Category Archives: Writing 4 Children

An interview with… Michael Lawrence

For the #97 Sept 2009 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed children’s book writer Michaew Lawrence. Michael told me he does not like to specialise. His first book for children came out in 1995. Since then he has published around 50 more of various kinds, from first picture books to young adult novels.

Michael Lawrence

His most popular books are the Jiggy McCue novels, which include The Killer Underpants, the Toilet of Doom, The Meanest Genie and The Iron, the Switch and the Broom Cupboard. He publishes one of these a year.

Jiggy McCue books

Michael explained he does not research the Jiggy McCue stories at all, or even attempt to reflect the times the kids live in to any great extent. Mobile phones, DVDs, famous film stars and so on are mentioned, but Jiggy and Co’s school experiences are essentially his own from over half a century ago. He bases their lessons on the lessons that he still remembers so well, and some of their teachers were his actual teachers he even uses their real names. You might think this would date the books, but Micheal said that children can’t have changed as much as we imagine, because a great many of them write to him to say the books are so much like their world.

Ideas for books often come to Michael in unexpected ways and often in unlikely places. Michael told me that one very wet Sunday in August 2008, he was in Tintagel, Cornwall, walking up the hill to the site of an Arthurian battle re-enactment, when the thought came that Jiggy’s parents might be visiting or taking part in just such a show and Jiggy is either whisked back in time or a knight from the past comes forward into his time. But almost at once he dismissed this as too obvious.

Plenty of bizarre things happen in Jiggy’s world, but time travel seemed unlikely to be one of them. But then he thought, suppose someone very like Jiggy lived in a century when men wore armour, fought with swords and jousted, and by the time he got to the re-enactment the spin-off series idea was born. It will be called Jiggy’s Genes, and each book is about an ancestor of Jiggy’s who bears not only the same nickname as him, but has similar attitudes, in spite of the time he is attached to.

He bought himself a hefty hardback Le Morte d’Arthur, a new copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table (fondly remembered from childhood) plus various books and pamphlets about life and conditions in the 15th century and also trawled the Internet for alternative insights.

In the first book Jiggy’s Magic Balls, Thomas Malory has just escaped from gaol and has an idea for a saga about knights, great battles and quests. He asks for Jiggy’s help with ideas. The Arthur that Jiggy points out to Malory is a shifty little pickpocket, and Merlin is a shyster lawyer who specialises in divorce cases. Michael explained Malory uses their names but does something rather ambitious with their characters…

For the second book in the series,Jiggy and the Witchfinder, his 17th century hero meets Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General, who wants to hang Jiggy’s Nan as a witch. Michael told me:

“Any Jiggy book must have a goodly quota of laughs, but the England of the period was beset by war, disease and poverty, and saw the execution of a great many innocent people at the hands of dreadful men like Hopkins, so it hasn’t been easy keeping the story light as well as realistic.” (Michael Lawrence)

Michael’s trilogy, The Aldous Lexicon (A Crack in the Line, Small Eternities and The Underwood See) and Juby’s Rook are all set in the ruined village of Rouklye, which is based on Tyneham in southern Dorset. He used his first house as the model for Withern Rise in Small Eternities: The Aldous Lexicon 2.

ML's first house (model for Withern Rise in The Aldous Lexicon) (2)

ML’s first house (model for Withern Rise in The Aldous Lexicon) (2)

“My research for the trilogy has been literally life-long, as the setting is the house and village I was born in. In the three years it took me to write the books I returned there constantly, and during the writing my desk was littered with photographs of the house, the stretch of river on whose bank it stands, and the village and attached market town.” (Michael Lawrence)

In 1943, Churchill’s War Office requisitioned the Tyneham Valley for troop training and weapons testing, evacuating everyone who lived there. They promised to return it when the war was over but never did, and today Tyneham. It is still ‘owned’ by The Ministry of Defence and is a sad, haunted ruin of a place. Juby’s Rook is set in 1999 and is about an elderly man (Juby Bench) who was a teenager in the village when everyone was turfed out.

jubys rook

He returns every August to take note of the extent of the decay and walk his old haunts. Michael has walked all of these haunts, during which, over several visits, he made extensive notes and took hundreds of photographs. Michael told me the completed book took about nine years to sell. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s because it sank without trace or a single review. Yet Juby’s Rook is one of the books he is most pleased to have got into print.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #97 Sept 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children 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… Jo Franklin

In issue #182 Dec 2016 of Writers’ Forum I spoke to my friend, Jo Franklin, about why she prefers to write about children who feel they are on the edge of society.

