How writing saved my life: Janet Hoggarth on writing Gaby’s Angel

Author photo - Sept 2012I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. I was supposed to be an iconic artist or a world-famous DJ spinning the wheels of steel in front of a crazy festival crowd. Writing was a complete accident. It wasn’t an accident that I learned to actually write – we all have to do that. It was an accident that I ended up doing this as a job. I was really an editorial assistant at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, battling through press releases and making lots of mistakes proof-reading manuscripts. Stop the press (literally!)! There’s still a comma in the wrong place on page ninety-two of Harry Potter. Doh, too late…

While making lots of mistakes my boss noticed that my jacket blurbs were quite good for someone who had been told at college to drop the Creative Writing module because ‘You can’t write in a colloquial manner in this class.’ Or indeed write at all. Course duly dropped. So it was a bit of a shock to find that the writing style I had adopted as an eleven-year-old and basically not changed since was a plus point and not negative as previously informed.

Barry, my boss, liked my writing so much that he asked me to write a joke book with my brother (who is a talented poet) and the process was reminiscent of us as kids creating fake newspapers for our parents to buy (an obsession that lead to writer’s cramp and colouring-in claw). The book did really well. And that’s when the seed was planted: maybe instead of being a world-dominating DJ aka Phat Biffa (my DJ name), I could be a writer instead. A lot less glamorous but at least I wouldn’t have jet lag all the time from touring and get tinnitus from mixing banging beats in my headphones. So I eventually gave up my now proper job (I had acquired an office all of my own and a list of books to commission) and Became A Writer.

Well, Becoming A Writer meant panicking a lot because instead of me nagging authors for a synopsis or the sample chapter or to Please Finish That Book or I Won’t Pay You, it was me being nagged. Argh! I churned out loads of books (now all on Amazon for 1p, relics really), got married, had three kids back to back and didn’t work for a long while. My brain was lost in the young baby wilderness years. Then out of nowhere I found myself single with three children under five. It has to be said that was a low point. Distant dreams of DJing resurfaced. Maybe I could still make it big? The kids could come with me on tour. I would make enough money for us all to live in a mansion with a pool. Or maybe I could start writing again…

9780192745484_GABYS_ANGEL_CVR_JUN13I was having a really tough time, like Gaby in my new book Gaby’s Angel. Struggling with being a single parent, I was feeling very sorry for myself one morning on the school run, forcibly dragging all of us there and out of the house. Just as I was crossing the road with Danny in the pushchair and the girls tagging along a voice spoke to me. (Honestly, this is not made up!!!!) It was in my head, but didn’t sound like my voice. It said: ‘You are going to write a book called Gaby’s Angel about a girl who’s best friend dies.’ I stopped the pushchair and listened for what came next. ‘The dead friend sees that Gaby can’t cope without her so comes back as her angel to help her find a new best friend.’ That was it! I ran all the way to school and all the way back, chucked Danny in a playpen and wrote the synopsis in half an hour, like a woman possessed.

In the book Gaby receives white feathers from Emily, her dead best friend, as messages to not give up and carry on with life. One day I got in the car feeling so terribly sad and uninspired about writing and there on my seat was a perfectly formed white feather. How had it got in? It wasn’t there before. I took it as a message to keep going. Even if an errant seagull had pecked his way in and shed it while scavenging for ice cream, who cares? It worked. My ‘angel’ feather spurred me on that day.

It took a long time to write the book. I gave up twice and didn’t write for months because I was too exhausted or busy or DJing. But during those times I would remember the feather and the voice and would eventually flip open my laptop and make myself write. And after two years it was finally finished!

So for me, writing Gaby’s Angel was like a life raft. It kept the kids and me afloat. And they are incredibly excited to see a final copy. And so am I because it represents more than just a book. Like Gaby, it represents surviving the bad times and coming out the other side smiling older and wiser. Only not so much of the older if you don’t mind…

Author photo - Sept 2012

Find out more about Janet Hoggarth on Twitter, Facebook, and on her website.

Gaby’s Angel is out now.

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Horsing around: editing our bbbrilliant new pony series

Life-long pony enthusiast and OUP Children’s Books Editorial Assistant Helen Bray joins us to talk about the experience of editing Che Golden’s brand new series for pony-mad children, The Meadow Vale Ponies.

If someone had told me when I was a child that a job existed which satisfied both a love of books and a love of horses, I would’ve thought they were thinking of a wild dream they’d had of a library filled with ponies hoof-deep in picture books . . . with themselves as Head Librarian – giving away carrots as bookmarks.

And although that actually sounds quite appealing (note the ‘mad’ in ‘pony mad’) there is a real job where you can celebrate a love of stories AND a love of all things equine—it’s MY job!

It was Che Golden’s new book Mulberry and the Summer Show that proved this to be true.

