Category Archives: Interviews

Fool's Gold: The Interview

How did the project start – would you be able to give me some idea of the history behind the Fool’s Gold project?
Mr Peter Shaw, project lead says:
The project developed from my insistence on implementing the following philosophy:
Everything we do at the ‘Dearne High: A Specialist Humanities College’ is about raising academic standards and the absolute pursuit of excellence for our local and wider learning communities. How can we teach children to be outstanding writers without providing real purposes, real locations, real audiences and high quality teaching and coaching? How can we help our children to become fully rounded human beings without developing their understanding of their locality, the Yorkshire way of life, our National identity and the wonders of the wider world? How could our children have achieved all of these aims without publishing a book called ‘Fool’s Gold?’ I didn’t think they could…until they had…

The title ‘Fool’s Gold’ captured many of the ironies that modern teachers in Yorkshire are working with. After the closures of the mines, the textiles industry, the steel industry and dwindling fish stocks, the Yorkshire economy now relies on tourism to generate the majority of its income. The main idea for the book was that Yorkshire’s tendency to lament the loss of past glories is like an unhelpful search for ‘Fool’s Gold,’ which is now being replaced with a full and meaningful recognition of Yorkshire’s future potential that is like finding ‘Pure Gold.’ My four main strategies to make the book unique and worthy of note were to 1.) Ensure that all the children taking part would appear as themselves within the storyline 2.) Enlist the support of as many ‘A’ lister young adult fiction writers as possible 3.) Ensure that a substantial part of the book would be in a graphic novel format and 4.) Select prominent and varied tourist spots which led us to devise visits to Scarborough, Whitby and the National Coal Mining Museum.

When I gave the plot synopsis to our children and staff they turned it into what it is…

An introductory question to begin with – who are the Iron Pyrates and how did they become involved with Fool’s Gold?
Mrs. Joan Townend, events and marketing and the main photographer says:
Scott, Brandon, Lauren, Savina, Bethany and Jessica are the ‘Iron Pyrates.’  They were some of the authors included in the college’s first book – ‘Out of the Shadows’ – An Anthology of Fantasy Stories,’ our first self published book.  During one of the promotions for the first book- (a visit to Barnsley Library and a signing at WHSmith)–the idea for a graphic novel was born. I remember it well… The first conversations about it took place within an extremely noisy shopping centre cafe during a lunch break. We were sat around a table with GP Taylor, Mr. Shaw, Bethany, Scott, Brandon and myself. GP Taylor volunteered to be a main character and offered to work with us in Scarborough and Whitby. These became two of the three main locations for the book. 

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Although the Pyrates are the ‘heroes’ of the tale I noted that there were five schools involved in the story. Roughly how many people (students & teachers) were involved in the creative process?
Mrs Joan Townend says:
The four primaries that came along on the trips were The Hill Primary, Gooseacre, Dearne Highgate and Dearne Carrfield.  We had 8 staff and 45 students on each trip to Scarborough, Whitby and the National Coal Mining Museum, often using different staff and students on each.  The main coordination of a very large group of collaborators and a complex creative process was undertaken by Mr. Shaw, Mr. Child, Mrs. Crichton and I. A further 12 staff including the Head teacher, also made invaluable personal contributions to the book as a whole.  Of course the children did the majority of the hard work that made it happen! The Iron Pyrates wrote most of the prose and dialogue and made most of the decisions about the content and ordering of the frames.  Our young ICT team developed skills quickly and became experts in the art of turning my photographs into graphic art.  We all thoroughly enjoyed it, but it was hard work… We have had a fantastic time seeing it in print and are really enjoying the readings, sales events and quite extensive publicity that Fool’s Gold is now getting.

How long did the whole process from conception to completion take?
Scott, student writer and main character says:
The whole process started all that time ago when ‘Out Of The Shadows’ had just been published, back in 2008. I remember there was an idea for a sequel that nobody really took seriously at the time, after all we were used, like most writers, to writing on our own, rather than as a team. As things went on and Mr Shaw pushed the idea…we realised that we had something that could actually work. I think it was May 2009 when we actually started work on writing it and the end result we have now was finished about three months ago in September/October. It took about nine months from conception to completion.

Was the entire graphic novel created in-house – cover design, layouts, graphic design and layout etc. or were parts of the process outsourced?
Mr Eddie Child, who led on ICT design throughout the book, says:
The novel was created in a variety of ways, in line with the deliberate and varied presentation styles throughout the book.
The ‘photo book’ graphic novel images were created by students either in house, or at Foulstone CLC.
The prose sections were written by teams and individuals. Some were outsource, i.e. those written by famous authors, others were written in house i.e. those written by staff or students.
The hand drawn sections were again a mixture of in-house and outsourced. Some were drawn by one of our students (Marta Kwasniewska); others were drawn by reputed comic artist Kevin Hopgood including the cover images.

