Why millions love this book: magic thriller with an ordinary schoolboy hero

(Warning: plot spoilers ahead)

It’s a thriller with a plotline that keeps you turning the page and reading late into the night.

It’s a school story that isn’t about posh boarding school kids.

Its hero is ordinary – average at schoolwork, not very handsome and quick-tempered.

But the book has magic – both kinds. Real magic plus the writing kind that makes children read, completely absorbed, sucking a pencil or with a torch under the bed covers.

Boys who don’t like reading love the book. The aerial football likely helps.


Quidditch – aerial football. Genius


You need to laugh too 


Ron vomits slugs. Urrrrgh!

I’ve been reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, along with the other books in the series, for the first time. I’d seen the films with my children but had been put off reading the books because the first one, while a cracking story, isn’t very well written. But, hats off to JK Rowling, she wasn’t too proud to improve her prose. As she wrote more, her writing got better and better. And her knowledge of how young minds work – and their owners’ behave – is spot on. Did I mention the books are funny too, in the bogeys-blood-and-slime way kids love?

What got me thinking about why the Harry Potter books are so popular is the news that Philip Pullman is set to release a new book set in Lyra’s world of Dust – the world of his acclaimed Northern Lights tale. It was perhaps better named as The Golden Compass, the film of the book.


Lyra and Pan – your soul as an animal you can touch

These magical books – there are three – pull children in too but they’re not in the same popularity league as Rowling’s. I think it’s because they don’t have as many kid-friendly elements as the Harry Potter books. They have a 10-year-old orphan heroine, Lyra – Harry is 10 at the beginning of the first Harry Potter book and an orphan too. The Northern Lights also has wonderful magical animals in its daemons, the children’s animal-companions who are also their souls. But Lyra doesn’t go to school and the book’s aren’t humorous either.

That master dramatist William Shakespeare understood the value of humour. He had funny sub-plots and buffoons. You only have to think of Bottom, bewitched with a donkey’s head in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with whom the proud fairy queen, under an unfortunate enchantment, promptly falls in love.

Philip Pullman is a wonderful storyteller and he writes very well, but marrying a school story, as JK Rowling did (Enid Blyton showed how much children like to read about their school world) with a magical thriller – that’s genius. And a hero who isn’t special, who is really an ordinary boy – children can identify strongly with him. And Harry wants to be even more ordinary and have a family like the chaotic Weasleys, for instance. The Weasleys may live in a tumbledown house but it’s painted with love.


Everything Harry wants – friends and family at the Weasleys

There’s a subtle religious element in the Harry Potter books too – Harry is a sacrifice figure. This isn’t painted large though, and the books are all the better for it. Harry ends up saving the world from grown-up magical bullies, but he’s a most reluctant hero. Lyra is a sacrificial character too. Philip Pullman spells this out in his second book, The Subtle Knife, that she is Eve – an Eve who has to make a big sacrifice. But the religious element in these books is made very clear, perhaps too much so.


Animals and cool kids


Fluffy may have three heads, but Hagrid thinks he’s “a’right”

Animals – what child doesn’t love them, especially magical ones? There are magical animals in both Philip Pullman and JK Rowling’s books. Soul animals in the Northern Lights, and, in Harry Potter, so many animals – from owl messengers to winged horses only those who have seen death can see, to Hagrid’s terrifying pets. There’s his three-headed giant dog called Fluffy, a baby dragon who wrecks his cabin, and a hippogriffin who eats dead rats. Yup, kids love pets, especially when there’s yuckiness involved too.

A bit of gross humour also goes a long way towards injecting lighter moments into a story. Think Shakespeare and Bottom. The humour is also mostly kind in Harry Potter. There are other humorous children’s writers. Famously, Roald Dahl, who is very amusing but whose humour sometimes makes you feel like you’ve been mentally stabbed.

As a school story, Harry Potter also scores over the much rated (by kids; teachers loathe her) Enid Blyton books. Harry’s world is an inclusive one. Boarding school is expensive but Hogwarts is open to anyone with magical ability. Enid Blyton’s boarding schools – Malory Towers and St Claire’s – are strictly a rich kid’s world.

