Archive for the month “June, 2013”

The day I stabbed the exercise ball to death

I few years ago, I snapped.

I’d had enough.

Working freelance, working part time and writing books was not a ‘real job’, so at the time (things have improved slightly I’m glad to say) it felt as if almost everything at home was down to me. I had four jobs – the lion’s share of house and child related responsibilities (everything like making sure cupboards stocked, keeping on top of the washing, shopping, cooking to getting car through MOT and booking dentists appointments and remembering everybody’s birthdays and sorting the social calendar – well I was ‘at home’, wasn’t I?) PLUS my freelance copywriting, grants and trusts fundraising part time job and trying to write my fiction. Oh, and mum was very sadly in her last few years, so regular trips and emergency dashes to Scotland, worry and daily phone calls to an increasingly confused and frail elderly lady.

I was trying so hard to do all this, and be a good (or at least adequate) mum. For the most part, I hope I kept it together but one day it was too much.

I was stressed. It was raining, so the boys (aged about nine and ten) could not play outside. Recently they’d taken to bouncing an exercise ball I’d got free with some magazine round the living room. Whenever they did it the dog would bark excitedly and loudly. Already a couple of things had got broken and so I hid the exercise ball and made it clear it was not to be used indoors as a football.

I was in the kitchen, slicing carrots and boiling pasta (I’m an inspired cook) when I heard the latest breakage.

I hurried through to see what had happened.

They’d found the ball, started a game of football and broken a mug half full of tea, so there were shards of mug and a big pool of tea on the cream coloured carpet (stupid colour of carpet to choose with boys and a dog).

That was it.

Realising that I was still holding the knife I’d been using on the carrots I stepped forward and stabbed the exercise ball with it, shouting: ‘THAT’S ENOUGH!’

 

Slowly, the exercise ball deflated. I walked back into the kitchen and continued to slice carrots, feeling much better. The boys were unusually quiet and well behaved for the rest of the evening.

They still refer to the incident. In fact it has grown in the telling. Apparently, I rushed in brandishing an enormous carving knife – not a tiny vegetable knife. And according to their version I stabbed that exercise ball over, and over in a frenzied attack similar to the shower scene in ‘Psycho’. 

I’m confident that when asked to recall their childhoods in years to come, they won’t refer to the times I’ve read to them at bedtime. They won’t recall me ferrying them to piano/drums/tennis/karate/swimming/football (especially the football). They won’t tell people about the camping trips, or when we tried to fly a kite, or the games of badminton in the garden, or the times when we played cards or went on bike rides (when we could coax them off the computer or the X Box.) Oh no. Of course they bloody well won’t. They will remember one thing about their childhoods and ONE THING ONLY.

They will remember the day their mum lost it and stabbed the exercise ball to death.

 

 

 

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Long overdue, just updated my author page on Amazon

I have just updated my author page on Amazon to read as follows:

My name is Jen Smith – I write teen books under the name Jenny Smith, and books for 7-10 year olds under the name J.L. Smith.

I live in Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire, with my family and my small dog Angus. My ambition is to swim with whales, dolphins and porpoises, unfortunately the local leisure centre is not being co-operative.

2013 sees the publication of ‘The Abominators’ series for children aged 7-10. This was written to encourage one of my sons (who is dyslexic and was not a confident reader) to read, and is filled with humour, ridiculousness, naughtiness and pranks which I knew would appeal to him. It is illustrated by the brilliant Sam Hearn, who really brings the story to life with his hilarious line drawings. At a visit by a group of Year 4s to our local bookshop, 26 out of 38 children (that’s 7 out of 10) voted for The Abominators to take back for their school library. The reviews so far are very encouraging.

I was born and brought up in Glasgow, and loved to write from a very young age thanks to my father’s storytelling.

I have a blog where I review books and talk about writing and life in general called http://www.writingaboutpants.wordpress.com

In my early twenties I worked in Africa for a relief and development charity. I am so glad I had this experience because since then I’ve never been overly attached to possessions and ‘stuff’. It is relationships, friendships and experiences that represent your life. I put this message across in ‘The Abominators’ where Cecil and his father are no longer rich, but Cecil has never been happier because now he has friends.

I returned to the UK and joined school text book publishers Heinemann (now Pearson), where part of my job was organising author visits to schools. I met and was inspired by children’s authors Anne Fine, Dick King-Smith and Nigel Hinton. Meeting them made me think ‘maybe one day I could do that’.

I don’t think that studying English Literature at University helped me in my writing. Studying the ‘greats’ meant that I never thought that anything I wrote was good enough. I submitted a very serious literary novel to publishers in the early 1990s (with the encouragement of none other than Professor Philip Hobsbaum, highly respected poet and English Literature lecturer), and although I had some encouragement from Robin Robertson who was then at Jonathan Cape it went no further. This confirmed all of my insecurities and I was so discouraged I did not write anything (except a few short stories and poems) for twelve years.

