blog tour · Guest Post · Middle Grade Reviews

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

Blog Tour: Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe by Martin Howard. Illustrated by Chris Mould.

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About Alfie’s Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. 

A good funny book is gold. A great one is invaluable. Last year, I especially enjoyed The Cosmic Atlas Of Alfie Fleet where Alfie’s determination to buy his Mum a birthday present saw him embark on an adventure across the universe alongside his new friend the Professor. Its humour was woven so cleverly into the story that it was impossible to join in the adventure without laughter. Now Alfie is back, and this time he and the Professor are offering holidays to the most wonderful planets in the universe. 

As they embark on one final tour, putting everything in order before they open for buisness, Alfie and the Professor run into trouble. For starters, some of the beings on other planets are reluctant to accept that humans aren’t … well … aliens. Then there is the motely pack of cartographers, the UCC, that they meet on Planet Bewarye, led by the terrible Sir Willikin Nanbiter, that sets about trying to destroy the Unusual Travel Agency. 

A quest ensues to discover the long-lost other members of the UCC, who have the power to outvote Sir Nanbiter before his damage destroys Alfie’s dreams. 

As with the first book, the new worlds that Martin Howard and Chris Mould have created are super-imaginative. I am delighted to welcome Martin Howard (AKA Mart) back to my blog with a wonderful piece about creating new worlds. 

Thanks to Mart for your time and efforts. 

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Creating Worlds for Alfie Fleet – a guest post by author Martin Howard. 

Hullo, hullo, hullo and a big thank you to Louise for another invitation. Book Murmuration is starting to feel like a second home. For this visit, she asked me to jot down some thoughts on building magical worlds, a fascinating subject and no one’s ever asked me about it before, so hurrah and here we go …

I’ve said before that I’m wary about dishing out writing advice, because every writer finds their own way of working, so I can only describe my own methods. For me, creating a world is a key part of the process. Settings play a big part in the plot, create atmosphere and can be as fun and funny as the characters. In fact, the worlds writers create are very much characters in their own right. And sometimes, like any other character, they just materialise in that strange, mystical idea process – an integral part of the tale and the obvious background for the story and the characters. It’s great when that happens because you can dive straight in, perhaps making a few tweaks as the book develops. Other times – such as for the new Alfie Fleet – magical worlds are born in the fiery crucible of a brainstorm. My notebooks are full of half-formed worlds that never made it and I even have a few finished chapters that took place on worlds that never made it into the book. (If anyone’s interested, I’d be happy to share one or two in a future visit.)

Inspiration can come from anywhere: half-remembered movies and books from my childhood or artwork I’ve spotted online, for example, or straight from the depths of my own imagination. Then, I’ll mix and match trying to build something original. Obviously, with some worlds – Outlandish from The Cosmic Atlas in particular – it’s fun to play with magical features and themes that are clichés of the sci-fi or fantasy genres. That’s something Terry Pratchett was famous for and it’s essential to come up with a new twist rather than just repeat the same ideas. I imagine that’s just as true for serious writers as for funny authors.

For worlds where the whole story takes place, it’s wonderful to have the luxury of introducing detail: history, cultures, languages all create textures that help hook the reader in, but the new book – Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe – simplicity was key. In this book Alfie, Derek and the Professor putter through many worlds on Betsy the moped. As they spent so much time on Outlandish in their last adventure I wanted to expand their universe and give a sense of the multitude of wonders that could be found by popping through a stone circle at the Unusual Travel Agency. That meant each world had to have amazing features but couldn’t be too complicated. There was no space to properly explore cultures, societies, etc, so each planet had to be painted in broad brush strokes and bright, popping colours. They also needed to be very different from each other and – for the most part – be somewhere readers would enjoy visiting. After all, Alfie and the Professor are running a travel agency. That cut down the options. There was no point having our heroes explore icy wastelands (unless good skiing was available), or radioactive fog planets where ravenous maggot-things roam, or anywhere too bizarre because the Unusual Travel Agency wouldn’t want to run tours there. Alfie has actually worked out a scale for this. He calls it the Fleet Unusuality Scale. Worlds so unusual they score more than five are too bonkers and tend to give people a headache. Less than three and they’re so dull people might as well stay on Earth.

Getting back to my point. What was my point? Oh yes, broad brushstrokes. The planet of Nomefolch, for example, has one memorable feature: everything grows massive there, except for the people (who are rather stubby). It’s possible to climb trees all the way into space. Winspan, on the other hand, is a broken world – a hollow, half-tennis ball of a planet. This means it doesn’t have much gravity and people can fly there by strapping wings to their arms. Solstice, meanwhile, is a planet of ten-thousand islands, so it has a nautical theme. With the plot and characters also needing breathing room and a limited number of words I tried to bring a few of these worlds to vivid life while giving fly-bys of a few others. I hope this helps create the impression of a vast universe without describing each planet in minute detail. That was the plan, anyway!  

In fact, the sheer number of worlds in Alfie Fleet’s Guide to the Universe caused a fair amount of heartbreak as there are one or two – especially Winspan and Nomefolch – where I’d have liked Alfie and the Professor to have stayed longer. Creating fun, distinctive worlds and then leaving them behind after a few paragraphs was a real wrench. On the plus side, I hope the fact that I didn’t want to leave some of the world’s behind means readers will feel the same. The one bit of writing advice I will share, and which I think applies to all writers of magical, fantastic tales is that your readers should always feel homesick for your world when the story ends.

