Category Archives: Writing 4 Children

An interview with… Tim Collins

For the #251 8 Feb issue of Writers’ forum I interviewed Tim Collins about creating children’s book with unique selling points.

Tim has recently launched a series of puzzle adventure books. His new Sherlock Bones series combines a detective story with puzzles, such as mazes and spot-the-difference illustrations. The puzzles are inspired by the text, but readers don’t need to solve them to continue with the story. More confident readers can keep going and come back to them later, while those who want a break can stop and complete them.

He explained when writing for children it’s worth considering whether your story could be told in a different way. Could some of the action be told in cartoons? Could some of the dialogue be in speech bubbles? Could you box out some of the text as ‘top tips’ or ‘life lessons’? There must be hundreds of ways to mess things around that haven’t been done yet. His advise to othr authors is to experiment with format. Breaking up chapters with unusual elements can help young readers engage with books, especially if they’re put off by large chunks of text.

When Tim was writing th series he aimed to get a balance of mystery chapters and action chapters in the book, to vary the storytelling. For example, Bones and Catson crack a secret code in one chapter, and chase a suspect in the next.

“Whatever genre I’m writing in, I try to think about how much of the story will be mystery plot and how much will be action plot.”

Tim Collins

Tim said when you’re writing a detective or mysteery story where your characters follow a series of clues try to end each chapter on a cliffhanger. Many children will be in the habit of reading a chapter, or having a chapter read to them, before bed, so you need to leave them wanting to know what happens. If you’re struggling to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, you can always have your character reflecting on their goals. Anything that makes the reader imagine what’s coming next.

The series is inspited by Holmes and Watson. Tim explained J M Barrie, Mark Twain, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Anthony Burgess, Michael Chabon, and Nicholas Meyer have all written pastiches of Holmes, so it’s a great tradition to be part of.

“It was fun to build a fantastical world with animals in place of humans, though I had to work out its exact rules first.”

Tim Collins

As the majority of Holmes stories are narrated by Watson, he wrote his series from the viewpoint of Doctor Catson, using first person, which is an imtrigal part of the original stories, even though third person limited is more common for this age group. The first book is set in an animal-populated London. A bloodhound police inspector calls at Barker Street to tell Bones and Catson that the crown jewels have been stolen. Their investigation takes them everywhere from Buckingham Kennel to the secret tunnels beneath the city.

Anthropomorphic animals can be a great source of humour, especially when there’s a clash between their animal nature and the sophisticated roles they’re assuming. In the book, Sherlock chews rubber bones rather than smoking a pipe when he’s mulling things over, and Catson is easily distracted by string. It’s great if you can find a source of humour for young readers that doesn’t rely on puns. Publishers will be looking for something that can work in foreign editions, and puns are tough to translate. Admittedly, I’m being hypocritical here. The book, after all, is about a dog called Sherlock Bones who lives in Barker Street. But there are some you can’t resist.

Tim’s advice to someone writing a series for younger readers is to know what happens after book one. Even if you just write paragraph outlines for the next two books, you’ll know you have something more than just a good one-off.  So much of this is down to having two or more central characters with a relationship that’s easy to write to, and keeps suggesting new adventures.

Writing series fiction for younger children can be very rewarding. Your books could be the ones that convert a child into a confident, independent reader. And if you think of an interesting way to present your story, it could help to draw more young people into reading for pleasure.       

You can find out more about Tim and his books on his website: http://www.timcollinsbooks.com/

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #251 8 Feb Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Clare Helen Welsh

In issue #250 4 Jan 2023 of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Clare Helen Welsh about the teamwork required to create a picture book and the importance of community for authors.

Clare said that writing a picture book is like moving a mountain – it takes lots of commitment from a lot of hard-working and talented individuals. It’s also significantly more enjoyable with like-minded people alongside you. She told me to help her make sure she is approaching the strongest version of a story in the strongest way, she shares her work with trusted critique partners whose feedback is nothing short of invaluable. She explained they are excellent at the word level bits, but she also values their thoughts on the bigger picture issues such as arc, character development and theme providing her with the objectivity that is often hard to see when you are so close to your own work.

“Your picture book community are on hand for when everything goes right. When you make a book and want to share how wonderful that feels. That’s the thing about teamwork; the more people involved, the more people to celebrate with… and the more special it feels.”

Clare Helen Welsh

For Clare one of the most important team members is her agent, Alice Williams, from Alice Williams Literary. Clare elaborated that Alice does much more than sell her work and check her contract. She explained Alice reads, guides and mentors her to consistently deliver texts that families and gatekeepers love. She’s the critical eye that wants her story to be the best it can be and crucially, she has the other eye on the market.