In 2006 a good friend said to me: ‘You’re funny, you should write funny’. This led to the first draft of ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’, which was accepted by Scholastic in 2008. It was published in 2011, followed by ‘My Big Fat Teen Crisis’ which came out in 2012. ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ has been published in eight other countries, and is doing very well in France and Germany.

I’ve appeared twice on Dave Gorman’s radio comedy show ‘Genius’, love watching stand up and comedy and think humour is not just important, it is a divine force (put that in your pipe and smoke it, literary snobs).

As my day job I am a freelance copywriter. I write (on a voluntary basis) for charities at the Clare Foundation. I can be contacted on: jennysmithauthor@hotmail.com.

I think that libraries are important and we should safeguard them, whatever future form they may take. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds need a place where they can access great literature free of charge, this is a right that must not be lost. My father came from a poor background and he educated himself in his local library.

Sam Hearn’s very funny illustrations

Sam Hearn is the illustrator of The Abominators and incredibly talented. He takes elements of the story and consistently adds value.

Here are a few of the fantastic illustrations from Book 3 – since it’s not out till July this is a sneak preview…

http://samhearn.blogspot.co.uk/2013_06_01_archive.html

Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid in South Africa

In the months just before Nelson Mandela was released, I was working for World Vision in Lesotho and Botswana. Lesotho was in effect a ‘hostage state’ in South Africa, home to many of Mandela’s supporters who had been hounded out of South Africa because of their political views.

There was a strong feeling that things had to change and possibly were about to change, but never did I feel this more than when I went on a short trip to Johannesburg. As I drove into the city, I asked my friend why – if the white South Africans were relatively wealthy – did they all have outside toilets. He looked embarrassed. ‘They’re not outside toilets,’ he said, ‘They’re the maid’s quarters. The white South Africans do not want the maids living under the same roof.’

I was appalled. There must have been barely enough room for them to lie down.

One day I went out and just walked around on my own in what the people I was staying with considered was a ‘safe’ area. There were some nice coffee shops, and I was just walking along enjoying the sights when a smartly dressed, very elderly man approached me. He asked me what I was doing in Johannesburg and we chatted for a short while, and then he said:

“Can I ask a favour of you?”

“Of course,” I said.

It turned out that he wanted to buy me a coffee. He said that times were about to change and that he wanted to make a gesture, and to take a young white woman into a coffee shop and buy her a coffee would be that gesture. He said that he was asking me respectfully, and that he was of course old enough to be my grandfather.

We went into the coffee shop and there was immediately a collective intake of breath. There was an huge atmosphere of disapproval. The waitress (who incidentally was not white) slammed our coffees down in front of us so that the coffee spilled on to the table, she was muttering angrily.

It was very clear that we had broken the rules and everybody was unhappy about it. Looking back I am now wondering if there was an unwritten (or written?) rule that this was a whites only coffee shop, certainly all the customers were white. Maybe the man knew that if he went in with me they would not want to make a scene and kick him out, who knows.

I just know that multi-racial coffee was too much at that moment in time in December 1989.

The old man grinned, enjoying every minute of it. It turned out that he was quite a well known jazz musician. I should have known because he was wearing a very cool hat. I was uncomfortable because of all the glares, but then I realised that in that moment I was part of something important.

He paid for the coffee, and outside the coffee shop we shook hands and he wished me well in my life.

I had to fly back to Lesotho, and in the airport I saw Winnie Mandela, in full military regalia. The atmosphere was charged, apparently she had met with Walter Sisulu (who had just been released from prison that October, after 26 years in prison). There was a feeling of euphoria, a tangible excitement. When I asked if they thought that Mandela would be freed, people said that it was only a matter of time.

I was only a few weeks back in the UK when I was glued to the TV screen like millions of others, watching Mandela walk out of prison as a free man. Like many others who had gone to concerts to support the campaign for his freedom, and drunk in student bars named after him, and worn the badge saying ‘FREE NELSON MANDELA’, I wept.

Everything changed in South Africa, and I am certain that if I went back to that same coffee shop and had a ‘multi racial’ coffee, nobody would blink. The slavery and prejudice is over. There are still tough times, but apartheid is, thankfully, dead.

Now Nelson Mandela is in hospital, and it is exactly how it was with my mum. The lungs, and repeated hospitalisations. So I know what is going on, and that it is realistically just a matter of time.

But what a legacy that man is leaving. To have been an agent of such an important change, to have gone from a prisoner, seen as a terrorist, to the President of South Africa. To be loved by so many people. His family, his country who see him as a father, and by strangers like me – on the other side of the world, choked up because of a news report saying that he ‘deteriorated’ this morning.

