Monthly Archives: November 2019

An Evening with the Illustrator Axel Scheffler

Many years ago, in 2009, I was lucky enough to go to a talk by Axel Scheffler about his career as an illustrator of children’s picture books, run by the Society of Authors. The meeting was chaired by Ros Asquith.

Axel Scheffler

Axel is one of my favourite all time illustrators. He won his first drawing prize around the age of eight. It was for a picture of a cow. He is originally from Hamburg but, studied at Bath Academy of Art where he got a first class degree.

He told us, the greatest thing about going to art school was having the freedom to draw for three hours and the qualifications opened doors for employment. He has no time to do observational drawings anymore. He has got out of the habit and has been unable to get back into it. Looking and remembering is a skill some people can not do. Picasso and many other artists all used photos. But, Axel claims it is a skill you can train yourself to do. It makes you look more carefully at things. His style he developed himself. But, he is a perfectionist and is not happy with his work on occasions. He divulged how he finds it difficult to draw a succession of events and prefers to tell a story all in one picture.

He showed his portfolio in the mid-80’s to magazines and got regular work for a magazine called Lotus. He would draw anything and would change his drawings when asked. Sometimes he found himself drawing things he did not really understand. He also worked for a German magazine called Zeitmagazin where he did weekly illustrations and illustrated a column for a food writer.

He has also written and illustrated some Pixi Books (or Pixi Bücher) for their 40th Anniversary. He was one of 10 illustrators asked to commemorate the event. They have published over 1,500 identically sized titles, 10x10cm, which are all grouped and numbered in little series with German precision. He likes to do things that are less main stream, but he has less time nowadays. He enjoys illustrating with little pictures on a white background. He still does some work for The Oldie. He thinks as an illustrator he is more popular in Germany than in the UK.

He showed us how when you look at his illustrations over the years you can see his progression from pointy nose characters to softer styles.

The Piemakers by Helen Cresswell was the first book he ever illustrated

Daley B by Jon Blake was the first book he illustrated for Walker Books

Sam: Who Was Swallowed by a Shark by Phyllis Root was the second book he illustrated for Walker Books

In 1994, Julia Donaldson was writing songs for Playdays and Axel Scheffler was recommended as the illustrator. He worked on A Squash and a Squeeze. This was his first book with Macmillan. The next book he did with Julia was The Gruffalo, followed by Room on the Broom, Tiddler and The Stick Man, which was nominated for The Roald Dahl Funny book Prize. These books have been translated into 29 languages.

Publishers often do not have the patience to develop illustrators and authors. But, he has worked with Macmillan a long time now and they have moulded him into what they want. There are many people involved in the publication of a picture book. The final product is very influenced by the editor and art director.

The Gruffalo
Usually when he has an idea he ends up sticking with it. But with The Gruffalo cover his original just had a shadow of The Gruffalo, but the editor wanted the main protagonist on the cover so he redrew it. However, in the US they did not want the main protagonist on the cover so he had to draw another one where he hid The Gruffalo partially behind a shrub. This only appeared on the US first edition, the second edition adopted the UK design.

He explained how he had a terrible time getting the skies right because he found it difficult to get the liquid watercolours to do what he wanted. He usually starts his illustrations with liquid watercolours (like ink) drawings a lot smaller than in the book and they get blown up to the right size, which he then works with. He dips a pen into the ink and then colours them with special coloured pencils. He used to do his picture book drawings the same size but, now he does them 90%. He always starts with ink outlines and then colours on top of the inks and rubs in the colours with his fingers. At the end he reinforces the outline with the ink and adds details, such as lines for fur and leaves. Nowadays he is able to ask the publishers to make small alterations in Photoshop but, previously he was only able to change it by hand and then email the new version.

The Smartest Giant in Town
For this book he also drew a totally different front cover, but they wanted something more friendly so he had to rethink.

Rabbit’s Nap (Tales from Acorn Wood)
This is a lift the flap book and Axel loved drawing the little dressed animals

The Gruffalo Song and Other Songs
This was not the first cover design again, as he decided he did not want to metamorphosis the animals. This book is also available as a musical audio CD.

Axel’s advice to aspiring illustrators is to practice hard. He kept a sketch book from the age of about 18 before he started at art college. There is a whole playground of ideas in these sketch books that he has jotted down. Sometimes the sketch books relate to books he is working on. Axel explained how it is nice to look at old sketch books as they bring back memories. But, it is the unpredictability of the whole business that is so lovely about it.

