It was World Book Day this month, a time which is usually really busy for me, with two or three weeks of visits to schools, lots of preparation and driving about the country. Fun but exhausting! This year was a bit different. Visits were virtual, and I found schools were more interested in one or two short sessions than a day or half day so it was a lot quieter. But it was wonderful to still see the children and share my love of books and reading with them, and I still got to dress up in silly costumes, even if it was only from the waist up! Virtual visits can be challenging, so read on for some tips gleaned from what I’ve learned so far.
- Preparation is vital so make sure you know which platform you are using (eg Zoom, Teams, Google Classroom etc), start and finish times and who will be there. Test out your internet connection in the space you will be in. Have a backup, eg a phone, just in case the worst happens!
- A teacher should always be present for safety reasons, and if you ask them to send you the link it means they are in control of the session, with you as a visitor, and can ensure that everything is done to keep students safe.
- Check your camera before you go into the meeting so you can see if you are adequately lit and what’s behind you. A simple swivel of your laptop can give you a more professional looking background by bypassing that teetering pile of toys that appears to be balanced on your left shoulder. Propping your laptop or device up with books to make it higher can help reduce the amount of chins. Remember you may be on a giant screen in the school hall so check for spinach etc between the teeth as well!
- Have everything you need to hand and write a brief list of what you are going to do. It’s easy to go blank in the heat of the moment.
- Keep it short and sweet. I find a quick chat, a reading, an interactive song or rhyme and some questions fill around half an hour and by then the children have probably had enough, although older children can cope with more.
- Use props. Things like toys or puppets look great on the screen as you can play with perspective and the element of surprise. A hat is also appreciated!
- The most challenging part for me is reading from a picture book while sharing the pictures and including myself in the frame. I don’t have any tips on this and usually end up craning around the book like Chad. However I think as long as you get some of the pictures in and deliver the reading with gusto your listeners will enjoy it!
- If reading a picture book or illustrated book, credit the artist and talk about them and their work. Children are just as interested in that as they are in the words.
- Leave plenty of time for questions. Everyone likes to have a turn. If you run out of time, offer to answer any outstanding ones by email.
- Make sure you know where the exit button is so you’re not floundering at the end!
- Enjoy yourself and your enthusiasm will shine through.
Would you like a fun lockdown activity? Would you like it to be downloadable and free? Of course you would! May I present the Snowflake Mistake toy theatre, based on the ice palace in my picture book The Snowflake Mistake, beautifully illustrated by Maddie Frost. Now you can put on your own production of the story or make up your own ice palace tales. Comes with ‘curtain’, interior and exterior scenes, characters, the snowflake machine AND if you add a small piece of acetate or clear plastic you can insert your own snowfall!
Simply download the pdf via the link below and print the two sheets on A4 card, or print on paper and stick to the back of a cereal box (this makes it extra sturdy). Cut out and fold, following the instructions and the diagram. Use any left over strips of card to make handles for your characters. Take your seats everyone, the performance is about to begin!
With thanks to Maddie Frost and Maverick Arts Publishing
I’m delighted to say that my new middle grade (age 8-12) book Turns Out I’m an Evil Alien Emperor is finally out! The sequel to Turns Out I’m an Alien sees Jasper and Holly jetting back into space to face the Emperor of Andromeda on his own planet and is even more full of slime, slugs, double agent pop stars and squelchy alien friends and foes than the first instalment (and probably twice as silly as well).
As a thank you for following, I’m giving away both books in the series to one winner, plus I also have two new early readers in the Maverick Early Reading Scheme to give away as well. So just let me know which you would like in the comments – Turns Out or early readers – and I’ll select the two winners at random on Monday 28 September.
Best of luck!
I was lucky enough yesterday to have a tour of Peter Harrington in Chelsea. Harrington’s have two branches in London where they sell rare books, illustrations and maps, and also make beautiful binding. If you love books and have a spare grand or two, or even if you don’t, this is definitely the place to visit!
