Monthly Archives: February 2019

Book Review – Moth

Title: Moth

Written by: Isabel Thomas

Illustrated by: Daniel Egnéus

Published by: Bloomsbury


This creative non-fiction picture book tells the story of the tiny peppered moth and its quest for survival. Against a lush backdrop of lichen-covered trees, the peppered moth lies hidden until the world begins to change. Moth by Isabel Thomas introduces the concept of natural selection and adaptation in a fun and visually stimulating way.

The theme of light and dark are encompassed throughout the moth’s story of how it negotiates the dangers of life, from the blue tits and other predators, to human interference. Learn how the moth adapts over the centuries to survive the pollution of the industrial revolution. Landscapes change as cities grow and people’s magnificent machines stain the land with soot yet the peppered moth struggles on. The illustrations are spectacular stencils in keeping with the light and dark theme.

It is a clever, thought-provoking way of introducing evolution. A great book for teaching camouflage to young children and ideal for inspiring the children’s own art work linked to camouflage.

This book review was previously published on the online Armadillo Children’s Book Review Magazine.

An interview with… Ruta Sepetys

In my Writing 4 Children double spread, in the March issue of Writers’ Forum, I interview Ruta Sepetys about how she is bringing underrepresented pieces of history out of the dark in her award winning YA novels.

Ruta Sepetys2

For example, her novel Salt to the Sea, which won the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal, is set during the 1945 refugee evacuation of East Prussia and tells the story of the single largest maritime disaster in history—the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in port during WWII. The story is told through the alternating viewpoints of four young people who are all hunted and haunted by tragedy, lies, and war. Their fates converge as they arrive at the port and board the doomed ship.

Salt to the Sea cover

Ruta explained how she was inspired to use the true story of her father’s cousin who had passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff but on the day of the voyage she was unable to board the ship. When the ship departed without her, she was certain that she would die in the port under Soviet attack. She survived, but over nine thousand passengers on the Gustloff perished.

“My cousin’s experience made such an impression on me. It issues the reminder that sometimes it’s not where we are—but where we aren’t—that makes a difference. I was also inspired to write about the maritime disaster because although the magnitude dwarfs the sinking of the Titanic, the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is virtually unknown.” Ruta Sepetys

Her use of family history was also true of the first novel she had published by Puffin, Between Shades of Gray, which won the 2012 Golden Kite Award for fiction and was made into the movie, Ashes in the Snow. This novel chronicles the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States and the exile and deportation of countless victims to Siberia. The story follows Lina Vilkas, a fifteen-year-old artist who is arrested by the Soviet secret police and deported to Siberia with her mother and younger brother.

The story was inspired by two young women who were deported and also by Ruta’s father who fled Lithuania when he was a boy and spent nine years in refugee camps before arriving in the United States.

Ruta told me:

“I try to inject an equal balance of love and hope. When love is juxtaposed against violence, the two opposing forces reveal powerful truths about the other.” Ruta Sepetys

Her latest novel, The Fountains of Silence, is set in Madrid in 1957 during the Spanish Civil War.

The Fountains of Silence

It tells the story of eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of a Texas oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother’s birth through the lens of his camera only to be plunged into one of history’s darkest corners.

You can read my full interview with Ruta Sepetys in the March 2019 #209 issue of Writers’ Forum.

To find out more about Ruta and her books take a look at  her website: Or follow her on Twitter @RutaSepetys

Market Research

One of the most difficult things about breaking into children’s writing is finding the right market for your manuscript. Many new writers are in such a hurry to be published they send their manuscript out to as many publishers as they can and often before it has even been edited properly. This is a big mistake.

It has also been recommended that you don’t write a word until you have a firm contract. In practice this often does not work as for educational writing, the deadlines are so tight the contract often does not arrive until halfway through a project or even after you have finished writing the book. Getting a commission before you start to write may be true of educational work but, less true for fiction. Even so, if you are interested in writing for the education market, it is worth writing and asking for any writer’s briefs. That’s information about projects they are developing and not their underwear.