Alice Williams ensures there’s enough in the picture book texts for them to be acquired and read (and re-read) many times, asking questions such as ‘What is there for a child to enjoy? How can I sell this to a publisher as a must-have text? How will I pitch it?’ With these questions in mind, there is usually at least one round of edits before a text goes out on submission, and when they do Alice utilises her contacts and knowledge of the industry to give a text the best chance of being acquired.

“You don’t have to have an agent to be a writer and there are many writers doing fantastically on their own, but for me the relationship is hugely valuable and enjoyable, too. It’s also handholding while you find your publishing feet.”

Clare Helen Welsh

Clare told me how the collaboration continues with the publisher, when a team of people play their part in editing, designing and producing the book. The publishing team she worked with at Quarto Kids were Rhiannon Findlay, Jane Wilsher, Malena Stojić, Emily Pither and Sarah Chapman-Suire. Once a text lands in an editor’s inbox, they will decide if it has potential and if it would result in a book that fits their list.

Dot and Duck had three commissioning editors cheering them on: Matt Morgan for How Rude! Ellie Brough for How Selfish! and Emily Pither for How Messy! If it’s a yes, the idea will be pitched to the wider team at an acquisitions meeting, including representatives from sales and marketing, together deciding if a book should go ahead.

Publishing is a creative business, but it’s also very much about the commercial side. Everyone has to be behind the project with a clear idea of how the book will be marketed, how much it will cost to produce, where it will be sold and who will buy it, for it to get the green light. Once a book is given the go ahead and is acquired, editors then have a significant role in developing and shaping a text. Should the character be male or female? Can they be androgynous? Should Duck always be the antagonist? Are there too many penguins in picture books? Your editor will help you to polish and refine a story, both on a line level and the larger plot and concept. They are on hand every step of the way as your book is brought to life.

But editors don’t work in isolation . Picture books, by their very nature, are more than just words and require a seamless combination of words and images. The designer, which for Dot and Duck was Sarah Chapman-Suire, is to the illustrator what the editor is to a writer – someone with ideas, suggestions and insider knowledge on how to sculpt and layout a picture book so that it will have the best chance in the market.  Sample illustrations are sometimes commissioned.

On top of these names and roles for this series, she had Nikki Ingram – the Production Manager and Lucy Lillystone – the Campaign Assistant, sales teams, marketing teams, foreign rights teams and countless others. Having such a large team is good news. Your publisher, and everyone working for them, wants your book to be a big success and wants it to sell as much as you. There really is a whole village of enthusiastic individuals invested in making your story the very best it can be.

The Dot and Duck series are illustrated by Olivier Tallec. The interaction between the the words and the pictures makes this genre of children’s fiction special. Picture books wouldn’t exist without an illustrator – they’d just be words in a digital document. But more than bringing an idea to life, an illustrator is a co-author.

“I have been lucky to work with many fantastic illustrators, not least Olivier Tallec, who deserves every bit of recognition for his outstanding work. So much of the humour in the Dot and Duck series is down to his expressive characters and comic details in his work. Olivier creates bold and loveable characters – he’s the perfect co-collaborator for this series.”

Clare Helen Welsh

An illustrator breathes new ideas and new threads into stories, which means your story will be working on several layers to engage and entertain readers. They add details to your story that you might not have even imagined, which again only adds to reader enjoyment. Just like your publisher, they are invested in your story and its characters and it shows.

As you can see there is a wide cast of characters that all work together to produce a children’s book. and I would like to thank Clare Helen Welsh for explaining the process so succinctly.

You can read the interview I did with Clare Helen Welsh for her blog tour of the Dot and Duck series here: Blog Tour – How Messy! by Clare Helen Welsh

To read my review of How Messy! go to: Book Review: How Messy!

To read my book review of The Perfect Shelter by Clare Helen Welsh and Åsa Gilland here Book Review: The Perfect Shelter

Find out more about Clare on her website www.clarehelenwelsh.com  and follow her on Twitter @ClareHelenWelsh

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #250 4 Jan 2023 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Sita Brahmachari

For my Writing for Children slot in the #239 Dec 2021 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Sita Brahmachari about how she develops her characters and setting for her young adult books.

She told me how When Shadows Fall grew out of an interaction she had in her first workplace at the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre with children who had been excluded from school. They were children full of potential who had already decided that education wasn’t for them. She worked on location and they had a small space to work in and the adjacent outside area was not ‘safe’ because people threw things from the flats above. ‘Missiles miss,’ one girl explained.

“Certain children I’ve met in my work as a writer and through arts education have stayed with me. I think about them and hope they’ve found a way to untap their potential. This book is a symbolic passing of the pen to all of them.”        