Book Review – North Child

Title: North Child

Written by: Edith Pattou

Edited by: Rebecca Hill

Cover illustrated by: Clare Lefevre 

Published by: Usborne

North Child

A very cleverly written novel that uses a succession of monologues from each of the main characters – Rose, her father, her brother Neddy, the White Bear and the Troll Queen – to weave Rose’s story, which is based on the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Each of them with their own distinct voice.

We learn Rose was accidentally born facing North. Her mother believes this means she is destined to travel far from home on a dangerous journey. Rose’s love of weaving appeases her mother but Rose’s loyalty to her family and her thirst for adventure are stretched at the seams. Despite all her mother’s efforts to keep Rose home, the prophecy comes true. Rose makes a deal with the giant White Bear. She agrees to go with him if he saves her sister’s life. Rose is whisked away to an enchanted castle.

In the castle, she befriends, Tuki, a troll child and starts to learn his language. Apart from the White Bear, Tuki and his mother Urda, Rose does not meet anyone else in the castle but each night a silent stranger lays by her side in the big bed. She has been warned never to look at him and nearly lasts the whole year but her curiosity gets the better of her and she stares into the golden-haired man’s eyes. Immediately the castle and all its contents vanish.

The Troll Queen takes the White Bear away in her sleigh and the only clue to where he has gone are the White Bear’s words: East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Rose realises she has deep feelings for the White Bear. Wearing his ring she vows to rescue him. Her quest takes her on a perilous journey North where she meets many distinct characters to help her on her way. Edith Pattou creates an mesmerising icy palace where the final battle against the Troll Queen must be fought. Rose’s honesty and integrity sets her on the winning path. 

The novel encompasses the themes of temptation, loss and betrayal wrapped in a blanket of magic. The short monologues are quick and easy to read and follow a chronological sequence to build up Rose’s world, feelings and adventure. 

A great story for reading aloud to your children at bedtime that will have them hooked from the start.

An interview with… Peter Bunzl

For my Writing 4 Children slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum I interview Peter Bunzl about his Cogheart series, published by Usborne.


Peter told me his inspiration to write the Cogheart ‘steampunk’ Victorian adventure series, was sparked when he was reading about real clockwork robots that existed in Georgian and Victorian times. They were called automatons and were incredible pieces of engineering. Here is an example of some of them from youtube so you can see how amazing they are.

Automatons were built to do simple tasks like write their name or a few lines of poetry, or play an instrument, or a card trick or some of them were clocks with moving figures on. Peter wondered, what would happen if the technology back then had got so good that they could make clockwork robots that could do everything and anything. Robots made of bits of metal that were almost human and alive. Could they feel and think? Could the spark of life ever exist inside them? What would that mean for their inventors and owners? And what kind of world could I set a story be in where all this would take place?

There are four books in the series now, and they all take place over roughly a year. So the characters don’t really age that much physically, although emotionally they go through a lot.

Peter explained the reason his main characters, Robert and Lily, stay the same age is because, at thirteen-fourteen, they are already at the top end of what’s considered a middle-grade hero, and so, if they got much older, they would be more teens and their concerns would probably stray more into teen story lines, which would change the tone and themes of the books considerably.

Though they feature the same heroes in each book, the stories themselves are stand-alone, with different settings and different villains who have different goals in each, so there isn’t necessarily an overarching conflict to the series. Peter told that when writing a series, it is important to get the details consistent because once the series got to the third book, Skycircus, Peter realised everything was getting a little complicated, so he designed a big chart with all the main characters on,which clearly displayed their backstory, when they were born, what they looked like etc. Now he can easily refer to his chart when he needs to check a detail.

To find out more about Peter Bunzl you can check out his website 

Or follow him on Twitter @peterbunzl

To read the complete feature take a look at #218 Dec 2019 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

Re-evaluate setting

Today’s blog post is a continuation of evaluating your work in progress. I have talked about re-evaluating your characters and re-evaluating your plot. Today I am concentrating on setting. A lot of work goes into the beginning of the story before the writing begins but sometimes a story can loose its way. What I am proposing is if you feel like you have lost your way stop writing and take a look at what you have written so far. 

