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Thursday 31 March 2011

The glance test

bookshop How many books do you think the average bookshop carries? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000? Put it this way, Richard Booth's Bookshop. 44, Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye says it has over 1,000,000 books in stock. That’s a lot of books. Of course there are a lot of books there we’ll never look at, whole aisles we won’t wander down, entire floors we might never step out on, but when we do pin down what we’re looking for we’re still going to be faced with three or four thousand books at the very least. One bookstore in America carried 20,000 titles which including a hardcover list of 8,000 adult books.

Let’s just stick with the 8000 adult hardbacks for a moment and imagine them all lined up for us on a ve-e-ry long shelf and let’s say that we looked at each cover for a whole 1 second. It would take you two and a quarter hours just to look at them. Some studies show that you actually have a whopping great twelve seconds in a bookstore to turn a browser into a buyer. And, of course, what will appeal to one potential reader is going to turn another one right off. Here’s an example. While I was working on this blog I talked a bit about it to my friend Koe (the half-life of linoleum) and he told me about a couple of books he’d been attracted to purely on the basis on the covers. One was The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem. This is what he had to say:

The Disappointment Artist I think what appealed to me about the cover when I first saw it was just the literal humour. The poor kid whose ice cream is melting in his hand. I am pretty sure that it seemed to me then that there was a lot more ice cream melted on his hand than had come off the ice cream. It looked worked on by the art director – that an ice cream melting rarely looks like a melted ice cream. I thought the image just very clever.

When I was a kid I used to eat an ice cream like this when the Good Humour truck stopped in the neighbourhood but back then – Good Humour gave out napkins with a little die-cut in the middle that you put the stick through to save your hand from the melting. This child appears to be a disappointment . . . it never would have taken me that long to eat an ice cream - it would never melt in my hand. How could this even happen?

Today, I am looking at this cover a bit more earthily perhaps . . . it almost looks pornographic. I asked my wife what she thought of the cover just now and she said something along the lines of, 'it grosses me out, I'm a mom, I want to clean this mess up.'

Personally I loathed the cover. I would never in a million billion trillion years have picked it up. Even the thought of using the image in my blog makes me uncomfortable because I hate runny messes like that. Even as a kid if a single dribble of ice cream started running down the side of my cone I'd lick it off. In fact my usual approach to eating a cone was to bite off the end and suck the ice cream inside where it would be contained. There is no way I would have given that cover twelve seconds of my attention. Of course others say that twelve seconds is a gross overestimation and that a mere three seconds is a more realistic estimate. Personally I’d say three seconds on the shelf and twelve in my hand.

What we’re talking about here is what some people call The Glance Test.

Let’s give it a test. Here are a selection of covers to novels by Iain Banks. See which one jumps out at you. You have about three seconds to view each one:

For me it was Whit followed by The Crow Road and in both cases the titles improved the book’s chances. What you might not have noticed is that there were two different covers for most books. When his books started coming out they were published with monochrome covers, white-on-black for one followed by black-on-white for the next and much as people used to argue about whether the merits of the odd-numbered Star Trek films as opposed to the even-numbered, people would also argue about whether the books with the ‘black’ covers were better than the books with the ‘white’ ones. The publisher has now reprinted all the books and I’m not impressed with his choices. But you might like them.

The thing about Banks now is that he is established and so you could put pretty much anything you like on a cover and people will pick it up. Certainly in the UK. Not sure what his international reputation is like but if you’ve never heard of him then he is worth checking out. He is the author of my favourite opening to any book:

It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

That’s from The Crow Road. But this is an article about covers not opening lines.

covers I like minimal covers personally. Just looks at the covers of my own novels: title, author’s name, barcode, wraparound illustration and all on a clean, white background. I got the idea from Banks. A lot of thought went into those covers. I was thinking ahead too. I knew that I had at least another three books and so I’ve already planned what the next books will look like. They will very likely be tweaked along the way but the basic design is there. I have a range. It’s something that the good publishers do, publish an author’s works in attractive sets. Music publishers don’t tend to but it’s happening more with DVDs, especially boxed sets.

The key is simplicity. But passing the Glance Test requires a few issues to be addressed:

Create a Compelling Title

What makes a great title? In a word: brevity but brevity that piques interest.

How Much Text is Good Text?

Less is always more when it comes to text first impressions. Reduce your text to the absolute minimum necessary and stick to the point. Many book covers end up cluttered with endorsements, quotes, stickers all of which are using up your precious three seconds.

Keep it Consistent

The branding, image and tone of your book cover must reflect the marketing you do in other areas of your business – e.g. I use the same font on my blog as I do on my books. Consistency in the "look and feel" of your business colours, text and service offering will help people remember you.

clip_image002Here’s the cover of a novel by Thomas M Disch based on the sixties TV series The Prisoner. It’s actually a pretty good novel, far better written than I expected. And like all novelisations it is aiming at a specific demographic: i.e. the people who watched the original series. It’s not a bad book cover as far as book covers go. It hasn’t got the font quite right but it’s close enough for government work. There’s McGoohan’s ever-serious physiognomy over the backdrop of Portmeirion; we even have the penny-farthing logo but to my mind any true fan of the show would need far, far less than this to pick up the book. If I was designing the cover this is what I would have proposed:

It contains the most basic of information. But that’s all it needs to do. All the rest can be on the back cover or the flyleaf.

a-clockwork-orange-by-anthony-burgess This has been done before, of course; there is nothing new under the sun. When you go to sites looking for great cover art (and there are not a few of them) one of the ones that always keeps popping up is the iconic cover to A Clockwork Orange by David Pelham: bold primary colours, the title, the author’s name and a discreet little penguin in the corner. It is a classic and yet they’ve had several goes at redoing it including a minimal one with nothing bar a glass of milk on the cover. The question is: Would you pick up a book if all it had on the cover is a glass of milk if you didn’t already know what it was about?

Up until now I’ve only talked about books that pretty much will sell themselves. What about a book by a complete unknown which most authors are to most people on the planet? Here are two covers to the novel Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Eat the DocumentThe one on the left was the cover to the hardback which is listed among the worst covers of 2006 according to Edward Champion, who wrote:

Bad enough that we see a monochromatic image of a woman clad in a sweater and jeans that tells us absolutely nothing about the book. (Is this an academic response to Our Bodies, Ourselves or a novel?) But that horrid yellow text, intended to capture the wretched typographical triumphs of the 1970s, causes this eyesore to be a classic case of a book being unfairly discriminated against by its cover. No wonder this fantastic novel didn’t sell so well earlier this year. Thankfully, the paperback version has a much better cover. – Edward Champion, ‘Worst Book Cover of 2006’, Edward Champion’s Reluctant Habits, 8th December 2006

Personally neither cover does anything for me. I prefer the first one but then I got to thinking about people seeing me read it on the bus and that kinda put me off it. But Champion is right: what do the covers tell us about the book? Nothing. Which is bad but misleading is worse. Here are two covers to The Yellow Wallpaper. Yellow WallpaperI gave my wife a copy as a present, the one with the naked lady on the cover as it happens, and that’s the one I’ve read. According to Wikipedia:

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is a six-thousand-word short story by American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, first published in January 1892 in The New England Magazine. It is regarded as an important early work of American feminist literature, illustrating attitudes in the nineteenth century toward women's physical and mental health. The story also has been classified as Gothic fiction and horror fiction.

As best I can remember there are no naked ladies just a woman quietly going out of her mind while supposed to be resting in bed. Why did I pick it up? Because of the naked lady? Actually because it was a thin book – very thin actually – and I’m drawn to thin books. As best I can remember all I had to go on was the spine at the time. It was what was on the back of the book that helped me make my mind up. The cover with the wallpaper on is okay but nothing to write home about.

