Monthly Archives: October 2019

Book review – Fabio The World’s Greatest Flamingo Detective

Title: Fabio The World’s Greatest Flamingo Detective

Written by: Laura James

Illustrated by: Emily Fox

Published by: Bloomsbury

Anyone with links to the retro community will know the lure of the pink flamingo. Laura James premise for this new series is sheer brilliance. Fabio the extremely clever flamingo detective loves pink lemonade in his favourite bar at the Hotel Royale. His side-kick, Gilbert the Giraffe, is terrible at disguises but good at asking questions, sometimes even the right questions.

In the first book, they both embark on the case of the missing hippo. Julia the jazz-singing hippo enters a talent contest being held at the Hotel Royale. During the auditions she mysteriously disappears from the stage. Fabio who is a reluctant judge for the talent contest, enthusiastically takes on the challenge to find out what has happened to Julia.

In the sequel they investigate the mystery of the missing ruby necklace on the Ostrich Express with hilarious consequences.

I love the use of the limited palette in these books. Emily Fox’s illustrations depict the characters perfectly using a three-tone theme of green, pink and black for the fist book and orange, pink and black for the second. Dotted throughout the book are fluorescent pages to match the colour scheme, which will appeal to children.

This series is Poirot with animals – from the lazy wart-hog, Chief Inspector Duff, who bumbles through the case and misses or misinterprets all the relevant clues, to the final line-up when the guilty animal is revealed. In true Agatha Christie style, Fabio looks into the psychology of the suspects by talking to them. It is cosy crime for younger readers.

I would recommend this book for all Key Stage Two class book corners.

An interview with… Steve Antony

My Writing 4 Children column was launched in Writers’ Forum in 2016. The first picture book writer I interviewed for this column was the extremely talented writer-illustrator Steve Antony.

me and my Queens Hat inspired Shaun the Sheep in London

He talked about his writing and illustrating process and explained why there is a fine art to writing and illustrating a picture book. Firstly, you’ve normally only got 12-spreads to tell your story. This, in itself, is very challenging. He told me that when he writes a picture book – sometimes an image comes first – sometimes a title or a phrase comes first. But his books almost always begin by forming a visual narrative in the form of a storyboard, which consists of 12 panels (one for each double-page spread).

“At this very early stage in the process I work out where the text will go and I also consider how the information in the text relates to the information in each image. I can spend days, if not weeks, perfecting each page turn. The storyboarding process can sometimes take as long as a month, even for the simplest of stories. In fact, it’s the simplest stories that often take the longest.” Steve Antony

Steve said a great picture book needs humour, heart and a brilliant ending. An educational element can be useful too, especially for teachers looking for new and creative ways to teach young pupils. He explained how he tries to find fun and interesting ways to marry the text with the imagery. The text alone can say one thing and the image alone can say something else, but together they tell the whole story. Once he has struck the perfect balance of words and pictures, he edits out all the unnecessary clutter.

Steve claimed the most difficult part of producing a picture book is perfecting the pace of the story. He revealed it took him around two months to perfect the pacing and rhythm to his first Please Mr Panda: book, about a panda intent on inciting the magic word with a tray of colourful doughnuts, because sometimes a tiny change to an image or a piece of text can knock everything off balance.

Please Mr Panda bookcover

Steve told me:

“I use words in my books that a very young child would struggle to understand and read independently. Words like truce, intrepid or Trafalgar Square. I sometimes include animals that some children won’t recognise. For example, there are several lesser-known animals in the London Zoo spread of The Queen’s Hat. It’s also worth knowing that, in most cases, picture books are read to children by an adult or older sibling.” Steve Antony

He advised aspiring illustrators to consider the market beyond English-speaking countries because some rhyming texts have the potential to sell very well in English-speaking territories but publishers have to also consider how well the book will translate into other languages.

To find out more about Steve take a look at his website: or follow him on Twitter @MrSteveAntony and on Instagram @mrsteveantony

You can read the full interview in the #180 Oct 2016 issue of the national writing magazine, Writers Forum.

What makes a Children’s Book Great?

I think a great children’s book is one which views life through the eyes of the child so the characters come to life as real people. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, what point of view it is in, or what age it is aimed at, if the characters are believable and you can really live their experiences as you read each page, you’ve written a great book.

lion, witch and wardrobe

A gripping plot, strong characters and active narration and dialogue go a long way to making a children’s book a success. We all know a  good story is the battle between good and evil. It has to have characters you can like and introduce a new place. It should leave the child with a feeling of hope.


Yes, you need great characters, you need atmosphere and emotional intelligence but it is the narrative drive that makes a great book, not the story. Narrative drive is the way the story is told as a whole package that includes character and plot. A great book plunges characters into terrible situations and draws you in to find out how they deal with them.

hunger games

Point of view can make the difference between whether the book is an adult or a children’s book. In picture books, it works well to put in something to keep the adult amused, especially if it meant to be a book to be read aloud at bedtime, or in the classroom. Adults can see the bigger picture. But remember as a writer you must still keep your eye firmly on the kids.

fungus the bogeyman

Publishing is led by fashion and there will always be a tension between what adults want for them and what children get from them. If you want to keep ahead of the game, you must analyse what is currently selling. Being aware of what sells is crucial for a writer, especially if you want to make a living out of it.

Book review – How to be a Fashion Designer

Title: How to be a Fashion Designer

Written by: Lesley Ware

Illustrated by: Tiki Papier

Published by: Dorling Kindersley

How to be a Fashion Designer

This is a revealing and practical book for anyone who is interested in fashion design. It outlines the difference between a designer and a fashion stylist and gives hints and tips on how to be both. This book encourages the reader to hone their constructive criticism skills in a fun way.

