Monthly Archives: October 2019

Book Review – The Little Ghost who didn’t like to be scary

Title: The Little Ghost who didn’t like to be scary

Written and illustrated by: Isla Wynter

Published by: Peryton Press

This unusual sized, 17cm x 17cm, Halloween themed book is about challenging stereotypes. It is about Layla who does not want to be a scary ghost that haunts the castle. She prefers to play and be friendly so she goes to speak to the wise old owl.

An excellent book for showing how important it is to talk about your worries and ask for help if you need it. I like the way the author, Isla Wynter, demonstrates free will when Layla thinks about the advice she receives from the owl before deciding what she wants to do.

The bold illustrations are white on a black background. These high-contrasting black and white pictures are ideal for very young children. Studies show babies from 6 months old can detect light and dark contrasts: see here. Black and white visual stimulation encourages young children to focus their eyes on objects and over time helps to increase attention span.

The Little Ghost who didn’t like to be scary could be used in the classroom and at home to reinforce and discuss how we shouldn’t make judgements about people based on what they look like.

An interview with… Moira Butterfield

I have a regular monthly, double-spread feature on writing for children in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, which contain loads of writing tips from successful authors, agents and editors. The focus is on what works for these professionals and how this could benefit other children’s book writers. These features have been running for three years now.

In the #217 November issue I interview children’s non-fiction book writer, Moira Butterfield, about her latest books and why non-fiction books are so important. 

Moira Butterfield1

Moira has been fighting the children’s non-fiction corner for many years and proudly told me:

It’s an exciting time for children’s non-fiction. For years non-fiction was not valued in the trade. This has changed thanks to the influence of the US market, in particular, where non-fiction is highly valued. At last we are being paired with good artists and editors are keen to hear from us. Thank goodness kids who love non-fiction are at last being catered for in the trade.

Moira Butterfield

Her latest books are Welcome To Our World, illustrated by Harriet Lynas and published by Nosy Crow and Home Sweet Home, illustrated by Clair Rossiter and published by Red Shed (part of Egmont UK).

Welcome to our World demonstrates how children all over the world are very different, but they also have much in common – despite different languages, customs and traditions, everyone shares a love of family, friends, food and fun. Home Sweet Home, sets out to explore the familiar features of a home, touching on different cultures and history to encourage children to think about what it is that makes a home.

Moira explained it is important to provide a diverse viewpoint, that all children will find interesting.

When writing non-fiction for children we not only need to get facts right with careful research, we also need to make sure that our work is multicultural. By ‘writing multiculturally’, I mean creating text that has an awareness of the whole world naturally and effortlessly within its fabric.

Moira Butterfield

Her tip for children’s non-fiction writers just starting out, is to go to bookshops to get an idea of the visual styles being published right now. Make a note of the text length being used, the types of illustrations and the layouts of the books. Think carefully about what you like and what you do not like. Buy some of the books you like and study them closely. Note the approach, the word count and how it appeals to the age-group it’s aimed at. Feed this information into your own work.

You can find out more about Moira Butterfield and her books on her website: You can follow her on Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor and on Twitter @moiraworld

The world of publishing

More and more publishers are saying they no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts or writers can only submit to them through an agent. An agent is essential for the children’s fiction writer. Mainstream publishers will only look at agented work and as we all know, agents are becoming increasingly difficult to find. But don’t despair…

Agents of Shield logo

With the big publishers, what is on the shelves is what was accepted about eighteen months ago. The independent book publishers get things out a lot faster, so their turnaround can often be about six months. A good idea is to find out about these independent publishers. They are often more likely to take on new writers from the slushpile.

If you do decide to go it alone without an agent, it is important to identify the market place you think your book will fit into so you have an idea about who will be publishing your work even before it is finished. Don’t plough on with a book before you know where you are going to send it. Know where your story fits in the market. Take a look at the Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook.


Evaluate who is publishing what. Not only by looking at the publisher of the types of books you like to read, which are the same genre as what you are writing, take a look at what else is out there too. You need to have your finger on the pulse, look at their catalogues and websites for things that are due to come out. Narrow your market down and check out the publishers’ websites for more information and their submission guidelines. Really get a feel for the market place and remember, as mentioned already, if the books are already in print they are two or three years out of date from what the publishers are looking for now.

Think about your elevator pitch too. If you have a problem defining your own book you need to be realistic and consider if it is working for the reader. If you do not have an agent to champion your work it is even more important for you to be able to sell your novel – else what is the point of writing it.

