The Wild Way Home is a unique book where the gender of protagonist, twelve-year old Charlie Merriam, is not revealed and is left up to the reader. The story works well with Charlie as a boy just as it does if she is a girl and to be honest I did not think her gender was relevant. However, my preference by the end of the book was to think of Charlie as a girl in that when she is whisked through time to the Stone Age and discovers Harby, he is searching for his baby sister. In contrast Charlie is running away from her baby brother.
Charlie has always wanted a baby brother but when Dara is born on her birthday and the doctors discover he has a heart defect, she is unable to deal with emotional turmoil of her brother’s life-threatening condition and sharing her special day. Her response is to run from her problems and hide in the forest where she loves to play with her friends. A place where she normally feels safe.
Written in the first person we get a deep insight into Charlie’s feelings and wave of mixed emotions at the hospital and on her adventures in the forest that used to be so familiar but has (like her family life) suddenly changed into a ‘wild’ almost unrecognisable landscape. Sophie Kirtley paints vivid descriptions of a Stone Age environment, complete with cave paintings, wolves, spirit songs, primitive tools and a strange new language.
Charlie discovers it is alright to be afraid of change and it is ok to worry about things that happen, which they are unable to control.
“Things happen, bad things sometimes and sometimes people get a bit broken…”
The story emphasises how things are easier when you don’t try to deal with them alone. In this way, The Wild Way Home carries a message of hope that together with love and support from friends and family we can get through the bad times.
A great book for PSHE sessions for discussing the different ways people react and cope with scary situations and ways we can safely manage circumstance that make them anxious.
This month for my Writing 4 Children slot in Writers’ Forum I talk to Michelle Robinson about her latest picture book The World Made a Rainbow, about a young girl’s experiences of being in lockdown.
I reviewed this beautiful picture book written by Michelle Robinson and illustrated by Emily Hamilton on the 5th of January. You can read my review here. Michelle explained to me the idea came after a hectic book week visiting schools and suddenly being told to stay at home. She couldn’t stop thinking about how they all the children must be feeling. .She has two young children of her own and found helping them stay confident and happy through these very sudden, very huge changes to our lives was extremely challenging. Michelle said:
“There have been times when I’ve found myself wanting a grown up to tell me everything’s going to be okay. The World Made a Rainbow is basically me trying to embody that grown up — calm, confident, reassuring and soothing.”
The book is essentially the ink-and-paper version of the rainbows that appeared in windows throughout lockdown. It’s a way of showing children that behind closed doors we’re all in the same situation, and what really matters is to feel safe and loved. Michelle hopes young children will recognise their own lives and feelings within the book’s main character. Her protagonist really demonstrates all the emotions we encounter are legitimate: it’s okay to not love every minute of being stuck indoors with your nearest and dearest, and it’s okay to admit to missing more carefree times.
Michelle revealed she loves writing picture books; she loves the whole process, playing with language, curating words on a page and seeing what direction her stories will take. She never starts with a plan. She explained that she prefers to write in the morning and if something’s not working she just chuck it out and have another go until she is happy.
“Writing early in the day is like running on rocket fuel. I can achieve much more in a couple of premium hours than I can in a whole day of distractions and mind-clutter.”
She explained problems often resolve themselves when you’re not looking directly at them. She also believes that when writing books for children you need to change the scene frequently. No one wants to stay still too long. The best books surprise and delight, take us out of our ordinary worlds and put smiles on our faces.
She also believes that the most difficult part of writing a picture book is getting published. Even as a successful author, with multiple publishers actively seeking texts there are still so many hurdles to leap. This is particularly true since the COVID-19 crisis. Texts now need a really clear message or selling point to get backed — they can’t just be ‘fun for fun’s sake’. It’s a shame. Without the odd leap of faith we’re never going to create miracles.
Great picture books have a magic somewhere you can’t quite put your finger on. It happens between the words and the pictures, and in the idea at the book’s heart. Ideas are what it’s all about. We all enjoy discovering fresh ways of looking at tried and trusted themes.
“Writing for children is a total privilege. Children are the very best humans around, and they deserve our very best work. I love knowing that I still haven’t created my best books.”
If you’re trying to write picture books, Michelle’s tip is to try copying out the text of a few great ones into Word documents. Stripping away the art lets you focus on the skill of writing. Leave breaks for page turns, take note of how many words there are per spread, not just the overall word cunt. How does the document look compared to yours? Most picture books land on editor’s desks in this form, they never arrive fully realised. Is yours truly strong enough to make someone want to work on it for two or three years?
You can find out more about Michelle Robinson and her books on social media:
The Wacky Bee Buzzy Reads series were launched in 2020. They are a quick read books ideal for children to read independently.
Nina’s Amazing Gift is about a young girl whose best friend, Choco has moved away. Nina is convinced her life will never be happy again. Then a mysterious envelope arrive from Choco. It contains five strange brown beans. Meanwhile, Raymond and Nigella and their sous chefs arrive in town for a cooking competition. Nina watches the contest from high up in the branches of the cherry tree she used to climb with Choco in the town square. She has the beans Choco sent to her in her pocket. Unknown to Nina the beans are cocoa beans.
It is hard to imagine a world where people have never tasted pizza, pancakes, chips and spaghetti. When the contestants start cooking these ‘new’ foods the judges get extremely excited. Maya Lunde weaves a hilarious creative tale of how Nina discovered chocolate, which she names after her best friends and becoming a late entry into the cooking competition.
At the back of the book there are some interesting true facts about chocolate and it is revealed the original illustrations by Hans Torgen Sandnes that have been reproduced throughout Nina’s Amazing Gift were actually made with chocolate. They are currently stored in a cold basement at a secret location, safe in plastic folders. After reading this amazing fact I had to go back and study each illustration in depth to absorb the fantastic detail and use of colour. Ingenious!
There is also a recipe for chocolate brownies at the back of the book, which could be undertaken at home or as a food technology session within school.
In my Research Secrets slot in February issue of Writers’ Forum Aliya Whiteley told me about her debut non-fiction book, a fascinating insight into fungi entitled, The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World.
Aliya usually writes speculative fiction such as her horror short stories Fearsome Creatures from Black shuck Books (Oct 2020) and her novel Greensmith from Unsung Books, which deals with seed banks and viruses and the current global threat to diversity. (Nov 2020). She explained she had no plans to write a non-fiction book on any subject.
Her novel, The Beauty, imagines a future in which fungi and humanity combine, and since its publication in 2014 people have sometimes sent her photographs and news clippings about fungi. She has always been interested in the subject, but the way it resonated strongly with readers really struck home.
Aliya was contacted by an editor at Elliott & Thompson who had read a few of her novels and thought she might be able to bring something unusual, elements of strangeness and surprise, to a non-fiction book about fungi they had planned. This interest from an editor just gave her the push she needed.
As can be imagined fungi is a huge area of knowledge – fungi are connected to all aspects of life and death on this planet – and Aliya knew there was no way for her to approach an expert level of understanding in the time she had available for writing the book so she looked for what she could bring to the project. She started with an overview from Oxford University Press’ A Very Short Introduction To… series, and made loads of notes.
“I decided to concentrate on different angles that would allow me to concentrate on using language in a lyrical and involving way. I wanted to get readers excited so they might go and read further if they wanted to find out more.”
She split the information she discovered from her research into three main areas: ‘Erupt’, ‘Spread’, and ‘Decay’. ‘Erupt’ dealt with new life and new beginnings, futuristic and ongoing scientific developments, and people who have found a growing love for fungi through cooking and foraging. ‘Spread’ loosely covered all sorts of fungi from around the world. ‘Decay’ dealt with their role in death, in illness, and in dark literature. These categories really helped Aliya to get her thoughts together and turn it into a cohesive book.
Aliya revealed she found fungi in space a fascinating area of study, and the NASA website helpful. She said:
“Just searching for ‘fungi’ uncovered so many interesting articles, developments and proposals. One of my favourites involves plans to grow habitable shelters on Mars from radiation-resistant fungi.”
A tip for other non-fiction writers which she found useful was to take notes by hand. She explained created a better link between the vast subject of fungi and her brain, and enabled her to get a handle on some very challenging material, such as scientific or medical papers. A few days after taking those notes, she would try to describe what she had learned in her own words, just to see how well she had grasped the information and if she could do the trickier aspects of the subject justice. This enabled her to concentrate her thoughts, and also develop some confidence in them.
