story, science, technology and creativity

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Interview with Helen Limon, winner of the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Childrens Book Award

Helen Limon accepts her prizeHelen Limon was recently announced the winner of the 2011 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Childrens Book award.

The award is for a manuscript that celebrates cultural diversity in the widest possible sense, either in terms of its story or in terms of the ethnic and cultural origins of its author.

Helen’s winning manuscript, Om Shanti, Babe, is set in India and, like Takeshita Demons, includes elements of local legend and mythology. Just the kind of book I like 🙂

Below Helen is lovely enough to answer some questions on her forthcoming book, being a writer and what it’s like to win this writing award… THANKS HELEN!

– Why did you enter the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Childrens Book award?

I entered because it seemd a great opportunity to get a thoughtful reading of my manuscript and because I think Seven Stories is a fantastically wonderful and important resourse for children’s books and because some of the characters in Om Shanti, Babe such as Cassia’s gay dad, the deaf girl, Nandita, and the middle-class Indian family are not frequently represented in children’s books.

– Where did inspiration for Om Shanti, Babe come from?theyyam face
Inspiration came from a two week winter holiday in Kerala and was followed by months (and then even more months) of research.

– Can you tell us more about the mythology of the Theyyam and how it is important to the story (without giving too much away)?
The Theyyam is a very ancient and very colourful part of the spiritual culture of Kerala, particularly in the northern hill regions.

It is kept alive through private donations and celebrated by karali of many different religions and backgrounds.

In the story, Cassia has an encounter at the Theyyam which sets in motion some important changes in her relationship with the young Indian charater, Priyanka.

mehandi wet– What has happened to Om Shanti, Babe since winning the award?
Winning is AMAZING! I’ve had so many opportunities to be involved in interesting projects since the award and it has made me feel like a ‘proper’ writer.

How do you find the publishing process?
I love the publishing process – looking at book covers, thinking about strap lines and sharpening things up. I have even enjoyed tidying up my eccentric punctuation!

– Favourite part of being a writer?
The opportunity to talk to groups about why children’s books are hugely important and because they always give me tea and (great) cake.

– Least favourite part of being a writer?
Not having enough time to write!

– Advice to aspiring writers?
Read, write, read, write, don’t edit yourself too much, let it flow, make mistakes (sometimes they turn out to be the best bits) read, write repeat from start!

– And a sneak peek extract from Om Shanti, Babe: ( I want to read more!!!)

I went back inside and tugged at the doors. The wooden frame stuck and they closed with a bang.

Inside the bedroom, a ceiling fan turned, gently moving the warm air around just enough to make it breathable. I slid out of my shoes and put my bag on the bed nearest the door. The mosquito nets were a glamorous touch, but I’d expected our room to be a bit more five-star-and-mini-bar. Dad wouldn’t have rated it at all.

I cranked up the ceiling fan and, as the blades began to turn faster, something moved on the wall. A pale pink lizard had scuttled along and stopped just inches away from the light switch. It blinked. A tiny tongue shot out of its mouth and slid back between its jaws. I stood very still, holding my breath. The lizard blinked again as I moved slowly away from the wall and ran for the door.

Lula would have a fit when I told her and, while Mr Chaudhury got rid of it, I would be able to reclaim the order book. But when I got downstairs no one seemed bothered about mini-beasts stalking the walls.

‘They are called Geckos, Cassia. We think of them as our guests. They will help keep your room free of spiders and flies,’ Mr Chaudhury said. His teeth were very white and when he smiled, his mouth crinkled at the corners. What a creep. He’d made it sound like geckos were his best friends and that I was some kind of teen psycho-killer.

Lula looked a bit embarrassed. She had told me loads about India, but, clearly, there were some things she’d left out.

– More on this international and annual awardidiom booksellers (You should enter!)(Yes you!)
The Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Childrens Book Award is for a manuscript that celebrates cultural diversity in the widest possible sense, either in terms of its story or in terms of the ethnic and cultural origins of its author.

The prize of £1,500, plus the option for Frances Lincoln Children’s Books to publish the novel, will be awarded to the best work of unpublished fiction for 8-to-12-year-olds by a writer, aged 16 years or over, who has not previously published a novel for children. The writer may have contributed to an anthology of prose or poetry.

The purpose of The Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award is to:

• Take positive steps to increase the representation of people writing from or about different cultural perspectives, whose work is published in Britain today.

• Promote new writing for children, especially by or about people whose culture and voice are currently under-represented.

• Recognise that as children’s books shape our earliest perceptions of the world and its cultures, promoting writing that represents diversity will contribute to social and cultural tolerance.

• Support the process of writing rather than, as with the majority of prizes, promoting the publication.

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My top five interview questions for Cristy Burne

Head over to Booked Up HQ to check out the great books available and explore their super new website.

I have a guest post on the Booked Up blog this week, about writing Takeshita Demons and being a writer, and hope that lots of kids will ask me lots of questions.

See you there!


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Interviews with shortlisted writers

Over the last few weeks Tom Avery, the winner of the 2010 Diverse Voices Childrens Book Award, has interviewed writers shortlisted for the prize. The interviews give a great insight into what goes on behind the scenes in a writer’s life, and include some great advice for anyone keen to break in to the childrens writing market: keep at it!

The interviews are with:

Remi Oyedele – author of Goal Dreams

Karon Alderman – author of Story Thief

Sue Stern – author of Rafi Brown and Candy Floss Kid

Two of these three stories were inspired by newspaper articles, the third by real life, so it just goes to show that fact and non-fiction are powerful ways to spark your imagination and to explore new ideas.

