Baddies are Best: My Top Three Supervillains of All Time

Ben Davis, YA author by day and superhero extraordinaire by night, shares his top three super villains of all time in celebration of his new series, Danny Dread.

Greetings! I’m Ben Davis – author, citizen, eater of pies – and I am here today to talk to you about my latest book, Danny Dread. It’s the swashbuckling story of a useless supervillain and his twelve year old son, who secretly wants to be a superhero.

I'm sure he'll grow out of it

I’m sure he’ll grow out of it.

Despite the embarrassing photo above, I’ve always been drawn to the baddies. When I was a kid in the playground, I would play the villain. I was the best at it. Kids would say, ‘Ben, you can be Silencio the Evil Wizard. His special power is sitting on his own in the corner quietly and not bothering us for the entire lunch break.’ And do you know something? I totally nailed it. Every single time.

Anyway, to celebrate the publication of Danny Dread, I have decided to share with you my all-time top three supervillains.

  1. The Penguin

Yeah, I could have gone for the Joker, but come on, that would be too obvious. Plus, Penguin is my favourite Batman villain. I think it’s because he does dangerous stuff and doesn’t care about the consequences.

I mean, look, he's opening an umbrella indoors. What next, walking under ladders?

I mean, look, he’s opening an umbrella indoors. What next, walking under ladders?

Another reason why he makes my top three is that he’s a psychotic criminal named after a completely harmless animal.

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Well, mostly harmless.

  1. My so-called best friend, Fat Barry

That’s right, Fat Barry – you are the second biggest supervillain of all time. How does it feel? You can’t say it hasn’t been a long time coming. I mean, remember my last birthday, when you got me NOTHING? Well, not nothing, it was just a scrap book filled with these really old photos of us when we were kids, but still, I bet it hardly cost you a thing. And after I got you that £5 Nandos voucher for your birthday, as well. Well, this year, you can forget it. This is your present, you evil, evil man.

  1. Dad Dread

Yeah, I’ve put my own character in at number one. Want to make something of it? Now you might be thinking that that is an incredibly boastful thing to do, and I’m only doing it so I can write ‘named best supervillain of all time by Oxford University’ on publicity materials, but hear me out.

DOWN WITH CAMBRIDGE!

DOWN WITH CAMBRIDGE!

Larry “Dad” Dread is the son of the fearsome Phileas Dread, world conqueror and now, head in a jar. Larry has spent his life trying to live up to his father’s reputation to no avail. His failed schemes have included kidnapping Donald Duck, and brainwashing all of the world’s sharks. With the latter, he failed to take into account the fact that their tiny fish brains meant that they would quickly forget that they had been brainwashed. And that is when they started to get bitey.

The book sees Larry take on a dastardly new assistant, and soon, his dreams of world domination are within his grasp. Only one person has the ability to stop him – and he is much closer to home than he thinks.

Hi!

Hi!

That is all from me – I will now return to my secret lair* to hatch some evil schemes of my own.** Goodbye!

* shed.

** hide all the stuff I “borrowed” from my so-called best friend, Fat Barry.

Danny Dread is out now.

Danny Dread

Ben2

Ben Davis studied English at University, which was quite easy because he was already fluent in that. Since then, he has written jokes for everything from radio shows to greeting cards and fulfilled a lifelong ambition by writing books for young adults. He now lives in Tamworth with his wife and his wimpy dog.

What A Wonderful Song

Tim Hopgood, author and illustrator shares his love of Louis Armstrong’s world-famous song What a Wonderful World and takes us behind the scenes of making it into a picture book and getting it published.

One Father’s Day about five, six years ago my daughter gave me an old vinyl copy of Louis Armstrong’s rendition of What A Wonderful World. Before we go any further, I feel I should point out that the song was not actually written by Armstrong, but such is the magic of his recording that people seem to assume the song is his! The words were actually written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss.

bright_day

I first heard the song when I was about six years old; it was played at school during assembly. It made a huge impression on me as a child, such a seemingly simple song, yet so powerful in that it goes straight to the heart with its message of hope and love. Listening to the recording once again, complete with vinyl crackles, I realized the song hadn’t lost any of its charm and it hadn’t dated, that’s the beauty of something so honest and simple. And there’s something about Armstrong’s gravelly voice that stops it being too sentimental, maybe that’s the reason his recording is the one everyone remembers.

