The Wacky Bee Buzzy Reads series that were released in 2020 are a great quick read ideal for Key Stage Two children to read alone.
Samira’s Wish is about a young girl who always puts others first before herself. When her grandparents come to visit she decides to make them beans on toast for breakfast as a special treat but her dad has eaten all the beans. Luckily, Mrs April the scary owner of the corner shop has one tin of beans left. Samira discovers that this is not ordinary tin of beans. They are magic beans. With every mouthful a wish can be made. But the wishes her family make do not make things better for everyone.
This book could be used as part of a PSHE lesson to stimulate discussion on sharing, being considerate, consequences and the importance of sometimes putting yourself first. It could also encourage creative writing sessions by getting to children to think of what they would wish for and the pros and cons of their own wishes.
There are some brilliant fun facts about baked beans and a healthy recipe to make home-made beans on toast at the back of the book. the recipe could be used at home or as a food technology lesson at school.
For my Writing 4 Children column in Writers’ Forum this month, I interviewed Sibéal Pounder about the differences between writing for children and writing for adults.
She writes for age 7+ and is the author of the Witch Wars, the Bad Mermaids series, Beyond Platform 13 (which is the sequel to Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13) and Tinsel, which was launched on Oct 29th 2020.
Sibéal explained writing for children is different from writing for adults for a few reasons. First of all, they are much harder to impress. They are busy people and unlike adults who will slog through a book hoping it gets better, kids are quite happy to chuck it at four pages deep and move on. You’ve got to hold their attention, impress and entertain them from the off.
Another reason writing for children is different is they are more vulnerable as readers. I don’t mean that to be patronising, I think kids are often smarter than adults. It’s just when adults read a book we do so with a lot of context about the world already in place. We read with a clear understanding that the author’s experiences and views may inform the content, and we come to it with a robustness and a critical eye.
Adults see books as something they read, children see books as somewhere they go. They learn from what is said and how characters are portrayed, what roles they are given and how they are treated. It’s a huge responsibility to write for children – the stories can shape how they think and feel, and you have to be very careful with that.
Two books I’d really recommend on the topic are Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell. And Sway by Dr Pragya Agarwal, which is about unconscious bias – I found it hugely useful and eye-opening. I’d really recommend it if you’re a writer, especially a writer for children.
Each book presents its own challenges. It doesn’t get any easier! I wasn’t a big planner as I felt it was quite restrictive, but I did plan Beyond Platform 13 in great detail, down to each chapter, because it was an Estate project and Eva Ibbotson’s family and the publisher had to approve the outline before the work began. I found the planning transformative and really enjoyed working that way, so when it came to writing Tinsel I did a lot of planning. She revealed:
“Mrs Claus has always fascinated me. Everyone knows who she is and yet no one really knows her at all. If you ask a child to tell you a fact about Santa, they’ll have facts coming out of their ears – everything from his impressive skillset to his snack preferences. Mrs Claus is usually met with, ‘Um, she’s Santa’s wife.’ And, ‘She’s old.’”
What we know about Santa (the commercial version of him – the large jolly man in the red suit with the sleigh and elves) came about mostly in the 1800s, including the introduction of Mrs Claus. It got her thinking about how women were seen back then and how in many ways Mrs Claus is a relic of those times – a mere background character, known and yet completely unknown, in a world that didn’t imagine much of women. So she decided to find her story. Tinsel is that story – it’s the story of young Blanche Claus. And it turns out, a long time ago, we all got the Santa story a bit wrong…
I think Tinsel stands out because it takes everything we know and tells the story in a different (and hopefully funny) way. With Tinsel a lot of the comedy came from playing around with what we know now about Santa and having the reader know more than the characters. It’s set over a hundred years ago when the Santa story began and, after delivering the presents, Blanche reads the newspaper reports and exclaims, ‘They think I’m an old-bearded man called Santa Claus?’ Carol the elf assures her, ‘It’ll never catch on.’
Tinsel has quite a small cast (if you don’t count the thousands of elves all called Carol), and I wanted to have a sense of underlying balance in the book as it explores issues around gender bias. So I wanted every character to have a counterpart. Blanche and Captain Garland are counterparts, for example, because they are both adventurers, Mr Krampus and Carol, because they are the two most powerful characters in the book. It was fun to add that extra layer – I don’t think anyone will notice it but it provides a balance, I think.