Don’t send picture book manuscripts to publishers that only print educational non-fiction, or primary school educational non-fiction to a publisher that focuses on secondary education. I know this seems obvious, but we hear over and over how writers send their work to inappropriate markets. It’s important to research your markets regularly as sometimes publishers who used to publish picture books may only be concentrating on mid-grade now.


Research the different publishers and what they produce. Look at their catalogues online, or go to book fairs and pick up a copy of their new catalogue, or go to an independent bookstore and browse.  Your local library will have books publishers have previously published, which you can browse and get a feel for the publisher’s style.

Make lots of notes. Look at the titles and the title page with current editorial contact information on. Pay close attention to the focus of the books. The more time you spend on this preliminary research, the more likely you’ll be to find the right publisher for your work.

Book Review – Benny’s Hat

Title: Benny’s Hat

Written by: Juliet Claire Bell

Illustrated by: Dave Gray

Published by: Pomelo Pip

Benny's Hat

This is a picture book about empathy and surviving despair at the loss of a loved one. A book definitely made for sharing, Benny’s Hat will have you weeping from start to finish.

It is about a young girl called Lizzy (nicknamed Friz) whose brother, Benjamin is terminally ill. It is told from Friz’s point of view. This book deals with a sibling dying in a subtle way, through Friz’s actions and reactions to the deterioration of her brother. It may be delicate, understated storytelling but Juliet Claire Bell’s exceptional ‘show not tell’ skills have a dynamic impact on the reader and their emotions from how Friz gets her nickname to hiding Benny’s hat. The brother and sister exchanges are spot on and despite the tears, brought a little smile to my face.

Juliet Claire Bell’s text and Dave Gray’s illustrations work in perfect unison. The use of pastel shades for the background contrast the orange of Benny’s hat. The layout of the page panels and the vignettes lead you into the bold black page when Friz finds out her brother has died. I particularly liked the use of the trees which start off green and full of leaves and become stark, empty branches to depict Friz’s mood. Then at the end a few green leaves are beginning to grow at the far tips of the branches to symbolise, maybe there can be hope to survive such a traumatic loss.

Benny's Hat2

At the back of the book, there is a note for parent’s by child bereavement counsellor Sue Dale. She provides tips on talking about Benny’s Hat and links to organisations that can help. There are also activities to try that may help children going through bereavement.

I would recommend this book to all parent’s and teachers whether they are helping a child through grief, or not. I strongly advocate it is important to talk about such issues even if it may never be within the child’s experience. If it ever did happen they are more likely to discuss their thoughts and feelings before they get out of hand and understand the way they feel is perfectly normal. I think this book is written sensitively enough to achieve this.

Benny’s Hat is a great way in for discussing and teaching children about compassion and for talking about feelings. If you are a writer, for children or adults alike, it is also the ideal book to study to discover how to evoke emotion in your reader in just a few words.

£2 from each book sold is donated to Edward’s Trust, a children’s bereavement charity,  based in Birmingham.

To find out more about Juliet Claire Bell and her books visit her website:

To find out more about illustrator, Dave Gray, check out:

An interview with… Sally Piper

Australian writer, Sally Piper told me all about her research into fear for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month. She revealed that as a solo woman bushwalker she often felt afraid and wanted to know where this fear came from.

Sally Piper2

When I first found out about this I thought Fear was a very strange thing to want to research. Where do you start? Sally Piper started by reading memoirs of other female walkers and discovered how women self-limit their free movement because of real and perceived risks, which can cause themselves to live smaller lives.

“Fear… is born of a story we tell ourselves.” Robyn Davidson

This discovery inspired her to write her novel, The Geography of Friendship.

geography of friendship high resHer novel is about female friendships under pressure and is based loosely on the national park, Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, Australia where she had played as a child. But she had to deconstruct the landscape a bit to fit her purposes.

