Author Archives: Caroline Fielding

Chartered School Librarian, CILIP YLG London Chair, Bea-keeper

The Boy Behind the Wall

What would you risk for a friend you’ve never met . . . ?

In 1960s Berlin the Wall is everywhere. It cuts through streets, parks, even houses. Teenagers Harry and Jakob live either side of the divide.

In West Berlin, American Harry witnesses the brutal shooting of a boy trying to escape over the Wall into the West, and decides to emulate his comic book heroes and help those in the East however he can.

On the other side in East Berlin, Jakob is the adopted son of a high up Stasi officer, feeling suffocated by the rules of a strictly regimented society and desperate to find his real family.

When Jakob finds a message that Harry has sent over the Wall, he grasps the opportunity. The boys begin a secret friendship, evading the authorities using lemon juice as invisible ink to share hidden messages.

They soon realise that a bold plot to carve a tunnel under the wall is the only way out for Jakob – and it’s time to put their friendship to the test. Just how much are they prepared to risk for each other – and for freedom?

The Boy Behind the Wall is a gripping historical tale about two boys living either side of the Berlin Wall, told in alternating chapters and both of the voices are well realised. I was interested that, as part of the pitch for the book, Welbeck Flame included the fact that Maximillian Jones is in fact a group of people writing in a similar manner to those in a script room, at Tibor Jones Studio. Because of this, when I was asked if I’d like to be part of the tour, I said I’d love to have a piece of writing from the team about this collaborative process!

THE BOY BEHIND THE WALL – origin story

Tibor Jones Studio is a writer’s collective that gives creative writing opportunities to aspiring novelists so they can learn on the job while dreaming of having their own works published in the future. By using the TV writer’s room model, a concept is created with a spark document, then developed by the book’s creative editor and then two co-writers. From time to time, a third writer may be brought in to help elevate the material.

Kevin Conroy Scott, the founder of the studio, was thinking about the wealth of children’s books inspired by the holocaust, in particular the success of THE BOOK THIEF and THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS. How could such a terrible event generate such moving fiction for children? And why hasn’t the Cold War, another terrible historical event, been covered in a similar way?

After revisiting iconic adult stories like John Le Carre’s classic novel, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and the German film THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Kevin visited the infamous Stasi museum in Berlin, where so many innocent, hard-working residents of East Berlin were being monitored, or in some cases, interrogated and incarcerated by the East German secret police. It was there that the idea for the book originated. What if an American boy, living in the American sector, sent a balloon up for a class project and it floated over the wall and was shot down by the border guards? What if, a week later, a boy around the same age wrote back and asked for help getting out to the West? How can two boys overcome such a barrier, with such a powerful adversary in the Stasi standing in their way?

The writing process took almost five years. We started with the simple premise, then we needed to build out the characters, the world, the sub-plots and the shape of the narrative. The outline served as posts that we let the horses of our imagination roam between as the story took shape. We used a two-writer system, and once the outline felt robust enough, each writer would write a chapter in either Henry or Jakob’s voice, and build until a first draft was reached, getting feedback from our in-house editor with each tranche delivered. Then each full draft of the novel would be shared with our brain trust (in a nod to the way Pixar works) and then we would start the next draft. After four drafts, we felt we had something special, but there was more work needed. That’s when we brought in a third writer to bring some new energy and a fresh perspective into the mix. Then our publisher, Welbeck Flame, came on board to help polish it further and we enlisted the expertise of two different German editors for their comments. It was an exciting and fascinating deep dive into the Cold War and the terrible destruction a wall built through a vibrant city can do to so many lives. It felt like we were exploring dystopian fiction before it even existed.

Do take a look at the previous stops on the blog tour and read the book, which is out now!

Illustrated Classics: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Discover the magical world of Oz as we accompany Dorothy on her journey to the enchanted Emerald City. Packed with stunning illustrations and exclusive interactive features, MinaLima™ reimagines an essential tome of American pop culture.

MinaLima

MinaLima are very clever people. I wanted to know a bit more of the background to their beautiful Illustrated Classics series, so was pleased to be given the opportunity to ask a few questions!

What prompted you to start creating these beautiful reimaginings of classics?

Miraphora: During our 20-year journey of creating graphic designs for the Wizarding World, we had the opportunity to create many books as props for the films but also behind-the-scenes  film “tie-in” books for the “real” world. In this way we developed a good relationship with our publisher Harper Design. Together we had the idea of redesigning the classics – we knew that these were stories loved by readers across the world but also that these were tales set in fantastical worlds, which we love.

Do you do everything collaboratively or do you each have particular roles when working together?

Miraphora: The whole process starts with Eduardo reading through the book and creating a book map of all the interesting, quirky and intriguing occurrences in the book that we feel should be marked as illustrations or interactive elements. Then, we begin developing an overall creative direction, creating rough sketches of the characters and locations.

Eduardo: Mira usually starts these early sketches. We have a fantastic team, who then picks these up and starts drawing the illustrations in more detail. They also begin crafting all the paper engineered interactive elements, cutting and pasting different sections to see if they work. We believe that the sum of the parts are always greater than any individual illustrator or designer and we bring this collaborative approach to everything we do.