edinburgh castle

  • Make sure your facts are accurate, such as if you are using real places you have not got your characters driving the wrong way up a one-way street.
  • Make your own sketch-map of an area it is a good working tool whether, you setting is real or imaginary.
  • Remember the information out at the time may be different form what we know now in hindsight. Pears encyclopaedias give details relevant to the year and can be collected quite cheaply from boot sales.
  • Contemporary stories with flashback in time must be accurate. Double-check everything.
  • Never take one source, do a lot of crosschecking. Where possible use library and university sites, museums and book searches where you can type in a keyword and find a lot of good reference books.
  • The best research is unobtrusive. You don’t need to put everything in to prove you know your subject. Drop things in casually to set the scene and let the reader know a little background. You can paint a picture using the information this way. You have the research in your mind but only have to use a couple of lines.
  • Use research to feed motivation and plot. It is no good your character having a glamorous job if you’re not using the job to move the story forward.
  • Describe clothes and period costume by using action. Use the description and research as part of the action. All the time something should be happening.
  • Check your setting compliments other areas of the plot. If you are trying to create an atmosphere with your research, it must work within the confines of the plot.
  • Can your setting and the research you have done into it be used to create tension, conflict or theme? Could it be used to draw comparisons?
  • If you are going back in history, do not forget to use all your senses. Think taste, smell and sound. Think like a photographer.

living room

A good exercise is to go through your novel and list the settings you use. Consider how many and are they too similar or even too unrealistic. Would your character really live here? Examine their characteristics of the room, street, or forest. This kind of in depth look can help you find the right path back onto the road of completing your novel.

Book review – William Wenton series

Title: William Wenton series

Written by: Bobbie Peers

Published by: Walker Books

The William Wenton series are fast-paced, thrilling fantasy adventures about twelve-year-old codebreaking genius. In book one, William Wenton was nearly kidnapped and taken to the secretive Institute for Post-Human Research to hide out. His parents believe he will be safer there as it was established by his grandfather who disappeared eight years earlier.

His grandfather also has an extraordinary talent for cracking codes and everyone thinks he used these skills to steal the last remaining traces of a strange and powerful substance known as luridium, originally discovered by Abraham Talley. William wants to learn more about Abraham Talley and why Talley thinks he would know anything about where his grandfather hid the luridium, so he breaks into the Institute’s Archives.

An enormous cybernetic robot hunts William down and attacks the Institute. William is taken to the Centre for Misinformation by Fritz Goffman who claims to be a friend of his grandfather. After escaping the Centre for Misinformation, William bumps into Iscia who he met at the Institute. Together they explore the underground tunnels of London on a quest to find his grandfather. But, they are trapped and William has to use all his ingenuity and code-cracking skills in order to escape with no idea who he can trust.

The second book, shows William adapting to his extraordinary talent for cracking codes when an ancient artefact mysteriously disappears from the Depository for Impossible Archaeology. William chases the antagonist from Norway, to England and then to the dizzying heights of the Himalayas. This race-against-time adventure pushes his skills to the limit to stop an ancient portal of untold power being unleashed.

The third book starts with William celebrating his thirteenth birthday when news breaks that Big Ben has suddenly stopped working due to a powerful ancient weapon. A series of codes and puzzle unravel to lead William to a network of long-lost underground tunnels beneath London.

The futuristic steam punk elements in each book will appeal to fans of Alex Rider, Percy Jackson and Peter Bunzl. It is ideal for boys and girls 8+. I was a little disappointed there were no codes to actually break in the story. We are simply told William solves them with his fantastic mind. However, William Wenton and the Luridium Thief, could spark off a multitude of code-breaking activities in the classroom.

These books are exciting page turners, which create vivid images in your mind. The plots are full of twists and turns that will keep young minds active and engaged. The characters are strong and realistic that make you feel for their dilemmas. I enjoyed reading these thrilling action adventures and hope the series continues.

An interview with… Juliet Clare Bell

For my latest Research Secrets slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interview picture book writer Juliet Clare Bell. She talked me through her research process and how this has inspired some of the thorough and often unusual research she has done for her picture books.


In the interview Juliet Clare Bell told me about the psychologist Graham Wallas who published The Art of Thought in 1926. In this book he identified a four-step process of problem-solving, insight or creative breakthroughs. Juliet Clare Bell summarises the four steps as:

“[1] Preparation –where you formulate your problem, then read, sketch, write, research etc., often very intensively. This, he believed, was absolutely necessary in creative thinking. During this intensive stage, you often end up feeling stuck, and to get past this mental block you must move onto phase two:

[2] Incubation where you let it sit whilst doing other things. If the answer you’re looking for feels really close, he argued, don’t force it. Trust that the process will lead to phase three:

[3] Illumination –often thought of as a ‘Eureka!’ moment –when the answer bursts into your consciousness. The final phase is:

[4] Verification –a conscious, formal activity, where you test it out and ensure that the insight is correct, or that the idea for your story fits.”