So what’s the first song you’d want your new baby to hear? For me it has to be this song. It was for Chris Evans too. I remember he opened his afternoon show on Radio 2 with the song after his first son Noah was born. Wouldn’t it be amazing to capture the joy of that song, probably the most life-affirming song of all time and put it in a book?

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Think about it, the lyrics are so visual ‘I see trees of green, Red roses too’ it could work. And as a gift, what better gift book could there be than to give someone what is essentially a love letter to the world? A simple message of hope.

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When I first showed the roughs for the idea the initial reaction was that it was going to be too complicated to get permission to use the lyrics. I think I’m right in saying that there are three music companies which own the rights to the song, and they would all have to agree on the concept and the publishing terms. My editor at the time loved the idea, but from a publishing business point of view it wasn’t looking quite so wonderful. As a relative newcomer to the picture book market, having at the time only published two books, the chances of making the figures work looked unlikely. “One to put on the back burner” was the advice from my agent.

 

rough_trees_of_green

 

So that’s exactly what I did.  And then a few years later, I got a call from the commissioning editor at OUP, Peter Marley. Pete explained he was looking for gift book ideas and wondered if I’d be interested in working with him. I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference was between a picture book and a gift book, so he explained how gift books tended to have higher print production values than an ordinary picture book and that often they were based on classic titles that are given a new lease of life by a contemporary illustrator.

rough_faces_going_by

I think it was the word CLASSIC that jumped out at me. Something made me think immediately about my ‘Wonderful World’ idea and so I mentioned to Pete that I did have something he might be interested in, not based on a classic title, but a classic song instead.

rough_I_think_to_myself

When I look at the original roughs now it’s surprising how little has actually changed, surprising in a good way. Others may look at the roughs and see just a few scribbly lines, but to me the content and composition is all there, the journey and the pace of it all is pretty close to the finished book. My roughs are VERY rough, but the essence of what’s happening on the page is there.

I’m not someone who likes to produce very detailed roughs and then colour them in as it were.  For me the process is all much more spontaneous than that with each finished spread influencing the next. And so much of my work is about colour that often it’s hard for people to imagine the power and impact a spread will have until colour is applied.

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So for example, my rough drawing for the horses spread, which is probably my favourite spread, doesn’t look that impressive, but in my head I knew it would work. The power of colour never ceases to amaze and excite me. So like the song itself, the composition is kept simple and direct.

p22_unpublishedI guess the main change to come out of the editorial process was the relationship between the boy and the bird. It’s much stronger in the final version, much more deliberate whereas in the original rough it is more incidental.

original_colour_test

I hope the book will introduce a whole new generation to the wonders of this song and that it will encourage parents and teachers to share its joy by singing to their little and not-so little ones. The project was a labour of love. A project that came about because all those involved at OUP wanted to make it happen as much as I did. It certainly wouldn’t have happened without them. I’m a great believer in things happening for a reason. Had the book happened earlier in my publishing career it wouldn’t be the book it is­­; by that I mean, it wouldn’t be quite so charming, quite so powerful, quite so wonderful. Thank you to everyone involved.­­­­ ­­­­­

 What a Wonderful World is out now.

What a Wonderful World

Tim

Tim worked for twenty years as a graphic designer and freelance illustrator before he began his career writing and drawing for children. He has a deep love of music, often he wears large headphones and blasts Miles Davis or Stevie Wonder while he paints and draws. He works mostly with Derwent sketching pencils, using digital layering methods to create his artworks. He now lives in North Yorkshire with his wife, two children and his cats.

See the world of The Boxtrolls come to life!

Kathy Webb, Managing Editor at OUP Children’s Books gives us the inside track on working on the books that accompany the brand new 3D animated adventure film, The Boxtrolls – as well as the book that inspired the film.

Last Saturday I took my family and friends along to the cinema to watch the new movie, The Boxtrolls. It had only just opened in the UK and went on to be the number one film at the box office for that weekend. We all thought the movie was great—an exciting adventure, with some weird and wonderful characters, all brought to life by some truly breath-taking animation. But watching the film was like the end of a crazy and fun-filled journey for me because I had spent the last twelve months involved in putting together a range of film tie-in books to accompany the film.


9780192739308_HERE_BE_MONSTERS_CVR_OCT14
The Boxtrolls
movie is based on a book published by OUP entitled Here Be Monsters! by the hugely-talented author/illustrator Alan Snow. So when it came to publishing The Boxtrolls books, OUP were asked if they could produce them. Movie tie-in publishing is always great fun—schedules and deadlines go out of the window and all you can do is wait for the film company, Laika, to release the images you need for the books and then embark on a mad dash to put the books together and get them off to print. There’s something very satisfying about producing a book at breakneck speed!

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Together with the movie tie-in publications (The Boxtrolls Novelisation and The Boxtrolls: Make Your Own Boxtroll Punch-out Activity Book) we also produced a new edition of the original Here Be Monsters! which, although altogether more straightforward, also had times where we were at the mercy of the film company as we waited for their approval to use The Boxtrolls logo on our new cover, for example. But in the end, like a well-oiled Boxtrolls machine, everything came together in the nick of time and the books published just prior to the film’s release.

GROUP_MEET_BOXTROLLS_LRAs I settled down in the cinema and the film began, I felt proud to have had a small part to play in the huge world of The Boxtrolls. Seeing the characters that you’ve come to know so well, burst into life on a huge screen, is really very exciting.

Working on The Boxtrolls books was a bit like the film itself—fast, furious, dramatic, sometimes scary, but above all else, just great, great fun.

The Boxtrolls is in cinemas now.

 

A perilous world for children…

Julia Lee, author of  The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth examines the different types of childhoods experienced by the children in the Victorian setting of her new book The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard.

In my latest book, The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard, I got to plunge back into the perilous Victorian world of The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth. (I have to take a deep breath even to type those long titles!)

Clemency Wrigglesworth

It’s a world where schooling is not a great priority. That might sound like fun, but in fact most children work for a living instead, as they do in my book. Their families need every penny they earn to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads. Gully’s family, the Marvels, have links to the theatre and their children are lucky to have jobs that reflect that. Cousin Whitby is a dancer and dance-school assistant. Nine-year-old Impey has acted on the stage and hopes for greater things in future. Gully’s job is more mundane. He’s just a delivery boy, and wishes he had a special talent like his cousins. But they all share rather adult worries about money, whether they might lose their jobs, and how to find another.

 

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Having so much independence and responsibility means that children are out and about all day, unsupervised by parents – so different from now. But that also means plenty of scope in my story for adventures and chance encounters, some exciting, some alarming. Bumping into an old school-mate is the start of a scary rollercoaster of events for Gully.

There’s one character who isn’t allowed out on her own – who isn’t allowed to do very much at all, in fact. Agnes Glass comes from a wealthy family. Although her life is comfortable she’s isolated and lonely. Her over-protective mother fusses about her health. Poor Agnes can only go outside on fine days and then she must be wrapped in blankets in a little pony-cart, led by a groom, going ‘at a sedate pace and only down the quietest streets’. Not much scope for adventure there! Until she decides to do something about it…

I’ve always loved those classic children’s books like Heidi and The Secret Garden where ‘sickly’ children manage to challenge the limitations imposed by illness or disability. So I had great fun helping to prise Agnes out of her narrow world and defy her mother. When she is thrown together with Gully and Impey, there’s quite a gulf between them and lots to discover about each other’s lives. Lots to discover about themselves, too, especially as the perils begin to pile up.

The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard is out now.

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Julia LeeJulia Lee has been making up stories for as long as she can remember. She wrote her first book aged 5, mainly so that she could do all the illustrations with a brand-new 4-colour pen, and her mum stitched the pages together on her sewing machine.

Julia grew up in London, but moved to the seaside to study English at university, and has stayed there ever since. Her career has been a series of accidents, discovering lots of jobs she didn’t want to do, because secretly she always wanted to be a writer.

 

Julia is married, has two sons, and lives in Sussex.

 

 

Cakes in Space!

Greetings, space cadets! Philip Reeve reporting from the Reeve and McIntyre international space station (we built it out of some of Sarahʼs spare hats).

Yes, for our new book, Sarah and I decided to launch ourselves into outer space. Weʼve even had some space costumes made so we can be properly dressed when we do book events.
Picture 1

People often ask, ʻWhere do you get your ideas from?ʼ, but by the time youʼve gone all through the process of writing (and illustrating) a book it can sometimes be hard to remember where you started. I think the first idea for Cakes in Space came when I noticed that Sarah is really good at drawing aliens, and that got me thinking that we should do a space story. And then I thought it might be fun to start with an idea that felt quite cold and futuristic – a girl sets off on a long space voyage in a gleaming white starship. She and her family are off to live on a new planet, called Nova Mundi…

pic_2_novamundi_brochure

So I told that idea to Sarah – we always come up with our stories together – and we started discussing what might happen next. We decided that Astra and the other passengers would all be put into a frozen sleep while the ship makes its long journey. But something goes wrong, and Astra wakes up in the middle of the voyage, while everyone else is still asleep. That was the idea which the rest of the story grew around. (Not many of us have been aboard a starship, but we all know that slightly magical, slightly scary feeling of being the only one awake in the house.)

pic_3_sleep_pods

What would Astra discover as she crept around the silent, sleeping ship? We didnʼt want her to be too lonely, so we invented a friendly robot called Pilbeam…

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And Sarah didnʼt want to be drawing just white corridors all the time, so we gave the ship an overgrown zero-gravity fruit garden…

pic_5_garden

But there are problems, too. Thereʼs a bunch of aliens called the Poglites, whom Sarah has drawn wearing chimney-pot spacesuits. Theyʼve come to steal all the spoons…

pic_6_poglites_zps250d472c

And, more worryingly still, the shipʼs food making machine, Nom-O-Tron 9000, has gone bananas and started baking batch after batch of KILLER CAKES. That was Sarahʼs idea, and once she suggested it, those cakes sort of took over the book.

pic_7_cakes

Will Astra be able to defeat the fearsome flapjacks, murderous muffins and beastly battenburgs? Youʼll have to read Cakes in Space to find out. But never fear – she has a SPORK, and sheʼs not afraid to use it!

pic_8_astra_spork

 

Cakes in Space is out now.

Cakes

And you can get Oliver and the Seawigs too!

Oliver and the Seawigs PB

cakesinspace-smallformatPhilip Reeve was born and raised in Brighton, where he wrote his first story at the tender age of five about a spaceman called Spike and his dog Spook. He is a talented illustrator and writer, and he has illustrated several titles in the Horrible Histories series.  Philip is best known for his multi award-winning Mortal Engines quartet, which won the Nestlé Children’s Book Prize, the Blue Peter Book Award, and the Guardian Children’s Book Award. Philip has also won the prestigious CILIP Carnegie Medal with Here Lies Arthur. Philip lives in Dartmoor with his wife Sarah and his son Sam.

Sarah McIntyre is a writer and illustrator of children’s books and comics. She once applied for a job as ship’s rigger, intending to run away to sea, but instead, she found herself studying Illustration at Camberwell College of Arts and graduated in 2007.

Sarah grew up in Seattle in the US and went to university in Philadelphia, where she studied Russian language and literature. She thought she wanted to be a journalist, and worked for a year at a newspaper in Moscow. One of her articles caused a huge scandal, and she ran off with a British diplomat named Stuart, who married her and took her back to London with him. She thinks he probably wasn’t a spy, but she is not entirely sure. She shares a studio with three friends in an old police station in Deptford, south London, (complete with cells!). You can visit Sarah’s website and blog at http://www.jabberworks.co.uk

 

Water Vole Watching

Tom Moorhouse, an ecologist at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology and author of the brilliant debut The River Singers (out now in paperback) shares his tips on finding and seeing water voles in their real habitat.

The River SingersWhen I talk to classes of children in schools, I always ask them the same question: “How many of you have seen a water vole?”. Usually a few hands go up – perhaps one in ten children, excited to describe their wildlife encounters. And that’s great. The thing is, though, that if I had asked a class that question in the 1980s (the parents of the current generation), perhaps a third of them would have raised their hands. And if I’d asked a class in the 1950s (the grandparents) the vast majority of hands would have gone up. Indeed, for children living in the 1950s seeing water voles was “normal”, a part of going for a walk by a river or canal. It’s difficult not to think that our children are missing out in some ways. The small joy of seeing water voles swimming in a river, doing their determined “doggy paddle”, is now a real rarity, not what it used to be: a common oh-that’s-lovely before carrying on with your day.

The good news is that there are still places you can go to watch wild water voles. Your local Wildlife Trust should be able to point you in the right direction. And if you find a suitable river try to get there early in the morning, or late as the sun is setting, and take an apple with you. Locate a pile of feeding sign or a latrine (chopped up piles of reeds or other stems, about 10cm long, or piles of droppings that look like black tictacs, both hidden at the base of the plants at the water’s edge) and leave ¼ of the apple nearby. If you’re lucky, and sit very patiently and still, a water vole will steal up to the apple and sniff it for a bit. Then it will either eat it, or grab it and scarper. Either way, the sighting will be worth it, I promise. And, of course, you’ll be helping to restore, in some small way, what was once a common experience.

 

The Rising, the sequel to The River Singers will be published in October.

The Rising

Tom MoorhouseTom Moorhouse lives in Oxford, where he enjoys the refreshing and perpetual rain. He is somewhere in his mid-thirties. This, he has discovered, means that small white hairs now grow out of his earlobes when he’s not looking.

He spends a lot of time climbing rocks. He used to play the trombone, but doesn’t any more. He is, without the slightest fear of contradiction, the world’s worst snowboarder. Ever. Tom also happens to be an ecologist, working at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. As a child he devoured – not literally – just about any fantasy book going.

The Rising, the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed debut novel The River Singers, will be published in October 2014.

 

 

Spawning a Little Frog

Tatyana Feeney is author and illustrator of a brilliant series of books that tackle everyday toddler troubles. From losing a favourite blanket (Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket) to likes and dislikes (Little Owl’s Orange Scarf), her simple story and minimalist artwork speaks volumes. Where did the idea for her new book Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble which deals with a new baby in the family come from?

9780192735546_LITTLE_FROGS_TADPOLE_TROUBLE_CVR_APR14I have quite a young family still – my oldest is seven, so inspiration for stories about young children is fairly abundant in my daily  life!

Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble, which is my latest book, developed from having my own children and seeing the effect of a new sibling on the first child. I am sure there are some children who are delighted with new children arriving in the family, but many feel threatened or upset by the change in the family dynamic. My intention, by having nine new brothers and sisters was just an exaggeration of how the change feels to the first child. Of course, most families don’t go from one to ten overnight – but it could feel that way when a new baby arrives…

A regret I have is that I didn’t make Mommy and Daddy look a bit more stressed once the tadpoles arrived – they are quite relaxed for parents of 10!

Some things Little Frog likes to do

Some things Little Frog likes to do

When I start working on a new story, drawing the characters (a lot!), is the best way for me to get to know them. I think  about what they might do, or  wear, what they like, what they DO NOT like. I need to know lots of things about their personality to help get the story started. I have a few samples of drawings I did when I was working on Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble. Some of the pictures are just Little Frog doing things he likes, including listening to music and trying gymnastics. Not all of these ultimately went into the book, but they still give me an idea of who he is.

Little Frog was very upset about the new tadpoles and he ran away...

Little Frog was very upset about the new tadpoles and he ran away…

I have included a few other sketches. One is Little Frog running away from home…

 

...luckily he didn't get too far...

…luckily he didn’t get too far…

(well, to under the kitchen table) when he heard about the new siblings.

Some things Little Frog likes to do with the tadpoles - teaching them to skip

Some things Little Frog likes to do with the tadpoles – teaching them to skip

There are also some ideas of things he could do with the tadpoles once they got a bit bigger.

Playing leapfrog!

Playing leapfrog!

It is always  nice to play around with the characters like this, even when not all of the ideas make it into the finished book – it seems to give them more personality somehow.

 

Little Frog’s Tadpole Trouble is out now.

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feeney0062kpo2011_bwTatyana Feeney grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She studied History of Art at the University of North Carolina and Design at the Art Institute of Atlanta before getting a BA in Illustration for Children’s Publishing from NEWI in Wales.

She has illustrated several books with Irish publishers, including 3 in the Irish language. She has also done illustrations for websites and cards.

She lives in Trim, County Meath with her husband, two children and small dog.

 

 

The inspiration behind Scarlet…

Gill Lewis, author of the award-winning Sky Hawk and White Dolphin tells us about the inspiration behind her extraordinarily moving new book Scarlet Ibis.

What’s the story behind a book? Where does the inspiration come from?

For Sky Hawk, White Dolphin and Moon Bear, I have a clear idea where the stories came from and what inspired them. With Scarlet Ibis, I’m left scratching my head. I don’t really know, is the initial answer.

The story gathered itself together from the deep recesses of my mind. After much research including many interviews and reading, it formed on the pages to become the story of Scarlet Ibis.

