Scavengers art from the Iona School, Nottingham

Did I ever mention that I never intended to write for children? I always wrote for adults before. My early crowdfunded novel, The Dust on the Moth, is very much a novel for adults. Even Scavengers, in its primitive stages, was written for adult readers.

But life happens, right? Life conspires, even, and before you know it, you’re writing for children.

It was a happy accident. I feel chuffed to have ended up where I am. It turns out that, while there are certain “rules” to consider when writing for younger readers, there’s also a freedom that suits itself to my writing. A wide-eyed openness to ideas. A certain attitude – perhaps even a non-attitude – concerning pigeonholes.

On top of that, I’m always inspired by the children I get to meet when visiting schools and libraries. I love their bravery, enthusiasm and energy. I love how much they care. And the children’s publishing community as a whole is so supportive and kind. We’re all on the same team, working for the same cause.

But one of the best things about writing for children is their reader art. I love children’s art at the best of times, so it’s a strange and surreal bonus when it’s based on Scavengers. What a moving thing it is to see drawings inspired by something you’ve written! It’s something I’d never imagined happening – not in all the ten years I’ve been writing.

I recently received a batch of wonderful pictures from Year 6 pupils at the Iona School in Nottingham, who are reading Scavengers as their term text. Check them out:

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Hunkadory, eh?

The Iona School’s Year 6 pupils hold a very special place in my heart. I tested my first ever Scavengers presentation on them, along with my first ever workshop, and I couldn’t have asked for a keener, funnier and more enthusiastic bunch of guinea pigs. They helped to magically transmute a lot of my newbie nerves into excitement. For that I can never thank them enough.

Sincere thanks also their teacher, Maria Woolley, for staying in touch, for taking the time to send these pictures, and for simply being an awesome teacher.

Cheers,
Darren

 

Scavengers Four Months On (A Horrendous Splurge of a Blog Post)

Okay, it’s been about a third of a year since I last left Scavengers grubbins here, so I guess I’m due a blog post. Just to warn you, though: life these days is a rickety rollercoaster, so I’ll be surprised if this ends up in any way coherent. Don’t build your hopes up for well-structured reflections on what’s gone on over the last four months; this is more akin to a spurge of word-vomit onto my keyboard.

So where do I start?

Let’s begin with a section I’ll vaguely treat as

Stuff I’ve been up to

There’s been a few school visits. I went to Walton Girls’ High School and to Allington with Sedgebrook Church Of England Primary School – both in Grantham – and also to the Iona School in Nottingham. And more recently I went to the newly sited Almondbury Library in Huddersfield, to meet pupils from Lowerhouses School and Almondbury Community School.

Most of these visits were made to give my Scavengers presentation, but the trip to Iona School was a slight return (see earlier blog post), to test out and polish my Scavengers workshop. Which went down pretty well, I think. Students were laughing and writing, and that’s what we all want, right?

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Walton Girls’ High School, Grantham

Now that I’ve just about conquered my fear of standing in front of halls packed with pupils, school visits are a barrel of fun. I’m always hiding my jitters behind a twitchy smile while pupils file in, but the presentation soon begins, and before I know it pupils are chuckling and throwing their hands up to contribute, and the nerves are gone. School visits are weirdly emotionally draining, but that’s because they’re so emotionally involving. A matter of stamina, methinks.

I’ve said it in previous posts, but I’ll say it again: the school children I meet inspire me and fill me with hope. There’s just so much energy in those halls; so much humour, insight, thoughtfulness,  inquisitiveness and bravery. I honestly leave schools feeling more optimistic about the future. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s in good hands.

My return to Iona School was particularly amusing. The pupils there are reading Scavengers as their term text, which meant the workshop was interrupted at regular intervals by pupils fishing for clues as to what happens next in the novel. I didn’t cave, though. Kids can puppy-eye all they want, but they’ll get no spoilers from me.

By the way, if you’re a teacher or librarian and you’re interested in booking me for a visit, have a gander at my shiny new Schools and Events page.