 

Catch the other posts along the blog tour: 

 

alfie fleet tour

 

Thanks to Martin Howard for your wonderful blog post and to Martin and Emma Howard for arranging this blog tour. Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing me with a copy of Alfie Fleet’s Guide To The Universe. Opinions my own.

blog tour

Blog Tour: Seeing Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Amber Lee Dodd at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

About The Deathless Girls: 

deathless girlsThey say the thirst of blood is like a madness – they must sate it. Even with their own kin.

On the eve of her divining, the day she’ll discover her fate, seventeen-year-old Lil and her twin sister Kizzy are captured and enslaved by the cruel Boyar Valcar, taken far away from their beloved traveller community.

Forced to work in the harsh and unwelcoming castle kitchens, Lil is comforted when she meets Mira, a fellow slave who she feels drawn to in a way she doesn’t understand. But she also learns about the Dragon, a mysterious and terrifying figure of myth and legend who takes girls as gifts.

They may not have had their divining day, but the girls will still discover their fate…

(Synopsis from Hachette Children’s) 

 

I was honoured to be invited to take part in the blog tour for The Deathless Girls, and I knew instantly what I wanted to write about. Having seen Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Amber Lee Dodd together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I wanted to share their words with you. 

Although I will write a full review of The Deathless Girls in a seperate post, I thought it would be nice to reflect on how the event informed my reading of the story. 

 

Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Amber Lee Dodd at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

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Amber Lee Dodd (left) and Kiran Millwood Hargrave at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2019. [Photograph taken from KMH’s Twitter Feed. Thanks to both authors for permission.] 
‘I read books,’ said award-winning author Kiran Millwood Hargrave, speaking on 24.08.2019 at the 2019 Edinburgh Book Festival alongside Amber Lee Dodd, ‘because nothing much happened in suburbia.’

This not only earned an appreciative laugh from the adults in the audience, it was a sentiment I could relate to. Growing up in Outer London, there was a grey age. Younger children had to be looked after, and so got regular visits to Epping Forest and local parks and even into the city. Failing that, there was soft-play. Between twelve and sixteen or so, we were old enough to entertain themselves but not so big to go on real adventures. The creativity which came out of my friendship group at that age was never matched at any other time. Boredom allowed us to retreat into our dreams.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books conjure dreams of magical places. Of lands covered in snow, and faraway islands with magic volcanoes. Amber Lee Dodd’s stories are set on Scottish Islands, although she referenced her childhood on the South East Cost as an inspiration for some of the details.

Rather than the high fantasy which has become popular in the post Harry Potter generation, Millwood Hargrave’s books centre around folklore and fairy tales. There is something about them which seems to hark back to the very roots of storytelling. It would be as wonderful to share them aloud and listen to the rhythm of her words as to read them from cover to cover. Although I have yet to read Amber Lee Dodd’s story, this seems to be another thing the two writers have in common. I was drawn right in by her introduction, in which a child undergoes a ritual visit to a magic rock which happens to every islander on their 11th birthday.

Neither author writes about magic which can be learned. Rather, there is magic in their worlds, and deep inside their characters.

According to Millwood Hargrave, these are some of the first details she learns about a story. As well as learning enough about a setting for her readers to be able to ‘relate to the world’ she finds ways to ‘let magic in’. It is interesting to relate this to her second novel, The Island At The End Of Everything, which is purely historical. It could be said that the traditions and details which some people experience more richly than others are an everyday sort of beauty, although this is only my own interpretation.

Both authors were aware of their young audience and generous with help and advice on starting stories. Neither plans stories in detail – Amber Lee Dodd spoke of finding her characters’ voices and imagining where they might be by the end. Kiran Millwood Hargrave goes in with no idea where the story will end but spoke of the power of images to generate ideas.

They agreed that good writing comes out of the bad and encouraged aspiring writers not to be afraid.

I was touched when they offered the microphone to children in the audience not only to ask questions but to answer one. Participants had different ideas about what made a great introduction, from taking the time to introduce a character to making a world real with sensory details. Millwood Hargrave likes to jump straight in with as little explanation as possible, while Amber Lee Dodd believed a good first chapter helped the reader to hear a character’s voice.

The two authors were well paired. Their work explores similar themes, but their approach to writing was slightly different. The conversation between them was a reminder that stories are, first and foremost, about people and places, and that time spent understanding character or setting is part of the creative process.

What about The Deathless Girls, the novel due out in September which I have been invited to talk about as part of this blog tour?

My reading of The Deathless Girls is richer for having listened to its creator. Although the event focused on Millwood Hargrave’s middle-grade output, I can see in The Deathless Girls the same respect and love for place and tradition. Her characters come to life through their actions and responses to different situations.

Before the end of the first chapter, I felt as if I had fallen into a new world. This deep immersion in a story, so easy to find as a bored child, is harder to discover as adults, but when we do, it leaves a little part of itself behind with us so that we always remember the story.

That is what makes Kiran Millwood Hargrave a true storyteller.

 

Thanks to edpr for inviting me to write about The Deathless Girls as part of a promotional blog tour, and for my copy of the book. Opinions about the story remain my own.

blog tour

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

Blog Tour: The Boy With The Butterfly Mind by Victoria Williamson

Butterfly Mind Blog Tour - Victoria Williamson

We Can All Be Butterflies – by author Victoria Williamson 

‘Is it a book for girls?’