The author is the fantastic fashion designer and sewing teacher, Lesley Ware. She outlines how to produce your own mood board, how to make your own colour palette and how to create a design that suits your own personality. There are loads of hints and tips about materials, colours and where to get inspiration. At the back of the book she has set challenges to design different items of clothing and accessories such as tee-shirts, hats, bags and shoes.

The illustrations are fun and exciting and compliment the text perfectly. You can read small bites of information with a visually stimulating illustration, which will keep even the most reluctant reader interested in true Dorling Kindersley style.

The book is aimed at 7+ but I think it would make an ideal gift for someone who enjoys drawing at any age, or someone interested in doing textiles at secondary school. It would be a good addition to your school resource books and contains loads of ideas you could use within the classroom if you are a teacher at both secondary and primary level. An inspirational book that will ignite the imagination.

An interview with… Lucy Courtenay

Lucy Courtenay has over a hundred books ranging from young fiction all the way through to young adult romance. In May 2017, I interviewed her for the Papers Pens Poets blog about her love of stationery .

She told me her favourite pen at school was a fat-nibbed black Sheaffer fountain pen, which she took particular delight in changing the colour of her ink cartridges and watching the colour gradually bleed. In one notable essay on the Treaty of Versailles, from blue to purple to pink to purple to pink again. She also loves smelly gel pens.


Lucy revealed:

“With notebooks, it’s looks all the way. But looks come with a caveat. The prettier the notebook, the less likely I am to write in it. My favourite – a floppy green nubuck journal printed with brown birds and branches – is still pristine, because I can’t bring myself to make a single mark on its pages.” Lucy Courtenay

She explained she usually tries to make do with the ragbag stationery already in the house rather than buy new stuff. She admits that post-it notes litter her desk with odd words and phone numbers in a rainbow of colours and she likes folders too.

You can read the full interview on the Papers Pens Poets blog.

Find out more about Lucy and her writing  on her website

Follow her on Twitter (@LucyCourtenay1), Facebook (@lucycourtenayauthor) and Instagram (@lucycourtenayauthor).

Why write a synopsis?

A few weeks ago on my blog, I talked about how a personal synopsis, or breakdown, of your novel can be a useful planning tool and map to help you complete your novel. See here. Last week I explained the difference between a synopsis for publishers and agents and a book proposal. See here.

Today I am going to talk about whether agents and publishers even read the synopsis. A question that is often asked at writing meetings and events is:

Do we need a synopsis?

This is a very controversial question. Romantic novelists, Dee Williams and Iris Gower, who I met at a Writers Holiday event many years ago, told me they had never had to write a synopsis.


Others, like Marti Leimbach, writer of contemporary fiction for adults and young adults, admitted writing a synopsis is often harder to write than the actual novel. Whereas, some very lucky people, like Lee Weatherly, claim they are easy to write. Unfortunately, I lost my notebook which had all my notes from the Lee Weatherly talk – I kept saying to myself it was bound to turn up but it never has. I may have left it on the train!


I have been told at a couple of SCBWI conferences by agents and publishers on various panels they don’t even read the synopsis. You should have heard me groan at that news. I spend hours and hours on mine and they’re not even going to read it. I could have stood up and screamed. Even at the recent SCBWI-BI Agent’s Party, three out of the five agents on the first panel said they do not look at the synopsis. Joanna Moult prefers a cracking first page and Kate Shaw will look at the cover letter and sample first. Zoe Plant from the Bent Agency does not even ask for a synopsis in the submission package.

So is a synopsis a waste of time?

NO! I do not think so. Other editors and agents, such as Chloe Seager, have said they do read the synopsis first and prefers to be told how the book is going to end. Some other agents have said if they don’t like the synopsis they don’t bother reading the rest. This is just as scary as I have always believed the most important thing is how strong your writing is.

What should we do?

I still think, the most important thing is how good your writing is but I also think we need a synopsis to show the editor or agent how well the story hangs together and prove it has a defined beginning, middle and end. So even though Megan Carroll does not like spoilers in the synopsis, my advice is persevere with your synopsis. It might help you to clinch the deal.

Book review – Famous Family Trees

Title: Famous Family Trees

Written by: Kari Hauge

Illustrated by: Vivien Mildenberger

Published by: Lincoln Children’s Books (an imprint of the Quarto Group)

Famous Family Trees

Kari Hauge has collated the family histories of 25 people who lived from 100BC to AD2013 into one magnificent book. Some, like William Shakespeare, have complicated trees stretching back hundreds of years. Others, like Cleopatra VII and Mahatma Ghandi, have ancestors who are only known through myths, or stories passed down orally over the years. Every spread reveals a treasure trove of information to explore and cherish.

Each person from Julius Caesar to Martin Luther King is covered by a double-page spread. The left hand page provides a brief concise historical profile of the person. The right hand page contains the elaborate family tree. The How to Use section is an essential part of this book. It explains how family trees work and how they have been laid out in this book to fit onto a single page.

 Famous Family Trees supplies the answers to such questions as:

  • Who did Cleopatra grow up with?
  • Did Marie Antoinette’s extravagance cause the French Revolution?
  • Where did Genghis Khan’s fierce nature come from?
  • What were Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonyms?
  • What was life like in the Kennedy household?
  • How did Annie Oakley stand up for women’s rights?

The beautiful, detailed illustrations by Vivien Mildenberger look as though they have been hand drawn with water-colour pencils to give each portrait a vintage, historical touch. The detail is incredible. Readers from 8+ to adult will love to pour over and trace through the intricate webs of all of the historical and literary figures’ ancestry.

This book would be a useful resource in the classroom to support learning about a significant historical person. It would also make the ideal present for a gifted and talented child.