Thursday 26 January 2012

Greta and Boris by Sian Norris

A new kids’ book gets a monster miaow of approval. Now agents and publishers must get on board to help make it a hit.

Much is being made of the rise of self-publishing, documented excellently by the Guardian in a series of informative articles here, here, here and here. Its big star is the fantasy novelist Amanda Hocking, whose latest book Switched is out now and brilliant. Bestselling novelist Polly Courtney has opted for self-publishing after hitting the headlines last year when she took a firm stand against her major publishers for giving her highly successful novels - ironically, novels about strong modern women negotiating sexist environments like banking and lads' magazine publishing - a series of objectifying and belittling 'chick-lit' covers. I fully support her stance, which she has made out of principle and at risk to her own thriving career on an issue which many women writers feel extremely strongly about. Given that publishing is itself dominated by countless highly gifted women it is an extremely odd feeling for one's work to be betrayed, belittled and sold out in this way. Courtney's great reputation both as a writer and a seller will ensure that the shift to self-publishing is not too damaging.

I am still generally circumspect about self-publishing, however. Book by book, all other issues excluded, the terms of sales royalties might be more advantageous for self-publishers than those meagre percentages offered in standard contracts by publishing houses. But publishers give an author many other things besides royalty agreements: expertise and experience; advances on proposed books; the support of often massive and longstanding institutions who will strengthen a book’s success through editing, scheduling, advertising, marketing, press tours and the placing of review copies; controlled and supported career longevity through carefully negotiated multiple book deals; promotion and representation in bookshops, the media (from submissions to Radio 4’s Book of the Week to serialisation rights in newspapers) and on Amazon; an international network of established contacts and colleagues including an author’s agent and various foreign and translation rights holders – and much more.

The writers who’ve thrived through self publishing seem numerous until you compare them to the billions of also-rans, chancers, deluded nutballs, embittered failures, self-justifiers, desperados and talentless floggers putting out their unreadable how-to guides, mumbling memoirs, cheesy erotica and seemingly never-ending speculative fiction series for no-one to buy. In self-publishing, as in all gambling, the odds are weighted in favour of the house. There are some blazing successes, but they are massively outnumbered by the countless unsensational failures that we never hear about. You may be able to self-publish your book, but building a stable career which is acknowledged and supported by other professionals, recognised by your peers as authentic and legitimate and that leads to further flourishing is another thing altogether. It requires not just writing talent but strategic skill, financial shrewdness, flexibility, business instincts, tenacity and proficiency at a host of subsidiary tasks from jacket design to typesetting to editing to account-keeping.

However. I have just been sent a short self-published children’s book which I love and want to publicise here. A glowing review follows – so glowing that I should state in advance that I am not personal friends with the book’s author, Sian Norris. I met her once at a speaking event she organised and invited me to in March 2011. When she mentioned that she was starting her own self-publishing company I was interested and asked her to send me something when it launched.

Sian Norris’s book is called Greta and Boris and it’s self-published through Crooked Rib Publishing, an offshoot of Norris’s sharply written blog. Greta and Boris is touching, exciting, cheeky and vivid, with wonderful characters, a strong narrative and sudden delightful details. I believe it deserves an established agent and a major publisher to pick it up and sell it in translation all over the world, lightly edited, boosted by wonderful illustrations all the way through. I would then like them to give Norris a multi-book deal so that her characters can go on further adventures. Later, I would like to see the books converted into gorgeous television cartoons or animations for the world’s kids to watch and love. Given the many below-par books I’ve been sent by publishers over the years, Greta and Boris easily exceeds the general standard of publishability. Now follows some brief industry chat, for prospective editors. Greta and Boris is billed as a children’s novel but is more of a tale or fable – a fast and picaresque vision quest in which a young hero finds her destiny and with it, of course, her inner strength, which she had all along. It’s a standalone work which should boil down to 90 pages when edited. It’s suitable for 7-9 year old readers and is structured in such a way that it can be read or acted out to younger kids too.

Now the fun stuff. Be warned, plot spoilers follow.

Greta has been left alone for the summer and is anticipating a long, lazy season of book reading and toast eating in the company of her pet Russian Blue cat, Boris, under the unscrutinous non-supervision of her absent-minded aunt. Yet on the first day of the holidays, Greta discovers that Boris has disappeared. He’s been kidnapped by the Rat King, a tiny tyrant with a huge ego that’s squealing for attention. Just as Greta’s beginning to panic, she is visited by an elegant cat stranger, Kyrie Mi-ke, who tells her that Boris is more than just an ordinary cat.