Meadow Vale Ponies logo

Che’s new series is called The Meadow Vale Ponies, and stars a girl called Sam and the beautiful, Black-Beauty-esque, mare, Mulberry. Unfortunately, Mulberry is also the grumpiest little pony at the Meadow Vale Stables. In that way, she reminds me of a pony I used to know. Tinkerbell was almost pure white and barely bigger than a Great Dane. Sounds adorable, right? WRONG. Let’s just say she bore more similarity to Hook than Peter Pan’s Tinkerbell!

 Tinkerbell – who, if you look closely, is eyeing up my fingers wondering if she can get away with the excuse that she thought they were carrots...

Tinkerbell – who, if you look closely, is eyeing up my fingers wondering if she can get away with the excuse that she thought they were carrots…

Sam is quite nervous about learning to ride—ponies are big, powerful animals after all. Sam’s nerves get the better of her in her first lesson, when she’s unceremoniously dumped at the feet of her stern riding instructor by an overexcited pony.

It’s easy for me to sympathize with poor Sam here, as the first hack I went on with my favourite pony, Cobweb, ended in me being dumped on a grass verge next to a bemused gardener after a hair-(and mane!)raising gallop.

Me and Cobweb before the excitement

Me and Cobweb before the excitement

As Sam is trying to console herself, she hears a strange little voice saying the most bizarre things . . . but it’s only her and the Shetland ponies in the barn—surely it’s not the little Shetland, Apricot, speaking to her?!

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Sam can talk to ponies because she listens to what they have to say. And any pony-mad rider will know that there’s a lot of truth in this—horses have as many opinions, likes, and dislikes as their riders. The horse I ride at the moment, Beau, is no exception: every time it rains she tells me she doesn’t like it by galloping around the field until I let her take shelter in her stable; every time I pick out her rear hoofs she tells me she doesn’t like it by farting on my head; and every time we jump she tells me she loves it by charging at the fences and clearing them as if they were the Puissance Wall at Olympia!

Mulberry tells Sam she doesn’t like her nervous riding by performing her famous Sliding Stop:

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Thankfully, Beau seems unaware of the tricks that Mulberry delights in playing on Sam, such as the classic hold-your-breath-while-the-girth-is-done-up-so-the-saddle-slips-when-your-rider-tries-to-mount. I did used to ride a horse called Dolly who did exactly that, though. And a pony called Laddie who had a Sliding Stop even more impressive than Mulberry’s. And there was Pepé, whose party trick was trotting backwards . . . quite amazing really, but a bit embarrassing when the rest of the lesson are going the other direction! Holly was perhaps the most terrifying of all—she could do 60 bucks a minute—although that might’ve just been in response to the sparkly hoof polish I insisted on putting on her . . .

Despite all of this, for some reason that is surely only madness or love, these mishaps never seem to put us pony-mad riders off. Perhaps it’s because when things go right, it’s the best feeling in the world? Or perhaps it’s because through getting to know each other—however turbulent it might be, you and your pony become the very best of friends? For Sam, it’s because when she rides Mulberry well, it feels like flying. Learning to ride Mulberry teaches Sam that she has to trust her pony, and trust herself.

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Illustrations (c) Thomas Docherty

Working on Mulberry and the Summer Show has been such a joy for me. The story is funny and heart-warming, and it’s just so easy to become completely immersed in the world of The Meadow Vale Stables. The realism Che does so well is perhaps unsurprising when you learn that she is as pony-mad as they come, and her lead characters are, in fact, based on her own daughter and the first pony she really loved, Brie. When Che asked her daughter why she insisted on riding Brie even though she kept throwing her off, her response was ‘because I love her!’. And you can’t argue with that now, can you!

Che’s daughter with Brie – the inspiration for Mulberry’s character

The first book in The Meadow Vale Ponies series, Mulberry and the Summer Show, is out in July, with further titles in 2014.

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Photograph (c) Lou Abercrombie

Photograph (c) Lou Abercrombie

Che Golden is a graduate of the Masters course in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University and her two great passions are writing and horses. Che’s first horse was Velvet, a huge, black Irish cob who not only taught Che how to ride, but taught her two little girls as well. Now, they own Charlie Brown, a rather neurotic New Forest pony, and Robbie, a very laid-back Highland pony.

Visit Che’s website

Helen Bray is Editorial Assistant at OUP Children’s Books

Helen and Beau

Remembering the suffragettes: Julie Hearn on Hazel and Emily Wilding Davison

This week marks the centenary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, an activist who fought for women’s suffrage in Britain, famously stepping in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Author Julie Hearn joins us to talk about Emily, the suffragettes, and the inspiration behind her novel Hazel.