Ultimately it was inevitable that to really feel the fear she was going to have to do the walk herself. So to really understand what it was like to walk the Prom she undertook the 5 day hike alone noting how she felt, the weather, the terrain and how sounds were distorted by the absolute quite.


Sally believes that if she had not done the hike she would not have captured the beauty or the threats  of the Australian Bush the way she did in her novel.

Her advice to other writers is to experience first hand what you hope to subject your characters to.

“Research can sometimes occur by osmosis. Before I’d even taken my first step on the hike I started to collect new material for the novel, most notably by the way others (mainly women) responded to me doing the hike alone.”

Sally Piper

To find out more about Sally and her books check out her website: Or follow her on Twitter @SallyPiper

You can read the full interview in the March 2019 issue #209 issue of Writers’ Forum.

Meeting Deadlines

One of my plus points is that I am good at multi-tasking. An important requirement of multi-tasking is setting deadlines.

Whenever, I start a new job I always ask, ‘When do you want it done by.’ Often the reply is as soon as possible but, I find this is not helpful. I prefer to have someone say ‘I want it by next Tuesday,’ or ‘Ten o’clock tonight at the latest.’ This keeps me on track and helps me to organise my workload. If I don’t set myself these time limits I find myself procrastinating and time-wasting by staring out the window or my worse vice, playing computer games.


Deadlines have to be reasonable, whether I’m setting them for myself or they’ve been set by an editor. Some deadlines are tight; rush jobs come up, emergencies occur, and then the pressure is on. Most of the time, it’s possible to merge tasks, working for a while on one thing and then a few days on something else and get it done without undue stress. Sometimes I just need time out from a job and I am pleased I can work on something else to take a break.


When I have deadlines set for me, I always break them into smaller tasks, giving myself my own time limit for each chapter or section. It’s nice to give myself a little reward when I achieve it too but, often the personal satisfaction of knowing I achieved what I wanted to do is reward enough. I work within the time available and I’m an organisation freak so this method of working suits me fine.

I would be interested to know how you do it. Do you find it easier to write to deadlines?

Book Review – There’s Only One Kind of Duck

Title: There’s Only One Kind of Duck

Written and Illustrated by: Heather Kilgour

Published by: Heather Kilgour

there's only one kind of duck

This creative non-fiction book encompasses some fascinating, eye-opening facts about ducks within the story of Lee and Alex who are going to the pond to feed the ducks.

Alex insists there is only one kind of duck, but Lee knows better. The author – illustrator, Heather Kilgour, introduces us to a multitude of different species of duck, consolidated by an ingenious duck fact file in the last three spreads. This charming picture book was inspired by the Wetlands Centre in Barnes, London.

Heather’s passion for conservation shines like a beacon on every page. Her superb illustrations demonstrate each duck’s uniqueness and diversity. A duck is simply not just a duck. There are so many different species, that live in different habitats with very different diets. There’s Only One Kind of Duck, carries a very important message for children and their parents – ducks should not eat bread. It makes them ill and pollutes the water.

This book would make the ideal educational gift for your budding conservationist.

“This is a story of diversity that will open your child’s eyes to the richness of the natural world.” Heather Kilgour

It would also provide an excellent introduction into conservation and caring for animals in their natural environment and be used in the classroom to support a topic on animals and their habitats.

To find out more about Heather Kilgour and her illustrations visit her website:


An interview with… Sarah Stewart

In the February Issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Sarah Stewart the director of the Lighthouse Children’s Literary Consultancy about her career and the services she offers to children’s and YA book writers.

writing 4 children - lighthouse4

She started The Lighthouse with her good friend, Cat Clarke, when they were both working as editors. Sarah was the UK editor of The Hunger Games at Scholastic and has also worked for the excellent Edinburgh based publisher, Floris Books.

The feature contains valuable advice about opening lines and query letters. They also link up writers with agents  when they feel they’ve read a good, strong submission.

Some of Sarah’s advice includes:

If you’re writing for younger children, a sense of immediacy is a bonus in an opening; I like a bit of meandering description when I am read adult fiction, but not if I’m looking at something aimed at seven year olds.