In the story, the unnamed narrator is imprisoned in her bed for a postpartum "rest cure" on her doctor-husband's orders. She hates her rented room, especially the partially stripped-off wallpaper, which is in "one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin" and has a "repellent" colour, "a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight." I need to ask the question: Should the cover show any wallpaper at all because surely it’s best to leave that to the imagination of the readers? (Just in passing I found a radio dramatisation of the book here which you might find interesting. There’s also a BBC dramatisation in 8 parts which some nice person has uploaded to YouTube.)

But back to unknown authors. Here’s another wee slideshow for you:

The key word here is, of course, UGLY. Sometimes it’s meant literally, other times it’s figurative. To my mind the most memorable cover is the movie poster I slipped in but then, like I said, I like minimalistic presentations.

Have you ever bought a book just because it had a cool cover? I’ve certainly bought comics just for the cover art and LPs, in fact one of the main gripes people had about CDs when they came out was that so many great covers couldn’t be appreciated in the same way. I find that’s pretty much the case when I’m browsing Amazon for books. Amazon thumbnail size is about 80 x 115 in pixels and that’s the image most of us see first. That being the case what we need are images that communicate when reduced to a fraction of their size. Here’s a good example: tiny

Do you have any idea what the book might be about? Try this link.

There are a couple more tests that book covers need to pass:

The “yeah, right!” test is all to do with believability. Back in the sixties there was a trend in comics, at least in DC comics, where the cover lied. Take this one here Death of Robin(Batman #156) which shows Batman carrying Robin’s corpse. You knew, you just knew that Robin wasn’t going to die. Okay years later they did kill him off only it wasn’t Dick Grayson they killed, it was his replacement, Jason Todd (who first appeared in Batman #357). And, yes, they really did kill him off. And he stayed dead too unlike most other heroes that are killed off. Now we know it’s just a marketing ploy and they’ll find a way to bring him back. But in the sixties I learned very quickly not to trust the covers. Here’s another one with Jimmy Olsen as Superman’s son like that was true.


But the simple fact is that often the art on the cover bears no resemblance to the characters within the book. And the worst offenders there are probably fantasy and science fiction novels. Here’s the cover to C E Murphy’s Heart of Stone. Heart of Stone It’s not a bad cover. The only catch is that the heroine in the book is black, not white. Should that matter? Personally I think so. In the thread where I found that example there was this response which I think is worth mentioning:

It's not that the art directors and artists and publishers are racist. But, by way of an example: a friend of mine -- a British fantasy author -- had the first book in her latest series bomb really badly on release in the US. Non-white protagonist, cover with representation of said protagonist ... publisher did the marketing right, but sales were inexplicably w-a-y down on what had been expected. The UK cover, in contrast, was a lot more abstract (as British covers currently tend to be) and sales were fine, on track with her previous novels.

The practice of “racebending” or “whitewashing” of covers is quite common it seems.

Here are three covers to the book Liar by Justine Larbalestier. The first is the Australian cover, the second is the first US cover and the last in the revised US cover. LiarOn her blog she writes:

Covers change how people read books

Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.

And in interview she said this:

RACEBENDING.COM: When the initial Liar cover was released, several bloggers—including industry professionals—spoke out against the cover design. You also spoke out against the cover design on your blog. How did the public outcry on the internet blogosphere lead to Bloomsbury changing the cover design?
Larbalestier: It definitely helped but there was a lot going on behind the scenes as well.

RACEBENDING.COM: How has the Liar cover controversy impacted your writing?

Larbalestier: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I’ve been thinking about issues of race and representation for a very long time. What happened with my cover is not an isolated incident. A dear friend and mentor of mine, Samuel R. Delany, has been dealing with similar stuff since the 1960s with almost every book he’s ever written. I’d seen it happen to other people so it was strange going through it myself but I felt oddly prepared. I’m very pleased that many people who had not previously thought about race and publishing and representation now seem to have had their eyes opened.

Samuel_R_Delany Delany is, of course, a science fiction writer and we all know how little the covers of science fiction books have to do with the content even if the art is often great art.

The “so-what?” test has to do with whether what we see matters to us. So what if there’s a white girl on the cover and the book’s about a black girl? So what if the robot on the cover never appears in the book? A book cover to my mind should not be something that you need to get over. It should complement the text. You could also call this test, the “can-I-live-with-it?” test. There are books that I own that have awful covers but they’re good books. And so I’ve learned to live with the covers. Here’s an example, Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes: A Time of ChangesThe first cover is the one I used to have. I have no idea what happened to that copy but I lost it. I was desperate to get a fresh copy and so I bought one online with the second cover and it just doesn’t feel like the same book to me. The text is the same but the book is somehow less satisfying. I love the book and so I’ve put up with it but that’s the best I can say about the cover. The first one was bought because of the cover. It is a cool cover.

So what are my favourite covers? Can’t really write a piece like this without including one or two. Probably top of this list is this one by Adrian Chesterman, The Demolished Man. A great wraparound cover which I once saw as a poster in a wee shop in Edinburgh, never bought – couldn’t afford as I remember – and I’ve regretted it ever since. Here it is and a couple of others I liked.

4 covers

So, how important do you think cover art should be?

Let me leave you with another slide show to ponder: the various faces of Nineteen Eighty-Four.


The Book Design Review

AIGA Design Archive

The Book Cover Archive


Smashing Magazine

Judging the Book: 50 Most Captivating Covers of All Time

Cover Art Clichés for 2009

Cover Matters: On Clichéd Covers in Fantasy

The Three Second Test

Saturday 26 March 2011

Minding my Peas and Cucumbers

Minding my Peas and Cucumbers

A charming, oddly moving and genuinely useful book – A. L. Kennedy

Okay all I can say in fairness before I start this review is that Kay was on a hiding to nothing when I picked up this book to read. Firstly, and if I’ve told you this story before please bear with me, but when we were looking to buy our current flat I imposed two conditions on Carrie (who did most of the looking): a) enough rooms so that we could both have our own office, and, b) no garden no matter how small, so you can see that I might not be Kay’s first choice as a reviewer (not that I was – A.L. Kennedy got to see this long before I did, which is why the above quote appears prominently on the book’s cover), and, secondly, I’d just finished reading a novel by one of the greatest descriptive writers of the twentieth century – Vladimir Nabokov – and you try going on after him.

And, yet (much to my surprise, delight and relief – Kay knows my wife), she stood her ground, entertained and even impressed me from time to time. Kay Sexton is a great writer in the same way that Billy Connolly is a great comedian: it doesn’t matter what subject you give them they’re capable of talking about it in such a way as to keep – and hold – your interest. My wife and I have known Kay for years but to be fair I only really know her through Carrie who published some of Kay’s excellent work in her magazines.

Kay is a real writer, the kind who writes novels, that kind of writer, but she’s also a jobbing writer; unlike many of us she actually is paid for writing. Imagine you’re Kay then and you get a publisher who’s interested in publishing your first book. Only it’s not your first novel, no, he wants to write a book to order. Magic. The only catch is that it’s about allotments. What do you do? You write the damn book.

