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Life with Lavendar in London town

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Bird: by Crystal Chan

There is something about certain books you read as a child that stay with you. For all the reading I’ve done as an adult, nothing comes close to the obsessive amount of times I re-read The Endless Steppe; Bridge to Terabithia; Momo; the Ramona series; Hating Alison Ashley and the first book I never returned to my school library, Dancing Star by Gladys Malvern.* I knew every yellowed page, every dog-eared wrinkle, every dirty finger smudge found within the pages of those stories. Falling in love with a book or a story for the first time usually happens, if it happens at all, when you are a kid and discovering the world of reading.

So when I was told that to write children’s stories, you must read prolifically in the genre, it was a task I looked forward to. My seven year old daughter certainly helped me come up to speed with what kids her age were now reading. Judy Moody. The Treehouse Series. Wimpy Kid. They were fine but left no impression on me. So I branched out and started reading random middle-grade books that looked interesting in the library or bookshop. I read best-selling middle grade, obscure middle grade; local and overseas middle grade. I enjoyed many of them but none of them left a mark of any kind. I did not re-read any of them.

Then I read Bird by Crystal Chan.

I found Bird one weekend when visiting Brighton. We were sheltering from the rain in the local Waterstones and my daughter was doing her best to keep us prisoners of the children’s book section. We were not allowed to leave until she had inspected all that she wanted to inspect, which was considerable. I really only had myself to blame, having fostered this habit in her since birth so I followed suit. I picked up Bird, initially because of the surname signifying East Asian descent. There aren’t many Chinese people writing kids books. So I picked it up and after reading the first few pages, put it down, thinking ‘I already have too many books.' Then I picked it back up. Read a bit more. This dance of denial continued for a good while and eventually, the only possible outcome happened which was that Bird came out of the shop with me. Paid for, of course.

And then it sat in my bookshelf for over six months.

I had the good sense to pack it for a writing weekend away and started to read it on my train journey. By Chapter Three, I was hooked. By Chapter Four, I was texting people to tell them that THEY MUST READ THIS BOOK.

What was it about Bird that hooked me? The voice of the main character, a young girl called Jewel, was stronger than anything I have read in a long while. Also the way Ms Chan writes about Jewel’s relationship with the natural world literally was breathtaking and for me, instantly relatable. There were certain phrases in the story that made me just stop. Really stop and pay attention and absorb what had just been said on the page. I was in thrall of what the author had managed to do. Which in my case, was to wake up a part of me that hasn’t been reached by a book or a story in a very long time. Bird is a book I wish I had written.

I wrote to Ms Chan the minute I finished reading it. I just had to. I told her that she had set the bar to another level for me and how much I admired her talent. Her swift reply was gracious, kind, and in truth, a bit quirky.

Lit up somehow from this experience, I started reading, My Name is Mina, by David Almond the next day. As I turned the first few pages, I thought it would not be in the same stratosphere as Bird. I mean, how could it?


I read it in an hour. I ignored my daughter who was waiting for her breakfast and gave her an ipad instead. I ignored the beep of the washing machine finishing its cycle. I ignored my buzzing mobile.

To be cracked open by two incandescent, insightful and special books in a week just does not happen anymore. Until it does and I am reminded, thankfully, that experiences from childhood can still be had.

*Technically this is called stealing which is not a good idea.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Spread the Word Life Writing Prize

During a sluggish period with the children’s book I am (forever) writing, I saw a call for competition entries for the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. Life writing, as defined by the competition rules, is writing that is based on real life experiences of the author. As luck would have it, I had a piece that I had started writing a few years ago about growing up in Australia during the 70s and 80s and what it was like to be the only Chinese kid in school. I dug it up, worked on it and then sent it off to the competition.

To my surprise and delight, my entry was longlisted alongside eleven other writers. This meant that I got to attend the Awards Ceremony and read an excerpt from my piece. I met the other longlisted writers; competition judges; the wonderful Joanna Munro who is personally financing the award for five years and the Spread the Word staff who were super to deal with in the lead up to the Awards Night. I also got to invite my long-suffering friends to the ceremony where they actually heard some words I’d written rather than me babbling on about writing to them but not ever showing them anything.

After we had all read from our pieces, Danny Brunton was announced as the winner with his with his piece, New Boy, alongside Paradoxical by Xanthi Barker and Small Talk by Laura Morgan as highly commended entries.

I had already been informed by Spread the Word prior to the event that I had not made the shortlist, so I knew that I was not in the running. But to me, I felt I had already won; obvious to all that were not blind by the huge shit-eating grin plastered to my face the whole night. Because I think when I found out I had made the longlist, it may have been the happiest day of my life. More than my wedding day or the day my child was born.