In the acknowledgments Fool’s Gold is referred to as a ‘virtual reality graphic novel’ – can you explain the concept?
Mr Peter Shaw, project lead, says:
That was a bit of fun… Virtual reality television involves celebrities appearing as themselves. No one can really tell what is planned, i.e. what is happening for real, or what is just acting. The narrative structures and designs within ‘Fool’s Gold’ went on to be a lot like that… I remember having to think particularly hard about how to adapt the absolutely standard disclaimer that appears on the copyright page of virtually every book. Ours went on to read:
“Whilst this book includes real living persons and places, it is important to point out that the book’s dramatic events and characterisations are largely fictional and included with the very kind support and permissions of all those involved.”

Just as a virtual reality television programme evolves through the interaction of its characters so does a ‘virtual reality graphic novel…’ We had to be very flexible with planning until we knew exactly how and when some of the writers, artists and photographers could be included.
‘Fool’s Gold’ also has a fairly substantive number of books that inspired its’ unique blend of styles. These are all referenced within the novel itself and include contributions from the authors – i.e. graphic influences – ‘Dopple Ganger Chronicles,’ by GP Taylor and ‘Malice,’ by Chris Wooding – literary content influences –‘Room 13’ by Robert Swindells and ‘The Mariah Mundi’ series by G.P. Taylor – the use of MSN – novels by Bali Rai and the ingredients of the historic novel – Alison Weir and Bernard Cornwell.

The list of key contributors is a veritable who’s who of UK Young Adult literature A-listers, how were you able to get them all involved in Fool’s Gold?
Bethany, student writer and main character says:
Well, I think the important thing to remember is that a lot of people were very interested in ‘Fool’s Gold.’ Once the extent of the project was properly explained, it really did provoke a range of questions, such as; Could this actually be done? How could we manage it etc.…? So I think it was partly curiosity that got so many people involved. However, it was also a lot of persistence on both the students and the teachers’ part. When we first began emailing those involved, we didn’t honestly expect anything back, but after mere days there were reams of responses that really amazed us.
I think, after the first few contributors agreed, it became much easier to persuade others to become a part of the ‘Fool’s Good’ team.

What was it like working with the authors, which ones were the most inspirational to you on a personal level?

Savina and Lauren, student writers and main characters:
It was absolutely fantastic working with famous authors. I remember that being ‘allowed’ to sit, eat and talk with G.P. Taylor was like being treated as a successful adult. It was great being able to call him Graham as well. He was incredibly kind to us in agreeing to be a main character and was one of the funniest people we have ever met! In fact he has worked with us for four full days without charging us for any of it…
Mr Peter Shaw, project lead adds:
They’re absolutely right. Graham’s exemplary support spurred us all on to persuade many more children’s writers to work with us a voluntary basis in return for a highly purposeful educational outcome. We were really grateful to Chris Wooding, Alison Weir and Linda Newbery who wrote sections on a fully voluntary basis and for Robert Swindells’ assistance in editing his cameo sections into his own voice. I also remember reading Joe Craig’s endorsement and seeing just how powerful our ‘specialism and community work’ was embodied into a story, that in many aspects was as ‘real’ as it was ‘fictional.’
In fact, I think the real inspiration is now coming from ‘Fool’s Gold’s growing ‘reading community’ more than the original ‘writing community’ that produced it. Grovel.org.uk, a graphic novel review site said:
“It’s not every day that you see a 130-page graphic novel produced by school children but Fool’s Gold is a notable exception. This book has come together through the collective efforts of the pupils and teachers of Dearne High, a Yorkshire school that’s trail-blazing new ways of interacting with its local community and the wider world.
You’ll have to alter your expectations about what a book by children might be like. Featuring a multi-layered story with additional material by a number of professional comic writers, artists, editors, photographers and novelists, this is an extraordinary feat of co-operation, merging real people from the school with local folklore and storytelling. A phenomenal achievement.”

What was it like having to work in a group?
Did working in a group make the creative process easier or harder?