Yes, this is a book about allotments, those small plots of land made available – often by the local Council – for leasing by individual, non-professional gardeners as a means of obtaining meaningful leisure and social activity coupled with the personal experience of sowing, growing, cultivating and harvesting healthy fruit and vegetables amidst the concrete jungle; flowers are frowned upon. To my mind allotments sound as much fun as the world of horseracing sounds thrilling and intriguing but Dick Francis fans might take me to task on that. The simple fact is that where two or more individuals have to interact with each other there is the potential for drama, farce and outright comedy: who would have thought that the life the Good Lifeof a vet would be quite so entertaining and yet James Herriott had a nice sideline in novels to supplement his vet’s salary. Or what about that beloved series The Good Life? Can you imagine reading through the treatment for that show? But it worked. So, if you’re like me and have an aversion to (bordering on an absolute loathing for) any form of gardening, just hold your horses a second: Minding my Peas and Cucumbers is a memoir, a mystery, a science textbook, rules of etiquette, a cook book as well as being a how to (or, to be honest, more of a how not to) guide to growing your own . . . whatever you call stuff that grows in the ground, plants, I suppose, living organisms belonging to the kingdom of Plantae and you don’t need to own an allotment to do that. But the most important thing about this book (albeit about forty-five years too late to do me any good) is that it explains why kids don’t like their greens. There is a reason, a scientifically proven reason why. But I’ll come back to that in a bit.

First and foremost one needs to get an allotment. So you fill in the paperwork in your neatest joined-up handwriting and apply to your local council and you wait. And wait and wait and wait and then you check and discover there’s been a bureaucratic blunder and instead of nearing the top of the list you still have about another ten years to wait. (That is not an exaggeration.) Getting an allotment of your own is harder than getting into Eton – a comparison Kay herself draws. Seriously. If your little tyke is showing even the vaguest interest in botany put their name on the list now.


The basic arc of the book covers Kay’s history from being a co-worker, plot sitter and volunteer, from not having a plot to nearly having a plot until, by the end, she finally gets her own plot. It is not a straightforward path from applying to acquiring, not simply a matter of waiting her turn. Anyone who is thinking seriously about taking on an allotment needs to read her story and the stories of the people she gets to know along the way because one of them will most likely become your Waitrose Carrier Bagsstory. There is a delightful array of unusual and slightly eccentric characters to be encountered between these covers like the “Waitrose Woman (so called because she once turned down the offer of a Sainsbury’s carrier bag to take her crops home, insisting that ‘she couldn’t be seen with anything but Waitrose’)”, Compact and Bijou who “divided their plot in two, front and back, with a picket fence and winding paths decorated with many gnomes”, Errol the chrysanthemums, the Sick Lady, HSM (who I shall come back to in a moment), Celia – the “Imelda Marcos of trowels” and a cast of dozens most of whom were happily placing bets on how long novices might last.

Allotments are fascinating and deserve their own documentary series. The sites are complex sociological melting pots and the habits and beliefs of allotment-holders are a peculiar blend of mythology, thoroughly tested local tips and profoundly developed obsessions. Add in the history and archaeology, flora and fauna, competitions and culinary expertise and there's enough material to keep a researcher busy for decades – or until they get an allotment of their own and lose all interest in outside matters. Each site is peculiar (in every sense of the word) and particular, with conditions, rules, traditions and crops specifically designed for that ground.


In the last section I mentioned HSM. Most allotment-holders, although generally convivial, tend to clam up when it comes to their personal lives. Passing on tips and tricks about how to combat “the various sneak attacks of soil-borne nasties like eelworms, vine weevils and the depredations of keel slugs which go through a root crop like Attila the Hun through a sleeping village” are one thing but much conjecturing goes on about the extra-allotmental activities and other halves of their neighbours. HSM is a particular subject of fascination for Kay and her friends.

I have to say I imagined allotments as being a primarily male-infested domain but it seems that’s no longer the case and Kay is far from being the exception. There are many women mentioned in the book like Maisie whose soft-heartedness was so legendary that “[s]he had once left her allotment hat hanging up in her shed for the entire winter because an orb spider had laid an egg sac in it and she didn’t want to disturb the babies” but who would happily “‘fire-bomb’ slugs with a blowtorch” or Celia who I mentioned above with her wardrobe full of boxes full of trowels:

There were days when I wondered how you became a Celia: was something sprinkled on you at birth, like Fairy Growmore, or did you receive a series of horticultural lucky breaks that led to you being able to grow plants that other people couldn’t even pronounce?

And then there’s HSM:

HSM stood for Home-Schooling Mother and I wanted to like her, I really did, but… As an example, HSM’s three children spent a lot of time at the allotment. There was no reason why they shouldn’t, as long as they were also learning whatever lessons were appropriate, but something about the way they walked – in a single file, their heads down, the little boy kicking at tussocks of grass while his sisters trailed hand tools behind them as they dawdled – suggested they regarded the hours spent on their plot as penitential.


HSM was a paragon of self-sufficiency, which is why I wanted to like her. She baked her own bread and was trying to cultivate her own grain. She spun wool. She knew the common name to every native plant and enough botanical ones to give my horticulturally-replete friend Celia a run for her money.

But if there’s an HSM one might not unreasonably imagine there might be an HSF – what of him? And how come she was selling stuff at market (something forbidden in the rules) when she objected to the allotment shop selling items for a profit “even when the profit was immediately ploughed back into improving the site”? She is a mystery that the women worry away at until one chilly autumn day Kay discovers her three kids, Portia, Reatta and Ayar, locked in their mother’s hut. Just what is going on with this woman?

I knew only one allotment-holder better equipped to ferret out a mystery than myself … Celia.

All is revealed, don’t you worry.

Etiquette Guide

When newbies came into our allotment shop to buy barrowloads of manure, or seeds, or just to seek advice, the old guard would look over like gamblers betting on a horse race. For the newcomer it must have been like the very first day at school, having to learn the rules, jargon and arcane behaviours required to fit in as an outsider.

And that’s before the Inspection Committee comes anywhere near your plot. Considering how long most people have to wait before they get their hand on their treasured piece of earth it can all be taken away from them so easily. This being the case, the chapter entitled ‘How to Win Inspections and Impress Allotment Officers’ is probably one of the most important ones in the book. Within that chapter Kay lists ten areas of concern covering cultivated areas, weeds, structures, rubbish, bonfires, paths, ponds, dogs, unwelcome visitors and immorality – yes, you read me right – on which subject Kay has this to say:

Darling Buds of MayImmorality – it’s illegal. Despite the Darling Buds of May effect (which means that anybody near gooseberry bushes or a man whose trousers are held up with string immediately becomes robustly suggestive in the Pa Larkin style), using your plot for illegal, immoral or antisocial purposes will – almost everywhere – get your tenancy terminated immediately. On allotment sites owned by the Church of England there can be some odd little rules about Sunday working, which comes under immoral behaviour, believe it or not, but I don’t think they are enforced any more.

That may well be the case south of the border but the Wee Frees wouldn’t be quite so tolerant I’m sure.

Gardening Book

If I wasn’t already resolute in my determination never to garden again, this book would not convince me to give it a go. Gardening is hard. If you think all you have to do is dig a few holes, bung in a seed or a bulb or something, cover and then let Nature do her bit you are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land. I reiterate: gardening is hard and I don’t mean hard as in hard labour, I mean hard as in complex. Here is part of Errol’s instructions for growing watermelons:

Use Russian watermelon seed. Start the seed off in peat pots on a shelf over a radiator 95 days before you expect to harvest them

Build three south-facing watermelon beds. They need to be seven feet by seven with wood walls three feet tall and a further two-foot of windbreak above that. Set an opening in one of the walls and make sure you can fold back your windbreak to get into the bed. Make the windbreak of old sheets of fleece, anything that’s white – whitewash the inside walls of the beds too.