First stop was the children’s book section, where I was thrilled to spot lots of familiar books from my childhood. I was very lucky in that my mum kept lots of her childhood books and passed them on to me, so I grew up on E Nesbit, Noel Streatfield, Frances Hodgson Burnett et al, but alas, none of them are first editions which I quickly learned are what you should look for when you are checking the value of a book. If the book is signed by the author this makes it even more special, of course, as can a beautiful binding. It was fascinating to see a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where there is a mistake in the list of items Harry needs for school (2 wands!) so if you have this early edition, take good care of it!
Many Beatrix Potter volumes looked out at me like old friends, and leafing (carefully) through them we reminisced how un-cutesy she was in her portrayals of animals, who could be quite cruel to each other. I loved a large version of Treasure Island, illustrated in wildly menacing strokes by Ralph Steadman. There was also a beautiful set of Pinnochio colouring books, untouched by crayon. Unwanted gift? Sometimes an old book in good condition tells a sad story.
Looking through the adult books, I found the cookery books oddly fascinating. Did you know that you should boil potatoes for 45 minutes, and only eat ham once a week as it takes 5 hours to digest? Also remember that scrambled eggs is a very strange recipe choice that is only included as an oddity!
In the history section I was reminded how prolific Winston Churchill was (how did he find the time to dabble in politics, one wonders?) and even more so when we saw a couple of his self portraits sketches on sale up on the wall. A future present for my husband if I ever make the best seller lists myself.
If I had to choose any of the pictures it would be a hard decision between Maurice Sendik’s iconic illustrations for Where the Wild Things Are, and Andy Warhol’s cat drawings, which were surprisingly endearing and easier to look at than Louis Wain’s grinning, unstable felines.
Sadly we had to leave with nothing but an increased knowledge in old books and respect for those who catalogue them, care for them and ultimately sell them on to appreciative book lovers or generous gift-givers. Meanwhile I’m off to check my Mum’s complete Elinor Brent Dyer Chalet School series to see if there’s a first edition in there somewhere…
Many thanks to Susanna of Peter Harrington for the tour, and to Jan for inviting me along.
Competitions are a great way to get your work seen, so any competition that is aimed at debut picture book writers and is judged by picture book supremo Amy Sparkes and superagent Julia Churchill is a must. It’s also sponsored by Writing Magazine which features regular articles by Amy on how to write for children.
Entries of up to 800 words can be in rhyme or prose, and you have plenty of time to hone your masterpieces before submission as the entry window doesn’t open until 1 September 2018 (and closes on 31 October). Prizes include consultations, critiques and cash, but most importantly being a prize winner can be an valuable step towards publication.
This is exciting – a new international children’s magazine offering a paying market for short fiction. The magazine will be online and is called Zizzle. It is aimed at 9-14 year olds and will have a literary bent so bear this in mind for submissions. They are looking for short stories from 500-1200 words and will pay US $100 for each story accepted for the inaugural issue. After that, contributors will be paid as much as funds will allow.
I am delighted to share the news that one of my critique clients, Juleus Ghunta, will have his book Tata and the Big Bad Bull published by CaribbeanReads on 31 May 2018. The book is part fable, part adventure story as Tata attempts to get to school, overcoming various obstacles, not least of which is a fearsome bull whom he has to outwit. I asked Juleus a few questions about his publication journey.
What inspired you to write Tata?
I grew up in Jamaica in a single–parent home with my mother and three siblings. Due to financial constraints I began formal schooling a year later than most students. While I was in primary school, mother struggled to pay for my lunch and bus fare. I was determined to go to school so I decided to take a shortcut through a pasture. The pasture was home to some fierce bulls but the route cut the distance in half. One evening, on my way home, I was attacked by a bull. We stared at each other for a few minutes before I climbed through the barbed wire fence. When I stepped into the pasture, he charged and I got stuck. I was lucky to escape unharmed. I sprinted the long way home. It was terrifying but the following week I was in the pasture again. I had no choice. The ‘big bad bull’ character was inspired by this real–life experience; however, the bull is also a metaphor for the wide–ranging challenges I experienced as a child and the way I endured and overcame them.