Then there’s the cool kid element that’s so important at school. Harry is a cool kid but doesn’t realise it – he’s an orphan, after all. His friends, Hermione the swot and red-haired Ron, who comes from a big, poor family, aren’t so cool, although they get cooler as they grow older.


The Burrows – loving home fit to burst

Approval by peers – being considered cool – is vital to children. To see their struggle for approval mirrored in a book, and follow how the characters overcome their individual challenges is so important. Harry, Ron and Hermione’s personal growth is also accompanied by a message about what’s really matters in life. Compare Ron’s home – scruffy and bursting at the seams but glued together by the golden-hearted Weasley parents – to Harry’s godfather Sirius’ home – a rich, bleak London house, once splendid, now empty and dilapidated.

So, there you have it. The reason for Harry Potter’s success: so very many elements and issues that are important to children all in the one story. There’s making friends, dealing with school bullies and real characters who are imperfect – just like you. Then there are challenging but wonderful animals, funny bits, gory bits, enthralling magic and an exciting plot that keeps you asking: ‘what’s going to happen next?’ And there’s Quidditch – an extremely dangerous aerial football game played on broomsticks. What’s not to like?

But it’s how you put it together too. JK Rowling’s writing improved hugely as she wrote more books. She will never be a lyrical writer – Philip Pullman writes wonderful lyrical passages – but in the end what matters more is telling a compelling story that is peopled with characters you care about because they face similar challenges to you. They just have magical powers that they occasionally misuse, sometimes for the fun of it. Who wouldn’t?

Sales numbers seem to support my view of the Harry books – it’s the world’s best-selling book series, with over 500 million sold.

Psst… This is a personal take on Harry and I’ve just been told by my daughter that she knew lots of girls who’d never normally pick up a book who read Harry Potter.

Paint a parrot – playtime for grown-ups

A new way to play that helps jumpstart creativity 

Hand-over-hand painted parrot

Hand-over-hand painted parrot

Take a parrot, turn him upside down and paint him. His picture – not him.

That’s what I did, along with a partner who held the paintbrush as I tried to control it and paint my parrot. The parrot, of course, was just an image – an A4 computer print-out.

The painting process, which involves trying to guide someone else’s hand, is strangely freeing – and joyful. I found I worried much less about detail than I usually do. And the results – not just mine, other people’s too – were pretty good. And surprisingly different.

Paint a parrot is a recent interactive art exhibition, at Auckland University’s Window. This is a tiny gallery in the university’s library run by student curators. The exhibition is the work of artist Dorota Broda who works doing just this ‘hand-over-hand’ painting with autistic children, to help them learn to express themselves.

I think it helps adults express themselves too. At least one grown-up (me) found it gave me permission to paint much more freely than usual. You don’t feel so fearful of the blank sheet of paper in front of you. Something that torments many artists – and writers.

To further free myself up, I asked Dorota to turn my parrot image upside down. This tricks the brain; you no longer see a parrot but a pattern, and you just reproduce the pattern, which is much easier and less stressful to do. Amazingly, the results are usually much more accurate than if you draw from an image that is the right way up.

Electra and Michael learn about freedom and control

Electra and Michael learn about freedom and control

But the ‘hand-over-hand’ part of the painting process is what is really important. Because you can’t totally control your partner’s hand, fiddly painting isn’t possible. If, like me, you have a tendency to fuss, trying to paint fine lines and worrying about making mistakes, you find you easily let go of this paralysing inhibition.


Control and the ‘writing’ button 

There is unexpected battle for control in painting this way. Indeed, when my painting partner took control of my hand and brush, he pressed my thumb painfully without realising it. But both of us produced lovely, uninhibited parrot paintings. I also felt strangely peaceful afterwards.

Painting had induced that state of mind where you feel ready for any endeavour – including writing. Which is why I am writing about this painting experience. Getting into a creative frame of mind, where the ideas and the words flow, is not easy. This seems to be one way to get there.

A word of warning: my partner was reluctant to take part at first, so if you do try this exercise at home be ready for this reaction. It’s common. However, he ended up loving the experience – and it relaxed him too.

As for me, I felt like I was back in kindergarten. The world of fun and sandboxes, with pale sand running through my fingers.

My hope is that playing – and this is just one way to play – will help the words flow as smoothly as the sand in my memory does.