This was one of the most annoying, and surprisingly frequently-encountered questions I was asked by parents and teachers when my debut novel, The Fox Girl and the White Gazelle, was published last year. ‘No,’ I’d reply with increasing weariness, ‘The main characters are girls, but it’s a story that boys will be able to relate to just as much.’ After all, how can you gender human experiences such as war, loss, friendship, hope, and redemption?

This time round, with my second novel, The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, there should be no confusion for adults intent on pushing gender stereotypes and so-called ‘gender-appropriate’ products on children. This is definitely a book for boys too. We all know it is, because it’s got the word ‘boy’ in the title. But wait… It’s also got pictures of butterflies on the cover. And aren’t butterflies a bit, well… girly?

The adult obsession, or more specifically, the marketers’ obsession, with categorising everything from clothes and toys, to animals and inanimate objects as either ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’, results in parents unwilling to buy anything for their children from the ‘wrong’ section of the shop in case their child gets bullied about it in school. Girls may seem to get let off lightly in this respect – a girl with an Avengers obsession, even though all but one of the superheroes in the film are men, won’t face the same amount of taunting in school as a boy who loves My Little Pony. But this is due to a deeper bias, one that still insists that girls, and by extension anything aimed at girls, is ‘lesser’. Films, toys and products aimed at boys still have a ‘prestige’ factor that makes it acceptable, and understandable, that girls should take an interest in them too. When it comes to books, while boys are allowed to turn their noses up at stories featuring female characters as ‘girly’, girls are still supposed to empathise with male characters without expecting anything approaching equal representation in return.

According to research by the Observer:

‘Male characters are twice as likely to take leading roles in children’s picture books and are given far more speaking parts than females, according to Observer research that shines a spotlight on the casual sexism apparently inherent in young children’s reading material.

In-depth analysis of the 100 most popular children’s picture books of 2017, carried out by this paper with market research company Nielsen, reveals the majority are dominated by male characters, often in stereotypically masculine roles, while female characters are missing from a fifth of the books ranked.’

Children in this country learn from a young age that animals and insects in stories have a gender. More often or not, that gender is male, unless of course that character is seen as ‘pretty’, in which case it’s automatically categorised as female. Butterflies, ladybirds, peacocks and tropical birds are often gendered as female, which makes little sense when in the real world it’s usually the male of the species who has the pretty wings or the beautiful feathers.

It was interesting this summer to see children playing who hadn’t been influenced by Western marketing to the same extent. I spent four weeks volunteering as a reading assistant with The Book Bus, visiting schools in Zambia to run story and craft sessions. One of the books that proved very popular was The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and the children enjoyed colouring in butterflies to take home. At the end of the session, most of them, boys and girls, used the pipe cleaner body and tail to attach the butterflies to their hair. The boy at the bottom of this picture was the first of the children to do this, while the boy on the right had just taken his off to adjust his pipe cleaner.

Butterflies - Book Murmuration Blog

No one is suggesting these children aren’t bombarded with gender stereotypes every day of their lives, but with very limited access to electricity, television, films and books, they hadn’t absorbed the marketer’s message that butterflies are considered things that only girls should adorn themselves with. After all, in real life, a butterfly is equally likely to land on the head of a boy or a girl, so why should only girls wear them?

Gendering animals as predominantly male in the stories we tell might not seem like much of a problem, but as Jess Day, who campaigns to end gender stereotyping with the Let Toys Be Toys movement says:

“It is preparing children to see male dominance as normal, so that when women do less than half of the talking, that still feels like too much to some people. And with so few female roles, there’s also not enough space for the female characters to be multi-dimensional. I think the lack of female villains reflects a wider cultural discomfort with women who are not well-behaved and good.”

If girls and boys are to take equal roles in society – in politics, science, management, and in the home – then they have to see all of these roles as open to them from a young age. Gendering books, films, toys, clothes, and even butterflies as ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ limits the choices that children have open to them, and in turn, limits the career paths and opportunities they believe are open to them when they’re older. As adults, we can make all the difference in helping children overcome the pink and blue ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ market that surrounds them, by offering them alternatives to these limited choices.

And next time you see a see a book with ‘girl’ in the title or butterflies on the front cover, just ask ‘Is it for children?’ instead.

 

Thanks to Victoria Williamson for your beautiful article.

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

Review: The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

Time Of Green Magic

Extract:

The cat thing sunk down, deep and heavy on the bed. The night air from the window was cold, but the cat-thing was warm, and Louis found himself wishing it would purr. 

‘Iffen …’ he murmured, and found the cat-thing’s eyes on his, a direct golden gaze that went straight to his astonished, worshipping soul. 

(The Time Of Green Magic by Hilary McKay. P51.) 

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Synopsis:

Abi is happily growing up with Dad and Granny Grace. Then a chance accident brings Dad together with Polly. Granny Grace moves away, Dad and Polly marry and Abi is forced to share her life with stepbrothers.

Then the family moves to the ivy-covered house, and strange things start to happen.

Abi tumbles into books, Max notices strange things lurking in dark corners, and Louis summons a wild animal into his bedroom. Unless the children come together, they will be unable to change things. Can they figure out where the strange creature came from and send it back?

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Review:

Abi prefers life when it is quiet. She likes to hide away and read, which is pretty difficult with a small step-brother she never asked for grabbing at her stuff. But, over time, an understanding emerges between Abi and Louis. They’ve seen things in the strange new house. Things which should be impossible.

The ivy-covered house is up there among the most memorable of magical houses in children’s literature. It is subtle magic, yet it is one which reflects the children’s’ internal struggles and eventually brings them together. I was especially touched by Louis’s longing for a granny just like Granny Grace, and Abi’s difficulties in sharing the people in her life. Divorce narratives once read like tales of woe. This story is more subtle. It hints at hurt and anger but also shows love and new friendships and recognition which grows over time as new connections grow between the people involved.

The other star of the story is Iffen, the wild cat Louis summons into his bedroom. Exactly what species is he? Where does he come from? Readers will enjoy posing theories as the mystery grows.

Hilary McKay’s writing is a joy. The sentences and words are crafted to perfection so that it is impossible not to whisper certain parts aloud. The experience of reading was almost like listening to a storyteller because the words were beautiful and the story kept me hanging on at every twist and turn.

A gentle and lyrical story from a  master storyteller. This is a wonderful book about the bonds between families, and what it takes to shape them.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books for my gifted copy of A Time Of Green Magic. Opinions my own.

Chat

Book badges: Build your own collection of bookish badges. 

Book badges: Build your own collection of bookish badges.

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Gone are the days when being a bookworm was a secret hobby.

Bookish communities are explanding, bookish merchindise is available and bookworms everywhere are proud to show their true colours. But how do you get hold of those badges everyone wears at book festivals which celebrate not only reading but individual books and authors? Where, actually, do you get bookish badges at all?

That was my question as a newbie blogger. Sometimes it felt as if I scrolled through pictures of lanyards filled with badges. Was I missing something? In those early months I felt as if I had missed out on access to a secret club which only true bloggers knew about.

Now look at my beautiful lanyard. And those are just the ones that fit!

I have always been a collector. From Pokemon cards and Beanie Babies as a child, to Lego sets and pin badges in my 20s, collections have always played a huge role in my life. It isn’t only about owning one thing for me. Half the thirll is in the chase. The other part is in finding different ways to organise my collections. During the 2012 Olympics, I worked in the shopping centre beside the Olympic park and gained a reputation as a ruthless hunter of Olympic pin badges. It was inevitable, when I became a blogger, that I would crush on book badges.

Some of the books on my lanyard were produced for sale. Others were made in limited editions around the release of a book. I even have a very special badge celebrating The House With Chicken Legs which is different to the ones handed out to the public. I won mine in a competition.

The bad news is you will never get every badge. Or even a fraction of what is available. The great news is the ones you get will become a record of the books you have read, people you have met and the places you have visited. Really, that’s the greatest thing about my lanyard.

Here are some ways to get hold of bookish badges. Happy hunting … I mean collecting.

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Book events

Book festivals like YALC, the Northern YA Literary Festival and YA Shot are brilliant ways to build your collection. Publishers set up stalls to promote their books and badges are often available on the stalls. They may also feature in goodie bags.

Badges are often available for sale too. I bought my larger Northern YA Literary Festival badge for the grand sum of £1. 

 

Pre-orders

Ordering books in advance is a great way to support authors. Pre-orders alert shops and booksellers that a title is attracting interest, and may lead to an increase in shop orders. 

As an incentive and a way to thank supporters, publishers sometimes run pre-order campaigns. Evidence of pre-orders can be sent in exchange for anything from a bookmark, a signed bookplate, an entry in a competition draw or even a pin badge.

I’m waiting on a The Paper And Heart Society pin as I type. 

Run a quick internet check or look at the publisher’s Twitter feed for news of pre-order campaigns. 

 

Exhibitions 

Children’s literature doesn’t attract as much museum space as it should, but when it does, the tickets sell faster than you can say Quidditch.

The Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library in 2018 saw fans from all over the world heading to London. That’s where my Fawkes the phoenix pin came from. Additionally, the Seven Stories centre in Newcastle is home to a vast archive of children’s literature material, and there is always something interesting on. The exhibitions even tour the country, if you can’t make it North. I have a big Seven Stories badge and a badge celebrating Where Your Wings Were, an exhibition about David Almond’s work. 

 

Meet the author

Meeting an author is, of course, a treat without a badge. The best reason to go to an author talk or signing is to hear about the story or learn about the author’s experience of the craft. 

However. Badges are sometimes available. 

Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series keeps badges to badge the colours of her books. My Snowglobe, Whiteout and The Maker Of Monsters badges were all from authors, although that is no guarantee they will be available at current or future signings. 

Author events are amazing. Badges are a lovely bonus and a reminder of the day. 

 

Competitions

Competitions on social media are most likely to happen ahead of or around the release date of a book. Check out publisher pages and social media feeds from your favourite authors, and you never know. Occasionally there might be a giveaway.

 

Treat yourself

Generic book badges are available, and although they don’t relate to individual titles, there are some beautiful designs available. 

Additionally, badges often come in bookish subscription boxes such as Fairyloot and Owl Crate. If, like me, you can only drool over unboxing pictures of bookish loot, the Twitter #swagfortrade is regularly used by book box subscribers looking to slim down their collections. There are often items for sale. 

 

Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Q&A with Emma Read, Author of ‘Milton The Mighty’.

Q&A with Emma Read, Author of ‘Milton The Mighty’.

