A blog about all things








It's that time of year again.....SCBWI's Picture Book Retreat (now an annual event) took place this weekend at the beautiful Holland House near Evesham in Worcestershire.

With the theme 'Dancing Between Words & Pictures', much fun was had by all during our stay.

Lynne Chapman & Loretta Schauer - I have no idea what was so funny!
Lynne Chapman & Loretta Schauer - I have no idea what was so funny!

And we did indeed dance between writing and illustration, with workshops on building character (both through use of words and drawings), use of brush pens, making a sketchbook then using it as a creative tool - all ably delivered by Lynne Chapman and Alexis Deacon - plus presentations from two editors; Andrea MacDonald of Penguin Random House Children's Books and Emily Lamm of Hodder Children's Books.

I have come away with a head crammed full of new ideas and information. A big thank you to all the above.


.....the retreat is not just about attending workshops and presentations and eating food (though more about that later).

It is also about having the time and space to work peacefully, and without distractions, on words or pictures (or both) be they old or new.

It is about looking at each others work and holding informal critique sessions to help and support each other.

(BIG thanks here to Zoe Thomas for inspiration when I was stuck! Also to Clare Bell who took the time to give me some terrific feed back on texts.)

And it is about having fun.......the book everyone is reading on the computer is Clare Helen Welsh's 'The Aerodynamics of Biscuits' out in September. Seems to be going down well!

And then there was the food.

It would be hard to think of another time when I have been fed quite so well and quite so much....and I am not easy to feed, being a vegan with certain allergies. The staff at Holland House were amazing and I enjoyed starters, mains and puddings that were out of this world, not to mention morning tea and biscuits and afternoon chocolate cakes! Everyone, whatever they ate, spoke highly of their meals.

One of my delicious vegan puddings - a heavenly chocolate mousse.
One of my delicious vegan puddings - a heavenly chocolate mousse.

So why have I mentioned the food, other than the obvious? Because mealtimes gave us plenty of opportunity to converse on all manner of topics, some of them even writing/drawing related.


Two stick in my mind.


Firstly, Lynne Chapman, illustrator of such books as Class Two at the Zoo, Giddy Goat and Bears on the Stairs, explained to me how she feels drawing is very much like putting music together. Now, that is a language I can understand....whereas drawing usually is not!

Her talk of the layers of pictures and how they build up, the rhythms we find in them, really helped me appreciate what goes into the process of producing a finished illustration and even stopped me thinking of the whole thing as something far too scary to contemplate trying.


I can now also, thanks to Lynne's foolproof examples, manage to draw reasonably identifiable baby creatures and am thoroughly enjoying experimenting with baby crocodiles, cows, mice, dragons, sheep...the list appears to be endless (though I'm not brave enough to post any of them here just yet). 



During this particular workshop I was sat next to illustrator and writer Mike Brownlow, which I thought might be rather intimidating. Couldn't have been more wrong. Thanks to him I can now produce a passable angry dog!

A Mike Brownlow original - more than a passable grumpy old tortoise.
A Mike Brownlow original - more than a passable grumpy old tortoise.

Secondly, one evening meal found a group of us discussing the reasons why writers write and illustrators illustrate for children. What is it that we want out of it? 

There were several thoughts ranging from pure pleasure through attention seeking to not wanting to grow up/still being able to be childlike. I know which of those I empathise with the most!

There is a third event that sticks in my mind from mealtimes - The Great Big Chocolate Mousse Debacle.

Apparently it can be quite distressing to sit opposite someone who is served a vegan chocolate mousse whilst you are not (everyone else was given a highly recommended cheesecake.)

However, some sweet-talking (pun fully intended) of the serving staff and Chef can work miracles......

Nice one, Lesley Gordon (named and shamed.....and she wasn't the only one was she, Marie Belmont and Cath Howe?!)


So, what did I come away with this year from the Dancing between Words & Pictures retreat?


More new friends and plenty of memories of course, but also....

a long list of previously 'unknown-to-me' picture book titles that were recommended by attendees at the first night's read & share (I must get to the library soon!),

a new confidence to try a few drawings,

two new picture book ideas in progress (thank you Lynne and Emily),

and even one completed first draft - huge thanks for this to Alexis and his inspiring Saturday workshop.