How have you chosen the titles you’ve done so far? Do you have a favourite?

Eduardo: We have chosen the titles we all know and love; these are fairytales we have all grown up reading. My favourite book is definitely Pinocchio –  I have loved this story since I was a child and I knew from the beginning that this had to be in our MinaLima Classics collection!

Miraphora: My favourite is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which is our latest title – so Eduardo got to reimagine his favourite first!

If you could reimagine any book, without having to worry about permissions, what would it be?

Eduardo: I love the Agatha Christie books but the descriptions are so beautifully detailed that I am not sure if they leave much room for reimagination!

What are you tackling next?

Miraphora: This year is a very special year for us: we are celebrating 20 years of working together. So we are crafting a very special book:The Magic of MinaLima, which will be published by Harper Collins in 2022. 

Eduardo: This book charts our experience of creating the graphic universe of the Wizarding World, from films in which you can escape to books you can delve into, from products you can hold to experiences in which you can immerse yourself.

MinaLima is an award-winning graphic design studio founded by Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima, renowned for establishing the visual graphic style of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts film series. Based in London, the MinaLima studio is renowned internationally for telling stories through design and has created its own MinaLima Classics series, reimagining a growing collection of much-loved tales including Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, and Pinocchio.

Mina Lima, Portraits


Instagram: minalimadesign | Twitter: @minalima | Web: www.minalima.com

Thankyou to Harper360 for sending me a review copy of their latest title, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Royal Rebel

Born in 1876, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab, and goddaughter of Queen Victoria. After her father lost control of his empire and was exiled to England, Sophia had a privileged but troubled upbringing that left her unsure about where she belonged – in India or England. Sensitive to injustice, she became an suffragette and fought hard to win the vote for women. This is the extraordinary story of her life.

Barrington Stoke
artwork by Rachael Dean

Bali Rai has such a range when it comes to writing, he really has done something for just about every reader, but I have a soft spot for his Barrington Stoke titles, I reviewed his previous one, STAY A LITTLE LONGER, here. Barrington Stoke titles are a little bit special because there is not a word wasted, they’re written to engage and not patronise children and young people. This particular book, THE ROYAL REBEL, is based on the real life story of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, who led an extraordinary life. I was filled with sadness reading it, about how affected her life was by British colonialism and politics, but she was a fascinating character and Bali Rai’s writing from her perspective has really brought her to life.

I asked Bali Rai a few questions!

What prompted you to write about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh?

My family is Sikh, so I had known the story of Sophia’s grandfather, Maharajah Ranjit Singh, and of her father, Duleep Singh, since childhood. However, I had never been told of the role Sophia played. So, when I discovered who she was and her role within the Suffragette movement, I was determined to bring her story to younger readers. I am passionate about representing unheard voices in British literature and always have been.

Has your research led you to any other figures in history that you would like to write about?

Yes, I learned of the roles played by the Royal Indian Army Service Corps at Dunkirk, and Mohinder Singh Pujji (RAF) during World War 2. I have written about both. The next figure I want to write about is an Indian revolutionary called Udham Singh, whose story is much darker, but just as important. There are many unheard voices throughout British history, and I hope to write about many more.

You’ve written in a wide range of genres, is writing a historical novel a very different process to that of writing about contemporary characters? Do you favour one over the other?

My main genre is reality based fiction, so the research involved in writing historical fiction is very different. I actually enjoy the historical research more than the contemporary stuff. I’ve always loved history and like nothing more than getting stuck into research. It’s often time-consuming but always worthwhile. We can learn a great deal about where we are now, based on what came before us.

You’ve written a number of books for Barrington Stoke, as well as longer novels, for middle grade and YA audiences. How do you choose which of your ideas to use for the shorter novellas and for what target age?

I generally think of an idea, and work on that with my agent and the editors at Barrington Stoke. That’s most true of the more contemporary stories I’ve written for them. The Royal Rebel was only possible because of that partnership (I reworked the idea several times) and it’s a collective effort that I value highly. The age range doesn’t really enter into my head. I have a voice that I want to write, and a theme to explore – and the target age and reading level are determined by the amazing people at Barrington Stoke. Since my first books for them, Dream On, it’s been a team effort, and it’s a process I love to be part of. Barrington Stoke are wonderful publishers, doing something vitally important.

Which of your books are your favourite to do events for?

My younger historical fiction books are now firm favourites for events. The response to them has been amazing. And much as I adore working with older teens, there’s something even more wonderful about introducing diverse British history to KS2 and KS3 pupils. The levels of enthusiasm for the events just add to that pleasure.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m currently reading lots of non-fiction about the British Empire, for a new young adult series I’d like to write. The last children’s book I read was How I Saved The World In A Week by Polly Ho-Yen. I’d recommend that to anyone who loves imaginative and thrilling adventure stories. It’s brilliant and Polly is a superb writer!

What can we expect from you next?

I have a junior series for Reading Planet out soon, called Green Patrol, and a short novel called Wolf Girl. I’m currently researching and working on a new young adult idea, and also a new World War 2 story with British Indian characters. Oh, and I’m reworking an older adventure series idea, in the hope of showing that to an editor at Penguin.