I’ve got a horrible cold at the moment so will keep this post short…




Filming for the Booked Up DVD

A still from one of the 50 billion takes we filmed for Booked Up on Thursday

Exciting times!
As part of the Booked Up program, WalkTall Media are producing a DVD introducing the 19 books on the Booked Up list. Each book is introduced by its author, then reviewed by a Year 7 student. And to keep things short and sweet, each segment is only 30-40 seconds long.  So…I was asked to film myself talking about Takeshita Demons for the DVD. COOL!


Have you ever tried to talk about something you love in just 30 seconds?


I’ve done a bit of media training but haven’t had a whole heap of experience in front of a camera. In fact, I’ve tried to be seriously coherent for the camera just 4 times before:

Attempt 1) Australia’s Catalyst team tried to interview me about the LHC Computing Grid while I was working at CERN, in Geneva. I was incredibly nervous and stuffed up so often and so badly they didn’t end up using my bit at all.
Gaining-experience Rating:
5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 11 sleepless nights (about 7 before, 4 after)

Attempt 2) An independant documentary-maker came to CERN to do a docco on the LHC and interviewed me about the LHC Computing Grid. As a young(ish) female scientist(ish) I was supposed to be the perfect choice for his documentary, except for one thing: I couldn’t put three words together. Luckily, when it finally came out, they only used about two seconds of my footage.
Gaining-experience Rating: 5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 4 sleepless nights (3 before, 1 after)

A still from the Teacher’s TV interview

Attempt 3) My editor Janetta and I did a short interview about the Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award for Teacher’s TV. Luckily, I got to see Janetta being interviewed first, so I had a chance to see how it’s done 🙂 Plus, most of my camera nerves (the “mind goes blank just looking at the camera” bit) were gone: My previous efforts might have been awful, but they were brilliant practise. So, I was able to talk without stumbling too badly and I managed to say what I wanted to say (which apparently is the other Very Important Thing ;-))
Gaining-experience Rating: 5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 3 sleepless nights (but I slept well as soon as it was over 🙂 YAY!)

A still from the video for the 2010 Diverse Voices presentation

Attempt 4) About three weeks ago we made a short video to congratulate the winner of the 2010 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award (Tom Avery, although I didn’t know it at the time!).

Me losing it because some mad fellow is chasing wild pigs in the background

Luckily, my fabulous husband was behind the camera, and I knew my ridiculous friends (we **love** your work!!) were somewhere in the background being ridiculous (thank you!).

So, we managed to make a colourful video that said what I wanted to say (which was THANK YOU and CONGRATULATIONS! and HAVE FUN!!).
Gaining-experience Rating: 5 stars
Waking-up-with-nightmares Rating: 0 sleepless nights (this was more like a home movie: no microphones or special lighting)

Which leads me to experience #5: Film a 40-second blurb of yourself talking about your book.

Easier said than done! Luckily, I managed to locate a fabulous Perth-based cameraman with the patience of a saint (Seb Craig of KBC Films, and I thoroughly recommend him and KBC for being professional, reliable and good at what they do…they were great!) and an awesome location (the Hyogo Prefectural Government Cultural Centre…I am SO grateful to everyone there for their help!). After a grueling session of 50 gazillion takes (and me forgetting my own name for half of them), I sent the finished products to WalkTall Media: fingers crossed they like them.

Step over, Tom Cruise

So…It was HARD WORK! I have a new appreciation for actors, because its not easy saying the same thing over and over. Luckily (and did I mention this before?), Sebastien was incredibly patient and also superb at giving the right feedback at the right time. (Including the brutal-but-useful “I wasn’t convinced…Start again”)

Still, it wasn’t easy: it was a freezing morning, but we had to turn off the heater cause it was affecting the sound (poor Yumiko had to wear a thick jacket and drink hot tea just to stay warm: it was super-chilly!). Plus, the Perth Japanese school has classrooms upstairs, and at once stage the kids were practising their taiko drumming (actually: this was perfect timing for a coffee break :-)).

We also filmed some readings, and a couple of short blurbs: one about The Filth Licker, and one about the 2011 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Childrens Book Award.  They should show up here in the next little while 🙂

All in all, it was exciting and harrowing and afterwards I couldn’t really talk much at all. I just sat and drank tea and soaked in the sunshine. It was all I was capable of, I think. And on Sat night I went to the movies with girlfriends and drank champagne and laughed a lot, and it was GREAT!! A recipe for unwinding stress 🙂

So…fingers crossed the filming we did worked: I can’t wait to see the DVD and meet the other Booked Up authors!


Interview with Tom Avery, winner of the 2010 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award

So by now you might already know: the winner of the 2010 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award is Tom Avery with Too Much Trouble. But who is Tom Avery? And what was he doing before the Frances Lincoln Award team got their hands on his manuscript?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because…..I’m lucky enough to have the answers!! Thanks to Tom for taking the time to answer my questions while he was preparing for the award ceremony….it’s pretty nerve-wracking, but in a totally wonderful way!

So first: a synopsis of the winning manuscript: Too Much Trouble

Too Much Trouble is the story of two brothers, Emmanuel and Prince.  Emmanuel tells us his story as he looks back on how events led to him holding a gun to a man’s head.  The story opens on an ordinary day for the boys at school where they strive to go unnoticed, fending for themselves on handouts from their drug-dealer uncle and living in a house where they compete for space with their uncle’s marijuana.  But life changes completely when their temperamental uncle decides the boys are too much trouble and withdraws his already limited support.  Left to look after themselves, the brothers are led into a life of crime from which Emmanuel cannot see a way out.

How cool does that sound!?!?! I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

And so now…some Q&A time with Tom:

Tom with his class

1)      You are going to work as a teacher with a focus on communication and language. Do you have a favourite activity for encouraging primary school kids to love reading?

