My Name is Parvana

Deborah Ellis shares her experiences of researching her latest book, set in Afghanistan, My Name is Parvana.

Late in the l990s, I spent time in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.  Millions of Afghans fled there from the Soviet occupation, the civil war and then the atrocities of the Taliban.  The stories I heard there of sorrow and strength, of loss and kindness, formed the basis for my novel for young people called The BreadwinnerThe Breadwinner follows a girl, Parvana, who disguises herself as a boy in order to feed her family in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Breadwinner 2014

The Breadwinner was followed by two other novels about Parvana and her friend, Shauzia – Parvana’s Journey and Mud City.

Some years went by.  Afghanistan underwent many changes.  I wondered what life would be like for Parvana in this new Afghanistan.

To research My Name Is Parvana, I spent time in Kabul, meeting with a wide range of women and children.  I was able to record interviews with many children, and published them in a book called Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through A Never-Ending War.

My Name Is Parvana starts out with Parvana being picked up in a bombed-out school building by an American military patrol and being brought back to their base for questioning.  It follows the dream of many girls and women there, a dream of freedom, education, and a life without violence.

My Name is Parvana is out now.

My Name is Parvana

As with the other books, royalties are going to Canadian Women 4 Women in Afghanistan, for their on-going work in support of women and children in Afghanistan.

Deb Ellis largeDeborah Ellis has been a political activist since the age of 17, advocating non-violence. After high school she went to Toronto and worked in the Peace Movement. Later she got involved in the Women’s Movement, focusing on women’s rights and economic justice. She continues to be involved in anti-war politics. She has spent a lot of time in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, talking to women and documenting their lives through 20 years of war. The stories she heard and the children she met were the inspiration for The Breadwinner, Parvana’s JourneyMud City, and My Name is Parvana. The Breadwinner trilogy has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in twenty-five different languages. Deborah lives in Ontario, Canada.

The Truth About Imaginary Friends

We were talking about the old days, and I remembered the weirdest things. Like people calling them ‘friends’. And how they said they were good for your brain. Some families even laid a place for them at dinner. 

Debut novelist Nikki Sheehan shares her thoughts on the phenomenon of imaginary friends, based on her research for the brilliant new Who Framed Klaris Cliff?

I realise that telling the truth about something that is essentially a lie is a strange thing to do. But it’s an important thing because in the past adults used to tell a lot of lies about imaginary friends.

Not so many years ago, thankfully before I was born, they were about as welcome within a family as a dose of chicken pox. Maybe less so because parents never invited the neighbourhood kids round for imaginary friend parties. Some stats from the 1930s show that a paltry 10-15% of kids admitted to them, possibly because they were viewed as at best a sign of loneliness or insecurity, and at worst an indication of neurosis.

Then, a few decades ago, opinion went into reverse. Imaginary friends appeared more frequently in children’s books and TV programmes, and some parents, perhaps believing that imaginary friends are a sign of intelligence, began to encourage them the way we might lure hedgehogs into the garden, laying places for them at the dinner table and allowing them to take the blame for scribbling on the walls or tumble drying the remote control.

Within this more benign environment a huge 65% of children will now admit to having conjured up playmates out of thin air. At first sight the increase is puzzling. After all, as in my book Who Framed Klaris Cliff?, we know that imaginary friends appear when children have the time and space for free play, which means when they’re not at school, watching TV or playing computer games. Given the choice between racing Mario Kart, or racing raindrops down a window pane, few self-respecting digital natives would choose the old-school entertainment.

But there is another important factor. While the number of screens has multiplied in our homes, the number of children in them has dropped. Almost half of the UK’s kids have no brothers or sisters. Imaginary friends are more common in first, or only children, so although they may spend a lot of time being entertained by screens, we can deduce that our children’s imaginations are firing on all cylinders when they’re given a bit of down time.

As to whether they’re a sign of superior intelligence or imagination, there’s no conclusive evidence one way or the other. However, psychologists say that the interaction with an imaginary friend is very complex, requiring the child to practice viewing things from two perspectives, and it gives little brains and social skills an excellent workout.

But they do more than this. We know that children can turn to imaginary friends for companionship and emotional support at difficult times, and kids who experience loss will often ‘replace’ the person who has gone with a transitional invisible being. Someone I knew when I was young created an Old English Sheepdog when her brother was sent to boarding school, and her parents, no doubt feeling guilty, duly laid out the empty dog bowls and put up with the imaginary dog taking up all the space on the sofa.