I also now appreciate how the words and pictures found in a picture book can form a fluid dance partnership.


I will end with an apology to Alexis for not being able to play croquet this year and defend my crown won at last year's tournament. A surf-related rib injury prevented me from brandishing a mallet. (Don't ask.)

For a while it looked as though Alexis would have to play all by himself...

.....but then a couple of interested parties turned up.

Unfortunately play was abandoned due to Alexis' need to be at an art workshop....and never restarted due to the vagaries of the English weather. Ah well, means I am still Scooby PB Retreat Croquet Champ for another year at least.

I'll end with a shout out to Loretta Schauer and Mike Brownlow for all their hard work facilitating the weekend and everyone in SCBWI involved in any way in organising the whole affair. It is a brilliant weekend and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone wishing to get away from it all and indulge in their passion, be it writing or illustrating, whilst having the golden opportunity to meet with like-minded people and industry professionals - but please keep it a secret so that it won't sell out next year before I can get my ticket!

And finally - a few more photos for your viewing pleasure (thanks to Paul Morton and Sue Eves for some of these.)






Hay, happiness and Hancock

I have never been to the Hay Festival before....so, yesterday, I decided to treat myself (and husband, who I dragged along)! What a great place. I had a wonderful time. It all began well when, parking at Clyro park & ride, we boarded the shuttle bus rather expecting a wait, only for it to immediately close its doors and head for the festival site. Perfect service!

After spending a while getting to know where things were, we headed for the festival Bookshop to meet up with Stephanie Roundsmith, who has set up 'kidsreadwritereview' in the North East of England. As it states on her site, it 'is a wonderful and unique scheme created to help children with their reading and writing skills. The scheme encourages children to be creative in their writing, to develop a more consistent reading pattern and to ignite that wonderful love of reading for pleasure.'

I am proud to say I am one of the writers who has been asked to 'judge' reviews by children after they have read Mrs MacCready Was Ever So Greedy - and I love it. The work that goes in to these young children's reviews is fantastic.

An amazing lady with - especially for the festival - amazing literary nails!! Wish I'd taken a photo of them.


NB: the security man in the background is keeping a close eye on Stephanie, who had sort of been 'asked' to leave the bookshop for fear of 'annoying' authors by asking whether they'd like to join her scheme. Daft! I'm sure any children's writer would love to be a part of something that encourages children to read, for all sorts of reasons. (I spotted she'd crept back in again later!)


After that I spent a while mooching in the Oxfam bookshop - total happiness! Came away with, yep, books! That's my summer holiday sorted.


Then we went to hear Sheila Hancock talk, ostensibly about her new (and first) novel 'Miss Carter's War', but she fitted so much more in to the hour. She resonated with me on so many topics too numerous to shoehorn in here. Overflowing with humour she managed to take us through her opinions on war, loneliness, politicians, the Arts, bereavement and prisons. I was glued to her every word.


Growing up during and just after the war she explained how many of her generation lived in total fear of another world war and truly believed, with the nuclear weapons now at politicians' disposal, the world would end sooner rather than later. Much of this experience comes through in her novel.


I particularly liked her thoughts on teachers (no surprise there). She called us 'the backstop' of society that should be respected, not denigrated and made to constantly adjust our way of teaching for what often seems the sake of it. She told us how she visits several schools with, as she put it, complicated children, and how they change when, after working with drama and presentation skills, they realise they can have a confidence and a good place in society. I won't repeat what she said about the cutting of Arts funding, suffice to say she quoted the solid research that shows children who take music lessons improve across the board in all other subjects.


I have to say I came away from her talk totally inspired.



Then it was time to retrace our steps to the car and return home. I've never known five hours pass so quickly. However, passing through the exit, I suddenly spotted Alexander McCall Smith....I am quite sure I did. I know he was due to be at the festival as I'd seen his books on the 'Festival Authors' shelves in the bookshop. My husband was less certain it was him....but what does he know?