When writing for children make everything bigger. Make the world you’re writing bigger, the characters bigger. Sometimes when people write for children they make the story small because that’s how they think of children. But kids have big minds and want big adventures – make everything bigger.
Thank you to all my followers, friends and family for the tremendous support you have given me over this extremely difficult year for us all. You have all been amazing. I have been blogging for two years now and although I found it very difficult to continue to write during the first lockdown your encouragement and positive comments helped me to get back on my feet and get going again. I hope you have found the information I have shared with you over 2020 useful and informative.
If there is anything you would like me to write about, any books you would love to see me review, or any of my interviews you would like me to share, please let me know.
I look forward to posting many more book reviews and interviews next year. If there is anything you would like me to write about, any books you would love to see me review, or any of my interviews you would like me to share, please let me know.
I wish you all a fantastic Christmas even though your family and loved ones may be unable to be with you.
Witch is a remarkable debut novel, which encompasses the themes of betrayal, family, friendship, identity, revenge, self-discovery and sibling rivalry. The graphic descriptive nature of the opening scenes makes them emotionally difficult to read but sets the tone and atmosphere of the book. The fear and superstition, which permeates this novel draws the reader in.
The fiery, red-haired main protagonist, Evey, is a fascinatingly flawed character who blunders through life, heart first. Her voice is unique depicting the time and place the novel is set – firmly in 17th century Wiltshire. She is determined to avenge her mother’s death at the hands of the vicious witch hunters which conflicts the promise she made to her mother that she would keep Dill, her younger sister, safe.
Keeping this promise is confounded by the fact she is jealous of Dill, believing she was their mother’s favourite as she inherited the magick and this is why their mother gave Dill the mysterious scrying stone and not her. This jealousy is magnified by Evey’s constant rejection of Dill’s nick-name for her, Eveline of the Birds. Their complicated relationship is well constructed and realistic.
Evey is torn between the duty of the promise, her love for Dill, and the tormenting jealousy that threatens to rip them apart. She refuses to accept magick also flows through her own veins and she is the strongest witch of them all. This refusal to accept her fate makes her an unreliable narrator.
In her anger, Evey steals the scrying stone from her sister in the night and goes to hunt her mother’s murderers who are gathering for the witch-trials. She leaves Dill with their mother’s elder sister, Aunt Grey, who unknown to them is a collaborator with the witch hunters. Finbar Hawkins clearly shows how accusations of witchcraft were used as a weapon against independent, strong and resourceful women, portraying an era where women were persecuted for using traditional herbal medicines.
A dramatic grim depiction of cruel times and the strength found in sisterhood and friendship. I particularly liked the friendship and love between Evey and Anne, ‘Green Eye’ the daughter of Lord Whitaker the local magistrate. Together they fight against the male dominated system and their betrayers. When the line between using magic to heal and using magic to harm becomes blurred, Anne is there to steer her on the correct moral path.
The plot concludes in a climatic crescendo in the final scenes when Evey is finally forced to accept her powers and realises she has to work with her sister to bring balance. Her gradual acceptance of her powers is highlighted by the change in her emotions and how she grows to understand her mother and the gifts she has inherited.
This novel is a spectacular emotional roller-coaster steeped in history, myth and folklore.
In my Research Secrets column this month, I interview psychological thriller writer, Caro Ramsay, about some of the research techniques she has used for her crime novels.
“I always like to do something different with a book, which is not easy within the constraints of a long running series. So I wanted to try a story line that covered two novels while each novel in itself can be read as a standalone; The Suffering of Strangers and The Sideman.”
The inspiration for her main storyline struck her when she was sitting on the side of a Scottish mountain, in torrential rain, gale force winds – it was the height of summer – watching a single walker on the other side of the hill tackling the West Highland Way. She had a feeling the walker was female. Caro was aware in that glen, you are a long way from a mobile phone signal.
For her research, she uses location visits, then the internet, then newspapers on the internet. With regard to research and police procedural her job as an osteopath means she treats lots of police and criminal lawyers. She often asks them for truthful answers about work conditions i.e. short staffed, too much paperwork, inter office politics. Caro said it’s these seemingly mundane minutiae which lends a sense of realism, not the procedures being correct (within reason).