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About Milton The Mighty 

Milton is a little spider with a big problem. 

When a piece of viral internet content names Milton as a killer, his life is in danger. This is not helped by his house human’s phobia, nor with the arrival of Felicity Thrubwell and her plans to annihilate spider-kind. 

Helped by his eight-legged friends and young human friend Zoe, Milton begins a campaign to clear his name. 

Milton The Mighty is filled with humour, determination and creepy-crawly fun. My full review will be available on Monday 3rd June 2019, but suffice it to say I loved the book. A lot. The characters learn that even the smallest of us can make a big difference. It reminded me of the books which were my very favourite as a child. 

I was delighted when Emma Read agreed to take part in a Q&A. Her answers offer a wonderful insight into the inspiration for her story, and the ways in which it grew as she wrote. Thank you, Emma, for your time. 

 

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Q&A with author Emma Read:

 

You wrote about something you’re scared of. Why did you do that?

That is a very good question and one I asked myself a lot as I was researching spiders from behind a cushion! I was originally pondering unwanted fame, such as being misrepresented on social media, or in the press. Once I’d created the character of Milton I fell in love with him and felt compelled to tell his story, despite his leggy-ness!

 

Did your feelings change as you wrote?

They really did. The more I learned about spiders, their incredible skills and beauty, I grew to love them. They are vitally important to our ecosystems and, besides having an intrinsic right to exist, they have the potential to improve human lives too. They really are teeny super-heroes!

 

Milton’s trouble begins with a piece of viral web content. Milton and Zoe also use the internet to help with their campaign? Why did you decide to include the human web in a story about spiders?

Web puns aside (although they do come in handy!) I wanted to help young children begin to understand that the internet is a powerful tool which can be used for right or wrong, depending on the user. So there’s a cautionary tale in there, amongst the humour and action! Also, Milton and Zoe have a message to share and what better way to do that than making connections, just like a spider-web.

 

Felicity Thrubwell’s vendetta against spiders is partly the result of a bad childhood experience. How do you think bad experiences can shape our behaviours?

Experience is how we learn – in childhood it shapes our brain, influencing the adults we become. It’s a huge subject! Animal phobias are apparently common following a negative experience as a child, and do affect behaviour. As a full-blown arachnophobe I would check the room before going to sleep, and simply not sleep in a room where I had seen spider.

 

What are your favourite facts about spiders?

I have loads! But here are three which are pretty cool: Spiders have blue blood; spiders live in every habitat on earth, except Antarctica; the average web of a garden spider contains about 30 metres of silk – that’s as long as a blue whale!

 

I first heard about Milton when you were shortlisted for the Bath Children’s Novel Award. How much did the story change between that time and publication and what were the major changes?

The first change was that Chicken House wanted more – hurray! The heart of the story remains, but Milton now faces additional peril at the hands of dastardly pest-controller, Felicity Thrubwell, a mishap with some rather naughty (and a just little bit deadly) cousins and a Spider-calla-friendship-istic-expi-arachnid-ocious finale! The manuscript which shortlisted for BCNA grew with the help of my amazing editors, from around 13K, ending up at roughly 30K. So there’s a lot more fun and excitement (and running and screaming!)

 

Zoe is ridiculed when she stands up for what she believes in. Do you have any thoughts for people who have experienced the same thing?

This element of Zoe’s story was inspired by a young Canadian called Sophia Spencer, who was bullied at school for liking bugs. She went on to co-author a paper in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America after support for her went viral on social media. It can be so hard to be different, especially when you’re young – I know, I yielded to peer-pressure when I was a child and gave myself a phobia of spiders that lasted decades. But what I say to my kids is: ‘If someone wants you to change you to suit them, and it feels wrong, then it probably is. Speak your own truth – whether you do it loudly or quietly, is up to you’.

 

Middle Grade Reviews · Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Blog Tour: Q&A with author of ‘The Dog Runner’ Bren MacDibble

The Dog Runner

About The Dog Runner

The crops have failed and there isn’t enough food left to feed everybody alive. Food is at a premium, sold to the wealthiest for extortionate prices. Food parcels aren’t coming in as often as they once were. 

Ella and Emery are starving in the poorer part of the city. Emery’s Mum lives in the countryside where people are trying to reintroduce indigenous crops to the land. The children want to reach her, but to do that, they must cross vast areas of dry land. 

The only way their plan might work is with the help of their dogs. 

I was delighted to be offered the chance to ask author Bren MacDibble some questions about her story. Her debut nobel, How To Bee, was a big favourite of 2018 and I was particularly impressed by how she turned serious topics into compelling fiction. 

Thanks to Bren for your time and to Liz Scott for organising this opportunity. 

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Q&A with Bren MacDibble

Food production and land management play an important part in The Dog Runner. Why did you decide to write about these themes?

I’m very interested in where our food comes from and how we treat our environment, so when I wrote a story where a couple of kids take a dog cart across Australia, I made their reason for doing it to flee a famine-ravaged city, and it seemed natural to me, to take on a common threat to our food-security, which is wheat fungus, and expand that in my famine. We seem so disconnected from our food sources these days that we don’t understand how food is produced or the threats to our food from disease, lack of landcare or climate change. Australia is in a particularly strange place where we have a dry climate but we grow European foods, and yet the Aboriginal Peoples were growing and cultivating different grains, grinding flour and baking bread 600 years before the Egyptians. There is a wealth of knowledge and grain types that have previously been completely ignored, but which could be vital to our future as the planet warms.

