Monthly Archives: April 2019

An interview with… Fiona Barker

In the latest issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed picture book writer, Fiona Barker for my Writing for Children column. She talks to me about her road to publication and how she was inspired to set up a children’s picture book club for adults.

Writing 4 Children - Fiona Barker and Picture Book Club3

In the feature she mentions how she is inspired by John Shelley’s one inch drawings and #ukpbchat which meets online each month on Twitter. Fiona recommends that aspiring picture book writers should follow key children’s book bloggers such as Book Lover Jo, or even me.

The Picture Book club meetings are usually held in a bookshop, often Waterstones in Reading but they are moving around the country. they also broadcast the events live on the Picture Book Club Facebook page. To stay up-to-date with locations and dates the events are running you can follow the Facebook page @picbookclub

Fiona told me:

“At a typical PBC meeting, members pay £5 ‘membership’ on the door. This helps us to cover speaker expenses. We have a talk or discussion for 30-40 mins and then break for cake and a chance to chat informally. The cakes are a big feature of PBC. We try to make something that is relevant to each speaker, so it might be a book cover or a model of one of their characters. The dinosaur cake I made for Rob Biddulph is probably the one I am most proud of.”

PBC 14 1

To find out more about Fiona Barker and her books you can follow her @Fi_BGB on twitter, @FionaWritesBooks on Facebook and Instagram and her author website is

Think About Theme

The theme of a book is an ‘abstract idea’ such as friendship, loyalty or a quest for identity.

Themes are different to morals. The theme should be subtle and strengthen your story by adding depth and meaning. Visit your local library and look at some of the classic picture books. Notice that although the text may be brief and tightly written there lay truths that are timeless. The story should leave readers with a residual feeling that stays with them.

Season collage

You should be able to sum up your theme in one or two words. The theme of the first series of Season books is friendship. I have written two more Season picture book series since then. This is a book with a compilation of my Animal Stories for all Seasons. They will also be available to buy individually.

Animal Season Treasury Cover (003)

Your characters should always carry the theme. It is important not to blurt out your theme but to let it emerge from the story. If you must come out and say it, do it in dialogue, not narration and whatever you do avoid preaching. Children’s stories should be explorations of life not Sunday school lessons.

In picture book you should keep your theme positive. If writing about difficult situations and feelings, offer constructive ways for your readers to cope with them.

Book Review – Practical Pop-Ups & Paper Engineering

Title: Practical Pop-Ups & Paper Engineering: A step-by-step course in the art of creative card-making

Written by: Trish Phillips and Ann Montanaro

Published by: Lorenz Books

practical pop ups

This book is not necessarily a children’s book but is all about a craft I associate with children’s books and would make a great art and craft teacher resource. My first experience of pop-up books was when I was teaching. My favourites were The Wheels on the Bus by Paul Zelinsky and The Wide Mouth Frog by Keith Faulkner and Jonathan Lambert.

With over 100 techniques and projects, in 1000 photographs to choose from, Practical Pop-Ups & Paper Engineering will inspire all ages to have a go at their own paper engineering projects. It is one of the best and most comprehensive paper-engineering books I have ever seen.

Practical Pop-Ups & Paper Engineering outlines the history of paper engineering from volvelles, which were pages of a book that had two or more round paper discs that rotated on a spindle secured to the page at the centre of the circle, to pop-ups that were used to entertain and celebrate. The book is full of fascinating facts, like pop-ups were not invented until the 19th century and how anatomical fold-up flap drawings were used in the 16th century to illustrate human anatomy as physically performing dissections was banned.

There is a chapter explaining what a paper engineer is and the materials, tools and techniques they use. Including making templates, cutting tips and troubleshooting. But the main feature of this book is the fact it provides step-by-step instructions for the beginner as well as intermediate and more advanced projects.

inside of pop-up book

Some of the beginner designs could be used in the primary classroom to make novelty cards celebrating special holidays and Mother’s Day. Or for the older age range they may inspire some ingenious craft and GCSE art work.

If like me, you decide to try any of these designs I wold be interested to know. You can leave a message here on my blog, or contact me through my website:

You can find out more about Trish Phillips on her website: or follow her on Twitter @trish_again 

To find out more about Ann Montanaro you can visit:

An interview with… Julia Jarman

In any writing project, no matter what genre it is, I believe the most important part is the bit that comes first – the research. But where do you find the information you need and once you have gathered it how do you use it in your book? In my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum I ask top authors to share their research tips.

In January 2009, I interviewed Julia Jarman about the how her research inspires her children’s novels. She often mixes genres, but history is usually part of this mix. Julia’s inspiration for her novels tends to come from her historical research. But, there is nothing that fires up her imagination like a good artefact. She likes to hold and feel an item.