For a while, years ago, I lived in a bedsit down The Old Kent Road. The walls were the faded mauve of wisteria.  I bought a green silk throw for the bed and a junk shop chair and chest of drawers, which I painted toothpaste white.

‘Suffragette colours,’ my mother said.

‘What?’

I hadn’t ‘done’ the suffragettes at school.  I don’t think they had crossed my radar at all. I was nineteen years old and taking everything for granted.  Further education.  Independence.  My right to speak as I found and do as I pleased.  Everything.

Older now, and more enlightened, I recently went all out on eBay to secure, for myself, an Edwardian shoe buckle of green and white enamel set with purple stones.  And it pleases me to know the facts behind the fact that Carlisle Park in Morpeth, Northumberland, has been planted, this summer, with  Purpleicious Veronica, White  Bell Campanula, and the variegated greens and whites of carefully chosen hostas.

This year marks the centenary of Morpeth suffragette Emily Wilding Davison’s death.  Hence the colours in the park.  And the flurry of commemorative events being held, this month, across the country.  And the new edition of my fourth novel, Hazel, which begins with the ill-fated action that ended Emily’s life.

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Emily Wilding Davison was a leading militant in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). She believed that deeds, not words, would get women in this country the vote. On June 4th, 1913, she joined a crowd of spectators at the Epsom Derby with two suffrage banners concealed beneath her coat.  Grainy newsreel footage shows her stepping onto the racecourse, and raising her hands, as horses thunder past.  She is kicked and sent flying by Anmer, a thoroughbred owned by King George V.  She died in hospital four days later, without regaining consciousness. She was 40 years old.

‘In her mind she saw, again, the kick and the fall.  The woman had resembled an ungainly bird flying through the air like that with her black coat billowing. A stoned crow. A smashed rook. A blackbird hit by a pea-shooter.’  (Hazel, p. 10)

I never set out to put real people in my books. They turn up, like actors with no pre-arranged audition, while I’m researching a time or a place. It started with a few poor souls who were shown as ‘monsters’ at Bartholomew Fair at the beginning of the eighteenth century (Follow Me Down). Then Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General swaggered into The Merrybegot, followed by a young and utterly charming Charles II. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is ‘The Italian’ in Ivy. And in my seventh novel, Dance of the Dark Heart (to be published by OUP in April 2014) fantasy and history do a fairly resounding ‘high five’ when the Devil’s son plays the fiddle for the fifth wife of Henry VIII.

Emily Wilding Davison got into my notebook, and my head, very soon after I began researching Hazel. At that point, I knew a lot about Hazel’s mother, Ivy (the protagonist of my third novel) but nothing at all about Hazel herself. The story needed to be set at a time when Ivy might, conceivably, have had a teenage daughter, so I’d written 1910-1915? in big red letters, on the first page of my notebook.

I didn’t want to write a war story.  I didn’t think I could.  So 1913 became the year I looked at first—and that’s where I found Emily, slipping under the railing at the Epsom Derby.

As usual, following one thread led to another. Before long, my notebook was filling up nicely and my head buzzing with questions. I saw Hazel and her father watching the race and knew, at once, that Hazel was a ‘little princess’—a pampered, naive girl knowing even less than I did, at her age, about the ways of the world.

And I thought: what if Hazel’s father turns out to be a serious gambler? What if he loses money—a LOT of money—at this race and has some kind of a breakdown as a result? What might the repercussions of that be for Hazel?

It was enough. I began to write.

Recently, I gave a talk about Emily Wilding Davison and Hazel at a girls’ school in Bristol.  I wore my Edwardian shoe buckle on a velvet choker; a purple skirt, white blouse, and dark green boots and cardigan.

‘I didn’t just throw myself together this morning, girls,’ I said to a group of year eights.  ‘What do I mean by that?’

‘Suffragette colours!’ chorused around fifty young, female, voices.

Emily would have been proud.

Julie Hearn1

Julie Hearn used to be a journalist. After her daughter was born she began a degree in Education but switched to English after suffering a panic attack while attempting to teach maths to year six.

She went on to complete a Masters Degree in women’s studies at Oxford University, where something she read about a young girl who was shown as a fairground ‘monster’ in the 17th century inspired her first novel, Follow Me Down.

Since then Julie has written many novels. She has been nominated four times for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, the UKLA Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction prize.

Julie lives in Oxfordshire where she writes full time (most mornings anyway) in a pink and green office in her garden.

Find out more about Julie’s ‘Emily and Hazel’ school and library talk here, which explores the Suffragette Movement through fact and fiction. You can contact Julie via her website.

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Hazel is out now.

The Meaning of Life: Joanna Nadin on funny books

Joanna NadinI have always ‘done’ funny. Both as a reader, and a writer. As a child, I snorted through every page of every Dr Seuss, laughed until I cried at Russell Hoban’s inspired creation Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong in her iron hat cooking mutton sog, and the mere mention of the East Pagwell Canal from Professor Branestawm was enough to render me insensible.