THE ROYAL REBEL is out now from Barrington Stoke, thank you to them for a review copy and to Bali Rai for answering my questions, I’m really excited to see more about your next ventures!

Michael Rosen’s Sticky McStickstick

After being admitted to hospital in 2020 with coronavirus, Michael Rosen had to learn to walk again. With the support of doctors and nurses and a walking stick he names “Sticky McStickstick”, he manages to embark on the slow steps to recovery. This moving picture book from the former Children’s Laureate, with illustrations from Tony Ross, tells a story of perseverance and hope, and is a testament to the importance of overcoming fear and learning to accept help.

Walker Books
Sticky McStickstick is illustrated by Tony Ross

Michael Rosen is a National Treasure and so many people were very worried about him when he was hospitalised with Covid-19 in 2020. It took him a long time to recover, and while he did he had the support of his walking stick (as well as family and NHS staff, obviously). Many Different Kinds of Love, a collection of Rosen’s poems and the coronavirus diaries of his nurses, was published by Ebury in March 2021 for grownups to read, but this is for everyone…and I mean everyone. When I was asked if I’d like to send a few questions for him, of course I said yes!

‘Many Different Kinds of Love’ has already been published, on adult lists, did you write the two books at the same time?

No. I wrote MDKOL first but I noticed that I had mentioned Sticky McStickstick. People asked me about the stick and I started telling them things about where it is or what happened when I tried to walk with it and so on. A voice in my head told me that I could personify the stick and it then became fun to write it all out as a story. 

This complements your Sad Book beautifully. Why do you think having books about such emotive subjects is important for children?

Books for children can be about anything that the adults who care for children think are OK things to talk about. Society has taboos around children and childhood and writers have to respect these. Subjects like death and serious illness are on the edge of the taboos. Some people won’t take their children to funerals, for example. Or they might not tell their children about a terminal illness. That’s their choice. My two books go into an area where some have those taboos but others think that it’s helpful to talk about experiences such as these which are as much about life as eating or sleeping. All books open up trains of thought and conversations. I’d be very glad if both those books do just that with children being looked after or brought up by people who think it’s a good idea to talk about such things. 

Do you have thoughts about how ‘Sticky McStickstick’ might best be used in schools?

I would start with a class talking in pairs to each other their illnesses and accidents, swapping stories, perhaps writing about them or drawing pictures of them. Then reading my book. Or it could be the other way round. Reading my book first, perhaps. There are open-ended trigger questions that are helpful too e.g. Is there anything in this book that makes you think of anything that has happened to you or to anyone you know? Is there anything in this book that makes you think of anything you’ve ever read before, or heard in a song, or on the TV or in a film? If you could ask anyone in the book a question, what would you ask? Can you answer that question? If you could ask the author a question, what would it be? Can you answer that question? Are you affected by any part of the book? Which part? How?  Why? 

Tony Ross has illustrated a number of your books. Do you let him get on with it or do you make suggestions about what the illustrations might look like?

I most certainly do let him get on with it. I write the words. The illustrator, designer and editor make the book.

Sticky McStickstick was published on 4 November 2021 by Walker Books

(9781529502404, £12.99, Hardback)

The Hideaway by Pam Smy

The Hideaway tells the story of a boy, Billy McKenna, who runs away from a difficult situation at home and takes refuge in an overgrown graveyard. While hiding there he meets an elderly man who is tending the graves in preparation for a day in November when something magical is set to happen.

The book is written in two alternating narratives, both different aspects of the same story. One thread tells of Billy’s experience of hiding away in the graveyard, his mixed-up feelings and emotions, and the supernatural events he eventually witnesses. The other tells of his mother’s situation at home and the police search for Billy. Covering themes of family, childhood, separation and reunion, domestic violence and doing the right thing, this is an important and beautiful book for middle grade readers right up to adults.

Billy’s story is illustrated throughout with tonal and textured black and white drawings, until the event on All Souls’ Eve, when the text gives way to a series of double page images of the supernatural happening.

The Hideaway is a compelling, exciting and emotional story that will stay with you long after you finish the last page.

Pavilion Books

Pam Smy is such an interesting illustrator, Thornhill is a wonderfully unique book (shortlisted for the Carnegie Award), so I was very excited to be sent a review copy of her 2nd novel The Hideaway…which is haunting and sad and uplifting and will really stay with you…and then even more excited to ask her a few questions! And of course, the most appropriate book to highlight for Halloween!

Which aspect of The Hideaway came to you first?

The scene-setting of The Hideaway came to me first. The graveyard where it is set is a real place here in Cambridge, and it has the chapel in the middle, the row of yew trees, the poem carved into the back wall, and most importantly, the World War 2 pillbox. The combination of the meaning of the poem All Souls’ Night by Frances Cornford and the idea that someone could use the pillbox to hide away sparked the idea for the book.

Thornhill was alternate chapters, a wholly illustrated contemporary voice and a historical diary, while The Hideaway is an illustrated story. Did you draw and write at the same time or had you mainly got the words down before choosing which sections to illustrate?