Her advice would be to ask a lawyer about how the cops work and vice versa, then you will get the nitty gritty truth. She explained saying ‘I’m novelist and I’d like to know x, y and z,’ will get you the textbook version, not what happens in reality.
For Caro, the location fires the imagination for the story. She lives in the west coast of Scotland so the scenery is very dramatic. But Caro revealed that she steals setting ideas from elsewhere. For example, she was at Prince Edward, Lake Ontario, Canada looking at the water, slowly just walking along the scrub on the shore, through a hedge with long grass and wild flowers, when she realised my feet were hitting something hard. When she kicked back the soil it revealed a black and white tiled dance floor. A quick internet search and a few questions in a local café uncovered the sad story of the hotel that used to stand there. Caro used incorporated this into Durness on the North West tip of Scotland for The Sideman.
Caro told me sometimes it’s more prudent to write it and then find out what you need to know. Although she admitted to driving around in her small campervan looking for body deposition sites.
“There’s a famous road in Scotland called the Bealach na Ba, the pass of the cattle. It has hair pin bends at altitude, steep drops etc. The top is like a remote moon landscape. While having a coffee in a pub close by I saw the insignia of the SAS above the bar and a little research told me they did indeed train there, and that’s an important part of The Sideman story. So I got somebody to lie down at the top and pretend to be dead! I also ask friends to act dead then I move them around until they can’t be seen.”
Sparks of stories also come to Caro through ‘incidental research’. The best thing is to ‘reverse research’. Find out what you need to know, use it, end of. Avoid information dumps. Keep away from the rabbit hole of the internet. Good research peppers the story with authenticity, it should never be obvious. Bad research bogs the story down. Caro said:
“A good tip is to not stop typing when you feel you need a particular word. I type in the word ‘wombat’ and get to the end of the draft. I believe Ian Rankin does the same but he uses capitals. Then when the draft is complete do a ‘find’ and fill in the detail.”
Chatting to people, anybody, eavesdropping on conversations, people watching, are good ways to inform your characters. Caro’s tip to other writers is to keep your ears open. Everybody has a story. Never throw away anything, buy books of lovely post it notes, never be without your notebook. The most inconsequential fact or photo can percolate at the back of a writer’s mind and become the germ of a novel. Caro said:
The story of Ever Wong, an eighteen-year-old Asian American girl, torn between rebelling against her parents and her family loyalty. When she is sent to an expensive summer school in Taiwan she seizes her opportunity to shake off the shackles of all the rules her parents have imposed on her in their ambition for her to become a doctor and she totally embraces the freedom supplied by the limited supervision environment to make her own rules. This includes staying out late, wearing clothes they would not approve of, drinking alcohol, pursuing her love of dancing and choreography and maybe the greatest sin of them all – having a boyfriend.
But breaking all her parents’ rules does not prove to be as freeing as she originally believed. Not only does she have to fight the guilt of knowing her mother sold her antique pearl necklace, which was a family heirloom, so they could afford for her flight to go, she also has to deal with her feelings of finally meeting the boy prodigy who her parents have been comparing her to her whole life. A boy she thought she disliked because she could never live up to the expectations.
This is a beautifully written romance coming-of-age story in Ever Wong’s voice. We are swept along with her on a voyage of discovering her own identity through the tide of desire and heart-break not only from the various boys she encounters but because of fall-outs with her best friends.
Abigail Hing Wen uses her novel to explore the different Asian cultures and diverse family structures that influence a person’s personality and decision making. She also highlights what it is like to be an Asian American immigrant and the unrealistic stereotypes.
Teenagers all over the globe, will be able to identify with Ever’s struggle for more freedom, her disappointments, and their first Loveboat summer camp experiences of having their first kiss, breaking up, making-up and even the first real taste of love.
A novel that resonates and makes you think well after the last page has been read.
Check out the December 2020 issue of Writers’ Forum, for my Writing 4 Children interview with best-seller Peter Kerr. He talks about how he adapted his screenplay for children into his debut children’s novel, Goblin Hall.
Peter told me that he originally wrote the Goblin Hall story as a 90-minute screenplay before his first book was published, purely on spec as a self-imposed writing ‘exercise’, then he filed it away and forgot about it until transferring old files into a new computer a couple of years ago.