Julia Jarman

Julia Jarman has written over twenty children’s novels and picture books for Anderson Press, including Peace Weavers and the Time-Travelling Cat series. The Roman Eagle is the third book in the Time-Travelling Cat series.

Julia explained:

“First, I have an idea, such as when I wanted to write a time-travelling cat book about the Romans. I had written other books in the series on the Egyptians and the Tudors but, the Romans have always fascinated me. I remembered someone had told me about Calleva Atrebatum, the deserted Roman town near Silchester, where the Roman wall still exists. I did some research on the Internet and then went to visit it. I found out many of the artefacts they had found during excavations were in Reading Museum. I went to Reading Museum to see some of the artefacts that were unearthed by the Victorian archaeologists.” Julia Jarmin

Julia had read of a Roman tile with a cat’s paw print embedded into it and came across a similar tile at Reading Museum from Calleva. She found out when the tiles were turned out of their moulds, they were left to dry before being fired in a kiln. They must have been left to dry on the ground because many have been found with footprints of people and animals that walked across them. A cat had walked across this tile while the clay was still soft. It must have been made by one of the first domestic cats in Britain, bought over by the Romans. This is the point she knew she wanted Ka, the time-travelling cat from her stories, to have made this paw print.

Whilst looking around the museum, she also came across a cast bronze figure of an eagle which inspired her. The wings of this bronze eagle were missing but, they would have been outstretched as shown on the book cover of the Time-travelling Cat and The Roman Eagle. The historians think, because of the way the bird’s claws were rounded, it was clutching an orb. It is believed that the eagle was probably part of a larger figure of an emperor or a god.

Time travelling cat

This set her imagination to work and a whole load of what if… questions started whirring in her head. What if… it was part of a staff used at the forum at Calleva and what if… this important symbol had been stolen by one of the tribesman.

“This is the way I work. I have a loose story idea then I see the artefacts and then I start to do some firm plotting. But, I don’t let the facts tie me down. I use them as a launch pad for my imagination. It is not so much what the object is, it is what it can be; it is the possibilities.” Julia Jarman

Again for Peace Weavers, she had her initial idea when she visited a school on an American airbase in East Anglia, where they had uncovered an Anglo Saxon burial ground during a recent archaeological dig. She was particularly interested to find out more about an Anglo Saxon warrior, buried with his sword, shield and horse. On the cover of the hardback, the bottom half of the picture shows these skeletons.


At the same time they found the skeleton of a very tall woman nearby, hers was the tallest skeleton uncovered and her jewellery was very different from that of the other skeletons. This started Julia wondering about her and her jewellery and what sort of life she had.

“All stories are a mix of real life and imagination. You prime your imagination by asking yourself questions. I do my research at the beginning and if I need to know anything else I do more research. I don’t have a system but I just try to immerse myself in the subject. I just to love find things out, but once I’ve found my story I’m eager to get writing.” Julia Jarman

The librarian on the base introduced her to West Stow, a reconstructed Anglo Saxon village. In this village, the houses have been rebuilt complete with authentic style furniture and cooking utensils. Visitors can go into the houses, smell the wood smoke, feel the solid wood and imagine living in early Anglo-Saxon times. At certain times of the year, the village is used by groups of costumed Saxons who bring it to life with demonstrations of textiles, weaving, basket making and cooking.

Julia went to experience the food, the music and the atmosphere and it was there she found and bought replicas of the sleeve clasp and the brooch.

“I like to have something tangible in my hand to inspire me. Holding them was better than the pictures and an added bonus is they are good for showing on school visits. These artefacts engaged my imagination. The sleeve clasp in particular is key to my plot.” Julia Jarman

You can read the full interview in the January 2009 #88 issue of Writers Forum.

For more information about Julia Jarman and her books see her website: where she shares her Writing Recipe for cooking up stories.

Use Slang Sparingly

This is not necessarily only good advice for writer’s writing for children. I think it is true for what ever books you are writing.

What we need to remember is the dialogue is not real conversation but has to create the illusion of a real conversation. Slang words and catch phrases can date a book and go out of fashion very quickly so it is best to avoid them. Remember you want you children’s characters to sound like children and not an adult pretending to be a child.


Consider your character’s patterns of speech rather than particular words. For example, an impatient character would use short sentences and not waste words whereas a dreamer might ramble on without care. Much like some of my blog posts.

So be careful with slang. It dates dialogue.

“It is best to get the flavour and texture of what you want to say without having to patronise or, worse still, getting it wrong.” Andrew Melrose

The idea is to keep dialogue short and concise. There is no room for lengthy descriptions in dialogue. The other characters would get bored and wander off. You should be able to sum it up in a few words.


If you do want to use speech to convey important information it is better to begin the section of dialogue with the information or end with it. If you bury it in the middle of the dialogue it could get missed.

And avoid ellipses… unless absolutely necessary for effect. Don’t litter the page with dots.