It sounds simple, but reading great stories to children really makes a difference.  Children love having books read to them, they get to experience the story without the barriers that might be in the way if they read it themselves.  I remember reading ‘Prince Caspian’ to a class, before the Disney film came out, they loved it, and it spurred them on to read the other Narnia books.  I had boys competing to be the first to finish all seven.

2)      You currently teach a unit called “How much freedom do you have?”: What are your students’ reaction to the themes you work on? Are they interested in freedom, discrimination, equality, etc? Do they see it as relevant to their own lives?

Most pupils are completely engaged with the themes that the unit touches on, so much more so than I could have hoped for when I planned the module.  We look at religious freedom, through the events of the gunpowder plot, and have long debates about the school holidays based around Christian celebrations, the majority of the pupils are Muslim and are only allowed one day off of school a year for religious observance.  We look at freedom of opportunities, through the life and actions of Rosa Parks, growing up in an ethnically and economically diverse city the pupils know all about this.  We also look at the way asylum seekers are treated in regards to freedom by studying the wonderful book, ‘The Island’ by Armin Greder, which couldn’t be more relevant to some pupils as they have come to Britain as asylum seekers.  The only problem is, the children then start questioning all the things that they’re not allowed to do in school!

3)      Had you entered any other competitions before the DV award? Any you recommend?

I have never entered a writing competition before.  A friend who had read parts of my manuscript ‘Too Much Trouble’ recommended that I enter, I am very glad that they did.

4)      Do you think there’s a place for ‘diverse voices’ in children’s literature?

What would literature be without ‘diverse voices’?  Children read books about children because they can relate to them; they can see a small part of themselves reflected in the story.  We live in an increasingly multi-cultural and diverse world, particularly in the cities of Britain, and all these diverse children need to see parts of their story reflected in what they read.

5)      You and your wife both work after your toddler is asleep. Any tips to other writers who are also parents?

Number 1 – Keep writing.  It’s very easy to sit down in front of the T.V. after a days work, then playing with, feeding, bathing, dressing and putting to bed your kids.  But if your dream is to be a writer you’ve got to keep writing.

Number 2 – Prepare to be interrupted.  If your children are anything like mine they don’t do what you expect, but that’s why they’re so gorgeous.

Number 3 – Marry someone wonderful.  My wife is so amazingly encouraging.

Sorry, not very practical.

[But if I can butt in here: I think they’re great answers, and thus very practical :-)]

6)      Is Too Much Trouble your first attempt at writing a book?

‘Too Much Trouble’ is my first finished manuscript.  I have started other books in the past, but have always lost confidence at some point, again I point to my wonderful wife’s encouragement for finishing ‘Too Much Trouble’.

Geraldine Brennan, a judge of the award, spoke to Tom about what inspired him to write Too Much Trouble.

Tom Avery, 26, grew up in Lewisham with two older brothers and a younger sister.  He trained as a primary teacher at the University of Greenwich and taught in New Eltham for two years before joining Queensbridge School, a performing arts college in Moseley, Birmingham. In September he will start a new job as co-ordinator of English, communication and language at Torriano primary school, round the corner from Frances Lincoln.

How did you start to write and what helped you?

I have wanted to be a writer since the end of primary school but I always lacked the confidence to get beyond the first few chapters. My wife Chloe encouraged me to stop talking about the story that was in my head and put something on paper around the time we had our son, who is now 15 months old. She is a freelance fashion designer and we both have to wait until Caleb is in bed to focus on our own work.

I wrote most of the book that became Too Much Trouble and various friends and colleagues commented on it as well as Chloe and my mum, a midwife who is a prodigious reader. I redrafted it several times and the Diverse Voices competition gave me a deadline to finish it and make it slightly shorter and more compact.

How did you come to focus on the issues of gun crime and unaccompanied refugee children?

In the places I’ve lived in and know about – Lewisham, Hackney and inner-city Birmingham – I became aware that these issues affected the lives of the young people I was meeting and I couldn’t ignore them. Like Emmanuel in Too Much Trouble, there are so many young people taking on responsibility that they shouldn’t have to deal with.

What did you enjoy reading as a child and what do you like to read now?

There were lots of books at home and I got lots more out of the school library. I remember Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo and the Allan Ahlberg poetry anthology I Heard it in the Playground. Later, I got into fantasy and enjoyed Ursula LeGuin and Jostein Gaarder. As an adult, I love Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns) and all Nick Hornby’s books because his characters always seem real, tangible and organic: you aren’t aware of them having been written.

As a teacher, I love exploring books with pupils and I’ve enjoyed reading Louis Sachar’s Holes and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Millions to classes.

What else do you enjoy about teaching?

I like encouraging children in whatever their passion is and getting them to think about the world we live in. I thought about being an architect when I was in sixth form but I spent my gap year running youth groups for my church – my dad, a maths teacher, had run the children’s group when I was younger and I had helped with that and enjoyed it – and I realised then that I loved working with young people. I trained as a primary teacher and spent two years teaching Year 4 and 5 in south-east London before my current job at Queensbridge. It’s a very diverse school: half the children do not speak English as a first language and there are 17 languages spoken in the school.

My main role is teaching a cross-curricular unit of work for Year 7s called: ‘How much freedom do you have?’  We look at religious freedom, freedom of opportunity, discrimination, equality, protest and so on through English, history, RE, citizenship and geography.  There’s a lot of scope for creativity.

The closing date for the 2011 Award is 25th February 2011. For entry forms contact:

E:     T: 0845 271 0777

For more details visit


Interview with children’s book specialist Geraldine Brennan

I’m rejigging my website in the leadup to the release of Takeshita Demons. I’m deleting some bits and adding others, and one of the things I rediscovered was this interview conducted by children’s book specialist Geraldine Brennan shortly after I won the 2009 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award with Takeshita Demons. That was nearly a year ago already! I’ve reproduced the interview below:

—> And keep your eyes and ears peeled for the announcement of the winner of the 2010 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices Children’s Book Award. The award ceremony is being held June 8 at Seven Stories. I can’t wait to find out more!

Your father is a New Zealander, your mother is Australian and you experienced both cultures growing up. What was that like?
When I was a child we lived on a farm in the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand’s North Island. My father worked in real estate so it was a kind of hobby farm, but my mother grew kiwi fruit and we kept goats and cows. My sisters and I spent most of our time outside climbing trees, catching eels and having adventures. We had two Jersey calves as pets.

I was 13 when we moved to a suburb in Perth. Just living in a suburb was a shock to me, and my new school was much bigger and the kids much more badly behaved. I remember the feeling of being different in a school and trying not to be. The New Zealand and Australian accents are quite different and I remember not always understanding when people said my name, so I wouldn’t answer them, and that would be embarrassing.

In Takeshita Demons, Miku is struggling between being proud of her Japanese culture and not wanting to be singled out for it in Britain. By the end she feels at home in both places and that is certainly how l believe it can and should be. I like to feel part of wherever I am. I feel proud of all the different parts of myself: the Kiwi, the Aussie, my experiences in Japan, in Switzerland, and now in the UK…I often say I am from London but if the All Blacks are winning I’ll happily say I am from New Zealand.

How did your connection with Japan develop?
I had studied Japanese since I was 11 and had always wanted to go there. After university I spent two years in a suburb near Osaka, teaching English communication in a high school through the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme. I soon realised that you can never be Japanese, you are always a gaijan (foreigner), a novelty and a bit exotic. It could be isolating. My students were the exception, they accepted me completely as myself, which I think young people naturally do.

I returned to Japan some years later to work as an editor of translations for a biotechnology company at Tsukuba Science City near Tokyo. My Japanese was better by then but I still can’t handle all the levels of politeness: I can talk to friends or children, but not to a boss or someone’s grandmother. I used to long for people to speak to me in Japanese but I was also a great opportunity for people to practice English.

I made good Japanese friends, including a colleague who was Japanese but had lived in America, so he understood the sorts of things that would seem strange to me. At lunchtime we would chat and he’d tell me things about Japan. It was through him that I began to understand about Japanese people’s relationships with spirits, ghosts and demons. There was no contradiction for him between working for a science company and knowing that there was a ghost in the room.

Tell us more about the demons!
There are dozens of supernatural yokai that most Japanese people will be familiar with. They appear over and over again in all kinds of stories. Some are benign, some are nasty and some you’re just not quite sure. The demons that Miku has to deal with include the nukekubi, a kind of child-eating flying-head demon, and the noppera-bo, a faceless demon that can take on other personae.

Most Western children don’t know about these yokai in the way that they know about vampires and werewolves, but just as vampires fear garlic, the demons often have an Achilles heel or fatal flaw. The nukekubi, for example must leave its body somewhere while its hungry head flies around, and you can destroy the head by destroying the body. I chose the demons I thought would have the most potential for an adventure story, but there are plenty more for future stories. I like to write about children, especially strong girls, having great adventures.

Why do you write for children?
Children who read have a great time and are exposed to lots of different ways of living and being. As a child I loved mystery and adventure stories and often read six or seven books at once. I loved Roald Dahl because of his energy and humour and I loved the Nancy Drew books, although it was annoying that she was always being rescued by her boyfriend.

I have done a lot of work in outreach science education and love to connect with children through new ideas. I also know how short their attention spans can be. I really want to use writing to continue to connect with children and challenge them to think in new ways.

How do you fit writing into your life?
I usually write on evenings and weekends, but when I start I don’t stop. I take over the dining table and leave it to Doug to make sure I get fed. My first manuscript, a 30,000-word adventure for the same age group, won a Young and Emerging Writer’s fellowship (from Varuna House) and the Voices on the Coast writing competition. At the moment I’m editing a third novel for slightly older readers: I’ve decided a certain character needs to go. I love the power you have as a writer in that way.

What do you do when you’re not writing?
In my current day job, I promote the use of grid computing to help the world’s scientists solve global problems, such as air pollution and climate change. These scientists work together, across time zones, cultures and language barriers, in collaborations involving hundreds of countries. This is the world that the children I am writing for will have to work in. It’s all about finding ways to collaborate and that starts with understanding each other.

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Witch doctors, crocodiles, magic and treachery: The Gift by Gemma Birss

Gemma_BirssGemma Birss’ The Gift was Highly Commended in the 2009 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices children’s book award.

Gemma is a fabulously warm and energetic writer who has lived in Iran, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Japan, France, India and England. She says she has “millions of stories from different countries and cultures in my head, all jostling with each other to be told.”

Here we interview Gemma about The Gift, her writing, and the magic of good cup of Tetleys.

The Gift tells the tale of Chipo, who wakes up one day in a strange place. She has no memories and has lost the ability to speak. The story follows Chipo through the African bush on an adventure involving witch doctors, Tokoloshes, crocodiles, snakes, magic and treachery. With an extraordinary ability to read the sky, Chipo’s adventures finally lead her to discover her true identity and the harrowing truth of her past.


‘I want to show you something,’ Tendai said, jumping up.

I followed her towards the lucky bean tree.

‘Do you think you can remember to climb?’ she asked.

I nodded.

Tendai climbed quickly. Her feet knew all the knots and ledges. I followed her carefully, putting my feet where her feet had been and using the same hand grips she used. She stopped at the top of the trunk where the branches split out in different directions. There was a hollow in the centre of these branches, which was big enough for us both to sit in. I clambered up after her.

An excited grin spread across Tendai’s face as she reached her hand into a small hole in one of the branches. I thought nervously about the boomslang that had fallen from this same tree. Pungwe’s warning rang through my head; I didn’t have my magic anymore. I no longer knew how to sing to snakes and I couldn’t protect either of us as I used to. I hoped that Tendai realized this too. She didn’t pull out a boomslang, though. She pulled out a handful of necklaces. My mouth fell open with surprise. There were necklaces made from lucky beans, necklaces made from bird feathers, necklaces made from small bones. I reached out to take the one that caught my eye. It was made from thousands of yellow, jagged teeth. My fingers closed around the sharp edges.

‘That one is made from crocodile’s teeth. It is to protect you from the crocodiles in this river. It is a Tokoloshe necklace. Pungwe gave it to you.’

What do you usually write about and who do you write for?
I usually tinker away at a little diary, which means I write mainly for me. In my diary, I write about my life. I like to capture all those millions of fleeting moments. It’s like a photo album but with words. I’m always pottering about in my diary, and I don’t ever leave home without it. I write whatever pops into my head so it’s a kaleidoscope of my thoughts. I suppose I use some of these ideas and expressions in my books, so in that way, I’m writing for everyone.

Why do you write?
I have to confess; when I’m writing a book, I don’t actually write it. The book writes itself; the words spill out onto the page as they please and I don’t have much say in the matter. When I wrote The Gift, it was incredibly exciting because I didn’t know how the story was going to unfold. Chipo was having all these brilliant adventures and I had to keep writing to see what would happen next! The main reason I write, though, is that when I write, I am superlatively happy. Happiness for me is a cup of Tetleys, a notebook and a black pen.

Where and when do you write?
I write everywhere, but I spend a lot of time writing on trains and buses. Long journeys are the best for writing – watching the world unravel past your window, you have all the time in the world for ideas to unfold.

What was your favourite book as a child?Kpotheleopard
Kpo the Leopard by Rene Guillot. It was the first book that I chose for mum to buy me.

Who is your favourite children’s author either writing today or from the past?

I still have a deliciously soft spot for  Quentin Blake’s work, particularly his Lester goes to the Seaside. My favourite character from this book is Otto. Lester and Otto are at the beach and Otto picks up a stick to write his name in the sand. Then he tries to write his name backwards. It comes out as Otto. So he tries again, Otto, and again, Otto, and he gets very down in the mouth because, unlike Lester, his name is the same both forwards and backwards. Finally, an ingenious idea dawns; he grabs his stick and writes ‘Toot’! And then he dances about with glee at his cleverness. I also love Mini Grey and Oliver Jeffrey.

Some of Gemma's amazing artwork...

Some of Gemma's super-cute original artwork...

What are your plans for the future and for The Gift?
Whilst getting my story published, I’m also illustrating my picture books and training to be a Kundalini yoga teacher.

I’m working on a grown-up book at the moment too, which is a bit of a ‘spiritual journey’ kind of book… it’s taking its time to work its way out and is a challenging but really worthwhile process.

Who knows what the future holds – but if my past is anything to go by, it’s going to be an interesting ride!


Good luck with your writing and illustrating!!

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Interview with Jane Donald, senior designer for Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Jane Donald is senior designer for Frances Lincoln Children’s Books and the visionary behind the awesome Takeshita Demons cover.

What makes a cover work? How are covers born? What do you need to recognise a great cover: do you need to be an artist? a sales professional? a book lover?

We caught up with Jane to discover more about the book covers she loves and creates every day…

1.    How did you get in to your role?

I studied Graphic Design at university and always favoured illustration projects. Any self-initiated brief was always to do with creating children’s books, so I knew I’d enjoy working in this industry if I could get my foot through the door.

When I left university I did various stints of work experience, one being at Egmont publishers and then heard about the junior role here at Frances Lincoln. I applied, got the job and 5 years later I’m still here!

One of Jane's Top 3 favourite book covers: Mother by Juliet Heslewood

Fave 3 Frances Lincoln covers: Mother by Juliet Heslewood

2.    What does an average day entail? What are you working on today?

My average day usually entails working on a couple of different projects.

Today I have dropped in some new artwork for a picture book, added some finishing touches to the interior spreads of another title and I’ll probably have a look at some fiction covers which are overdue this afternoon!

3.    How do you decide on a cover?
We’ll read the manuscript first and I’ll either start mocking up ideas or find an illustrator who we feel will work well with the text.

Then it’s a case of getting ideas and roughs together to show our Sales team and author for feedback. At this stage the roughs are often sent out to both customers and target audience for comments and opinions too.

Then we’ll reconvene with all the conflicting opinions(!) and make a decision as to which we think will work the best overall.

4.    What makes a great cover?

The cover for Miss Fox by Simon Puttock

Fave 3 Frances Lincoln covers: Miss Fox by Simon Puttock

Something which is simple and attention-grabbing, but gives you a good sense of what the book is about.

5.    What are your 3 favourite covers from Frances Lincoln?
Apart from Takeshita Demons of course, I would have to say…

  • Mother (adult title) by Juliet Heslewood
  • Under the Weather (children’s fiction) by Tony Bradman
  • Miss Fox (children’s picture book) by Simon Puttock illustrated by Holly Swain

Jane's fave cover of all time: The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

Jane's fave cover of all time: The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

6.    What’s your favourite cover of all time?
Now that’s a really tricky question!!!

I really love the covers which Jon Gray designs and all the Gothic Horrors and clothbound series’ by Coralie Bickford-Smith. They’re all really beautiful and a real inspiration.

If I had to choose one, I’d probably go for Jon Gray’s design for The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas. Not only is the illustration and typography great, but I love the whole production of it. It has black edges to the pages, gold foil and special lamination (without being OTT) and just works beautifully as an object as well as being a great read.