Take out the soil to a depth of two feet and replace it with a mixture of equal thirds: well-rotted manure, home-made compost, good topsoil. Mound it up so there is a hill in the middle of each bed.

When the last frost has passed, and each seedling has four leaves, put two pots in the ground on each hill. After two weeks, thin out the weaker seedlings and lay straw in the bed so that it’s level with the hill. Don’t compress this. This reflects sun back to the fruit and holds warmth.

Water daily – make sure the water is blood temperature. The best feed for watermelons is weekly liquid nitrogen until they set flowers and then a weekly potassium feed as the fruit grows.

Of course he might have just been pulling her leg. As well as several other questionable approaches to getting the best crops, there are, I assure you, more than enough real hints to keep you happy.

Cook Book

Pine-berry-lgI may have objected to our accommodation including a garden but I assure you I have no problems with it containing a kitchen although it’s fair to say that I’m about as good a cook as I ever was a gardener. Kay’s book is, however, peppered with recipes, things to do with all these fruits and vegetables you’ve probably never heard of before like “Snow Belle: a porcelain white and perfectly globular variety [of radish] that’s particularly good for salads”, calabrese, kohlrabi, borlotti, blue potatoes, everlasting onions and pineberries (white strawberries that taste like a pineapple) although there are plenty of recipes for more familiar fair, like ‘Winter-Stored Apple and Frozen Blackberry Tarte Tatin’, ‘Purple Sprouting Broccoli Hash’, ‘Almost Instant Chutney’, ‘Sunshine Carrots’ and ‘Plum Curd’. Here’s one of the shorter ones:



  • 12 or so thumb-sized summer radishes
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 200 grammes soft spreadable cheese
  • Seasoning
  • A good-sized bunch of fresh herbs (enough to sit on the palm of your hand): parsley, marjoram, thyme, dill, chives, tarragon – more or less whatever you have to hand, but stay away from basil and mint, both of which overpower the peppery and bright taste of the radish


Whiz the first four ingredients together in a food processor, or finely chop by hand, then hand-chop the herbs to remove any woody stalks and blend them into the mixture with your fingers.

Put in a dish and refrigerate for at least two hours. Serve with hot cheese scones, wholemeal bread or melba toast.

Science Textbook

I mentioned it earlier. Now here it is. The reason I hated eating cabbage and Brussels sprouts as a kid:

PROPTolerance for brassicas (cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc.) comes from our genes. A certain class of people, called ‘supertasters’, are sensitive to a particular bitter chemical compound – 6-n-propylthiouracil, familiarly known as PROP – which they find unpalatably strong. Some people, known as ‘non-tasters’, just don’t pick up any taste of PROP at all, while ‘medium tasters’ do get the bitterness on their taste buds but don’t object to it.

Virtually all children, pre-puberty, have a stronger reaction to PROP than adults, so the childhood hatred of ‘greens’ is not just picky eating, and may fade by one’s twenties, which suggests that this supertaster gene may be an evolutionary mechanism that stopped primitive children eating unsafe foods they foraged alongside adults.

I can testify to the fact that as a kid I would howl at the table when made to eat cabbage especially and now I regard it as a bit of a treat, particularly red cabbage. I’ve still never developed a fondness for the astringent taste of rhubarb and gooseberries although these aren’t PROP-rich. If you are tempted to try a little gardening, however, Kay does have this to say about rhubarb:

Rhubarb has many advantages, not least that it is easy to grow. If the planet is side-swiped by a nuclear disaster, I predict that along with the cockroaches, rhubarb plants will survive!


This is a lovely book. It’s a hardback and so will cost you about £9.99 ($14.15 on unless it’s on offer somewhere which it likely will be. It is not available as an e-book as far as I’m aware (Kay thinks there’s one coming though) but if it was, so much would be lost in the process of transference: the illustrations, the tables, the various fonts all would vanish certainly on a Kindle. This has the look of a book that would get given to an elderly relative at Christmas – I know Carrie is thinking about giving a copy to her dad who doesn’t have an allotment (he has a large garden) but was a great fan of James Herriott – and I’m sure many of them would appreciate it, but the book’s scope is wider than that. To that end I don’t think the book’s title does it any favours but it’s slightly better than Trugs, Dibbers, Trowels and Twine and everything good about gardening with little tips and words of wisdom and inspiration on the simplest of pleasures by Isobel Carlson which is advertised at the back of the book. Nabokov, sadly, it is not but Kay does give James Herriot a run for his money.

Although much as the book entertained me I am still sorry to report that it has done nothing to sway me from my currently held opinions about all things appertaining to gardening and I suspect that the only thing that would might be starvation and even then if there is a nuclear holocaust the likelihood is that you will find me subsisting on cockroaches and rhubarb before I'd think about planting anything no matter how many allotments had been freed up by the devastation. Unfortunately Kay doesn’t have a recipe for a recipe for Cockroach and Rhubarb Crumble. Perhaps in the sequel, eh? A post apocalyptic gardening book – there’s got to be a market.

Minding My Peas and Cucumbers: Quirky Tales of Allotment Life is published by Summersdale Publishers Limited.


Kay SextonKay Sexton proves that there’s hope for all of us. She left school with no discernable qualifications and has had a plethora of jobs ranging from glamour model, mortician’s assistant, dental receptionist, chambermaid and nudist camp agony aunt (there has to be a book in there somewhere). Eventually she had to enter the real world and spent more than a decade as Chief Executive for charitable and environmental organisations worldwide. She has also been a house writer for several environmental/social responsibility non-profits.

Her publication credits range from H&E International to France Today to the World Water Forum Annual Report. Kay’s fiction has been chosen for over forty anthologies and been broadcast on Radio 4. Her unpublished novel, Gatekeeper, was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, she was shortlisted for the Willesden Herald short story prize in 2008, a finalist for the Bridport Prize in 2009 and was long-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story prize 2010 alongside A.L. Kennedy, Rose Tremain, Jackie Kay and Helen Simpson. You can follow her misadventures in literature on her blog: Writing Neuroses ... mine are rare, yours may be legion.

Monday 21 March 2011

Procrastinators Anonymous

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. – Douglas Adams


This post was actually written last August. I kept putting off posting it and now some of its content is out of date.

Hi, my name is Jim and I’m a procrastinator. I can’t actually remember a time when I wasn’t a procrastinator although it took me a long time to say the words aloud, to admit to myself that I am one. I don’t have an image in my head of my father as a procrastinator. He was a decisive man, a man of action but not one given to kneejerk reactions, no, he would give thought to what he was going to do and then, once he had made his mind up, he would execute his plan without looking back. That was how I got my first record player. A family friend was selling an old one which Dad bought. He then sat down, drew a set of plans, bought some wood and manufactured a cabinet for the thing. I remember the lid was a little stiff because of the varnish but other than that it was a fine, if a little amateurish, job.

Ah, there did you catch that? Digression, the little sister of procrastination. I started this blog with the intention of exploring what it means to procrastinate – so many writers admit to this – and yet the first thing I do is start talking about something else. It’s noteworthy that one of the first things I started writing about here was my dad. This is what Psychology Today had to say about dads:

Procrastinators are made not born. Procrastination is learned in the family milieu, but not directly. It is one response to an authoritarian parenting style. Having a harsh, controlling father keeps children from developing the ability to regulate themselves, from internalizing their own intentions and then learning to act on them.[1]

But elsewhere[2] it suggests that procrastination is actually is due to a problem with our hard wiring. The article lists five ‘quirks’ – here are the first three:

Quirk 1: The brain is built to firstly minimise danger, before maximizing rewards.

