Anita Loughrey's blog. This is my journal about my experiences and thoughts on writing, with particular reference to writing for children and children's books. As well as news about me and my books, it includes writing tips, book reviews, interviews I have done for Writers' Forum and Papers, Pens, Poets and new for 2022 author's blog tours. For more information about me and my books see my website: www.anitaloughrey.com. Follow me on Twitter @amloughrey, Facebook @anitaloughrey.author and on Instagram @anitaloughrey
I write children's fiction, non-fiction and teacher resources for a wide range of publishers. I also have two monthly columns in Writers’ Forum, one on writing for children and the other about authors and their research. I do school visits as well as run creative writing workshops . I also review children's books and books on writing and love stationery, growing bonsai trees and walking my bearded collies.
The Beatryce Prophecy is a magnificent ‘folktale’ style middle grade novel set in the Medieval era. The partnership between Kate DiCamillo (who was twice winner of the Newbury Medal) and Sophie Blackwell (who was twice winner of the Caldecott Medal) is a perfect combination. The intricate black and white ink illustrations compliment and highlight the lyrical writing in a magical, atmospheric way that keeps the readers turning the pages. Each chapter begins with an enlarged, decorative, inhabited initial letter, which gives the book a historical, illuminated manuscript feel.
At the heart of the novel is Beatrice who is found by Brother Edik in the barn at the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. He was shocked to discover her curled up next to Answelica, the ferocious goat, clutching the goat’s ear as a comforter. All the monks are afraid of Answelica, comparing her to a demon, as she bites and has a nasty habit of butting them in the backside sending them flying.
The only thing Beatryce remembers is her name. she has no idea how she got in the barn. When Brother Edik finds out she can read and write he fears for her safety, as it is forbidden for girls to read and write. He shaves her head and disguises her as a young monk. Answelica is her constant companion and protector.
Kate DiCamillo expertly creates her characters with vivid evocative details to vreate an instant image in the reader’s mind, such as Brother Edik’s wandering eye that dances around in its socket and Answelica the goat’s sharp teeth and hard uncompromising head that Beatryce finds comfort in. You are carried through the pages hearing their thoughts, feeling their fears and aspirations. I particularly like the way Kate DiCamillo does not name the antagonists. Throughout the story they are nameless shadows who are hunting Beatryce because of the prophecy documented in the Chronicles of Sorrowing.
The monks are the creators and keepers of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. They record the story of what has happened and things that have not happened yet. The prophecy that was foreseen by Brother Edik and has been previously ignored, states a girl child will come who will unseat a king. This king has been manipulated by an evil counsellor. Beatryce embraces the prophecy and heads off to Castle Abelard to confront the king with the goal of finding her mother. She is joined by a misfit group of characters including Answelica the goat, 12-year-old Jack Dory who had a talent for mimicry, a bee, Brother Edik and Cannoc an old, bearded vagabond who lives inside a tree and claims he used to be king.
The Beatryce Prophecy encompasses the themes of love, courage and determination. It is the ideal book for all KS2 book corners and libraries. A great book to read to the class at the end of the school day.
You can buy copies of The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackwell from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.
For my Writing for Children slot in #223 May 2020, I interviewed Birmingham based author, BB Taylor, about her middle grade novel, The Vigilante Tooth Fairy, published by Tiny Tree Books.
The Vigilante Tooth Fairy is a story about a determined little fairy called Mouse who wants to save magic in a world that’s stopped believing. Children have stopped leaving their teeth out for the fairies! No more teeth means no more magic and no more magic means no more fairies.
BB told me she didn’t intentionally start writing about a tooth fairy, it kind of wrote itself. She was in hospital in isolation and needed a distraction so decided to enter a competition to write the first 1000 words of a story. She wanted to write a story about magic and self-belief, to dream beyond the four walls of the hospital room she was in, so she began to daydream.
Her aim was to write a fairy tale that wasn’t traditional but could still give hope and inspiration to readers. BB revealed it didn’t get anywhere in the competition and sat in a draw for about 2 years before she came across it again by accident. It was then she had a zing of an idea and that buzz of excitement that inspired her to totally rewrite her original 1000 word story.
BB explained that once she had a new first draft this was when the real work began and the editing stage is always the longest part of her writing process. As part of the process she often makes scrap books mapping out her locations and characters, so she can get to know them better and ensure they are as real and tangible as possible.
She told me that when it is the best it can be she will send it to a friend – a writing buddy – for critique and waits for them to rip it apart so she can start the editing process all over again.
“Sometimes you’ll be so close to a story and see it so clearly in your mind you’ll miss things right in front of you on the page. Reading out loud, editing in different fonts and colours are all great ways to trick your mind into seeing any errors and editing more efficiently.”
BB loves doing school visits and enthusiastically declares it is one of her favourite elements of being an author. She structures her visits in small bites so she can make a session as long or short as it needs to be and can adapt it for a range of ages. Her advice for anyone doing school visits is to do what feels natural to you.
“I get to dress up, have fun and build inspiration and energy in the audiences I work with. I will often bring props whether it’s a giant snail or a giant yeti I like to make my sessions as interactive as possible.”
BB also does lots of Zoom or Skype visits. She explained the advantage of this is that you can virtually visit people all over the world. When she does a Skype visit it usually involves reading from my book a little chat about her work and then a Q & A with the audience, to give them chance to interact and learn a bit more whether it be about her books, or being an author in general.
“It can be quite frightening to look at how you present yourself and your work in the current climate. but we are so lucky that technology has evolved so much in the last decade enabling us to still reach out and connect with audiences.”
Her tip on writing for children is to be yourself, don’t try and force yourself to write in the style, format or patterns of anyone else. Do what feels comfortable and write what feels good. You want that buzz when writing that readers will hopefully get when reading your work. You want to feel that excitement when exploring a new world or creating a new character that you can pass on to your readers.
“Find what works for you and you are comfortable with and nurture it and be consistent with it. Create a digital footprint that your audience can follow and connect with and use it to reach out to the world and engage with them in whatever platform you decide to use.”
Today I am joining Rhonda Smiley’s blog tour for her is an exciting middle-grade adventure, Monty and the Monster.
Rhonda Smiley is a writer living in Glendale, California. After graduating from Concordia University in her native Montreal, Canada with a BFA in Film Production, she began writing for television – everything from family adventure to cop shows to cartoons. Her passion for storytelling led her to become an author, and her first novel, Asper, was awarded the BRAG medallion.
Monty and the Monster is a story of friendship and learning to trust your own instincts is about a boy who finds it difficult to make friends so decides to create his own friend using potions he discovered in a secret chamber. However, his new friend does not turn out quite as expected.
Before we start I would like to thank Rhonda for agreeing to be interviewed for this stop on her blog tour. I really enjoyed reading Monty and the Monster and was intrigued to discover more about how you wrote the book. So without further ado, let’s us begin…
Q&A session with Rhonda Smiley
There’s a strong theme of friendship and bullying within your novel. What made you want to explore these themes?
They’re both very relatable themes, especially for children. I was shy as a child and making friends didn’t come easy. At the time, I thought I was the only one who felt that way, which of course wasn’t true. There are a lot of children who feel the same way, and I wanted to make them the hero of their own story. At the same time, I thought it would be interesting for those who do make friends easily to see through Monty’s perspective and get an idea of how it feels from the other side.
Bullying came into play when considering obstacles to Monty’s goal. Even though he can be his own biggest hindrance (can’t we all), I wanted outside complications as well, and bullying is a very real and scary one. It was important to show the emotional effects of it. It made normal everyday events, like going to school, very daunting for Monty. But I also wanted to convey that sometimes bullies have their own inner issues and use bullying as a means of acting out.
What gave you the idea of a child creating their own friend?
I wanted the book to be really funny, full of incredible adventures, and truly heartfelt, and the literal interpretation of “making” a friend was the perfect springboard for all of that.
Of course, Monty tries the conventional way to make a friend at first, but it’s a bust. I love that he doesn’t give up and proactively turns to the replication formula, which is its own humorous undertaking. And when he does make his new friend, well, that opens up a whole new set of challenges. It is a stinky hairy eight-foot-tall monster, after all.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am definitely a plotter. I started out as a pantster, but when I began writing for television, I was required to do outlines. I dreaded them at first, but soon realized how incredibly helpful they were and ironically how liberating. It’s much easier to write details of a story when you have the structure plotted out and you know where you’re going. That said, if a character or situation sparks a new and exciting direction, I’m all ears, but I always refer back to the outline to make sure it fits within the overall story and that important points aren’t lost.
Talk us through your writing process for Monty and the Monster.
My writing process is pretty much the same for all my works. I start with the broad strokes of an outline, the beginning, middle, and end, and then open it up and fill in the gaps with goals and obstacles and the characters involved.
Once I have the outline, I dive into my “words on paper” draft. That’s where I just get it down and don’t worry too much about phrasing or on-the-nose dialogue. If I come across something that needs researching, like Monty’s skateboarding tricks, for instance, I make a note to do it later and don’t let it interrupt my momentum. It’s the kind of draft you’d never let anyone read, but it’s a wonderful way to lay out all the pertinent information. Once I have that, the real fun begins with finer details, character development, dialogue, and phrasing.
I’d like to say that’s my official first draft, but honestly, I do several more passes, looking for redundancies, crutch words, inconsistencies, and mistakes. When I think the manuscript is as good as it can be, I give it to an editor for overall story notes, which inevitably leads to more drafts.
After that, when I’m absolutely certain it’s as good as it can be, I send it off to beta readers. Getting outside eyes on it is extremely helpful. Of course, more drafts follow. It’s a long process, but every step adds to the depth of character, story, and the world.
How did you develop your characters and their voices so children can identify with them?
My background in children’s television has given me a lot of experience with different age groups as well as a wide range of characters. I’ve written for Little Bear, Rescue Heroes, The Adventures of Chuck and Friends, The Stinky & Dirty Show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Totally Spies just to name a few. From adventurous boys and girls to crime-solving teens to mutant turtles living in the sewer!
It’s really fun to lose yourself in the mind-set of a child or tween or teen (or bear or truck or turtle) and look at the world through their viewpoint. Many times I’d step back and put myself in Monty’s sneakers to understand how he’d perceive what was happening. Even though the book is on the fantastical side, the characters’ reactions and emotions are still based in reality.
What is your favourite thing about writing for children?
You can’t ask for a better audience. Children are naturally curious and open-minded. I can tackle important topics without being didactic or preachy because children are eager to learn and grow. They pick up on the themes within the entertainment.
What writing advice would you give to people aspiring to be a children’s book writer?
Research your demographic. Are you writing Chapter Books, Middle Grade, or Young Adult? It’s important to know who you’re writing for, how they see the world, and what’s meaningful to them at this stage in their lives.
If you’re writing for a younger age group, consider what parents would want their children to read since the parents are most likely buying the book. Kids can’t fall in love with your stories if they never get a chance to see them!
And finally, don’t underestimate kids. Even though you want to use language and themes appropriate for their age group, it’s okay to have a word or two they can learn from context. I learned a lot of new words from reading when I was growing up. Actually, I still do.
Thank you again Rhonda for joining me on my blog. You have given us a great insight into your writing process for Monty and the Monster.
Title: That’s Life!: Looking for the Living Things All Around You
Written by: Mike Barfield
Illustrated by: Lauren Humphrey
Published by: Laurence King Publishing
Join Sherlock Ohms on his fascinating search for the range of amazing organisms present on our planet. This book is the ideal addition to any KS2 classroom as a valuable resource to teach about plants, animals including humans, living things and their habitats, as well as evolution and inheritance. There is so much detail and interesting snippets of information about the diversity of life. I feel it would also be a great addition to a KS3 pupil’s bookshelf.
Mike Barfield starts at the very beginning by outlining the seven signs of life and how the perfect conditions helped form the first cell over 4 billion years ago.
He explains how this cell evolved and developed in complexity to become prokaryotic (of a bacterium) or eukaryotic (of an animal). He goes on to describe how the human body is formed of 37 billion cells, distinguishes between the different classification of life from archaea to animalia and outlines evolution to extinction. Throughout the book there are graphic novel style life stories to help explain our origins and the philosophy of life.
The illustrations by Lauren Humphreys are very distinctive and portray the characters in a charming yet eye-catching simplistic way. They complement and enhance the text perfectly helping eager young minds assimilate the multitude of insightful information. This book highlights he incredible variety of life on our planet in a fun and motivational way. It would be the ideal gift for a child interested in biological science.
In this months issue of Writers’ Forum, May 2022 #243, I interviewed psychological thriller author, Owen Dwyer, about his research secrets. He told me all about how he weaved true events into his fictional novel, The Garfield Conspiracy, published by Liberties Press.
The book is about a writer suffering from a mid-life crisis who begins to be visited by the characters he is researching for a book he’s writing on the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield. Owen started his research with Roscoe Conkling, whose name he had come across whilst exploring on Wikipedia. The strangeness of the name intrigued him.
Further investigation revealed Roscoe Conkling to be the most influential Republican senator of the Reconstruction Period (between the end of the Civil War and beginning of the twentieth century in America). Owen discovered he was a political enemy of President Garfield and a hero to the assassin Charles Guiteau.
Owen turned to primary sources to do more in-depth research into Charles Guiteau, such as the New York Library of Congress, which has a great reservoir of material from Guiteau’s trial, including transcripts, newspaper reports and testimonies. He discovered that far from being a natural killer, Guiteau was a weak and vulnerable man who never fired a gun in his life before the assassination. He had a serious mental illness which went untreated and was dismissed at his trial. He was also heavily influenced by his religion, as many of his time were – it was hard to comprehend how literally people took ‘the word of God’.
This realisation inspired Owen to research the Oneida County community, a group of people in the Oneida district of New York often called ‘bible communists’.
“I read an article from the New York Herald, written in the 1870s by a journalist called Norduff, in which he described the habits and behaviours of the Oneida County community including one incident where a young man called ‘Charles’ who was subject to their practice of ‘mutual criticism’, fainted from the pressure of having to stand and listen to his peers deriding him without being permitted to reply.”
Owen wondered if this man could it have been Charles Guiteau. He was both intrigued and disturbed to discover how Charles Guiteau mind worked, how he inhabited an entirely different world to those around him.
Charles Guiteau genuinely believed he deserved high office up to and including the presidency and that by killing Garfield he was advancing his cause. He was also convinced that he was acting on direct instructions from the ‘deity’ by committing the murder. this realisation helped him to shape his character within the novel.
Owen revealed that finding the historical characters’ ‘voices’ was difficult as there are no recordings of any of the nineteenth century characters in existence. He had to rely on their personal letters and political speeches, which by their nature were elaborate. My characters therefore ended up with florid vocabularies, with which they reproached my main protagonist for his irreverent, scandal worthy and preposterous behaviour.
The fact Guiteau shot Garfield is not in dispute. It was the reason why he shot him that led Owen into the conspiracy zone.
“I thought of several possible masterminds who might have been manipulating Guiteau for their personal political or financial gain and stress tested these against known historical data to see which was the most plausible. I wanted to make sure my theory would stand up to the scrutiny of a thorough historian.”
Owen’s advice when approaching research is that you should start with your objective and work backwards. Don’t accept the first corroborating piece of evidence you find, but cross-check against other sources. That way, you’ll properly interrogate your subject, make it more plausible and possibly unearth other interesting information you might not otherwise have found.
In The Garfield Conspiracy Owen accessed and studied the mind of a ‘lunatic’, which gave him new and valuable insight into mental illness – he felt more informed and sympathetic as a result – about both himself and others.
The Last Garden is a thoughtful, tender story of hope, touching on issues of conflict and migration. Inspired by war gardens around the world and throughout history, it is based on true events in Syria but is poignant to all wars, such as the current conflict in Ukraine. I particularly like the fact, Zara’s story is told from a child’s point of view, which gives this unique picture book a deeper sense of reality of what children have to cope with during times of war.
The children can no longer play in the playgrounds due to the devastation the city has suffered. Instead they spend their days helping Zara tend to the last flourishing garden, watering the plants and picking fruit from the trees. The garden is a haven that offers a welcome distraction from the horrors of war.
Anneli Bray’s full-colour spreads that bleed to the edges of the pages, portray the joy of the children looking after the garden in sharp contrast to the dark and gloomy illustrations of the war escalating on the other side of the garden wall. They complement Rachel’s text perfectly, contributing to the theme of hope and faith things will improve.
When everyone is forced to evacuate the war-torn city, Zara locks the garden gate creating a feeling of loss and helplessness. The all is lost moment for all the children in the city. But soon seeds from the garden scatter and grow. Behind the garden wall life continues so when the children are finally able to return, the garden is full of thriving plants and colour, reflecting the work they must do to rebuild their city and make it too bloom again.
Rachel Ip handles the issues of war with sensitivity and respect. The lyrical nature of the text is great for reading aloud. This beautiful picture book should be readily available on children’s bookshelves both at home and in school. I believe The Last Garden should be highly recommended, essential reading for all Key Stage One and Key Stage Two children. It can be used to stimulate discussion and empathy for refugees and will also help to encourage all children and adults alike to think about what is happening around the world to people just like them.
You can buy copies of The Last Garden by Rachel Ip and Anneli Bray from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.
This month, #243 4 May 2022 for my Writing 4 Children slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Angela Kecojevic about using the dramatic effects of climate change as the backdrop of her YA novel.
Angela told me the inspiration for Angela’s latest YA novel, Train published under the Aelurus Imprint (Untold Publishing Group 2022), struck during a visit to the Didcot Railway Centre in Oxfordshire. She said the smell of train engines, the grind of pistons, and the vibe from the old passenger trains was enthralling. It was also a time when dystopian fiction was riding high in the book charts. The spark began to develop. What if a teenager boarded a train and went to the centre of the earth? How would a group of modern-day young people cope with such a task?
She remembered a book from French poet Jules Verne. His adventure into earth exploration listed him as a pioneer in science fiction writing. His visions were revolutionary; his books (Twenty Thousand Leagues Beneath the Sea, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days) awarded him critical success. Angela’s aim was to bring this vision into the 21st century with a sci-fi spin.
In Train, seventeen-year-old Flint Wells (along with a group of international passengers) must board a futuristic train called Hero 67. Their mission is complex: they must fix a tether at the centre of the earth, a journey that has already seen the disappearance of its predecessor, Hero 66. Yet just as Hero 67 slams into Earth, the passengers make a terrifying discovery about the Warehouses, giant bunkers littered around the globe.
Scientists, led by the mysterious ‘Conductor’, have taken a third of the population (the Vanished), and are testing them on their ability to survive worsening climate conditions. Flint’s family are also among the ‘Vanished’. It’s a race against time to save the planet and to stop the Conductor.
“I wanted to highlight a world that had been destroyed because of its careless behaviour, and yet show a world that might care enough to fix. Young adults today are passionate about climate change. They care; they try to make a difference. I wanted this to reflect in Train.”
Angela is a member of the Climate Fiction Writer’s League, a group of international authors who use climate issues in their writing. Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi) is a piece of literature that brings climate science to the page. Issue of climate change are often at the forefront of her mind and this is reflected in Train. You can find out more about the Climate Fiction Writer’s League on their website: climatefictionwritersleague.substack.com
Train explores a frozen world that requires its characters to ice climb. Angela explained this was not an easy challenge.
“I stepped out of my comfort zone and booked in with a climbing lesson at Oxford Brookes Climbing Centre in Oxfordshire. One of their expert climbers (Liz) showed me how to dry ice climb using indoor ice axes to loop and pull. This was physically demanding, and yet invaluable for my work.”
Angela told me how good plotting will highlight the pace of the story. She elaborated that she enjoys creating pace in her stories as it is one of her strengths. She prefers to pick up the pace at the end of a chapter and thrust it over the finishing line into the next. She also enjoys creating tension in stories. She explained, YA, in particular, is a tough market to please as young people want powerful, adventurous characters. They want characters they can fall in love with. She took great care to make her characters sound fresh and interesting, and not to overthink their characteristics.
“I wanted Train to be something different. A sci-fi novel with a chilling twist.”
Angela revealed she finds writing for the YA market exciting as there is more freedom than writing middle grade, a genre she is also passionate about. She explained when the world was embracing romantic vampires and dystopian fiction, teens were picking up more books than ever before. This means something sparked their imagination. Exciting worlds, exciting characters, exciting plots.
Angela advocates if a story is well written, the readers will embrace the setting, however diverse. This is the beauty of the YA market. They are open to recommendations, they use social media to comment and promote, and they are open with their views. Sure, it is a tough market to crack, yet their loyalty to a well written story is heart-warming.
Maggie Blue and the Dark World is an inventive middle-grade quest with themes of friendship, bravery and the search for identity. It highlights the importance of camaraderie and the struggle to summon courage when we feel afraid and alone.
Maggie Blue Brown feels abandoned and unwanted she is ‘the kind of child that adults find it easy to ignore or dismiss – too quiet, too weird, too angry.’ Her mother, Cynthia Brown, has been institutionalised with depression after her husband, Lionel Blue, left them for a younger woman. So Maggie lives with her eccentric Aunt Esme in West Minchen, UK. The headmistress of Fortlake School only accepted her as a personal favour to Aunt Esme. Maggie believes she is ‘a burden to her Aunt Esme, extra stress for her depressed mother, and an afterthought to her absent father.’
Her only friend is a grumpy, old, one-eyed tomcat, called Hoagy who greets her each evening with a purr that sounds like it is humming jazz. Sandra Dieckmann has produced a beautiful illustration of Hoagy for the front cover. Although at no point in the story is Maggie small enough to sit on Hoagy’s head and nor would he let her.
Anna Goodall’s characters are all well-formed and credible. She has obviously spent a long time developing their backstories to make them realistic and believable, the type of people you might see every day in the street, each driven by their own agendas. She paints a perceptive picture of human greed and capitalism. Her debut novel is a reflective insight into children who have to navigate a world with parents who have mental health issues and are never around.
Maggie has a crush on popular girl Ida, who in return bullies her relentlessly, calling her ‘Bruise’, due to her double-barrelled surname. Yet Maggie still wants to be her friend. She sketches Ida in her notebook and calculates their compatibility, believing it must be high as they share the same birthday, the 21st June 2007. When Ida discovers the drawing of her in Maggie’s notebook she labels Maggie a stalker.
Only Maggie’s school councillor, Miss Cane, shows her any kindness and she is a particularly formidable and menacing character with the ability to shape-shift into a wolf and definitely not to be trusted Behind her smile she is a malicious woman. So when Maggie witnesses Ida being kidnapped and dragged into a portal in Everfall Woods by Miss Cane, she is unable to say anything to the police and those she does try to tell will not believe her, reflecting the realistic, universal truth that adults rarely listen to children.
Aunt Esme introduces Maggie to her friend, Dot, who is in a wheelchair and uses herbs for healing. In a chapter from Hoagy’s point of view we learn Dot has asked Hoagy to watch over Maggie as she thinks Maggie is special. With the aid of some instructions copied from one of Dot’s ancient books and Aunt Esme’s ring that Maggie stole from her finger whilst she slept, she crosses through the portal into the Dark World in search of Ida. Maggie believes when she saves Ida, she will become her best friend.
In the Dark World Maggie travels to the gilded palace of Sun City, which is ruled by the charismatic and manipulative villain, Eldrow, who controls the people with stolen happiness. She discovers the protector of nature, known as the Great O, has been forced away triggering the land into darkness. Armed with the stolen ring of protection, Maggie becomes the centre of attention and for the first time she starts to feel special. For a while she forgets why she came to the Dark World in the first place.
Although the book seems to meander into the story, in the same way as Anna Goodall has developed well-rounded characters, she has obviously spent time creating her magical world, with its well thought out history, elaborate city and corrupt politics. Her vibrant, detailed descriptions create vivid pictures in the readers imagination that linger long after the book is shut.
It is with great pleasure and excitement that I host my first ever blog tour. The blog tour is for renowned picture book writer Clare Helen Welsh who will be telling us about her latest book, How messy!
How messy! is the first in the Dot and Duck series written by Clare Helen Welsh and illustrated by Olivier Tallec.More titles in the series include How Rude! and How Selfish! and they are published by Happy Yak, an imprint of Quarto Publishing. How Messy! is about Duck’s very untidy habits, much to his best friend Dot’s despair.
Q&A session with Clare Helen Welsh
Thanks so much Clare for being the first ever of the blog tours featured on my blog. I love your picture books. This is the last stop of your tour so we have a lot to live up to. Let’s get started with the first question…
Tell us a little about the book and your inspiration.
How Messy! is the third book in the Dot and Duck series, illustrated by Olivier Tallec and published by Happy Yak, an imprint of Quarto. It features two characters – Dot who hates mess and Duck who hates tidy! In the story, the friends learn the importance of teamwork and to embrace each other’s differences.
The book started out life as a title! When the first book in the series went to acquisitions, I was asked to suggest some follow up ideas if the books were a hit (Happily there were!)
The Dot and Duck books are very much inspired by family life and my time as a school teacher. In How Messy, which is set near the beach – I love the beach! – Dot and Duck are partly modelled on my husband and me (although I shan’t tell you who is who!) There’s also a lot of younger me in Duck, too. My family often tell me I was messy when I was growing up, but I always (usually?!) knew where everything was. It was creative, organised mess that made perfect sense to me!
Do you have a favourite spread in the book?
That’s a hard question to answer – I love all of Olivier’s artwork! There’s a twist at the end, which I think has been brought to life wonderfully. But to avoid spoilers, I’ll choose the spread where Duck is making pancakes but wearing most of the mixture. It feels very authentic to me!
Tell us about some of the other books in the Dot and Duck series.
How Rude! is the first book in the Dot and Duck series. Dot invites Duck to a tea party, but from the moment Duck enters the house, the tea party descends into chaos; from licking sandwich fillings to spitting tea, Duck gets ruder… and ruder… and ruder.
This book was followed by How Selfish! in which Dot and Duck find a stick. But Dot thinks it’s a sword and Duck thinks it’s a flag. Dot refuses to share the new toy and goes to any lengths to make sure Duck doesn’t try to take it. Both books have simple, funny, but ultimately touching arcs that we hope will appeal to any child who is learning what it means to be a true friend.
What was your writing process for the Duck and Dot series?
When Dot and Duck initially went on submission, the text was called ‘Luke and the Penguin Problem.’ Before that it was called ‘Don’t Poke the Penguin.’ It was written back in 2016 when I had a lot to learn (I still do, of course!) By the time we had signed contracts with Quarto, I had rewritten the text from first person, into third person, into dialogue only AND changed the animal and main character! I think there’s a lot to be said for being flexible with early ideas. How Selfish! Was the first story, but when I was asked to pitch alternative titles if the book were to be made into a series, the team felt How Rude! would be the stronger title to lead with.
With all the books in this series, I’ve known the ending before I begin writing and I start by jotting down a pitch line to sum up the takeaway, thinking of scenes that build to this point. My original pitch line for How Messy was ‘Dot hates mess and Duck hates tidy. On holiday together, can they find the perfect compromise?’ This helps keep me focused and allows me to see clearly what to put in and what to keep out. My pitch lines often evolve as the book is written, but there isn’t any space for waffle in a picture book so I find this helps.
Do you have any writing rituals?
How I write a book usually depends on the type of book, how well thought-through the idea is and if there is a deadline for it or not! These days I tend to start on the Notes pages on my phone, where there is less white space and less pressure to create something perfect. I always write in spreads and sometimes jump to the end or the crisis point – not necessarily writing in order. Then I email these notes to myself and beautify them in a word document. It’s less intimidating as far as first drafts go.
Is there a particular place you like to write?
I’m quite flexible as a writer and I can write pretty much anywhere – in bed, on the sofa, on the beach, in a traffic jam… I’ll refrain from saying on the toilet… in the bath! At the moment, I’m very productive in my living room, which is my office in the daytime. I have all my essential to hand – blankets, snacks, a drink, background noise and a pooch for company.
What writing advice would you give to people aspiring to be a picture book writer?
It’s not a new piece of advice unfortunately, but an important one. READ! Read books like the ones you want to write. Read the books you wish you’d written. Read books you like and books you don’t. Read unpublished texts such as those of your peers. Do read for enjoyment but also read critically. Join a critique croup and get into the practice of analysing what works and why and what works less well. These skills will help you in your own writing and will also give you a sense of the industry, so you can find your way in.