Writing a book – the journey of a story

Child with a dove, by Pablo Picasso

‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up’ – Picasso

It’s a dream shared by lots of people – to write a book.

Perhaps it starts with the scary stories you spin to terrify your younger brothers and sisters? Some of us have spun such tales since childhood.

I remember once convincing my youngest sister, then two years old, that we had been on our seaside summer holiday while she had sat on the toilet all week – she was sitting there at the time.

I described many incidents and all the fun things we’d done. I kept spinning and spinning the story until I’d quite convinced her. Fortunately, she was too young to get really upset, but the memory still makes me squirm a little.

Or it did until my husband told me how as a scout leader he used to drive the younger scouts in his charge to terrified tears with stories of nasty creatures roaming the ink-black scout campsite with murderous intent.

“Were you a sixer?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said, not at all shame-faced. A sixer is the leader of a small scout group. “You weren’t very responsible then,” I commented, feeling very Hermione Grangerish (the proper little girl from the Harry Potter books).

I think I’ve stumbled across something here… J K Rowling’s magical children’s books are delightfully terrifying. Her young readers curl up their toes, mouths open, holding their breath as they listen entranced to her stories. Rather like the small terrified scouts did – and my siblings too, curled up tight under the bed clothes.

Just pretend

I think writing starts with this: the desire to express yourself. Sometimes that desire manifests as scary stories for younger kids.

But, sadly, what comes so naturally to us as children doesn’t come so easily once we’ve grown up. Part of the trick in writing stories as a grown-up seems to be to tap into that free-floating imaginative mindset that comes to naturally to children.

So, how do you do it?

Just pretend.

I hit on this because I’ve always been a bit of a day-dreamer, but it seems research backs me up. One website, Big Think, suggests drawing monsters to help get the creativity ball rolling. In other words: play just like a child.

In ‘Killing Creativity: Why Kids Draw Pictures of Monsters & Adults Don’t’, Big Think discusses The Monster Engine, a book by comic-book artist Dave DeVries that sees him turn children’s drawings into realistic paintings.

The Monster Engine

Let’s pretend! Children draw, paint and write playfully – they can teach grown-ups a lot abut how to be creative

The idea is to not be afraid to create like a child. Psychologists Darya Zabelina and Michael Robinson suggest a simple trick for doing this: think like a seven-year-old.

‘You are 7 years old. School is cancelled, and you have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?’

This is what they asked one group of test subjects. A second group was asked the same question – minus the first sentence. Much less fun. You can imagine the results.

Ideastogo delves into similar research and reaches a  similar conclusion – you have to tap into the playful childlike part of yourself to create. And pretending to be someone else – Batman, a character in a fairy tale, or whatever you fancy – is one way to get in touch with your childlike creative ability.

Albert Einstein knew this. He said: “To stimulate creativity, one must develop the childlike inclination for play.”

And Pablo Picasso said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Writing is as much an artistic pursuit as drawing or painting, or dreaming up new theories of how the universe works.

Daydream believer

So, why write about writing? Because how a book is made can be as interesting as the book itself. Lots of DVDs feature fascinating material describing how the film shown was made. I started writing about writing in ‘Murder Your Darlings’ a while ago now. I want to alter course slightly and use it o describe the journey of a book – my book.

The story I am writing is a children’s story, but that’s all I’m going to say about the actual tale. Describing it would prevent me writing it. It seems we only have the capacity to tell a story once – we lose the vital freshness if we tell it more than once.

However, here is what happened a while back: I woke up one morning and the germ of my story was there. That doesn’t mean the thousands of words I have written since have come easily, but the relaxed, playful state I was in when the idea came to me was the reason it came – the only reason. Which is why this first ‘story’ post is about play – and how valuable it is.

I would like to share my writing journey with you. And if it helps you write your own story all the better. Lots of us want to create, to write, to play…

So, let’s start by pretending we’re seven again.

A Farewell to Arms – the longest haiku

Poppies - courtesy Giuseppe Moscato A Farewell to Arms is shot through with truth and rendered in the simplest prose.

Like a haiku – the ultra-brief Japanese poems lauded for their spare elegance – Ernest Hemingway’s novel about an ambulance driver in World War I uses simple uncluttered language. Landscapes are sketched in a few deft word strokes, death too.