  • Procrastination Effect: We avoid tasks that threaten the self, and we discount future rewards in favour of immediate gratification.

Quirk 2: Too much uncertainty feels dangerous. It feels like possible pain so we avoid it.

  • Procrastination Effect: Uncertainty — not knowing what to do next — is scary. Delaying a task becomes a way of coping with or avoiding that fear.

Quirk 3: Our conscious processing capacity is small, which makes us terrible at a lot of things, including predicting what might make us happy.

  • Procrastination Effect: It’s difficult for us to set realistic goals — or stick to them.

So, nature or nurture or a bit of both? I’d go with a bit of both personally.

Procrastinate is an interesting word because unlike other verbs it’s hard to describe. I can tell you to stand up just now – assuming that you’re seated – and you know exactly what to do. The same goes for sitting down. But if I told you to procrastinate what would you do? ‘Procrastination’ is one of those abstract nouns, like ‘love’ or ‘inspiration’ that we think we understand and yet can’t quite put our finger on and so I guess that would make ‘procrastinate’ an abstract verb like ‘involve’ or ‘oblige.’ It’s not a simple doing word and yet procrastination is such an easy thing to do.

Procrastination is putting off doing something often by doing something else instead so it’s not as simple as doing nothing. I didn’t procrastinate before beginning to write this. I had the idea a couple of days ago and decided that the next blog I would write after I’d finished the book review I was working on would be one where I learned a bit more about why we procrastinate and so for the past couple of days I’ve done nothing except try and remember what I intended to do when the time came to write my next blog. The time came and, after practically no thought whatsoever I wrote my opening sentence and I’ve hardly stopped since except to look up ‘abstract verb’ to make sure I wasn’t using it incorrectly which I haven’t although my explanation is a bit simplistic.

(Sorry, I just had to check my e-mail, then read my e-mail, click on a hyperlink, scan a blog, decide to subscribe to it, actually subscribe to it, delete the read e-mails and now I’m back with you.)

Where was I? Ah, yes. Procrastination, causes of. Here’s a list culled from a number of sites:

  1. Complicated-task anxiety
  2. Not in the right mood
  3. Insufficient time to complete the whole task
  4. Overestimating the time left to complete a task
  5. Fear of imperfection
  6. Fear of failure
  7. Fear of success
  8. Indecision
  9. Priority confusion
  10. Boredom from minutiae
  11. Lack of focus
  12. Lack of belief
  13. Poor organizational skills
  14. Lack of technical skills
  15. Laziness
  16. Lack of energy
  17. Ill health
  18. Early morning lag
  19. Post-lunch fatigue
  20. Overreliance on external factors

The ticks indicate all the ones that apply to me. So I could be worse.

(Sorry. Had to go tuck my wife in for her nap, check my office PC and get a wine gum. No new e-mails.)

The list is just in any old order but I’ve underlined the three that I think I’m most guilty of, the ones that really cripple me. You see for most of the time procrastination is a nuisance, nothing more and how susceptible I am to it varies radically. When it’s at its worst it’s every bit as debilitating as my depression but as I’ve proven time and time again you can write when depressed and write well.

(Sorry. Just had to unzip a file on the other laptop, have a pee and make a coffee.)

Wikipedia lists two types of procrastinator:

  • The relaxed type of procrastinators view their responsibilities negatively and avoid them by directing energy into other tasks.
  • The tense-afraid type of procrastinators usually feel overwhelmed with pressure, unrealistic about time, uncertain about goals, and many other negative feelings.

I am without a doubt the latter. Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, however, uses these terms:

  • Arousal procrastinators seek the excitement and pumping stress hormones of having to finish everything under duress.
  • Avoidance procrastinators make their work the measure of their self-worth and so end up putting it off out of fear.[3]

Again I would say I’m the latter. I won’t say I can’t work under pressure but I prefer not to which is why I write my post so far in advance so as not to be under any pressure. (As of today by the way I have 24 posts in hand. Added together that’s longer than my longest novel.)

(Sorry. Just had to go and clean my glasses. And take a couple of paracetamol. Then I had to reboot my computer to finish installing McAfee so I gave my face a wash while that was going on. Remembered I wanted to see where I knew Angela Thorne from so looked her up in IMDB. Installed a Java update. It was To the Manor Born in case you were wondering.)

How many things do you have to do right this minute? You may well have set time aside to read this post but what are you not doing that really needs doing? I could be working on my novel just now. I could be doing the dishes. I could change the paper in the bottom of the bird’s cage. I could read some more of the book I need to review next. I could go for a walk. God knows I need the exercise. I could fix the doors on the cupboard in the kitchen. If I decided to stop right now and do any one of those things could you accuse me of procrastinating? They all need doing. The reason I’m doing this just now is that I feel like it. I can clean out the bird’s cage any time. How much messier will it get if I leave it till tomorrow or even next week? Writing is affected by one’s moods. That doesn’t mean we let our moods dictate what we write but at the same time when one recognises that the mood is right it would be foolish to waste that energy on something that you could do with your eyes shut.

(Sorry. Just checked my RSS feeds. Marked all read bar one which looks interesting and I’ll check it later.)

The philosopher John Perry has an interesting site. It’s called Structured Procrastination on which he explains what he means by the term:

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.[4]

I always thought God wasted an opportunity with the Ten Commandments. He could have compacted the five about him into one and that would have given him four more to play with and if that had been me that I would definitely have included:

Thou shalt not waste time

Seriously. Time is the most valuable commodity on the planet. You should want to make your time count and do important stuff. That’s why I resent sleep. It takes up so much time and I always feel like crap when I wake up so what is the point I ask you?

A job’s not worth doing if you’re not going to do it right. Not sure when I first heard that. It’s not exactly a credo for the perfectionist but it’s heading in the right direction. A perfectionist is not a perfect person and yet for some inexplicable reason they expect to be able to produce perfect things and get annoyed with themselves when they can’t. It took me a long time to modify my understanding of what perfection actually is: that there are two kinds of perfection, absolute and relative. It was my dad that explained it to me by emphasising the expression “perfect for the job” – water is perfect for rehydration, a screw driver is perfect for extracting a screw from a piece of wood unless the screw is damaged in some way then a chisel would be perfect.

Was that last sentence a perfect sentence? Did you get my point? Perfick! As Pop Larkin used to say.

I don’t use the word ‘perfect’ much when I think about my writing. I use the word ‘right.’ I read over what I’ve written and I fiddle with it until is sounds right. Sometimes it never sounds right. I’ve never been completely happy with the first sentence to Living with the Truth but what I settled on works well enough. It’s not absolutely perfect but it’s perfect enough.

(Sorry. Needed to stretch my legs. Rebooted my office PC, used the toilet, woke up Carrie, made coffee, refilled my container with paracetamol, ate a kiwi fruit with some ice cream and did the dishes.)

Last Minute
Aristotle considered a concrete house more prefect than the idea of a novel. Only a real house can contribute to our organic and psychological survival. But it can’t do that until it is built. Once constructed it may well not be the perfect example of a house but until it is built that assessment cannot be made. It may be that the house is an excellent house in that it exceeds the quality of the surrounding houses but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a perfect house until it is inhabited. Only the inhabitant(s) can make that assessment. A single man might say that the house is perfect for him whereas a family might feel it needs more cupboard space. Context determines whether or not anything can be described as perfect.

So is fear that my next novel is not going to be perfect a reason to procrastinate over writing it? Of course it is! Not that procrastinators generally need reasons, excuses work just as well.