I will let you make your mind up for yourself. I took a photo......but by the time I had my camera out he was past me and heading in the other direction, so you'll have to make your judgment from the back of his head! (He's the gentleman in the middle of the picture).


Really hope to be back at the festival again next year!







On delivering a workshop to adults for the first time, learning about dragon curves and discovering a unique way to free up time for writing....

The Federation of Children's Book Groups' Annual Conference 2015

I was asked, by the Lincolnshire group of the FCBG, to give a seminar on rhyming picture books at their annual conference which this year was held in Grantham. The theme was INSPIRE.

I remember thinking 'Oh' and 'my and 'goodness' in quick succession after I accepted the invitation. This meant talking to adults about picture books, not my usual audience of children, and adults in the know, not to put too fine a point on it.

I don't know what I was worried about. A friendly welcome awaited me on my arrival and nobody could have done more for me if they'd tried. I had a fantastic time.

My room was full to the brim come the time for me to launch in to my talk.......a spacious hotel bedroom transformed into a seminar space complete with rows of chairs, table and screen.

I explained I may well start to treat the assembled delegates as if they were five year olds. They said they didn't mind, so I set off and discovered I actually really enjoy doing this sort of thing. 


Having introduced myself with a bit of background as to what had inspired me to write for children and then chatted about some of my personal favourites, I thought it would be a good idea to try and inspire some of them to try writing a rhyming story for themselves. With this in mind we had a look at the 'correct' way of doing so....referencing Ann Whitford Paul's 'Writing Picture Books' chapter on rhyme a fair amount.


We looked at the four elements of good rhyming poetry -


The need for brevity - making every word count.

Keeping focus - not enjoying the act of rhyming so much we forget exactly what the theme of our story is and wander off plot.

Rhyme - being consistent, but not too predictable.

And, of course, rhythm. I knew about the four basic rhythmic feet before preparing my talk, but had not realised that two of them (iamb & anapest) were known as 'upbeat' rhythms and that the others (trochee & dactyl) were falling and, as such, used mainly for sad or serious poetry and rhyme.


Then I set my task. Handing out a selection of picture books I've gathered over the years (and a pile loaned me by the wonderful Tracy Gunaratnam for the duration!) I asked that everyone read through and then analyse the text to see if it stuck to the 'best practice' we'd just learned about. If not, was there a good reason not to or did it just create a problem in either the ease of reading or sense of the story. 


There were some interesting results and I have to say, when I tried this task, I was mightily relieved to find most other writers find it almost impossible to stick to one rhythm exactly throughout a book. The problem is, if a rhythm is broken it can cause the reader to stumble over the changed line. It can be done for effect - a change of speed to suit the change of mood in a story or to signal the end of a tale - but even this needs to be done with a great deal of care and thought. We found that a few altered their rhythmic metre only the once, without any apparent reason, and it made the reader stumble over the words. (Note to self - make sure I keep getting as many people as possible to read through my rhyming texts to check them out!)


I'm not sure I actually did inspire anyone to give writing their own rhyming story a go!



After my seminar I had the opportunity to stay and enjoy the afternoon's lectures - and they were brilliant. I particularly enjoyed Kjartan Poskitt's presentation of some of his work. He is SO entertaining! I learnt more about maths and Sir Isaac Newton listening to him for an hour than I think I ever did at school. I now love 'dragon curves' and will definitely go about naming characters in my stories the way he does........York pub crawl here I come. (That will only make sense to anyone who has heard Kjartan talk - sorry!)


Then I experienced one of Philip Ardagh's talks - hilarious. To begin with, he was introduced by the shortest person at the conference (her words) and he is NOT short (his)...... 

.....and he sent us home with THE BEST tip for freeing up time to write......

Apparently we spend more than half our lives sleeping, a large amount eating and a fair few hours getting rid of the waste product from the aforementioned activity. He suggests that, if we were to sleep whilst on the toilet with a bowl of cheerios in milk held to the side of our head so we can rest it in the bowl, we would inhale the food whilst our mouths opened to snore (though a stray one may enter through a nostril) and thus free up six and a half years worth of time for writing! 