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Walton Girls’ High School, Grantham

Beyond school visits, I ran an Easter Scavengers event at Nottingham’s Waterstones, and in April also had the pleasure of attending the Federation of Children’s Book Groups’ Conference in Caterham. Usborne kindly gave me their entire two-minute slot at the publishers’ presentation session. This meant I had a strict 120 seconds to waffle about Scavengers to an auditorium full of publishing and FCBG representatives. The pressure was seriously on; over-treading the designated two minutes by even a second would mean falling through a trapdoor into a volcano full of lava-proof sharks.

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Scavengers event at Nottingham’s Waterstones

Okay, so I made the trapdoor thing up. The lava and sharks too. But the pressure was most certainly still on. And it got to me, a little. I’d been rehearsing my two minutes of guff for two weeks beforehand, and had it down to a tee. But the long wait in the auditorium had my nerves a-jiggling and – after what appeared to be a smooth start – I ground to a halt at some point in the middle of my speech. Witnesses tell me I only faltered for a few moments. To me it felt like I’d been plummeting for several hours into a soundless abyss.

I recovered, though. That’s the main thing. I said all I’d planned to say, and have heard that feedback at the evening dinner was very positive. Mind you, perhaps the wine and Prosecco were in full flow by then.

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About to plunge into a volcano at the FCBG 2019 Conference

One of the best things about the conference was hanging out at Usborne’s exhibition stand, because I got to meet Sara Sumner and Samantha Thomas – two people who’ve been championing Scavengers right from the start. They were as lovely as I’d imagined they’d be, and it’s always great to meet the people behind the Twitter profiles.

This is dragging on, so I’m going to wrap this so-called “section” up with bullet points.

So, as well as the above,

  • I got to meet Writing East Midlands young writers’ group three times:
    • once to attend one of their workshops for an author Q&A;
    • again to lead a special Scavengers workshop, which involved dragging these young scribes around Nottingham’s town square to find inspiration in the mundane and everyday – the results ranged from dystopian drama to eco poetry and cosmic farce, and every piece was amazing;
    • and once more to check out their showcase on National Writing Day at Nottingham’s central library – again, incredible talent and range, with a lovely celebratory atmosphere, and seeing live poetry in action was quite an eye opener;
  • I received a home visit from the lovely Rob and Andy of VIP Reading during their #VIPreadtrip, so that they could film me for some VIP Reading video resources;
  • I had the pleasure of sharing an event with the lovely and very funny Kate Mallinder at this year’s Lowdham Book Festival;
  • and last but by no means least, I had a surprise Scavengers party thrown at me by my incredible wife, which almost had me spewing with equal measures of joy and mortification.
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Caught off-guard for a Scavengers celebration

Okay. Moving on. The next sort-of-section of this mess will cover

The reception of Scavengers

It’s been amazing, really. Overwhelming. Every time you think things have gone quiet and no-one’s reading your book, you receive some mind-bending news or a random tweet by someone saying how much they’ve enjoyed it.

Scavengers has had some very enthusiastic reviews from bloggers (special shout-outs to Lily and the Fae, Book-boundReadItDaddy, Chris Soul, NottsLit and Bellis Does Books), and has also received great reviews on the likes of Amazon, goodreads and waterstones.com (if you happen to have enjoyed Scavengers, it’d be massively appreciated if you could toss some stars and words at it in these sorts of places; it all helps with the algorithmic magic). It was also a Book Club Highlight in Reading Zone‘s children’s and librarians’ newsletters.

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The Writing East Midlands Scavengers workshop 

Scavengers has done particularly well on Toppsta. It was selected in April as one of 2019’s Best Debut Novels, and more recently made it into Toppsta’s Most Popular Books of 2019 So Far. This means a huge amount to me, as Toppsta reviews come from children, and for me, children’s thoughts on the book are particularly important. Not only because children are the book’s target readership, but also because children are insightful, discerning, and brutally honest. Reading a glowing review from a younger reader honestly makes me well up, every single time.

Scavengers has also been recommended on radio book clubs a couple of times (hello BBC Radio Berkshire), but here are a couple of seriously big biggies: in April, Scavengers was selected a standout children’s book in the Observer and Guardian, and – as if that wasn’t enough – last month it was selected as one of the Guardian’s Best Books of 2019 So Far! Bonkers. My baby book, barely able to walk, stumbling like a newborn Bambi, hanging out with the likes of Toni Morrison and Angie Thomas. Yikes, yikes and more yikes.

I’m retching now. There’s only so much of this look-at-me-look-at-me I can bear. So, without further ado, let’s move swiftly on to the final section, in which I’ll skim over

What’s to come

I’m looking forward to some more presentations and workshops at schools this month. I’ll be returning to Grantham to visit the Priory Ruskin Academy, and closer to home I’ll be visiting Arnold Hill Academy and Nottingham Free School. The latter two visits have been set up by Nottingham City of Literature’s Young Ambassadors, with whom it’s a real pleasure and privilege to work with.

The Five Leaves Bookshop, which so wonderfully hosted Scavengers‘ launch all those aeons ago, have a book group, and on 31 July they’ll be getting together to discuss and dissect Scavengers. I’ll be popping in for the second half to answer any questions, and will be using a large glass of wine to shield myself from whatever’s thrown at me. If you fancy joining in, come along.

And finally (deep breath), there are two Incredibly Exciting Things on the way, but they’ve not yet been officially announced, so I can’t reveal much. Let’s just say that one relates to what follows Scavengers book-wise, and the other ties in with a scheme that will hopefully see Scavengers doing good for a cause that’s very close to my heart. I can’t wait to tell you all about it. But alas, for now, mum’s the word.

And that’s it! I’m done. If you’ve made it to the end, well done you. Give yourself a biscuit and a pat on the back. You’ve earned it.

Much love
Darren

Scavengers and Somersaults – a Publication Week Roundup

‘Tis done. Scavengers was released, like a grubby urchin, into the wild on Thursday 7 March. And what a week that was. I’ve only just managed to pull myself together so I can put shaky hand to keyboard for this blog post. Bear with me.

Where do I start? At the beginning, I guess. Or a little before it. During the calm before publication week, I tried my Scavengers presentation, for the first time ever, on the Year 6 children at the Iona School in Sneinton, Nottingham, who had kindly agreed to be my guinea pigs.

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Photo courtesy of the Iona School

I won’t deny it: I was terrified. So much so that I skipped the buses and spent an hour trekking across Nottingham to the school, in an attempt to walk off some nerves. It turned out there was no need to be anxious, though. Ms Woolley and the children were as warm and welcoming as they were funny and sharp. To my surprise I had an absolute ball, and the experience left me not only excited about further school visits, but also all the more grateful for having ended up writing for children. I was told afterwards that the children were inspired, but I doubt they were as inspired by me as I was by them.

Next up came the Scavengers launch party at the superlative, award-winning Five Leaves Bookshop. This was the Tuesday night before official publication, and by then I was a queasy mess of giddy hysteria. I was also living a surreal, waking dream, since my excitement had been nudging me awake at 4am the previous few mornings.

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Photo courtesy of Richard Dytch

But again, there was nothing to fear. The shop filled up quickly, glasses of wine found their way into hands, and I had support not only from my family and friends, but also from Stephanie King, my amazing editor, who’d kindly made the trip from London to offer congratulatory hugs, a Kafkaesque goat from Usborne (long story), and a speech that just happened to coincide with me having something in my eye.

The launch party was intense but lovely. Having a bunch of people saying nice things about your book and asking you to sign copies is quite a treat, of course, but the best thing was having so many friends – many from different little compartments of my life – all in one place. I don’t get out as much as I once did, so it was great to catch up with buddies, some of whom I haven’t seen in way too long. And afterwards there was pizza and pale ale – the perfect balance of tipple and stodge to bring me gently back to earth.