Book Review – The Novel Inside You

Title: The Novel Inside You

Written and illustrated by: Paul Magrs

Published by: Snowbooks Ltd

The Novel Inside You is an autobiographical collection of writing tips collated into a unique how-to handbook suitable for aspiring writers and seasoned writers alike. It is a cross between Stephen Kings On Writing and Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

novel inside cover

This book is full of inspiring sentiments that are extremely quotable. The sorts of things I stick into the cover of my notebooks to motivate myself to keep going. Words that really resonate with me, such as:

“If you want to write the real stuff, then you have to know your real self.” (Paul Magrs)

And simple reminders such as:

“Make sure the reader knows exactly what is happening.” (Paul Magrs)

And epiphanies like:

“In order to write anything of lasting value you’ve got to reach deep inside yourself and pay attention to the person you set free when you give yourself permission to write completely freely.” (Paul Magrs)

Each page is constructed from vivid memories and entertaining anecdotes of Paul’s early life as a writer and creative writing teacher. He is telling his own stories in his own way with dramatic and inspiring effect. In between he has illustrated the book with his own artwork.

cartoon pm and socks the cat

I particularly enjoyed the way he shows (not tells) us how he gets his ideas for his stories by people-watching, analysing their behaviour, studying their interactions and jotting down conversations to develop his own characters and their voice. Paul does not say this is the way you should do it but more this is how I do it and demonstrates techniques that work for him, which as an inquisitive writer makes me want to try it for myself.

Weaved into his memoirs are practical exercises to try yourself from developing characters through your own observations to deciding your novels audience and what its structure should be. In this way, The Novel Inside You motivates you to start, continue and finish your writing whether it be a novel, poem, short story, or non-fiction. The ideas and exercise could also be used in your own teaching.

His advice to writers is honest and practical. It prompts you to re-evaluate your own writing and take a fresh look at your own writers’ toolbox.  It feels like having your own personal tutor sat with you whilst you work, helping you to analyse the process of developing good writing habits and create your own writing discipline.

I think Russell T Davis summed it up very neatly when he said:

“This is so much more than How To Write, its How To Live. Part-memoir and part-tutorial, this book asks Where do you get your ideas from? and, miraculously, finds an answer. From life. From memory, family, lovers, heartbreak, childhood, loss and joy, all captured beautifully in these pages” (Russell T. Davies)

The love for his family, friends, pets and partner, Jeremy, shines through. There is an underlying realisation that behind every writer is a great partner. (Very nearly a Eurythmics song). In the background it is the support of a strong, loving partner who helps us through the emotional turmoil of being a writer – all the fears and insecurities that our work is not good enough and a complete waste of time – and they are there at our side to share the triumph, relief and pleasure you can get from holding the, fresh from the press, latest book.

I will leave you with a final quote:

“There are two types of fiction. The good type, that you want to read and there’s the bad type that you don’t want to read. There are books that are crap and sound bogus. And there are books that ring true. Books that are about something. Books where the voices are alive.” (Paul Magrs)

I believe The Novel Inside You will help you to achieve the latter.

An interview with… Patrice Lawrence

In July 2016, I interviewed award-winning novelist, Patrice Lawrence for the Papers pens Poets blog. She told me her most highly-prized stationery item, way above anything else, is her green tartan pencil case.

Patrice stationery

“It was a present from my daughter and came from Muji, a popular haunt for our stationery needs.  I can’t even remember having a pencil case at school, but I must have.  And I’ve certainly got one now.  It’s crammed full of Sharpies, promotional pens from charities and companies, a couple of cheap, sparkly ink pens that leak over my fingers and a lovely sky blue Pentel sign pen.  It says it on the side.  Sign.  So I did.” Patrice Lawrence

Patrice admits to being a bit of a notebook hoarder. She has leather-bound and fabric-covered that were much-needed presents. She has an assortment of black Cass Arts sketch books of all sizes, including a couple of A3 hardbacks she has used for planning books she hasn’t had time to write yet.  She even has three from post-Christmas Paperchase sales to secretly record interesting bus stations.

She told me:

“Orangeboy was written on and off over a few years, by keyboard and pencil, in random notebooks and occasionally the back of a conference agenda if the speakers weren’t quite doing it for me.” Patrice Lawrence

Her latest book Rose Interrupted, published by Hodder Children’s Books, is due to be launched in July, 2019. It is about 17-year-old Rose and 13-year-old Rudder who have escaped a strict religious sect with their mum. They are still trying to make sense of the world outside – no more rules about clothes and books, films and music, no more technology bans. But also no more friendship with the people they’ve known all their lives, no community and no certainty. This is the story about coming of age, slap-bang in the middle of a strange new world.

You can read the complete interview with Patrice here.

To find out more about Patrice Lawrence and her books, you can follow her on Twitter at @LawrencePatrice and on her blog at: