A captivating story about a young girl coming to terms with dramatic changes to her lifestyle. Katya Balen weaves an intriguing tale of family relationships and building friendships, which tugs at the heart strings and is unforgettable.
October has been bought up by her father in the forest. She helps her father coppice the trees and views herself as part of the ‘circle of life’. She finds an abandoned baby owl, names it ‘Stig’ and takes care of it. On her eleventh birthday her estranged mother comes to see her and October climes the tallest tree in the forest to hide. Her dad follows her and falls. He is taken to the hospital and to October’s horror she has to go live with her mother in London and Stig has to go to a bird sanctuary.
Katya is an expert at creating vivid, lyrical descriptions to evoke all of the reader’s senses. I particularly enjoyed the way she uses the shape of word, the space and position of the words on the page to emphasise dramatic moments, such as when dad falls from the tree. Also, how poetry is mixed with prose to compare October’s life in the forest to life in London.
Throughout the book all conversations are echoed in October’s thoughts but we never see the actual physical speech on the page, which underscores October’s social deficiencies. It is evident that October’s communication skills are limited and she take everything very literally as she has lived her whole life alone with her father who could understand her but has never had to communicate with others.
The black and White illustrations of the owl scattered on the corner of the pages by Angela Harding depict Stig the Owl at different stages of its lifecycle. They are a beautiful additions that add depth to the story mirroring the text how life goes on and things change as they get older. We see October grow, adapt and change and learn to merge old elements of her life with the new.
October October the ideal book for prompting discussion about our environment, friendship and identity. Also, a great book for both adult and children’s book groups.
In April 2009 I interviewed children’s novelist, Cliff McNish, about his love of research and how he believes it is essential for writing fantasy novels.
Cliff told me he loves research because it can spin stories in utterly new directions. He believes research is truly the ultimate lateral-thinking tool. He explained as writers we mostly tend to find our thoughts tethered to more or less the same highly travelled and well-worn themes, plots and characters, but research can shatter that dismaying truth.
For example, in his ghost story, Breathe, he needed to know what the average early 19th century rural English family ate. Whilst searching online he found some information about rural poverty in the 1820’s and how families in that era routinely saved one fifth of their wages purely to pay for funerals. This fact influenced the direction of his ghost story.
“The big problem for fantasy writers is that as soon as you depart from the real world readers forever teeter on the edge of disbelieving your creation. Fantasy writers have a whole host of techniques to make our made-up things feel authentic and believable, but good research is probably the main one.”
For example, in The Wizard’s Promise he sent gangs of children to modern Tokyo. The children can fly and create spells, and terrorize the magic-less adults but was grounded in the reality of the urban city. To ensure this Cliff checked the street layout, the tallest buildings, other landmarks and even the food.
He explained that fantasy authors and readers have an immense hunger for details that are or at least feel real.
“It’s part of the fantasy author’s contract with his/her audience, really – I’ll make things up, but dear reader you will understand the rules, and I’ll keep them consistent, and when I do refer to real world facts I’ll have done my research, the information will be reliable, depend on it.”
In his novel Silver World there is an alien attack starting in frozen Antarctic waters. To make it feel authentic Cliff checked which islands/ice floes the attacking creature would reach first and what animals and species of birds lived on them. This research personalized the story and gave him focus.
He discovered albatrosses live in those seas and they fly faster than any other bird over great distances. He then put himself in the position of those albatross and imagined he knew what was coming: death, unless they could outfly it. Cliff revealed he ended up becoming very absorbed in the lives of these birds, but the spark for the scene was research.
“Facts become emotions in the end, if they’re dwelled on for long enough by an active imagination. And research + imagination = creativity.”
Cliff’s teenage moral drama Angel, has non-religious guardian angels beating their wings across the skies. Research into angel ‘sightings’ showed one of the most commonly held beliefs amongst Angelologists is that when they visit us our guardian angel leaves as a calling card one of its feathers. Cliff decided that for his novel even after an angel dies (in his novel they are mortal), the feathers outlast them a little, and can still provide comfort for a short time to someone who needs it. Without research, he would never have thought of that.
For his novel, Savannah Grey, he created a creature that arrived on our world three billion years ago. It was a predator and was seeking to hit the apex of the food chain to become the dominant animal, the ne plus ultra. He decided nature should battle this creature throughout time, which has meant a lot of evolutionary research. Not only to discover what natural enemies this creature would come across (starting with single-celled organisms), but what order those species would arrive in, when the first plants come to light, the first backboned fish, the first telescopic eyes.
In contrast his heroine has to a throat weapon and extraordinary eye-sight. To find out how throat consultants and optical technicians would investigate such aspects he interviewed hospital specialists in those fields . The result was a dark fantasy novel, for which the bedrock of the research makes it feel real.
A great book for sparking the imagination and fostering a sense of curiosity about space. Jakob lives on the edge of the galaxy on a space station. One day he finds a broken down, old space train and with the help of his Granny and a robot chicken called Derek, sets about fixing it so they can explore the universe. Toolbot, the grumpy robot, adds a touch of comedy with his lazy, reluctant to help attitude.
The illustrations are full-spread bright red and oranges with fascinating detail to give the picture book a futuristic feel. It is advertised as having lift-the-flap technology and peep through holes to reveal the workings of the space train but unfortunately my copy did not have these features. I suspect they are only in the hardback.
Scattered throughout the book is a column to the right of the double page spread which is Jakob’s log where he explains interesting facts about eh space station, his hopes for what he might discover when the space train is fixed and tells the reader a little about the new worlds and moons he visits in the space train. Although, we do not actually see them visiting these worlds in the story.
This would be the perfect gift for highlighting the adventures children can have with their grandparents and I particularly like the way if is Granny who is helping him with the fixing.
In the March 2018 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Jackie Marchant about her Dougal Daley series and how it was revived from the dead. Jackie told me her inspiring story of how the books were given an incredible face lift by changing the name of the main character and using a new illustrator, after meeting Louise Jordan at the London Book Fair.
Jackie explained the idea to write for children came by accident, after her son asked a question about writing a will, which left her wondering – why would a boy need to write a will? Who would he leave his possessions to and why? Later, while standing knee deep in his messy bedroom, the following words popped into Jackie’s head – To my mother I leave the mess in my bedroom, to put into bin liners and throw out of the window – I know that has always been her greatest wish. That is how Dougal Daley was born – and those words are in the first book.
Her idea and first draft got her an agent and a two-book deal with a major publisher. This was all hugely exciting. The original Dougal did not have the surname Daley. He was called Dougal Trump. The author on the cover was D. Trump. Her first published book was called I’m Dougal Trump – it’s NOT my Fault! This was before a certain other D. Trump became quite so well known.
“I was unsure about doing school visits and my publisher thought it would be a great idea to make out that Dougal was the author of the books himself. His name would go on the cover rather than mine, but I wouldn’t have to face the angst of standing before a bunch of kids to explain myself (honestly couldn’t think of anything more terrifying). So, the series was launched and all was well.”
Then disaster struck. She lost my wonderful editor, who went freelance, her editor’s boss, who loved Dougal, her publicist, the marketing person and most of ‘team Dougal.’ At the same time, Book Two was coming out, with fewer pre-orders than Book One and Book Three was turned down.
“I can’t say for sure this is why Book Three was turned down and the series killed, but I have heard that this is not unusual. And I know a few authors who have had the same thing happen to them. It’s horrible. It makes you feel as though you’ve failed as a writer. That nagging doubt that your agent and publisher were deluded in taking you on comes and whacks you where it hurts most – in your author’s already fragile self-esteem.”
Jackie revealed to me she felt like a failure. Then she went to the London Book Fair. That is where she stumbled across Wacky Bee Books. After talking to Louise Jordan, founder and owner of Wacky Bee, Louise ordered the first book of the Dougal Trump series online. A few days later, she contacted Jackie to say she loved it and would like to publish all three books with new titles.
“Things are looking up and I feel like a proper author again. I hope my perseverance inspires others not to give up hope.”
You can read a review of Jackie Marchant’s third book in this series, Dougal Daley II’m Phonomenal, on my blog here.
Claire Freedman’s adapted version of The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett has been illustrated by Shaw Davidson to produce the perfect picture book for older children. Launched in 2020 to coincide with the release of the new movie.
Follow Mary Lennox from India to Yorkshire, England, and watch her change from a sullen, over-privileged girl who has never tied her own shoes, to a happy, caring young woman. In her adventures, Mary meets Dickon’s, a young boy who can talk with animals. Together they discover the garden hidden behind the mysterious locked door and help her sick cousin, Colin, to recover. Guided by a remarkable red robin, Mary grows simultaneously with the amazing secret garden.
For over a century children, young adults, and adults of all ages have been touched by this masterpiece now it can be enjoyed in this fabulous picture book by KS1 and KS2 too. Claire Freedman and Shaw Davidson encapsulate Mary’s, Dickon’s and Colin’s characters impeccably keeping them true to the originals. This picture book brings the old 1911 classic alive by giving it a new energy. You can really see the garden blooming back to life in this magical adventure.
KS2 children will enjoy reading this book alone and it is ideal for reading aloud to KS1 during story time.
In February 2017, I interviewed literary agent Anne Clark about her children’s book agency and the kinds of books she would love to find in her submissions inbox for Writers’ Forum.
The Anne Clark Literary Agency started life nearly eight years ago. Before then, Anne worked in children’s publishing as a commissioning editor and editorial director for twenty years, at Hodder Children’s Books and Piccadilly Press. Her first jobs were in publicity and educational publishing.
She told me that she started the agency because it was the right time for new adventure, one which meant she could still do the things I like doing most – working with authors and publishers to get new books out into the world for children and teenagers to read and enjoy.
She explained children’s books are a joy because there is such freedom and variety in terms of subject and style. In a typical morning she might be dealing with a clumsy fairy, a shapeshifting cat burglar, a boy who thinks he’s an alien and a girl struggling with her body image. Children’s writers can draw on magic and fantasy without finding themselves stuck in a particular genre. She enjoys rigour in getting things right for a particular age group – the right language, right content. She said foreign rights are also an important part of children’s publishing giving it an international feel.
Anne revealed the best children’s books get the fundamentals correct: memorable characters you want to spend time with, and gripping stories which keep you turning the pages. Successful children’s authors don’t talk down to kids and they often show young people taking control of their worlds in some way, whether it’s a four-year-old with a tricky witch or a teenager with a bullying boyfriend. They may tackle difficult subjects but they offer hope. Her favourite books also stretch readers’ minds, taking them somewhere new and interesting – maybe to a Tokyo where mythical monsters roam, wartime London or inside the head of a refugee.
“An agent needs to be a talent-spotter, able to spot a promising newcomer at a hundred paces; a nurturer of authors, offering editorial direction, honest feedback and encouragement in wobbly moments; a market expert, in touch with trends and editors’ wish lists and pet hates; a shrewd salesperson; a negotiator of deals; and a champion of her authors.”
When she opens a manuscript from a new writer, she first looks for the author’s voice, and that comes over very quickly – in the first few lines and certainly within the first page or two. If she like the voice – if it feels confident, distinctive and fresh – she’ll keep reading. But she won’t be sure I want to work on a project until she has read the whole manuscript, because she is also looking for an author who can shape a whole story and take it to a satisfying conclusion.
Anne’s tip to children’s writers is to spend time identifying and sharpening your book’s unique hook – it could be an unusual setting, an original style, a unique character or perhaps a surprising combination of familiar elements – and how best to express it. You might need to make some changes to bring your hook to the fore, and it’s a good idea to reflect the hook in the title if you can.
When you are ready to approach an agent, her advice is: be focused. Keep your letter short and to the point. Start with a very short pitch for your book, briefly summing up the story and the hook, and follow up with relevant information about yourself. Be friendly but business-like – mention any courses, prizes and other experience, and don’t go into detail about your family unless it has a direct bearing on your writing. Don’t be apologetic or claim to be the next J K Rowling. And of course: make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be; and follow each agent’s submissions guidelines!
MY first post of 2021 just has to be one with a message of hope so I have chosen The World Made a Rainbow by Michelle Robinson and Emily Hamilton. This up-to-the moment picture book published by Bloomsbury, which gives young children a chance to reminisce and discuss their lockdown experiences and any fears they may have about Covid. This book is ideal for reading at home and in the classroom or for children to explore by themselves in the book corner.
The story encompasses the joy of being at home and the dark times of never knowing when the crisis will end. It carries a message of hope from the start with the line: “All rainstorms must end, and this rainstorm must too.” The text is written in rhyme throughout so when read aloud gives the plot a lyrical feel all children will love.
The thing that immediately struck me about this book were Emily Hamilton’s bold illustrations on the light background. Each colour of the rainbow triggers a memory about her family, or lockdown life and how everyone worked together to make the best of it. Children will love to explore the pictures making up their own stories without necessarily reading the words. In this way this picture book works on many levels and is a book children will want to go back to again and again.
Last year, in the #224 Sept 2020 issue of the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Nikki Marmery about some of the primary sources she used during her research for her novel On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind.
Nikki revealed she was pregnant when she first read about her protagonist Maria, the only woman on board the Golden Hind during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage. A throwaway line in a popular history book referenced the ‘Anonymous Narrative’, an eye-witness account of the voyage, which states:
“Drake tooke out of this ship a pilate to cary him into the harbor of Guatulco and also a proper negro wench called Maria which was afterward gotten with child between the captain and his men pirates and sett on a small iland to take her adventures.”
She explained that pregnancy focuses the mind on the unique vulnerability of pregnant women, so perhaps this is why she found myself haunted by Maria’s story: a woman alone among men in the extreme environment of a tiny Elizabethan exploration ship, who was ultimately abandoned, just before the ordeal of childbirth, on a waterless desert island in the East Indies.
“I wanted to know everything about her. Where had she come from? How did she end up in this situation? How did it feel to sail into the unknown; to cross the Pacific – heavily pregnant? What happened to her after she was abandoned?”
But she discovered the facts of her life are really scarce. Maria is not mentioned at all in the earliest published accounts of the voyage. All we know for sure is that she joined the Golden Hind on April 4, 1579 from a Spanish merchant ship off the coast of El Salvador, and that she was abandoned nine months later near the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
With so little to go on, her investigation started more as a crusade of curiosity than a writing project. No historian had written in any detail about Maria. Miranda Kaufmann later published an excellent book, Black Tudors, which discusses her – but more often in histories of Drake, she was unnamed or erased altogether. Nikki realised if she wanted to know more about the possibilities of Maria’s life, she would have to research it herself.
From the secondary sources, she discovered the original manuscripts of Drake’s voyage are kept at the British Library. But it never occurred to her she could visit the library to read them – until friends took her on a tour of the library for her birthday. This was a turning point for Nikki.
“After having read about Maria for so long, to see the handwritten testament of someone who knew her was incredibly moving. The browned and barely legible manuscript has pinprick holes where sparks from a candle have burned the parchment. Marks are drawn in the margin to emphasise key passages. “
Nikki explained that Maria is objectified and dehumanised by every man who has written about her: from the two surviving eye-witness accounts, to 17th century historians such as William Camden – via William Shakespeare, who may have been inspired by her story when he wrote of the witch Sycorax, an African woman who was abandoned pregnant on a desert island in The Tempest – all the way through to modern historians.
Nikki in contrast wanted to imagine what Maria would say about herself – but examples of women’s voices from the 16th century are vanishingly rare. She was delighted to discover the book Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812, edited by Kathryn Joy McKnight & Leo J. Garofalo, which reproduces the archival records of African women in the New World – crucially, in their own words.
Another book that helped her was Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico, by Javier Villa-Flores where she learned how slaves used blasphemy as a strategy of resistance to fight their oppression. By renouncing God, and denouncing themselves, a slave might invoke intervention by the Holy Office, which had the authority to remove a slave from an excessively abusive slave-owner. By threatening to blaspheme before a master inflicted punishment, enslaved people practised a form of ‘moral bribery’, by holding the master accountable for the sin of blasphemy.
Nikki’s novel unfolds against the backdrop of an enduring mystery of Drake’s circumnavigation voyage: where was his colony, Nova Albion. Drake and his crew lived there for five weeks in the summer of 1579. But when Drake returned home in September 1580, details of his American exploration were suppressed. The Queen did not want the Spaniards to know how far north he had sailed – nor that he was seeking the Northwest Passage, which would give the English a shortcut to the vast riches of Spain’s Pacific-coast New World colonies.
When researching Drake’s voyages, Nikki discovered that secondary sources that discuss the globes are misleading: they claim there are few differences between the two models. But the 1592 globe shows Nova Albion at 46˚N, while the 1603 globe shows it further north at 48˚N, with a redrawn coastline. This is hugely significant. Molyneux had made changes to his globe to receive royal sanction for publication in 1592. But the 1603 globe was made in Amsterdam – not London – thus free from interference.
This discovery, in addition to other unpublished 16th century maps, all showing Nova Albion above the 40th parallel north, gave her the confidence to set Nova Albion in her novel on Vancouver Island, rather than California. It also offered her the freedom to fictionalise more fully what happened there, which led to my suggestion of a far more shocking end to the colony than the sources suggest.
2020 did not go as good as I had hoped. So many author visits were cancelled throughout the spring and summer terms and some of my books were postponed, due to this awful crisis we have all had to strive through. I have managed to drag myself back on my feet with the launch of my new virtual visits, which are proving to be a great success. You can book for for a visit through my website contact page or Authors Aloud UK.
In 2021 I hope to continue growing my followers and publicising my books. If you would like to help me with this goal please follow my blog and follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also follow my dogs Instagram account here.
Also later in 2021, my new picture books will finally hit the shelves after being postponed for a year. So keep an eye out for them.
I hope you all have a healthy 2021 and it brings everything you wish for.