Bethany, student writer and main character says:
This question definitely made me smile, as do most of the memories of the ‘Fool’s Gold’ team. I think the answer to this question is both.
On one hand, it was difficult to organize different parts of the book, especially with every day school to deal with as well. It seemed we were all operating on different time scales, and at one point, we were sure it wouldn’t fit together. However, it was also a great experience to the work in such a diverse environment. The Writing/Character team, who were key behind the ideas of the book all knew each other quite well from our previous book, Out of the Shadows, so that made things slightly easier (even though there were some horrible arguments in the more stressful stages), but then there was also the ICT team (in charge of the production and editing of images) to work with and outside contributors.
I’d definitely say the group approach made it more interesting…!

A question for the students that wrote the scripts for the pages illustrated by Kevin Hopgood – how did it feel to see your work drawn on the page and did he capture the images you saw in the your minds eye?
Scott, student writer and main character says:
How did it feel to see my work drawn? It was amazing, to think that the drawings in ‘Fools Gold’ that once started as nothing more than an idea are now fully fledged drawn artwork and are published in a book. It’s just absolutely amazing. I never imagined that anything like the end product would come from it. It’s still a little surreal to me, and I find it almost crazy how Kevin Hopgood managed to draw what we were thinking so accurately.

A question for the artist Marta – the other contributors had their writing drawn by an artist. What was it like illustrating Bali Rai’s piece and how does it feel to see your artwork in print?
Marta, student artist and main character replies:
I was lost for words at the time. At first I was a bit embarrassed, particularly when I received my school planner and saw that one of my drawings from ‘Fool’s Gold’ was on the front cover!
Mr Shaw, project leader says:
Actually Marta now has quite a ‘fan base.’ Lots of our children and staff have commented very positively on the quality of Marta’s illustrations and Kevin Hopgood was delighted to colour them for her.

Is becoming involved in the publishing world a career any of you are thinking of for your futures?
Bethany Pickering, student writer and main character says:
Many of us consider or have previously considered a career as a writer. Scott has already written a novel, and is in the process of getting it published. Brandon shares the ambition, and is currently working on several pieces. Whether or not we all plan to go into this career, we all share a love for literature, both producing and reading.
The girls in the group do have different plans, as far as I am aware, but we still maintain it as a much loved hobby, and will probably aim to publish as an option in later life.
Brandon, student writer and main character says:
Definitely, I have wanted to be an author as long as I could remember. With our graphic novel being supported and recognized, by an increasing number of prominent writers and reviewers, it’s given me a glimpse of what you can achieve and get from it when you set your mind to it. Plus, with advice from the many successful writers involved in this novel, it’s given me a whole new level of support for trying to reach my goals and dreams.

Why are graphic novels so appealing to teens?
Scott, student writer and main character says:
The reason why Graphic novels are so popular with teenagers, what I think anyway, is that many teenagers don’t like reading a large quantity of words. A graphic novel gives them something a little easier to read and for some, something more enjoyable than reading through just text. Also, as they access pictures it gives them more of an idea of what the author is thinking and wanting to communicate.

Do you have any ideas on how Graphic Novels can be better utilised in schools?
Scott, student writer and main character says:
Well of course…they could all buy ours and attempt similar writing processes themselves!
Other than that… Graphic novels could be better utilised in schools by using them more, because of how many teenagers will prefer to read from a book with pictures. More teenagers will be willing to read and learn if they have books like that. I don’t think that full text books should be removed from schools, but because of teenagers’ willingness to read graphic novel styled books, more should be produced and used.

Was there anything particular that you enjoyed or disliked about the project?
Jessica, student writer and main character says:
Well, where do I begin…I enjoyed the trips to Scarborough, Whitby and the National Coal Mining museum, they were good research, and we took a lot of pictures that helped us later on. I also liked that we were all friends from the beginning, so it was easier to communicate and get on. I can’t say I disliked anything, the deadlines and Photoshop part was hard, but we pulled through it, so it was good!

Did you learn anything during the project that you wouldn’t normally have learned?

Jessica, student writer and main character says:
I learned that working to deadlines can be frustrating and hard, but without them, we would not get anywhere in life. I also learnt how to work in a team, and if you imagine success, it will come to you; also that if you work hard, it pays off and you really appreciate the work that you and your team-mates have done.

Where can any interested parties obtain copies of Fool’s Gold apart from Amazon?