Anita, thank you SO much for having me on your blog. I’ve really loved answering your thought-provoking questions – a very lovely way to celebrate How Messy!
And thank you Clare for giving us such a useful insight into the world of writing picture books. I love getting a peek into an author’s writing process. It has been fun being the last stop of your How messy! blog tour.
Take a look at the schedule below to catch up with the other blog stops that have hosted Clare’s How Messy! tour.
How messy! and the rest of the Dot and Duck series is available to buy now from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops.
In an interview with Finbar Hawkins in April 2021, he told me all about the research he did into the notorious witch trials in the UK for his debut YA novel, Witch.
He said Witch, came about from an exercise in his first term of an Arvon foundation course where they were asked to write something with a historical setting.
“While out walking the dog (and a deadline looming!) I started thinking about the Pendle witch trials. And from there I thought about what it would have been like as a teenager experiencing the arrival of witch finders at her home, uprooting her family, how she would cope and strive for survival.”
Finbar explained that ever since childhood, he has been fascinated in myth and legend – one of his favourite books at home was the Reader’s Digest, Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, reading about our country’s history of witchcraft. The early woodcuts of the trials also struck him– how they graphically portrayed these women as malevolent devils. He learnt that witchcraft, an ancient practice, was the victim of religious persecution. People, who for centuries had helped a community, were considered a threat to organised religion. And during the English Civil Wars the trials came back with vigour, witches largely being blamed for the suffering brought upon by the chaos of the fighting.
He said there are a lot of books about witches and witchcraft, and there’s a large body of academic work devoted to its study. So he simply dived in and found particularly useful books. An all-round primer, which he found fascinating is The Book of English Magic by Philipp Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate, this gives a brilliant and in-depth appraisal of our magical history. Witch Hunt: The Persecution of Witches in England by David and Andrew Pickering was incredibly useful, gathering records from every county across the centuries. This book really helped Finbar to build a picture of the general hysteria around the trials. And for an in-depth study into witches, their portrayal and their importance as symbols, The British Witch by P.G.Maxwell-Stuart is exhaustive and thorough.
In Finbar’s book, the witchfinder, Jacobs, is based on the real-life and self-titled Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. With his associate John Stearne, this determined young man cut a swathe across the East of England over the course of a bloody year in 1646. Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill was his go-to piece of research to understand the circumstances that led to Jacobs’ campaign.
“These sketches definitely helped with the coven and crowd scenes in my book.”
Finbar revealed Spellbound was a wonderful exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford https://www.ashmolean.org/spellbound He told me that they had a copy of Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches (1647) which is chilling to see. Not only did this notorious man kill over a hundred women, he encapsulated and really celebrated his act for posterity.
An important part of Witch is Evey’s voice, and her way of seeing the world. Finbar wanted her to have this very specific, lyrical way of speaking, to make her sound very different to the norm. She’s also grown up in the West country so he wanted her to have that accent as part of her speech patterns. He used online accent archives to get the rhythms of her speech right. Dialectsarchive.com and also searched on YouTube for interviews with people from the West.
Witch is set in Wiltshire and in particular The Mendips area. He wanted the girls, Evey and her younger sister, Dill, to be travelling across the hills and valleys of this area. To achieve the dramatic sweep that this beautiful setting gives Finbar walked the area a lot, made notes on flora and fauna and took lots of photographs. He also found sketching in location really useful for details and sensations.
He photographed a tree in his local woods for a lot in backstory planning – Evey and her family refer to this as the ‘Wolf Tree’ and part of her initiation is ‘finding’ the stone, where it has been placed by her mother in the mouth of the wolf. These scenes never actually appeared in the final book, but the stone in the story is referred to as the ‘Wolf Tree Stone’.
“I took shots of my daugher’s hand holding a stone he found while walking on a beach in Cornwall. Having physical objects around you helps, feeling what they feel like, what details you can see in them, these will find their way into your writing.”
You can find out more about Finbar and his work @finbar_hawkins on Twitter and Instagram.