Saturday, 1 August 2015


This week, for a mix of reasons, I’m culling my picture book collection. All the favourites, the books that visiting children return to again and again are safely tucked in a couple of boxes, while others are in the pile awaiting a new home or shop counter..

However, I  was also looking through a set that I call my “talk books”. These are books I’ve used for occasional talks to writer’s groups, when I’ve tried to suggest the vast range of picture books available. As I went through my pile, I was struck by how often developments in technology have affected children’s books over the years. Here are a few of my examples:

 TITCH by Pat Hutchins.
A whole generation of picture books had black lines around the different sections of the drawings, as in this example. Back then, these lines acted as guidelines for the artists as they created the three different layers needed for the colour printing process of the time.

The same black outline lines occur, too, in Pat’s ROSIE’S WALK, but the advances in printing made this task obsolete and the heavy lines disappeared. .

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendakometimes new writers still think in terms of text on one page, illustration on the other, as used for the Ladybird books. This book is a wonderful example of the use of both pages and spreads. It starts with a small, single ”picture in a box on a page” image of Max, but the area increases until the artwork becomes the entire  edge-to-edge full-spread of Max processing across the pages as the glorious King of all the Wild Things. The drama of the “dream” story line is powerfully increased by the growth of the pictures.
Much later, giant and quadruple last pages became popular,  bringing endings where the illustration unfolds to show an image even larger than the area of the book. 

ERNEST by Catherine Rayner is a book about a very, very large moose!.


PEEPO by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The technique of cutting holes through book pages might have been popularised through THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle, but it was also used to great effect in this lovely, cosy book.

The reader - young or old - can peep through the single hole on one page and glimpse moments from working-class babyhood in the forties and fifties on the page ahead. The round hole gives a kind of baby’s eye view, a visual version of that favourite baby game.

I’ve heard PEEPO is used as a history book now, based as it was on the authors childhoods.

There's also THE RAINBOW FISH by Marcus Pfister. The picture book I have comes from that surge of shiny, laminated paper/printing suddenly used both on and inside the covers. 

For a while, every infant classroom – as they were called then – seemed to have its own Rainbow Fish topic, sparkling away in the corner,,

Additionally, writers for older children grew irrationally overjoyed at any morsel of sparkliness or shine appearing on their new book's covers.

Meanwhile, THE VERY QUIET CRICKET, another by Eric Carle is an example of the use of sound technology. All the insects in the forest greet the cricket, who can’t respond in sound until – for the final spread –our “he” meets a “she”, and he starts to chirp. A tiny device is activated by the fully opened spread.

By the bye, I recall the final moment an award ceremony where a prestigious children’s writer’s important & serious novel was beaten by the novelty of a picture book about a noisily “farting” teddy bear. Sounds were very popular in books for a time but now seem confined to birthday cards.

I have selected these titles from books I own and use as part of talks. I'm sure there are other and earlier examples of some of these technologies so if you can think of any other examples, or anything to add, please do comment.
A big thing now seems to be the revival of colour decoration on the edges of a closed children’s novel, as if the solid block of colour makes the “3D” existence of the book more emphatic and important than the kindle version. 

Additionally, springing out of picture books, there's the rise of illustrations set creatively within the pages of text. In one way, these black and white pages can seem quite old-fashioned, but in another, surely it’s the sheer flexibility of the modern print layout that makes such delight possible, and makes the gap between picture book and junior fiction a more open journey? 

Probably  the new Children's Laureate Chris Riddell and his GOTH GIRL would think so!.

And of course there are picture book apps now, but not within my boxes of books. Back to find my Book-Sorting Hat.

Penny Dolan

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Mad Girl and The Dream: by Steve Gladwin

Today we have a guest post from Steve Gladwin. Steve's background is in theatre, but he has recently published his first children's book: The Seven. (Ed)

After recently attending my first Charney* and running a drama workshop on character I decided to trace the origins of my ‘image work’ as a writer, performer and storyteller. So here we go...

The Mad Girl and The Dream first collided in spring 1996. At the time I was running a small theatre-in-education company in Bridgwater in Somerset. We rehearsed in the skittle alley of a pub called the West India House, (that was why all our productions were long and thin). We dosed up with Marion’s double egg and chips every lunchtime, which were a thing of beauty.

I had been asked by Wells Central Junior school whether we could do a Tudor Day for them. I said of course we could - having no idea how to set about it. What they really wanted, it turned out, was a fifty minute Midsummer Night’s Dream: we were currently touring the full length version of the play. We decided to begin in the morning with a new invention of mine called a ‘Potted History of The Tudors’, (basically an excuse to play all six wives with different wigs and combine facts with terrible jokes), which also left room for two workshops. In the morning we had the Armada, with all the excitement of ‘cut and pluck’, the fire ships and the extraordinary fate of the Rata Santa Maria Encoronada. (Look it up!) After the play itself, we had St John’s Fair: a recreation of a Tudor Fair complete with all its denizens.

Meanwhile I was left with the tricky problem of telling a Shakespeare play in no more than fifty minutes. Not an easy task...

Luckily it was the play’s trickiest scene, Act Three Scene Two, which provided an unexpected solution. Because it is so complicated, I suggested showing the complex moonlit love life of Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius through eight stages and still images. There must have been some magic hanging around in the skittle alley that day, because one thing led seamlessly to another and we realised that what worked for one scene might also work for the whole play. With about thirty five pictures under our belt we had tremendous fun running them all first forwards and then, hilariously, backwards. We were ready for our lunchtime egg and chips. 

Thus was born a method of theatre and storytelling which I have used ever since. It can be passed on to anyone, and now I'm passing it on to you.

It’s very simple and here it is. You begin by breaking up the play or story into a series of still images or tableau. To those you add any basic dialogue you need. So in the first scene with the warring fairies your dialogue might go like this.

Oberon      Ill met by moonlight proud Titania.

Titania.      What jealous Oberon. Fairies skip hence. I have foresworn his bed and company.

And so on.

Armed with the basic pictures and dialogue, you can now add a narrator to bridge the gaps between the two and move the story forward. Then the magic happens: you can freeze one scene/tableau and transform it into the next. The most memorable example of this was during our two hander of Cinderella, ‘Ashputtel’, where Hannah as the spirit of the dead mother in the tree ‘handed down’ the dress to ‘Sue as Ashputtel. Immediately afterwards this image changed to the two sisters squabbling to grab the royal invitation.

The rude mechanicals from the Brothers Tales production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1996.

The great thing about the method is that you can use it anywhere. In storytelling, for example, where it is often called ‘the bones’. Or in the creation of your own plot by visualising those pictures - and crucially, the transformation from one to the other. It is also an excellent method to use with children and adults who struggle with language and respond to a more visual medium.

But let’s return to that day and St John's Fair, where I first met not only the Mad Girl but also a whole host of other Elizabethan ne’er do wells. Our workshops followed an apprentice goldsmith called Watt and his new wife Jane as they travelled through the fair on their way to a new life. Like most things in Tudor England, it didn’t have a particularly happy ending. A year later a pregnant Jane returned to the country alone leaving Watt rotting in a debtors' prison.

But it did introduce me to a whole host of infectious new characters, such as the dummerer, the palliard, the ruffler, the prigger prancer and best of all, the Tom and Bess O’ Bedlams. These two used to pretend to be mad - stinking and screaming so much that people would pay to get rid of them. Bess has recently muscled her way back into my life, demanding that I tell her story. I’ll leave you to find out more about the others and maybe tell theirs. 

Just make sure you think of them in pictures as well as words!

*Editor's note: 'Charney' is the annual summer conference/retreat of the Scattered Authors' Society, which hosts this blog. Steve did a workshop there this year based on the process he outlines in this post. Oh, how silly we all were!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Why writing novels is a bit like running in the rain – Lari Don

I run. Not often enough, or fast enough, or far enough, but I do run occasionally. Running gives me useful time to think about stories, as well as making me feel better about the hours I spend sitting on my bottom at the keyboard.

But there is another connection between running and writing. Motivating myself to get up and go out for a run is quite similar to motivating myself to write.

No-one makes me run. I don’t enter races. I don’t have an immediate goal for my running. I’m not answerable to anyone else for running. I don’t have to tell anyone I’m going out for a run, or prove afterwards that I did run. No-one is checking that I’m running. If I decided not to bother going for a run, no-one would know. And if I decided during a run that I just couldn’t be bothered running any more, and sat down in the middle of the path and sang a little song instead (or simply walked home at a comfortable pace, nibbling chocolate bars on the way) no-one would know, no-one would care and no-one would be able to criticise.

Except me. I’d know, and I’d feel guilty.

All of which is remarkably similar to writing a novel.

Novels take a VERY LONG TIME to write. The deadlines start off ridiculously far away. And if I didn’t sit down and get on with it, if I chose to sit about singing, nibbling chocolate, or even going out for a run rather than writing, no-one would know or notice, until it was far too late.

Except me. I’d know, and I’d feel guilty.

So, even though I don’t run as often and as far and as fast I should, I still do it.

And, even though I suspect I don’t sit down and write as often or as fast as I should, I still do it. Even months or years before the deadline, I do it. Regularly, steadily, and moving the story forward all the time.

Why? How do we motivate ourselves to get our writing shoes on and keep pacing through the story, without the urgency of an immediate deadline or an editor at our shoulder?

Is that why so many writers like to tell the world how many words they’ve written each day on Facebook or Twitter? Because otherwise, there is no-one but ourselves to push, encourage, cajole and motivate? Because otherwise, writing a novel is like going out for a run in the rain, in the dark, with no finish line in sight?

I don’t share word counts or small writing victories on social media. I tend to keep that part of my writing fairly quiet and private. But then, I like to run on my own. I don’t like to run in a group. And actually, I’ve always enjoyed running in the rain.

Lari Don is the award-winning author of 22 books for all ages, including a teen thriller, fantasy novels for 8 – 12s, picture books, retellings of traditional tales and novellas for reluctant readers.
Lari’s website 
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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Competitions! - John Dougherty

I love chocolate, don't you? And especially, I love fairly traded chocolate.

I'm also very fond of poetry, so you can imagine how pleased I was when the splendidly-bearded Philip Ardagh suggested to those lovely people at Divine Chocolate that they might ask me to join the judging panel for this year's Divine Poetry Competition.

Before you get all excited - the closing date has passed, the judging has happened, and I've eaten quite a lot of free chocolate. But I thought you might like to see some videos of me reading the winning entries.

Here's the winner in the 7-11 category, by Connor Hellings:

Here's the 12-16 winner, by Lloyd Hunter: 

And here's the winner in the adult category, by Philip Howard:

If I seem a bit tired and emotional as I do any of the readings, it's partly because it was an INCREDIBLY hot day, and I filmed these videos straight after the judging process; and partly because one of the things I was looking for in the poetry was a bit of an emotional kick - and I found that. I was genuinely moved by some of what I read. The line in Connor's poem about riches being clean water and the chance of an education still makes my eyes water a little.

Anyway: I hope you enjoy the poetry - and though I don't normally advertise on ABBA, I hope you'll pop into your local Oxfam and buy some Divine chocolate, too. Not only is it extremely tasty; the company is owned by the farmers who grow the cocoa that goes into it, so it's an unusually fair form of fair trade.

Oh - and keep an eye out for next year's competition!

While we're on the subject of competitions - if you know any children who would like to be an actual character in a real book, I'm currently working on the fifth Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face, and we're running a competition with that as a prize! More details here:


John's first collection of poetry will be published by Otter-Barry Books next year.

His latest book, Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face and the Bees of Stupidity, illustrated by David Tazzyman and published by OUP, was published on July 2nd.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

On not trusting your future self - Clémentine Beauvais

I’m writing this thanks to Cold Turkey, my faithful Internet-blocking software. I’ve used it for many years, and would not have finished any novel nor my thesis without it. For years, at 9 o’clock every morning, I’d switch it on for three and a half hours, shutting down all the websites I didn’t want to go on - leaving JStor and suchlike accessible - and then switch it on again at 2pm for another four hours.

Recently, though, I’ve had to upgrade to the Pro version. You see, it was getting increasingly difficult to actually switch on Cold Turkey at 9 o’clock, or again at 2pm. I’d let 9am go past, and then suddenly it was 9.13, and then you might as well wait till 9.30 because it’s a round number.

Now, with Cold Turkey Pro, I can schedule my whole week, or indeed month, in advance, and lock that schedule into place. Tomorrow’s Clementine can’t cheat. Ha!

Yep, it’s ridiculous that I paid 14 quid to prevent my sly, lazy future self from going on the Internet instead of working. In a way, I’m doing her a service: the satisfaction of getting into a ‘flow’, of writing or reading for hours on end, is always there, faithfully. But it mostly shows that I absolutely don't trust her to wait for that elusive second marshmallow; I know it won't be present enough to her greedy mind when the first marshmallow is sitting there looking lonely on the table.

We’re engaged, it seems, in a exhausting arms race: the world is getting better at distracting us, and in response it’s also getting better at providing weapons against distraction. Self-discipline is now dependent on a heavy apparatus of self-binding devices and pieces of software; on temptation-bundling; on wilfully not-buying certain items.

Ever since I was a young teenager, I’ve felt this arms race slowly growing. I’ve always been pretty self-disciplined, having gone through a stringent educational system with stacks of homework and a holy terror of teachers. 

But of course at the time the world didn’t offer much resistance to my seriousness. When I was in high school, my Nokia 3410 was the only distraction in the library, apart from handsome boys who, unfortunately, didn’t find me an equivalent source of distraction at all. It wasn’t hard to focus; plus we were scared, and being scared makes one very self-disciplined.

Then at university, I wasn’t scared anymore because British education isn’t psychotic like French education and terrifying teenagers into doing work isn’t considered the right approach. There I signed up for Facebook, but I only had a few friends. Then more. It was becoming tricky to focus, but at least when I took my computer to the library there was no Internet.

Then wifi appeared, and gradually became available pretty much everywhere.

When I started my PhD, it had become unmanageable. I was far from the only one who struggled; in fact I was probably among the more self-disciplined, thanks to the aforementioned years of French torture education. Soon Cold Turkey and its equivalent for Mac, Self-Control, became talked-of among students as you would talk about some kind of miracle medicine.

Like me, my friends were engineering increasingly complex traps to commit their future selves to work. It’s interesting to see how normal these strategies of trapping-your-future-self has become. We’ve learnt to live in constant suspicion that tomorrow’s selves, next week’s selves, will betray our present selves. They’re not to be trusted. 

One of my colleagues asks his wife to go to work with his (smart)phone when he needs to spend the day writing an article. Another has never installed broadband in her new studio flat. Another has returned to pen and paper. My own self-binding strategy has been to resist buying a smartphone; I still don’t have one.

All of these strategies certainly work, but leave us with the nagging feeling that they only help self-discipline in the same way as stabilisers help you cycle. Taking away all of these layers of self-commitment, I could probably continue to function as if they were there for a while; just like I’d probably carry on for a bit if the stabilisers suddenly vanished.

But I’d do so with a vague, unpleasant hunch that it would be extremely easy to fall to the side. And here my future self might look back and ask: 'You idiot! Why the hell did you never actually teach me to cycle?'


Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.

Monday, 27 July 2015

A place to write by Lynn Huggins-Cooper

It’s summer, and the long afternoons and change of routine for many of us leads us to read outside – by the pool on holiday maybe, or in the garden. What I like to do though is write outside. I have created several little nooks in my garden, and lurk there under trees, scribbling away in a notebook with a cup of tea on the table and a dog at my feet.

I love writing in my study, surrounded by my books, but there is something about being outside that makes me feel somehow more alive, and more connected with the world. I am very lucky – behind my garden, there is a field. Beyond the field is a huge forest. It is 360 hectares, and has been a woodland since ancient times. Most of the very old trees were felled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to build ships and for building bridges, but some still remain. Many conifers were planted for wood, and parts of the forest are dark and still, like fairy tale woods. I like to take my books and sit among the trees and write.

I also love writing on the beach. My favourite place is at Cullercoats Bay, on an outcrop of rocks overlooking the ocean. I am writing a story about a sea witch, and the spray of the waves and the taste of salt on my lips helps me to ‘enter’ the story.

I have always liked to write in places that inspire me. When I was writing Walking with Witches, I wrote in the fantastic library at The Literary and Philosophical Society, where part of the story is set; I also wrote at Newcastle Castle Keep where the women accused of witchcraft were imprisoned. When I was writing a ghost story set at a railway station, I rode round on the trains, taking in the atmosphere as I made notes.

If you like to write – and you probably do, if you are reading this blog – think about stepping away from your laptop. PC or tablet this week and taking an old-fashioned notebook into the Great Outdoors – you might just find yourself truly inspired!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

To the Lighthouse - Julie Sykes

I’ve always been inspired by places and Cornwall is one of my all time favourites. I try and visit at least twice a year.

I’ve recently come back from a fabulous week spent in St Ives. The weather was warm and sunny and there were lots of opportunities for long, inspirational walks. I particularly wanted to visit Gwithian and to walk along the beach opposite that lighthouse. You know, the one that inspired that book. I also wanted to go on the cliffs and watch the seals in their special place.

The National Trust owns the beach. It’s set at the far end of St Ives Bay. It’s a bit of a walk so you have to make an effort to visit. It’s well worth it. In the words of the National Trust, this is ‘a vast sandy beach, high cliffs and dramatic coves.’

Imagine my sense of fury and sadness when peering into a little cave I found this.

The people responsible for this mess must have intended to picnic here. I’m sure they came for the spectacular views, the peace and solitude.

I hope they had a good time.

But why did they leave the place in such a state? There’s no easy way to say this. People who left this mess, you are DIRTY.

Don’t tell me that there wasn’t a bin. Why put a bin in such a beautiful place? If you bring stuff with you then it’s your responsibility to take it home again. If you can’t be bothered then go some place else. Somewhere built up with bins.

Litter isn’t just an unsightly nuisance. It poses a real danger to the wildlife. Every year animals the world over suffer injuries and even death as a direct result of rubbish.

I wonder what sort of book Virginia would have written if she’d found this on her way to the lighthouse.