Jo Franklinwood_0100

She explained that for most of her childhood she lived on a small farm in rural Sussex with hardly any social life. When she was eleven she was sent to boarding school. It was a very strange combination – the claustrophobic all female environment during term time and the boredom of the farm during the holidays. She never felt that she belonged in either place so felt very isolated. She read books as my means of escape and this led her to Sylvia Plath.

“I totally related to Esther in The Bell Jar. It was a revelation to me that Sylvia Plath could write so openly about her deepest feelings, thinly disguised in a novel and she got recognition for it. I knew that was what I wanted to do.” (Jo Franklin)

Jo joined a creative writing class at The City Lit in London and started putting words down on paper – stories about teenagers struggling with first love and identity; taking bits of her tortured soul and refashioning them into words on paper.

She discovered the important thing about writing for children is to find your inner child and reconnect to it so that your writing is convincing and real. Jo advises authors who want to write for children to ‘write who you are’ as if you can channel some of your own experience into the characters they will be rounder.

Jo found herself writing about characters who are on the edge of the society they live in – tomboys, geeks and outsiders. Some of her misfit characters wonder what they should do to fit into the mainstream. Others are more confident with who they are and the stories show that maybe society should open their hearts to the fringe characters in our world. Exploring the issues that children face is actually a way of exploring your own issues.

In her book, Help I’m an Alien, Dan feels such a misfit that when his sister tells him he’s an alien, he believes her. In Help I’m a Genius (the second title in the series) Dan is so intimidated by the brain power of the rest of his family, that when he is selected to represent the school in a National Brainiac Competition, he is convinced he is going to humiliate himself. He recognises that he doesn’t fit in and the stories explore how he feels about that. I’m interested in the range of emotions that go with searching for your own identity.

Jo doesn’t write specifically for girls or boys as she believes children’s books should be universal . 

“I hope that my stories are accessible to everyone regardless of whether the main character is male or female.They are written with a broader outlook, but publishers sometimes get hung up on which slice of the market they are focusing on selling the books to. My worst fear is a publisher giving one of my books a girlie pink cover. I was a tomboy growing up and I still hate pink.” (Jo Franklin)

Jo told me a great children’s book needs to be written from a child’s heart and soul. The voice has to resonate as true. It doesn’t matter whether a book is funny, exciting or mysterious it somehow has to lead the characters on a thrilling journey of self-discovery and include emotional insight as well as enthralling action. Some of the facts of children’s lives are different now – technology dominates their lives – but they still face the emotional journey we all went through.

Her advice is if you want to give writing for children a go, a good way to start is to work on a memory and see where it takes you. How did you feel the first time you saw your mother/father cry? Remember that time you did something wrong and you passed the blame onto someone else with disastrous consequences? What did it feel like to walk into your new school aged eleven? Choose one of these and write for fifteen minutes. See where it takes you.  Enjoy it. Don’t worry about anything other than your joy at putting words on paper.

The next step is to join a writer’s circle, critique group or creative writing class. It’s a great way to begin learning your craft and meeting like-minded people. Perseverance is the thing which differentiates a published author from the many aspiring but unpublished writers.

You can find out more about Jo Franklin, her books and writing life on her website www.jofranklinauthor.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @jofranklin2

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of  Writers’ Forum issue #182 Dec 2016 online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children 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… Jake Hope

Jake Hope (Chair of CILIP’s Youth Libraries Group and Chair of the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards Working Party) talked to me about the importance of children’s books, libraries and children’s book awards. He talked about how stories play such a key role in shaping both who we are and the way we see the world.

Jake_Hope feature 4

Some of his fondest early childhood memories are of being taken to the library with his mum where he would listen to stories read aloud during story times by the authors and the librarians, as well as having the opportunity to browse different books. He explained exploring and experimenting in this way is a hugely empowering and exciting way to discover and widen one’s own tastes.

Throughout his life Jake has immersed himself in exploring different themes and styles of writing. With around 10,000 children’s books commercially published every year, navigating through these to find the right book for the right child at the right time can be a real challenge. Libraries help by offering expert guidance, providing reading groups, schemes to encourage wider reading and to make reading social and creative. With increasing demands on young people’s time, reading has to be framed in a way that makes it responsive and relevant and librarians are experts at this.

Libraries can provide a safe and neutral space where this can happen and where individuals can explore their own tastes in a cost-free, risk-free environment. It is no exaggeration to say that libraries grow the readers of the future and as children’s book writers and illustrators you make this possible.