Laughter is a tonic, it’s therapy. Quite literally, as there is no greater closure than the writer’s revenge of turning the adults who belittled you, or the children who taunted you mercilessly for having hair like Leo Sayer and second-hand skirts, into grim-faced moustachioed ladies, or moronic underachievers called Kylie (yes, both of them, and no I won’t name the inspirational bullies behind the characters, but suffice to say I didn’t bother to change one of the surnames).

A few months ago, I was asked by The Guardian to write a piece on my top ten favourite ‘funny’ books for young children. Of course I said yes, a) because my self-esteem is sufficiently low and my ego sufficiently enormous that I am easily flattered, b) because I like going through my bookshelves and ensuring they are still in excellent alphabetical order, and c) because I like thinking about funny things.

And so I did, think about them I mean, not just the books themselves (though that was a delight), but about the concept of ‘funny’ and its place in fiction. Because I’ve found that funny is, oddly, frowned upon by certain people, and certain schools of thinking. These are the people who would have you believe that ‘issues’ books—books that make you ‘feel’, that make you ‘think’ (usually about grim things)—are somehow more worthy of your time, and of praise, and prizes, than ones with jokes in.

People like my old ‘O’ Level teacher who told me I’d never amount to anything, when he caught me reading one of my own books under the desk instead of the syllabus text sat sullenly on top of it. It wasn’t so much the act of disobedience that riled him, I think, than the subject matter. My chosen book was George’s Marvellous Medicine—so much more interesting than the turgid (or so it seemed to me at the time) Silas Marner.

But what these people—and there are many, from teachers to parents to peers—fail to get is that funny books can be just as worthwhile, and just as potentially life-changing. They make you ‘think’, they make you ‘feel’. But they make you laugh while you’re doing it. And sometimes, that can make the drama all the greater, the truth all the starker.

Funny books are important—from getting reluctant readers engaged in a story, to keeping the attention of those with short attention spans, to simply making us feel clever when we get the joke. Shakespeare did it; Austen did it; Dahl did it, not just in his children’s books, but throughout his tales for grown-ups too.

I’m not claiming to be in their ball park, I’m not claiming that The Meaning of Life is life-changing, but I am convinced that, for at least two hundred-and-something pages, it will make life fun. And that makes life good. And that, surely, is what it’s all about.

(And if you’re interested in just what my top ten funny books for 5-8s were, you can read about them here).

Joanna Nadin

Joanna Nadin grew up in Saffron Walden in Essex, before studying drama and political communication in Hull and London. She is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter, and Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, she has written the bestselling Rachel Riley series for teens, as well as the award-winning Penny Dreadful series for younger readers, and many more books for children and young adults. She has thrice been shortlisted for Queen of Teen as well as the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. She lives in Bath with her daughter.

Follow Joanna Nadin on Twitter

Find Joanna Nadin on Facebook

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The third Rachel Riley Diary, The Meaning of Life, is out now with a fabulous new look. Further books in the series publish in  Jul and Oct this year.

Rachel Riley series

Too Small For My Big Bed – behind the scenes with Layn Marlow

Layn Marlow

I love the comparison that’s often made between picture books and theatre.  I’ve always felt shy about being on stage, but in illustrating picture books, I discovered I could be director, stage designer and a whole cast of actors, all from behind the scenes.  For my latest book, this analogy even helped me discover a new way of working.

A change of scenery

I’d already collaborated on six picture books with Amber Stewart as author.

Books by Amber Stewart and Layn Marlow

Books by Amber Stewart and Layn Marlow

                  

Each one saw a cast of small woodland animals, sensitively tackling subjects significant to young children: a duckling starting school, a rabbit losing her security blanket, a little mole learning to try new foods.

In each case, I approached the illustrations in the same way; using a dip pen, then fine brushes, to apply thin layers of acrylic paint onto smooth board.

Layn Marlow artwork

© Layn Marlow

I gave the rural scenes some botanical detail, which I hoped would draw the reader into the animal’s world.  It was all very green and pastoral – like the best bits of my early childhood.  But our seventh book left that familiar landscape behind…

New actors

Too Small For My Big Bed portrays a mother tiger’s tender relationship with her growing cub, Piper, as he struggles to overcome his nightly fear of being alone.

Too Small For My Big Bed UK hardback

Suddenly, I had an even smaller cast to work with, (two!), although of course, the actors were much bigger.

When developing any animal character, I usually start by sketching real animals. Then I try to modify and infuse their bodies with the more human expressions of the character in the story. (This often involves some acting in front of the mirror!)

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

Tigers are not easy to observe in real life, even in captivity, so I’m greatly indebted to the marvellous John Downer film, Tiger – Spy in the Jungle.