What’s the difference between preparation and procrastination? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. You want to be comfortable writing although not so comfortable you doze off so a cup of coffee, some nice music and . . . seriously how much preparation do you need? As soon as you start dithering you need to ask yourself one very simple question: Do I want to write this thing or not? If you can’t say, “Yes!” to that then why are you there? Go and tick something else off your to-do list. Go and change the birdcage at least. What if the question was: Do I need to write this thing? As far as creative writing goes if you cannot answer, “Yes!” to that question you’re on a hiding to nothing anyway. I don’t need to write this blog. I need to write something to keep up with my self-imposed schedule but I don’t need to write about procrastination.

I don’t need to write my novel either. The sky won’t fall in if I don’t. I need to vacuum the living room carpet more than I need to write a novel and I think one of the main reasons I’ve not finished my current novel up until now is that I’ve neither wanted to nor needed to. Everything else was just pussyfooting around that issue.

Okay, so it’s not that simple. They say that where there’s will there’s a way. Up to a point it’s true. If you want something badly enough you’ll do your damndest to make it happen. But that’s not enough. We all have limitations and need to work within them. That’s part of what it means to be imperfect. The trick is to find the edges of those limitations and keep leaning on them to see how far you can shove them out.

If at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again. Another platitude. But one that procrastinators like me need to heed. I read about writers doing draft after draft of their novels, literally writing them over and over again until they get it right. I read about Joyce Carol Oates writing two novels by hand and then chucking them straight in the bin. Time is precious – we agreed on that at the start of this article – and so was the time wasted? The simple answer is that there are a great many things that we are going to fail at in this life before we succeed at them so why the hell don’t we just get on and get the failing out of the road so we can find our way to the successes at the end? I’m already on the fifth draft of my current book. That fact alone is killing me and it’s also putting me off. The other books were, by comparison, strolls in the park. Is it wrong to expect this current book to be the same? Er, yes, because it’s its own thing and not writing it is only putting off the inevitable.

But what is the inevitable? It’s not as if it’s written in stone or anything. I won’t know until I get there. It may be that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this book and haven’t grown as much as a writer as I’d like to think I have. That doesn’t mean I might not be capable of finishing it in ten years time. Am I wasting precious time by not so much procrastinating but denying that the work is beyond me? Not sure yet but haven’t any better idea yet. If I had I’d go off and write that.

(Sorry. Back’s killing me. Need to get up. Put the dishes by and decided to play ‘Snake’ in the office. 2350 words written. Not bad for an afternoon’s work.)

Do I believe in my novel? Yes. Do I think it has something important to say? Yes. That’s why I’ve not quit thinking about it for three years. Am I afraid that what I’ll end up writing might not be what’s in my head? Yes. Would that be a bad thing? Don’t know.

Many famous and successful novelists have been procrastinators. Harold Robbins, is described in Another Life by Michael Korda as having to be watched over (on occasion, under literal lock and key) before he would finish a novel.

Douglas Adams did everything humanly possible to avoid the daily drudgery of plonking down at his desk and pounding out his novel The Salmon of Doubt. The eccentric British writer soaked for hours in the bathtub, lollygagged away entire days in bed and dreamed up ever more fanciful excuses for his exasperated editor. When he died in 2001, he had spent a decade on the book without even a complete first draft to show for it.[5]

Procrastination works. That’s the sad thing about it. It’s a symptom of imperfection. Imperfect people are prone to being selfish and that’s what procrastinators are, selfish and self-indulgent. But there are cures available. Like any other disorder what works for one will not work for someone else. Some people find it helps to tell people what they’re doing so that they’re faced with having to feel publicly guilty if they fail. I actually find that makes things worse for me. For me it’s looking at the importance we place on things. Just because #1 on my to-do list is: Finish novel doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily the most important thing in my life. It does mean that it’s been outstanding longer than most of the other things on the list. I’ve just had to acknowledge that finishing that novel was not important enough for me to actually do it. There pressure off. Now I can apply myself wholeheartedly to something that matters and not feel that I should be doing something else. So I’m not writing my novel. At least I’m writing. THAT is the most important thing.

The real solution to procrastination is to change the way you think about it. If you think of it as a bad habit then it becomes something that you can quit. But just like a smoker or a drinker the urge will never leave. My name is Jim and I’m a procrastinator.

If you have a problem with procrastination you might like to check out Procrastinating Writers by the way and, all joking aside, there is an organisation called Procrastinators Anonymous:

Addiction and compulsion are about escaping the present moment – not being present in your life, not experiencing the reality of your life. People procrastinate as a way to not be present in their lives because they have addictive personalities, and this is the particular form their addiction takes.


Note: Procrastinators do not have a problem with time management. They have a problem with compulsive avoidance.

It lists the following 10 warning signs:

  1. Disappointment is a way of life. We constantly disappoint other people and ourselves by not keeping our promises.
  2. We have enormous difficulty getting started on new projects, or transitioning from one project to another.
  3. We have a very poor sense of time, chronically underestimating or overestimating how long a task will take us to complete.
  4. We have difficulty organizing projects by breaking them down into steps; we don't know where to start, even when we're willing to start.
  5. We are surrounded by clutter and disorganization in our homes and work spaces.
  6. We are regularly late for appointments.
  7. We are acutely aware of what we should be doing, or think we should be doing, and oddly out of touch with what we actually want and need.
  8. We feel uncomfortable saying "no" to requests from others, and instead express our resentment through the passive resistance of procrastination.
  9. We suffer from Demand Resistance, causing us to do anything and everything except the one thing we most need to do.
  10. We are short-term thinkers, focusing on short-term pleasure while ignoring long-term well-being.

There are no PA meetings. This is an almost exclusively online 12-step programme for procrastinators. They even have a song.

Is there are real cure though or is it simply a matter of managing the condition?

All you have to do to beat procrastination, according to Michael Wohl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Canada, is forgive yourself for it:

Wohl and colleagues have proposed a rather surprising cure – self-forgiveness. That’s right, forgive yourself for you have procrastinated, move on, get over it and you’ll be more likely to get stuck in next time around.

Wohl and his colleagues followed 134 students through two rounds of mid-term testing, asking each student to report how much they procrastinated when studying for the first round and how bad they felt about it in the period between the exams. The researchers then looked at how much the students procrastinated on their second exams and how well they performed on them. The results?

The key finding was that students who’d forgiven themselves for their initial bout of procrastination subsequently showed less negative affect in the intermediate period between exams and were less likely to procrastinate before the second round of exams. Crucially, self-forgiveness wasn’t related to performance in the first set of exams but it did predict better performance in the second set.[6]

That procrastination is a real and a growing problem is obvious when you type ‘procrastination’ into Google. And there are plenty of posts out there listed the x number of reasons and the y number of cures. Once you’ve waded through them there are a few sites that treat the subject a little more seriously and I’ve listed them at the end.

(And, yes, I did write that last section in one sitting. Neck killing me. Back killing me. Need to go and watch TV for the rest of the night. 3683 words. Not bad for a day’s work.)