Apparently they knew what most parents know now, that for children, as well as for many authors, far from being an indication of madness, it’s conjuring up imaginary friends that keep us sane.

Who Framed Klaris Cliff? is out now.

Who Framed Klaris Cliff

Nikki Sheehan author picNikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist. She went to a convent school in Cambridge where she was taught by nuns. Her writing was first published when she was seven and her teacher submitted a poem she had written to a magazine. She always loved English, but has a degree in linguistics. After university Nikki’s first job was subtitling The Simpsons. She then studied psychology, retrained as a journalist, and wrote features for parenting magazines and the national press. She now writes mainly about property and is co-founder of an award-winning, slightly subversive, property blog. She is married and lives in Brighton with her husband, three children, two dogs, a cat, an ever-fluctuating numbers of hamsters, and the imaginary people that inhabit her stories.

A Prank is for Life, Not Just for April Fools’ Day.

Stand-up comedian and author of the brand new The Private Blog of Joe Cowley, Ben Davis shares his top 3 favourite April Fool pranks…

Hi everybody! My name is Ben Davis and I’m a writer. My debut novel is called The Private Blog of Joe Cowley. It’s about a fourteen-year-old boy who starts his own secret blog to document his transition from outsider and wedgie-receiver to a Captain Picard-like master of life. Unfortunately for Joe though, his plans are dealt a major blow with the revelation that he has a step-brother with whom he has a serious history.

Of course, as my book is based on a blog, it was perhaps fitting that OUP kindly asked me to write a blog to mark the occasion of its publication.

To begin with, I had no idea what to write about. I mean, I do have many varied interests, but I doubt that young people of today would be interested in reading about my collection of 1990s WWF wrestling figures.

That's what you think, MAGGOT!

That’s what you think, MAGGOT!

When I saw what day this blog was going to be published on, though, I knew what I was going to write about.

Yes, April Fools’ Day. The one day, or to be more accurate, half day, when you can pull all manner of cruel pranks on your fellow man with no repercussions.

Now, I love pranks. To me, pranking is the best thing we humans can do. It’s what separates us from the animals.

Except the penguins.

Except the penguins.

To a prank guy like me, April Fools’ Day is Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one. Of course, because I prank so many people, I don’t usually get too many presents, but still…

When most people think of pranks, they think of the old cling film over the toilet trick, but this is old hat and you will always end up with one of two things: a wet floor or a lifetime ban from Homebase. So to inspire you, I have compiled my top three pranks of all time.

3. The Trojan Horse

image005This was a classic. You see, the Greeks really wanted to get into Troy. I don’t know why but I’m sure they had their reasons, maybe their Ikea had a proper good sale on. Point is, they wanted in.

Now this was the olden days, so things were different. These days, if I want to go to say – Nuneaton, I can just drive over there and walk around with complete freedom.

Except in Home Bargains. That store detective is good at remembering faces.

Except in Home Bargains. That store detective is good at remembering faces.

 Back then though, they built massive walls around their towns and they’d only let you in if you knew the secret password. Secret passwords were often tricky to remember and had to be at least eight characters long with at least one capital letter and one number, and if you forgot it, you were out.

Is that an H or an N? Ah screw it, let's just move.

Is that an H or an N? Ah screw it, let’s just move.

Anyway, the Greeks didn’t have a secret password, so they decided to prank their way in. Because the Greeks, as a people, are nothing if not committed to the lolz.

I mean, look at that statue! He's got his bum out!

I mean, look at that statue! He’s got his bum out!

For their super prank, the Greeks proceeded to build a giant wooden horse and wheel it to the gates of Troy, with dozens of super-tough army guys hiding inside, trying not to sneeze or anything like that.

See, the thing you should know about the Trojans is that they loved giant wooden horses. Give your typical Trojan a giant wooden horse and he’s as happy as Larry, so this was the perfect thing to prank them with. It would be like tricking your way into Essex dressed as an immense bottle of fake tan.

Naturally, the Trojans were chuffed to bits with their surprise and wheeled it inside the town where they quickly began to plan where it would go in the Troy Museum of Giant Wooden Horses.

But before they could, as a hilarious crescendo to this masterpiece of prankdom, the Greeks jumped out and mercilessly slaughtered everyone.

Actually, that’s not funny. That’s horrible. We’ll move on to the next prank.

2. The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

image013Orson Welles was one of the most accomplished actor/directors of all time. He is known for being the auteur behind celluloid classic Citizen Kane, and the owner of one of the most impressive beards in Hollywood.

But what I’ll mainly remember him for was his love of pranks.