With Thornhill I wrote the text and made the rough drawings for the story in turn, so both elements of the story evolved at the same time. With The Hideaway I wrote the manuscript first, and then illustrated it – but I knew that I wanted there to be a wordless sequence in it from the outset and I knew what I wanted the feeling of the graveyard to look like in the illustrations.

Do you lay out the pages alone or with a designer?

For The Hideaway I worked directly into an InDesign document so that I could move the text around the illustrations I was making, and the very patient designer, Ness Wood, tidied it all up at the end.

They’re both a bit spooky with extremely atmospheric illustrations, very suitable for Halloween season, is the supernatural your favourite genre to read?

I read a variety of books. I love books about people and relationships, and stories that are set in the past or in rural environments. I also love crime novels. I read a lot of picture books and illustrated books of all kinds for all ages. I wouldn’t say that I especially read supernatural books, although they are certainly on my bookshelf.

I think I am drawn to write and illustrate spooky books because I love making atmospheric artwork, and building a world that is based on the everyday, but is different from what we may typically see – but without tipping into fantasy or sci-fi.

You’ve also published a picture book, Merrylegs! Three very different books, which was most enjoyable to work on?

I enjoyed making the artwork to The Hideaway the best. I was trying to work without using much linework – so it was a new challenge for me.

The Mermaid in the Millpond, written by Lucy Strange and illustrated by you, is being published in January by Barrington Stoke. Do you find it easier or harder when the words aren’t your own?

Both easier and harder. If I am illustrating my own ideas the vision of those illustrations is already in my head, and the excitement and the challenge is to get that across on paper. When I am illustrating someone else’s writing it is a joy to be able to bring to life the words, and to add atmosphere or understanding to what is being described. I love illustrating other people’s texts, especially if the art direction and design layout isn’t too prescriptive and I have a little bit of a free reign.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I am reading and re-reading Captain Rosalie by Timothee de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault. I am recommending it to everyone I know, and buying copies of it to send to my friends. I think everyone who is 6 and over should read it. It is a beautiful piece of writing and Arsenault’s illustrations are absolutely stunning. Also by my bedside is While You’re Sleeping by Mick Jackson and John Broadley, and All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison.

What might we see from you next?

I am working on developing a few collaborations at the moment which I am VERY excited about, but can’t say anything about yet.

The Hideaway by Pam Smy is published by Pavilion Books, out now, 14.99 hardback.

Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero

Yusuf Azeem has spent all his life in the small town of Frey, Texas—and nearly that long waiting for the chance to participate in the regional robotics competition, which he just knows he can win. Only, this year is going to be more difficult than he thought. Because this year is the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—an anniversary that has everyone in his family on edge. After reading his uncle’s journal from that time, Yusuf feels like he almost understands what that nationwide fear and anger felt like. But when certain people in town start to say hateful things to Yusuf and his community, he realizes that the anger hasn’t gone away. And soon he will have to find the courage to stand up to the bullies, with understanding, justice, and love.

Saadia Faruqi

I really enjoyed Saadia Faruqi’s previous middle grade book, A Thousand Questions, so was very happy to host an interview with her for the blog tour for her new title, Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero.

Why did you decide to write about the attacks of September 11, 2001, knowing that your readers may
not care about an event that happened so long before their births?

The events of 9/11 and everything that happened afterwards – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the
changes to regulations of airport security, the suspicion of anyone who was “different” – were so
monumental that they literally changed the world. It was worrying to me that an entire generation of
readers were not too concerned about this event even though their lives too were affected by it in a
myriad of ways. Although generally young readers find it hard to connect with historical events, 9/11
was different for two reasons: it was very much alive in the mind of readers’ parents and grandparents;
and it affected how many of the readers and their families were treated in their communities. That’s
why I decided to write a book about the last twenty years and showcase history in a very contemporary
context for children.

Are any of the characters in Yusuf Azeem Is Not A Hero inspired by real people?

Every author puts pieces of themselves or people they know in the books they write. None of the
characters in this book is based on a single person, but there are some parts of me and my family and
friends in them. Even the main villain Trevor Grant is based on a pretty horrible person I once met! Yusuf
himself is a little like my son at that age – sweet and nerdy and just trying to go through life without
attracting any attention. He was also treated unfairly and unkindly by his classmates and teachers when
he was younger, and it’s very much affected his behavior in small ways. So I definitely had that in mind
as I was writing Yusuf’s scenes… just that feeling of uncertainty and discomfort. I love putting the nicest
characters into situations that test them, which is what happens to Yusuf and his friends.

This book is mostly contemporary, based in current times with mention of the pandemic and white
supremacist groups and so much more. Yet there’s also twenty-year-old journal entries. How did you
manage that balance of time periods?

I decided to set the main story in current times because I know young readers identify better with
contemporary settings. They want to know why they should read a story, what’s the pull for them? I also
didn’t want to write a historical novel because in my mind 9/11 isn’t really a historical event, even
though it’s twenty years old. It’s current because there are millions of people feeling it’s repercussions
all over the world even today, whether it’s because a family member is in the army in Afghanistan, or
they’re a Muslim boy who gets teased in school, or they’re randomly selected for additional screening
every time they enter an airport. So I knew I wanted to base this story very firmly in the present, to
showcase the rise of intolerance, of white nationalism, and all the horrible ways outsiders are treated
every single day. The journal entries are written every three chapters, as a window into the world
twenty years ago, and in very strategic ways they draw parallels to the action in the contemporary part
of the story.

