It’s National Libraries Day! To celebrate, I’ve put together a catalogue of my best library memories. Organized using the Dewey Decimal Classification, natch.

781.53 Music in specific settings
You’re a ten-year-old boy. You quite like a bookish girl in your class. Unfortunately, she’s too bookish to seal the deal during kiss chase. What to do? It was 1990, and the Righteous Brothers were back in the Top Ten. So the boy and his sidekick cornered me in our primary school library, and serenaded me with You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Looking back, this was probably the most romantic thing that ever happened to me. At the time, I ran for it.

Pile of books392.14 Customs relating to attainment of puberty
To secondary school, where at 13 I was still bookish, and still unkissed. Yet I found myself in a rare position of romantic power. I heard that a boy in my year fancied me. I think it went to my head. He helped out in the school library at lunchtimes. I put so much effort into acting disinterested and absorbed in my books, I couldn’t read a word.

One day I returned some books to him in ice-queen mode, and headed for the door. “Um, Isabel,” he said, quietly. I turned towards the desk, wondering how I might go about rejecting his advance. “Is this yours?” he said. I looked down. Oh. I’d returned something else, slipped inside a library book. My just-in-case-puberty-starts Always Ultra. Farewell, upper hand.

152.41 Love and affection
At university I entered library heaven: the magnificent Bodleian Libraries. Here you can read anything ever printed in the UK. So the first thing I looked up was the book self-published by my Grandpa. In that pre-Amazon era, seeing his name in the Bodleian catalogue made him seem famous.

To get a book, you filled in a slip of paper and put it in a wooden box. After four hours the books appeared as if by magic, in the reading room of your choice. And what a choice. The Radcliffe Camera. The New Bodleian. The Radcliffe Science Library. College libraries. Faculty libraries. You couldn’t take the books away, so I spent three years sitting in these beautiful places. Perhaps that’s why they were the scene of so much romantic drama – tearful break-ups, passionate make-ups, bitter arguments. All in a respectful whisper, of course.

Why Do I Burp?392.13 Child-rearing customs
In 2013, you’ll find me in our local library, herding my sons towards the picture books. Sometimes I sneak a visit to non-fiction, and get excited if I spot something written by me. I imagine the day the boys read one of my books, rather than using them as a place to wipe excess food. Perhaps they’ll be proud of me, as I was of Grandpa. And then I picture their teenage friends shouting, “Oi, did your Mum write this book ‘Why do I Burp?’” And the circle of library learning, love, and embarrassment starts all over again.

Happy news: this week saw the publication of MOB Rule, a book that celebrates life as a mother of boys. Like the author, I’m besotted with my bunch. But I know that most passers-by are not thinking ‘lucky you’ as I stride past, towing three trainee men. I know this because so many have taken the time to tell me.

It started during my third pregnancy. ‘Are you hoping for a girl,’ and ‘is this supposed to be the girl?’ greeted me in every shop, park and queue. As if I needed an antidote to the boys who had made me want a third baby in the first place.

My three mini-Hes

My three mini-Hes

In Neal’s Yard, the manager dispensed opinions along with bump cream, proudly announcing that, “no offence”, she could tell I was carrying a boy. When I darted out after a runaway child, she explained to my sister that three boys meant I must have a hostile birth canal* (*not the anatomical word she used, but the one I wish my sister had used as she relayed the story in the toy shop next door).

But I didn’t spend the pregnancy eyeing up pink dresses. I spent it hoping that my luck would hold out, and I would have another uncomplicated labour, another healthy baby.

And the apothecary was right: my hostile, girl-rejecting body produced a third perfect baby boy. Congratulations were in order, right? But the comments continued.

The postman: “Don’t give up, you’ll get that girl soon! (He explained that his mother kept trying until she got a girl, baby number five.)

The supermarket checkout assistant: “I bet you were hoping for a girl this time around.” (The boys weren’t even being particularly boyish at that moment, sitting quietly in the trolley, eating fruit.)

A family member: “Be honest, if you could guarantee that you’d get a girl, you’d have a fourth, wouldn’t you.” (No.)

Small talk, yes, but … I can’t help feeling that a mum of three girls would get a different reaction. I know my own mum did. She was often stopped in the street and congratulated, my sisters and I admired (despite the homemade fringes).

Mum and her three mini-mes

Mum and her three mini-Mes

Perhaps boys are less loveable to the casual observer. While friends’ girls often appear dressed as actual princesses, eager to tell you their name and engage you in conversation, a boy is statistically more likely to be running off into the distance, shouting and wielding a stick.

If you are not a parent to said boy, you may never see how they cuddle like love-crazed baby monkeys; how they constantly pursue fun, food, and fun; or how much less hamstery they smell after a bath.

