Bookchat: Mark Powers, author of Spy Toys!

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Have you met the Spy Toys?! If not, Christmas might be a great time to introduce them to your children!!  There’s Dan, the super-strong teddy bear, Arabella, the doll with a serious temper, and Flax, the gadget-crazy robot rabbit.  Originally unwanted, now they’re part of a top-secret agency whose job it is to save the world – of course! In their latest hilarious and thrilling adventure Spy Toys: Out of Control, the trio do battle with a deadly unicorn and even a slightly jumbled up jigsaw. Complete with state of the art gadgets and daring deeds, brilliantly brought to life  by Tim Wesson’s fantastic illustrations, the Spy Toys series would be a fantastic addition to any young reader’s bookshelf!

Today, author Mark Powers joins me for a bookchat and shares some of the inspiration behind the adventures. Welcome to the blog Mark!

Congratulations on the publication of the second in the Spy Toys series! Tell us about the inspiration behind the stories. Thank you! I’d had the three main characters – a teddy bear, a rabbit and a rag doll – in my head for quite a while. I imagined them sharing a flat and bickering a bit like characters in a sitcom. Then I saw Marvel’s first Avengers film and it struck me it would be fun to turn this trio of toys into a crime-fighting team, to give each special powers and action scenes that would allow them to fire off snappy one-liners at the bad guys. I like writing about teams and how clashing personalities can sometimes get in the way of solving problems.

The Spy Toys stories are full of fun and it feels like you’re having great fun as a writer with the characters and the humour throughout.  Has your experience of writing them been as enjoyable as it seems?! It’s been enormous fun. I get a real kick out of writing for these characters. The fact they’re not human means I can push the slapstick a lot further than I’d normally be allowed in children’s fiction. There’s a cartoony aspect to it. If a major character in a regular children’s book got their head chopped off, it would be a pretty horrific thing. If it happens to one of the SPY TOYS, they can just have it reattached with a screwdriver at the end of the scene.

What were your childhood experiences of writing and reading and how have they helped inform your creativity? I loved reading and writing. In primary school I would often read fairly adult stuff like Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams. When I got to comprehensive school, my friend Richard and I used to write and record comedy sketches on tape using BBC sound effects records. We did that for a good few years and it was fantastic practice at comedy writing. So much so, in fact, that by the time I was in the school 6th form, I was earning money regularly by writing material for comedy shows on Radio 4 and Radio 2.

The books include great illustrations by Tim Wesson. Did you always plan to have the stories illustrated and how do you work with Tim to bring the characters to life?It was always the plan to have illustrations. I had input and approval over how the characters looked but really the main liaison with Tim was done by the editor and designer at Bloomsbury. When I first started to write children’s books I imagined they’d be meetings with writer, illustrator, designer and editor sitting around a table (with cakes, preferably) and thrashing out between us what we wanted the illustrations to be. In reality, things are much more rarefied and most communication is via email.

The Spy Toys characters each have their own unique personality; I love the idea of the bear who hugs too hard and even the slightly less amiable rough and tough sunshine doll!! How do you go about creating the characters featured in the books?In any story, but particularly with comedy, you need contrasting character types. So a placid teddy bear, a spiky rag doll and a nerdy rabbit seemed a good combination. Again, I was lucky in having three non-human central characters. Kid heroes in books can be a bit bland and it’s the sidekick or supporting characters who tend to be the really funny ones. With SPY TOYS I have three fairly dysfunctional characters centre stage, so it’s easy to set them bickering with each other or anyone else they encounter.

Spy Toys has been described as James Bond meets Toy Story. If you could be any character – good or bad – in a spy story who would it be and why?! It might be fun to be a super-villain of the type you get in Bond films. To come up with some dastardly plan. Maybe I’d create a machine that zaps people if they talk during a film or open sweet wrappers noisily.