Sita Brahmachari

Sita elaborated how when writing about life – grief and loss is always a constant presence. It’s always been a central theme in children’s literature and she likes toweave them into her stories. She believes keeping stories and realities from children is what creates monsters and nightmares. The task is to find the right tone and holding place for the age of reader who might find your story.  

She explained this is why she writes ‘rites of passage’ novels about grief and loss. In an exploration of loss she is also interested in diverse beliefs in what comes after. The timing of the publication of When Shadows Fall is one in which young people have suffered so many losses, not only of loved ones but also to their own liberty and potential.  

When Shadows Fall by Sita Brahmachari

Sita revealed her characters grow the story.

“The longer I live with the characters the more they become part of my life.  I have met and worked with thousands of young people during my work in community, youth theatre, novel writing and education. Aspects of character: a phrase, a look, a comment, a steely stare, a leaning back, a leaning in, a discovery that a child that won’t speak is a gifted artist… these memories glimmer as I write and ignite something in a character I’m exploring.”

Sita Brahmachari

She elaborated that at a certain point of writing the character emerges like a figure from clay, the features form and then everything in them speaks to you and drives the narrative.  Working with and writing for Young Adults requires curiosity, honesty and to be open to their realities. Sita likes to connect with the feelings of the young person she was. So whatever age character she writing will do a little writing exercise where she imagines meeting them when she was the same age and they have an imaginary conversation.  

“As a child I longed to see the diversity of characters who were my family and the people I met in life in the stories I read. So my stories have featured Diaspora characters from many cultures, histories and beliefs.  I’ve seen how powerfully young people have wanted and responded to these stories.”

Her advice to other writers is don’t wait for the story to come whole. Keep a sketch book.  Doodle, daydream, and write any thoughts, ideas, imaginings that come. Leave your ideas to prove and come back to them later to look for jewels.  Writing is a layering process. Have patience. Don’t rip work up but do be prepared to start again and re- layer, re-voice and re-write. Question. Be open to what editors and first readers say. Test material. Listen deep. Pay attention also to the twist in your gut that hasn’t untangled what you need to in the story yet.  Enjoy growing characters and let plot find you through them. Enjoy the flow when it comes like white water rafting or being in perfect balance on an imaginary high wire.

When it happens it’s exciting! Accept that sometimes there’s just a lot of heavy rowing to do. Keep going till you feel that what you’ve written could make some sense to someone else but don’t show your work too early.  If you feel it has a force of its own that could convey, feel the fear of putting it out in the world and do it anyway. Never react to feedback or start re-writes straight away… let the thoughts and comments mull. Whatever changes you make have to be true to your characters and story and to yourself.  

You can find out more about Sita on her website www.sitabrahmachari.com and follow her on Twitter @sitabrahmachari and on instagram @sita.brahmachari.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #239 Dec 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Tracy Darnton

Today I am going to talk about my interview with YA author Tracey Darnton and her writing process and advice to aspiring children’s book writers. The full feature appeared in this months Writers’ Forum #249 30 Nov 2022.

Tracey’s novel writing career began with a short story when she won the Stripes/The Bookseller YA Short Story Prize which was published in the YA anthology I’ll be Home for Christmas.

As a result of working so closely with the team at Stripes, she was asked to pitch a novel which grew into The Truth About Lies. Tracy has always had an interest in memory so she decided to build a story around a girl who could remember everything. The Truth About Lies was shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize and selected as a World Book Night title.

The short story now sits at the beginning of The Rules. Full of themes around the role of rules in family and society and the effects of preparing for disaster, The Rules is about a girl on the run from her prepper dad. This proves you never know where a competition could lead you.

Tracy’s latest novel, Ready or Not is about a Teenager Kat goes missing during a game of hide-and-seek at a late-night party on holiday. Three families have holidayed in a lovely house in Cornwall since the kids were born so the teens have all grown up together. Tracy tell the story through the eyes of the youngest, 15-year-old Millie, who’s devastated by the absence of her best friend, Kat. The remaining teenagers all go back to Creek House one year on and secrets finally begin to be revealed about what’s happened to Kat.

Tracy explained that this novel came out of a very strong image she had in my head of a girl standing by a tree with her eyes covered, counting slowly. This image triggered many what if… questions such as, what if when she opened them she couldn’t find her friend? Tracy told me she wrote a short paragraph ending with the line ‘People don’t just disappear, do they?’ and built the story from there. That line ended up on the cover as the strapline.

“I usually set off writing with the beginning paragraph and a paragraph or two of the ending. I don’t plan before I write. Having that sense of the ending helps me work my way through the middle, heading for a clear target. I always brainstorm different possible endings and then try to pick something which falls between the lines. Endings are my favourite part of my books.”

Tracy Darnton

As you live and breathe a book for such a long time through the writing, editing and marketing processes, you certainly need to choose something which intrigues and interests you. Ready or Not has themes around friendship, obsession, privilege and game-playing – both the ones they sit down to play and the games played with other people’s feelings.

Tracy said engaging characters are key to a good YA thriller. The reader must really care about what happens to them for the high stakes to mean anything, and to keep turning the pages.

Tracy prefers writing in first person because it gives a more immediate strong voice and insight into what’s going on in the main character’s head. She revealed she often writes letters or diary entries in her character’s voice to get to know them better. In Ready or Not, Millie’s letters became an integral part of the story.

“I have a ‘Bible’ notebook for each novel where I set out the timelines and use this notebook to sketch out the location and collate any research notes. I used to be a solicitor and I can’t shake my attention to detail. I have a glossary of terms so that I can be consistent (over things like whether hide-and-seek has hyphens) and I pass that list on to the copy editor at my publisher.”

Tracy Darnton

Tracy elaborated everyone needs to find what works for them. She believes all writers should experiment and play with their writing. Her writing tip for other people wanting to write YA is to read as many as you can – and you have a very good excuse to watch thriller films and series too. Although you’ll inevitably have adult characters, be careful that you don’t end up focusing on a heavy cast of police, forensic scientists, lawyers, teachers, parents etc. Keep agency and focus with your teen protagonists – they must be driving the plot forwards. Throw in a closed setting, a ticking timeline – and craft moments of suspense. The more secrets your characters have, the better. See where it takes you.

But her main piece of advice to aspiring writers is to get on with it, finish that book.

“I waited far too many years before getting back to my writing and I regret it now. What on earth was I waiting for? There are always excuses not to do something but, take it from me, there is no mythical date in the future when you’ll have more time and inspiration to write.”

Tracy Darnton

Carve out that time now. If you need a deadline, enter a competition or set one with a friend. Finishing and polishing a complete short story or novel is where you will learn so much about the craft of being a writer.

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton and Instagram @TracyDarnton

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #249 30 Nov 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Ruby Lovell

I interviewed BAME author Ruby Lovell about the importance of diversity in children’s fiction for my Writing for Children slot in Writers’ Forum #200 June 2018.

She revealed when she moved to London from Sri Lanka at seven years old, the culture shock was quite something.

“I spoke very little English and my school mates had never met anyone from Sri Lanka, so didn’t really understand me or my culture. I found it hard to fit in at first and that experience stuck with me, especially when I looked at the books available to me as a child. All that was on offer were things like Enid Blyton and stories about white British children getting up to great adventures. Growing up on exotic tales from my grandmother, that lack of diversity in reading always stuck with me.”  

Ruby Lovell

She explained her experience made her aware of the lack of diversity in books and wanted to see more children of colour represented in children’s literature for her own children who have never been to Sri Lanka and experienced all the wonderful things she did as a child growing-up there.

This inspired her to write her Ruby series of picture books published by Lychee Books. The adventures that the character Ruby gets up to are all based on real-life experiences her boys had during their first trips to Sri Lanka. They visited an elephant orphanage where they saw how injured elephants are cared for, rode tuk tuks and they learned to play the traditional drums and see snake charmers and much more.

Illustration by Zara Merrick

Ruby enthusiastically spoke about how this unique experience awoke an explosion of an exciting new culture that was part of them.

“My writing and the books I create for children all come from my heart. I had a huge amount of help from my young sons and writing something that means something to you is so much more special than an idea picked out of thin air. I want my books to not only be a ‘go to’ bedtime story for children of a South Asian background, but for children of all races and backgrounds who want a good adventure story.”

Ruby Lovell

Ruby explained she was motivated by the fact you find a lot in books for kids that characters are anthropomorphised so they appeal to as many people as possible but she wants to see books with people of colour on the cover, people who are differently able, a range of genders and shapes and sizes. She elaborated children are unique, so let’s write books that are as varied as they are. A diverse book is one that explores a different point of view than those represented in the majority of books on the market. This can be a different racial/cultural point of view in the case of Ruby’s book, or a different point of view about physical ability, sexual orientation etc.    

Hearing other people’s stories helps children appreciate other points of view, especially those that differ from their own. The more diverse a child’s reading experience, the more understanding, tolerant and accepting they will become as human beings. They will also form friendships with children of various backgrounds and this is healthy as when they become adults this helps them become accepting of a world filled with so many different cultures, religions and customs.

Ruby Rides and Elephant by Ruby Lovell and Zara Merrick

Ruby would also like to see more books featuring mixed race characters of all combinations of backgrounds and smaller racial groups and backgrounds. For example, the Disney film Moana was one of the first mainstream representations of Polynesian culture for children.

Ruby’s tip on writing for children is to run your book past real children before you send it out to agent. See their reaction, learn which jokes soar and which ones fall flat. Children are wonderfully honest critics, but don’t just rely on your own kids. See if you can go into a local primary school and do a reading of your final manuscript (with some illustrations if you can). The feedback and reaction you receive will shape your writing like nothing else. 

Find out more about Ruby Lovell and her picture book Ruby Rides an Elephant and the other books in the series at: www.lycheebooks.org You can follow her on Twitter @RLovellAuthor and on Instagram @rubylovellauthor

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #200 June 2018 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Roma Agrawal

My interview today is a blast from the past from Writers’ Forum issue #237 Oct 2021, when I interviewed structural engineer, Roma Agrawal, about her children’s non-fiction that provides a behind-the-scenes look at some of the world’s most amazing landmarks.

Author photo © Rebecca Reid

Roma has worked on many of the skyscrapers and bridges in the UK, including The Shard, the tallest tower in Western Europe. Her technical job is to ensure the structures are safe and stable. Her children’s book How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures was inspired by an adult book she wrote looking at how construction has evolved from the mud huts of our ancestors to skyscrapers of steel that reach hundreds of metres into the sky.

How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures is a concise look at how engineers build all sorts of structures and the ingenious methods engineers have come up with to enable us to build underground, underwater, on ice and even in space. Her illustrator was Katie Hickey who has brought a beautiful sense of wonder and playfulness to this book with her illustrations showing fascinating cross-sections, skylines and close-ups of engineering techniques in action, provide unique and illuminating perspectives of these awe-inspiring constructions.

How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures by Roma Agrawal

Roma told me her aim was to showcase a mix of well-known structures and also less familiar ones that would be accessible for young readers. She explained it was hard to narrow it down and started with a long list, in a spreadsheet, with structures from each continent from the categories – bridge, building, dam, tunnel, etc. After this she jotted down what fascinated her about each structure and what was the most compelling story behind it. In some cases, she said it was a story about a material, in others, its history.

“Some of the content between my book for adults and the adaptation for children overlaps but I wanted to ensure I covered structures from all seven continents and also in space, so I researched loads more stories. I thought about which structures and engineers might capture a young person’s imagination and create stunning visuals. It was a tough task trying to cut down the extensive list I first came up with.”

Roma Agrawal

Roma told me her favourite spread is the How to Build in Outer Space. It feels like science fiction, but it’s real research that scientists are doing right now.

She said she chose the particular engineers as they are all really inspiring and she wanted to feature people from different eras and from different places to show children that engineers are from all sorts of diverse backgrounds. So in the book she has included the more known names from the Industrial Revolution like Henry Bessemer, but also Emily Roebling, who ran the Brooklyn Bridge construction as a woman in the 19th century.

Roma revealed that when adapting her adult non-fiction book, Built, into a STEM non-fiction aimed at children the major change was restructuring the narrative to answer the sort of questions a young reader might have such as, How do you build tall? How do you build a long bridge? Or how do you build a watertight dam?

“I wanted to answer these questions with surprising examples from all around the world, and very importantly, include some of the pioneering engineers who made them possible. I also needed to figure out how to fit in all the information needed to understand a structure – this ranges from how particular materials are made, or how the ancient Romans built to how columns and beams work and how to design against forces like earthquakes.”

Roma Agrawal

She explained the trick was to find stories behind the complicated science or engineering and centre the information around them as this was important to humanise STEM. The book includes some incredible stories of people from all sorts of backgrounds that have made the world the way it is today, and proves to young people they too can change the world and make a contribution to something exciting.

Her advice to Writers’ Forum readers aspiring to write for children is to tell the stories. Even if you think there aren’t any, dig deep and find them. It’s never too late to learn to write. She told me she disliked even writing technical reports that were a part of my job, let alone creative writing. But she challenged herself and learned this invaluable new skill in my 30s.

Roma has another children’s non-fiction engineering book out in 2023 called, Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions that Changed the World (in a Big Way).

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #237 Oct 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Sophie Anderson

In the October issue of Writers’ Forum #248 Oct 22, I have interviewed Sophie Anderson for my Writing for Children double-page spread, about how Slavic folklore and fairy tales have influenced her novels.

Sophie told me her writing is massively influenced by folk and fairy tales, especially the Slavic ones her Prussian grandmother told her when she was young.

“They shaped my childhood and my life in many ways, and took root in my imagination.”

Sophie Anderson

Sophie’s first published book was The House with Chicken Legs, which involved a reimagining of Baba Yaga – a fascinating and multi-layered character from Russian and Slavic folklore. She revealed she did so much research into folktales for this book, that much of what she didn’t use ended up inspiring her second book, The Girl who Speaks Bear, which contains several folktale-retellings woven into an overarching narrative.

Her third and fourth books, The Castle of Tangled Magic and The Thief who Sang Storms, were also inspired by Slavic folklore, as well as Russian poetry and folk poems.

“I think it is wonderful how so many modern writers are keeping old stories alive; retelling, reimagining and reworking ancient imagination and wisdom to appeal to audiences today. I tend to reimagine tales rather than retell them (although on occasion, like in The Girl Who Speaks Bear, I have retold stories). I aim to balance inspiration from the old with inspiration from the new.”

Sophie Anderson

Sophie explained she takes inspiration from all the people, places and real-life stories around her. The House with Chicken Legs was inspired by Baba Yaga, the main character, Marinka, was inspired by her children, specifically their desire to ‘climb over fences’, be more independent, and carve their own futures.

At the heart of any good story there are universal themes we can relate to. The House with Chicken Legs explores death and grief along with making the most of life and taking control of your future. The Girl who Speaks Bear explores family, friendship, individuality and belonging. The Castle of Tangled Magic explores belief in magic, self-belief, and learning from mistakes. The Thief who Sang Storms, explores conflict, division, prejudice, propaganda, and the world-changing power of kindness and unity. The main underlying theme is one of unity.

“I think whilst it is wonderful to work with fantastic elements from old tales, such as houses with chicken legs, shapeshifting bears, house-spirits, and bird-people, stories will only appeal to readers if they can relate to the experiences, emotions and struggles of the characters themselves.”

Sophie Anderson

She uses folklore and legends as a way of exploring and expressing these themes.

Linnet from The Thief who Sang Storms
Illustrated by Joanna Lisowiec

Sophie revealed her planning process is messy and very paper-based. She told me she fills up notebooks with ideas and stream-of-consciousness free writing and ring-binders with maps and plans, character studies, notes on settings, lists of key events and plot points, and thoughts about possible themes and messages. Once she starts writing the chapters she inevitably changes her plans so it is an organic process. .

Sophie said if a character feels vague and not fully-formed she will do some exercises, like write letters or a diary from that character’s point of view. Or might interview them, take them out for an imaginary coffee for a chat, or write a scene that doesn’t end up in the book, where they are having a day out with a friend.

Her writing tips to writers wanting to write a novel for children inspired by folklore and folktales is firstly, read lots!

“Reading is the most enjoyable way to learn how to craft a story. Read old dusty texts in antiquated language. Read modern retellings. Watch movies inspired by the old tales. Fill your imagination with these stories and fill your intellect with ideas for how to tell them.”

Sophie Anderson

Then practice, in lots of different ways.

“Try writing a legend you love in verse, or try writing a letter from a god to a hero. Experiment with short and longer stories, with different points of view, with different characters at the fore, and with different subversions. Play, and have fun with your writing.”

Sophie Anderson

You can discover more about Sophie on her website: www.sophieandersonauthor.com and follow her on Twitter: @sophieinspace, Instagram: @sophieandersonauthor and Facebook: @SophieAndersonAuthor.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #248 Oct 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Donna Amey Bhatt

For the September #247 21 Sep 2022 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed Donna Amey Bhatt about co-writing a children’s book with her husband, Vikesh. Donna was already a published author with her book, How To Spot a Mum.

Co-writing a book was something new for both of them and Donna was worried it might put a strain on their relationship but found in reality it bought them closer together. Although, the deadline for the book ended up being difficult, as their baby was due. It meant they needed to be much more organised.

Donna told me Vikesh came up with the idea for Lands of Belonging: A history of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Britain over lockdown, and together they fleshed it out and pitched it. Lands of Belonging is a thrilling exploration of the complicated history of South Asia and Britain, examining what it means to ‘belong’.

In the interview Donna explained one of the things that inspired the book was the fact Vikesh grew up without being told the full history as to why his family lived here. It’s a huge part of the UK’s story that is often overlooked in both schools and the media. They have also found through their work in marketing not many places truly embrace diversity. This is something Vikesh is passionate about changing, and educating the younger generation is where it really needs to start. It is especially topical this year, 2022 as it is the 75th anniversary of Partition.

Donna elaborated how the combined history is often glamourised, things like the Raj and ‘Britannia ruling the waves’ really don’t tell the story of them people from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who lived during those times. Their contributions to our country are so huge, and so brilliant they should be acknowledged and celebrated.

The book is split into two sections. The first looks at the past, and plots the beginning of Britain and India’s relationship, as well as looking at what India was like before it was colonised.

The second half is a look at modern Britain as shaped by Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi people. It was important to Donna and Vikesh to include a diverse variety of Indian culture within the book. She told me that as well as fact checking with friends and family, Nosy Crow were incredibly thorough and provided two academics and many fact checkers to ensure all the information was 100% accurate.

Key to them was the fact they had a brilliant illustrator, Salini Perera, who could show things so beautifully. So, things like talking about traditional dishes and costume didn’t need lengthy explanation. They trusted Salini’s skill and it paid off.

“One of our favourite pages explains a few types of yoga, and Salini has done a brilliant job of showing some of the positions.”

Donna Amey Bhatt

There are plenty of history books that solely tell you what happened in the past but there are not many that explain how these events effect our culture and the world today. Donna explained she believes looking at how the past has led to how we live today is often what draws readers (and potential publishers) in.

Her advice to other writers who want to write about the history of their culture is to try to think of how you can explain things interactively. Maybe there’s an activity you can include that makes your point, or you can use illustration to plot something instead of using too much text. The great thing about writing for children is there’s space to experiment, and many of the rules for writing can be thought more as suggestions.

They both hope Lands of Belonging serves as a helpful reference to people who don’t fully understand this part of history.

Find out more about Donna and her book on Instagram @doonkris and Twitter @doonkris , and her website is www.donnaamey.com.

Donna’s latest book is How to Greet a Gran, published by Quarto. It’s a look at grans all over the world, tells you a little about granny customs in different countries, and vitally; what to call them.

How to greet a gran by Donna Amey Bhatt and Aura Lewis

You can buy copies of all Donna’s books from your local bookshop, or online at uk.bookshop.org, an organisation with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops. It is also available at Waterstone and Amazon.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #247 21 Sep 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Emily Ann Davison

I interviewed Emily Ann Davison about how she developed her characters for her picture book, Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny, for the #246 17 Aug edition of the UK national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum.

Emily told me as a child she enjoyed writing stories and songs, so it wasn’t really a huge surprise that as a grown up she returned to writing. She also worked with young children for many years, and this is where she discovered her enthusiasm for children’s books, in particular picture books. One day, a picture book idea popped into her head and she revealed now the ideas just won’t stop popping.

She explained the inspiration behind her debut picture book, Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny which is published by Nosy Crow, came from working with children and being a mother. She understands just how wriggly young children can be, and felt there was a place for a book to help wriggly children feel calm. She wrote this story at a time when her daughter was finding it particularly hard to feel calm at bedtime, so Emily had started to try different relaxation techniques to help her. She discovered the main thing that helped was yoga!

“I’d previously written a draft picture book about a family of monsters doing meditation. Doing yoga with my daughter, reminded me about this story, so I dug it out and transformed it into a story about yoga, calm and mindfulness and features an excitable bunny called Yo-Yo!”

Yo-Yo is a fidgety, bouncy, can’t-sit-still-EVER type of bunny. Grandpa suggests the bunnies try yoga, but even that doesn’t stop her wiggling and giggling. Yo-Yo later finds herself lost and all alone in a shadowy forest. She feels panicky, but maybe Grandpa’s yoga will be able to help… At the end of the book, there are simple step-by-step instructions so children can stretch, feel calm and be a yoga bunny too.

Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny by Emily Ann Davison and Deborah Allwright

Emily said when writing for young children, it’s important the characteristics or experiences of a character are relatable to a young child’s own life experiences. It was important to Emily, that at the end of the story Yo Yo was still wriggly and giggly, and found it tricky to sit still as she didn’t want the character to change her personality, she wanted Yo Yo to learn a method of feeling calm by using yoga.

Some stories are all about the setting. For Every Bunny is a Yoga Bunny, it is the concept that is most important. Emily told me when writing picture books it is often the characters and concept of the book that dictate the plot and theme.

“Young children have a very short attention span, so it is important to keep the pace going. You need to have some type of suspense in the story or some type of escalation throughout the book.”

She also revealed for a picture book, page turns are important. At each page, you want the child to HAVE to know what happens next. her suggestion is to think of page turns as a ‘flap’ in a ‘lift the flap’ book. The page turn can be used as a reveal. 

Emily’s advice to other writers wanting their picture book manuscript published is – do the research. Research picture books. Research publishers and agents before submitting. Know as much about the world of picture books as you can and try to connect with other picture book writers. The journey is much easier when you have a network of writers around you, who you can share the highs and lows with.

