Monthly Archives: January 2020

Do we need Celebrity Authors?

In May, 2017 I went to a very interesting Children’s Book Circle Event discussing the increase in the amount of celebrities writing children’s books. The panel consisted of:

  • Children’s reading consultant, freelance editor and blogger, Clare Zinkin
  • Award-winning picture book author, Michelle Robinson
  • YA author and ghost-writer, Siobhan Curham

CBC May panel

Children’s editor of the Bookseller magazine, Charlotte Eyre was the chair. She explained publishers are actively seeking out celebrities to write books and this is not isolated to only books for children. She told us that if a publishing house has success with a gimmick such as a celebrity author the trend is for the others to follow as it brings in the money. It was quite significant that there were no celebrities or publishers on the panel.

We must never forget that publishing is a business and all businesses want to make money. Although, whether they make money is dependent on age-group and who the celebrity is. David Walliams’ books sold over 56 million books last year whereas Chris Hoy did not even sell 5000 copies. As authors we should want our publishing houses to do well as it means there is more money to spend on debut authors.

However, the marketing can be frustrating. It is disheartening when celebrities are higher in the charts because they are getting bigger budgets and higher billing at events and festivals. In a way it is cheating because the stars are being given a head start. Authors like David Walliams are always in the review round-ups regardless. It is sad that even the Summer Reading Challenge book sorter mostly recommends celebrity books and traditional best sellers like Roald Dahl and Jaqueline Wilson. In the same way, large book shops like WH Smith and Waterstones tend to stock only the big name authors. But Michelle is proud she has got to where she is ‘the hard way’.

Frank Lampard

On the whole, books by sports people and other celebrities are a good thing because it gets children reading; many who may never have picked up a book before. Celebrity books tend to be light-hearted middle grade with a great illustrator. The children do not care that it is a celebrity without a background in writing all they want is a great story with amazing characters to read.

We are getting to a stage where there may be a saturation of the market with celebrity books and some are not making out their large advances. There has been a tendency for publishers to depend too much on celebrity authors. There is also a fear that because a gold medallist can also write a book in their spare time it makes writing seem easy and not hard work at all. Claire compared it to being like the celebrities creating a perfume. We need to remember Literature is a craft and we should see it as a craft. It is true many celebrities are actually writers with a proven track record and those who are not tend to have a ghost writer. As a ghost writer Siobhan sees her role as helping the celebrities tell their story.


Many authors in the audience felt that if a book had been written by a ghost writer they should put the ghost writers name on the books to make it clear who has written them. Siobhan explained ghost writers do not care if their name is not on the book, it is the nature of the job and anything that gets a book into a child’s hands is a good thing.

There was an overall feeling from the audience that celebrities should do more to get involved in the industry. They should make an effort to mix with other children’s book authors. It was suggested that in the same way as there are ghost writers, celebrities could advice authors on performing at events or make book recommendations to increase sales of all books and not just their own.

So my answer to the heading of this post, do we need celebrity authors, is…

…NO …we do not need celebrity authors. What we do need is great stories for children no matter who has written them.

Book Review – How to be Extraordinary

Title: How to be Extraordinary

Written by: Rashmi Sirdeshpande

Illustrated by: Annabel Tempest

Published by: Puffin Books

How to be Extraordinary

How to be Extraordinary is a non-fiction picture book containing the real-life stories of 15 extraordinary people from all over the globe, who have made incredible achievements. There is a good mix of well-known and lesser-known males and females from a wide range of nationalities and backgrounds. Each person is presented in a double-page spread, which outlines where they are from, their childhood, beliefs, jobs and their greatest accomplishments despite all obstacles, with inspirational quotes to encourage others to follow their dreams. My favourite quote is:

“What would you like to be remembered for?” (Abdul Kalam)

It is aimed at ages 5-7 years (KS1) and meets the requirements of the history programmes of study for KS1 as it documents the lives of significant individuals who have contributed to national and international achievements. The illustrations are bold and colourful. They catch the eye and will keep young readers turning the pages. But the vocabulary and size of the text is very advanced for this age range so they would mostly need adult support to get the most out of this book unless they are particularly talented and able.