What can we expect in the next Spy Toys mission ‘Undercover’?! I can’t wait to see who the villain is – how will you top the dastardly unicorn?!! Oh, the usual mix of action, adventure, laughs, high emotion and petty squabbling. Glad you liked John the Unicorn! He was a lot of fun to write. In Undercover we meet diminutive child genius April Spume, who’s leader of a SPECTRE-like evil organisation of super-intelligent kids (called SIKBAG!) In this book, our three heroes go undercover in an ordinary primary school. The first book concentrated on Dan the teddy bear, the second on Arabella the rag doll, so in this third the main focus is on Flax, the ex-police rabbit. Slightly to my surprise, he’s shaping up to be the most popular character of the three.

Thank you Mark! I’m looking forward to reading Spy Toys: Undercover!

 

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Find out more at www.spytoysbooks.co and www.timwesson.co.uk.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me this book to review and organising this bookchat!

 

 

 

 

 

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Bookchat: A.F Harrold, poet and author

banner newThe last time I saw A F Harrold, he was performing poetry to a classroom full of utterly enraptured children at the Bookchat Roadshow.  It was absolutely brilliant to see how much the children enjoyed the poems and the performer!  I’m delighted he is joining us today to talk about his new book, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space (review available here, illustrated by Joe Todd Stanton) and all things writing. Thank you for participating Mr Harrold!

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A F Harrold performing poetry

Congratulations on the publication of Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space! It’s fun, full of quirky characters and a great mix of sci-fi and sleuthing . Can you tell us about the inspiration behind it? Hi Victoria. Greta comes from a combination of things I typed and things I mistyped. Back in the first Fizzlebert Stump book one of the books Fizz borrows from the library was called The Great Zargo of somewhere or other. It sounded a good sort of science fictiony sort of thing Fizz might enjoy, and when I came, a few years later, to start thinking about a new series the name popped back into my mind. I type quite quickly, but because of the ways in which my fingers move there are a few words I’m forever typing wrong and having to go back and correct… one of these is ‘great’, which, if I’m typing at a gallop, always comes out ‘greta’. And so Greta was born, inside the spelling mistake that appears inside the book!

I’ve always read science fiction, and always loved science fiction, but I’d never really written any (The Song From Somewhere Else probably counts, but that’s about it), and this seemed a bit odd. So I wanted to write some. And I wanted it to be funny. Because funny books are a Good Thing. And so, after a lot of sitting around and staring into the air, several baths, and quite a few biscuits, Greta Zargo and the Death Robots from Outer Space was born.

Throughout the story there are footnotes (or more appropriately sidenotes) adding interesting anecdotes to the narrative which I loved; why did you decide to include these?  Who doesn’t love footnotes? They’re a way of having ‘a bit more’ without getting in the way of the story. They’re especially useful for (a) comedy (because you add in extra jokes) or (b) academic articles about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden (because you can cite your sources). Fortunately, as far as I can see, no one has mistaken Greta Zargo for an academic article about herring pickling in 18th century Sweden.

There are some wonderful and quirky characters in the story. I particularly loved Greta’s eccentric Aunt. Where do you draw inspiration from for your characters? And I have to say, how do you decide on the fantastic names you’ve given them?! Characters just walk into scenes as I type and if they’re at all interesting then they stay. There are occasionally very boring ones who turn up, but I’m ruthless in deleting them at the first opportunity, unless they’re boring in a funny way. That might sound a bit odd, but it’s true, the best characters walk in and surprise me. I don’t know what they’re going to say to Greta when she questions them and I listen to their answers as I type them. This is the most exciting bit about writing these books, I think, is finding out about the inhabitants of Upper Lowerbridge at the same time as the reader.

Where do their names come from? I blame the parents.

Being married to huge fan of cake, I can very well imagine the consternation if cake was stolen from my household. Can you tell us- 1) do you eat cake? 2) if so, what is your favourite? 3) if not, why not? (And what do you have with tea if not cake?!) (1) Yes, I eat cake if the opportunity arises. (2) I’m going to say Battenberg, because it has just the right amount of marzipan. (3) I said I do, so I don’t have to answer this one.

The sci-fi elements in the story are great and often times, very amusing – even with the inevitable destruction of planets going on – the Bar-Tarry-Tuffians spring to mind! Did this involve any scientific research – I’m thinking of the impressive references to hyper spatial physics, measuring of light years and so on?! I don’t remember doing any particular research before writing any of the outer space chapters, other than a lifetime of reading and watching sci-fi and sci-fact books and programmes.

