Spring special round up!

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I’ve had a lovely few weeks finding out just some of what’s new and coming soon from the world of children’s books.  Thank you to all those who’ve joined the blog over the last month and shared some book-ish inspiration; it’s great to see there’s so much to celebrate in the world of children’s and YA literature. We started with stargazing and ended with bananas and Beyonce!! With reviews, introductions to debut novels and author interviews, it’s been a busy month.

A snapshot of our spring special interviews:

“I want my books to feel ‘realistic’ and address genuine challenges, but I also want to them to entertain and provide a certain amount of escapism for the reader.” Jenny McLachlan, author.

“When you get right down to it, every child is different but they all deserve the chance to become readers” Hannah Rolls, Editor, Bloomsbury

“..I think hope is important, because stories can be there to guide us through difficult times. They are a light in the darkness, and so it’s important not to switch out the light.” Gill Lewis, author.

“I’m concerned about the ways our loyalty to our own group can mean refusal to empathise and understand others.” Alice Broadway, author.

“Throw all the bad stuff you’ve got at your main character… and then make it even worse.” Simon James Green, author.

“Publishing is the most glorious random thing; no one really knows what will be ‘the next big thing’!” Rachel Hickman, author & Deputy MD of Chicken House

“Writing is a skill like any other–one which you get better and better the more you do. If your first attempt doesn’t quite make it, try again.” Hayley Barker, author.

“There’s so much to learn from hearing authors speak live about their writing, their influences and their experiences.” Victoria Henderson, Director of Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival.

With an ever growing TBR shelf, look out for lots of new reviews coming soon!.  Thank you to all the publishers for sending me these books to review:

 

 

 

Author Interview: Simon James Green

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Simon James Green is the author of Noah Can’t Even, a story described as “snort-laugh-out-loud” funny!  Simon was an Undiscovered Voices finalist in 2016 and is also a screenwriter and director; Noah Can’t Even is his first novel and will be published by Scholastic on 4th May.  I’m delighted to welcome Simon to the blog today; thank you for joining us!

You can’t help but smile when you see the cover of ‘Noah Can’t Even’! Tell us what the story is about. It’s a funny, sweet, coming-of-age (and coming out) story about learning to be brave enough to be yourself. On the cusp of his 16th birthday, Noah longs to be accepted by his cool classmates. He thinks one way to social success might be to kiss Sophie, the most fabulous girl in the school. But Noah’s plans go awry when his best mate, Harry, kisses him instead and a chain of events is unleashed that turns Noah’s life upside down – with laugh-out-loud consequences!

What was the inspiration behind the central character Noah? Admittedly, there’s quite a lot of me in Noah. We both grew up in small towns and I certainly wasn’t one of the cool kids at school either. We also both have slightly geeky obsessions with Agatha Christie, although I must point out that my mum has never done a Beyoncé tribute act! Growing up is all about working out who you are and what you want to be, and sometimes that takes a certain amount of bravery. I wanted Noah to be dealing with those types of issues and be battling with feelings that he couldn’t (or refused to) understand. Noah worries about fitting in; he has that need to be accepted and liked, and he ties himself up in knots worrying about what people think about him. You eventually reach a point in life where you couldn’t give a damn about any of that, but for Noah, it’s a very real concern. Finally, when I think about my own teenage years, and when I think about why I love writing about this age group so much, it’s the fact so much of what you experience feels heightened. That’s probably because you’re being faced with a lot of things for the first time and you don’t always have the experience to know how to deal with it and know it’ll all work out OK. As a result, you make rash, irrational and sometimes plain crazy decisions. Of course, making those mistakes is how you learn, but in the meantime, it’s often comedy gold! (Although at the time, I definitely was not laughing!)

You were selected for the SCBWI’s Undiscovered Voices 2016 – this must have been very exciting; how did this come about? UV was such a fantastic experience! Two people really encouraged me to apply – my friend, the author Katie Dale, and my editor at the Golden Egg Academy, Jenny Glencross. I sent in the first two chapters and was staggered when I was not only long-listed, but then was actually one of the winners who would be included in the anthology. From there I was contacted by over 20 agents in both the UK and USA, who all wanted to read the full manuscript and within 7 months I’d signed with Jo Moult at Skylark Literary and had a book deal with Scholastic. I mean, it’s a fairy tale, right? It was such a fast, exciting, roller coaster of an experience and I’m so grateful to everyone at UV for everything they’ve done for me. And, to you all writers out there looking for rep, UV is open for submissions for the 2018 anthology, so get submitting – it’s life changing!

How has writing your first novel differed from writing screenplays? One of the key differences is all the extra stuff you need to put into a novel. With a screenplay, you generally allow the actor to interpret the lines and action in order to show the audience how they are feeling and what’s going on for them internally. With a novel, you need to get that on the page a lot more, and that was a big challenge for me at first. I’m also used to a much faster turnaround time with screenplays (I once had to do a rewrite in 48 hours), so it was lovely being able to work on the manuscript for longer than I’m used to.

As a coming-of-age novel, what do you hope readers will gain from reading Noah Can’t EvenFirstly, I really hope people have a good laugh reading Noah Can’t Even. I’m a big fan of funny books and I hope that when the humour in Noah is combined with some of the sweeter moments, it’s a book that gives you all the feels. And that’s what growing up is all about, right? You laugh, you cry… you screw it all up and make it all better again. I hope people read it and think – ‘that’s OK, what I’m going through isn’t completely weird and unusual then.’ But fundamentally, I wrote Noah for the same reason I write screenplays or I direct for stage and TV – I enjoy entertaining people and I hope it makes them happy.

The audience for YA novels is growing, which is great news for all concerned not least those reading the books! Were you a reader when you were a teenager? Yes, massively! I loved Agatha Christie as a teen and read loads of her books, but I also devoured Adrian Mole, The Catcher in the Rye, and most of Stephen Fry’s books, to name just a few of my favourites.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? Throw all the bad stuff you’ve got at your main character… and then make it even worse. That’s exactly what I’ve tried to do with Noah – in every chapter I turn the screws just a little bit more, until he’s basically in an impossible position. It’s a great way to drive the story, up the stakes and keep the reader interested!

And finally….have you got a thing for bananas and Beyonce?! Hasn’t everyone?! Actually, I think ‘Bananas and Beyoncé’ would be a great title should I ever write my autobiography!

Thanks so much Simon for sharing your experiences with us. We wish you every success with Noah Can’t Even!

Find out more at www.simonjamesgreen.com and on Twitter @simonjamesgreen.

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Just in time for spring: Inkpots Inc interview

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A brand new and exciting online creative writing club for children aged 8-11 years, Inkpots Inc, is launching on 1st May!  And here to tell us all about it on the blog today is Inkpots founder Gill Pawley. Gill and I met last year and share a mutual love of all things creative! Welcome Gill, thank you for joining us.

Tell us about the work you do at Inkpots. Inkpots is for children who love writing, drawing and reading and we run after school clubs and holiday workshops to help them develop their skills. Our groups are also really fun, happy places so that children have a great time too. We’re also able to offer support for those children who don’t always find it easy to express themselves on paper.

What was the inspiration behind Inkpots Inc? I ran out of days to run after school clubs!  I run them five days a week – but I know that there are lots of children who would still love to come to Inkpots but can’t get to a club locally. I have actually discovered that there are children around the UK and in other countries who are interested, so it seemed the logical step to start an online club which can be accessed wherever you are.

You’ve invited parents and children to be involved right from the start –how important has this been in the development of the idea? It’s essential. I can come up with lots of plan and idea – and I do! – but if they are not what children want and will respond to, it’s just a complete waste of time. Inkpots Inc just wouldn’t be happening without the fabulous feedback I have had from parents and children – from existing families, as well as new ones too.

It must be a huge amount of work setting up on online club; what has the process involved? It has been a lot of work but I have had a great team of people working with me. The first step was to do lots of research, we then built the membership site within our existing website – some wonderful website wizards actually did that bit. Then the fun stuff, like developing all the materials, recording videos and working out monthly activities. One of the best bits has been producing the monthly newsletter for Inkpots Inc children – many of our older Inkpots have been very involved in the writing of that, so it’s been like having our very own editorial team.

In addition to this, you run after school clubs and holiday sessions. How will the two work together? They are already working together. The ideas from Inkpots are feeding into Inkpots Inc and vice versa. Things that I have planned for the online club can also be done at after school clubs too so it’s like a big creative hub to dive in to. There are also some Inkpots children who are going to join the club so that they can do things with friends and relatives who live some distance from Sussex.

What would your three top tips be for anyone starting out or expanding a new business venture? Look after your health is my main tip – make sure you get plenty of exercise and fresh air (I have had to be really strict with myself in the run up to the launch. Also make sure you have me or two business buddies who really get what you do, and finally, believe in yourself – you can do more than you think!

Thank you Gill for sharing all about Inkpots Inc and we wish you every success with the launch!

Find out more at www.inkpots.org.

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Author Interview: Hayley Barker

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Hayley Barker’s debut novel Show Stopper will be published by Scholastic on 1st June 2017.  Described by her editor, Lauren Fortune, as “dazzling and dark, heartbreaking and heart-racing” Show Stopper is a YA novel set in a dark and not so death defying circus.  I’m very excited to welcome Hayley to the blog today to tell us all about her new novel and the inspiration behind it.  Thank you for joining us today Hayley!

Show Stopper sounds thrilling – I’m looking forward to reading it! Tell us about your inspiration for the book. Thank you so much! When I was younger, I loved reading circus stories. The circus always seemed to be an almost magical place, one which operated outside of the normal rules of society, and the life the circus folk lead was so exciting -free and wild and wonderful. Because of that, I had been thinking for a while that I would really like to write my own story set in the circus.

When I started writing Show Stopper, there were lots of reports in the media about the growing wave of hostility towards ethnic minorities and immigrants in England. Groups with extreme right wing views were gaining momentum, not just in England, but across Europe, and the right wing press was becoming more and more vocal in its suggestions that the faults of the country all lay at the hands of immigrants. It made me feel worried about where we were heading and I wanted to try address this concern in some way in my writing. The two ideas merged in my mind and the concept of a truly terrible circus, which is far from magical, was formed.

You’ve chosen a unique setting for the novel. What research did you do to inform creating the setting of a circus? It must have been fascinating! I read a few books about the traditional circuses of the past and researched anything else I needed to know about as I was writing. If anyone was to look at my internet search history, there would be some bizarre and slightly disturbing results on there! Subjects I’ve researched include, medieval torture methods, how Tasers work, ways in which the Nazis used the body parts of people they had exterminated in the concentration camps, and traditional and extreme circus acts. In the book, Hoshiko balances a stool on the high wire and then stands on it. Believe it or not, this is not only possible but has been done before – you can watch someone do the very same thing on Ukraine’s Got Talent on YouTube!

Tell us about Show Stoppers’ protagonists – Ben and Hoshiko, who have very different backgrounds.  Ben is a Pure, one of the leading elite in the country. His mother is a really important political figure with leadership aspirations, and he is surrounded by people who hate the Dregs– the suppressed underclass of Immigrants and ethnic minorities. He befriends a Dreg servant, Priya, and begins to question everything has been told about the Dregs being inferior. When he goes to the Cirque and sees Hoshiko, he is captivated by her and determines to rescue her from her terrible fate.

Hoshiko is the star of the show, a brilliant high wire and trapeze artiste. She has been witness to the torture and murder of many of the people she cared about and she herself experiences horror on a nightly basis. She is fiercely loyal to her friends in the circus and feels trapped and embittered about the life they are forced to lead, and angry and resentful towards the Pures. When Ben tries to befriend, and then rescue her, she is far from grateful, but slowly comes to see that not all Pures are prejudiced and cruel.