How to be Extraordinary inside

I personally think How to be Extraordinary being will be more popular with children ages 7-11 years (KS2). I feel that more picture books of this high-standard containing narrative non-fiction are needed for the older primary age range, especially as the snippets of information do not have to be read in any particular order, which is great for children with low attention spans who prefer to dip in and out of the book.

This book would provide an excellent springboard for encouraging pupils to research their own extraordinary person, which could be stuck into a class book or encyclopaedia with their own illustrations or photos printed from the Internet. Throughout the book the emphasises is on how with determination and hard work anything is possible.

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

Interview with… Lucie Whitehouse

In my Research Secrets this month, I interview Lucie Whitehouse who revealed how she weaves fact and fiction into her psychological thrillers, so she doesn’t jolt the reader out of the story.

Lucie Whitehouse2

Lucie told me her latest novel, Critical Incidents, launched this month had an unusual beginning. She was working on her previous novel in Brooklyn Central Library one morning when a TV producer in the UK emailed to ask if she had an idea for a female lead investigative character. She replied straight away and said she was thinking about a woman in her thirties, a single mother of a teenage girl, who’s been booted out of her job as a senior homicide detective at the Met and returns in disgrace to her hometown, Birmingham. After she hit send she sat back in surprise. She’d never consciously had the idea. Evidently, though, her subconscious had been hard at work.

Critical Incidents

In Critical Incidents, Robin, the main protagonist, is technically off the job so for Lucie, it was a gentle introduction to writing procedurals. Her first four novels were psychological suspense and she felt had a lot to learn.

She explained she researched the structure of the Met’s Homicide Command online, reading up about Major Incident Teams, what rank of officer would lead one (a DCI) and how many officers each comprises.

“The police are quite transparent, and a lot of information can be found on a force’s website. For specific queries, you can contact them directly via their site. Forces’ Facebook and Twitter accounts are great resources.” (Lucie Whitehouse)

Lucie said the trick with research is to reassure the reader that you know your stuff without boring his or her pants off, and information dumps because great chunks of undigested information will pull a reader right out of the story.

To get her facts right she does a lot of on-the-ground research in concentrated bursts when she is in the UK. She spends days in Birmingham visiting or finding locations, taking photographs, collecting flyers, pamphlets, café menus, bus tickets and perusing the local history shelves of bookshops (Waterstones on the High Street has a great range). Lucie has found that buying local history books is better done on location than on Amazon, as shops often stock things from local presses.

“Birmingham’s rich history is one of the reasons I wanted to write about it and I read several books not only about the city itself but more broadly its role in the Industrial Revolution. My favourite was A History of Birmingham by Chris Upton.” (Lucie Whitehouse)

Lucie loves stitching in little bits of her own family history. A photo of the Whitehouse Flexible Tubing helped her with the visual details. This is the factory, where her father was Managing Director. It still operates out of this building.

Whitehouse Flexible Tubing

She also enjoys going to the places her characters would go, such as Moor Street Station, the Custard Factory, Stratford Road where Gamil’s bakery is located. She told me Dunnington Road, where Robin’s parents live, is fictional but based on a real street in Hall Green that she walked up and down repeatedly on a sweltering July day and one of her favourite is The Golden Boys statue, known locally as Boulton, Murdoch and Watt, three giants of Birmingham’s proud history as a hub of the Industrial Revolution.

The Golden Boys statue

Lucie explained:

“Ninety percent of my research never comes close to the page but doing it allows me to know the world of my book properly and write with confidence. It’s wool-gathering in both senses – by researching, I collect the raw materials but I’m also creating a mental space where I can spin them into something new.” (Lucie Whitehouse)

You can find out more about Lucie and her books at and on Twitter @LWhitehouse5 and Instagram @lwhitehouse5

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #220 Feb Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

Narrative Style and Pace

Your style is unique. Do not change it. If you try to write in the style of someone else, you are changing your individuality.

street style

The pace is governed by the time frame of the story. In long stories, such as sagas, you need to find the level of the story, which has the greatest continuation of plot and have the rest in flashback. In this way, it is possible to condense three generations into a weekend. If writing thrillers, narrow it down to a week or a year. If writing a children’s book all the action could happen in a day.


Get the reader feeling they are on a roller coaster, if you drag it out too much the reader will get confused. Dialogue is a good way for bridging time. Your characters could easily pick the phone up and ask someone.