Many readers are not aware of how Muslims were treated after the attacks of September 11. As a
Muslim, did you experience any of the prejudices described in this book?

I was in college when the attacks happened, and immediately after I escaped notice because I didn’t
look visibly Muslim. I didn’t wear the hijab, which was a huge red flag for people in those days – and still
is. But in the years after the attacks, as I grew more confident about my religious and cultural identity,
including wearing the hijab, I certainly faced prejudice from my coworkers, neighbors, parents of my
kids’ friends… the list is endless and exhausting. I also saw many of my family go through these things,
and it was obvious that anybody who was “other” was being targeted. It only made me more firm in my
belief that we needed to talk about these issues, describe what was happening, so that we could make
changes.

This is a book with emotionally heavy topics. How did you ensure that it was appropriate and
understandable for younger readers?

Yusuf Azeem definitely has emotionally charged scenes. A lot of pretty awful things happen to Yusuf and
his friends and family in the book. I didn’t want to shy away from that trauma because I wanted to show
reality, and I know readers are brave enough and curious enough to want to know the truth. I also want
readers who go through bullying to know that they’re not alone. However, overall this book isn’t a sad
book. There are jokes and laughter, funny characters who bring comedic relief. There is an intense
robotics competition and a robot called Miss Trashy. Overall, there is a hopeful ending as Yusuf’s
community rallies together and helps him, and showcases ways that one can be an ally to others.

What do you want readers to do after reading Yusuf Azeem?

I’d like readers to learn more about 9/11 from a variety of perspectives. I’d also like them to discuss this
topic from the adults in their lives – parents, teachers, family friends – to understand what it was like in
those days. Also ask adults if they know about the discrimination faced by the Muslim community. They
will be surprised to know that many adults are also unaware of the far-reaching repercussions of 9/11.
Talking about these repercussions is the first step to healing and making changes.

You’ve written books for children of all ages, specifically the popular Yasmin series. Which category do
you like to write best?

I love writing for all ages. Each of my books has a slightly different aim and purpose. The Yasmin books
are about a little girl from an immigrant family, doing everyday things at school and in her
neighborhood. These stories help give young readers the confidence they need, while also teaching
about tolerance and welcoming communities. Yasmin is based on my own daughter, so that may be one
of my favorite characters ever! On the other hand, my middle grade novels like Yusuf Azeem Is Not A
Hero focus on real-world challenges that children face when they look different, or when their families
and culture are seen as “other”. These books are about allyship, and as such they have a special place in
my heart as well.

The Sound of Everything

Winner of the Everything with Words’ YA Competition 2019 judged by Patrice Lawrence, The Sound of Everything is a heart-felt coming of age story for all those who struggle to feel like they deserve love.

Betrayal, rejection, violence Kadie has known it all. She’s tough and prepared for everything. Everything except love.

Kadie has has just arrived in yet another foster home. She trusts no one and lives by the rules: don’t count on anyone, always act, be prepared to lose everything. She’s lost everything more times than she can count but then she meets Lips and learns that some things are even more important than survival. But she has secrets of which she must let go if she is to make a stab at friendship and love.

Everything With Words

I was immediately interested in reading this book when I saw that Patrice Lawrence had helped to choose it as the winner of the Everything With Words’ YA competition 2019, because she has good taste in stories and I wasn’t disappointed, I was gripped from start to finish by the events of Kadie’s life. I was also pleased to read a book by a fellow school librarian, although Rebecca hasn’t been in the role for very long, hopefully it will give her some ideas for a future story! After sending these questions through the publisher, I found out about Rebecca’s musical background, which really helps to explain how much music features in the book (though she is more classically trained on the violin), and that she’s been working on this story since she was the age of her main characters.

Did you decide to write about a girl in foster care and that turned into Kadie, or was it her character that started you writing this story? I believe I decided to write about foster care first, out of which came Kadie – but it’s been so long since I had the initial idea that I can’t really recall what the process was. Kadie herself took a long time to develop into the complex character that she is, but foster care was definitely always a large part of the story, I think because there was so much to explore within it, beginning with the daunting prospect of being dropped into a new environment in the middle of GCSE years. I think what really touched me when I was learning about the realities of foster care was the amount of pain that a lot of young people go through as they are shafted by the system. I quickly learned that it’s not as simple as just being put with a family and staying there.

Did you have to do much research before/while writing?
Yes! I did a lot of research. I knew next to nothing about foster care, so I researched and researched some more. I read real life stories, newspaper articles, blog posts; I watched videos, looked at film renditions, and found what I could in the library. I love the research side of things. I find it particularly important, once you think you have exhausted all your sources, to go back some time later and dig around for new stuff. There’s always a wealth of information out there.

Do you think there should be a trigger/content warning on the book for the self harm element? I think just to err on the side of caution I would add a trigger warning just in case, if it was up to me. I don’t think I was particularly explicit about the self-harm, but I always want readers to be prepared for sensitive topics the same way I would want to be prepared if I was reading a book that covered serious issues.