Goblin Hall really exists. It is a large, remarkably well-preserved subterranean chamber that lies hidden beneath the ruins of Yester Castle, near the village of Gifford, about five miles from where he lives in East Lothian. Legend has it that it was built in the 13th century – with the aid of ‘demonic forces’ – by Sir Hugo de Giffard, a Norman nobleman, who, because of his reputation as a practitioner of the ‘black arts’, was dubbed the Wizard of Yester. The legend is well known locally (Gifford’s village inn is even called The Goblin Ha’ Hotel), but has never been used as a basis for a novel until now, although Sir Walter Scott did mention it in his poem Marmion.
When Peter was twelve, he was taken on a visit to Yester Castle by a school chum who lived in Gifford. He told me what little of the ruins that still exist are well hidden by the surrounding woods, and it would have been difficult to find them without a local ‘guide’.
“I was immediately struck by the spooky atmosphere of the place, and I never forgot my immediate thought that it would make a great setting for a creepy movie. That’s probably why it became the inspiration for my experimental screenplay some forty years later.”
His idea was that the script would feature two children, a ruined castle and a haunted underground chamber. And as there weren’t any historical ‘facts’ that had to be adhered to, he had a fairly blank canvas to work on. This was not the case when he came to adapt it for the novel. Peter revealed he prefers to go with the flow when he writes rather than have a pre-conceived plan to adhere to. As he had already completed the screenplay he found that for the first time ever, he had an existing storyline to stick to, and a detailed one at that.
“It took a bit of getting used to, but it was a worthwhile exercise and another step on the learning curve that’s always in front of us, no matter how experienced we think we’ve become.”
Peter explained the main practical difficulty he discovered in converting the film script to purely narrative form was how to adjust the balance between action and dialogue. In the script, only an outline of the actual scene locations and the physical actions/reactions of the characters was required, with it being left to the film’s ultimate director to provide the visual detail.
To a certain extent the same applied to the dialogue, which was written with a view to it complementing, or being complemented by, what would be seen on screen. In other words, a sort of shorthand was employed in both regards. For example, a simple ‘Yes’ might be all that was needed to answer a question on screen, whereas a fuller response would inevitably be required in the book version.
The other major challenge was presented by the fact that the screenplay involved a lot of quick changes of fairly short scenes, which also meant changes of location and characters. Via sympathetic film editing, this could add to the tension/excitement of the movie. However, this feature could easily have become confusing and annoying to the reader of the book, so great effort had to be put into providing a more expansive narrative without losing the essential ‘pace’ of the story.
Peter’s tip on writing for childrenis to establish the characters of your main protagonists early, and then they’ll help you carry the story forward. But keep an eye on what they get up to. Stay in control, or they’ll lead you a merry dance. He says, the greatest aid to writing is reading. Read, read, read, and not just the type of books you want to write either. But above all, be original. Don’t try to squeeze yourself into other authors’ shoes, no matter how much you admire their style.
Lena the Sea and Me follows a year of adventures with Trille and his next door neighbour and best friend Lena. To emphasise this Lena the Sea and Me is split into seasons. This book is the much awaited sequel to Maria Parr’s debut novel Adventures with Waffles (also published under the title Waffle Hearts), which was translated into twenty languages and won several awards around the world. Both books are set in Mathildewick Cove in Norway and portray a realistic relationship of the highs and lows of friendship and growing up.
Written from Trille’s point of view we learn a lot about both Trille and his next-door neighbour and best friend Lena’s characters and families. The stage is set for a dramatic year ahead, dark clouds are looming and a horrific storm hits Mathildewick Cove, Norway. Trille and Lena have to fight the elements and their own emotions in that Lena has to wrestle against the new football’s coach sexism and nepotism when she is benched from her position as goalkeeper, even though she is by far the better player and Trille is infatuated with the new girl, Brigit, who has moved into the bay but when his grandfather has a serious injury on his boat, Troll, Lena is there to help him and refuses to let Grandpa or Trille give up hope.
All the characters are well formed and seep under your skin, staying with you long after you have finished the book. The reader feels like they know them and understand them. I would like to read more about the lives of Trille and Lena.
For the December issue 2020 of Writers’ Forum, I talk to Georgie Codd about her research for her creative non-fiction book, We Swim to the Shark, published by Little Brown.