Avoid lengthy description. It slows the pace. Take a look at the colour supplements in the newspapers because they have good examples of brief descriptions of rooms, people and moods. They sum it all up in a thumbnail. A good exercise is to go through these supplements with a highlighter pen.


The picture should be created by character and dialogue, not by lengthy description.

Book Review – Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee

Title: Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee

Written by: Jeff Zentner

Published by: Anderson Press

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee

Originally, Delia was going to host a TV show with her best friend Jesmyn, but she moved to Nasville, leaving Josie to fill her shoes. Josie’s ambition is a dream career on mainstream TV with her flawless teeth, long honey-blond hair and Scarlett Johansen voice, but she knows absolutely nothing about horror movies. In contrast, Delia is a horror movie fanatic but lousy at TV. Together they make a great team. Every Friday night they become Rayne Ravenscroft and Delilah Darkwood hosts of their own public access TV show, Midnite Matinee, on the local cable station TV Six. They dress as vampires, perform crazy stunts involving skeleton raves and dog weddings, they show low budget horror movies which used to belong to Deliah’s dad and roast viewers letters about the show with the help of their trusty puppet, Frankenstein W. Frahn-ken-shteen.

Written in two voices, Josie and Deliah’s, this novel has a theme of loyalty and friendship verses following your dreams. Josie and Deliah are at a crossroads in their lives. It is their last year at school and they have some big decisions to make. Deliah is searching for her Dad who walked out on her and her mum ten years ago. Her last connection to him are the horror movies they show on Midnite Matinee, which they used to watch together before he left. She has hired a private investigator to find him. She believes, if Midnite Matinee becomes a success, her dad might see it and get in touch and Josie won’t leave for university and to get experience on the national Food Network. Josie is torn between staying and pursuing her television dreams in a new city. Meeting Lawson, one of the show’s guest performers, a talented MMA fighter with weaknesses for pancakes, fantasy novels, and Josie, is making her tough decision even harder.

Jeff Zentner’s snappy dialogue is brilliant. He epitomises the character’s quirks and idiosyncrasies perfectly. I laughed out loud several times, especially at the Idiot twins, Colt and Hunter McAllen who only have a bit part, but in my opinion deserve their own book. The story gallops full speed ahead in an eclectic mix of narrative, emails, texts and letters that conveys a realistic picture of society today and how social media and instant communication rules over our lives.

A fun read that encompasses all the twists and turns of modern family life in a small American town.

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

Another interview with… Mo O’Hara

In my Writing 4 Children column this month, I interview children’s book writer Mo O’Hara about writing comedy for middle grade series books. I have previously interviewed and blogged about Mo O’Hara before when I interviewed her for Papers Pens Poets. Take a look at: An Interview with… Mo O’Hara

Mo O'Hara5

She explained that she was inspired to start writing children’s books after she took a course in writing for children. Now My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish series are bestsellers here and in the US and her new series My Fangtastically Evil Vampire Pet is doing quite well too.

Mo told me:

“I definitely draw on my own experiences for all my writing – comedy included. Remembering all your embarrassing moments is a great place to start.” (Mo O’Hara)

In the feature, Mo explains how written comedy is different to stand up.  For Mo the story and the characters come first and then the jokes come out of the situation. She always starts with characters that are funny.

Mo with toys of her book characters

She did this for her graphic novel launching this year – Agent Moose. Originally the main character was a mouse who is a master of disguise. But the idea wasn’t working and did not seem funny at all She put it away and one day it hit her – a 7 foot tall moose that can hide anywhere is just more funny. The comedy just fell in place because of the character.

Agent Moose

Mo’s writing tip for other writers who want to write comedy is to write with a knowledge of the vocabulary of the age range of your reader. Kids are capable of getting the meaning of a word through context and they love funny words too – ‘Discombobulate!’ for instance. Also repeated words that are explained through context are funny sometimes. 

“If you get a kid to laugh it’s because at that moment, they had a genuine reaction and thought it was funny. That’s the emotional response I want. That’s why writing funny for kids is more rewarding for me.” (Mo O’Hara)

Her most important tip is ALWAYS read all comedy aloud. She explained that sometimes what you think is funny when it’s written loses something when spoken. It pulls up the flaws in timing.