I’m sure I’ll have a new favourite cover next week when I browse the shelves!

7.    How did you get inspiration for the Takeshita Demons cover?

Fave 3 Frances Lincoln covers: Under the Weather by Tony Bradman

Fave 3 Frances Lincoln covers: Under the Weather by Tony Bradman

I think instinctively we felt it needed a manga-style illustrator to get across the Japanese feel. I looked through a lot of illustrator’s portfolios and various manga books to get a feel of what we could do.

I knew of Siku from seeing his Manga Bible and Judge Dread work and thought he’d work perfectly. We let him do all the hard work by giving him a fairly open brief with only a few specifics and he didn’t disappoint. As you saw, he came up with various rough ideas which were all great.

8.    Do you work with new illustrators? How should they get in contact?
Yes, we love working with new illustrators.

The best thing to do is to send samples into us by email or post. We can’t necessarily reply to everyone, but we do keep samples on file and often look through to see if anyone would fit a text we may have. Websites are great too, I love to browse through people’s work.

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The Queen of Sheba’s feet: interview with Clare Reddaway

ClareRedawayToday we publish an interview with Clare Reddaway, an accomplished writer of plays and short stories who earned a Special Mention for her book, The Queen of Sheba’s feet, in the 2009 Frances Lincoln Diverse Voices book award.

The Queen of Sheba’s feet follows the adventures of Bilkis, the Queen of Sheba’s handmaiden. Bilkis is travelling with her mistress across the desert to visit King Solomon in 980 BC. She can solve a mystery as old as the bible: is the Queen the daughter of a djinn, and does she therefore have goat’s feet? But she can only discover the truth if she gets through the desert alive…

There’s an extract from Chapter 5 at the bottom of the post, but we kick off with some questions: Thanks to Clare for helping us out!

What do you usually write about and why?
I’m not sure that I have something that I usually write about. I have been inspired by so many different topics and characters: an exiled Ethiopian Emperor in wartime Bath; a Victorian boy on a canal boat; a stone-age girl who is not allowed to go on a hunt. I like to delve into times and places that I am not familiar with, and to try to find a point of connection with the people there and then. I suppose if there is a common theme, it is that I am interested by characters who are outsiders, uncomfortable in their place or in themselves. I am interested in exploring how they change and grow.

Why do you write?
I like telling stories. I always have, and I always will. If someone wants to publish them, all well and good. Otherwise it’s me and my increasingly weary guinea pig.

Where and when do you write?
I write in my study, which has a view over the hills of Bath. I can see our golden Georgian terraces with their slate roofs, and Ralph Allen’s Palladian mansion, Prior Park, which he built as an advertisement for his stone quarries (a successful ad campaign, I’d say). Sometimes, ridiculously, a steam train puffs across the valley. Most gloriously though, and so rare in England, I can see the edge of the town, and fields with cows where the countryside begins. I write here whenever I can.

What inspired you to enter the Diverse Voices Award?
I think it is such an admirable award. It is so important for children to experience other cultures through stories. Children’s authors seem to me to be happy to portray other worlds, whilst rarely portraying other countries. I hoped that this award might nudge authors – and indeed myself – to explore our world differently.

What was your favourite book as a child?
I didn’t have one favourite, but a selection: The Secret Garden, The Treasure Seekers, When Marnie was There by Joan G Robinson, the Narnia Chronicles, the Swallows and Amazons books, Mary Renault’s The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea, The Woolpack by Cynthia Harnett.

Who is your favourite children’s author either writing today or from the past?
There are so many. As a parent I have experienced a whole sequence of books that are new, and that I missed. I like The Indian in the Cupboard series by Lynne Reid Banks. I like Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus. And for the completely contemporary, I like Michael Morpurgo, Eoin Colfer, Philip Pullman, Frank Cotterell Boyce, Michelle Paver – I believe we are in a golden age of writing for children. I particularly love the theatrical adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, which I took my daughter to last year. I wept and wept.

What does the future hold for you and your writing?
The Queen Of Sheba’s Feet is currently with Frances Lincoln, and all my fingers are crossed that they like it enough to publish it. As for my other writing, I’ve had a number of stories, both for adults and children, published in anthologies this year. I am a member of live short fiction group Heads and Tales, and perform with them across the south west (come see our next show!). My latest project with Heads and Tales has been We’ve So Many Things in Common. I was commissioned to write a children’s trail inspired by the local history of Horfield Common in Bristol for this event, and I am hoping to use the same format elsewhere. I also write scripts. Have a listen to Laying Ghosts, an audio play at Wireless Theatre Company. My latest play, New Religion, has been selected for a reading by The Group at Theatre Royal Stratford East in October.

“It’s a mirage.” Darih was lying on the top of the dune staring into the distance with Bilqis.

“A mirage! Don’t be ridiculous!” Bilqis looked at him in disbelief. He could see what she could see. A city, with golden spires and turquoise towers, with palaces and temples, palm fronds and cedar trees, more glorious than any she had imagined existed before. It couldn’t be a mirage. “A mirage is water. I’ve seen a mirage. We all have. That. Is. Not. A. Mirage.”

Bilqis’ voice was becoming shrill. She had tears in her eyes. “I know why you are saying this. You’re jealous. You’re jealous of my dancing and you’re jealous because the Queen has never noticed you. And now you’re jealous because I saw Jerusalem first.”

Darih shrugged. “Please yourself,” he said and he got up and started to slide back down the dune. Bilqis looked back at her beautiful, wonderful city. Was he right?

“I’m going to look,” she shouted down at him, but all he did was to hunch his shoulders and carry on down into the camp. Bilqis set off towards the city.