Procrastination Central

Procrastination Research Group

Dick Malott

Slate (special issue on procrastination)


[1] Hara Estroff Marano, ‘Procrastination: Ten Things To Know’, Psychology Today, 23rd August 2004

[2] CC Holland, ‘Why We’re Wired for Procrastination’, Psychology Today, 6th October 2009

[3] Emily Yoffe, 'Lollygagging Through Life'’, Slate, 13th May 2008

[4] John Perry, Structured Procrastination

[5] Heather Pringle, ‘Procrastination: The Thief of Time’, New Scientist, 15th December 2007

[6] Jessica Stillman, ‘Scientists Discover a Cure for Procrastination’, BNET, 4th May 2010

Wednesday 16 March 2011



I looked around. It seemed like any other day to me. Grey. Up the street a man was banging his head against a stone wall. – Jerry Spinelli, Milkweed

Somehow over the past wee while I’ve stumbled across a number of books about World War II written expressly for children and young adults. They’ve all been readable and haven’t exactly stretched me but none of them really satisfied me as an adult reader either. Not until I came across Milkweed. It does what every good book should do. It piqued my interest from the very start and kept it right to the very last paragraph of the final chapter; I didn’t skim or skip a thing. It contained appealing characters most of whom were reasonably well fleshed out and believable, its story was plausible and well-paced (although the very ending was a bit quick for some readers’ tastes) and it was told in a style that did more than simply relate what happened to whom, when and how.

I have no idea how I came across this book. I suspect I ordered it from Amazon because I don’t remember buying it in a shop but I can’t imagine what possessed me to buy it in the first place. It’s been lying on my to-read shelf for probably a couple of years always getting passed over for newer books. I’m not even sure why I picked it up to read this time but I’m glad I did. I expect I imagined it was a book for adults when I ordered it – the minimal cover design (which I love) doesn’t look like the kind of thing they’d do for a YA novel but what do I know about the youth of today? I didn’t know that much of the youth of my own day.

YA is a grey area. What exactly is a Young Adult? The reading level on Amazon suggests this is a book for ages 9 – 12; Commonsense Media’s reviewers (78 of them) opt for an average age of 11 but looking at the individual reviews it was obvious that a few reviewers hadn’t paid attention when they were filling in the form because they said the book was suitable from age 2 and above which it patently is not; a number of reviewers set the bar much higher, one even suggesting that you shouldn’t read this book until you’re at least 17. Younger readers will be perfectly capable of reading this book, as young as 9 I have no doubt, but because of the subtlety of the writing I’m sure that a lot of the material will pass them by (and by subtlety I mean that the author doesn’t always have an adult or an older child step in and explain what’s really going on). It obviously depends on the child but I would personally leave this one until a kid is at least 13; it’s not as if we’re short of books to read or anything. I say 13 not simply because of the subject matter but because of a number of shocking images one of which, the picture of a cow set on fire by means of a flamethrower running through the Ghetto (in which most of the book is set) and then being fallen on by starving Jews as it collapses, will stay with me for a very long time. Spinelli doesn’t make a meal of describing it. He doesn’t have to. My imagination did the rest.


This is not so much a novel about life in Warsaw in the early 1940s as it is a novel about identity. Our narrator is . . . well, we never actually get to find out his name but he is an old man now living in America looking back on that time. I’m not spoiling the ending by telling you that he survives – the one thing we learn from the very short opening chapter – is that he is a born survivor even if he turns out not to be a very bright one:

I am running.

That’s the first thing I remember. Running. I carry something, my arm curled around it, hugging it to my chest. Bread, of course. Someone is chasing me. “Stop! Thief!” I run. People. Shoulders. Shoes. “Stop! Thief!”

Sometimes it is a dream. Sometimes it is a memory in the middle of the day as I stir iced tea or wait for soup to heat. I never see who is chasing and calling me. I never stop long enough to eat the bread. When I awaken from my dream or memory, my legs are tingling.

In the next chapter he is caught, by Uri. If the boy is Oliver then Uri is the Artful Dodger. Older, streetwise, he hauls the boy off the street:

“You’re lucky,” he said. “Soon it won’t be ladies chasing you. It will be Jackboots.”

“Jackboots?” I said.

“You’ll see.”

I wondered who the Jackboots were. Were unfooted boots running along the streets?


[There were] thumping sounds in the distance. “What is that?” I asked him.

“Jackboot artillery,” he said.

“What’s artillery?”

“Big guns. Boom boom. They’re shelling the city.” He stared at me. “Who are you?”

I didn’t understand the question.

“I’m Uri,” he said. “What’s your name?”

I gave my name. “Stopthief.”

Uri takes the boy under his wing, introduces him to his gang of thieves: Ferdi, Kuba, Enos, Big Henrik and Olek. They live in an abandoned barbershop. No Fagin though. Or any adult. The boys are all urchins like him but he is by far the smallest and the stupidest. Which means he has to endure some gentle teasing on his arrival:

“So, Stopthief, are you a smelly cuckoo?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“He’s stupid,” said the unlaughing boy. “He’ll get us in trouble.”

“He’s quick,” said Uri. “And he’s little.”

“He’s a runt.”

“Runt is good,” said Uri.

“Are you a Jew?” said the boy in my face.

“I don’t know,” I said.

He kicked my foot. “How can you not know? You’re a Jew or you’re not a Jew.”

I shrugged.

“I told you, he’s stupid,” says the unlaugher.

“He’s young,” said Uri. “He’s just a little kid.”

“How old are you?” said the smoke blower.

“I don’t know,” I said.

The smoke blower threw up his hands. “Don’t you know anything?”

The bottom line is that the boy really does know nothing. When someone asks him if he’s a Gypsy he’s not sure but the word sounds familiar and so it’s decided that he must be a Gypsy. So for a while the boys refer to him alternately as “cuckoo”, “stupid” or “Gypsy” until Uri decides that the boy needs a past and concocts a whole backstory to go with his new name, “Misha Pilsudski” including seven brother and five sisters. This becomes his new identity:

I loved my story. No sooner did I hear the words than I became my story. I loved myself. For days afterwards. I did little else but stare into the barbershop mirror, fascinated by the face staring back.

For a while things are good for the kids. There is plenty of food to steal and not just the basics, luxuries like chocolate. Misha is especially fond of hazelnut buttercreams. Shortly after he joins the gang the Germans take Warsaw. Misha is oblivious to the impending danger and thinks it’s a parade:

I gasped aloud: “Jackboots.”

They were magnificent. There were men attached to them, but it was as if the boots were wearing the men. They did not walk like ordinary footwear, the boots. When one stood at tall, stiff attention, the other swung out till it was so high I could have walked under it; only then did it return to earth and the other take off. A thousand of them swinging up as one, falling like the footstep of a single, thousand-footed giant.

The tanks follow. Someone throws a flower from the crowd and, lacking any flowers about his person, Misha throws the cheese he has just stolen.

Warsaw Parade

Although reviews of this book on the likes of Goodreads and Amazon are all in the 4’s and 5’s it is only fair to say that the book has also garnered some criticism and much of that is directed at Spinelli’s young protagonist suggesting that no one could be as innocent and naïve as he portrays him. In defence this is what Goodread’s reviewer Wendy Pitney had to say:

There are a lot of reviews about this and the book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas that say that it is unbelievable that there were children that did not know what was going on around them. I really disagree with these statements. I have taught 5th graders and 6th graders that had no idea that we are at war with Iraq. So I do not, personally, find it hard to believe that this innocence or lack of knowledge occurred even during the WWII Era with the Jews.

Strangely I found myself more tolerant than I would have expected. I don’t suffer fools gladly but the boy’s stupidity is an integral part of who he is and he recognises looking back that his stupidity emboldened him, allowed him to take risks that more thoughtful people would not have done. Misha doesn’t think, he acts. And the laws of probability dictate that sometimes those actions will work out to his advantage and other times very much to his disadvantage:

Back on the street, I heard a shout. I turned. Someone stood up the street, in shadow. He stepped into the light. I heard a pop, saw a flash, felt a tug on my ear. I reached up. I couldn’t feel my earlobe. Someone was shooting at me! I ducked into the nearest air shaft and made my way home along the alleyways.