Mr Peter Shaw, project lead says:
The best way to purchase the book as an individual is to email j.townend@barnsley.org
I would strongly recommend going for the black and white interior version that is printed on high quality silk paper with a satin sheen – ISBN – 978-1-907211-74-4. These books can be purchased and collected from the college itself for just £5.00! The same book can also be posted out to a given address at a cost of £9.00 (to cover postage and packing) and the book also retails via Neilson at £9.00 for bookshops and libraries to order multiple copies.
If you want the far more expensive colour deluxe version – ISBN – 978-1907211737 then I suggest you enter Matthew’s competition to win a specially signed one, or part with quite a lot more money to buy it via Amazon…

What does the future hold for Dearne High’s fledgling publishing empire?
Mr Neil Clark, the Headteacher states:
The publication of ‘Fool’s Gold’ represents a significant landmark in our School Improvement journey… ‘Fool’s Gold’ has and will continue to act as a catalyst to increase students’ interest and enjoyment of reading and writing alongside the development of vital Personal Learning and Thinking Skills such as creative thinking, independent inquiry, self management, effective participation and team working, vital to individual and collective success in our increasingly competitive global market.
Brandon, student writer and main character says:
Who knows!? With the majority of us starting to focus on their school career choices, the Dearne’s publishing empire will also be starting to get a new group of kids to produce stories and novels. But I think I speak for all of the Iron Pyrates when I say that we would all be very responsive to any further work involved in promoting and selling our latest book ‘Fool’s Gold,’ including that for this interview…
Mr Peter Shaw, project lead adds:
The future is very ‘golden’ indeed. Our writers are now producing feature articles about ‘Fool’s Gold’ for a significant number of magazines with circulations of 50,000 and 80,000, not to mention their appearances in a raft of websites relating to promoting reading, comics, developing literacy skills and libraries. We thoroughly enjoyed the Teen Librarian organising and publishing our first ever ‘proper interview.’ May the best person win the only signed copy of the full colour version in existence … and who knows… they might even get included in a forthcoming sequel….!

Eight Questions With… Marcus Chown

Welcome to Eight Questions With… Marcus Chown, these questions (and answers) can also be found on the last page of the December edition of Teen Librarian Monthly, and now for the first time on the website itself. This is for those readers who do not subscribe* but are interested in finding out more about our scientist in residence.

Q1 Which of your books would you recommend for teens and young readers

For teens, any of my popular science books. When I was a teenager I used to read popular science books by people like Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. I write at their kind of level – in fact, I write for my wife, Karen, who has no science background. So, if I was a teenager today, I might be a reader of my books, if that makes any sense!
My most accessible books are Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You and The Magic Furnace. In fact, several school science teachers have said they’ve given Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You to their teenage pupils.
Did you know that there’s so much empty space in matter that, if you could squeeze it all out, the entire human race would fit in the volume of a sugar cube? Did you know that a single atom can be in two places at once – the equivalent you being in London and New York at the same time? Did you know that you age faster on the top floor of a building than on the ground floor? All these things are in Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You, which is about Einstein’s theory of relativity too. All in less than 200 pages. Without an equation. And, hopefully, it won’t hurt you (at least, not much!).
The Magic Furnace is the book of mine I like best. It’s about the discovery that we are far more intimately connected to the cosmos than even the astrologers guessed. Want to see a piece of a star? Just hold up your hand. You are stardust made flesh. The iron in your blood, the calcium in your bones, the oxygen that fills your lungs every time you take a breath, all of these atoms were forged inside the furnaces of stars which lived and died before the Sun and Earth were born. The story of how we discovered this is the story of The Magic Furnace.
So much for teens, what about young readers? Well, there’s Felicity Frobisher and the Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (www.felicityfrobisher.com). It’s the book I had the most fun writing. Felicity Frobisher is quiet and polite and never gets into any trouble whatsoever. Until the day she is visited by Flummff, a young Three-Headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (he comes down a “wormhole” from a dusty planet around the red giant star Aldebaran).
Flummff is very, very bad. He gets poor Felicity into all sorts of trouble at school. She gets chased out of a park by a fist-waving park keeper and accused of cheating in the school cross-country run. But, despite having the worst day of her life, she also gets to beat the school bully, and go down a wormhole to Hawaii, the International Space Station and Flummff’s horribly dusty, horribly gritty home planet. The Scotsman newspaper called the book: “A thrilling, silly escapade among the stars.” And that’s about it. It was my chance to be really, really silly, which I don’t ever get with my popular science books.

Q2 Do you ever read the works of other science writers? If yes who can you recommend?

When I was a teenager I used to read Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. But I would recommend anything by Simon Singh, because he’s a good writer (and because he’s my friend!). So Big Bang or Fermat’s Last Theorem. Richard Feynman was an eccentric, bongo-playing Nobel-prizewinning physicist but he popularised too. His best book is QED: The strange theory of light and matter, which is about what he got his Nobel Prize for. That’s small and without equations but demanding. But the books about his adventures such as Surely, You’re Joking, Mr Feynman? And What Do You Care About What Other People Think? are great fun. (I was incredibly lucky to be taught by Feynman)

Q3 How did you become known as the Katie Price of Science Writing and who first gave you the nickname?