Tiger: Spy in the Jungle DVD cover

Tiger Spy in the Jungle. Director, John Downer. Narrator, David Attenborough. BBC, 2008. DVD

The narrator, David Attenborough, has described it as “the most intimate portrait of tigers ever seen”, which made it the perfect way for me to research mother and cub behaviour.

Setting the stage

The film also enabled me to see what the ‘jungle’ looks like. It was made in India’s Pench National Park, home to Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  Having never travelled to India myself, I was surprised to see only limited greenery. In fact much of the Pench landscape looked just as Amber Stewart’s text describes – Golden Grasslands and Red Rock Ridges – colours more evocative of a tiger’s fiery coat.  I realized these warm hues would contrast well with the deep ultramarine blue of a night sky, and so my new palette was chosen.

 Too Small For My Big Bed palette

In the spotlight

In Too Small for my Big Bed, the close relationship between mother and cub takes centre stage.  This is what gives Piper the feeling of security he ultimately needs to find independence. I tried to echo this intimacy in the gestures of the tigers, but I also wanted to strengthen their presence in the compositions.  So, rather like applying stage make-up, I intensified the outlines of my pencil drawings by printing them with black ink onto watercolour paper.

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

Previously I’d dismissed watercolour as a pale and unforgiving medium. Now I found deep, rich inks to use, and learned to be slightly less respectful of the high quality paper.  I worked over the ink areas with coloured pencil, acrylic paint and even collage.

With the spotlight on the tigers, I really began to treat the landscape more like a stage set. I enjoyed creating rubbings of various textures and seeking out other collage materials from which to build the ‘scenery’.

Too Small For My Big Bed collage materials copy

Even though I’d long been aware of the theatrical analogy, somehow this time it felt to me like a real liberation.

A star performance

My favourite phrase in Amber Stewart’s text comes when we first see Piper fall asleep in his mum’s bed, ‘spread out like a small star’.

© Layn Marlow

© Layn Marlow

I’ve already found that children love to identify with Piper as a character. They feel rightly proud of how they’ve grown and of all they’ve learned to do.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of bringing Amber Stewart’s little tiger to life, and in doing so; I think I may have grown a bit myself!

Children wearing tiger masks

Layn Marlow

Photo © Tom Greenwood

Born in Essex, Layn Marlow studied Art History at Reading University. She then worked in libraries, and lived in Belgium for some years with her young family, before returning to university to gain a first class degree in Illustration. She has been writing and illustrating picture books ever since.  Her books have won a number of awards, sold over a million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 20 languages. Layn is particularly inspired by the natural world, and now lives in Hampshire, where daily walks with her dog, Rufus, are essential.

Visit Layn’s website and Facebook page.

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Too Small for my Big Bed is out now in hardback. The paperback edition is out in August.

Meet the mother and daughter team behind Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom: Wendy Meddour and Mina May

Hi! And thank you for asking us to join you on this blog. So here we are: the mother/daughter team behind the Wendy Quill books – working EXTREMELY hard. Mina May is slaving away on her iPad whilst I am doing VERY IMPORTANT writerly work:

Wendy Meddour and Mina May

Wendy Meddour and Mina May working EXTREMELY hard

You see, because Mina May is only eleven, people are always asking us: ‘What was it like doing a book together? Was it really hard?’ I’m tempted to say: ‘Oh yes, of course. What with all the deadlines and having to produce pictures for a professional designer’:

Mina and Karen Stewart

Mina May with our very professional designer

And having to submit manuscripts to an editor who is ever-so strict . . .

Mina and Jasmine Richards

Illustrator and Wendy Quill editor hard at work. Again.

 But then I realise that I have to stop pretending.

Because the truth is, we’re having an absolute blast. Our designer and editor at OUP are AMAZING. And Mina May and I LOVE creating Wendy Quill together – she’s a little bit of both of us, I think. We’ve got the same sense of humour – so are giggling all over the place and having a bit of a ball.

This is how it works:

Mina May: ‘Were you really a crocodile’s bottom, Mum? You know, in actual real life?’

Me: ‘Erm. Well. Sort of, yes. It was for my school play: Peter Pan and Wendy. My head wasn’t big enough to fit under the front bit, so I had to go at the back.’

Mina May: ‘Oh no!’ *giggling* ‘But why weren’t you picked to be “Wendy”?’

Me: ‘I have absolutely no idea. I mean, I should have been Wendy. I am a real Wendy. I even look like a Wendy. And the girl they picked had straight black hair, which everyone knows is completely wrong for Wendy in Peter Pan and . . . ’

Mina May: ‘Aw, never mind Mum. I bet you were a great crocodile’s bottom.’ *Starts drawing on iPad* ‘How about this?’