If I liked cheerios I would give it a go.

The conference continued through the weekend, but I had to leave before the gala dinner on the Saturday night as our allotment was calling for attention and the weather was, for once, reasonably good over a weekend that we could be available to work on it. I'm sure it carried on in the same vein of fun, learning and passion for getting children and books together.






World Book Day 5th March 2015

Another year has passed and we find ourselves preparing for World Book Day 2015.

It's a day when the spotlight is shone onto the subject of books and reading all around the world - the biggest celebration of its kind!

On Thursday 5th March children of all ages will come together to appreciate reading....many dressing up as their favourite book character. LOTS of reading will happen.

Schools open their doors to visiting authors and illustrators who all have one aim in mind - to encourage even the most reluctant reader to look inside the covers of a book and discover the wonderful, imaginative worlds contained within its pages.


But what makes World Book Day special - surely schools host author visits at other times during the year?


Every child of school age is eligible to receive a £1 book token, which they can swap for a book from the WBD list. In other words - here's a book, enjoy! If they don't fancy one of those on the list they can always use the token to have a £1 discount on a book of their own choice.


BUT - not every country has the means to make sure each child is provided with a book of their own.


One of my favourite charities, which aims to address this problem, is Book Aid International.


As you know, World Book Day is about celebrating everything that books give us, but I believe it's also about supporting others who don't have the same access to these precious resources.


Book Aid International is one of World Book Day's beneficiary charities, sending hundreds of thousands of books to sub-Saharan Africa, helping to establish libraries and training librarians for their communities.


As with any charity, it can't do these fantastic things without support. Fundraising events are crucial. Many of the African countries it helps are blighted by poverty, civil war, HIV/AIDS and inconsistent educational provision. Books represent the education that can lift individuals away from these problems and start to solve them on a wider scale.


BOOKS CAN CHANGE LIVES - but we have to get them to these children first.


For ideas on how to raise money for Book Aid as part of WBD 2015...and great ideas for easy ways to make costumes (Mum's take note!)... look here


For some wonderful videos to show you why this is such a rewarding cause look here

(I particularly like the one where everyone is reading 'I can read with my eyes shut' by Dr. Seuss!)


This year BookAid are asking people to share their favourite childhood books. There are already some interesting thoughts on their Blog Pages


The likes of Piers Torday, Ken Follett and Helen Walsh, amongst others, have shared books including Winnie the Pooh, The Phantom Tollbooth and, one of my favourite authors, Mary Stewart's Ludo and the Star Horse.

Above are a few of my favourite children's books. I know, that's not exactly what BookAid have asked us to share, but there are so many good books being written now for me to enjoy it's hard to restrict myself to one from my own childhood.

Yes, there is still a mixture of old and new books in the above photo. I'm stalling while I try and decide on just one from my childhood.....

There's Mary Stewart's 'The Little Broomstick'. I loved that.

I grew up with all the Dr. Seuss stories - 'One Fish, Two Fish' is a personal favourite.

I suppose, if pushed, I'd have to say.... 


.......I didn't read it until in my early teens, but it made a huge impression that's stayed with me.


I'll finish by posting a selection of photos of my favourite reads (some of which were turned into seats in London last year! Click on each to see why I've chosen it.) but, before I do....


Please remember BookAid, and all they do, when deciding where some of your money might go this World Book Day.

As one Kenyan schoolgirl called Winnie, who would never have been able to learn to read and write without their help, once said, 'I like reading. Books are the things that motivate us and let us be what we want.'










Excessive analysis of books puts kids off reading?

Below is a stack of books, all of which I read for the sheer fun and pleasure of doing so. It was great!

I have blogged before about my reasons why reading for pleasure (for all ages, but especially children) is so important. What has prompted me to do so yet again?

An interesting article about Frank Cottrell Boyce, who gave this year's David Fickling lecture. He argues that some teaching methods promoting literacy are actually polluting the reading experience and believes that children are too often asked to analyse the text of a book, or respond to a story with their own story, thus taking away the joy of simply reading for the love of it and leaving it at that.

You can read more about his thoughts here.