In 1938, Welles performed a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ (no relation, I mean, come on, they’re not even spelled the same) sci-fi novel, War of the Worlds. In case you haven’t read it, or you began to watch the movie version starring Tom Cruise and kicked in your TV screen in disgust, War of the Worlds is about what would happen if a legion of aliens came and took over earth with their terrifying disintegrator rays of doom.

As we have already established, Welles was a top-notch actor.

Unlike someone we know.

Unlike someone we know.

And his performance was so convincing that many listeners thought a real alien invasion was occurring.

This was an incredible prank and one that will never be repeated, because people are getting wise to it now. I mean, radio stations these days are trying so hard to convince me that Justin Bieber is an actual thing, but I’m not having it.



1. The Epic Prank I played on my So-Called Best Friend Fat Barry

Ah, Fat Barry, my oldest chum. We’ve been friends since we were kids, but to be honest, I have no idea why because he’s always whinging:

‘When are you going to pay me back?’

‘Stop calling me Fat Barry, I’m thinner than you.’

‘No I don’t want a hug, now get out of my bathroom.’

Blah, blah, blah. You see? He’s Mr Negativity. And I’ll tell you something else about Fat Barry – he hates pranks. Every April Fools’ Day he is a terrible sport. Like this once, when I called the bomb squad and told them a suspicious package was in Fat Barry’s car, and they came out and blew it up, he barely even cracked a smile. Lighten up, Scrooge!

For some reason, after that, Fat Barry started going on holiday every April. He’d never tell me where he was going, either. Considering he’s supposed to be my best friend, he’s really secretive. Once, he even refused to tell me his mother’s maiden name, account number and sort code. What a weirdo.

Anyway, it wasn’t easy, but last year, I figured out where he was going – Spain. I won’t give away my investigative techniques, but let’s just say the contents of a man’s bin can reveal a great deal.

Straight away, I called my mate Spanish Steve who works in customs and told him that a high-end smuggler was coming over and that he should be searched thoroughly. And I meant thoroughly.

Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to just hear about it when he got home – I had to be there. I booked a ticket for his flight and got on board in disguise. The disguise in this case was that I actually looked like my passport photo.

Hello handsome!

Hello handsome!

When we arrived in Spain, sure enough, Spanish Steve took Fat Barry into a private room and searched him for illegal contraband. I stood outside as Fat Barry protested his innocence and giggled to myself as I watched him tenderly walk out after an hour.

‘Hey, Fat Barry,’ I yelled. ‘April Fool!’

Fat Barry slowly turned around and looked at me. It was as if he knew.

‘Now here’s your April Fool,’ he said, before smacking me in the face and knocking out three teeth.

You might think he got me there, but the thing is, Spain is an hour ahead of us and by the time he hit me, it had gone twelve. So in a way, the joke was on him.

I hope you have enjoyed this round-up of my all-time favourite pranks, and that it has inspired you to terrorise your own nearest and dearest this year.

But that’s not all. I have one more prank up my sleeve. You see, at the beginning, I told you that The Private Blog of Joe Cowley is my debut novel. Well, I was lying. The Private Blog of Joe Cowley isn’t a novel at all – it’s a horse.



Actually, I should point out that The Private Blog of Joe Cowley is a book and that you should definitely buy it. Please, I’ve got dentist bills to pay.

The Private Blog of Joe Cowley is published on 3 April (honest!).



Stand-up comedian Ben Davis studied English at University, which was quite easy because he was already fluent in that. Ben was once invited to audition for a lead role in a West End musical. Since then, he has written jokes for everything from radio shows to greeting cards and, despite his complete lack of singing and dancing ability, was once invited to audition for a lead role in a West End musical. He now lives in Tamworth with his wife and his wimpy dog. The Private Blog of Joe Cowley is his first novel.

Picture credits










The First Rule of Time Travel: Don’t Kill Grandad!

Polly Shulman shares the challenges of writing her time-travel novel, The Wells Bequest, a story full of fantastic objects from popular science fiction stories and packed with fascinating time-travelling conundrums!

I thought the hardest part of writing a time-travel novel would be getting the historical details right. I was wrong. The hardest part was dealing with the paradoxes.