Find out more about Mo O’Hara and her books on her website: and on Twitter @Mo_Ohara

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #220 Feb Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

What is the theme of your book?

The theme of a book is an ‘abstract idea’ such as friendship, loyalty or a quest for identity. It is important to understand what the theme of your book is. Often the theme does not become apparent until you have finished writing the book. Themes in children’s picture books can often be identified by three categories: daily life, family and feelings. The Baby who wouldn’t go to bed by Helen Cooper has a theme of bedtime routines, which are part of daily life.

The Baby who wouldn’t go to bed by Helen Cooper

Themes are different to morals. A good rule of thumb is to avoid preaching. Children’s stories should be explorations of life—not Sunday school lessons. The theme should be subtle and will strengthen the story, as it adds depth and meaning.

Behind a very simple structure, brief text and beautiful illustrations lay truths that are timeless. The story should leave readers with a residual feeling. There has to be something deeply felt that stays with the reader afterwards. You should be able to sum up your theme in one or two words. The theme of Not now Bernard by David McKee is busy parents, which is something all children can identify with.

Not now Bernard by David McKee

Your characters will always carry the theme but don’t confuse theme with the story’s plot. The plot is  what happens in the story and the order of the story’s events. A theme is an insight or viewpoint or concept that a story conveys. If an editor says your story is ‘slight,’ this may mean you have no significant theme.The theme of Where the Wild things are by Maurice Sendak is dealing with the feeling of anger. 

Where the Wild things are by Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak does not to blurt out his theme. He lets it emerge from the story. If you must come out and say it, do it in dialogue, not narration. Keep the theme positive. If writing about a social problem, offer constructive ways for your readers to deal with it.

Book Review – The Woman who Rode a Shark

Title: The Woman who Rode a Shark and 50 more wild female adventurers

Written by: Ailsa Ross

Illustrated by: Amy Blackwell

Published by: AA Publishing

The Woman who Rode a Shark

This hardback book features 50 amazing women and their achievements through history, from 200BC in Ancient Illyria when Teuta the pirate queen stood up to Ancient Rome, to Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel prize winning journalist in Ukraine today, who is giving a voice to the survivors of conflict and disaster.

The book is split into six sections: the artists; the pioneers; the scientists; the activists; the athletes and the seekers. Each section features around 7-10 amazing women from all over the world 0rganised from eh earliest to the most recent. Each double spread consists of a single page of fascinating facts with a corresponding full page portrait in bold vibrant colours that instantly capture the reader’s imagination. Each section also has a map showing where each of the woman is from.

Every page of The Woman who Rode a Shark contains a rich, diverse message that women all over the globe, throughout the ages have had a positive impact and legacy on society, from Jeanne Barret the first woman to sail around the world from 1740 -1803, to Sacagawea who helped chart North America in 1785-1812. She did everything the men did and she did it all carrying a baby on her back.

The Woman who Rode a Shark inside

There are also snippets of information to ignite every female adventurers’ imagination, such as it is said that pirate Teula’s treasure is still buried in the hills somewhere above the Adriatic Sea and whilst Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida for 52 hours without sleeping she passed the time by dreaming of dancing Foxtrot on Dancing with the Stars. These snippets are accompanied by inspirational quotes such as:

“I’s rather dream large and fail than shoot for mediocre and never discover my limits.”

(Diana Nyad).

I think one of my favourite bits of the book is that at the bottom of each spread there are the names and dates of even more women who have also made achievements in similar fields for the reader to research and find out more. Proving the list of dynamic women is endless.

A must have book for all young girls who are not going to let anyone hold them back.

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

An interview with… Tracey Mathias

In an interview with Tracey Mathias she told me all about how her children’s fantasy series was first published in Germany and how she got it into children’s hands in the UK.

tracey author pic

She started writing in 2005 and as a crime fiction addict and had a vague ambition to write but no real direction or conviction. That summer, whilst she was working at a children’s music school she found herself writing some last minute song lyrics, and had the sudden inspiration that she wanted to write for children.

