Imagine if you asked the Zoo for a pet… And then they said yes.

There aren’t many books that were firm favourites a quarter century ago when I was a toddler, and still are today for me to read to my own son. But Dear Zoo is a classic for a reason. Bright colours, fun and educational flaps (made before flap books were commonplace or even seen as helpful to children and pre-schoolers) and a whimsical storyline, it’s almost enough to make us parents not mind reading it for the 17th time in an evening. (Almost.)

This Autumn marks 30 years of the best-loved children’s book, and I was lucky enough to be invited along this afternoon to Pan Macmillan to meet the man himself and enjoy a party in celebration of the anniversary. We had so much fun!!

Before we went, I was nervous that R wouldn’t be old enough to behave himself nicely and take part properly. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My baby boy was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a confident toddler who swiftly began colouring the adorable Dear Zoo worksheets in with chunky crayons, brought me various Campbell classics to read, (I’m Hungry, Spin and Say, and his personal favourite-Oh Dear!) and most incredible of all, joined all the other children in sitting in an ordered huddle to listen to the storyteller. Just watching him emulate the older children and join in the activities would have made the whole experience worthwhile alone.

But it didn’t need to! From scanning the room I know I wasn’t the only adult there who was enjoying the interactive storyteller’s rendition of the classic a little more than we were supposed to. (This is for the kids right?) I practically burst with pride as R got 3 whole animal noises correct as the story was told. A huge step up from the ubiquitous “ssssssss” we were being given a few weeks ago.

Rod joined us for a Q and A session, and was charm itself. Hard to believe that this man was fully trained in Science and knee-deep in research before his love of painting brought him to children’s books. Imagine how different so many of our bookshelves would look! R spent the Q and A throwing Rod a Dear Zoo anniversary balloon back and forth, probably to the annoyance of the rest of the guests. Rod however was patience personified, and for once I didn’t try and get mother of the year award by making him stop. It’s Rod Campbell! And my son is playing catch with him!

Not much has changed since I was a kid, and party bags were always my favourite part of any birthday. This one was pretty awesome, with limited edition dear zoo mugs, board books, a gorgeous photo frame, puzzles and activities galore, as well as the piece de resistance, the brand new Touch and Feel version of Dear Zoo itself. I have to say, I was very excited to see what they had done with it, and the book doesn’t disappoint. Great varied sensory ideas on each page, and very different from the original. The only thing I wasn’t expecting was R’s reaction. He was unimpressed to say the least! Because it is such a favourite in our house, he knows the book back and forward and upside down. He spent the whole time I was trying to read it to him getting more and more frustrated that he couldn’t find the flaps! It annoyed him to such an extent that he couldn’t listen to me telling him to touch the furry or sticky or bumpy bits, and he ended up shuffling off my lap and finding another book instead.
My point I suppose is that the touch and feel version is a GREAT present for someone who doesn’t already love Dear Zoo, or perhaps a slightly older child who will appreciate the coolness of comparing the two versions and getting something different from each one. For a slightly OCD partially sighted toddler who likes things to be exactly how he remembers them… don’t even go there.

Rod signed books and was happy to take photos as guests mingled and healthy snacks were ignored by children who know better than to accept carrot sticks when there is birthday cake to be had. And we had a truly fabulous time! Arming our goody bag and our balloon puppy (it is the perfect pet after all) we left the party with matching grins. This book isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, I have a feeling I’ll be itching for an invite to it’s 60th anniversary party!

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Freedom of (not) speech

I’ve been acutely involved in a discussion this week on another blog. And it’s been on my mind for days. The blog was freshly pressed this week, and was excellent. It was related to parenting and teaching, and kids in general… and it was overflowing with expletives. I read the blog, enjoyed it, followed the blogger, and didn’t comment on the language. But a lot of other people did. The offended commenters encouraged the blogger into writing another blog this week, to inform the world that it is her blog, and she can write any which way she freaking likes. Except she didnt say freaking. This was met with nothing less than rapturous applause. And I have been shocked.

It is no secret that I am anti foul language. I think it is crass, uncreative, lazy, offensive, mostly unnecessary and frankly boring. And I think it makes the user seem ignorant. That’s just my opinion. You are entitled to yours.

However, as far as I have power over any kind of language, I do not put up with it. As an editor, if a manuscript comes my way with cursing in it, I barely give it a second glance before throwing it into the reject pile. If you are lazy enough to resort to bad language when you are blessed with a language so vast, I’m pretty certain that the rest of your descriptive capabilities arent going to be worth my time. It’s totally your choice as a writer, but if you need the literary crutch of expletives, then I doubt I can help you.

