Category Archives: An Interview with…

An interview with… Mo O’Hara

In my Writing 4 Children column this month, I interview children’s book writer Mo O’Hara about writing comedy for middle grade series books.

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

Mo told me:

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

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

Mo with toys of her book characters

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

Agent Moose

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

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

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

Find out more about Mo O’Hara and her books on her website: www.moohara.co.uk and on Twitter @Mo_Ohara

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

An interview with… Tracey Mathias

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

tracey author pic

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

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

books german covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracey Mathias

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

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

An interview with… M. G. Leonard

In my Research Secrets double page spread in Writers’ Forum M. G. Leonard explained how her research into beetles turned her fear of creepy crawlies into an obsession.

Front cover

She told me her, Beetle Boy book didn’t start out with a beetle as a central character and it wasn’t called Beetle Boy. M. G. Leonard revealed she knew there would be beetles in the story, but because she was scared of creepy crawlies and thought they were horrid and signified something bad it neveer occured to her to make them the protagonists. But when she started researching beetles she became obsessed .

She didn’t start keeping pet beetles until after Beetle Boy was published and was still nervous around live insects.

“Everything changed when I was invited to appear on Blue Peter for National Insect Week with lots of live beetles. I visited my entomologist friend, Dr Sarah Beynon, who has a bug zoo in Pembrokeshire. She spent a day getting me to hold insects, and I fell in love with rainbow stag beetles. They are so beautiful. I immediately bought myself a pair and took them home so that I could handle them every day and desensitize myself to my fear. I was at the beginning of a journey.” M.G, Leanard

Since then she has bought an adult pair of African flower beetles, which she claims are relatively easy to breed. Watching them grow, eat and eventually pupate, informed her descriptions of the rooms inside Lucretia Cutter’s villainous lair – the Biome deep in the Amazon jungle – featured in Battle of the Beetles.

MG Leonard’s tip if you are incorporating unusual pets into your stories, is to spend time with the living creatures. Peering at them in a zoo won’t give you a unique insight into the way they behave when they’re hungry, or horney, scared or resting.

The descriptions of what it feels like to hold a beetle, to hear a beetle flying, of how they express themselves, all comes from careful observation of her living pets. It’s because she keeps beetles she knows many species are nocturnal, none sleep, and they control their body temperature by burying into soil.

“I did so much research for the Beetle Boy series. There isn’t a book about beetles that I don’t own. I trawled the internet browsing every single website that contained information about beetles. I watched all the youtube videos, listened to BBC audio shows.” M. G. Leonard

M. G. Leonard told me that researching is like a treasure hunt. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. You find a clue and follow where it takes you. There’s no pattern to it. She believes that there is no greater resource to the researching writer than the internet. Google maps allow you to see any place on the planet and Wikipedia will give you information about it. Books would take years longer to write without them.

You can find out more about M. G. Leonard and her books on her website www.mgleonard.com and follow her on social media: Twitter @mglnrd; Instagram @mglnrd; Facebook@ mglnrd

To read the complete feature take a look at #219 Jan 2019 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

An interview with… Cath Jones

Cath Jones writes picture books and early readers. I interviewed her for the January 2020 issue #219 of Writers’ Forum about the importance of early readers and how they differ from picture books.

Cath fb post

She explained how early readers usually form part of an educational reading scheme. They are aimed at readers of any age who are learning to read. Each publisher produces their own set of early reader guidelines or instructions for authors to use. These are usually based very closely on the Department of Education publication: Letters and Sounds (anyone can download this free of charge). This sets out very clearly, level by level which letters can be used, the type of vocabulary, complexity of sentences etc.

Cath told me:

“I try really hard to make my early readers stories funny and unexpected. One publisher told me that my stories are too quirky and another that they are too crazy. But children love that and so do I. I’ve had about twenty accepted for publication so far, with three different publishers.” Cath Jones

Cath explained it is important to keep the story interesting enough to engage an early and reluctant readers. Using appropriate words for the different ability levels can be quite a challenge. She told me she always tries to come up with a surprising twist at the end.

“When I write stories I have two aims in mind. I want to keep the reader interested enough to keep them reading on and more often than not, I want to make them laugh. The majority of stories I write are humorous and maybe a little quirky: a zebra who grows beetroot, chickens that knit, owls acting as hats.” Cath Jones

How I set about writing an early reader, depends on whether it is a higher or lower level book. For the lower levels, I have lists of all the words that are appropriate to that level. I study the lists and try to create a story (very often humorous). The story might have as few as 70 words and none of them more than three letters long. It’s like doing a puzzle. It’s a challenge but very rewarding. For the higher levels there are fewer restrictions so I just try to write the best possible story to engage a reader. One reviewer recently described Chicken Knitters as being as good as any early chapter book.

cover The Chicken Knitters JPEG

She revealed that when she first started writing stories for children, she had no idea that there were rules. She joined a local writing group and was amazed to discover that there were hundreds of books on the theory of writing.

“Getting rejections is never easy but other writers encouraged me not to give up. I remember author Jane Clarke telling me that it was those who persist who get published. She was right! In the end, all that effort paid off. In the space of a few months I had eight early readers accepted and my first picture book, Bonkers About Beetroot.” Cath Jones

Her inspiration for writing Bonkers About Beetroot was her own allotment. She also used to run school gardening clubs and for a number of years she managed a community allotment. So it’s really not surprising that gardening is a frequent theme in her stories. At the community allotment, she ran some really fun projects, including story sack making for families. She made a purple stripy zebra out of Fimo with the kids and close by was a bed of beetroot. Instantly she knew Zebra had eaten too much beetroot. The idea of a beetroot eating zebra just wouldn’t go away. It stayed in her head for years, quietly composting while she got on with life, growing vegetables and writing many, many stories.