Find out more about Emily on her website www.emilyanndavison.com and follow her on Twitter @emilyanndavison and Instagram @emily.a.davison.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #246 17 Aug 2022 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An Interview with… Rachel Ip

My blog today is a summary of my interview with picture book writer, Rachel Ip, which appeared in Writers’ Forum last year, in the #235 Aug 2021 issue. She talked to me about her picture book, The Forgettery, which has a theme of memory loss. The Forgettery is illustrated by Laura Hughes and published by Farshore Books.

Rachel revealed the inspiration for The Forgettery came from one of her daughters who asked where all the forgotten things go. Rachel loved the idea that we all have a library of forgotten things we can just dive into and explore.

The story gently explores the concept of memory loss and dementia. Amelia and her Granny find themselves inside the magical world of The Forgettery, where they find everything they have ever forgotten. Amelia helps her Granny find her most treasured memories and they make more along the way.

She told me the theme of memory loss came about quite organically when she started writing about memories and the concept of forgetfulness. She explained she didn’t set out to write a story about dementia, but in the (many!) re-writes it became more and more important to the story. 

“I was keen to write a hopeful story and show the close intergenerational bond between Amelia and her Granny, their joy in their time together and the importance of their memories and experiences, even those they may have forgotten.”

Rachel Ip

When Rachel was writing the story, she started researching how memories are made and why we forget things. She gathered together lots of advice and recommendations about how to talk to children about dementia, and how to support loved ones living with dementia from places like the World Health Organisation, and reports from Dementia UK, the Alzheimer’s Society and other organisations. Rachel told me all this research shaped the story – particularly the ending, where Amelia makes the memory book to help Granny remember their many special moments together. The book also includes lots of sensory details as Granny remembers the smell of fresh bread and the crackle of autumn leaves underfoot.

“It was important for me to use the right language to talk about people living with dementia, and those who support them. Although dementia isn’t explicitly mentioned in the story, that became important in the way the book was described in the various marketing materials (catalogues, online and back cover copy).”

Rachel Ip

Rachel explained she wanted to capture some of these light-hearted moments inside The Forgettery, as well as explore the deeper theme of memory loss. She advocates there’s something very relatable about forgetfulness. Children are forgetful. They’re busy living life in the moment. Adults are also forgetful. We forget our keys and our glasses. We’ve all felt that rush of nostalgia when a song on the radio takes us back 10 years, 20 years in a matter of moments.

With regards to her writing process, Rachel said if she is working on a particular story, she always read the latest draft aloud and see how it feels before starting to edit.

“I write in long-hand in my notebook until the story starts to take shape, then I create a dummy or page plan to see how the pacing and page turns feel. Only then do I write it up in Word to share with my critique group. Everything goes through critique at least once, often more, before I share it with my agent.”

Rachel Ip

She revealed she has a running list of story ideas in the back of her notebook. It might be a phrase or a question, possible titles, or themes she wants to explore. Gradually these come together and form a story idea. I was surprised to discover she had The Forgettery title long before she found the essence of the story.

For picture books, making a dummy or page-plan really helps her to see whether the pacing is working, and whether each page turn is exciting for the reader. You can download an editable page plan for a 32 page picture book from Rachel’s website here: www.rachelip.com/forwriters.

“The picture book plan helps me to see whether each spread feels sufficiently different for the illustrator to illustrate. With picture books, although I’m not an illustrator, I try to think visually when I write and I always edit to take out anything from the words that could be shown in the illustrations. I add illustration notes as I write, but then I try to remove them all before sharing with my agent (unless the story wouldn’t make sense without them).”

Rachel Ip

She explained, The Forgettery was originally rhyming, and she shared it with course tutors, Joyce Dunbar and Petr Horácek, on a picture book course at the Arvon Foundation. Joyce told her to “rewrite it in crystal clear prose.” This struck a chord with Rachel.

Rachel said there’s a lot of luck and timing involved in being published but if you have a story you really believe in, persevere. She explained that The Forgettery was rejected many times on submission to agents. Her agent, Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson, rejected it a year before she signed with her for another story. By then she had taken Joyce’s advice and rewritten The Forgettery many times and it was much stronger than her original submission. Perseverance is key.

I have previously reviewed another lovely picture book book written by Rachel, The Last Garden by Rachel Ip and Anneli Bray on my blog. You can read the review here: Book Review: The Last Garden.

You can find out more about Rachel Ip and her writing at www.rachelip.com and follow her on Twitter @RachelCIp and on Instagram @RachelCIp.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #232 May 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.