Juliet Clare Bell on The Art of Thought  by Graham Wallas

All writers love the illumination phase when writing seems to happen without much conscious effort, but Juliet Clare Bell finds it really useful to think of it in these phases. She explains you need to create the environment for it to happen, by preparing well with research and formulating ideas, and then you need to put in the work in phase four with the editing, even if the story does not change much from the original version.

“I’d recommend approaching people who are experts about an area. In my experience they’ve been really helpful and willing to share their interest. For fictional picture books, I like spending time with people whose lives are similar to those I’m writing about, as I did for The Unstoppable Maggie McGee and Benny’s Hat, both illustrated by Dave Gray. You might do loads of research for a book but it’s often one small snippet you read, or hear in an interview, that can really bring the person to life, or change the direction of your story.” Juliet Clare Bell

The Unstoppable Maggie McGee

Juliet Clare Bell told me it’s taken her a long time to really ‘get’ the idea of incubation, to the point where she now factors it into her schedule of writing. She can’t just do the research and then get straight down to writing it. For a week or two, she needs to let it sit whilst her unconscious gets on with making links with everything she has immersed herself in and other things she has learned or experienced.

Her advice to other writers is to trust in the process and treat incubation and illumination as skills which can be practised and improved on. Create an environment where phases 2 and 3 can happen, and that means being active when you’re reading/conducting your research (phase 1): before you start reading, ask yourself specific questions about the person/subject that you’re really interested in and which your readers will be interested in discovering, but also be on the lookout for the little nuggets that illuminate something interesting.

Author picture - Juliet Clare Bell

Juliet Clare Bell is always interested in the human side of things (so the personality of the inventor, explorer, mountaineer, scientist) and there might be one line in a whole autobiography that makes me say wowthat’s the angle I’m looking for.

To find out more about Juliet Clare Bell you can check out her website or follow her on Twitter @julietclarebell

To read the complete feature take a look at #218 Dec 2019 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

I have also reviewed some of Juliet Clare Bell’s picture books on my blog. Have a look at Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury, illustrated by Jess Mikhail and Benny’s Hat, illustrated by Dave Gray.


Re-evaluate your plot

Last week I talked about re-evaluating your characters. Take a look here.


Sometimes it is also a good idea to stop what you are writing even if you have not finished the book and re-evaluate your plot.

  • A novel needs an ending but this ending need not be cast in stone. You need to have something to work towards, something to aim for.
  • With plot, you also need to have a sub-plot. The sub-plot moves the reader along.
  • It is very tempting to have another set of characters coming in when the hero needs to learn important information, try to avoid this. Sharpen in the re-write by cutting subsidiary characters.
  • Don’t overcrowd scenes. Does the plot really require lots of people to be together in one place at one particular time? Be economical in the number of cast and scene changes. See action in your sequences. Think like a play-write or film director. You can fast forward and backwards to visualise your plot as frames. This way you can see if it isn’t running smoothly form one scene to the next.
  • Use flashback rather than having a large scene that shows the plot and use it with purpose to move the story on.
  • Imagine conversations to hone dialogue.
  • In the first draft don’t worry about getting it right, just get it out of your mind and onto the paper, then you can edit and mould it into shape. The first draft is the bones – the bar skeleton.
  • Analyse where your peaks and troughs are and always finish each chapter on a cliffhanger.
  • If you use symbolism, it must play a part in the conclusion.
  • End as soon as possible after the dramatic climax of the novel. Open with a bang but don’t go out with a phut.


Book review – Are you a Monkey?

Title: Are you a Monkey? A Tale of Animal Charades

Written and Illustrated by: Marine Rivoal

Published by: Phaidon Press

Are you a Monkey

This is a creative non-fiction book using animal characters and the guessing game of charades to divulge poignant facts about a wide variety of jungle animals. The title Are you a Monkey? is memorable, intriguing and matches the tone of the story, as well as highlighting the charades theme of this picture book.

The beautiful screen-printed illustrations are bright and fun, creating a lively jungle setting and atmosphere. The structure of the book is ideal for keeping a child turning the pages to find out who is character is acting out, whilst providing space for the child to interpret the story, with added humour as toucan keeps guessing wrong.

I personally felt Marine Rivoal could have developed each individual character more with exciting sound effects and a wider variety of dialogue, rather than using the same phrase to disclose what animal they were pretending to be. There was also an explanation of what charades is at the beginning, which I felt was not necessary and a little preachy. The story works well without this.