That lifetime of experience has been composting inside my head for long enough that some of it made sense when mixed up and spilt onto the page. It’s fascinating to look back and remember when I was a kid we knew of no other planets outside our solar system, and now there are thousands of exo-planets known. And as our techniques and our instruments become better we’re finder smaller and more Earth-like planets out there, even around nearby stars. I don’t doubt that on some of these worlds life has arisen, and maybe even what we would call ‘intelligent’ life.

The gaps between the stars are so immense though, that it would take many lifetimes for people to travel between and so one of the ways it has been suggested we explore the galaxy is by making self-replicating robots, like the ones in the book. Because these robots don’t grow old like we do, they could spend the centuries travelling between planets without dying or going mad. And when they get there, if they have the ability to make more copies of themselves they can then send those out to other star systems.

These self-replicating machines are called Von Neumann probes, and I don’t remember where I first heard about them. But they’re not my idea, just something that made its way into the book because it made sense. The lesson of this is – those useless bits of information you once learnt might turn out to be useful after all, so never turn them away… let them live in your head – one day they might become a book.

When you’re writing fiction, do words come more easily than when you’re writing poetry? Do you have a specific process for each form of writing? I try not to think too much about it, either sort of writing. I just try to get on with it, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t and it feels like your banging an empty head against a brick wall of blank paper, then that just means it’s time to go have another bath.

When we last met at the Bookchat Roadshow, you had some wonderful advice for the audience regards encouraging children’s creativity. You said that whatever their means of expression – writing, art, poetry, drama – we should encourage children to express themselves in the way that’s best for them.  Who has given you the greatest encouragement for your work and what motivates you to keep writing? What motivates me to keep writing? That’s an odd question. I don’t know what else to do. I think it’s as simple as that. I don’t write every day and I don’t write an awful lot, but if I go any length of time without making something (and the making is usually with words in one way or another) then I feel antsy and irritable and unfulfilled and awkward and sad. I would make things with words (poems, stories, songs…) even if no one wanted to read them, even if no one was paying me to do it. Maybe not the books I’m writing right now, but who knows? (After all, I spent many years writing things that no one paid me for, before I ever had a book published.)

As for who has encouraged me… there’s such a long list, but a few I would like to mention include my editors at Bloomsbury, Kate and Hannah and Zöe, who have helped make the books we’ve published better than they would have been if I’d been doing it on my own. Part of their job is to send me back to my desk when what I’ve given them hasn’t been good enough, or funny enough, or right enough. And the fact they think I can do better makes me try harder and make the books better. Also my partner, Iszi, who suggested I try writing stories for kids, instead of just poems, in the first place. And more abstractly, out there in the world of children’s writing, many authors whose books I read or who I meet at events – they inspire me, by making Good Things themselves and showing that it can be done.

And finally, two very special sets of people – the kids I meet when I visit schools… the fact that some of them have been reading my books and seem to enjoy them makes the effort that sometimes went into making the books seem worthwhile – and secondly, the illustrators who get given my words and who make the books look so beautiful (Sarah Horne, Emily Gravett, Levi Pinfold, Chris Riddell and, for Greta Joe Todd-Stanton)… seeing what they do, the magic they work… oh it makes me want to do good, for them. I don’t want them wasting their time on any old rubbish!

So lots of people encourage and inspire me and my work.

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us and share the inspiration behind your work. 

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Read my review of Greta Zargo here.

Find out more at www.afharroldkids.com and www.joetoddstanton.com

With thanks to Bloomsbury Books for organising this interview.

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Bookchat: Kate Poels, the Children’s Book Award Co-ordinator

banner newThe Children’s Book Award, run by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups, is the only national award voted for solely by children from start to finish.  It has always been a source of great excitement for the children I’ve worked with because they know their votes actually count!  So I’m really pleased to host a guest post today by Kate Poels, co-ordinator of the award, to tell us how it works and how she came to be involved. Thanks for joining us Kate!