The way was difficult. The sand on the camp side of the dune had been soft like flour. The sand on the other side had a crisp crust that cracked under her feet, plunging her up to her knees. She felt like she was wading. It was hard work.

When she reached the base of the dune, the saffron sand stretched in front of her, rippled like water on a lake when you throw in a pebble. Bilqis looked at the towers in the distance. She imagined the praise she would get from Tamrin for her sharp eyes. The Aunts would be proud of her, even Karabil might smile. She started to run. Although she was soon a long way from the first dune, the city seemed as far away as before.

Bilqis slowed to a walk. She had a stitch in her side from running and she was hot, although it was still early. She took off her shawl and dropped it on the sand. She’d pick it up on the way back. Ahead of her she could see a ridge, higher than the dune she had climbed before. I’ll just get to the top of that ridge, she thought, and then I’ll really be able to see the city. The ridge had been the colour of ripe apricots as she had set off, but now it was the warm rich yellow of honey.


Do you love creative writing? Searching for games, activities or cool Japan-related teaching resources? If your answer is YES, you should check out the resources section of my website. Have fun!

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80,000 words in a week: Alexander Gordon Smith

AlexanderGordonSmithWhat a champion! The endlessly energetic Alexander Gordon Smith took some time out from working on his new series to talk to us about getting his big break, marketing kids books,  running a publishing company and film company, and writing 80,000 words in a week. It’s exhausting just reading this interview: inspiring stuff!

Take it away Gordon!

Hi Cristy, thanks for the invitation to answer some questions on your blog!

  • What kind of stuff do you write?

My first series was called The Inventors, and I wrote it with my little brother Jamie. He was nine when we started, which was brilliant as we set out to write exactly the sort of book that somebody his age would enjoy. The Inventors is about two young inventors (there’s a surprise!) who win a scholarship to work with the billionaire genius Ebenezer Saint, and who ultimately have to out-run, out-wit and out-invent the world’s greatest inventor! Jamie and I both love adventure stories, they’re so much fun to read, and even more fun to write. It’s that spirit of adventure, of excitement, that I find so compelling when I write, I just love it!


Gordon and his brother and co-writer of The Inventors, Jamie Webb

I also love horror, I always have done, and my new series Furnace definitely falls into this category. It’s a very dark story about a fourteen-year-old criminal called Alex who is framed for murder, and who is sentenced to life without parole in Furnace Penitentiary, the world’s most secure prison for young offenders. Very soon Alex realises that the sadistic guards and bloodthirsty gangs are the least of his worries. Something very bad is happening in the prison, something that is turning the inmates into monsters. And he knows that if he doesn’t find a way out, he’ll be next… Furnace is a dark, relentless and violent book, but at its heart I guess it’s all about the adventure, the thrill of a prison break. It certainly isn’t for squeamish readers…

I have a couple more books planned once Furnace is finished (it’s a five-book series), and they’re all very different. That’s one of the brilliant things about writing: you have the spark of an idea and it just grows and evolves inside your head, and you really have no idea where it will take you until you sit down and start to write. As cheesy as it sounds, every blank page is a passport to a new adventure, and the feeling is addictive!

  • Why did you start writing?

To use a much-loved cliché, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. In fact it’s the only thing I can remember ever really wanting to be (apart from the usual childhood fantasy list of helicopter pilot, policeman, ninja assassin, truck driver and emperor of all the world). I used to love reading, but I guess like most very young kids I thought that books were these magical things that appeared in shops and libraries by themselves. It was only my mum and dad telling me their own stories that made me realise normal mortals could write books. My Uncle Frank went one step further and actually printed out his dragon stories on paper, which was just like a book! From that moment on I wanted to see my own stories in print, so I just used to write all the time and make little books by myself.

My first efforts – masterpieces like ‘Super Carrot’ and ‘The Valleys of Olaf Karnoff’ – weren’t up to much, but I kept at it and wrote my first novel when I was eighteen. It was a horror novel, funnily enough called ‘Furnace Asylum’ (very different plot to the new series), and every agent and publisher I sent it to bounced it right back saying it was too gory! I guess that put me off for a while, but I kept playing with ideas and harbouring that dream of being a writer, and came back to it in my mid-twenties. It was the chance to work with Jamie on The Inventors that really made me fall in love with writing children’s books.

  • Your first book, The Inventors, grabbed the attention of publishers when it was shortlisted in the 2005 Wow Factor Competition. How important was this for your career as a writer? Had you already tried other ways of drawing attention to your writing?

We were so lucky with the Wow Factor Competition, and it almost didn’t happen. Jamie and I wrote the first three chapters of The Inventors in the summer holidays of 2005, and Jamie spotted a competition in Waterstones to find ‘the new J. K. Rowling’. We entered our chapters on the last day, with about ten minutes to go, and although we carried on plotting the book, and developing the characters, and even building loads of the inventions ourselves, we didn’t get around to writing any more of it. A few months later we got a call from Waterstones to say The Inventors had been shortlisted, which was amazing! But we had to get the rest of the book to them exactly one week later or it wouldn’t be shortlisted. At first I thought it was impossible, but then I realised that this was our best shot at getting published. So we sat down and wrote 80,000 words in a week! Luckily we already had so much of the book planned out in our heads, otherwise we never would have been able to manage it. But it did almost kill us!

Covers for some of Gordon's books

Covers for some of Gordon's books

We didn’t win the competition, Sarah Wray’s excellent The Forbidden Room did. But Faber loved The Inventors, and offered us a deal the week the winner was announced. It was the best news I’d ever had! There’s no doubt that the Wow Factor was my big break, and I was luckily enough for it to be my first proper shot at drawing attention to my writing. The great thing about competitions is that they are a way to fast track your manuscript to an editor’s desk, which is far and away the most difficult and frustrating part of the publishing process. But more than this, if the competition had never pressured us to finish The Inventors then I doubt we ever would have – the first three chapters would probably be lying forgotten in a drawer somewhere.