Youth Library Group

YLG logo jpg

Jake told me that the Youth Libraries Group is all about connections. They are one of the special interest groups of CILIP (the library and information association) and have over 1,500 members. The membership is comprised of librarians working with children and young people in public libraries, in school libraries and for school library services – these are organisations who tailor collections of books to meet curriculum needs and who work to provide support and advice on reading for pleasure and library provision to schools.

The Youth Libraries Group is an extraordinary collective of highly committed and knowledgeable experts who share a unique passion for reading and for library provision for children and young people. The connections the group have means we are able to support through giving advice on what has been published in the past and present, providing access to groups of young readers who can often test manuscripts or provide insight into their reading tastes. They support authors and illustrators through organising events, promotions and competitions to bring greater focus and profile to creators.

Children’s book awards

Print

Children’s book awards play a role in helping to make sure that certain types of book do not go unrecognised. Humorous writing, for example, does not always get the most recognition through awards, though funny books play such an important role in reading for pleasure. Awards like the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, as was, and the Laugh Out Loud awards, the LOLLIES, help to make sure these titles don’t get overlooked.

Jake has been a judge for many book awards such as: the Blue Peter Book Awards, the Costa, the Branford Boase, the Diverse Voices, the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals (whose judging panel I’ve also chaired), the Macmillan Illustration Prize and the STEAM prize and am currently judging Oscar’s Book Prize and the Klaus Flugge award. He also helped to set up the BookTrust Storytime prize.

Having such a populous award landscape enables different types of books to gain focus and creates jumping-on points for readers with different abilities and tastes. Awards remain responsive to the culture and society that they exist within. Jake advises authors to make themselves familiar with these awards and the criteria for judging them.

“A large range of books are published now, but the awards still play a lobbying role. One of the largest areas of focus for this lobbying at the moment is in encouraging diversity and inclusion, helping to make sure that the doors of reading are wide open and are inviting for all.” Jake Hope

Jake elaborated that a great story has something to say to all readers regardless of age. Criteria are a useful way for book awards to appraise a range of different titles and styles of writing, but it’s important not to downplay the overall impact that language, characterisation, plot and style can have on a reader too.

“By working together and creating critical mass we can support one another and build new opportunities. With our combined skills and knowledge we can experiment and excite new generations of readers.” (Jake Hope)

People can easily feel overwhelmed by the huge range of choice that is available and it is easy to feel under-confident about which book might suit which person best at which point in their lives. Book awards can help to build awareness and boost confidence. In spite of the value of awards, it is important not to downplay the fact that every time a reader picks up a book and connects with it, this is the biggest win of all.

The present is not an easy time either for libraries or for authors and illustrators.  Challenging times can present real opportunities for innovation and imagination, however, and by working together and creating critical mass we can support one another and build new opportunities. With our combined skills and knowledge we can experiment and excite new generations of readers.

To find out more about Jake Hope visit his website: www.jakehope.org and follow him on Twitter @jake_hope

To find out more about the Youth Libraries Group visit: www.cilip.org.uk/ylg and follow them on Twitter @youthlibraries

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #223 2020 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children 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… Cas Lester

In September 2017, I interviewed Cas Lester about some of the differences between writing a children’s TV series and writing a children’s book series.

Cas Lester author picture

Cas explained for both children’s dramas for CBBC and her children’s books she always looks for a fresh idea or contemporary ‘spin’ on an existing idea. For example, Mischievous fairy Nixie wears ‘doc martin’ style boots and keeps a wand in one and a spanner in the other because she’s better at DIY than she is at magic. Her Harvey Drew books are based round the contemporary topic of space trash. 

When she is developing her characters and their world she researches the story territory and then does a huge amount of playing around with the idea – she revealed usually way more than is strictly necessary. She wrote a post-it note to make herself actually start to writing the first Harvey Drew manuscript, which she stuck to her laptop. It read: Stop mucking about and write the book.

Cas told me she plans everything as she is not one of those brave writers who can simply start writing and see where the story takes them. She believes this is because she is used to multi-episodic TV dramas where there are multiple writers and they all have to go in the same direction. All the episodes have to head towards the series finale, and the various subplots can’t conflict or be inconsistent. She also writes lots different scenes and chunks of dialogue until she can see the world and hear the characters speak. She explained she can’t write unless she can run the scenes in her head like an animation or a movie.

“I always write a series bible. For the Nixie books I included a calendar of events, the fairy realm, the fairies’ characters, jobs, and catchphrases, what their little houses were like and, crucially, the rules of magic. I am fanatical about consistency of rules. Again, I think this is because of my experience of creating multiple storylines with multiple writers. Inconsistency irks me, and I can’t bear it if rules are broken or fudged for narrative convenience. It’s cheating! My books are inspired by children – sometimes my own.” (Cas Lester)

Cas siad that one of the great things about writing children’s books is that they’re often illustrated. This can help fix the characters and the settings in your head. But not when you write the first book in any series, of course. She think in pictures. So she downloads images to help her get a handle on her characters, settings and key locations.

Cas loves subplots. She explained this is because when you’re making a children’s drama series, the UK law limits the hours a child can work on any day (and rightfully so). So you have a good proportion of scenes without your central protagonist.  Inevitably, this usually means having at least a B and probably a C plot too. Children’s books seem to be more linear.

“My writing is powered by chocolate – not always my own!” (Cas Lester)

do you speak chocolate

She told me how one of the big differences in writing children’s books rather than children’s TV is that the characters on the pages don’t age the same way real children do. She elaborated:

“The fabulous Dani Harmer was, I think, 12, when we cast her to play 10-year-old Tracy Beaker. With every following series she, and the entire child cast, grew a year older. We had to reflect this in the writing. Four series on, you couldn’t have 14-year-old Tracy behaving like a 10-year-old. It also meant we had to add some new, younger, characters in the following series in order to keep the age pitch right for the audience. It was always a nightmare when the children came to the first rehearsals of any follow up series. The boys changed more than the girls. Sometimes they’d shot up several inches, their voices had broken and they’d started shaving.” (Cas Lester)

In her book series there is no passage of time between the books. The characters don’t get older. They stay exactly the same, which Cas finds a lot easier. But she does have an ongoing story line. In the Harvey books it’s the on-going story line about Harvey trying to get home to Earth. With Nixie it’s about how Adorabella the Goody, Goody Fairy is always getting her into trouble with the Fairy Godmother.

When she is pitching an idea for a series, she drafts several story lines – even if only to convince herself that the idea really does have ‘long legs’.

“I always pitch at least two or three more books in the series.  It’s important to show that the subsequent books won’t be formulaic and that there is sufficient (ideally endless) fresh territory to plunder. Interestingly, when OUP commissioned the four Nixie books they wanted one for each season of the year, to tie in with publication dates, which isn’t something that would have occurred to me.” (Cas Lester)

Her tip for other writers interested in writing for children, whether for print or TV, is to remember to write for children as they are NOW and not as they were when you were a child.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #191 Sep 2017 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.

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

You can find out more about Cas Lester and her books on her website, www.caslester.com and on Twitter @TheCasInTheHat

An interview with… Eve Ainsworth

In December 2017, I interviewed award winning children’s author, Eve Ainsworth, about the issues she covers in her YA books and how she develops the different voices for her YA characters.

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She explained:

“My YA books focus mainly on issues I experienced when I was working in schools, or issues I remember facing myself as a teen. I explore topics such as bullying, mental health, toxic relationships and self-harm.” (Eve Ainsworth)

In Damage the themes of self-harm, grief and alcoholism are explored. These are quite dark topics. In my child protection role, I had dealt with self-harm cases within the school and was trained in this area. I had regularly spoken to young people who had harmed and had been taught why so many chose to do so.

Eve told me how she had experienced a recent grief in the loss of her father and how this made the writing process extremely difficult. She’d also had direct experience of alcoholism as my older brother died of drink related illness.

Eve’s aim is to increase awareness and understanding by raising these themes and hopefully help to support those struggling.

“I know when I was young, I felt isolated at times and books helped me to tap into the feelings and emotions I was experiencing. It helped me and ultimately I hope I can help others.” (Eve Ainsworth)

Her favourite thing about writing for young adults is the characters’ voices. She love the way they are vibrant, questioning and constantly encouraging her, pushing herto break down the boundaries she might have set herself.

She reads her pieces out loud and if something sounds out of place or too adult, she’ll delete it immediately. In her head her characters have a total back story, she can tell how they’ll react to something or judge an action. She explained this is because they are part of her for a long time.

“It’s quite a strange process and difficult to describe to non-writers. They often look at me as if I’m mad.” (Eve Ainworth)

She told me that characters often send her in a new direction she wasn’t quite expecting – which is both an exciting and fairly stressful event. She discovered from a conversation in her head with Gabi she was even more vulnerable than she first thought and a lot of her pain and fears were hidden in a deep dark place within her. Eve knew she was going to be feisty and headstrong at the start of the book – but it was only through development and conversations she worked out this was just her ‘front’. Her way of preventing anyone coming too close and hurting her anymore. This is particularly evident in her relationship with her mum. Eve didn’t plan for it to be a difficult relationship. Gabi led me that way.