I hope that he pulls through this time, but we have to face the fact that he is very frail now. The world will be a much poorer place without Nelson Mandela in it, but there is so much to celebrate about what he achieved.

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“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

– Nelson Mandela

The joy of getting the advance copy through the post

The postman has just been. And look what he brought.

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The third book in the Abominators series! It’s such an exciting moment when you hold it in your hands for the first time, this culmination of hours and hours of dreaming, planning, writing, revising and then… here it is!

The first thing I see when I open it is the dedication to my dad (remember my ‘The Man Who Loved Stories’ post?)

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Then I look at all of the fantastic illustrations by Sam Hearn which have brought the story to life.

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After the excitement, my friend who had only recently popped in, came back to tell me she had just had a text to say she’d passed her PGCE! Her husband died very suddenly while she was doing the course, leaving her with their two teenage sons. This lady, with incredible determination, finished the course with only one term’s extension. There are not enough words to tell you how much I, and many others, admire her.

We shared a hug. There are no medals for everyday bravery and dignity in the face of what life can throw at us. But if there were, she would deserve the biggest, shiniest one going.

Chatterbooks in Aylesbury

On Tuesday I went to Aylesbury library to have a reading session with some children who are members of the ‘Chatterbooks’ scheme. The scheme encourages reading in Primary age children and is a chance for them to talk about what they’ve read.

This visit was organised by the events organiser at the library, Ben Foster. He’d sent me some very funny emails offering a limo and champagne so I felt relaxed before I even got there.

The group were all enthusiastic, with one little girl in particular full of questions. We talked about how many possibilities language gives us. They all made up silly names for themselves and then I challenged them to tell me something about the characters who might have those names. One boy said that his character was very tiny when he was not feeling confident, but could be a giant when he was feeling brave. Every one of them came up with a strong idea and I think got the point that ideas are about putting things together and seeing if they make sense or if they create something new.

At one point they asked about my books for teenagers. I was trying to explain the plot of ‘Diary of a Parent Trainer’ and told them that the lead character was writing a manual about how to ‘operate’ grown ups. One little girl asked what the manual would be, and I said that it would be a complete user’s guide, so you had full instructions about operating your grown up.

“I REALLY need one of these!” she cried, clapping her hands together.

There were twin boys there, very bright and full of questions about writing. One of them shyly showed me an exercise book which was crammed full of his story, you could see he’d put in hours of work and it was impressive for somebody still at Primary school. I was glad I had talked to them about planning out stories and being selective as you write, I think he took it on board and I hope it will help him.

Then his twin brother asked me to sign a piece of paper and said: “Could you please write a message to me telling me to not let my brother give up writing, because he’s really good.”

I swallowed down the lump which was forming in my throat, and did exactly that.

Great visit, great kids, well done Chatterbooks.

Wonderful Wychwood

After a fairly quiet half term week, I went with the family to the Wychwood Festival on Saturday, to promote ‘The Abominators’. I was in the Waterstone’s tent at 4.30pm, the last slot of the day.

Despite the late afternoon, ‘tired children’ factor I managed to draw in enough children not to be embarrassed. (My son Ben predicted “One child will come, and they will leave half way through”). The kids were lovely, and I hope they enjoyed themselves.

It was such a different experience to a school visit. It felt much more public, and I had to use a microphone. I had a few activities to make it more interactive than just me reading the book (the children each made up funny names for themselves, using prompt cards, there was a ‘yes/no’ quiz and finally we acted out a scene from the book, with one of the children playing Cecil Trumpington Potts). I noticed that I fell back on reading a second short extract, possibly out of panic at having to keep things going… afterwards I wasn’t sure if it had worked at all, but my husband and sons loyally assured me that I’d been fine.

It’s difficult being a natural introvert who has to ‘inhabit’ acting as extravert in order to do such events (it is very common for introverts to overcome shyness and to be able to become extravert for a short time in the name of a ’cause’ they believe in – in this case encouraging children to read and enjoy stories – and I would expect that the majority of authors fall into this category). One lady I spoke to before the event could not make it, but I saw her afterwards and she said she would be buying the book for her daughter. She told me ‘You were so polite and so apologetic when you handed me the bookmark, I didn’t imagine you were actually the author and going to do the talk!’. I explained to her that it surprised me, too. When I was very small and probably until I was about seven, I was painfully shy at school (not so much at home and with people I knew well, but going to school really traumatised me). After this, I came out of my shell and became more outgoing and sociable as I got older, although I’d always prefer a dinner party for six to a cocktail party with a hundred people all mingling. Part of me has never changed from my five year old, mute, self I suppose, so every time I do a talk I think to myself afterwards how far I’ve come.