The Wells Bequest

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

In The Wells Bequest, my characters work at a very unusual library—one that lends out not books, but objects. Want to try playing a tuba or see how you would look in Marie Antoinette’s second-best wig? You can borrow them from the New York Circulating Material Repository. Hidden in the repository’s basement are several Special Collections. One houses working, magical objects from fairy tales (this was the subject of my previous novel, The Grimm Legacy). The Wells Bequest involves the repository’s collection of working gadgets straight out of science fiction: starships, shrink rays, invisibility potions, and so on. But the star of the story is the time machine from H.G. Wells’ classic novel. My characters use it to visit Nikola Tesla—the world’s greatest (real-life) mad scientist—in his New York City lab in 1895, on the eve of the fire that destroyed it.

Sadly, electric taxis like this one came into use in New York City in the late 1890s, a few years after Tesla’s lab fire, so my characters ride in a horse-drawn cab instead

Sadly, electric taxis like this one came into use in New York City in the late 1890s, a few years after Tesla’s lab fire, so my characters ride in a horse-drawn cab instead

Getting the historical details right was very important to me. I searched 19th century newspapers for stories about Tesla and his contemporaries, read biographies, hunted up old restaurant menus, pored over photos and train schedules, and stalked through Tesla’s neighborhood with antique maps to see how the streets had changed. I even interviewed a transit historian to find out how people got around town back then. What were the fares for horse-drawn omnibuses? How about trolleys? Where did you buy a ticket for a ride on the elevated railroads, and did the ticket clerk punch it and give it back to you or just keep it? Even if nobody else ever noticed, I wanted to get things right!

But all that research was a walk in the park compared to keeping the time-travel paradoxes straight. The most famous one is the Grandfather Paradox: Suppose you use a time machine to travel back a few decades and kill your grandfather before he meets your grandmother. Then your mother will never be born, so you yourself will never be born, so you will never use a time machine to travel back in time and kill your grandfather. That means your mother will be born after all, and so will you, which means you will be able to use that time machine after all and kill Grandad, so you won’t be born, so you will be, so you won’t be…

H. G. Wells’ novel was no help with this particular paradox. His character uses the machine to go forward in time, not backwards. Going forward in time doesn’t raise nearly as many difficulties—after all, we’re all traveling forward in time all the time!

Inventor Lewis Latimer, who improved Edison’s light bulb, invented a toilet for trains, and introduced my characters to Tesla

Inventor Lewis Latimer, who improved Edison’s light bulb, invented a toilet for trains, and introduced my characters to Tesla

Related puzzles kept popping up all over my story, driving my editor crazy. We would have dialogues like this:

My editor: Wait! How could Leo and Jaya find the time machine in London in Chapter 13? I thought it was in the repository in New York the whole time! Is it a different time machine?

Me: No, it’s the same one. It’s just on an earlier trip. It’s crossing paths with itself.

My editor: How can it be an earlier trip, when they’re both there now?

Me: Time machines can be two places at once—that’s what time machines do.

In the end, all we could do was laugh—which is what I hope everyone will do when they read The Wells Bequest.

The Wells Bequest is out now.

The Wells Bequest

Polly Shulman profile picPolly Shulman has written about edible jellyfish, Egyptian tombs, infinity, blind dates, books, brains, centenarians, circuses, and cinematic versions of Jane Austen novels, for The New York Times, Salon, and many other publications. She edits news stories about fossils, meteors, the ocean, the weather, and the planets for Science magazine.

Polly collects Victorian jewellery, puts cayenne pepper in her chocolate cookies, and reads forgotten books with frontispieces.

She grew up in New York City, where she lives with her husband and their parakeet, Olive.

A Haunted Idea

 William Hussey, author of Haunted, talks about where ideas come from…


‘Where do you get your ideas?’ That’s the question writers dread most, because, you see, often it’s as much a mystery to us as to anyone!

How does the first spark of a story ignite? I believe that the writer’s unconscious mind does most of the work: half-listening to that phone-in show on the car radio during which a caller’s dilemma triggers the bare bones of a plot; snatching a glimpse of that poster on the Tube which suggests a character or scenario; a dream which suddenly connects one distant memory from childhood with a more recent experience and crafts from the two the starting point for a story. But here’s the thing: in many cases, writers find it impossible to track back to the precise moment when the idea came to them.


For my new supernatural thriller, Haunted, I’m in the rare position to tell you exactly how I got the idea

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

I love reading biographies – opening that window onto another life and breathing in the loves and losses, achievements and disasters of a stranger. I was reading a biography of the brilliant inventor Thomas Alva Edison (the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ – creator and developer of, among many other scientific miracles, the light bulb, the movie camera, the telephone and the record player) when my eye chanced upon a tiny detail… and a startling fact.