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“I was delighted to be asked by the brilliant Book Activist to write a guest piece for the blog.  I am a huge admirer of the work done in schools and for parents and carers by the Book Activist and feel that anything that brings books to children is a huge bonus!

My background has always been with children.  I started out training as a nurse at Great Ormond Street and then decided to take a degree in Primary Education to work as a teacher instead.  I now have two sprouting girls of my own and so I have seen the world of children from many different angles.  The thing that always strikes me is how important a love of books can be.  The power a good story has to bring comfort, humour, reality, solace, escapism, inspiration, other worlds, different viewpoints and so much more into the life of a child.  Whether it be a very sick child in hospital, a child with problems at home, somebody struggling with bullying or a little one with a huge imagination who wants to hear new things and tread new paths.  I have seen first-hand how these children need books in their lives.

My passion for children’s literature led me to the Federation of Children’s Book Groups a few years ago.  It is a fantastic organisation, fuelled solely by volunteers, that works on a national level to bring children and books together.  I now work on a local level with them and have also attended several of their fabulous industry-filled conferences.

As a member of the FCBG my children have had the opportunity to take part in the voting process for the Children’s Book Award.  This award is unique as it is the only one in the country voted for entirely by children.  If you are over 18 then your vote doesn’t count for anything…but if you are still young enough then every vote cast goes into a big boiling pot along with roughly 150,000 other votes and together they create the top 50 books of the year.  These are then whittled down to the top 10 comprising of 4 picture books for Younger Children, 3 stories for Younger Readers and 3 stories for Older Readers.

Then the results are once again handed back to the children who decide which of these shortlisted titles deserve their votes.  They alone choose who the winners of each category are and which book will be the overall winner. And they do a fantastic job every year.  Sometimes favourite, well-known authors take the crown (this year Michaels Morpurgo and Foreman won with their book ‘An Eagle In The Snow,’) but other times they discover new gems that go on to be firm favourites.  Previous winners have included JK Rowling, Kes Gray and Jacqueline Wilson to name a few.

Earlier this year I was asked if I would consider co-coordinating the award and I was thrilled to be able to get involved.  We are in the process of taking the award forward with a fresh new website (childrensbookaward.org.uk) as well as stronger online presence.

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Our member children, families and schools are all busy voting for this year’s favourites and in February we will be finding out who they have chosen as their picks of the year.  Then the voting opens for anyone in the UK to take part, as long as you are under 18 of course! The shortlist will be announced and children can use our website to vote for their favourites.  You can pre-register now to be the first to hear the shortlist!

It is such a brilliant thing to be part of and so many of our winning authors have told us that for them it is the most important award of the year.   And that is all down to the people who vote…..their intended readers… the children!

If you would like to find out more then please follow @CBAcoordinator on Twitter or The Federation of Children’s Book Groups on Facebook. Also drop by our resource-filled website and see how you could get involved.”

Find out more about this wonderful celebration of children’s books at www.childrensbookaward.org.uk

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Bookchat: Alison Jay, author and illustrator

banner newThe wonder of books is that there is always something new to discover.  So when Old Barn Books who publish simply gorgeous titles, sent me two books by Alison Jay, I found a new favourite author and illustrator! How I’ve missed her all this time, I have no idea.  I absolutely love Alison’s artwork; her illustrations are beautiful as is her storytelling – whether through pictures, words or both.

In Bee & Me, the story of a little girls’ friendship with a bee is told through pictures. We go on a wonderful journey of discovery, not just of finding new friends but also of seeing the importance of bees to nature. The detail in the drawings is stunning and totally immersive, making you feel you too could fly on the back of a bee!  We learn how crucial these tiny creatures are to our world, and at the end of the story there’s a helpful guide on how we can ‘Bee Aware’.

Looking for Yesterday is quite simply one of the most beautiful picture books I have encountered and it pulls gently at your heart strings.  A little boy wants to get back to yesterday, for that was the best day ever. Touching on thoughts of time and space, the boy tries all sorts of things to get back to the past.  But his grandfather has other ideas and gently shows him how every day gives the opportunity for new adventures! For anyone who has ever been blessed enough to have an inspirational person in their lives, you will appreciate the nostalgia explored in this story; whilst memories are so important, it’s today that matters most!  I just loved it.