A cute and satisfying ending that resolves the question of who the tiny starfish could act out, creating a ‘big reveal’ moment and bringing the story full circle.

This book would be great for acting out the characters at home or in the classroom and could spark of a wide range of investigative work on finding out more about the animals portrayed.

An interview with… Kathleen Duey

I interviewed her in November 2007, as a speaker at the SCBWI Bologna Conference, March 2008.

Kathleen Duey is the author of over 70 children’s and young adult books including historical fiction, nonfiction, picture books and dark fantasy. She was one of the 2007 finalists for the National Book Award for Literature for Young People, with her novel Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic. She writes for adults with a partner; they have a finished novel with an agent and a second work being optioned by HBO. She lives in San Diego County, USA.

Kathleen Duey

This is what Kathleen told me:

I always want to be a writer. My fourth grade teacher encouraged me and got me started writing stories. Then an English teacher in high school made me promise I would keep writing and give it a serious try, which I finally did, in my late thirties. Mrs. Fredericksen and Mr. Doohan. Bless ‘em both.

She explained all the work she has done and all the play, informs her writing. Living off-grid for a long time shaped her, too. She missed a couple of decades of TV. She does a lot of historical research for her books. But, the research never hampers her historical fiction. She uses a lot of primary sources and they always enrich, guide, inform. She told me she has never once felt constrained by facts.

Kathleen said she identifies very closely with all her characters, so in a way, has been all of them. She could live where Heart Avamir lives. (The Unicorn’s Secret) in fact she hinted she did, in a weird way, but that’s a whole story in itself. Her life has been extraordinary – she dropped out of the mainstream and lived off the land for many years. That gave her a rich vein of knowledge to mine.

Her childhood influenced what she writes in every way. She grew up in rural places, was raised by rural parents. She writes historical fiction and fantasy… both usually low tech, in cultures where people are close to the soil. As a child, her parents bought her non-fiction, almost exclusively. The first novel she loved was Molly Make Believe, an old book she found in her great Aunt’s apartment. Then came Black Beauty and then all the Farley books. In middle school she discovered fantasy and SF and was astounded at the created worlds, the possibilities of speculation, the massive intellects of the writers.

Kathleen claims the best books are autobiographical to some degree.

I work alone, almost always, in my office at home. I often play music, quietly. Sometimes I prefer silence. If it is chilly, Rooibos tea is wonderful. The hardest part of writing is sitting still, indoors – I hate it. The shortest time it has taken me to write a book is nine days. the longest was fifteen years.

She told me, people just need to figure out what is comfortable, what works for them when it comes to social media and marketing. She likes travel, she loves schools and speaking has become fun even though she said she began as a nervous, two-puke speaker, she now enjoys it.

Every book presents different obstacles, various areas of clear sailing.

I like every genre I have written in and intend to try more. It’s just the way my brain works; it’s not a conscious business choice or a deliberate artistic decision. It is about the individual project for me, not the genre. Whatever takes my breath away – that’s what I want to write. I like writing for all age groups. I seem to thrive on variety. Writing for kids is an obvious choice for me. I like kids. And I am head over heels in love with the possibility of touching a child’s (or a teen’s) life the way mine was touched by books.


Re-evaluate your characters

Sometimes you need to step back from your writing and take a deeper look into your character’s and their story so they do not appear flat on the page.

Flat Stanley

Ask yourself if your readers can relate to your protagonist. You need to consider who will be reading your book. It does not matter how clever, funny and charming your characters are, will the readers truly care about them. What can you do to make them care more?


Often you can relate to your readers by giving your main character a problem they can empathise with. But it is not just the hero you need to consider. You also need an enemy for your hero to battle against. Someone who is blocking their way to achieving their goals.

The antagonist in your story should appear to be everything that your protagonist is not but they must also have some good qualities as well. People are not good or evil. Your characters should have the same character traits, as the rest of humanity to give them depth. Both your hero and antagonist need to have a few bumps in the road. Life isn’t smooth. Let them both make mistakes and figure their way out of their problems.

President Snow.jpg

Begin and end your story with a bang. Remember your hero needs to learn a lesson about themselves. Are they braver than they thought? Did they know more than they thought? Were they in love with the person they thought? Your characters should have some type of self-realisation.

Peeta Mellark

It can be subtle. You do not have to go into a five chapter monologue on it, just give the readers some clues how they have changed.