Scarlet IbisIt began as a seed of an idea, as many of my stories do, with a character walking into my head, with a story to be told. In walked Scarlet Ibis. She introduced herself before I even knew what the story was going to be about. I sketched her and made notes…swirling ideas in my head, and then she told me her dream…a dream she tells her brother Red, every night…

I pull the duvet cover up around him so only his red hair and eyes peep out. “So what story is it to be tonight?” I say.

“Caroni Swamp,” he says.

I smile because there is only ever one story. I dim his side-lamp and begin. “One day,” I say, “we’ll find ourselves an aeroplane and fly up into the big blue sky. We’ll be like birds. We’ll fly above the roads and houses, above Big Ben and The Eye and London Zoo. We’ll fly across the whole Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Trinidad.”

“What then?” says Red.

“We’ll take a little boat out on the Caroni Swamp,” I say.

“Just you and me?” says Red.

“Just you and me,” I say.

Red smiles. His eyes are seeing the deep green waters and tangle of the mangrove trees.

“And we’ll wait,” I say. “We’ll wait for the sun to sink, turning the mountains of the Northern Range deep blue.”

“Just you and me?” says Red.

“Just you and me,” I say. “And as the light is leaving the sky, we’ll watch them coming in their hundreds and thousands. We’ll watch them settle in the trees like bright red lanterns as darkness falls.”

Red pulls his duvet tighter around him. “And we’ll always be together?”

“Always,” I say. “Just you and me in that little boat, as evening falls, watching the scarlet ibis flying back to the Caroni Swamp.”

For Scarlet, this dream is an elusive place where her mother can find happiness again. For Red, this dream is a place where he and Scarlet can always be together.

So where did Scarlet come from? How did she just walk into my head? What ideas did she form from?

When I think back to the time I was exploring the story and playing with ideas, I had just been reading a book called Between Two Worlds, the story of Alan Goffe, a brilliant black British scientist. My mother had known his wife and had met Alan Goffe on several occasions. She remembered him to be a charismatic, intelligent man. Sadly, he was only 46 when he died in a sailing accident in 1965. He had made huge contributions to the development of polio and measles vaccines and it was said that his untimely death probably set back vaccine development by many years. Alan Goffe’s story is an interesting one. His mother was from the Isle of Wight. A young white woman, she trained to become a doctor in the early part of the twentieth century. This was a huge achievement in itself, as women had only just won the right to join men to study medicine. (Women had previously been judged to be inferior in intelligence to men!) She then travelled to the Caribbean, where she met her husband to-be, a black doctor from a well-respected middle-class Jamaican family. Together, they set up practice in Kingston, London, at a time when most doctors were Caucasian males, and racism and sexism were rife. Both Goffe’s parents had been fortunate to grow up in supportive families where education and freedom of thought had been valued.

Goffe became a scientist at the forefront of research in the development of vaccines. He also fought for many altruistic causes, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Freedom from Hunger.

His story made me ponder about all sorts of things; prejudice and discrimination, migration of people, what we mean by home, belonging and family, and above all the importance of education to enable individuals to take control of their future, and in turn be able to change the world around us.

At about the same time, I watched a documentary about young carers in the UK. Many children across the country are forced to grow up early because they care for family members who are disabled, chronically ill or misusing drugs or alcohol. These children support their families, both practically and emotionally, often taking on the adult role. As a result, many miss out on their education and struggle against stigma, prejudice and discrimination. They are invisible children, desperately trying to keep their families together. Scarlet walked onto my page from such a situation; a girl caring for her mother and brother, a girl desperately trying to keep her world together, a girl in need of love and support to allow her a childhood, an education and space to think and grow. Like all children, she deserves these opportunities.

Scarlet’s story became intertwined with scarlet ibis, London pigeons, her brother Red and Madame Popescu. I realise now, they have their own stories to tell behind the inspiration to include them in the story…but maybe that is for another blog post!

Scarlet Ibis is out now.

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GillLewisHeadshotWEBfriendlyBefore she could walk, Gill Lewis was discovered force-feeding bread to a sick hedgehog under the rose bushes. Now her stories reflect her passion for wild animals in wild places. She draws inspiration from many of the people she has had the fortune to meet during her work as a vet, both at home and abroad. Gill Lewis has a Masters degree in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University and won the 2009 course prize for most promising writer. Her first novel, Sky Hawk, was snapped up for publication within hours of being offered to publishers. She lives in Somerset with her young family and a motley crew of pets. She writes from a treehouse in the garden, in the company of spiders.

 

 

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.

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