I have to admit I gave it to myself! I heard that Katie Price never gets any prizes but that one of her books outsold all 100 (I think) books on the Booker Prize long-list combined. I too never get short-listed for any book prizes or anything like that but readers seem to like my books because they buy a lot of them. So I thought: I’ve got something in common with Katie Price. So that’s why I called myself the Katie Price of Science Writing on my website (www.marcuschown.com). It’s tongue-in-cheek, really. Just a bit of fun!

Q4 What is the most satisfying part of the writing process for you?

When the money arrives! No, I’m joking!

Actually, the best part is when your book comes out and you keep going in bookshops to see if it’s arrived yet. I am very sad. I tend to get my wife, Karen, to photograph me holding up the first book in a shop! But it’s great. The thrill never wears off. When I was at school, I liked English and writing stories. My absolute dream was to write a book and see it published and go into a bookshop and see it on a shelf. And, when it happens, it’s just as wonderful and amazing as I imagined it would be.

Q5 I have recently acquired a copy of Felicity Frobisher & the Three-headed Aldebaran Dust Devil (an amazing title and even better story) – do you have any plans for a sequel or perhaps even writing similar books for older readers?

I am so glad you like my title – and the story! I really enjoyed writing it. I had never written children’s fiction before and I had no idea whether children would like it. But I was overwhelmed by the response when I went into schools. And children keep asking when they can read more about Felicity Frobisher. I think children identify with Felicity because she isn’t like the normal heroes of children’s books. She isn’t any good at school, isn’t athletic, and she wears big glasses. Her mum and dad never notice anything about her. And she’s being bullied by the school bully! And, if things could not get any worse, she is befriended by Flummff, an alien boy who is very, very bad. But, although he gets her into tons of trouble, he definitely gives her the adventure of her life. Definitely, the sort of thing most children would like to brighten up a dull, boring day at school

The good news about a sequel is that I am writing Felicity Frobisher and the Newly Wedded Capellan Toast Weevil and also have a third book fully plotted. The bad news is that my publisher does not want to publish any more. So I will have to find another publisher. But don’t worry. I will. I’m persistent!
As for writing similar books for adults, my wife is 50 and she loves Felicity Frobisher. So I think the book can be enjoyed by both children and adults.

Q6 Are there any novels that you have enjoyed that you would recommend for Teen readers?

I really liked Elizabeth Knox’s teen novels The Rainbow Opera and The Dream Quake. She’s one of my favourite novelists. I also really like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses about a world where black and white people have switched roles. I also liked her sequels, Knife Edge, and Checkmate. I liked Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, about cities that trundle across the planet, fighting and gobbling each other up. And, of course, I love The Lord of the Rings, which I first read when I was 18.

Q7 What can you tell us about Kelvin (that won’t ruin the end of the book)?

It’s about what every day things that tell us about the Universe. It’s as simple as that. Every chapter starts with a familiar everyday observation – like the sky is dark at night or teacups break when you drop them – and leads on to the, often amazing, thing this tells us about the Universe. For instance, the reflection of your face in a window tells you about the most shocking discovery in the history of science – that the Universe is based on chance, the roll of a “quantum” dice, that ultimately things happen for no reason at all. The fact that iron is common – in the metal of cars, even in the blood coursing through your veins – is telling you that out in space there must be a blisteringly hot furnace at a temperature of at least 5 billion degrees. I finish the book with one everyday observation for which we don’t yet know what the thing it is telling us is. If you see what I mean! The observation is that there are no aliens on Earth – not lurking on street corners, not floating angelically overhead or beaming up and down like characters from Star Trek. It could be that we are the first intelligence to arise in our Galaxy. Or it could be it’s so dangerous out there in space that any race that ventures out from its home planet gets wiped out. Or it could be anything else. In fact, this is case where your guess is as good as mine. Or the guess of the best scientists!

Q8 Do you ever visit School or Public Library Reading Groups or science classes? If yes, what is the best way to get into contact with you or your agent about it?

In the past, I have been to state schools. I have also given talks at events like the Cheltenham Literature Festival and the Edinburgh Science Festival. What I can do depends on what else I am doing at the time. But the best way to contact me is through my publisher, Faber & Faber.

Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed answering these questions!

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