The heartbreak of war is understated. It waits to be uncovered once the reader ponders the words a little. Hemingway called this his Iceberg Theory of writing. The idea is that if you write truly enough your reader will get an innate sense of the story without all the details having to be included for, like an iceberg, much of the story is concealed beneath the surface but accessible.

From a practical writing point of view, Hemingway writes like a newspaper reporter – indeed, he once was one. He describes what he sees in front of him directly and without embellishment. In some of his later works, such as A Moveable Feast, his language is more lyrical, but in this early work his prose is spare. Hemingway further honed this sparse reporter’s style by writing short stories – a medium that teaches a writer to make very word count, rather like copy writing.

For example, his description of a friend’s death in A Farewell to Arms is recounted in just a few words. Hit by a shell, Hemingway describes his friend biting his arm against the pain of his shattered legs, then calling for his mother as he dies. It is not the kind of full-on graphic image we are now used to but it is a telling one, and once again you have to let the reality sink in.

When it works this spare technique works well, but it is a bit of a slow burn. For example, early in the book, Katherine, the nurse the main character Frederic falls in love with, tells Frederic she was going to cut off all her hair after her fiancé was killed at the Front. You only realise the significance of this when you think historically about how important a beautiful head of hair was to a young woman in 1915. To cut off your hair was to negate your femininity, to tell the world you are effectively a widow.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway at work in the 1940s


Always precise

The oft-quoted “Courage is grace under pressure” is an excellent example of Hemingway’s concise and precise use of language.

But this longer quote is stylistically even better, partly because of its judicious and repetitive use of ‘very’: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”

But spare elegance isn’t all. Even Hemingway realised this. Too spare can be dull, and Hemingway’s style developed over time. But he was always careful to use adjectives and adverbs judiciously.

The memoir about his life in Paris as an expatriate writer in the 1920s, called A Moveable Feast, is more sumptuous in style. But it never becomes over-blown, and given the ‘feast’ is a young man’s Paris it could so easily have been in another’s hands.

Here is a wonderful example: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

There are a lot of descriptive words here, but they are simple ones: cold, crisp, strong.

Hemingway always retained his preference for the simple words. Here is what he had to say about William Faulkner.

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

If you like a simple, direct style you’ll love A Farewell to Arms. It doesn’t have the pace and plot of, say, a detective novel, but the flavour of this surprisingly delicate story lingers. It is also a window into a time, and a war, that shapes us and our world to this day.

A Christmas story for every child who needs to feel special

Who's the best for the job? Not who you might think

Who is the best for the Nativity job? Not who you might think

I love all kinds of books, especially children’s books. They have great plots. If you want to learn how to plot, grab some kids’ books from your local children’s library.

Children give up on any book that doesn’t hold their attention. This one will. I found it tucked away in the public library – I’m sure you could find it. The story also has a nice extra theme running through it.

The Lion, the Unicorn and Me needs to be read to every child who has felt he or she isn’t special. There is a little grey donkey out there who knows exactly how you feel. He’s an ordinary donkey who turns out to be not so ordinary after all. Quite special, in fact.

The Donkey’s Christmas Story – the book’s sub-title – is a funny book that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has some lovely twists, but I won’t spoil the plot – the following is not really a plot spoiler.

Our modest little donkey finds himself in a contest to select the right animal to help the soon-to-be-born Baby Jesus and his family. The competition is tough – and not above some verbal jostling either. The lion whispers that the donkey is sure to “make an ass of himself”.

“I did. I am. A proper ass,” responds our honest, sweet-natured little beast.

Of course he wins the coveted job.

This is a Scholastic Children’s Book. I have some reservations about Scholastic and the quality of its books, and this one isn’t perfect. The illustrations are charming but not quite top notch. They do have a delicacy about them though, and children will enjoy the gentle colours and bit of sparkle provided by the touches of gold. But it the story that really shines. It is both unusual and poetic. The words and sentences have a lyrical quality, almost the rhythm of a poem.

However, there are some complex words and ideas that parents of younger children might like to skip over – the unicorn being “known to be good with virgins” is an example. This means it isn’t quite clear what age the book is aimed at, and whether it is for reading to children or for independent readers; probably a bit of both.