Did you always intend on including a romance or did that evolve? I did always want the story to have a romance at its heart. I felt like a lot of YA fiction included love triangles or one-sided relationships. I wanted a Romeo and Juliet style love story, one about love at first sight which becomes deeper, a love which redeems and heals. The overall message of the novel is that love is stronger than hate, and that we can always change things if we are determined enough. I think that message, while certainly not a new one, is important and true.

You’ve been a secondary school teacher for 18 years. How has this helped you in terms of your insight into writing for a YA audience?  I think any good teacher needs to be able to relate to and understand the people they teach. Young adults don’t deserve to be patronised, they have real concerns and worries and they think deeply at the world they live in. They don’t want to be lectured to and like stories which have a dark and sinister edge. They want page-turners– books which keep them hooked from the start. That was what I tried to achieve when I was writing Show Stopper.

As a debut author, what are your three top tips for anyone starting out on the road to trying to get a book published? My first tip is to believe in yourself: believe you can do it and try, try, try. I think the difference between a pipe dream and an ambition is simply the action you take to fulfil it. The minute you commit to a plan, and do everything you can to achieve it, your dream becomes an ambition – one which is possible and achievable.

My second tip links to the first and it is to keep going in the face of rejection. Writing is a skill like any other–one which you get better and better the more you do. If your first attempt doesn’t quite make it, try again.

My third tip is to go to the Winchester Writers’ festival, or another similar event. I went when I had completed the first draft of Show Stopper and booked four incredibly useful 1-1 appointments with literary agents. Not only did it ensure that that they had all looked carefully at my writing, but I also got lots of illuminating and useful feedback. All four agents were positive about my writing and wanted to see more, which was a real boost and I also got some excellent tips for further improvement.

Thank you Hayley for these fantastic tips and sharing your writing experience with us.

Follow Hayley on Twitter @HayleyABarker.

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Perfect picture books for tiny countryside explorers!

Just in time for spring! These two lovely new picture books from Nosy Crow and The National Trust are all about encouraging young readers to look and see in the countryside.

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Colours: A Walk in the Countryside by Rosalind Beardshaw, features a little boy and a little girl going for a walk and seeing what colours they can spot. On each page, a colour is identified and then the reader is encouraged to see what else they can find in that colour. With cheerful and vibrant illustrations, the two lovely characters and all the creatures they meet are brought to life on the lovely ramble through the countryside.

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The final page brings all the colours together and young readers will delight in seeing what they can find for every colour of the rainbow! It’s an interactive read that could easily be reflected on your next walk through the countryside, encouraging children to notice the wonderful nature and wildlife all around them.

 

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Look and Say what you see on the Farm by Sebastien Braun is a lovely and informative book encouraging youngsters to join in with animal sounds, spot various farm objects and practice saying words together. Interactive seek and find elements add will keep little ones thoroughly engaged and they’ll learn all about life on the farm.

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The illustrations are bright and lively and each page describes the role of the different areas of a farm; from milking the cows to bee-keeping. Lots of questions will get the reader thinking and make this is a lovely book to share!

With a clear font and accessible vocabulary, Colours: A Walk in the Countryside and Look and Say what you see on the Farm could be enjoyed by very young children and those just learning to read. Perfect springtime reads, they would make a great addition to any young reader’s bookshelves.

For more information visit www.nosycrow.com or www.nationaltrust.org.uk

With thanks to Nosy Crow for sending me these books to review.

Editor Interview: Hannah Rolls on Bloomsbury High Low Fiction

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I’m delighted to welcome Hannah Rolls, Editor at Bloomsbury who works on the brilliant Bloomsbury High Low books.  Published this spring, the series aims to encourage and support reading practice by providing gripping, age-appropriate stories for struggling and reluctant readers, those with dyslexia, or those with English as an additional language. The High Low series is produced in association with reading experts at CatchUp, a charity which aims to address underachievement caused by literacy and numeracy difficulties.