No, Boris is not an M&S cat, he’s the crown prince of the Kingdom of Cats and his father, King Marmaduke Nikolai Whiskers Blue, has sent Kyrie to collect Boris’s human to save him. Only Greta – assisted by the famous warrior, Kyrie Mi-ke – can take on such a challenge... but first they must cross a sea made of milk, a war-torn land of racist mice (white against brown, all squeaking in mousy rage), communities of migratory birds living above cloud level, a millpond which shows the observer their true reflection and much more besides.

What follows is an adventure that is both heartstopping and heartmelting, at once sentimental and comfortingly predictable (in the best way: we trust in sleek Kyrie’s guidance and know that Greta will triumph in the end) and pacy and unexpected. The story’s sprinkled with sparkling details, with each location fully realised and a joy to traverse.

The Kingdom of Cats is a lavish Renaissance society, hierarchical and elegant. When the cat nobles wake up “the adult cats started cooking mice or kippers and heating the milk” while in the royal palace breakfast is served by black and white waiter cats bringing “a selection of fried mice and delicately poached salmon...biscuits, bird wings and a number of extra specially ordered items, manufactured cat food being a particular (though disapproved) favourite of the young prince Sweep.” The calm arrogance of cat society confirms what I have long suspected: that “contrary to popular belief, humans don’t own their cats – the cats are assigned to look after the humans.” Boris even has a picture of ‘his’ human, Greta, on the wall in his cat palace bedroom.

Norris has taken every care to differentiate and individuate this society, with the lightest of knowing nods to traditions of cat worship in Egypt, China, Japan and beyond, and to the beauty of different breeds. It turns out that all cats can speak their humans’ languages but choose not to as, Kyrie explains patiently to a boggling Greta, “it would be like you speaking French when you didn’t have to.”

However, again, this is not some twee animal book about plucky talking cats and four-legged anthropomorphs. Greta is the central character and she receives from Kyrie a wondrous education about feline life, which she has overlooked when comfortably ensconced in her trendily ethno-friendly smug existence. She lives in a big, rambling house full of her parents’ work. They are curators and writers, currently in Botswana examining the natives’ wares and helping their own careers. The animal world is a much more dangerous, equal, varied and interesting place by comparison. In a beautiful set piece at the beginning of the adventure, Norris writes,

They had passed towns and villages of mice and voles, the boating communities in the brooks and streams, the bats and birds working the telegraph service, the tunnels that led to the underground cities of what Kyrie referred to darkly as ‘the dogs’ but which Greta understood to mean foxes and badgers. When asked this, Kyrie had just spat and said how all dogs were just one big pain to her.
Quest narratives are a much-loved genre which she tackles with great lightness and ease – and brevity (length being the big tedious dragging millstone of countless duff quest books). Hung with featherweight delicacy around the central adventure are lessons of great human import for Greta. She arbitrates in a squalid fight between the brown and white mice and reveals how she herself has been bullied at school. It requires all Kyrie’s encouragement, at the beginning, to convince Greta that she can indeed save Boris. There are allusions (never leaden, worthy or obstructive) to climate change, bigotry, the balance of ecosystems, humans’ disruption of nature and predatory animal peace pacts. Norris’s world is one in which trouble and discord can always be overcome by mutual respect, friendship and peace. The central relationships – between Greta and Boris, between Kyrie Mi-ke and the royal cat family, between the cats and other animals – have a sweet warmth, depicted with an innocent optimism that is ultimately extremely touching and life-affirming.

In a great, fun passage the warrior cat Kyrie Mi-ke recounts her adventures from sub-continental jungles to African plains to New York and Hollywood via the neon of Tokyo. The final word goes to this finest of felines:

Kyrie smiled and bowed her beautiful head. “Your Highness. A good warrior always knows when to return to her land.”

Agents and publishers: Kyrie’s, Greta’s and Boris’s adventures are far from over. Get involved in Sian Norris’s weird, wild, wonderful world and give her talent the showcase it deserves.

Greta and Boris by Sian Norris is published by Crooked Rib. You can buy it here.