Who was your favourite character to write? Was there anything or anyone (without spoilers) that you found difficult to get onto paper?
That’s really hard. Really hard! In first place has to be Beverly. She’s just so huggable. She’s partially inspired by siblings (“I’m stuck. In boredom.” – one of my favourite lines.) Very, very close second would be Lips best, particularly when it came to fleshing out his character right down to the nitty gritty bits like his likes and dislikes, his fashion choices, his little quirks – I thoroughly enjoyed that. Lips is almost like one of those big mascots at sports events – big and clumsy, though perhaps not cuddly, although he might chase you for a hug.

In terms of getting things written down, I didn’t find any bits of the book hard to write, but quite a few of the scenes did undergo some serious overhauls that took a little brainstorming before I got them right. That said, I think Shadavia was a hard character to write and I’m actually a little bit not 100% happy with her. I’m not sure whether she’s a friend or an enemy, which is off-putting because I think I wanted her to be either or.

You won the Everything with Words 2019 YA competition, has the story changed much between your submission and the published book?
A lot has changed since the manuscript that I entered into the competition, but at the same time not much has. The bits that have changed are fundamental to the plot but not in a way that changes the direction of the story. Previously I had focused on Kadie’s issues and the things she was trying to hide, without expounding on the reasons for things, the complex background to why she thinks the way she does.

Also, a lot of my secondary characters were very flat in the original. I had a lot of great fun making them into real people. Readers will never know most of the details about Eisha or Josh or even Kelly, but I know them, and that’s the important thing, because it really makes a difference when the background characters have a full personality.

As you work in a school library, did you make the most of your access to teenagers and get them to read early drafts for feedback, or did you keep it to yourself? It may surprise you that I actually didn’t work in a secondary school at the time I wrote The Sound of Everything. I am just a word nerd, obsessed with London slang. I started studying it for a story some time back and became interested in the way it evolves and spreads out to the rest of the country (kids in Swindon often talk with what could be considered London slang, only with a Swindonish edge to it). I learned to imitate the language by listening to interviews and watching vlogs to see how young people talk in their comfort zones. I really, really enjoy the dialogue side of things, which you can probably tell.

Nobody really read early drafts before the competition. I don’t know that I would have had the confidence to convince a student to read the manuscript before it was published!

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to? I am currently reading Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatford and Harriet the Spy by Liz Fitzhugh. Ballet Shoes is a classic story about sisters and the struggle for money, and I think would appeal to little girls who like to read challenging. However, it would also still appeal to teenage girls too, if they like historical fiction.

Any plans for a 2nd novel?
Ooh . . . not at the moment. I have a lot going on, including scraps of other ideas, but nothing that could be called a plan for a second novel.  

THE SOUND OF EVERYTHING is out now! Huge thanks to Mikka at Everything With Words for sending me a review copy and organising the interview.

Allies

This book is for everyone. Because we can all be allies.

As an ally you use your power-no matter how big or small-to support others. You learn, and try, and mess up, and try harder. In this collection of true stories, 17 critically acclaimed and bestselling YA authors get real about being an ally, needing an ally, and showing up for friends and strangers.

From raw stories of racism and invisible disability to powerful moments of passing the mic, these authors share their truths. They invite you to think about your own experiences and choices and how to be a better ally.

There are no easy answers, but this book helps you ask better questions. Self-reflection prompts, resources, journaling ideas, and further reading suggestions help you find out what you can do. Because we’re all in this together. And we all need allies.

A donation of 5% net sales in the UK will be donated to The Black Curriculum

DK

By coincidence, I received a copy of this title in the same week as I read a post by Dr Muna Abdi about the term “allies” and its limitations, so had that in mind when I started reading…and the very first chapter, DANA’S ABSOLOUTELY PERFECT FAIL-SAFE NO MISTAKES GUARANTEED WAY TO BE AN ALLY by Dana Alison Levy addresses the same issues in brilliant fashion. The collection of essays is wide ranging, eye opening, and thought provoking, including contributions from Shakirah Bourne (co-editor alongside Dana Alison Levy), Derick Brooks, Sharan Dhaliwal, Naomi and Natalie Evans, I. W. Gregorio, Lizzie Huxley-Jones, Adiba Jaigirdar, Brendan Kiely, Dana Alison Levy, Cam Montgomery, Andrea L. Rogers, Aida Salazar, A. J. Sass, Eric Smith, Kayla Whaley, and Marietta B. Zacker. The stories they share are both personal and powerful and will encourage readers to think critically about what allyship means to them. The authors are from all across the globe, with uniquely personal essays, and include UK based Lizzie Huxley-Jones, to whom I put some questions!

What do you think of the term ‘ally’?

I think ally as a phrase is useful in terms of reminding people who aren’t part of marginalised groups that they should care about the struggles of people within those marginalisations, literally to ally their aims and work to the community’s own aims. As with all language, it evolves really quickly and we will drop certain words over time (and some people have suggested moving on from allyship to solidarity), but I think the overarching concept of allyship, or solidarity, is really important! We cannot be complacent within our role as supporters, and over identifying *as* something without doing the work to *be* something is always a danger when we’re talking about stepping out of our comfort and privileges. Every day must be a learning day.