This information created more plot layers for Eve, so her novel became more than just about ‘self-harm’ – it was now also a book about identity and about relationships. Gabi’s relationship with her Mum became key – as the two are very similar in the way they deal with grief and pain. As the plot evolved it was clear to Eve that Gabi and her mum had to work through their demons together in order to move on and heal.

Eve explained:

“Voices come from having strong, relatable characters. Once you have a well-defined character in your mind, their voice should be unique –and as I mentioned before, the voice will be with me – in my head, like an old friend nagging at me.” (Eve Ainsworth)

Eve told me that to ensure her characters’ voices are different from each other she uses subtle differences in the writing – phrasing and sentence structures to make the characters stand out. She asks ‘would he say that?’ ‘how would she react to this’? The differences become magnified once the characters are fully formed. Development of character is key. Only once you have a strong character can you have a strong voice. Her tips to other writers who want to get the voice of their characters write is to either ‘hot seat’ or write out a questionnaire asking your character several questions.

Think how would they react to a given situation, or how would they feel if this happened? Consider how your character responds – tone, body language, facial expressions and make notes – all these factors will help you to create their unique voice.

Eve suggests you could get your characters to write to each other, a couple of letters each to help develop their different style. Or write a short monologue in the voice of one character – telling their version of a story (whether it be the one you are writing or something completely new). Then, get your other character to tell their version of events. Read both pieces out loud. Do they sound like two individuals, or the same person? If it’s the latter, tweak – look at the words used again, the sentence structure. The tone. Make them different and stand apart.

A final good exercise that Eve shared with Writers’ Forum readers is is to listen to other peoples’ conversations more. Eavesdrop. Notice how voices are unique and make notes about what people are actually saying to each other, how they say it and what they don’t say. Buses and trains are great places for this, and it’s the reason why I carry my notebook everywhere. You never know what you might discover or overhear. Writing is the perfect excuse to be a nosy beast.

You can find out more about Eve Ainsworth’s books on her website: www.eveainsworth.com and Twitter @eveainsworth

 

An interview with… Christopher Lloyd

For my Writing 4 Children column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum this month, I interview Christopher Lloyd about his inspiration for creative non-fiction books.

Christopher Lloyd1

In the interview he explains how he realised that in order for children to explore learning, their own natural curiosity knowledge needed to be stitched back together again, not chopped up into separate subjects and curriculum.

“Afterall, the brain is not divided into separate sections for maths, music, art, languages, history, science – how absurd! It is all connected! So my books became all about ways of connecting knowledge into giant narratives.” (Christopher Lloyd)

Christopher revealed he originally submitted the proposal for What on Earth Happened? as a children’s book but when Bloomsbury bought the rights, they wanted him to write it for adults, so he had to change tracks. Ten years later, the original concept has finally been published (and entirely re-written) as a children’s book: Absolutely Everything! A History of Earth, Dinosaurs, Rulers, Robots and Other Things Too Numerous to Mention.

The first Wallbook timeline books were his first children’s books and they were written as a result of his home educating experience. He stuck sixteen pieces of A4 paper together and started drawing pictures and writing captions. Three months later (and various pencil, and rubbers consumers) the blueprints for the Big History Wallbook were born.

The Big History Timeline Wallbook cover

His latest book, Humanimal, explores the connections between humans and other animals. The whole concept of What on Earth Books is to find new perspectives for looking at the real world – far more amazing than anything you can make up! Once I had finished Absolutely Everything! I was left with the dangling question in my mind – how clever are humans really? Are we so much more advanced and intelligent that other life around us? Or is that just a human arrogance fuelled by ancient religions and modern scientific traditions?

He states:

“Children have an intuitive sense that humans and animals are far closer than many professional adults realise and I thought it would be good to create a book that’s scientifically rigorous but totally accessible to younger people to explore this theme further.” (Christopher Lloyd)

The title Humanimal shows his conclusions were that the links are very strong indeed – far more profound than the differences, hence the need for a new word – describing us all as Humanimal is in many ways, far more accurate than the artificial divisions we wedge between species by using traditional scientific conventions. After all, human DNA is approximately 84% similar to dogs and 98% the same as chimpanzees.