I am thrilled to introduce Alison to the blog for a Bookchat today.  Thank you so much for joining us Alison!

Congratulations on the publication of Looking for Yesterday – an absolutely beautiful story. I love the nostalgia of the story but also the message of making the most of today. Can you tell us the why you wrote it? The idea for Looking for Yesterday came to me after listening to a radio programme about the universe and stars. They also talked about wormholes and time travel. I really don’t understand quantum physics but the theory that it might be possible to travel backwards or forwards in time I think is fascinating to both adults and children.

You capture the relationship between Boy and his Grandad so well. Was this inspired by your own family? I never met either of my Grandads unfortunately,  but the Grandad in Looking for Yesterday is a bit like my Dad. He was an engineer and worked for an aeronautical company for a few years. He didn’t ride a classic motor bike but he was always busy making and mending things, including  old cars . The boy in the book is like my brother Mark as a child: he loved everything to do with space and the universe. He was given a telescope one Christmas  when he was about 8 years old and is still fascinated with the universe. He  read The Theory of Everything a few years ago and was even lucky enough to meet Professor Steven Hawking very briefly.

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Your illustrations have a beautiful timeless quality to them. How has your distinctive style developed over time and what has influenced you, if anything/one?My style has developed quite a lot since my college days. I used to work in a much simpler childlike way. I used to make strange 3D figures out of paper and glue. I would paint them then make background sets so they could be photographed. I also worked in pen and ink. When I left college I was told the work was not commercial enough to be published, so after working for a few years in animation studios I gradually developed a new style with paint and varnish and started to get commissions in the new style. I love all sorts of different artists from Breughel to Jean-Michel Basquiat and lots of others in between. I think probably,  like most illustrators and artists, I have developed my style from lots of different influences which sort of melt down and hopefully produce a style which is unique to the individual.

Speaking of time (!) if you could go back to ‘yesterday’ where would you go and why? I think if I could go back to any time in history it would just be to meet members of my family that are long gone. It would be interesting to meet them  but I would just pop back for a few hours. I think I wouldn’t want to stay. I am happy living today. It is more exciting not knowing what is going to happen which is what the book tries to say.

Bee & Me made me want to have a pet bee and plant a garden full of bee friendly flowers! It’s a gorgeous story – I love all the tiny detail in your illustrations. Do you find it easier to tell the story with or without words? Yes, much easier without words. I find writing very difficult. I think my wordless books are more like storyboards for films which probably comes from my days working in animation. In Bee and Me I had the chance to add all the  different peoples lives going on in the windows of the tower blocks. I put a writer, an artist, a cake-maker and lots more. It was really fun to make up little narratives and how things changed through the seasons.

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You have illustrated some wonderful stories. If you could choose to illustrate any story ever written (!), which would it be and why? I have always loved James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, so I would really like to illustrate that book. I have a mad love of painting absurdly large fruit and vegetables for some reason. I also like painting insects even though I am the first to scream if something crawls on me.

What do you most enjoy about telling stories through illustration? I think I love that you can communicate narratives, ideas and emotions with or without words. Visual art  is  very immediate but  with lots of detail it can take a bit longer to look and find other narratives within the pictures. I like the idea that the child or adult notices little things they missed at first. I think it make you want to keep looking through the book  again and again to find new  little stories .

Finally, if you could tell a budding illustrator/author just one thing to help them what would it be? I think my advice would be to find the subject matter and way of working you enjoy most. It will always show in the work and the enjoyment will keep you going for ever.

Thank you Alison for giving us an insight into your work and sharing your inspiration with us.

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For more information visit www.oldbarnbooks.com.

With thanks to Old Barn Books for sending me these books to review.

 

 

How to get teens to #LoveToRead.

Waking up at 5am with a horrible cold, I got up and sat with my lemsip, flicking through the somewhat weird and wonderful world of early morning TV.  I remembered I’d yet to watch ‘The School that Got Teens Reading’.  This is just one of the programmes scheduled for the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign, so I settled down, between sneezes, to see what it was like.