Have you read the other contributions? If so, did any particularly strike you?

I was lucky enough to get a proof of the US edition this week which I just finished reading. Each essay was really brilliant and made me think a lot. Naomi & Natalie Evans’ essay about being an ally in a racist situation made me think a lot about how easy it is for people to be bystanders – this is something I touch upon in my essay – and Eric Smith’s piece about finding a chosen family and his culture was beautiful. I think Dana’s essay that sets the tone of the book is really great, and Adiba Jaigirdar’s piece about racism in feminist ‘safe spaces’ really resonated with me. Basically, everything is extremely well written, interesting and important. I’m so honoured to be a part of such a key activist text.

The essays are very personal, did you find it difficult to write yours or did it come easily *because* it is so personal?

I’ve had seizures for basically my entire adult life, and have been on Twitter pretty much since then. When I was having video telemetry (a fun process where you live in a tiny room wired up to scanners for a few days to see if you have any seizures) I turned to Twitter for comfort and friendship but to talk about my experiences – this was back in like 2008. I think because I’ve been openly and frankly speaking about  my seizures for a long time, that confessional aspect wasn’t too hard. It was strange to write about during the pandemic, though. And I really did start to worry about what it’d be like as things started opening up, whether people would help more or less. I think that was the hardest part, really.

You have edited your own anthology, Stim, of stories by autistic authors, what, do you think, is the appeal of anthologies?

I think there’s a few things – the opportunity to access a lot of different voices in a small book, plus the focus on a particular topic but from multiple viewpoints. I personally also love mixed anthologies, so you’ll read something, not entirely sure if it’s an essay or fiction – sometimes that blur can make it really interesting when, for instance, a selkie turns up like in Robert Shepherd’s story in Stim. They’re just a really great way to explore a topic, I think, and a good anthology can keep you interested for a long time. I also really like that you might not enjoy every part of an anthology, though I know not everyone feels that way, as to me that’s part of the process of coming across different voices. I also edited 3 anthologies at 3 of Cups Press, On Anxiety, On Bodies and On Relationships, so I’m a big antho fan, haha!

You’ve also written a non-fiction children’s title about David Attenborough. Do you favour any particular style of writing?

I’m really a fiction writer at heart! Nothing definite I can talk about now, but hopefully in the future you’ll see some fiction from me on the shelves. I do love essay writing though, so I think Allies has spurred me to think about writing more of those in the future.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I just finished All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue which is a The Craft esque modern witch tale about a girl who discovers a lost set of tarot cards. What struck me about it is that it’s also very much about modern Ireland and the pushback against queerness we are seeing all around us from fundamentalists and transphobes, particularly against trans people. The love interest, Roe, is a non-binary femme who I completely love. I’d recommend it to fans of Moira Fowley-Doyle and Deirdre Sullivan. The next YA book on my pile is Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, which I’m so excited about. It’s Gossip Girl meets Get Out. Outside of YA, I’m listening to a lot of memoirs that touch on disability and are laced with humour. I’ve really been loving Samantha Irby’s three books of essays, and right now I’m in love with Keah Brown’s The Pretty One.

What will we see from you next?

Hopefully, some fiction, but you’ll just have to wait and see!

Lizzie (Hux) Huxley-Jones is an autistic author and editor based in London. They are the editor of Stim, an anthology of autistic authors and artists, which was published by Unbound in April 2020 to coincide with World Autism Awareness Week. They are also the author of the children’s biography Sir David Attenborough: A Life Story (2020) and a contributor to the anthology Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up, And Trying Again (2021). They are an editor at independent micropublisher 3 of Cups Press, and also advise writers as a freelance sensitivity reader and editorial consultant. In their past career lives, they have been a research diver, a children’s bookseller and digital communications specialist. They tweet too much at @littlehux, taking breaks to walk their dog Nerys. They are represented by Abi Fellows of The Good Literary Agency.

ALLIES was published in the UK on 29th July 2021. Thanks to DK for sending a review copy and Antonia Wilkinson for organising the interview.

The Archibald Lox series

Fans of master storyteller, Darren Shan, will be delighted to hear that the second volume in
his major new fantasy series is coming this summer. Comprised of three novels, the second
volume in the Archibald Lox series takes readers further into the Merge and the adventures
of locksmith, Archie.
Shan, known for his globally successful series The Saga of Darren Shan, The Demonata and
Zom-B, published the first volume in the Archibald Lox series as three ebooks in April 2020,
earlier than originally planned to bring some relief to fans during the first national Covid-19
lockdown. Paperback editions followed, along with a combined paperback of the first three
books entitled The Missing Princess. As with the first volume, the three novels comprising
Volume Two are designed to be read in quick succession as a trilogy.
Readers should prepare to pick up the pace as book 4 continues the action. Archibald Lox
and the Forgotten Crypt sees a couple of assassins catch up with Archie, and he’s forced to
flee to the Merge in search of friendship and safety. As his skills develop, he opens a
gateway to a long-forgotten crypt, where ancient secrets are revealed. In a city of ice, the
greatest gropsters of the six realms have assembled for a legendary Tourney, but a small
group of plotters are more interested in kidnapping…
Travel with Archie through books 5, Archibald Lox and the Slides of Bon Repell, and six,
Archibald Lox and the Rubicon Dictate, as he faces further challenges and grave danger,
including a fight for his freedom – and his sanity. What will the fates have in store, and can
Archie defeat some of the most powerful and merciless rulers of the realms…?