In 1920 Edison claimed to the press that he was on the verge of inventing a telephone for talking with the dead! Now, Thomas was a great practical joker, especially with journalists, so when he died ten years later and no evidence of this ‘Ghost Machine’ could be found among his detailed laboratory notes, everyone thought he’d been pulling their legs and the story was pretty much forgotten. But this bizarre claim got me thinking…What if…? (Now that simple question is the starting point for all ideas that eventually become books). What if Edison wasn’t joking? What if he really did invent the Ghost Machine? What then became of it? In the interviews he proclaimed the machine boldly to the world, so why would he afterwards never mention it again? Did something awful, something terrifying happen when he first tested it? Yes, I thought… But Edison was as vain as he was brilliant. Could he really bring himself to destroy such a remarkable device?

Hello...? Is anybody there...?

Hello…? Is anybody there…?

And so I wondered, what if the Ghost Machine is still around? And what if it turned up in a small English town in dead of winter? A town cut off by a snowstorm, maybe… Yes! (I was getting excited now!). And what if someone was using this diabolical device to call back the spirits of the dead to our world? The hungry departed, who, arriving in the helpless town of Milton Lake, begin to possess the living, one soul at a time…

So there you have it. After the initial idea struck there was, of course, a lot of work to do. I had to come up with loads of exciting twists and turns, as well as a mystery with, I hope, a shocking solution. I also needed a strong main character to drive the story forward. This last challenge was perhaps the most daunting and rewarding. For the first time I’d be writing from the point of view of a female hero, the determined and damaged Emma Rhodes…

But to learn more about Emma, the dangers she faces, the lessons she learns, and the devastating secrets she uncovers, well, you’ll just have to read the book!

IMG_8361William Hussey has a Masters Degree in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University. His novels are inspired by long walks in the lonely Fenlands of Lincolnshire and by a lifetime devoted to horror stories, folklore and legends. William lives in Skegness and writes stories about things that go bump in the night…

Follow him on Twitter @WHusseyAuthor or visit his website.

Read Turn Her Face to the Wall, a special short story by William.

Haunted is out now.


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.


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.


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.


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

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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

The Life of Riley

Celebrating the publication of The Rachel Riley Diaries: The Life of Riley, Joanna Nadin shares what she wanted to be when she grew up!

Joanna NadinI never wanted to be a writer when I grew up. That is to say, it didn’t occur to me that writing was a “real” job, much less one that I would be capable of, or derive enjoyment from, my talents and skills at that time lying more in maths and singing the books of the Bible off by heart.

And yet I devoured books, I lived in books, I was lost in books. If the weather was bad, I didn’t grumble, just sat in my cushion fort with a batch of Enid Blytons. If it was sunny, I took them into a den in the garden (my idea of the “Great Outdoors” is still limited to somewhere I can read comfortably). Because, while my peers were dreaming of growing up to be a ballerina, or a footballer, or the first female Prime Minister (oh, she’d have been so much better than the one we got), all I wanted was to be IN a book.

Jo Nadin child

I wanted to be Heidi – tending goats all day and sleeping in a hay loft at night. And, of course, nobly helping the crippled Clara to walk again.  I wanted to be George in the Famous Five, solving adventures that no grown-up could possibly fathom, and drinking a lot of lemonade while I did it (banned in our house – my grandfather was a dentist). Then I wanted to be pretty much anyone in the Pony Club series by one of the Pullein-Thompson sisters (kind of like the Brontës of the home counties, only with fewer wild moors and tuberculosis, and rather more plaits and gymkhanas and petty jealousy over who has the best curry comb).

Partly this was aspirational. The lives of these girls were far more exciting than my own small-town Essex upbringing. And partly because I thought I WAS these girls. I could see bits of myself in all of them: moodiness, the feeling of being the outsider, but still the heroine of the piece.

Jo Nadin reading 1

After I outgrew Enid Blyton, I moved on to films. I wanted to be Velvet Brown, winning the Grand National disguised as a boy. Or Andy in Pretty in Pink, falling for the boy on literally the wrong side of the tracks and winning him over with her brilliant vintage dress sense. Or Baby in Dirty Dancing, who got to save the world (or at least join the Peace Corps) AND do the lift with Patrick Swayze sweating in a vest. Note, I didn’t want to be Elizabeth Taylor, or Molly Ringwald, or Jennifer Grey. Well, I wouldn’t have minded. But what I really wanted was to be the characters they were playing.