Georgie’s adventure began when a friend invited her to join her for a road trip around New Zealand, she wanted to stop at Thailand on the way home so she could learn to scuba dive to explore her fears of the sea and potentially come face-to-face with the largest fish of them all: the whale shark. But events didn’t pan out as she planned. More than a year after she left for Thailand, she decided to write a short essay about her thwarted efforts. Her agent read it, and asked her to transform it into a non-fiction proposal. By the time the book was commissioned, she was still looking for whale sharks, and was three years into her quest.
Almost all her research for We Swim To The Shark began online with basic, initial searches about where to go, when to go, how much things cost, etc. For extra detail, she would comb through the travel section in her nearest library.
When she became a part of the scuba diving community, she started to receive heaps of recommendations from fellow divers, which she jotted these down, asking as many practical follow-up questions as she could – which dive schools were best, who to contact, things like that – and soon she had a web of suggestions to explore.
Georgie explained that once you enrol on an Open Water course with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), you’re given access to a manual that covers various scuba essentials, including the physics of pressure and buoyancy. It contains several sections about dive equipment. She scoured through these before she went under.
Her first port of call for UK-based research was a diving shop in south London, which many experienced divers tended to visit. Georgie told me that after emailing the owner, James, she received an invite to pop in. When she did, she was thrilled to hear James’s stories, and those of his expert customers. She asked if I could be his ‘writer in residence’ from time to time, sitting on a stool by the counter, seeing who came in. That put her in contact with all sorts of characters. Their stories added context and depth to the book.
This ‘residency’ also helped her discover, early on, that many of the experts had experienced moments of panic in the water. Hearing how they’d managed their fears gave me personal insights that she could put to the test, and eventually share with her readers.
When it came to face-to-face interviews, she mostly made quick notes in pencil, typing them up on her laptop straight after the chat while details like expressions and weather were still fresh in her mind. As time progressed, however, she discovered the slow speed of her note-taking held her back. So she bought an affordable dictaphone to record and transcribe conversations. (Only after asking her interviewees’ permission, of course.)
Her main preoccupation while researching marine life was the elusive, enormous whale shark. Much of her quest involved trying to learn more about these giants; separating the facts from the myths. To do this she contacted several experts, including Jason Holmberg, who created a pioneering programme called Wildbook, which uses NASA technology to map the sharks’ markings and identify them. Jason then told Georgie about the Marine Megafauna Foundation; a tip that unlocked a goldmine of knowledge, advice and humour from its co-founder, Dr Simon Pierce.
Georgie’s research tip for research relates to interviewing:
“Try, if your interviewee has time, to talk around your subject, as well as going all out on the topic you’re there for. More relaxed, open conversations often led me towards weird and unexpected connections. I found it extremely satisfying to explore those sudden tangents.”
An excellent book which I highly recommend. Blood Moon follows astronomy lover Frankie and her experience of period shaming. During her first sexual experience with Benjamin from her class, Frankie’s period starts. They both agree it’s only blood and it isn’t an issue. The next day it is the talk of the school. Frankie believes Benjamin must have been bragging to his friends. Then a graphic meme goes viral turning their private intimate afternoon into something disgusting, mortifying and damaging. She blames her previously best friend, Harriet, as they recently had a falling out. The online shaming takes on a disturbing life of its own – the meme spreads to other schools, people in town recognise her, she is suspended from her part-time job at the planetarium and she starts to receive abusive and threatening messages. Frankie does not know where to turn or who she can talk to.
The novel is Lucy Cuthew’s debut novel and is written as a poem, which includes messages through social media between friends. Described by Lucy as ‘a verse novel about periods’. There is a very powerful message to all about how people should not made to feel ashamed of their bodies. I found myself laughing and crying along with Frankie as she attempts to navigate her way through the devastation to her life that follows this horrible act of cyber bullying. I particular like the way Lucy puts dialogue and thoughts to the right of the page and friend’s comments to the left and the way she uses onomatopoeic writing to give her words more depth. I also like the metaphor between the forecasted blood moon, which she plans to watch and the turn of events.
The characterisation portrays real teenagers, living very real lives. It shows how friendships can change and teenager’s relationships with their parent’s shift. In my opinion this book should be made essential reading for all pupils to highlight the effects and seriousness of online bullying and would be ideal for discussion in PSHE classes. I look forward to reading Lucy’s next book.