Hopewell High, The Street, Mission Alert and Skate Monkey are four new series in the High Low range offering exciting and dynamic stories. Each title is printed on tinted paper with a dyslexia friendly font and a recommended reading and interest age. Thanks for joining us Hannah!

Tell us a bit about your role at Bloomsbury. I look after the educational fiction list. That means I’m always on the lookout for stories which might be useful in schools – either to help children who are learning to read or to tie into topics they will be covering. My job includes a bit of everything: negotiating contracts, editing manuscripts, writing briefs for illustrators, talking to teachers about what they need, wandering around bookshops to see what is going on in the world of children’s books…

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The High Low series is great! Can you tell us a bit about the series and what makes these books more accessible than standard paperbacks? We know there are loads of children out there who struggle with reading – because English isn’t their first language, because they have dyslexia or another special educational need, or just because they didn’t ‘get’ it when all their peers did. But poor reading skills have a massive impact on children’s chances in life – struggling to read is closely linked with low pay and unemployment.

So, to try and help tackle this problem, the High Low series was developed so that the interest age of the books is higher than the reading age (you can see both printed on the back near the barcode) so that children who are struggling with reading don’t get stuck with books they find babyish or boring. The typeface we use is one that is recommended by the British Dyslexia association so it is really clear, and we also use cream paper to improve things for anyone with Irlen syndrome or other visual problems associated with dyslexia. We look carefully at the plots and the language to make sure they will be readable and engaging to our target audience and we try to keep the books quite short so that everyone can get the satisfaction of finishing a story!

How do you go about commissioning the High Low books? First, I looked at what other children that age would be likely to be reading. I was really keen that we should cover a wide range of different genres and that if their friends were all reading the latest superhero or spy book, that we would be able to give the struggling readers something that looked cool in the same way.  We don’t have every genre covered yet but I hope we will soon.

Then, I talked to some authors (some I had worked with before and some I hadn’t) about what they might want to write about and tried to match that up with things I knew were popular. I also did some research into what can help struggling readers, and had a lot of meetings with the design and production teams about typefaces and paper!

The series was produced in association with CatchUp; what was their role? CatchUp are key in making sure everything is as tailored as it can be for struggling readers. They have experienced teachers who act as language editors for me – they spend a lot of their time working with struggling readers so they can advise on whether a sentence structure is too hard, if a particular word or plot twist will be sensitive in schools, and even a word has gone out of fashion in the playground! They also took a close look at design of the series and the font to help us make sure we got that right.

And finally, what do you think is the key to successful books for children/young people with specific learning needs or who are reluctant readers? I think the key is to remember that they aren’t all the same – some of them will think it is the coolest thing ever that a giant octopus fights an underwater dragon in Skate Monkey: Fear Mountain whereas some of them will be engaging with the emotional struggles of the girls at Hopewell High… Some of them will be struggling because they are newcomers to the English language, some will have specific difficulty and some will just have found books a bit boring! I always try to make our books as … as possible: as funny as possible, as exciting as possible, as dramatic as possible, and so on. When you get right down to it, every child is different but they all deserve the chance to become readers.

Thank you Hannah for sharing some insight into your work and about the High Low Fiction series.

For more information visit www.bloomsbury.com

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Libray-versary: a decade in school libraries!

This time ten years ago I took my first steps as a School Librarian. I can’t actually believe it’s been ten years.  It was never my plan to work in a school library, dare I say it?! But I’ve always been a reader and always loved books. I loved visiting the public library as a young girl, taking out as many books as I was allowed, devouring them one after another.  This was where I discovered some of my favourite authors –  causing a few raised eyebrows as I took out virtually an entire shelf of books by the same author!