The lovely Wychwood Waterstones team, and the two students who supported me in my talk were amazing, working so hard as the production line of authors passed through, each one talking and then signing. I noticed that their resident face painter was heroically working her way through a queue of children, and was told that she’d refused a break in order to keep all of the children happy.

After the talk all I wanted was to sit down somewhere, to be brought food and drink and left alone to recover and enjoy the music. Unfortunately the chairs were still in the car, and the boys decided they wanted to go home immediately (because everything was (according to them) ‘lame’) while Russ and I wanted to stay to see The Human League. So I was sitting on a thin blanket listening to persistent whining for half an hour. At last we got the chairs, and the boys accepted their fate – and discovered that there was actually loads for them to do.  I got myself something to eat and at last began to chill out.

I must have people-watched for hours. There was this large lady in a polka dot dress whose arms were so sunburned that she looked as if she’d been dipped in a vat of boiling water, but she still sat in the sun. There were some men dressed as Elvis, hailing each other delightedly as they strutted around. There was the mum who stood perfectly still, until her favourite band started and she began to gyrate energetically, moving her hips from side to side and throwing her arms about in unusual patterns, periodically doing little skips. She motioned to her ten year old daughter to join her. Her daughter looked horrified and at one point tried to get her mother to stop. Her mother listened politely, and then continued dancing, more wildly than ever. There was a group of young lads who were promoting some go karting I think. Anyway they were off duty and getting into the beer, some of them downing it from a hose pipe and funnel contraption. One of them was particularly drunk and he was waving a large flag about dangerously. He was so unaware that he was flapping it in people’s faces. At one point he kept swiping it over the head of this man who was in a wheelchair. I walked up and told him to watch his flag and explained about the man he’d annoyed. He didn’t take it in and continued as before, even after a security guard warned him too. He could have jabbed someone through the throat. Luckily one of his friends seemed to notice the danger and kept an eye on him.

I went to the Singing Tent where there was community singing, anyone could join in. I joined in with the song ‘Something Inside So Strong’, everybody sounded so good! We were all strangers but we were smiling at each other. I’ll definitely do more of that at the next festival I go to. One woman was singing away, and wiping tears from her eyes. I wondered what her story was, what she’s had to overcome in her life.

I bumped into the lovely Philip Ardagh, with his wife and son. I am a big fan and follow him on Twitter where he sometimes (to my delight) retweets my (hopefully witty) comments. His son took a photo with us together and I hope I never see it because I just know how small and wide I will have looked beside the incredibly tall Mr Ardagh!

The performance from Caravan Palace was an absolute joy to watch. I only knew their most famous hit, but every song was just as good. The band were young and cool and good looking and talented. The lead singer reminded me of the lead singer of Texas to look at, she was cheeky and confident and attractive – it was so good to see such a confident, beautiful woman on stage. She was dancing and jumping around all over the place and yet found the breath to do these incredible vocals. I think every man there was a little in love with her by the end of the set.

The finale of the evening on the main stage was The Human League. I couldn’t believe it, to my delight it was the very same female vocalists who joined the band in 1980. They are both now around 50 years old, and what attitude and chutzpa and glamour they brought to the stage. I enjoyed it so much more and felt a hundred times more warmly towards the band than I would have if they’d been shunted out (like Carol Vorderman in Countdown) in favour of younger women. Hearing the band reminded me how many hits they had, and what a part of my growing up their music was. I also loved Heaven 17, and of course one of the original members of The Human League founded Heaven 17.

I love the (true) story that Phil Oakey had to find backing singers fast when the band line up changed, and he and his then girlfriend found the girls in a disco when the girls (who were best friends) were still school age. They had both been hoping to go to university, but that chance encounter in a Sheffield nightclub literally changed their lives. Now it’s over 30 years later, they are business partners in the band, they are still performing and looking amazing and although there must have been hard times when record companies were fickle along the way and times were tough, what adventures they’ve had.

The videos on the giant screen behind the band as they performed were very creative. One showed politician’s faces morphing into each other. Others were stunning graphics, another was scenes from the film ‘Metropolis’.

When they sang their last song of the encore, ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ (which I know was not strictly originally a Human League song but a Phil Oakey collaboration) I looked around at all the other people there of our generation, there with their children, reliving their youth. As I looked at the families around me, with the words ‘We’ll always be together’ ringing out into the night, I felt a wave of joy mixed with a sadness. I’m afraid that I’m now at the age where lyrics like that are incredibly poignant.

Wychwood was wonderful and I’d recommend it for families who want a relaxed festival which is not scarily huge in scale yet offers a lot. A big thank you to Waterstones Cirencester for inviting me.

Tomorrow… Chatterbooks in Aylesbury!

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