Wendy Quill as crocodile

Artwork from Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom © Mina May

Me: ‘Oh my giddy Aunt! That’s unbelievable!!!! That is just what it was like!’

Or, to take another example . . .

Mina May: ‘So what do “The Girly Gang” actually look like Mum? Have you written that chapter yet?’

Me: ‘No. Not quite yet. But basically, they all have their ears pierced and wear pointy shoes. It’s part of their “Girly Gang” Rules. Oh. And they’re really scared of rats.’

Mina May: ‘So kind of like this?’

Wendy Quill girly girls

Artwork from Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom © Mina May

Me: *squeal* ‘Ahhhh! Exactly like that! You’ve done it again! Perfect.’

Then we send it to our designer, the brilliant Professor Karen Stewart – and she puts the images all cleverly on the page. And then my editor, the lovely Jasmine Richards (with the gymnastic abilities, editorial brilliance and completely ‘natural arch’), reads my Wendy Quill chapters and tells me if I’m ‘cooking on gas.’

If I am ‘cooking on gas’ (and being Wendy Quillish to the core), we all get very excited and eat lots of cake! And then we get even more excited when we see the final product, tadaaaa:

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And then we say, ‘Can we do another one? Please?’

So no. It’s not hard. It’s a DREAM. And we don’t really want it to stop.

Here’s a little ‘Behind the Scenes’ video so that you can see us in action. We hope you giggle over Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom just as much as we giggled over making it.

Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom is out now. Also available as an eBook – in full colour!

Wilbur’s nine lives

With his lovely new board books about to hit the shops, Winnie the Witch’s lovable cat Wilbur joins us to reflect on his best moments so far in his adventures with Winnie…

Wilbur

They say that cats have nine lives. Well it’s certainly true in my case! I can think of nine nail-biting (or should that be claw-biting?) moments in my life but here I am to tell the tail (sorry, tale)! It must have something to do with being a witch’s cat.

1. I remember the time when I was dozing on Winnie’s Flying Carpet, and the wretched thing whisked me out of the house and took me on a white-knuckle ride, ending up at a fun fair. Though it wasn’t much fun for me! Luckily Winnie came to the rescue. Now I’m always careful about where I cat nap!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

2. Then there was the rather embarrassing moment when I was impaled by a broomstick after a day with Winnie at the Seaside turned into a whale of a time (literally!). Ouch!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

3. And I’ll never forget the incident with Winnie’s New Computer. The shiny new mouse was so tempting but when I pounced on it – ooof! – I disappeared into thin air! If you want my advice, be very careful when it comes to new technology.

from_winnies_new_computer

Artwork © Korky Paul

4. Cheers of ‘Winnie Flies Again’ greeted us when Winnie took to the skies sporting a new pair of glasses. Now she could steer her broomstick without bumping into things. Before she got her eyes tested, things were rather different, and rather painful for me.

From_winnie_flies__again

Artwork © Korky Paul

5. Winnie’s Amazing Pumpkin was certainly awesome, especially when it turned into a helicopter. What was less amazing was the enormous caterpillar that scared the wits out of me on a giant beanstalk. I think oversized vegetables are overrated!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

6. I’ve always known that Winnie the Witch loves me, so being turned into a multi-coloured moggy and stranded at the top of a tall tree wasn’t my finest hour. But, you’ll be pleased to know, that particular story had a happy ending!

From_winnie_the_witch

Artwork © Korky Paul

7. Oh yes, on one occasion, an unexpected scaly visitor – Winnie’s Midnight Dragon – chased me onto the roof while his mother set my tail alight. Charming!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

8. There’s a day that I’ll always remember as Winnie’s Dinosaur Day. It started normally enough at the museum but before I knew it I was face to face with a prehistoric beast!

from_winnies_dinosaur_day

Artwork © Korky Paul

9. And finally, there was the time when I reluctantly joined Winnie in Space – we had broken rockets and naughty space rabbits to contend with . . .

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Artwork © Korky Paul

So you see, being a witch’s cat is never dull. But I love being Winnie’s pet and I wouldn’t swap my owner for the world!

Wilbur’s first concept board books are out in June, and are full of humour and wit!

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Artwork © Korky Paul

Pages from 273508_WILBUR_WORDS_INS_JUN13

Artwork © Korky Paul

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For more fun with Winnie the Witch and Wilbur, visit the Winnie the Witch website.

Fact and fantasy: Ali Sparkes and Unleashed

aliMy stories are a bit like a fairy with bunions. They are fantasy but they have their feet in the real world.

What I really love is making startling, spooky or paranormal things happen in the ‘real’ world that we all know and recognize. When I started out with Dax Jones in the very first Shapeshifter story it was with this thought:

Ordinary boy, one day, out of nowhere, turns into a fox.

What then?