I’d never heard of the exuberant Javone Prince before. He admitted to being somewhat nervous having no experience of schools other than his own schooling – I don’t blame him! I remember my first ever library lesson about ten years ago – I was absolutely terrified. But what he lacked in experience he made up for with enthusiasm; it was great to hear how much he loves reading and wanted to share that passion with the students.

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Through the mirror door….with Sarah Baker

YA Shot is a Young Adult and Middle Grade festival run by authors, raising money and resources to run a year-long programme pairing libraries and schools for free author events. The aim is to foster a love of reading, inspire a passion for writing, and encourage aspirations to careers in the Arts. I’m really pleased to have been invited to host this stop on the tour featuring debut author Sarah Baker! AND.. if you check out my Twitter account (@bookactivist1) you’ll see there’s a fantastic giveaway to win one of FIVE signed copies of Sarah’s debut novel, Through the Mirror Door. Simply follow and RT to win! (UK only). Thank you to Catnip/Bounce for supporting this giveaway. Continue reading

Bookchat Roadshow – success!

The alarm went off bright and early yesterday morning and it was all systems go.  We got to Warden Park Primary, having pre-loaded the car the night before just as the head teacher, Steve Davis, arrived.  I’ll admit to being a bag of nerves and excitement – more of the latter though as this was something I’ve been planning and thinking about for the best part of the year and I couldn’t believe it had actually arrived!

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Set-up didn’t take too long, thanks to various helpers and the friendly school caretaker along with various members of school staff.  With the banners out, participants began to arrive.  Gill from Inkpots was closely followed by exhibitors Discover & Be, Helen Arkell, the Public Library Service and Schools Library Service.  Louise from Lovereading arrived, bringing lots of brilliant information from Barrington Stoke. It was taking shape before my eyes! Waterstones arrived with a fantastic array of brilliant books for the bookstall. Parents and carers filtered in and the air was filled with curiosity and expectancy.

Steve Davis gave a perfect introduction placing reading at the heart of learning.  I began my presentation with a little trepidation but also huge excitement! It was great to be able to share so many ideas and suggestions with parents and carers who want to support their children with reading for pleasure.  Gill from Inkpots followed with an overview of creative writing, saying that we all have a story to tell and that creative writing should be a fun and collaborative process.   Louise Weir shared all the wonderful things Lovereading does to support children’s reading and book choices.  The tea break was buzzing with activity when parents had the opportunity to visit the various exhibitors covering a range of reading and writing related areas from phonics to dyslexia and finding out about the local library service.

Then the grand finale arrived, with three fantastic award winning authors forming the first ever Bookchat Roadshow panel (sadly Eve Ainsworth couldn’t participate due to ill health). Sophy Henn, Nikki Sheehan and Jamie Thomson shared their childhood memories of reading, along with ideas for encouraging children who aren’t enthusiastic about reading and creative writing and their thoughts on the importance of stories.  There were lots of laughs as Jamie kept being ‘taken over’ by the Dark Lord in between reminiscing about childhood reading and where he gets his writing ideas. “Ideas can come from anything – turn the ordinary into the extraordinary! How do you know the old lady on the bus isn’t an international spy?”  Sophy had wonderful insight into starting the creative writing process using images and pictures and how stories can be created just using your surroundings as inspiration. “Even just going on a family walk you can play the inspiration game, all coming up with ideas to create a story!” And Nikki shared that for her empathy is the most important reason for reading and writing stories “We find out who we are and who others are through reading and telling stories”.

During the panel discussion, there were questions from the audience and these were responded to not just by the authors, but by the various representatives of exhibiting organisations and those who had delivered presentations. It was collaboration in action, with the conversation focusing on supporting those attending so they could go away feeling truly inspired.

Initial feedback has been hugely positive which fills me with great joy! Huge thanks to all those who participated, supported, attended and helped in any way. Whilst the dust is still settling, I am on to planning Bookchat Roadshow number 2, so spread the word and we may well visit a school near you!

For more information about the next event email thebookactivist@gmail.com