My ear hurt. I cried. Uri came to me. When I told him what had happened, he flicked his cigarette lighter to see. He smacked me and stuffed a rag against my ear. “Stupid…stupid…”

In his travels looking for food one day Misha ends up in a garden where there are tomatoes. There he meets and befriends a little Jewish girl called Janina who invites him to her birthday party the next day; she’s turning seven. It’s Janina on comparing their respective heights that decides Misha is actually eight but we never know for sure because even as an adult his height never exceeds five foot one. The birthday party does not go so well. Needless to say this is his first, the first he can remember in any case, and so when he sees them lighting the candles he panics:

I was shocked. They were going to burn down the cake! There wasn’t a moment to spare. I blew out the fires, grabbed the cake, and ran from the house.

The next day, after Uri explains the error of his ways (and help him eat the cake) Misha returns with the best cake he could steal, sets it on the back step, lights the candles, knock the door and runs off.

Uri’s gang are not all bad. They are all orphans and as such have something of a soft spot for other orphans. One of the things Uri does periodically is take food to Doctor Korczak’s orphanage. Misha does the same. He also includes Janina’s family – who he knows to be Jews – and begins leaving gifts of food on the back step for them. As a token of thanks Janina begins leaving the odd sweet or trinket for him in return.

Things are getting worse and even Misha can’t stay ignorant forever even though he hangs onto his innocence for as long as possible and longer than imaginable frankly.

The Warsaw Ghetto was established by the German Governor-General Hans Frank on October 16, 1940. Frank ordered Jews in Warsaw and its suburbs rounded up and herded into the Ghetto. At this time, the population in the Ghetto was estimated to be 400,000 people, about 30% of the population of Warsaw; however, the size of the Ghetto was about 2.4% of the size of Warsaw. … The Nazis then closed the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world on November 16, 1940, by building a wall, topped with barbed wire, and deploying armed guards. – Wikipedia

The bulk of the book takes place within the Ghetto itself where Misha’s unique talents come in very useful. Because of his size he finds he can squeeze through a hole in the wall and along with the rest of the boys – who have to either scale the wall or use the sewers – he becomes part of a band of smugglers. He locates Janina and her family, her parents and her Uncle Shepsel, and eventually gets absorbed into the family. He even starts telling people that Janina is his sister and soon he’s taken on their family name too: he becomes Misha Milgrom. He even “becomes” Jewish. Uncle Shepsel, however, decides that Jewish is not so good and decides to become a Lutheran. He is the only one to ask the boy the obvious question:

He looked hard into my face and did not seem to know me. “You go. Every night you go,” he said. “Why do you come back?” I did not have an answer. Maybe he found it in my face, for after a while he turned and walked off. Up the street the man was on the ground.

The man on the ground by the way is the man in the opening quote.


There are 45 chapters in this book over 270 pages. At the end of chapter 39 the time has come for the Ghettos to be emptied. Most believe the stories or relocation even when a man who has escaped from a concentration camp risks everything to return and tell them the truth. We learn how Misha escapes being taken away on the train, how he survives the next three years and how he ends up in America and with a new name:

The immigration officer said, “What is your name?”

“Misha Milgrom,” I said. “What’s a Misha?” he said. “Your name is Jack.”

I became Jack Milgrom.

But we don’t learn the fate of most of the others.

His tale is not done though. And this is where I was most impressed with Spinelli’s handling of this story despite the fact he does so in only a couple of chapters: we get to see the real effect on this man’s life. You can argue all day long about whether enough time is devoted to this part of his life but I personally was satisfied. And it does have a happy ending – of sorts. And he has one more name to acquire but I’m not going to tell you what that is or who it is that finally locates him stacking shelves in aisle 4 of the Bag ’n Go market but it was enough. Yes, it’s true that we don’t find out what happens to everyone. There are numerous unanswered questions and probably the most important one is: Does Uri actually become a Nazi in the end or is he just pretending to be one, doing what he has to do to survive? It’s hard to know what to leave out and all credit to Spinelli for not trying to dot ever i and cross every t. But I was pleased that he didn’t just end the book when the war ended. His reason:

Q: Why did you decide to show the reader what happens to Misha when he grows up rather than ending Milkweed with him still a child?

A: Because I wasn’t telling the story of the war; I was telling the story of Misha.

Not everyone is going to be moved by this book. In fact this is what one thirteen-year-old reviewer on the Commonsense media site (username: Event Horizon) had to say about it:

Showing kids even younger that the Holocaust stinks

Whee...a kid doesn't know who he is. Whee...he steals without consequence. Whee...he makes friends with some Jewish family. Whee...he goes to a tiny slum with 3 zillion people. is miserable. Whee...his friends die. Whee...more stealing without consequence. Whee...everyone is dying. Whee...I really don't care. I guess I could cry, but I didn't care whether Misha lived. He's just a person on paper. In Where the Red Fern Grows I even cared when the unlikable character died. In this one, everyone dies. But whee...I was miserable.

I’m going to refrain from passing comment.

But why call the book Milkweed? Seems like an odd choice. Spinelli explains in interview:

TeacherVision: The milkweed plant seems to represent physical and spiritual survival in your book. It travels freely and sprouts almost anywhere. Janina calls milkweed "her angel" – her inner spirit that can fly away. Did you call your book Milkweed in order to inject a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak story?

Jerry Spinelli: In a word, yes – though as I've noted, there are many rays of hope in the story.

He also explains why he chose to write the book in the first place:

TeacherVision: The Holocaust happened many years ago and has been written about endlessly. Why do you feel it is important to continue writing about it?

Jerry Spinelli: Because there is no statute of limitations on humanity. Because history sits on the shoulder while story unlocks the heart. Because to those involved, there was not a Holocaust of six million, but six million Holocausts of one.

The book has won numerous awards and rightly so. It wisely doesn’t try to do everything. The author was well aware when he wrote this that there is an awful lot of existing material on the subject so he chose to write something that would complement what is already available. It’s now frequently used as a teaching aid in schools.

You can read the first three chapters here.


Jerry_SpinelliJerry Spinelli was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1941. He grew up playing a wide variety of sports, including soccer and baseball. For years Jerry dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player. Yet during high school, two things persuaded him to trade in his bat for a pen: he wrote a poem that was published in the local newspaper; and, he eventually realized that he couldn't hit a curveball.

At Gettysburg College, Jerry Spinelli began to write short stories. He also served as the editor of the college literary magazine. After graduation, Spinelli took a job as a writer and editor for a department store magazine. For the next two decades he did rather mundane editorial work as a day job so that he could have the energy to write fiction in his spare time. For years Spinelli wrote during lunch breaks, on weekends, and after dinner.

Spinelli's first four novels were for adults. All of them were rejected. His fifth novel, also intended for adults, actually became his first children's book. Space Station Seventh Grade was published in 1982, when Jerry Spinelli was 41 years old and had six children living at home.

He has won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee and a Newbery Honour Award for Wringer. He has written many other award-winning books for young readers, including Stargirl, Knots in My Yo-Yo String: The Autobiography of a Kid, and Crash. Spinelli has been touched by the Holocaust since his childhood. In writing Milkweed, he questioned his own credentials in writing a Holocaust book and then remembered what he has told young writers for years: "Write what you care about."

When Jerry Spinelli is not writing, he likes to play tennis, pick berries, gaze up at the stars, and spend time with his 16 grandchildren. He lives in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania with his wife, fellow children's book author Eileen Spinelli.

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