As I grew up, towards an age where getting a job was becoming a reality, this feeling – this need to live through fiction – grew rather than lessened. When I applied to study drama, it was because I had read and reread The Swish of the Curtain. Somehow I thought this would be my all-access pass to coolness. Only to discover I would spend most of my time pretending to be an unconvincing toaster. And that, as a graduate, I wouldn’t be at the RSC assisting Trevor Nunn, I would be working for a pittance from a back room in Kings Cross sending out press releases to theatres in places like Wolverhampton or Colchester.

Then I worked in television news, imagining, I guess, I would become Kate Adie or even Jeremy Paxman. Only I spent rather too much time making tea for B-listers and not a huge deal of it writing groundbreaking news reports or interviewing despots.

Then I went into politics. Which, for once, was kind of a sensible career choice for a book geek. Having come from a background in TV and radio, I was, for the first time in my life, considered quirky and vaguely cool. I was the go-to girl if any ministers needed briefing on music, or E4.

Yet that wasn’t enough. Because I’m sitting there in the basement of No. 10 – which for a lot of people is an impossibly exciting and glamorous place to be. Only the thing is, it really isn’t. Because I’m supposed to be writing three hundred words on why ID cards are really, no honestly, a great idea. But instead, I’m staring out of the window into the ornamental gardens, imagining that, at any minute, the phone is going to ring and I’m going to get dispatched to the Middle East as an observer for the peace talks. Whereupon fate will intervene and my convoy will be attacked by insurgents, trapping me under a Land Rover. From where I will be airlifted to an army hospital in Germany, and will be languishing in a coma when the gorgeous Deputy Chief of Staff flies across the world to finally profess his dying love for me after years of will they, won’t they intrigue (I had moved on the The West Wing by then).

And I guess that’s when I worked it out. I had spent so long immersed in stories, that, when life turned out not to be exactly like it is in books or films, I was perpetually disappointed. I wanted a Hollywood ending. On a daily basis.

And so I figured, given the huge swathes of time given over to daydreaming, it might just be possible that, instead of waiting for the cliffhanger, or the movie kiss, I could write my own. I’d certainly be happier, because that way I’d get to spend all day in someone else’s head, and in someone else’s world, living in their adventures, and giving them happy endings.

So why write a series based on my own, uneventful childhood? Well, this way I get to give my alter ego – the girl who can’t always tell fact from fiction, who lives in hope of becoming Sylvia Plath – a little more drama, a lot more kissing, and maybe, even, the happy ending I was always holding out for.

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

Rachel Riley series

The Word Tin – where stories come from

Dave Cousins, author of 15 Days Without a Head and Waiting for Gonzo, shares his story making secret.

Dave_Cousins_2One of the most common questions asked of writers is where do you get your ideas from? It’s a question that many will struggle to answer—not me. I know exactly where my stories originate. I’ll let you into the secret, but don’t go spreading it around. This is just between us, OK?

On my desk there’s a metal box, 18cm wide by 9cm deep and 8cm high. I call it the Word Tin, and it contains all the words I need, stamped into small strips of metal, like dog-tags. To build a story, I simply delve into the box, pull out a handful of words and put them in the right order—simple.

The Word Tin

Sadly, I’m joking (but imagine if such a tin existed—now there’s an idea for a story!) The tin is real enough, and I have once or twice tried to conjure a story the way I described. It produced some interesting, if not exactly publishable, results.

So where do ideas for stories come from? For me, Robert Cormier explained it perfectly when he said, ‘to work for me, an idea must be attached to an emotion, something that upsets, dazzles or angers me and sends me to the typewriter’. The spark that sent me to my notebook to scribble the start of the story that became my debut novel 15 Days Without a Head, came from an incident I witnessed in a pub one afternoon. A very drunk woman was arguing with a stranger at the next table—much to the embarrassment of her sons. It made me wonder what life was like for those two boys, what would happen when they got home.


I can’t tell you about the idea that started my new book Waiting for Gonzo because it will spoil the story, but something I had experienced thirty years earlier provided an important element.


In the summer before I was due to start secondary school, my family moved from Birmingham to a small town in Northamptonshire. I arrived for my first day at ‘big school’ in an over-sized blazer, 1970s haircut and impenetrable Brummie accent.

Dave Cousins School Photo

Look, I’m not going to lay a huge sob story on you—by the end of the first year most kids were calling me Dave, rather than Birmingham, but I’ll admit the first few months weren’t easy. So, this was the situation into which I dropped my thirteen year old narrator of Waiting for Gonzo—though for him, I went one better—or worse. I took him from the city to a remote village—an environment so alien, he might as well have been on Mars.