What would happen? Think about it. If it happened to you, today, how would you react? How would your friends react? Your teachers? Your family? Your enemies?

And then I love to do a bit of research in the real world, to work out what might happen for real. For example, for the Shapeshifter series, featuring 100 or so COLAs (Children Of Limitless Ability) who have suddenly developed paranormal powers, I spoke to:

  •  An ex Ministry Of Defence expert
  • A survival/bushlore expert
  • A practising dowser
  • A practising psychic
  • A practising healer
  • A special operative with the police (ex SAS)

And for the follow on series UNLEASHED, I’ve added:

  • Another special operative (ex SAS)
  • A successful stage and up close magician
  • Assorted Irish people
PSC

Peter Clifford

…and probably many more. Research is one of my favourite things. I love getting to meet people who are happy to tell me or show me stuff I need to know to make my books make better sense. Bristol illusionist par excellence, Peter Clifford, was a particular treat. In a Bristol café he did proper close up magic just for me! He made coins, clenched in my fist, vanish without trace. He did things with rubber bands that defy all logical explanation. http://www.peterclifford.me.uk/ will tell you a bit more – but not that much more.

To be honest, though, I felt a little guilty. For UNLEASHED: Trick Or Truth – a story featuring Spook Williams, one of my favourite but less pleasant characters – the magician I invented was the opposite of Peter. Brash, cheesy, over the top and contemptuous of his audience.

Really good magicians like Peter, and Derren Brown (who happens to be one of Peter’s best friends) are not at all contemptuous of their audience. They hugely enjoy imparting amazement, delight and that child-like sense of wonder we can still find in ourselves even when we’re properly grown up. They want to involve the audience, not make idiots of them.

I wasn’t really into magic much before going out to research for Trick Or Truth but now I love it. I’ve seen Peter’s show a couple of times and Derren Brown’s live Svengali show too. I don’t really waste too much time trying to pick all the tricks and illusions apart. I enjoy them as if they were ‘real’ magic and revel in the brilliance of the person, or often the team, that has made this astonishing theatre happen.

I would love to be able to do it myself but one of those fake nails through my finger is probably as clever as I’ll ever get.

Spook Williams, of course, needs no help at all. He is the REAL deal. A COLA illusionist who can make you see anything he wants you to see, so convincingly that he could bring you to your knees. And just with the blink of an eye.

Couple that with an arrogant and conceited personality and you have all the makings of a monster. But will Spook turn out to be a monster after his adventure in the Mediterranean? Living a life of luxury aboard a millionaire’s yacht and moving among the champagne swilling beautiful people of St Tropez, will Spook’s ego lead him into pulling off a daring heist?

UNLEASHED: Trick Or Truth is out now…so you can find out for yourself!

UNLEASHED TRICK OR TRUTH

ali

Ali Sparkes grew up in Southampton and despite some exciting months in London and even more exciting months in Lowestoft (where she really experienced life on the edge), still lives in Southampton today, with her husband and two sons.

She has worked as a singer, journalist, broadcaster, magazine editor and the spangle-clad assistant to a juggling unicyclist (frighteningly, there is photographic proof).

Ali has many children’s fiction titles published by Oxford University Press including her SWITCH series, her award-winning novel Frozen in Time, and her heart-stopping new adventure series about a group of teenagers with special powers, Unleashed.

Visit Ali’s website

Follow Ali Sparkes on Twitter

The warmth of ice: art in the Ice Age

Sally Prue, author of Song Hunter, on the very beginnings of art and creative thinking, including her experience of visiting the British Museum exhibition on Ice Age Art.

(This is an expanded version of a piece first posted on Sally’s Song Hunter blog.)

9780192757111_SONG_HUNTER_CVR_JAN13Making up stuff is important.

No, really: life and death important.

Writing a story or painting a picture may seem different from, say, designing a new app that tells you how many people in your town are currently dying of plague, but it’s essentially the same thing. It’s conjuring up something out of nothing.

Essentially, it’s magic.

But how do people start making up new stuff? And why?

It seems first to have become a habit about 40,000 years ago, at the start of the last ice age. The world was changing, and people had to make new stuff fast or else die in the increasing cold.

More or less all there was to eat was big game. That meant people lived in small groups in large territories. Any contact with other groups involved trespassing on someone else’s land.

Did art, which wasn’t anything to do with territory, make sharing every sort of new idea possible? I think it did. I think it proved vital.

Song Hunter is a book about the when and how and why of the very beginnings of art. The fact that its publication has coincided with an exhibition on the same subject at the British Museum looks like deep commercial guile and forethought (though actually it’s pure coincidence).

The problem, of course, is that by the time this marvellous resource became available to me my book was long finished. That didn’t mean, though, that I’d lost interest in the subject. Far from it: part of my heart was still bound up with Mica and her family. I couldn’t help but hope that in this exhibition I’d catch a new glimpse of them.