At the same time, she had an idea for a story that wouldn’t leave her alone. Over a week of sleepless nights she sketched out a rough plot for a whole novel and gave herself a year to work on the story. By the end of the summer term, she had completed the first draft of A Fragment of Moonswood, and her brain was seething with plans for volumes two and three of the Assalay trilogy – an otherworld fantasy about a land with a hidden past, facing political and ecological breakdown. She wrote the other two volumes – The Singing War and Weatherlord – over the next three years.

books german covers

The first volume of the trilogy went on submission in the UK and overseas in mid-2007. In one of the most bizarre couple of weeks of her life, she got a quick succession of offers from three German publishers. Her agent was hopeful that this would be quickly followed by a UK deal – but over the next months, rejection followed rejection, including a couple of annoyingly near misses. Tracey explained:

“I was left with an odd sense of half success, half failure. Yes, I was a published author (and unpacking your first box of author copies is thrilling whichever language they’re in!) but I was dogged by a sense of unfinished business that didn’t go away. Friends kept asking when they could read my books in English. ‘Why not self-publish?’ was a frequent suggestion, but for a long time, I clung to the hope of a conventional UK deal. “Tracey Mathias

Then, in 2015, Tracey was invited to speak to a school workshop on fantasy writing. She read the opening of A Fragment of Moonswood to a class of year 6 children, and at the end of the session, one of the boys came up to her, handed her a scrap of grubby paper for her autograph, and asked, ‘Miss, when can I read your book in English? Because I really like books like that…’

Tracey told me that this was a bit of a lightning moment! She decided pretty much on the spot just to go ahead and pursue the option of self-publishing and started to research options.

“Self-publishing is definitely a demanding route to take. It’s great to be independent and in control – but the flip side of that is having to tackle a wide variety of often quite technically detailed tasks that call for very different skills. Some of them suited me. Others, emphatically, didn’t.” Tracey Mathias

Tracey’s tip for children’s book authors who are considering self-publishing is to start by taking a long, hard look at what this is going to involve. It’s important to have a clear sense of how ‘self-publishing’ breaks down into different tasks, and how you’re going to tackle each, where you want or need help, and where you want to devote your energies.

The Assalay trilogy is published by Erika Klopp – part of the Oetinger group in Germany and can be ordered in any bookshop and on Amazon in the UK and is also available to buy from Barnes and Noble in the US.

In 2018, Tracey got a traditional publishing deal with Scholastic with her very topical novel Night of the Party. It is about withdrawing from the EU and Britain is governed by a far-right nationalist party. Its flagship policy is the British Born edict, which allows only those born in Britain to live here. Everyone else is an ‘illegal’, subject to immediate arrest and deportation. ‘

Tracey Mathias

You can find extracts and links to Tracey’s books on her website: and follow her on twitter @traceymathias. 

You can read the complete feature in Writers’ Forum #190 Aug 2017, in my Writing 4 Children column. 

Children’s non-fiction

Over the last few years there have been many changes in children’s non-fiction and how it is presented and used in the classroom. Today teachers use a more interactive model of non-fiction, which in my opinion makes learning more exciting and fun.

“The Internet changes the way we think about information. The fact that we do not know something that exists in the extant expansive commons of human knowledge can no longer intimidate us into reticence. If we do not know something, someone else does, and there are enough ways around the commons of the Internet that enable us to get to sources of the known.” Raqs Media Collective (

New technology has allowed multi-media texts to be used with moving images to enhance children’s learning. So, we can actually see a digestive system working or what the night sky would look like on a specific day at a specific time. The non-fiction information is often embedded into a story with diverse characters solving problems that keep the children engaged.

But, does this advancing technology mean parents are less likely to buy their children a non-fiction book, preferring them to do their research on the Internet? This is a worry for the children’s non-fiction writer and many new books have appeared on the market to make the non-fiction books more appealing.

Print books have started to become more spectacular themselves not only do they include links to downloads to compliment the printed text but the illustrations are active and visually stimulating bleeding to the edges of the page. There are puzzles and games in the books so children can discover new concepts and reinforce their learning such as in my Colour and Shape books.


There has been a rise in children’s biographical accounts told in a more creative and stimulating way than simple text and portrait picture and a move to more comic book style, such as Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women series.

“Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women series (Bloomsbury Children’s), including Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World and Fantastically Great Women Who Changed History, have sold a combined 92,634 copies since the start of 2018.” The Bookseller

But, what is the next step? What non-fiction books are going to survive the electronic age?