A captivating story about a young girl coming to terms with dramatic changes to her lifestyle. Katya Balen weaves an intriguing tale of family relationships and building friendships, which tugs at the heart strings and is unforgettable.
October has been bought up by her father in the forest. She helps her father coppice the trees and views herself as part of the ‘circle of life’. She finds an abandoned baby owl, names it ‘Stig’ and takes care of it. On her eleventh birthday her estranged mother comes to see her and October climes the tallest tree in the forest to hide. Her dad follows her and falls. He is taken to the hospital and to October’s horror she has to go live with her mother in London and Stig has to go to a bird sanctuary.
Katya is an expert at creating vivid, lyrical descriptions to evoke all of the reader’s senses. I particularly enjoyed the way she uses the shape of word, the space and position of the words on the page to emphasise dramatic moments, such as when dad falls from the tree. Also, how poetry is mixed with prose to compare October’s life in the forest to life in London.
Throughout the book all conversations are echoed in October’s thoughts but we never see the actual physical speech on the page, which underscores October’s social deficiencies. It is evident that October’s communication skills are limited and she take everything very literally as she has lived her whole life alone with her father who could understand her but has never had to communicate with others.
The black and White illustrations of the owl scattered on the corner of the pages by Angela Harding depict Stig the Owl at different stages of its lifecycle. They are a beautiful additions that add depth to the story mirroring the text how life goes on and things change as they get older. We see October grow, adapt and change and learn to merge old elements of her life with the new.
October October the ideal book for prompting discussion about our environment, friendship and identity. Also, a great book for both adult and children’s book groups.
In April 2009 I interviewed children’s novelist, Cliff McNish, about his love of research and how he believes it is essential for writing fantasy novels.
Cliff told me he loves research because it can spin stories in utterly new directions. He believes research is truly the ultimate lateral-thinking tool. He explained as writers we mostly tend to find our thoughts tethered to more or less the same highly travelled and well-worn themes, plots and characters, but research can shatter that dismaying truth.
For example, in his ghost story, Breathe, he needed to know what the average early 19th century rural English family ate. Whilst searching online he found some information about rural poverty in the 1820’s and how families in that era routinely saved one fifth of their wages purely to pay for funerals. This fact influenced the direction of his ghost story.
“The big problem for fantasy writers is that as soon as you depart from the real world readers forever teeter on the edge of disbelieving your creation. Fantasy writers have a whole host of techniques to make our made-up things feel authentic and believable, but good research is probably the main one.”
For example, in The Wizard’s Promise he sent gangs of children to modern Tokyo. The children can fly and create spells, and terrorize the magic-less adults but was grounded in the reality of the urban city. To ensure this Cliff checked the street layout, the tallest buildings, other landmarks and even the food.
He explained that fantasy authors and readers have an immense hunger for details that are or at least feel real.
“It’s part of the fantasy author’s contract with his/her audience, really – I’ll make things up, but dear reader you will understand the rules, and I’ll keep them consistent, and when I do refer to real world facts I’ll have done my research, the information will be reliable, depend on it.”
In his novel Silver World there is an alien attack starting in frozen Antarctic waters. To make it feel authentic Cliff checked which islands/ice floes the attacking creature would reach first and what animals and species of birds lived on them. This research personalized the story and gave him focus.
He discovered albatrosses live in those seas and they fly faster than any other bird over great distances. He then put himself in the position of those albatross and imagined he knew what was coming: death, unless they could outfly it. Cliff revealed he ended up becoming very absorbed in the lives of these birds, but the spark for the scene was research.
“Facts become emotions in the end, if they’re dwelled on for long enough by an active imagination. And research + imagination = creativity.”
Cliff’s teenage moral drama Angel, has non-religious guardian angels beating their wings across the skies. Research into angel ‘sightings’ showed one of the most commonly held beliefs amongst Angelologists is that when they visit us our guardian angel leaves as a calling card one of its feathers. Cliff decided that for his novel even after an angel dies (in his novel they are mortal), the feathers outlast them a little, and can still provide comfort for a short time to someone who needs it. Without research, he would never have thought of that.