Book review – Ruby McCracken

Title: Ruby McCracken Tragic without Magic

Written by: Elizabeth Ezra

Published by: Kelpies, Floris Books

Ruby McCracken

In a reverse plot to Harry Potter, twelve-year-old Ruby McCracken believes her life is over. She has been forced to leave her home in Hexdonia and live in the ordinary world, without magic, after her parents both mysteriously lose their jobs at the same time. She is totally magicless – she can’t even conjure up a quick snack spell to ward off the hunger pangs. She misses leaping off the flyway on her broomstick to go to school, she misses her old school and she misses her witchy best friends, Abigail and Margaret. Even her familiar, Vronsky, has turned weird. So when the girls at her new school are mean to her, she tries to phone home, with dire consequences.

This fast-paced, mystery-adventure story set in Edinburgh, will appeal to eight to twelve-year-olds. Ruby McCracken Tragic without Magic is packed with humour, magic, disgusting food concoctions and hilarious anecdotes that will be perfect for fans of the Worst Witch and You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School.

Ruby McCracken Tragic without Magic could be used in the classroom as a good starting point to discuss talking to strangers and how to make someone new to their school feel welcome.

An interview with… Helen Lipscombe

In the #217 November issue of Writers’ Forum Helen Lipscombe told me all about researching both espionage and ballet for her debut children’s novel, Peril En Pointe.

Peril En Pointe book cover

Her main character, Eva, needed physical strength, mental resilience, the ability to speak several languages and an excuse to travel the world. Helen explained how Natalie Portman from the 2010 movie, The Black Swan was her inspiration for the book.

2010 film, The Black Swan - Natalie Portman

From the moment she saw her dark eyes gazing at her through that mask Helen knew Eva would be a ballerina and her setting would be a ballet school for spies. This lead her to research for accurate accounts of the lives of female spies. On the Imperial war Museum’s website, she read all about a spy called Odette Samson.  Odette was also the name of the White Swan in Swan Lake and inspired Eva’s code-name ‘O’.

“I read that Odette Samson had been awarded a George Cross for her refusal to name her fellow secret agents during the second world war. Despite having three young girls, she had volunteered to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), but in 1944, was captured and brutally tortured. (The Nazis extracted her toenails; a feature I bestowed on Swan House’s battle-worn Spy Craft teacher, the Captain).”

Helen Lipscombe

Odette Samson

Odette Samson

In order to capture the heightened atmosphere of a live performance, Helen revealed she went to see Swan Lake by the Russian State Ballet and the Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

“I also took part in a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House which proved particularly worthwhile. Walking through the maze of corridors as the dancers do every day; standing amongst the sets and lighting; handling the ballet shoes, headdresses and props, and watching the dancers rehearse gave me a real feel for the setting.”

Helen Lipscombe

To read the complete interview check out the #217 Nov 2019 issue of Writers’ Forum.

You can find out more about Helen Lipscombe you can follow her on Twitter @Helen_Lipscombe or Instagram @helenlipscombe

The role of the booksellers

The book business is an industry run by booksellers, marketers and publishers. Over the last few decades book publishing has become more commercial than ever and the big publishing companies will not back a book unless it is a sure bet. It is all about selling and whether the retail outlets can persuade the public to buy your book. This blog is not really about the independent local booksellers but the multi-national companies that have monopolised the book market for years.


Publishing houses are actively acquiring books they believe the big booksellers will like. If the bookseller wont stock the book, the book will not sell. It is the book cover and how enticing it is that gives a book an edge with the bookseller. Many retailers base their judgements on whether to stock the book on the cover and usually the author has no say in this at all.


Big book chains have been centralising the ordering of books, which means there are one or two people deciding for the chain store which books children will read all over the country. The retail market is 70% chain. Waterstones bought Foyles in September 2018.

The buying process for Foyles will now work in a similar way as it does for fellow Waterstones-owned bookshops Hatchards and Hodges Figgis, with the initial layer of ordering done by the central team in Piccadilly rather than by Foyles buyers. Bespoke ordering will then be layered on top.

The Bookseller October 1, 2019

‘High concept’ books are the easiest to sell as they are more commercially successful because they stand out from the crowd.


It is quite scary the impact the big bookstores have on the publishing world and when you realise they monopolise over 70% of the book selling market it is understandable why writing for children has become more competitive. In turn, more and more consumers are buying books from large supermarket chains and the big book chains feel squeezed by these supermarkets muscling in on their territory.


The internet is part of this rumbling revolution. Large online booksellers such as Amazon are seen as a threat by publishers as they are able to give large discounts on books, cutting profits. They can also create a lot of publicity for a book through online advertising and linking from authors websites. I think this is one of the reasons why more authors are turning to self-publishing.

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.