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


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.


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:


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…


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!

T373 IMUK AW 20-21

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!

T392 IM AW 24-25

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.


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.


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!

T387 IM AW 16-17

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!


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!

T161 IM AW 20-21

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!


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 . . .

T208 IM AW 24-25R

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!

Pages from 273510_WILBUR_OPPOSITES_INS_JUN13

Artwork © Korky Paul

Pages from 273508_WILBUR_WORDS_INS_JUN13

Artwork © Korky Paul


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

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. 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!



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.


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

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


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


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


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


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

Bologna Children’s Book Fair 2013: rights, camera, action!

Elaine picThe Bologna Children’s Book Fair is now in full swing.

From Monday to Thursday this week our rights team have scheduled meetings every 30 minutes from 9.00am till 5.30pm with children’s editors from around the world. It’s our chance to showcase the OUP titles that we are planning to publish over the next year or so with the aim of selling them the rights to publish our books in their own language. It’s so busy the rights team barely have time to schedule in a loo break!

The fair takes place often before the books are published in the UK so, here is the rights team in action presenting  proofs and ‘dummies’ – artwork that is run out on the colour printer and stuck into blank books of the right size and shape supplied by our production team from our printers.


Head of Rights Anne-Marie Hansen. In the background you can see displays for picture book The Great Moon Confusion from Richard Byrne, and Haunted, a chilling new book for teens from William Hussey.


Zuzana Miyahara Kratka, Rights Manager. In the background is the hilarious Wendy Quill is a Crocodile’s Bottom, by Wendy Meddour and Mina May.

While that’s happening, our editors are meeting with the rights teams of publishers from abroad who are presenting their titles to us. There are also meetings with other people interested in children’s books from film scouts and online sites to UK retailers and media.

Here’s Head of Publishing Liz Cross in a meeting on the OUP stand.


Our lovely designers have also been meeting with scores of potential new illustrators from around the world.

This year we are delighted to host a special dinner for publishers who have already bought or are considering Oliver and the Seawigs, a new illustrated novel by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre.  Here they are drawing sea monkeys from the book all over the OUP stand and causing a stir as they stroll through the aisles at the Fair. Sarah is resplendent in her ‘Seawig’ and, Philip, as elegant as ever, sports a Seawig sailor’s cap.

philip and sarah

seawigs graffitianne-marie drawing

This is one of the most important weeks of the year for children’s publishers. Selling foreign rights is hugely important to the industry and is often crucial to the success of a book – particularly colour publishing.

Elaine pic

Elaine McQuade is Head of Marketing and PR for OUP Children’s Books

Can you spell as well as an 11-year-old? Test your spelling, punctuation and grammar knowledge!

Curriculum changes mean that both Primary and Secondary schools are renewing their focus on spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

For primary schools, from summer 2013 year 6 children will sit an English grammar, punctuation, and spelling test, which will assess each child’s English skills in four key areas: Grammar, Punctuation, Spelling, and Vocabulary.

In secondary schools, pupils’ GCSE grades now depend, in part, on their ability to write grammatically, use punctuation correctly, and spell accurately. This applies to grades in English Literature, History, Geography, and Religious Studies. 5% of total marks in these subjects will be for spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Dictionary dots

Our challenge to you

How well do you think you would you do in a spelling, punctuation, and grammar test? We’ve compiled a short quiz with the kinds of questions children at the end of Key Stage 2 (end of primary school) will be asked.



1.       Which is the correct spelling of the following?

a) accomodate                            b) acommodate                 c) accommodate

a) apparent                                 b) aparrent                         c) apparrent

a) rhythm                                    b) ryhthm                           c) ryhthum

a) embbarass                             b) embarass                        c) embarrass

a) tomorrow                              b) tommorrow                    c) tomorow


2.       Find a homophone for:






3.       Give the correct spelling of the missing word in the following sentences:

a)      You can return the item if you still have your ………………………. (reciept/receipt) .

b)      My sister’s son is my nephew and her daughter is my ………………………………… (niece/neice) .

c)       Darwin wrote about the theory of evolution in his book, The Origin of the ………………………….. (species/speceis) .




Put in an apostrophe where appropriate:

1. the girls dress

2. The girls laughed.

3. James hat

4. Its raining again.

5. Its tail is fluffy.

6. Its past 10p.m.

7. Cauliflowers are reduced to half price.

8. Youre joking.




1.       Identify one relative pronoun and one possessive pronoun in the following sentence:

Fido picked up his bone, which was under his nose, and trotted away to bury it.


2.       Is the following sentence in the active voice or the passive voice?

The greenhouse was smashed to smithereens by our football.


3.       Match the verbs to the correct types:

1. to walk                 auxiliary

2. am                        modal

3. will                       infinitive


4.       Identify the following nouns as common, proper, abstract, or collective:

1. idea

2. Prince William

3. peas

4. herd


5.       Find the adverbs in the following sentences:

1. She hurriedly picked up her bag, and left as fast as she could.

2. She ran often, usually taking a challenging route which included several steep hills.

3. Recklessly, they threw their homework out of the bus window on the last day of term.


End of test!

