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:

 

 

 

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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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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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Sophie Finds a Fairy Door by Laura Sheldon, illustrated by Erica Jane Waters

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Sophie Finds a Fairy Door by Laura Sheldon illustrated by Erica Jane Waters

Tidying her Teddies, Sophie finds a secret fairy door hidden in her skirting board. Before she knows it she is flying through fairyland, where she is just in time to save the fairies day.

When Sophie uncovers a magic fairy door, she is taken on a magical adventure through fairyland with a beautiful fairy called Bella.  Sophie cannot believe her eyes as she sees the fairy world, and even grows some fairy wings of her very own. And when the fairy tea-cup train is in trouble, it’s Sophie who comes to the rescue and finds out how to get the train working again.

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Well I will admit my smile grew bigger and bigger as I read this gorgeous rhyming story with fairy magic galore!  Sophie Finds a Fairy Door is a charming book and I can just imagine all little readers falling in love with Sophie, Bella the fairy, and their fairy adventures. The lyrical narrative carries you on a cloud of fairy dust and makes it a lovely story to read aloud.  There’s just enough excitement to keep readers captivated, with the opportunity for Sophie to literally put the power of her dreams to the test. I love the use of imagination as the key to solving the problem! The story takes me back to childhood days of hoping I’d discover a fairy living at the bottom of the garden or a door leading to a secret magical world.

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The delightful illustrations beautifully bring to life the fairy world and all its inhabitants. Published in March by Firefly Press, Sophie Finds a Fairy Door is perfect for all those little ones who dream of make-believe magical lands and hope to have a magical visitor one day. Although, be warned, this is the first in the series and once you ‘let the magic into your home’ you’ll be hooked!

Find out more at www.fireflypress.co.uk and on Twitter @LauraSheldon76  and @Ericajanewaters.

With thanks to Firefly Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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Author Interview: Alice Broadway

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I am absolutely thrilled to welcome the author of the Ink, Alice Broadway to the blog.  Alice is sharing some of the ideas and inspiration behind her brilliant debut novel Ink and the writing process in general.  Thank you Alice for joining us!

I just have to say this loudly – I LOVED INK! Couldn’t put it down. For the benefit of those poor people (!) who haven’t read it yet, tell us a bit about it. That makes me so happy – thank you! Ink is set in Saintstone: a world where all your good and bad deeds, all your successes and failures are tattooed onto your skin. Everyone can look at you and know all about you. The purpose of life in Saintstone is to be remembered after you die – and only the worthy deserve this honour. If you are counted worthy after your death your tattoos are preserved in a skin book for your family to keep forever. Ink tells the story of Leora who is sixteen; her Dad has just died and when she looks at his skin book she realises a mark is missing and then everything she thought she knew unravels.

In Ink, people’s memories and significant life moments are tattooed on their skin to create a record of their life story: what was the inspiration for this idea and how did you go about researching it? It’s hard to put my finger on an exact inspiration, but I am definitely indebted to Ancient Egypt: I’m so fascinated by their approach to death and their ways of honouring the dead and their physical bodies. I love anything that makes me think twice about people’s motivations and I’m also really intrigued by the way we present our lives to near strangers on social media.

The world you create is very real, as are the people in it. I loved the use of fables to illustrate the history of Saintstone and where the people’s beliefs come from.   It’s impressive enough to write a novel, let alone the fables within the story too – how did you go about writing them? If I’m facing writer’s block, my solution is to write or dream up a fable. There is something about the magic and gruesomeness of old traditional tales like Grimm’s that captures the idea of story for me. I sometimes work through my own difficulties by creating a fairytale-esque story. Is that weird?! I also come from a background of deep religious faith (although my own faith is very confused!) and I see story as the backbone of so many spiritual worldviews and I wanted this to be represented in Ink.