Not that I’d argue that the experience of raising boys and girls is the same. The differences are embodied in three toys that belonged to my sisters and I, which were recently handed on to my boys. An antique cycling Mickey Mouse, kept in a cupboard by my mum for occasional use. Bearlin, a huge polar bear I got for my third birthday, whose cream fur remained pristine for 30 years. And a fluffy cow that still looked new after years of care by three loving girls.

In boy world, Bearlin alternates between punchbag and landing mat, and her fur is greying (with muck, I presume, though it could be stress). Mickey Mouse is back in a (much higher) cupboard, minus one ear. And the fluffy cow is lying sodden on the patio, casualty of a Room on the Broom spell recreation (a.k.a. mud and toy soup in a bucket).

Yup, life in a house full of boys will be very different from life in the all-female household I grew up in. But I know it will be action-packed, rowdy, and funny, funny, fun. Boys are definitely not a consolation prize. In fact, I feel like I’ve hit the jackpot.

I’ve been reading my parents’ parenting manuals recently. It’s astonishing how much has changed in 33 years. Many 1970s child development experts advised the exact opposite to their modern equivalents.

What is this letter 'a' you speak of, mother?

Why can’t my babies read yet? We wear clothes when we look at books.

Haven’t taught your child to read before s/he is three? You’ve missed your chance, bozo, is the message of Teach Your Baby to Read (Glenn Doman, 1965). The book pooh-poohs the synthetic phonics approach that is the focus of current government policy:

“Nothing could be more abstract to the five-year-old brain than the letter A … It is obvious that if only the five-year-old were more capable of reasoned argument he would long since have made this situation clear to adults … The letters of the alphabet are not the units of reading and writing any more than isolated sounds are the units of hearing and speaking.”

We know pedagogical approaches go in and out of fashion (and phonics is already losing favour in some quarters). What about something more basic, like baby food?

I opened my mum’s only baby puree book, hoping to recreate the dishes we had as children. But every savoury recipe includes a teaspoon (a teaspoon!) of salt, and every pudding a teaspoon of honey – up there with soil in the modern parent’s guide to desirable food additives. Plus some very dubious offal purees, which I’m not sure salt or honey could save.


There are other names inside too…

Something to chew on as you read the brilliantly judgmental Name Your Child (Eric Partridge, 1968), with entries like these:

Barbara – the f. of bararous, a stranger – a term scornfully applied by the Greeks to all who did not speak their mellifluous tongue.

Enid – This is one of those names which would entail on its owner a very grave responsibility, if in the Celtic it means ‘spotless purity’.

Hebe – To be avoided, for it is now generic for a barmaid. In any event, dissyllabic.

“By explaining the meaning of the name, [this book] saves the parents from making some very unwise – perhaps ridiculous – choice,” the introduction explains. “Remember: it’s the child who carries the burden of an unsuitable name; he’s saddled with it for life.” I wonder what Eric would have made of baby Hashtag.

The Mother Person (Barber and Skaggs, 1978) is similarly forthright, with this summary of what might drive women to have babies in the first place:


Bookalikes – whoever the mother person was in the 1970s, she was definitely sans clothes

“At the age when most middle-class people begin to have children – often at twenty five or older – they’re faced with a vision of the future which shows them its limitations. Life is no longer the storybook dream in which you can be president. Children prevent you from having to face your own dwindling vision of your potential, and the suspicion of your own death.”

Yes, well. Quite. From that cheerful starting point, it goes on to offer advice on coping with “the many pitfalls of motherhood”. Pitfalls summed up by this quote from one of their interviewees: “Sometimes I wonder what I am besides a mother person.”

Sound familiar? The daily struggle, loss of status and identity, and impossible choices described by mothers in 1975 are strikingly similar to those written and blogged about by so many women today. And the 38-year-old advice is still relevant.

Attitudes on the best way to name, feed and teach children change quickly. But when it comes to the experience of motherhood itself, progress is much, much slower.

Telling writers how to get published is a boon industry. More than 4 million web pages offer advice on writing the all-important query letter. They’ve left out some important points though. Here are my own top tips, collated during my years as a commissioning editor. True stories, people.

The opening gambit

Do not start by telling the editor that angels told you to approach her, and only her. Especially if she publishes books for primary schools, and you are pitching an adult self-help book dictated by said angels. Do not get cross when the editor suggests that the angels were wrong, and that you might have more luck with Mind/Body/Spirit publishers. Tell the angels to hold back on the publishing advice until they have consulted the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

My shelf of wishful thinking – literary & otherwise!

About the book

Do not refuse to disclose key details of the book – such as the title, or contents – on the basis that a rogue publisher might steal your idea.

Why I chose this publisher

Flattery only works if it’s grounded in fact. If you mention existing books in your query letter, be sure to look inside them first. Or you might find yourself praising a 15-year-old flop that lingers in the catalogue in an attempt to shift vast volumes of unsold stock, and is frequently a source of embarrassment to sales reps.