It drew an enlightening response from a teacher, explaining why so much in depth work on books is required as part of the job nowadays, and the frustrations that can bring.

Find out what they said here.

Putting myself in the position of one of the children in their class, that format for reading sounds horrific and no pleasure at all.

I know I didn't enjoy 'whole class reading' at school and, in my case, that happened at secondary school where we had to work through and analyse heavy tomes for our exams.

Fortunately I had good experiences at primary level, where quiet time was put aside each day for personal reading - whatever we wanted...and that included comics! I also had parents who were interested in books, a mother who read most days for pleasure and shelves full of books. I read lots at home.

For those of you who didn't spot my earlier blogs about why I think reading for pleasure is so important.....why do I?!




1. Research from around the world demonstrates how children who read for pleasure, no strings attached, achieve so much more in their studies AND later life.

It doesn't seem to matter what socio-economic background you come from. Children from lower income families who read for pleasure do better than those from more affluent families, but who don't read outside of studying. (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).


2. Egmont (the UK's leading specialist children's publisher) found that, whereas 95% of pre-school children were read to by parents/grandparents, once the children started school this plummeted to 33%. The emphasis suddenly swings to reading as a skill. This is, of course, extremely important, but the pure pleasure of reading and immersing oneself in a story seems to be forgotten for the most part.


3. Booktrust - the charity which supports reading for pleasure for all ages - states, 'Read with your child every day.'

They have carried out research which shows that a child who reads for pleasure is more likely to grow into an adult who remains in employment, is IT literate, owns their own home AND trusts people in their community.

Find out more about them here.


How more important can reading for pleasure be?



I hope you take something from this post and, if not already an avid reader, you have perhaps been prompted to go out and try it. Maybe try out a local literary festival to get some ideas, or find your local book group, read more with your child, or simply find a little slice of your time to read for the pure pleasure of it. There are so many reasons to do so.






Meet My Character

This blog post is all thanks to fellow SCBWI author Rebecca Colby. She asked me to take part in the MEET MY CHARACTER BLOG HOP.


I've chosen to introduce you to my next Ever So character - please welcome Master Daniel O'Dowd....

This will be the fourth book in the Ever So series. Exciting!


So, on with the questions (and my answers).


1. What is the name of your character? Is he a fictional or historic person?


Daniel O'Dowd is totally made up. He is NOT based on anyone I know, past or present. I am unanimous in that proclamation. (Although I'm sure lots of you may know a Daniel or two out there).


2. When and where is the story set?


The tale takes place, as do all the Ever So stories, in the fictional town of Hamilton Shady - right now!


3. What should we know about your character?




4. What is his main conflict? What messes up his life?


He's too noisy! People are wary of him. Even the animals at the zoo have to take evasive action. 


5. What is his personal goal?


I suppose to show that shouting can be good. At least, he learns there are times when it's OK, when he has the chance to be a hero, but there are also times when it's definitely best to be quiet.


6. What is the working title of the book? Can we read more about it?


Daniel O'Dowd Was Ever So Loud. My publisher's catalogue description states :


Daniel O'Dowd is so loud he doesn't listen to others. When a comet is heading towards Hamilton Shady Daniel has to help the town's mad Professor using his supersonic voice, but if he doesn't listen to instructions things are going to end badly!


7. When will it be published?


The book is due out next January with Maverick Arts Publishing.




That's it. You've met Daniel O'Dowd! Good thing he wasn't speaking for himself.

Thank you for reading and thank you to Rebecca for asking me. It's been fun. You can read all about her character, Delia the rather persistent witch, here.


I've tagged some more children's writers to continue this blog hop. 


First of all -


Jenny Heap


Jenny is a fellow member of Storyvine - a Warwickshire based group of children's writers who met at Warwick Words Festival in 2012 and now meet up every two or three weeks to help each other further their work. I know quite a few of Jenny's characters, but have no idea who she's going to tell you about. Maybe it'll be one I haven't met yet!


I've also tagged fellow SCBWI author -

Alice Hemming.


She has a picture book coming out in September....but whether she'll choose to introduce you to that character I really haven't a clue!


Good luck, girls.