 

What kind of books did you read to write this story? Was there anything you learned about for this first time?

I read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, (a children’s version of that came out recently), also The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage, both of these books talk about life and land use and land care before Australia was colonised. I was delighted to learn about all the methods of sustainably harvesting food: Fish nets that let the small fish through, and only killing large male kangaroos, and how the many peoples would travel to take advantage of seasonal harvests, like the protein-packed baked bogon moths.

 

The acknowledgments section mentions that you travelled as part of your research for The Dog Runner. How did this shape your work?

Yes, I received a travel grant from the Neilma Sidney Travel Fund. It was so good to visit the rail-trails and land the children travel across on their journey. Just to feel the heat and see the amazing colours of the dirt and study the plants other than grass that grow there, trying to imagine what that landscape would look like with even less vegetation. I also visited a mushroom tunnel, and a grassland regeneration project, and got to see sled dogs in action. Honestly, you think you know a little bit about a topic but when you visit people and talk to them, you learn so much more.

 

Ella and Emery travel across the land with the help of their dogs. Do you have any strong feelings about animals in children’s fiction? What is important when you write animal characters?

It’s easy to make animal characters too human, especially dogs who love to interact with humans, and one of these dogs is super smart, but I think it’s really important to show dogs being dogs. They have their needs and their limitations, they can supportive when the kids are down, or unpredictable and cause problems. Above all, the kids are ultimately responsible for the health and care of the dogs. They have to keep them safe and fed, and it’s a big responsibility in this book. Dogs are family, even when they’re naughty, and their needs can’t be ignored.

 

Ella’s Dad says that the people who survive extreme circumstances, such as a global food shortage, are the ones who learn to stand on their heads. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea?

He says when the world turns upside down the first ones to walk on their heads will survive. It’s a bit of an odd saying… but then he’s a dad, and we all know with Dadisms it’s the intent behind the saying that’s important. What he means is you have to be prepared to change immediately to suit the world you find yourself in. You can’t cling to your old ways and expect life to go back to normal. Survival is ultimately about being resourceful and thinking creatively about how to solve new problems. This is why it’s important to raise creative kids in an ever-changing world. Creativity may be the most important thing we can encourage in our kids, building, exploring, getting out in nature and just playing is super creative.

 

The book ends with a note of hope and makes references to seed banks. What could readers do now to care for the planet and support diverse food sources? 

 If you can source food that is produced without use of fertilisers and pesticides, buy this organically produced food as the land, insects and surrounding waterways are less damaged by natural processes, and you will encourage growth of this organic market. Eat what is grown locally and what is in season, learn some new recipes if you have to. If you eat meat, eat less red meat. Save beef for special occasions. Plant wildflowers, let grass grow long and have a few wild places for bugs, don’t spray weeds (dig them out by hand or put salt and boiling water on them if they’re in pavers) to keep the insects and bees healthy. Limit waste, especially plastic waste, and walk, cycle or take public transport more often.

 

Author Bio:

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a kid on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, Bren recently sold everything, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards downunder and arrived in the UK. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, hits the shelves on 2nd May.

 

 

 

blog tour · Guest Post

Blog Tour: A Witch Come True by James Nicol.

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The Magic Of Maps – author James Nicol talks about the importance of maps in The Apprentice Witch trilogy 

Maps, maps, maps! Who doesn’t love a good map?

When I was a child we had a set of The Lord of The Rings in our house, they were kept on the very important bookshelf alongside a very old bible (we weren’t an especially religious household) some photo albums and some other “leather” bound classics I think my mum and stepdad had bought from a door to door salesman!

I loved those Lord of the Rings books so much, even though I hadn’t (and still haven’t!) read any of them. What I loved about those books was the beautiful maps inside of them, all in black and red ink, they folded out to three times larger than the book themselves and I loved to poor over the map and imagine the places named on it, Mordor, Khand and Near Harad. Imagining my own stories and people that might live in those places. That was always much more exciting and fun than delving into the books for me – and that should have been a clue really!

I also loved drawing and making my own maps as a child, often treasure ones inspired by The Goonies, I loved drawing rivers and hills and forests and again my imagination would burst with the stories that perhaps unfurled in these imagined places. I used tea and coffee to stain them and to make them looked aged and I remember being over the moon when my nana actually shoved one in the oven to make it look really distressed (but don’t try that at home though folks!)

So when I started to write my stories as a young child and teenager I was always thinking about the world they were set in, drawing little snippets of maps or building layouts to give the characters a real place to inhabit, a place to be, a place to live! But this was always on the grand scale – rather like Lord of the Rings.

When I started work on what was to become The Apprentice Witch Trilogy I had a clear idea of this small island Kingdom and the neighbouring Kingdoms across the sea. Hylund, Dannis, Grunea, Veersalnd and The Uris.  That was all fixed in my head from the outset. As the edits and different versions of the story evolved over the months and years of writing, so too did the maps, settings came and went, Arianwyn moved from a tumbledown cottage outside of Lull into the Spellorium (a location that has become a favourite with readers I’m thrilled to say!) and the story became steadily more focused on the odd little town on the edge of the Great Wood that surrounded it, my world was becoming less epic it seemed.