About the author

When writing your author bio, concentrate on the positives. Four dark pages detailing your recent road accident – with strange hints that you may have actually, accidentally, killed someone – will not win you the sympathy vote. There is no sympathy vote. It’s all about the book. (Not that editors are heartless. I can identify with the badness of a car crash, having previously been kneecapped by my own ignition key. But I rarely use that experience to win over an acquisitions meeting.)

The unique selling point

Do not make your USP “it has never been done before”, based on the contents of your own bookshelves and a ten-minute browse in Waterstones. Remember the famous biblical quote: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing on Amazon.” (ish)

The memorable sign-off

Do not tell the editor how grateful you will be if she were so kind as to publish your humble little book pretty please with a cherry on top. If your book is good, the editor will be grateful to have found you. And no, it’s never a good idea to surround your signature with animated flames.

In summary

Do not be insane. Or at least, don’t let it show.
And never, ever, ever ever, ever even think about using Comic Sans.

Publishing types, leave a comment and tell me about the memorable query letters lurking in your filing cabinet!

Last week we hit Cornwall’s beaches for a summer holiday. Postponed to autumn because we suspected a holiday might not be very relaxing with three children under four.

As it turns out, that long-awaited fourth birthday was not a marked transition towards adulthood, turning oldest chimp into useful third pair of hands. Instead, his chimpacity was ramped-up to record levels. Still, the sun shone, and 80 percent of the week was idyllic rockpooling, dam-building, steam train-riding, farm animal-feeding fun.

8 (hours of fun) + 2 (year old toddler) x 3 (ice creams) / no nap = meltdown

The other 20 percent we’ll write off as collateral damage.

As a freelancer I have a habit of taking work on holiday. From my point of view this is no bad thing. Compared to the daily zookeep, a stint at my desk is rather relaxing. But it doesn’t always go down well with the rest of the party. Like the Christmas I eschewed pudding and post-dinner games for 1000 words on stem cell research (true story).

This time I planned ahead and even turned down work (sob) to guarantee a clear week. All the better for starting some long-overdue admin!

Step one was ordering three of my own books, J.R. Hartley style, having lost hope of this particular publisher sending advances before they go OP. The idea is to photograph all my new titles together for my website, so I can totally justify spending £20 on a collection of my own words. Totally. And anyway, they have really pretty covers.

I see, but do you have it for Kindle?

As I was AT THAT VERY MOMENT changing a nappy in the West Country, the delivery driver kindly left the Bookpoint box in our recycling bin. Luckily it was not put out… but nor was the lid put on. I returned at the end of the week to find the books weathered, warped, watermarked and thoroughly unphotogenic.

I’m sure J.R. Hartley never had these problems. But then J.R. Hartley probably knew that holidays are not for catching up on admin, but for kicking back, cracking open a beer, and bingeing on Breaking Bad.

There are fabulous things about freelancing, but being my own IT department is not one of them. Left to my own devices, all my files sit on my Desktop. Or, if I’m feeling really organized, in a folder on my Desktop called ‘Desktop’. Software manuals remain unread. Client-facing websites are abandoned in 2010.

My biggest problem is sharing a workspace with two chimpanzees, who have learned to hack into the mainframe and play Disney movies at will. One thinks the screen works like an iPad, but requires more pressure. The other finds the power cord an ideal chew toy for his sprouting molars. Here is the crime scene this evening.

Even Nemo disapproves

What is the error code for keyboard vandalized by Peppa Pig stickers, museli and Biro scrawl? It’s almost enough to make me back up my files. Almost.

What I am not doing this week.

My lucky, lucky sisters are on grown up gap years, spending 2012 travelling the world. Great timing on their part, as they are several continents away just as my desperation for a babysitter peaks.

Still, I get occasional updates to break up the domestic slog. ‘Just been hang gliding over Rio’. ‘Survived the parachute jump! Just!’

One also keeps a blog, and the world is giving her plenty to write about. Sample post: ‘Seeing is believing at Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples… they are languid and grandiose, with soaring towers and lush vegetation. The sprawling ruins encompass epic battles between nature and stone; the incredible detail in this decrepit splendour combines remarkable preservation with a lack of concern, allowing tourists to scramble over the ruins and get up close and personal.’

Now I know my way around a thesaurus, but I’m not sure my subject matter entirely lends itself to this style of blogging. Still, I’ll work with what I have:

My 2 year old has been unwell, with frequent bad tempers and even more frequent bad nappies. Seeing is believing… they are fetid and funky, with malodorous fumes and putrid vegetation. His leaking nappies encompass epic battles between nature and nylon; the incredible detail in this whiffy splendour combines remarkable preservation (of raisins) with a lack of concern for parental olfactory cells.

As for getting up close and personal… we won’t go there.

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