, since their mother chopped their feet about, it’s harder for them to hobble up to the castle. I dread telling them their league status.

Uh oh. Here comes the little girl with the scarlet cloak. Well, not so little any more. She’s a stroppy teenager now. Since that incident in the woods with her granny and the wolf, she’s started carrying an axe in her basket. Someone should tell her that red isn’t her colour, but it won’t be me.