Bonkers About Beetroot Cover LR RGB JPEG

Her writing tips for readers who may be interested in writing for the younger age range is it’s really important to know who you are writing for. Think about the age group that might read your story and ask yourself what they are interested in. If they are beginner readers, make sure your story gets going fast and keep up a good pace. If they get bored they won’t read on.

To find out more about Cath Jones and her books check out her website: @cathjoneswriter

You can read the complete feature in #219 Jan 2020 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

An interview with… Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard S. Marcus is one of the children’s book world’s most respected and versatile writers, historians, and critics. He has written many highly acclaimed books about children’s literature, and the authors and artists who created them. Leonard’s book reviews have been featured in many US magazines including Parenting magazine, the New York Times Book ReviewWashington Post Book World, and Publishers Weekly. I interviewed him January 2008, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference, March 2008.

These are some of his award-winning books:

In the interview, Leonard told me he started writing when he was at school in the US during second grade. His passion for writing grew throughout his education, even though it was a long time before he had any idea of how to go about making a living or a life as writer.

“The reading specialist who was assigned to help me at school suggested that I try writing poems to read to her. It was then that I began my writing and reading life. Thanks to that teacher, I experienced a feeling of great satisfaction because I found that it was easy to read what I myself had written and that made me want to write more and more.” Leonard S Marcus

For the first three years in New York, he was a copywriter for Dover Books, a New York paperback publisher specialising in reissues of out of print classics. He explained how he learned a great deal about art and bookmaking there, and a lot about the stinginess of publishers. After that he freelanced, writing book reviews and also teaching courses on children’s books at the School of Visual Arts and elsewhere while trying to get started as an author.

Leonard Marcus - Golden Legacy

Golden Legacy: The Story of Golden Books

Leonard mostly writes nonfiction. He said, of all the people he has written about as characters he found, Feodor Rojankovsky, the great Russian illustrator of Golden Books one of the most inspiring, because his art has so much energy and he travelled so much and led such an adventurous life.

His favourite picture book as a child was a Little Golden Book called Laddie and the Little Rabbit. It had photographic illustrations by Bill Gottlieb, a photographer who took some of the best known pictures of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.

“I think I loved the book because I wanted to have a dog and wasn’t allow to. Laddie was a springer spaniel. I recently met Bill Gottlieb’s widow Delia and – all these years later – learned that the dog in the photos was her dog and that his real name was James Thurber.” Leonard Marcus

Leonard’s tip to other writers is to put effort into promotion and marketing of your books. He explained some writers such as, Shel Silverstein, did not have to market themselves and had bestseller after bestseller. But publishers appreciate an author’s own promotional efforts and sometimes can be persuaded to help, for instance by contacting a public radio station in the city where a talk is about to take place.

“I enjoy giving talks and readings and try to do as many of them as possible. Lately, I have been making more of an effort to group these programs so that I get the most out of a trip to another city or region.” Leonard S. Marcus

Leonard’s interest in early 19th-century American children’s Books, began as a history major in college, as they stirred memories of his own childhood. It dawned on him that because children’s books are usually illustrated he would be able to write about art as well as literature. He became fascinated by the challenge of telling stories in two different media, and by all the many different ways that artists and writers have found to do this effectively.

He began to wonder why children’s book art is not often exhibited in museums. This in turn raised questions about the value our society places on childhood and the things of children’s culture. This inspired him to write books about the creation, marketing, and world-wide impact of popular children’s literature.

You can discover more about Leonard S. Marcus and his books on his website: www.leonardmarcus.com

An interview with… Cathy Cassidy

I interviewed Cathy Cassidy for my Writing 4 Children double page spread in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, in 2016. She revealed some of her writing secrets and tips.

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Cathy explained to me writers do not really get to choose the voice or genre they write, it is more of an organic process.

I’m not sure you get to choose your voice or genre… not always, anyway. I have always worked with and for young people, as an art teacher, a teen mag agony aunt, a journalist etc… that age group did and still does fascinate me, perhaps because it was a part of my life I didn’t manage especially well. When I finally did work out how to write a book length story, it turned out to be young teen rather than the YA I had envisaged. 

Cathy Cassidy

Most of Cathy’s readers fall between the ages of nine and fourteen and she calls the genre, ‘real-life, growing up’ books, as she often tackles quite difficult themes. But generally her books are about family, friendship and fitting in.

Cathy told me that she thinks the most important thing for any writer is to find your own voice and find your story, and then stay true to it

Don’t assume that children’s books are somehow less important than those aimed at adults, because that’s not the case. Often, the books we read as children are the ones that shape us, the ones we remember forever… let’s make them awesome!

Cathy Cassidy

Her top tip on writing for children is to write from the heart, and put everything you have into what you’re writing. If this means re-arranging your to-do list for the day, do it – writing has to come first, for the duration of the book at least. Set yourself a challenge to write a certain amount each day – it may just be 1000 words, but if you stick to it, those words will soon mount up. And when you start to doubt yourself and feel like throwing your laptop out of the window, don’t. 

Her message is write because you love it, because you can’t help it, because you love words and stories. Don’t do it for fame, fortune or an easy life, as those things are most unlikely to happen.

I’m lucky enough to write full-time now, but when I say full-time I mean it… sometimes it is seven days a week, and I can’t recall a break where I didn’t bring my laptop with me. If you love something, put all have into it… it’s worth it when you love what you do, I promise.

You can find out more about Cathy Cassidy and her books on her website: www.cathycassidy.com

An interview with… Peter Bunzl

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

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

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

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

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

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

To find out more about Peter Bunzl you can check out his website www.peterbunzl.com 

Or follow him on Twitter @peterbunzl

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