But the charm of the story and the idea that a modest, self-effacing donkey can shine at such an important job is a good message to convey to any child, and especially the less confident child. Our donkey lists not being important or clever, or beautiful among his weaknesses but ends up shining in many ways.

So poetic and amusing was the book that I read it several times.

The Lion, the Unicorn and Me – The Donkey’s Christmas Story is by Jeanette Winterson, with illustrations by Rosalind MacCurrach. I found it in the public library, but as my edition was published in 2011 it should be easy to buy. Could be worth putting on the Christmas buy list, if you start planning in September like me.

Murder your darlings

The irrepressible Jessica Mitford - image from 'Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford', by Leslie Brody

The irrepressible Jessica Mitford – image from ‘Irrepressible: The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford’, by Leslie Brody

If you want to write well you must be prepared to murder your darlings – that is, kill off all those unnecessary words and little flourishes.

Whenever you execute a particularly fine piece of writing be sure to delete it before pressing ‘send’. This applies equally to business writing and first novels.

Jessica Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters, popularised the phrase in her controversial book The Making of a Muckraker, which included tips on how to write if you want to be listened to.

The red sheep of the family, she was a younger sister of novelist Nancy Mitford, of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate fame, and Diana Mitford, who married British wartime Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Perhaps it’s not surprising she became a life-long Communist.

This blog is dedicated to Jessica and her unfine writing – writing that is robust and honest, and delivers its message clearly.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t mention that Jessica didn’t actually invent the phrase “murder your darlings”. It was coined by British journalist, critic and novelist Arthur Quiller-Couch who did. He said that “whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

He also opposed the use of jargon – another killer of good writing. But he thought the kind of slang words that have become everyday usage were perfectly fine.

However, all this doesn’t mean writing needs to be rough, or that it shouldn’t be properly thought out. As a writer, you need to think carefully about what you want to say but not labour too much over style. The result will have a spare elegance about it, like a Little Black dress or one of Apple’s beautifully minimal products.

So, when you regretfully draw a red line through all those fine flourishes you are really paring back to the beautiful bare bones of your writing.

This is when you really start to communicate with your reader.

Creativity and pyjamas

For inspiration just don some PJs

For inspiration just don some PJs

Or why inspiration always strikes at the wrong moment

Why is it that when you sit down in front of your computer breakfasted and dressed smartly for work the necessary inspiration usually fails to come.

But fall out of bed, briefly rub a flannel across your face, maybe brush your teeth, and sit down nonchalantly in front of the computer, toast in hand, and exquisite words and ideas fall out of your head without any effort.

One could conclude that the only way to write is in one’s PJs. Given this, maybe some nicer ones are needed as you’ll be spending a lot of time in them and you want to look OK when the courier calls.

Well, fortunately, this is not the only way to get creative.

It’s all about left brain and right brain, and accessing the creative part of the mind. The left side of the brain is the rational part, while the right hemisphere is the creative part. Confusingly, the left brain is also the verbal part, but it seems that to write well you need to be able to access the right brain too.

So, how do you do it? By relaxing. Which is what you do naturally when you wander around half asleep in your pyjamas and idly switch on the computer to find yourself accidentally in creative mode. If you should start working in this relaxed mood you will effortlessly harness your creativity to your work without even thinking about it. However, the rigours of getting dressed for work and putting your mind into “work mode” destroys all this.

But there are ways to harness the creative strength of the right brain while in the office. Veteran British comedian and actor John Cleese suggests a non-pyjama way in his insightful and amusing video on the topic. He describes creativity as an ability to play with ideas, for example, just for enjoyment. It is a “way of operating”, he says, not a talent. It is “childlike”.

Another technique for switching into creative right brain mode is to learn to draw. I know, I know, I hear the moans and groans. But it is possible to advance beyond the infantile image-making of your 10-year-old self, when you gave up drawing because it had become too painful. There are developmental reasons why this happened, and with the help of Betty Edwards’ wonderful Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain anyone can learn to draw – and come to love it – and access their creativity for other purposes as well. Indeed, corporations employ Betty to help their executives become more generally creative.

Yoga and meditation can do a similar job.

But, whatever method you choose, it will be well worth the effort.

Now, I just need to order my own copy of Betty’s book as the one I lent from my friend is getting way too thumb-marked.