Next up was publication day, which coincided nicely with World Book Day. The morning was mostly a mix of reflection, gratitude and bewildered Twittering. Then I headed to Seely School in Sherwood, Nottingham, to celebrate World Book Day by giving another Scavengers presentation.

While the Iona School presentation was given to 17 children, the one at Seely School involved 65, and the dynamic was quite different. Who’d have thunk it? They were such a feisty, bubbly bunch, and I loved their energy and keenness to get involved in the session’s interactive elements. There was a technical snag with the projector before I started (isn’t there always?), and I asked the pupils whether anyone would like to come up and do a dance while we all waited. I spoke in jest, but to my amazement a pupil jumped up and – to chants and applause – took a run-up and pulled off an incredible somersault. I couldn’t stop grinning. This cocky gymnast was a tough act to follow, but he set up such a great atmosphere and was one of the highlights of my week.

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Photo courtesy of the Iona School

And as if spontaneous somersaulting wasn’t amazing enough, the morning after the presentation I received an email from one of the pupils’ mothers to say her daughter read all of Scavengers in one night and can’t stop talking about it. Honestly, I wept a little – just a little – in front of my computer screen. I blame tiredness, but there’s no bigger compliment than someone finishing your novel in one sitting. Plus, after having had a lot of adults enthuse about Scavengers, it was a huge relief to know that it works on its primary audience too.

Friday was a mellower affair. I spent the day bussing and training between Waterstones branches in Nottingham, West Bridgford and Leicester to sign stock and drop off Scavengers bookmarks. This was exactly what I needed after such a strange and intense week: lots of walking with my headphones on, and a bit of quiet reading on buses and trains. And it was great to meet the staff at the Waterstones branches, who were all so friendly, kind and enthusiastic.

So that was publication week. It’s been emotional.

Now it’s time to prepare for whatever’s coming next. More school and bookshop visits are on the way, as well as some festival odds and ends. I’m also chuffed to bits to be getting involved with Nottingham City of Literature’s Young Ambassadors programme and Writing East Midlands‘ talented young writers.

Keep an eye on my Twitter account for further news and occasional guff. And if you’re one of the people who’ve bought, read, reviewed or championed Scavengers, thank you so, so much.

Much love,
Darren

 

Those Book Deal Feels (plus super-exciting Summer Reading Challenge bonus!)

Don’t give me that look. I know what you’re thinking: it’s been a long time. A long, long time. Around 28 months since my last blog post. 28 months! Hardly prolific, is it.

But bear with me. My silence is justified. I haven’t been thumb-twiddling all this time. I’ve been busy. And not just with the everyday stuff – you know, populating spreadsheets, making coffee, paying bills, dropping off the kids. Since my last post, I’ve also been busy bagging a book deal.

That’s right. You heard. BOOK. DEAL. Jazz hands and everything.

It’s old news, if I’m totally honest with you. The deal happened at the start of 2018. But even with all the time that’s passed – with the year’s worth of loving graft that’s gone into editing and preparing the book for publication – I’m still trying to get my head around what’s happened. I keep checking the rug beneath my feet. It’s bound to be pulled away, any moment now.

And yet, the rug remains.

So basically, during the final months of 2017, a magical intersection between

(i) my latest manuscript
(ii) the tenacity of my literary agent
(iii) the enthusiasm of a brilliant editor

landed me a book deal with Usborne. Fast-forward to today, and we’re less than two months away from the publication of my debut for younger readers, Scavengers. You can find details on it here. (And yes, Scavengers does involve the goat called Kafka I mentioned in my last blog post, all those eons ago.)

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So how does it feel, to finally pull this off? That’s a funny one. I’d been fantasizing about getting a deal for around a decade while churning out stories and manuscripts. When I imagined getting a deal – something I did frequently, usually when I should have been doing something more important – I envisioned angels and shooting stars. I heard fanfares and fireworks. I saw myself loin-clothed and six-packed astride a unicorn, galloping up a rainbow into a sun-splashed sky.

The reality? Giddiness. Disbelief. Excitement. Insomnia. In no particular order, often all at once. But most of all…relief. Such sweet, sweet relief. Because, you know, when you’ve spent over a decade chasing an absurd dream but not quite getting there, you being to wonder whether you could have used your energy more productively. Perhaps all that time spent at the writing desk could have been put to better use. I could have been painting the kitchen or earning a little more money from the day job. I could have been collecting litter from motorway lay-bys, or adopting orphans and tucking them into warm beds.

But no: I’d been selfishly perching myself at the desk, writing and submitting and writing and submitting in the delirious hope-against-hope that I might one day get a book deal. And after ten years of not quite getting there (even with some literary achievements I’m super-proud of), I started to panic. I began to feel a little desperate – to wonder about putting down my pen and trying something else (even though, in my heart of hearts, I knew the pen would never stay down).

So yes: relief. That’s what I felt more than anything else. But you know what? That relief was sweeter than a ride on any unicorn.

Hot on relief’s tail came gratitude. So many good people have helped to make this happen. A cliché, I know, but I honestly couldn’t have done it without them. Here’s a list of some folk I’d like to thank.

[Disclaimer: I’ve copied and pasted this list from the acknowledgements page of the novel. Not that that makes it any less heartfelt.]

  • Wanda, my ever-patient wife and sounding board, for her endless love and faith, and for being beside me for all the dips and bumps.
  • Oskar and Charlie for the laughs and wonder.
  • Mum and Dad for the books, motorway heroics and everything else.
  • My kick-ass agent, Laura Susijn, for toasties and tenacity.
  • My super-savvy editors, Stephanie King and Sarah Stewart, and all at Usborne HQ for adopting Landfill and giving him such a wonderful home.
  • Tom Clohosy Cole for the awesome art, and for bearing with me.
  • Kirsty Fox and James Alexander for critiques and cake.
  • Tilda Johnson for her eagle eye.
  • Dan Layton, Phil Formby and Bees Make Honey for the Red Stripe, blood, sweat and tears.
  • Chris Baldwin for frites and positivity.
  • Christophe Dejous, Richard Dytch, Matt Eris, Jason Holt, Neil Johnson, Graham Langley, Neil Marsden, Gavin McFarlane, Kieran O’Riordan and Mark Spivey for the music.
  • Diana Pasek-Atkinson for all the reading on the move.
    Matt Turpin and all at Nottingham City of Literature for their enthusiasm and great work.
  • Christina Lee and the University of Nottingham’s English Department for teaching me to read between and beyond the lines.
  • Neil Fulwood, Sophie-Louise Hyde, Chris Killen, Mhairi McFarlane, John McGregor, George Saunders, David Sillitoe, Kim Slater, Jonathan Taylor and Alex Wheatle for their time, kindness and advice.
  • Samuel J. Halpin, A.M. Howell and Serena Patel for their camaraderie (go Class of ’18!).
  • The Five Leaves Bookshop for shelf after shelf of goodness.
  • And all of my family and friends for the big little things. [Buy the novel for more info on big little things.]

That’s to name just a few. It’s taken a cast of thousands. Many of them have helped without even realizing.

Oh, and I also need to thank the wonderful people at The Reading Agency, who have included Scavengers among the books selected for this year’s national Summer Reading Challenge. Amazing. It’s a genuine privilege to be part of a scheme that encourages so many kids to read their hearts out. So much so that I almost got a little weepy after I first heard the news. I was doing the dishes, so was able to insist that I’d got a bit of Fairy Liquid in my eye…

That’s it for now. My first post in over two years! Jabber jabber jabber. I bet you wish I’d stayed away.

Check in every now and then for more news. And you’re welcome to follow me on Twitter if you’d like more frequent guff.

Much love,
Darren