Because of financial and other challenges, I learned to read at age 12 and was the only student from my class who was forced to repeat the 6th grade. Learning to read improved my self–confidence but I was saddened by the fact that there were no books in the school library with stories about black boys like me. I vowed to write such stories, I’m glad this lifelong dream has come true. There are many “hidden” stories in this book that readers will never know unless I tell them. Hopefully, I will get opportunities to share.
How old were you when you realised you were a writer?
I spent much of my childhood in the home of the late Jamaican writer, C. Everard Palmer. I couldn’t believe that such an influential writer grew up in my village. It felt surreal. Becoming a writer was the farthest thing from my mind though. That didn’t seem possible. I started writing ‘seriously’ four years ago; however, I don’t think of myself as a ‘writer’, despite my success. Writing has been an outlet for my grief; the way I unpack my traumatic childhood. Maybe one day I’ll feel comfortable with the ‘writer’ designation. I’m not there yet. For now, I’m content with the way writing helps me ‘breathe’.
How did the critique process help you?
It was a major turning point. Many of your suggestions made it into the book, including the very important point you made about humanising the bull by giving him a name. I was surprised by your detailed response and moved by your generosity. The book needed a lot of work, but you did not dwell on that. You showed me what was possible.
How did you find your publisher and what was it like working with them?
I did research to see who’d be interested in publishing Tata and received many rejections. I’m glad those publishers said no, because I kept searching and eventually found CaribbeanReads. I could not have asked for a better publisher. CaribbeanRead’s editor, Carol Mitchell, helped me rewrite and reshape the manuscript. It is a much better story than what I submitted. Her patience and vision are legendary.
Did you have any involvement in the illustrations?
CaribbeanReads helped me with the storyboard. I sent instructions to the illustrator, Ann–Cathrine Loo. Ann–Cathrine and I come from very different cultures. She grew up in Sweden so many of her initial sketches were inspired by images from her childhood. I instructed her on every detail of the illustrations and she did a truly remarkable job.
What do you hope children will gain from reading Tata?
The book reminds readers of the importance of compassion and forgiveness. There are lessons inside regarding how children should respond to bullying and ‘othering’. I hope Tata will encourage children to think more deeply about the emotions and experiences of others, especially their peers. Tata is a gift to children whose courage, resilience and leadership are needed in this troubled world.
When will you launch the book?
And finally, what’s next for Juleus?
I’m working on a picture book manuscript and a poetry collection.
You can pre-order Tata and the Big Bad Bull on Amazon. Juleus can be found at www.juleusghunta.com and on Twitter as @Ghunta100. He is currently pursuing MA Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. His poetry has appeared in several journals including The Missing Slate, Moko, Easy Street, Chiron Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and has been anthologised in Cordite 81: New Caribbean Writing and In This Breadfruit Kingdom. He was awarded the Catherine James Poetry Prize by Interviewing the Caribbean in 2017. In 2015 and 2016 he was shortlisted for the Small Axe Poetry Prize.
This weekend I’m celebrating the release of my new junior fiction title, Homework on Pluto published by Maverick, and as part of that I’ll be giving away a free signed copy to the lovely readers of this blog. To take part, just comment on this post and I will choose a winner at random on 15 May by printing them out and putting them in a hat. (A sou’wester probably, judging by the weather at the moment…)
Junior fiction or chapter books are great fun to write. Here are my tips:
- Write to the right length. 6-10,000 words are what you are aiming for. So think in terms of 6 chapters of 1000 words each to give you a rough outline.
- Keep it punchy. You’ve got a lot to fit in to make a complete book work within this small space, so don’t waste words on lengthy descriptions or long dialogue exchanges.
- Write a series. Readers this age (around 6-10) love series. Conversely, your first book should be able to stand alone, just in case it doesn’t get followed up. And you only need present one book to the publisher, as long as it has series potential.
- Create memorable characters. Think Mr Gum, Horrid Henry, Flat Stanley… The character is the book.
- Utilise humour. Don’t be afraid to be silly. Silliness is underrated.