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The original world map for The Apprentice Witch – the Four Kingdoms names didn’t change at all through the various edits and versions of the original story.  The shape of Hylund was inspired by a real island but I now have no idea which one!   

  

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The Original Map of Lull and the surrounding area, Lull was loosely based on the town of Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales, the market place captivated me and seemed perfect for the town I was slowly creating in my imagination. You can even just about see the reference to Arianwyn’s cottage, ‘Kettle Cottage’ – her initial home in Lull before I created the Spellorium which is on Kettle Lane.

Then I realised that one vital map was missing.

Lull!

I needed a map of the town. A Place I was writing about more and more but couldn’t always see clearly in my mind, where was the Spellorium in relation to the Blue Ox, how would Arianwyn get to the Great Wood, where was the river and many other questions. So I drew a scrappy map and pinned this to the noticeboard over my desk and like magic, Lull was a real place, full of homes, businesses, people and most importantly stories!

When it was revealed that the map of Lull was going to be included in A Witch Alone I was over the moon! But I had one evening to pull my scrappy sketch into something that could be translated into a suitable illustration (by brilliant illustrator, David Wardle) to make the print deadline. What he did to turn my scribble into the beautiful illustration is nothing short of magic and I loved it. But having the map feature in the book presented the challenge of having the map “proof read” – i.e does it reflect accurately in the story? Yikes!

Well I’m pleased to say that with the exception of a moving telephone box (I blame vandalism!) and a small pond that had to be magicked up, everything was spot on!

 

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Never in a million years when I was drawing those maps as a small child or pawing over the middle earth map did I ever imagine a book I had written would contain a map of a world I had created. If I could go back in time and tell myself that as a ten-year-old I would, I’d love to see the look on my face!

It is so clear to me now that it was the map that helped to keep my story centred, gave it a heart and focused our attention not on the magic of the story but the people that fill it, their lives. It was the key to creating a place that readers have said they want to go and live in – and as an author what more could you ask for than that!

James Nicol. 

 

Many thanks to James Nicol for your time and wonderful guest post. This is a tremendous insight into how you use maps to develop your work. 

A Witch Come True by James Nicol is out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). 

Find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com and https://www.jamesnicolbooks.com/.

 

 

 

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Author Q&A: HS Norup – author of The Missing Barbegazi.

Author Q&A: HS Norup, author of The Missing Barbegazi, talks about mountains, fairytales and Christmas traditions.

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The moutains which inspired H S Norup’s writing 
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HS Norup 

The Missing Barbegazi is one of my middle-grade hits of 2018. It is the story of a friendship between a girl and a mythical, fairylike creature which lives in the mountains. The story is about family, friendship and trust and it is set in the days shortly after Christmas. If you are looking for a magical story to read in the build-up to Christmas, I can’t reccomend this enough. 

I was delighted when author HS Norup agreed to answer some questions about her work, about the snowy landscape which inspired her setting and about fairytales in general. It is a pleasure to share her answers. Thank you Helle for your time. 

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Q: Barbegazi are mythical creatures who come out at first snowfall but are rarely sighted by humans. Did you want to write about Barbegazi, or did these creatures fit into your story?

A: When I began writing THE MISSING BARBEGAZI, I had never heard of barbegazi. I wanted to tell the story of an eleven-year-old girl, Tessa, who was desperate to win a ski race. A story set entirely in the real world without any magic or mythical creatures. But I had not written more than one chapter before Tessa met a strange furry creature in the snow. After some research, I discovered that the creature Tessa had encountered was a barbegazi. And everything about them fit perfectly into the story.

 

Q: Aside from the Barbegazi, do you have any favourite stories set in snowy landscapes? What is it you love about these stories?

A: Snow is magical! I still get excited every winter when I see the first snowflakes floating down, and there’s nothing quite like waking up to a newborn glittering world after a night of snowfall. In a novel, the dangers of snow and cold weather immediately raises the stakes. A landscape covered in snow can become a character in its own right and influence the story through the opposition or help it gives the protagonist, as is the case in THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper. Other favourite stories that are set in the snow includes: C.S. Lewis’s THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, Philip Pullman’s NORTHERN LIGHTS, Sinéad O’Hart’s THE EYE OF THE NORTH, Vashti Hardy’s BRIGHTSTORM, Piers Torday’s THERE MAY BE A CASTLE, and Katherine Rundell’s THE WOLF WILDER.

 

Q: Mountains play a huge part in your story. Why did you choose this setting?

A: I love the mountains and find them immensely fascinating—perhaps because I grew up by the sea in a flat country. From afar, the mountains present this beautiful, serene panorama, but up close they are wild and unforgiving. Add snow, and the mountains become both more beautiful and more dangerous. I have a deep respect for these dangers, especially avalanches, and they played a role in the story even before I discovered the avalanche-surfing barbegazi.

 

Q: You write about a world which is very like ours, except for the magical creatures who live in the mountains. What drew you to magical realism and how do you think fantasy elements help us to tell a story?

A: I have always loved reading magical realism and low fantasy stories. The idea that there might be magical or otherworldly creatures around us is both enticing and scary. I can’t go for a walk in the forest without secretly looking for fairies and I’m still afraid of the dark—my imagination often runs wild. I think fantasy elements can help us create story worlds that are fresh and interesting. At the same time, the presence of fantasy elements signals to the reader that this is a pretend world, which they can safely explore along with the protagonist.