Humanimals

He explained that during the writing process he divided the book into three themes that best characterise what most people would say it means to be human – Living Together, Having Feelings and Being Intelligent. He then researched to see what other animals have behaviours that seem similar and came up with a huge list. It was then a matter of honing them down to see which ones made the best stories and could be backed up by really reliable scientific evidence. The copy then went through a rigorous editing, fact-checking process before he received it back again to make any final stylistic changes with the editor.

His tips for other non-fiction children’s writers is to think what you want to write then think what will make the child go WOW! when they turn the page. There are plenty of triggers for this rush of dopamine in our natural reward system such as powerful visuals, finding out stuff that’s surprising, giving them different routes through the information.

“I think non-fiction had traditionally been poorly served as in terms of the priority given to it by schools in reading schemes and honestly many children find learning about the world we live in so fascinating. I hope that more focus will be given to non-fiction at festivals, in schools and generally in the field of writing for children.” (Christopher Lloyd)

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #222 Apr Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

You can discover more about Christopher Lloyd and his What on Earth Books on his website: www.whatonearthbooks.com and follow him on Twitter: @chrislloydwoep and @whatonearthbook

An interview with… Holly Rivers

In my Writing 4 children column this month (issue #221 Mar of Writers’ Forum) Holly Rivers, explained what inspired her to write a story about a stubborn young inventor called Demelza.

Holly Rivers2

The idea struck her in 2016 and she put pen to paper immediately and very quickly realised she never wanted to stop writing.

“I could see her clearly from the very beginning: her red hair, her cosy attic room, her quirky inventions, and her thinking hat.” (Holly Rivers)

For the first time in her life she had found something she wanted to do every single day for evermore. Holly believes this realisation massively changed her life for the better, and revealed sitting down to write always makes her heart beat a little faster. She explained that she spent a year writing the (very long and very messy) first draft of Demelza and the Spectre Detectors, before spending a further year honing the manuscript on The Golden Egg Academy’s Foundation Course.

Holly told me the fact she is absolutely fascinated by anything spooky, macabre and ghostly inspired her to explore how a logical, science-minded character such as Demelza would react to finding themselves in a mysterious supernatural environment.

“Having an inquisitive stem-girl protagonist was really important to me, and I think there’s quite a lot of young Holly in Demelza. A few of her inventions were things I actually attempted to make as a child — namely the ‘Magnificent Belly Button Cleaner’” (Holly Rivers)

A lot of her inspiration comes from the sci-fi and fantasy books/films she enjoyed as a child such as: Ghostbusters, E.T, Labyrinth, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the books of Roald Dahl, The Goonies, Pippi Longstocking, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.

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Many of her characters are inspired in part by real people, for example Grandma Maeve’s eccentricity, warmth and humour all stem from her own wonderful grandmothers. Ms Cardinal was also inspired by someone, but she wouldn’t say who. Holly said that so much great material can be mined from keeping your ears and eyes open, and I can often be found jotting down snippets of conversations that I’ve overheard, making notes of an unusual mannerism, or sketching an interesting outfit that somebody is wearing.

Demelza jacket lowres

The children she works with are huge inspirations too  and Holly has no doubt that bits of their brilliant (and often mischievous) personalities have found their way into Demelza, Percy and Miranda, and she believes this has made their characters all the richer.

She has also spent a lot of time in Mexico, where Dia de Los Muertos is the annual holiday celebrating the dead and observing the way that different cultures mark death was also a big inspiration for her book.

“Some people can have such a sombre, stiff and austere outlook on death, so I wanted Demelza and the Spectre Detectors to hopefully open up the conversation around death to a young readership in a ‘lighter’ and more accessible way.” (Holly Rivers)

Her writing tip for other children’s fiction writers is to read:

“I try and read or listen to at least one book a week, and I make sure that the titles are diverse and genre-crossing. One week I might be reading a quirky middle grade such as Beetle Boy by M G. Leonard or the latest YA from Frances Hardinge; the next I might be listening to an old Agatha Christie on audio book, and the next I might be dipping back into the Tank Girl comics (for the umpteenth time!)  I feel that most of my own development as a writer has come through exploring, savouring and digesting other people’s work.” (Holly Rivers)

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #221 Mar Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

Find out more about Holly and her books on her website: www.hollyrivers.co.uk, Twitter: @hollyrivers_lit and on Instagram: @hollyriversauthor

Another 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. I have previously interviewed and blogged about Mo O’Hara before when I interviewed her for Papers Pens Poets. Take a look at: An Interview with… Mo O’Hara

Mo O'Hara5

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… 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.