That’s how happy it made me. Pure unadulterated joy unmarred by stress (wedding) and pain (childbirth)

What a terrible thing for a mother and wife to say.

But it’s true.

It was a really good day.

Friday, 20 April 2018

The First Draft

It’s been a long time since I last wrote on this blog. The reason being that I have been busy writing elsewhere. For the past year, any spare writing time has been devoted to working on my children’s book and I think, I hope, that the first draft is nearly done.

There are different definitions of what a first draft is. For some, it is the initial purge of words and spewing of ideas onto the page to clear your mind and focus. It is after the process of spewage that you actually begin to write the story.

My First Draft

This was my belief until one day, while chatting to another writer, she said her definition of a first draft is when you can do no more. That the story is as good as you can make it and that you need outside help, usually from an editor, to take it to the next stage.

I shuddered.

‘That means your first draft could take years!’

She nodded.


It’s annoying to be reminded that there are no short cuts to writing. Telling yourself that you are on your fourth draft after six months is much more satisfying than being on your first draft after one year. Satisfying because it sounds like you have done more and are further ahead, even if you aren’t.

‘Why would you make it harder for yourself? ‘I wondered after our chat.

However, I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that the first draft should be the best version of the story that you can produce on your own.  And so I have been doing precisely that. Writing a first draft over and over and over again. Say ‘over’ really fast for fifteen minutes and you get some idea of what I’ve been up to.

This year of writing has been a big learning curve for me. I’ve met other aspiring and published writers and therefore I now know what MG, YA and PB* means. I know the functions of an agent, editor and publisher.  I know that apparently, your narrator should always be older than your target market.**  I know what a beta reader*** is and even found some for my not-yet-completed first draft.  And I’ve been reminded that to try and write seriously is fricking hard and completely satisfying. 

*MG - middle grade, YA - young adult, PB - picture book.

** So if your story is aimed for  7-9 years old, your narrator ideally should be older than that. Personally, I think this is bollocks.

*** The first readers of your complete draft.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Andrée Grau

Andrée Grau is the Professor of Dance Anthropology at Roehampton University.

Yesterday while marking student papers in one of her favourite parks in France, she died suddenly of a heart attack.

I met Andrée in 2010. I was six months pregnant and about to start the MA Dance Anthropology degree at Roehampton for which she was the Programme Head.

At that first meeting, she exuded warmth and interest in her new student cohort. She was fascinating to look at, dressed in beautiful clothes put together with a unique eye. Her lipstick was vibrant, her jewellery works of art and her makeup impeccable. All my misgivings about starting the course in the late stages of pregnancy melted in the presence of this engaged and charismatic person.  I was won over even before I'd even heard one of her fascinating lectures or experienced her wise counsel and acute perception.

I was a part-time student and in the four years it took me to complete the MA, Andrée was ever present. She guided me, helped me and listened to me. When I was in the first year of motherhood, trying desperately to cope with a sick baby, my own ill health and essay deadlines, she was the only person who really saw what was going on for me and told me not to quit. That she could help me find a way through.

Andrée was a internationally renowned dance scholar. She was a pioneer in the field of dance anthropology; a niche discipline which she helped develop and grow. Students travelled from all around the globe to study her course at Roehampton. Despite her reputation and prodigious academic output she had no intellectual arrogance or entitlement. She was down to earth, funny, sharp and kind.

Andrée Grau

It's a terrible lesson to learn that sometimes things you put off, last forever. I hadn't seen Andrée after I graduated from Roehampton in 2014. We made plans to meet occasionally but it never eventuated. She was busy. I was busy. We'd catch up on Facebook from time to time. But that's it. We'll never have that coffee together.

I always thought I would go and seek her advice when it came time to consider a PhD. She would have been expecting me. Even though she knew I had no wish to be an academic, she knew that I am a scholar at heart.

It stuns me that I won't be able to do that. That I won't be able to talk and discuss and laugh with her ever again. I wanted to ask her about fieldwork and how she thought I could conduct it with a family. I wanted to ask her so much.

All day long, tributes from her ex students and colleagues from all far flung corners of the world have been coming up on Facebook. They speak about her warmth, her kindness, how she looked out for each and every one of us. How much she was held in high regard and with genuine respect. We are all devastated.

For all that she gave us, I hope she knew how much we respected and loved her. How much we owe to her and what an impact she had on so many lives. I hope she took heart in the fact that she created many new dance anthropologists, all scattered around the globe. That we honour her legacy and will remember her always.

I can't believe she's gone.

Thank you Andrée. I will miss you.