With The Inventors, Jamie and I did quite a bit of the publicity stuff ourselves, which was great fun but extremely time consuming and expensive. Fortunately with Furnace Faber took over and had the website and game built. I had quite a lot of input into it, especially with the game and the editorial content. The best thing about it was seeing the Furnace in my head suddenly come to life on screen, especially with the game and the images. It was a very, very small taster of what writers must feel when their books are turned into films – watching something extremely personal to them suddenly grow into something much larger, something communal. It’s a great feeling!

Generally I like to lock myself away and write the books, it’s what I love to do. But the marketing stuff is so important, especially with children’s books. Websites, promotional items, school visits, authors tours, blogging and social networking, communicating with fans – these things may be the total opposite of the introverted writing process, but they are absolutely vital. You’re not just promoting a book, you’re promoting yourself. I find it difficult, as I’m not a natural extrovert, but I know that if I get myself out there and build up a presence then readers won’t just recognise the names The Inventors and Furnace, they’ll recognise the name Alexander Gordon Smith. It’s what so many of the most successful children’s authors have done.

FeardrivenfilmsI hate being bored! I guess part of it is that ever since I learned that ‘ordinary’ people wrote books I realised that even the most extraordinary things are done by normal, everyday people. Which essentially means that anything is possible. I’ve heard so many people say that they’d love to do this or that, but that they just can’t. But they can! I started Egg Box when I was at university, because I loved books and I wanted to publish them. I used my student loan to set it up, and to publish our first book. We publish new poets, so there is no money in it, but it’s great fun, and very satisfying. I don’t really have much to do with the company any more, it’s run by my great friend Nathan Hamilton, but it’s still fantastic to see new Egg Box books on the shelf every year.

Fear Driven Films came about in the same way. My sister, Kate, wanted to make a horror film, and so we said ‘why not?’ Yes it’s hard work, and at times it seems impossible, but it’s an adventure, and it’s fun. I get that same tickle of excitement starting a new project that I do starting a new book. I just love that sense of being at the beginning of something, of facing a challenge. It doesn’t always work out – I’ve had plenty of failures – but so long as you learn something from it then it’s never a total loss.

I would say to anyone who’s got a dream but is nervous about going for it – just go for it! Adopt the ‘why not?’ philosophy. It may be tough, but it’s never impossible.

  • How different is it writing a series from writing a one-off (like The Inventors first was)? How much of the series do you plot out in advance, and how much do you make up as you go along?

I never really set out to write a series, usually it just turns out that way! With The Inventors, Jamie and I got to the end of the book and realised that although part of the tale was complete there was another half of the story to tell, so we left it on a cliffhanger. The same thing happened with Furnace. It’s really a 1,500 page story that is being split into five books. I just reached a point with the first book, Lockdown, where it felt natural to have a break. The same thing happened with the rest of the books, which is lucky!

There’s also something really nice about being able to return to the same characters for another book. Writers get very attached to their characters, and I know I’m not alone when I say that finishing a stand-alone novel can be upsetting because you know you’re never going to get into the heads of those people again. Writing a series really gives you a chance to see how characters develop and evolve and grow.

I have to confess that I don’t spend much time plotting. I haven’t got the patience for it! I just like to leap right into the writing and let the story tell itself. I used to try and plot, but it’s amazing how much changes when you’re actually writing – characters tend to do their own thing and throw your carefully laid plans out of the window. I absolutely love that, though. It turns what would be writing-by-numbers into a wild ride where you have no idea what’s going to happen! Saying that, I do have a rough story arc of key points when I start writing. If I didn’t then I’d end up getting totally lost!

furnaceThanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was a great day. I haven’t done very many workshops, I tend to do events with larger groups which makes sessions like that one quite difficult. I’d love to do more of them, though, so if anybody is interested in organising a workshop at a school, club or library, or a larger talk, then just email me at!

  • Favourite part of being a writer?

It’s a dream job for so many reasons, but the best part for me is the writing itself. The moment that you start a new story is unlike anything else. It grabs you and carries you along with it and even though you’re writing it you feel like you’re part of it, like this is your adventure as much as it is that of the characters you have created. It’s like you’re right there alongside them. And for the next few weeks I’m just utterly absorbed – the real world might as well not exist – until I fight my way out the other end of the story. It really is an incredible sensation, and I’d do it now even if nobody was publishing my books!

  • Least favourite part of being a writer?

I hate editing! For me it’s the opposite of writing – stilted rather than spontaneous, crawling along instead of flying, and just so boring! But it’s essential, every book needs edits, so I just put my head down and do it.

  • One bit of advice to new writers?

Have fun. Pick a story that really appeals to you, an adventure you wish you could have. That way you’ll be engrossed by the story, and it won’t really feel like you’re writing at all. You’ll be living it. Don’t do what so many writers do, and pick an idea you think will sell, or that you think will fit the current fiction market. Your heart won’t be in it, and a reader (and a publisher) will sense that. Be brave, go with the ideas that you find exciting, let yourself be carried away.

Also don’t worry about making it perfect first time. Let the story pull you along at its own speed, get the first draft finished, and there will be plenty of time to polish it. The writer and the editor inside your head don’t work well together – if you let them do their jobs separately it will lead to a much more rewarding experience, and a much better book!

And read! As much as you can!

THANK YOU GORDON!! We can’t wait to check out the rest of Furnace!

And PS: Fergus is nearly one month old! Amazing! He’s growing out of the “size 1” nappies and several of his cutest outfits (not that he cares what he wears, nappies included).