Of course, there will be times when a decision is not mine to make. A manuscript already approved has been placed on my desk. Unlucky you if you like your foul mouthed characters. Mark Twain has been famously quoted as saying “Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very”; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be” and that is exactly what I would do in both cases. In my mind, the same lack of expression is in both kinds of writing. I wouldnt let an author get away with writing ‘very’, and I equally wouldnt let them get away with using swear words.

Why am I so militant about this issue? This is a question that has been tossed my way this week by people who think I am old fashioned and ‘fuddy duddy.’ As a writer and an editor, the answer is simple, which is that your work is better without it. Art is simply better without it. As a person, and now a mother, it is more complex.

People will argue that swear words are ‘just words.’ That the only reason we are offended by them is because of arbitary meanings that people have placed on curse words rather than other words. That it makes no sense that we can use certain words in one way, and yet by changing the meaning, the same letters become abusive. Other people will shout from the rooftops that freedom of speech is what seperates us from slaves, and that we have a right to say whatever we choose, and be free of judgement or censorship for that choice.

I will argue that on the contrary, you are limiting yourself by using those words. I have said before, that I believe that Language creates reality. A great friend reminded me at the time, that God is said to have created the world with ten utterances, literally creating our reality with language. Everything we say, as much as what we do, matters. No more can I say that cursing is ‘just words’ than argue that punching is ‘just action.’ Being proud of using your language in an offensive and hurtful way, whether expletives are used or not, is just promoting anarchy and thoughtlessness amongst people. Being able to say what we want in whatever words we choose is definitely a sign of our freedom, I agree. So why abuse that freedom by limiting ourselves to words that mean nothing really, and are at best, even when not offensive, just unnecessary.

My son is just getting a basic understanding of language, and the wonder on his face when he repeats a word we say, or makes a sound that we interpret correctly and act upon, is a true miracle. For him, language is a new tool, a magic key into an unfamilliar world. Every day he comes a step closer to being able to make himself understood and to understand others. I don’t really care if it makes me old fashioned, or prude-ish, I no more want him using foul language to others, than I would want him using dangerous actions towards them. Because to me that danger is the same. I want him to be able to use his words to create his reality, where he expresses himself with prethought and intention, and has the freedom not to curse. So why would I expect anything less from myself?

I hope your novel never gets published.

That’s what I often want to say when writing rejection letters to potential authors. And many budding writers have told me in the past that they would really love an honest rejection letter which tells them what they are doing wrong. But when I see the truth being given out, it seems to be always met with a chorus of “JK Rowling got rejected by tens of publishers before she got accepted by one.” JK and her “sob story turned success story” may well have made my life much more difficult.

So ok, I’m going to humour you for a minute. Let me tell you five common reasons your manuscripts are being rejected, and you can decide whether one of these reasons is yours, and either rectify it, or if you cant, move on.

It’s not a very good idea.
You are well read, intelligent, perhaps even a great writer. Your idea for a novel however, is just not that good. It isnt original, it isnt compelling, it wont attract enough readers.. Maybe try writing something else, see what kind of response you get.

You’re not a very good writer.
More common. Your idea is good, it would make a great novel. What a shame that you’re writing it. You might make your friends laugh, you might even have a little following on your blog, and please dont tell me that 1000 people have bought it on amazon. It was 0.01p. It takes more effort NOT to buy it. Despite all this, you are really not good enough.

We are not the right publishing house for your novel.
Have you looked us up on the internet? Have you browsed the writers and artists yearbook? Nothing is more annoying than a travel book submission to a poetry house. Or a fantasy trilogy to a womens lit imprint. Do your research.  I am 100% more likely to look upon you favourably if your covering letter shows some knowledge of my agency, and your manuscript fits our list. Why waste your time?

Your spelling and grammar are atrocious.
Great writer? Great idea? That’s a start. But if you struggle with the grammar and spelling, then in this day and age there is no excuse. What you can’t do on a computer, you can ask a friend to help with. If not, it’s worth buying some time with someone who knows their english. Why let your talent get lost behind misued apostrophe’s and badly spelled language when you’ve done the hard part already?

When we said we arent accepting submissions… we meant we’re really not accepting submissions.
A lot of potential authors assume that when an agency or publishing house is closed to submissions, this is practically an open invitation. “Oh well they wont be able to turn MY novel down, it’s too good.” The truth is you are probably wasting your postage. Most of the larger agencies have readers who they employ to look over submissions. If they arent accepting any, then they arent employing readers! Your manuscrript will be lucky to be returned back to you in your SAE. More likely, it will sit collecting dust in a submissions box.

There are certainly more reasons, but these are the ones I see time and time again. Having said that, I also see plenty of these type of novels on the shelves in Waterstones.. so if you fit into one of the more depressing categories.. dont give up.. there’s always hope. You could publish a truly awful novel.