 

Q: Family plays a huge part in The Missing Barbegazi. Tell us a little about how the two main characters fit into their families.

A: Tessa and Gawion are tweens (although Gawion is 154 years old) and both are part of loving families, but with very different family structures. Tessa’s parents are divorced, but she and her mum lives in the same house as her grandmother (and until recently her grandfather) and near other relatives, so she has a wide family network around her. Gawion’s family lives in complete isolations, far from other barbegazi, so they are a very close-knit family, and Gawion’s twin sister is his only friend. It’s important for the plot that they are isolated, but it’s also a situation I know well and wanted to describe. Whenever we, as a family, have moved to a new country, we have experienced 6-12 months of being each other’s only friends, and, since we left Denmark a long time ago, we have not had any family network to depend on. All family structures have positive and negative sides, and it’s important to show diversity without judgement in children’s fiction.

 

Q: Your story is set in the days after Christmas – the days when the presents have been unwrapped and the crackers have been pulled. Was there a reason you set your story after Christmas, and not during the festivities?

A: There are a couple of reasons I didn’t include the Christmas festivities, but the main reason is that it would have distracted from the story I wanted to tell. Tessa’s grandfather died shortly before Christmas, and the family is grieving, so I can’t imagine their Christmas was a jolly affair. Also, for many of the locals in a skiing resort, the week between Christmas and New Year’s, is the busiest week of the whole year. Tessa’s mum and Uncle Harry were both working over Christmas, catering to the needs of guests instead of their own families, but I’m sure Aunt Annie took good care of Tessa, Felix and Oma.

 

Q: Fun: Favourite cracker joke? Best Christmas jumper?

A: We have neither Christmas cracker jokes nor jumpers in Denmark, so I can’t really answer these questions, but we have other fun traditions. We celebrate on Christmas Eve. For dessert we always have Risalamande, a kind of rice pudding with almond slivers and one whole almond. Whoever finds the whole almond receives a small gift, but the fun lies in hiding the almond if you have found it or pretending to have found it if you haven’t. After dinner and before opening presents, we all dance around the Christmas tree, singing first psalms then jolly songs, usually ending with the whole family chasing each other around the house.

 

Q: Which animal would you have on the front of a Christmas card?

A: Mountain goats! We sometimes see them in the snow, springing around the steepest mountain sides, defying gravity. They’re more interesting than reindeer and deserve to be on Christmas cards.

 

Many thanks to HS Norup for taking the time to answer my questions. The Missing Barbegazi is available from Pushkin Press.

Blogmas 2018 · christmas · Q & A

Q&A: Sophie Anderson, author of The House With Chicken Legs.

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About The House With Chicken Legs: 

Marinka dreams of a normal life, where she stays in one place long enough to make friends, but that isn’t possible. Her house has chicken legs and her grandmother, Baba Yaga, guides spirits between one world and the next. 

Marinka is destined to become the next Yaga, but she rebels against this and sets out to change her destiny. 

The House With Chicken Legs was one of my favourite titles this year. I loved the interpretation of Yaga (a character from Russian folklore) and the unflinching narrative about mortality. The characters are the sort that stick in your head, and I will return to their story over and over just to spend time in their company.

I am delighted to have Sophie Anderson here on my blog to talk about fairy tales, stars and Christmas traditions. 

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Do you have any favourite fairytales set in winter/snowy landscapes? What draws you to these stories?

Wintry landscapes glitter with magic and invoke a chilling feeling perfect for dark fairy tales. My favourite is the Russian fairy tale Snegurochka or The Snow Maiden. There are different versions, but most begin with a childless couple building a little girl out of snow. She comes to life and seeks out happiness at every opportunity, but sadly in most versions she melts at the end of the tale. As a child I used to find this heart-breaking, but over the years I have come to accept it as a message to live fully, as a short, full life is preferable to a long, empty one. One of my favourite books is an adult reimagining of this tale: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

 

Winter is a time when stories were traditionally told around the fire. What are your favourite storytelling traditions?

I love bedtime stories with my children. However busy our lives get, we always make time for stories at the end of the day. We each take turns reading a chapter of a book we like and because my children all have different tastes we usually have three or four quite different books on the go!

 

Both the Nativity Story and your story feature stars. What inspired you to write about stars?

Carl Sagan! I love his work. The idea of our souls returning to the stars after death came directly from one of his quotes: “We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

 

How might Marinka’s house be decorated if she was celebrating Christmas?

Holly and mistletoe would grow in great curls from the House’s roof and oranges studded with cloves would blossom from the beams. The scents of mulled wine, roasted chestnuts and rum soaked fruit cake would plume into the air as Baba cooked up a sweet spiced feast. And skulls lit with candles would adorn every surface, throwing a warm light into all the dancing shadows.

 

Marinka learns and inherits lots of traditions from her Grandmother. Do you have any special Christmas traditions, or any you would love to try?

My grandmother served Rumtopf with ice cream every Christmas. Rumtopf is made by soaking seasonal fruits in a stoneware pot filled with rum, and because it takes months to make I’ve never got round to doing it. Perhaps 2019 will be the year I finally start filling my Rumtopf pot!

 

If you could receive one gift from a story, what would it be and why?

The wardrobe that leads to Narnia. I’d love to see if I’m brave enough to go through it!

 

A huge thanks to Sophie Anderson for your time.

What are your favourite Christmas traditions? Let me know in the comments below.