For his novel, Savannah Grey, he created a creature that arrived on our world three billion years ago. It was a predator and was seeking to hit the apex of the food chain to become the dominant animal, the ne plus ultra. He decided nature should battle this creature throughout time, which has meant a lot of evolutionary research. Not only to discover what natural enemies this creature would come across (starting with single-celled organisms), but what order those species would arrive in, when the first plants come to light, the first backboned fish, the first telescopic eyes.
In contrast his heroine has to a throat weapon and extraordinary eye-sight. To find out how throat consultants and optical technicians would investigate such aspects he interviewed hospital specialists in those fields . The result was a dark fantasy novel, for which the bedrock of the research makes it feel real.
A great book for sparking the imagination and fostering a sense of curiosity about space. Jakob lives on the edge of the galaxy on a space station. One day he finds a broken down, old space train and with the help of his Granny and a robot chicken called Derek, sets about fixing it so they can explore the universe. Toolbot, the grumpy robot, adds a touch of comedy with his lazy, reluctant to help attitude.
The illustrations are full-spread bright red and oranges with fascinating detail to give the picture book a futuristic feel. It is advertised as having lift-the-flap technology and peep through holes to reveal the workings of the space train but unfortunately my copy did not have these features. I suspect they are only in the hardback.
Scattered throughout the book is a column to the right of the double page spread which is Jakob’s log where he explains interesting facts about eh space station, his hopes for what he might discover when the space train is fixed and tells the reader a little about the new worlds and moons he visits in the space train. Although, we do not actually see them visiting these worlds in the story.
This would be the perfect gift for highlighting the adventures children can have with their grandparents and I particularly like the way if is Granny who is helping him with the fixing.
In the March 2018 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Jackie Marchant about her Dougal Daley series and how it was revived from the dead. Jackie told me her inspiring story of how the books were given an incredible face lift by changing the name of the main character and using a new illustrator, after meeting Louise Jordan at the London Book Fair.
Jackie explained the idea to write for children came by accident, after her son asked a question about writing a will, which left her wondering – why would a boy need to write a will? Who would he leave his possessions to and why? Later, while standing knee deep in his messy bedroom, the following words popped into Jackie’s head – To my mother I leave the mess in my bedroom, to put into bin liners and throw out of the window – I know that has always been her greatest wish. That is how Dougal Daley was born – and those words are in the first book.
Her idea and first draft got her an agent and a two-book deal with a major publisher. This was all hugely exciting. The original Dougal did not have the surname Daley. He was called Dougal Trump. The author on the cover was D. Trump. Her first published book was called I’m Dougal Trump – it’s NOT my Fault! This was before a certain other D. Trump became quite so well known.
“I was unsure about doing school visits and my publisher thought it would be a great idea to make out that Dougal was the author of the books himself. His name would go on the cover rather than mine, but I wouldn’t have to face the angst of standing before a bunch of kids to explain myself (honestly couldn’t think of anything more terrifying). So, the series was launched and all was well.”
Then disaster struck. She lost my wonderful editor, who went freelance, her editor’s boss, who loved Dougal, her publicist, the marketing person and most of ‘team Dougal.’ At the same time, Book Two was coming out, with fewer pre-orders than Book One and Book Three was turned down.
“I can’t say for sure this is why Book Three was turned down and the series killed, but I have heard that this is not unusual. And I know a few authors who have had the same thing happen to them. It’s horrible. It makes you feel as though you’ve failed as a writer. That nagging doubt that your agent and publisher were deluded in taking you on comes and whacks you where it hurts most – in your author’s already fragile self-esteem.”
Jackie revealed to me she felt like a failure. Then she went to the London Book Fair. That is where she stumbled across Wacky Bee Books. After talking to Louise Jordan, founder and owner of Wacky Bee, Louise ordered the first book of the Dougal Trump series online. A few days later, she contacted Jackie to say she loved it and would like to publish all three books with new titles.
“Things are looking up and I feel like a proper author again. I hope my perseverance inspires others not to give up hope.”