But ideas alone don’t make stories—for that you need characters—real ones, that leap off the page and invade your life. Cue Oz: loud, cocky and selfish—nothing like the sensitive, sympathetic character I had originally imagined. Rather than attempting to blend into his new surroundings and make friends, Oz barged onto the page like he owned the place. I loved him. He made me laugh and did unexpected things. The more Oz came to life, the more he transformed the story—and all I had to do was type.

And then of course, there was Gonzo, but I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book to find out about that. One secret per post is my limit!

Waiting for Gonzo is published on 7th March 2013—there’s even an original soundtrack to go with it, but that’s a story for another time.

Waiting for Gonzo soundtrack

Watch the Waiting for Gonzo trailer!


Dave Cousins grew up in Birmingham, in a house full of books and records. Abandoning childhood plans to be an astronaut, Dave went to art college in Bradford, joined a band and moved to London. He spent the next ten years touring and recording, and was nearly famous.

Dave’s writing career began aged ten, with an attempt to create a script for Fawlty Towers. He has been writing songs, poems and stories ever since.

He now lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and family, in a house full of books and records, and writes in a corner of the attic with an anarchic ginger cat for company.

For more information visit You can also find Dave on Twitter, Facebook and at the Edge – a group of eight authors writing cutting edge fiction for teens.

4 authors, 4 cities, 1 roadshow: access all areas behind the scenes at OUP’s Author Roadshow

Geraldine McCaughrean, Tim Bowler, Sally Prue, and Gillian Cross are four incredibly talented and inspirational authors who we are very proud to have on our list. With all four authors having new titles published this spring, an ideal opportunity arose to gather this awesome foursome, so we challenged them to a four day roadshow of events across the U.K. and Ireland.

It all began on one chilly afternoon in the fair city of Dublin travelling with groupies from the Publicity and Marketing team. . .


Destination Dublin

It’s never a good start to a tour to have 3 of your 4 authors missing! (Note to self, always find out before travelling if the airport you are arriving at has two terminals!) Authors found, we voyaged on to the Pearse Street library, a beautiful location for the first evening event of the week.

Preparation, preparation, preparation – an essential element of making sure that an event runs as smoothly as possible. Whether it’s making sure that authors have a drink to hand (obviously non-alcoholic until after the event!), setting up sound or visuals, or checking that there are books available to buy. The time before an event always whizzes past with a mild case of anxiety ever brewing until all the audience are in and the event is underway. Thankfully, due to the organisational skills of Liz Scott, freelance publicist extraordinaire, no detail had been left uncovered in planning for the roadshow and preparation was completely panic free.

Dublin’s event was chaired by the delightful Robert Dunbar, a regular reviewer of children’s books for The Irish Times, Books for Keeps, and The School Librarian. Robert had many thoughts surrounding each of the books, and did a fabulous job of reeling in the audience to the characters and stories from each author.


The evening included:

  • Reference to a quote from Albert Einstein “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving” and how this relates to the importance of Matt’s bike in After Tomorrow, Gillian Cross’s new title.
  • Discussing Geraldine McCaughrean’s motto for writing (according to Wikipedia!): “do not write about what you know, write about what you want to know.”
  • Uncovering Tim Bowler’s fascination for sea stories, including real life survival stories.
  • Revealing the inspiration behind Sally Prue’s Song Hunter and its autobiographical roots. (Read more about this in Sally’s recent blog post!)

A special moment at any event is hearing an author reading from their book. For these events, each author chose a reading of around three minutes to give a sense of the tone and characters from the novel. It’s always exciting hearing how an author can bring their own writing to life, especially when you hear them reading such dramatic lines as ‘She was sure now that it was the face she had seen before’ (Sea of Whispers, Tim Bowler) and ‘Mid-flight, the sun went out’ (Song Hunter, Sally Prue).

Our evening came to a close with audience questions, a couple of glasses of wine and mingling with our guests, followed by a well-earned dinner and collapsing in a heap at the hotel at a respectable time of 10.30pm. Rock and roll!

Onwards to Glasgow

The day began at an early hour flying to Glasgow at 10am, under the threat of snow in both Ireland and Scotland. Thankfully, although snow did cause rush hour chaos in Glasgow, our flight was unaffected and we were in a suitably warm and cosy public house enjoying haggis and Cullen skink by lunchtime.

A short break in the schedule for a couple of hours of rest and then we were onwards to the magnificent Mitchell library.