How did you do? Do let us know in the comments box below.

Dictionary dots

Oxford Primary Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling DictionaryOxford School Spelling Punctuation and Grammar Dictionary

If you didn’t get full marks, you may need to grab a copy of our new Oxford Primary Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Dictionary. It contains common tricky words targeting the top misspelt words used by primary school children, and a full colour section with grammar, punctuation and spelling terms and rules.

Our Oxford School Spelling Punctuation and Grammar Dictionary, for secondary school pupils, publishes in August.

Retelling traditional tales using phonics

­Traditional Tales tagWe all know the power of traditional stories such as The Tortoise and the Hare and The Gingerbread Man to capture the imaginations of children.

This month sees the publication of the first books in our new series of Traditional Tales home learning books, which contain well-loved traditional stories carefully retold using phonics and familiar language, so that children can read them for themselves.

Author Gill Munton joins us to share her experience of retelling these timeless tales.

Gill MuntonOUP: Would you like to write some stories for children who are learning to read?

Me: I’d love to!

OUP: They will need to fit the tight phonic rules that schools follow.

Me: Er – that’s fine. No problem.

OUP: And they will be retellings of traditional tales.

Me: Er…

OUP: Oh, yes, and we’d like you to write for the youngest readers.

Me: Gulp! Not so easy!

Well, it wasn’t easy, but it was certainly do-able, and great fun, too!

Whenever I write stories for children learning to read – and I’ve written a lot – I always make sure that I am supporting the way in which children are taught to read at school, and currently that is by using phonics.

The challenge is to combine the requirements of phonics with fluent, interesting writing. And humour is, of course, always good.

Artwork © Laura Hughes

Artwork © Laura Hughes

Writing for very young readers

OUP asked me to make sure that each story doesn’t contain words that have not yet been taught to children. (The order – or sequence – in which phonics is taught is already reflected in Oxford Reading Tree. For more information – and where I often look – you could take a peek at the Government document called ‘Letters and Sounds’.)

So what problems did I come across, and how did I solve them? Here are a few examples.

  •  We need the story ‘Goldilocks’ but we can only use three-letter words such as ‘sat’, plus a handful of tricky words (words which are not phonically regular but are very common, so that children need to learn them quickly),  such as ‘I’.

Solution: Use the first person: ‘I am in the wood’ instead of ‘Goldilocks is in the wood.’

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi


  • We need ‘Daddy Bear’, ‘Mummy Bear’ and ‘Baby Bear’ but I can’t use those words because the children can’t read them yet.

Solution: Let the artwork show us that the characters are three bears, and label their mugs ‘Dad’, ‘Mum’ and ‘Ted’.

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

  • We need ‘Town Mouse’ and ‘Country Mouse’.

Solution: Let the illustration show us that the characters are mice, and give them the simple names ‘Tim’ and ‘Tom’. Ask the artist to make sure the mice show their different characteristics visually – a top hat for the town mouse and a spotted neckerchief for the country mouse!

Artwork © Emma Dodson

Artwork © Emma Dodson

  • We need ‘said Chicken Licken ’.

Solution: Put Chicken Licken’s words in a speech bubble, and so avoid the common but tricky word ‘said’.

  Artwork © Christine Pym

Artwork © Christine Pym


Retelling traditional tales

Folk and fairy tales come from all around the world, and offer a rich and varied resource for adaptation. But there are a few things that we writers need to bear in mind when doing retellings, e.g.

  • The characters and setting are already in place, and must be respected.
Artwork © Sue Mason

Artwork © Sue Mason

  • The storyline is fixed, and we need to plot the story out page by page to make sure we get it all in! Having said that, though, if there is just too much content, details and sometimes episodes can be judiciously cut.
Artwork © Paula Metcalf

Artwork © Paula Metcalf

  • We should capitalise on repeated refrains, which are often a feature of traditional tales and help children to read the words through repetition:

‘This bed is no good … This bed is no good … This is the right bed for me!’

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

Artwork © Ilaria Falorsi

So, all in all, a very interesting and enjoyable project and one which I hope will get children learning to read – and love – these timeless stories for themselves.

Gill Munton

With an extensive background in primary publishing for literacy, Gill Munton has written numerous reading scheme titles for major UK publishers – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plays. For OUP she has written various phonically structured reading books including titles for Project X, Bertie the Lazy Crow for Oxford Literacy Web (as well as being phonically decodable, this is written in humorous rhyming couplets), and all the storybooks and non-fiction titles for Ruth Miskin’s Read, Write, Inc.

Gill lives in London with her husband and Sergei, the (very naughty) Russian Blue cat. She enjoys writing, cooking, going to art exhibitions, and, best of all, reading!

The first two books in the Traditional Tales home learning series are out now. Each book contains 4 phonically decodable traditional stories.

The Gingerbread Man jacket Tortoise and the Hare jacket

Further titles are due for release from September 2013 onwards.

For more information on phonics, visit the Oxford Owl website or read our recent phonics post.


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