I’d had various ideas about what I wanted to do when I grew-up, but as is often the case life happens and plans change or adapt.  When I did my degree, I recall thinking the Classification unit was really quite boring and I would avoid the Dewey System if I could…! I worked in events management initially after University and as a ‘born organiser’ (as my parents would say), this suited me very well and I loved it.  The arrival of children meant it was difficult to balance this career (late nights, long days and lots of travelling) with parenting and this is when I applied to work in a local school in the library. I will admit like many who are attracted to working in schools, the hours and holiday times were well-suited to family life. But little did I know this would lead me to discover a brand new career and rekindle my passion for books.  Not that I had ever stopped reading; I hadn’t, but I had never thought about sharing and encouraging others to discover a love for reading, beyond my book group.

It was a huge culture shock going from industry to working in a school. After six weeks I had a complete panic and went to see the Personnel Manager to discuss handing my notice in.  She was brilliant – kind and reassuring and encouraged me to stick with it till the end of that term, saying that many people who come from industry find it a big adjustment.  She also sent me on a training course  all about how to run a school library.  This was a huge turning point for me.  I suddenly realised the value of the job I was doing and will never forget what the man running the course said:

“You can either be the person who sits behind the desk stamping books or you can effect real and positive change in the lives of the children who walk through the school library door.”

It was definitely a light bulb moment for me. Up until that point, I had felt that I had no real purpose other than to look after the very dusty and underused library space, stop students from misbehaving when they came in for the odd lesson and issue the occasional book. I went back to school with a new focus: I was going to revamp the library and make it a hub of activity! A place where students couldn’t wait to be; where they felt supported; where they were inspired and most importantly, a space that celebrated and enabled the discovery of the joy of reading.

Quite a challenge in a library that had had little love or attention for many years!  But despite this, I did achieve a huge amount, working with some great people, of which to this day I feel very proud.  I was able to make good use of the skills I had learnt in running events, marketing and PR. At its simplest level, I saw the library and books as the ‘product’ and the students and staff as my target audience.  It was just a case of working out the right sales pitch amongst other things!

This first experience stood me in good stead throughout my career and I’ve had the rewarding task of revamping nearly all the libraries I’ve worked in.  I’ve learnt a huge amount over the last decade. Not just in terms of running a library; but also working with children, school staff and parents; in teaching and learning; understanding special needs; general education issues; managing a team and a myriad of other things I’d never even thought about.

Without the wider support of those working alongside you, a school library (and the librarian) can quickly become obsolete.  I’ve collaborated with some amazing teachers, teaching assistants and fellow librarians, who have been fundamental to ensuring the success of the libraries I have worked in. I’ve also continually developed my understanding of the importance of reading to a child’s development across all areas of their lives.  I realise how incredibly blessed I was to discover a love for reading at a young age (thank you Dad) and have it come completely naturally to me.  And now even more, I realise that it was a lot easier to grow-up when I was young; these days children have so much to deal with and as school librarian I feel a huge sense of responsibility in supporting young people in school. It’s this that keeps you going when you’re having one of ‘those’ days.

Since that first day, I have worked with nearly 7,500 children ranging from two to eighteen years.  It is a unique position to be in, interacting with the entire school community. In a single day, librarians can be teaching and supporting upwards of five different curriculum subjects for a range of ages, taking book groups, running reading campaigns, recommending books to individuals, writing school policy, as well as the general administration of the library. Add to that the role of tutor in my current position to a group of Year 8 boys and it’s busy!  Perseverance is key as are good working relationships. It is absolutely a full time job and should never be underestimated; but it’s also totally rewarding.

This career has led me to some wonderful things, not least founding The Book Activist. I’ve had the absolute pleasure of sharing my love for reading and been able to read hundreds of wonderful books ‘for work’! I’ve faced challenges in ways I couldn’t have imagined and I’ve had moments of fulfilment that I will never forget. I’ve been fortunate to work with some lovely people and made some friends for life. So on my library-versary, it’s a good time to thank all of those who have supported, inspired and encouraged me. And to thank all the many children who have made my job so rewarding.  And of course, all those amazing authors, illustrators, publishers, editors and brilliant book-ish people who create the stories we love.  I don’t know where the next ten years will take me, but I expect if books and reading are involved, it’s going to be brilliant!

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