I hoped to hear their voices; but at the same time I was afraid that the ancient sculptures on display would be dumb and stiff and dead.

So what did I find?

I found, in dozens of tiny spaces, the gift of vivid life. The delicate step of an ear-twitching deer; the fierce thrust of a goose’s neck; the arch of a proud horse; the massive threat of a bison’s shoulders…

…and more, and more…

…the stillness and contemplative fragility of women huge with child; the smugness of a well-fed lion; the wide-eyed anxiety of a swimming reindeer.

Why was this art so good? Have these things come from a time when all art was true? When all art was beautiful, honest, and yet still full of secrets.

I saw a flint blade perhaps 20 cm long but only 0.6 cm deep at its thickest part. Imagine the delicacy of it.

Imagine a flute made of a bird’s bone, and then imagine music and singing and dancing.

Imagine a people both 40,000 years away and yet close enough to feel their breath on your cheek.

On the way out of the museum we came across a table of treasures to pick up and hold. There was a Greek vase made 2,400 years ago; a piece of clay incised with cuneiform writing; and a flint hand axe.

The axe was 350,000 years old.

350,000 years. Older than Homo sapiens, then. Far older. It came from the time of the Neanderthals.

And, oh, but it was a fine thing, carefully made and effective.

Once more, the millennia melted away…

It’s been an honour and a privilege to be able to spend a year in the company of Neanderthal man, but now I must make my way back to the present, to Homo sapiens and to the world we’ve made for ourselves.

It’s sad in some ways, but I’ve gained a lot. Mica and the people of Song Hunter have made me see the world – even myself – anew.

You see?

All that sort of stuff is vitally important.

The exhibition on Ice Age Art at the British Museum runs until 26th May.

Song Hunter is out now.

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sally prue

Sally Prue is a writer for children of all ages, from picture books up to Young Adult fiction.

Her novel Cold Tom won the Branford Boase prize and the Smarties Silver Award, and The Truth Sayer was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize.

Her day jobs have included being a Time and Motion person, an accompanist, and a piano and recorder teacher.

Sally is married, has two grown up daughters, and lives on the edge of a small but very beautiful wood in Hertfordshire.

Sally can be found at The Word Den blog, Song Hunter blog, and at www.sallyprue.co.uk.

Books to tickle your funny bone for April Fools’ Day

Happy April Fools’ Day everyone! Today is all about silly jokes, hilarious pranks, japes, larks, and general tomfoolery, and so in the spirit of all things jocular, I thought I’d share some ideas for suitably rib-tickling reading.

Charlotte Armstrong, Marketing Executive

Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom

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This book is guaranteed to give you the giggles, no matter what your age (this is an absolutely true scientific fact because we’ve tried not laughing and it’s impossible).

Wendy Quill could be forgiven for assuming that she would get the lead part in her school production of Peter Pan and Wendy – after all, it literally has her name on it. Much to Wendy Quill’s bewilderment, this doesn’t quite work out, but that doesn’t stop her from making a stunning debut as the crocodile’s bottom!

The book is written by the hilarious Wendy Meddour (who really did miss out on the lead role of Wendy in her school play) and is illustrated by her incredibly talented daughter Mina May (aged 11).

crocodiles bottom

Artwork (c) Mina May

You can find out more about the story and see the illustrations in the spectacular Wendy Quill trailer:

 

I am not a Copycat

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Hugo the hippo loves to do water ballet – it makes him unique – but Bella the bird won’t stop copying him. The friends nearly end up falling out – that is until they realise that they are in fact doing the most incredible synchronised swimming together. This quirky storyline is told completely through dialogue, so it’s really fun to read aloud together and do silly voices.

To top it all off, you get to enjoy seeing a hippo dressed in swimming hat, chequered shorts, goggles, flippers, and armbands!

Waiting for Gonzo

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Moustaches can be funny. Drawing moustaches on photos – also funny. That is unless the photo you choose turns out to be of the resident psycho at your new school. This is exactly what loveable rogue Oz does when he moves to a new town, and it sets in motion a chain of events which will see him make both friends and enemies along the way. With both serious moments and touches of pure comedy, this book has it all. There’s even a soundtrack!

 

John Foster joke books

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I couldn’t do a blog post about funny books without mentioning this set of four joke books from the master of witty verse, John Foster. These are jam-packed with jokes, riddles, and rhymes – here are just a few gems:

What do you call a one-eyed dinosaur?

A do-you-think-he-saurus.

What did the stag say to his girlfriend?

I love you deerly.

And my personal favourite:

What do you call a lazy skeleton?

Bone idle.

Charlotte pic.png Charlotte Armstrong, Marketing Executive

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