Leora has some really interesting relationships with the other central female characters in the story – her mother, her best friend and her mentor. Did your own relationships with female relatives and friends inform this? For me, relationships are the things that either cause you to flourish or to fold. I am very lucky to have good female friends, family and role models. I don’t feel that any of the relationships in Ink are exactly representative of the lovely people I have in my life, but I really hope I’ve been able to show the way other people can shape your world and thinking. I really like a lot of the characters in Ink and I feel for each of them. I should say that my Mum is much more chilled than Leora’s!

Faith and belief play a central part in Leora’s story; she is clearly grappling with things she feels she should believe versus the reality of what is happening around her. How important do you think faith is in today’s world?  This is something I wrestle with personally, so for me it’s a big thing but I have no idea how it seems to anyone else. I guess we all spend time trying to work out what life means and how to live a life that is really worthwhile. I have experienced both the comfort of a very rigid faith and the freedom of having no faith at all and I wish I could see how other people make their way on this journey.

You’ve talked about your fascination with death and the afterlife in previous interviews. In the book, the people’s ancestors live on through their skin books; the family get to keep (literally) a part of them – perhaps in the same way that some people in our culture keep the ashes of loved ones. Has writing Ink changed your perception of death and keeping memories of loved ones alive? Researching Ink led to some amazing discoveries and one of those was the death positivity movement, which is a non-religious group of people trying to ease the fear of death and normalise what is a very ordinary thing. I’ve been greatly inspired by the words of Caitlyn Doughty who writes and vlogs brilliantly about death, dying and post-death practices. For me it has forced me to think about death and to talk about it more openly. It has made it a little less scary, which has to be a good thing.

The idea of the Blanks (outcasts and people who don’t share the beliefs of the inhabitants of Saintstone) is quite chilling. This is reflective of so many cultures across the world controlled by religious beliefs or where people who don’t share the same ideals – is this something you wanted to address through your novel? My feeling is that we love to create an identity, and belonging to a group gives us that. I’m concerned about the ways our loyalty to our own group can mean refusal to empathise and understand others. I didn’t aim to write a political book but I’m really interested in the ways it’s inspired people to talk about division, prejudice and control.

Ink is your debut novel; tell us a bit about the process of writing – how long it took; highs and lows; anything that kept you going if there was a low point! I’m super aware that all my answers so far have been a bit gloomy, serious and morbid and I really want to be super cheery BUT, I started writing Ink just after I was diagnosed with depression and for me, writing has been a great therapeutic thing. Of course, it also meant there were days I couldn’t write and that it was slow-going. On a much happier note, it has been just amazing to sign with my dream agent (Jo Unwin) and to then be snapped up by Scholastic, and get to work with an incredible editor (Genevieve Herr). Writing is so solitary and once I had other people giving me feedback and helping shape the book I kept feeling like I was cheating! I think getting to work with gifted and brilliant people has been one of the huge pluses – when people see what you’re trying to do and help you make it better it feels like a dream!

It must be a life-changing – writing a novel, being published, reaching so many readers. How does everyday life feel now and what do your family and friends make of your success? I’m still changing nappies and getting woken most nights by the kids! In all the best ways life hasn’t changed a bit but my dad published a blog post after reading Ink and he wrote that ‘it just goes to show that childhood dreams can come true’. I really feel I’m doing my dream job and I couldn’t be more thrilled. My family and friends have been LOVELY and so supportive and sweet. And so far they’ve been excellent at laughing at me being slightly crap at publicity and the like.

Finally, what would you most want to be recorded on your skin if we lived in a society like Saintstone? I’ve been thinking about this so much! For me, the family tree would be crucial but I wish there would be ways of showing more than just how someone is related to you. Family is so much more than blood or marriage and I would love a way to express how much I love those who are precious to me.

Thank you Alice for such brilliant responses and sharing your insight with us.  We wish you every success with Ink and can’t wait for the next book! 

Find out more at www.alice-broadway.com and @alicecrumbs.

Read my review of Ink here!

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