You can read the full interview in the Feb 2019 #208 issue of Writers Forum. To find out more about the Lighthouse Children’s Literary Consultancy and their services you can view their website: or follow them on Twitter at: @thelighthouseuk 

My Writing Tips

Here are some more writing tips that you may find useful. They are not in any particular order.

notebook and pen2

  • If you want to write a big book, pick a big theme.
  • Write rich characters with rich backgrounds (and I’m not talking about money.)
  • Finish each chapter on a cliffhanger.
  • The plot must race along at breakneck speed.
  • Mix fact with fiction so that the reader does not know where the truth ends and the fiction starts.
  • Be clear of all the underlying themes and what is going on in the background.
  • Look at the opening – does it grab you?
  • Think about the title.
  • A good story has a great plot and loads of action.
  • Be careful the ending is not an anti-climax.
  • Make up your own secret society if you want.
  • The ‘What if…?’ button, is the most important key on the keyboard.

Book Review – Is it a Mermaid?

Title: Is it a Mermaid?

Written by: Candy Gourlay

Illustrated by: Francesca Chessa

Published by: Otter-Barry Books

is it a mermaid

This book is full of interesting facts about the dugong and its history. Bel and Benji meet a dugong whilst playing on a beach in the Philippines. The dugong insists she is a mermaid. Bel is swept away by her imagination and instantly believes this. After all, in Malay the word for mermaid is ‘duyong’. Benji is harder to convince. He does not believe in mermaids and tells the dugong she is nothing but a Sea Cow. Understandably, this upsets the dugong. It is lucky that mermaids are so forgiving. By the end of the book even the most sceptic reader will believe in mermaids.

The story is enhanced by Francesca Chessa’s beautiful Monet-style illustrations. The colours take you on a journey through time, from the morning, to midday and then the glorious sunset and finally the deep blues of twilight when they have to pack up their fun day on the beach to go home. Even the end pages are illustrated as part of the story.

On the surface the themes of Is it a Mermaid? are friendship and kindness but this book carries a deeper message about how the dugong’s habitat of seagrass is under threat.

“They have been listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation and Natural Resources (IUCN).” Candy Gourlay

Seagrass are flowering plants that live in shallow sheltered areas along coastlines all over the world. They are different from seaweed, have bright green leaves and are very important for the biodiversity around our planet.

  • Seagrass meadows act as a natural sea defence by trapping sediment and slowing down currents and waves.
  • They provide a home for many baby fish, including Cod, Plaice and Pollack around our shores.
  • Seagrass meadows absorb and store large amounts of carbon and are vital in the fight against climate change.
  • They absorb nutrients, pollutants and bacteria and help to keep our coastal waters clean.”

Project Seagrass

In the British Isles there is over 22,000 hectares of seagrass that is threatened by pollution and human damage such as boat propellers and chain moorings that can hinder its ability to produce new growth. Two species of seahorse depend on shrimp which inhabit the British Isles seagrass meadows and cuttlefish lay their eggs in these underwater fields.

I love the fact that Candy Gourlay ends the book with this educational message and points readers in the direction of an app called SeagrassSpotter designed by the charity Project Seagrass.

“SeagrassSpotter is a conservation, monitoring and education tool to help us better understand seagrass meadows around our coat.

By using SeagrassSpotter and becoming a Citizen Scientist with Project Seagrass, you can help us learn more about the seagrass meadows in your area, so that together, we can protect them.” Project Seagrass

This book would be ideal to use in the classroom to support work on habitats and conservation.

Is it a Mermaid? is a book to treasure.

To find out more about Candy Gourlay and her books visit or follow her on Twitter @candygourlay and Instagram @candygourlay

To find out more about Francesca Chessa and her illustrations visit  or follow her on Instagram @hollysredboots and Twitter @hollyredboots

To find out more about Project Seagrass visit

To find out more about the app SeagrassSpotter visit or search in the App Store or Google Play.