You can read a review of Jackie Marchant’s third book in this series, Dougal Daley II’m Phonomenal, on my blog here.
Claire Freedman’s adapted version of The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett has been illustrated by Shaw Davidson to produce the perfect picture book for older children. Launched in 2020 to coincide with the release of the new movie.
Follow Mary Lennox from India to Yorkshire, England, and watch her change from a sullen, over-privileged girl who has never tied her own shoes, to a happy, caring young woman. In her adventures, Mary meets Dickon’s, a young boy who can talk with animals. Together they discover the garden hidden behind the mysterious locked door and help her sick cousin, Colin, to recover. Guided by a remarkable red robin, Mary grows simultaneously with the amazing secret garden.
For over a century children, young adults, and adults of all ages have been touched by this masterpiece now it can be enjoyed in this fabulous picture book by KS1 and KS2 too. Claire Freedman and Shaw Davidson encapsulate Mary’s, Dickon’s and Colin’s characters impeccably keeping them true to the originals. This picture book brings the old 1911 classic alive by giving it a new energy. You can really see the garden blooming back to life in this magical adventure.
KS2 children will enjoy reading this book alone and it is ideal for reading aloud to KS1 during story time.
In February 2017, I interviewed literary agent Anne Clark about her children’s book agency and the kinds of books she would love to find in her submissions inbox for Writers’ Forum.
The Anne Clark Literary Agency started life nearly eight years ago. Before then, Anne worked in children’s publishing as a commissioning editor and editorial director for twenty years, at Hodder Children’s Books and Piccadilly Press. Her first jobs were in publicity and educational publishing.
She told me that she started the agency because it was the right time for new adventure, one which meant she could still do the things I like doing most – working with authors and publishers to get new books out into the world for children and teenagers to read and enjoy.
She explained children’s books are a joy because there is such freedom and variety in terms of subject and style. In a typical morning she might be dealing with a clumsy fairy, a shapeshifting cat burglar, a boy who thinks he’s an alien and a girl struggling with her body image. Children’s writers can draw on magic and fantasy without finding themselves stuck in a particular genre. She enjoys rigour in getting things right for a particular age group – the right language, right content. She said foreign rights are also an important part of children’s publishing giving it an international feel.
Anne revealed the best children’s books get the fundamentals correct: memorable characters you want to spend time with, and gripping stories which keep you turning the pages. Successful children’s authors don’t talk down to kids and they often show young people taking control of their worlds in some way, whether it’s a four-year-old with a tricky witch or a teenager with a bullying boyfriend. They may tackle difficult subjects but they offer hope. Her favourite books also stretch readers’ minds, taking them somewhere new and interesting – maybe to a Tokyo where mythical monsters roam, wartime London or inside the head of a refugee.
“An agent needs to be a talent-spotter, able to spot a promising newcomer at a hundred paces; a nurturer of authors, offering editorial direction, honest feedback and encouragement in wobbly moments; a market expert, in touch with trends and editors’ wish lists and pet hates; a shrewd salesperson; a negotiator of deals; and a champion of her authors.”
When she opens a manuscript from a new writer, she first looks for the author’s voice, and that comes over very quickly – in the first few lines and certainly within the first page or two. If she like the voice – if it feels confident, distinctive and fresh – she’ll keep reading. But she won’t be sure I want to work on a project until she has read the whole manuscript, because she is also looking for an author who can shape a whole story and take it to a satisfying conclusion.
Anne’s tip to children’s writers is to spend time identifying and sharpening your book’s unique hook – it could be an unusual setting, an original style, a unique character or perhaps a surprising combination of familiar elements – and how best to express it. You might need to make some changes to bring your hook to the fore, and it’s a good idea to reflect the hook in the title if you can.
When you are ready to approach an agent, her advice is: be focused. Keep your letter short and to the point. Start with a very short pitch for your book, briefly summing up the story and the hook, and follow up with relevant information about yourself. Be friendly but business-like – mention any courses, prizes and other experience, and don’t go into detail about your family unless it has a direct bearing on your writing. Don’t be apologetic or claim to be the next J K Rowling. And of course: make sure your manuscript is as good as it can be; and follow each agent’s submissions guidelines!