Taking the role of chair for our Glasgow event was the Children & Education Programme Director for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Janet Smyth.  Our second evening included:

  • A discussion as to why using a varied and large vocabulary within children’s literature is so important for children’s language acquisition.
  • Discussing whether our authors write with a child audience in mind.
  • Audience questions around audio book editions, top children’s book recommendations, and whether the authors had read and enjoyed each other’s books! (The answer being a resounding yes from all four authors!)

With such an enthusiasm for children’s books, it’s clear to see that this year’s Edinburgh Festival is in very safe hands. Janet did a fantastic job of chairing, drawing together similarities across the author’s new titles and highlighting just what a huge area there is for children’s writers to experiment in.

Our trip to Glasgow was wrapped up with a rather filling curry. Being on the road is not the place to watch calories!

Moving on to Manchester

Midway through the week and it was time for a staff switchover! With an impending sales conference in Oxford (to present books publishing later in the year to our sales reps) it was time for Nicola and Harriet to head back to Oxford, with Jennie taking over the roadshow reins in Manchester. Once joined by aforementioned freelance publicist extraordinaire, Liz Scott, we all made our way to the venue for the evening’s event – Manchester Metropolitan University’s Geoffrey Manton Building, a hotbed of creativity and talent we were soon to discover!

On arrival we were introduced to our host for the evening, Kaye Tew, Director of the Manchester Children’s Book Festival and creative writing course tutor at the university, and to the chairperson, Jacqueline Roy, author and senior lecturer in English and creative writing.

After finding out lots more about the Manchester Children’s Book Festival – a biennial celebration of reading which began in 2010 – and hearing inspiring stories of some of the students who study the creative writing course, it was time for the discussion to begin!

Discoveries this evening:

  •  Jacqueline admitted that she cheated and read the end of Gillian’s book because she just couldn’t wait until the end
  • Gillian admitted that to avoid procrastinating she has resorted to using ‘Write or Die’, a word-eating app that deletes your work if you become distracted for too long
  • Sally admitted that a childhood teacher was responsible for her realisation that she didn’t have to be boring
  • Tim admitted to seeing pictures in his mind – the inspiration for many of his stories
  • and Geraldine admitted to having been politely prompted by the Theatre Royal in Margate to write a book about the town

…and that was quite enough revelations for one night!


Book signing, canapés, and drinks ensued, followed by dinner and a dash back to the hotel to get some shut-eye before the final day of the roadshow. Alarms went off, breakfasts were eaten, and in the blink of an eye we were safely on the station platform at Manchester Piccadilly boarding the train to Bristol – no rest for the wicked!

Bring on Bristol

Our final venue of the week was Bristol Central Library, a beautiful building not too far from the historic Bristol Harbourside. Hosted here by the wonderfully organised Margaret Pemberton, librarian at Bristol School Library Service, the event was the perfect high note on which to end the week! The children’s library is home to its very own book-ship – HMS Book Trove – aboard which our authors duly climbed, along with our chairperson Julia Green (in fact another children’s author also published by Oxford University Press making our talented quartet a quintet)!


Julia Green also happens to be course director of Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing for Young People, and after her expert chairing of the evening’s discussion it was fascinating to hear questions from her current students, including ‘Do you find it difficult to show your writing to close friends and family?’ It was surprising to hear all authors answer that they didn’t find it difficult, and that sometimes it’s best to hear trying feedback from those closest to you!

With the evening drawing to a close, and our four authors having journeyed to the four corners of the earth – well, Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester, and Bristol at least – it was time to begin the farewells, which is always the saddest part.

It was truly fantastic week, and without the generosity of all the hosts, chairpersons, booksellers and of course the authors involved, not forgetting our fantastic audiences, it couldn’t have happened, so wishing them all a very big thank you for giving up their time and energy and making it one rollicking roadshow to remember…until next time!

Jennie pic Nicola pic

Written by Nicola Gray, Marketing Manager and Jennie Younger, Publicity Executive

Books and authors featured:

Tim Bowler 9780192728395_SEA_OF_WHISPERS_CVR_JAN13

Tim Bowler, Sea of Whispers

Tim explores our relationship with the sea in this recent blog post.

 Gillian Cross275626_AFTER_TOMORR#2C5E3BF

Gillian Cross, After Tomorrow

Gillian speaks about the unexpected beginnings of After Tomorrow here.


Geraldine McCaughrean, The Positively Last Performance

Read Geraldine’s post about her experience of writing the novel.

sally prue 9780192757111_SONG_HUNTER_CVR_JAN13

Sally Prue, Song Hunter

Sally explains the influence of her childhood on Song Hunter in her recent blog post.

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