Darren Shan

I read the first of the Archibald Fox trilogy last summer and really enjoyed it, I can’t believe book 4 is already here! Here’s an interview with Darren Shan by Catherine Ward, in anticipation:

For those who haven’t started this new series yet, can you give us a quick overview?

A boy called Archie spotted a girl on a bridge in London, being chased by a pair of killers. She pulled some strange faces and opened a doorway to another dimension, called the Merge. When the killers had departed, Archie found he had the power to reopen the door, and followed the girl to the universe of the Merge, where he got involved in a quest to save a realm from falling under the control of the villainous SubMerged.

Why did you structure this series as Volumes comprising 3 books each? Is that something you planned from the beginning?

I actually planned the Volumes as very long single books, and wrote them that way. But I’d been considering breaking them down into shorter books and serialising them from the start, as that’s the way I’ve released all my other lengthy series. (The Saga of Darren Shan, The Demonata, Zom-B.) I hummed and hawed over the decision for ages, and still wasn’t 100% sure when it came time to release them! In the end I decided that I would break the volumes down into trilogies, but also then do omnibus edition bind-ups several months after the release of the shorter books, offering people the chance to read the stories as they were originally composed, if that was their preference.

Your Zom-B series was designed as a serial, with shorter books being released more often. What is it you like about this formula?

I’ve always loved a good cliff-hanger! I grew up as an avid reader of comics – for many years I never missed an issue of The Eagle and 2000AD – and I loved how stories would unreel over the space of several weeks or months. The gap between instalments added to the pleasure of the reading experience. It’s how books used to be published in the past — for instance, Charles Dickens released all of his books in serialised chunks. It was largely a forgotten art for many decades, but I was interested in reviving it almost from the very beginning of my career, and internet publishing has seen serial books enjoy a real surge since the turn of the millennium — I guess I was just a few steps ahead of the curve!

Although your main character, Archie comes from our world – known as the Born – most of Volume 1 takes place in the ‘other’ world he accesses via a hidden portal. Will we revisit the Born in Volume 2? Will we learn more about how the two worlds coexist? 

Oh yes! Some of the action takes place in our world – there are important scenes set in London, Moscow and New York – but the bulk of the story is set in the Merge. I don’t think there’s much point in creating a huge fantastical universe and not spending most of your story time there. Readers would quite rightly be up in arms if I told them “I’ve created this really cool parallel universe, but I’m not going to show much of it to you!” We’ll learn more about the Merge in this Volume, as well as in the third set of books next year. As a fish out of water, Archie is learning new things each time round — and discovering new things about himself each time as well.

 We first meet Archie when he’s in a bad place but we see him gain self-belief and confidence and intuition as he gets to grips with his locksmith abilities and the ways of the Merge. I would say he’s a pretty relatable and inspiring character for children & young adults, especially at a time when a lot of us are feeling a bit derailed by the pandemic – was that intentional?

I can’t say it was, as I started this series several years before most of us had ever even heard of a coronavirus! But I think childhood and our teens can be a confusing, alienating time for many of us, even when the world is operating as normal, and I’ve always tried to use my YA books to give readers hope that all obstacles in life can be overcome. The world can often seem like a weird, hostile place when you’re growing up, and I think fantasy and horror books can help kids come to understand that they can triumph no matter how weird and dark things get.

We journey through a variety of incredible realms and zones in the Merge, featuring all manner of societies and dwellings and inhabitants. Did these evolve in your imagination as you were writing, or did you develop much of the Merge in the planning stages of this series?

I spent a lot of time planning the books before I started writing them, far more than I ever did on any of my other series. Most of the action in my other long series took place on our world, so I was able to pretty much dive straight into them and flesh things out as I went along. With the Merge, I knew most of the story would take place in these parallel worlds, so I had to put a lot of thought and work into what those worlds would be like, and how they’d function. I also wrote far more than I needed in my first drafts, especially Volume 1, packing in loads of extraneous details that I would go on to cut as I edited the books, but which I needed to inform myself about the Merge. The first drafts were almost like travelogues, which I then set about converting into action-packed stories.

Will we visit new realms in Volume 2?

Absolutely! We’ll revisit some familiar places in Volume 2 and Volume 3, but each time round we’ll also venture into new realms and settings. I want to show readers as many different facets of the Merge as I can before Archie’s story concludes, so each time round we’re going to be hitting for pastures new.

In Volume 1 we have a few brushes with dangerous locations and beings in the Merge – will we see more of that in Volume 2?

I think, given my track record, that’s a safe assumption to make! I left the horror genre behind with these books, to focus on the fantasy elements, but I don’t think it would be a proper Darren Shan series if it didn’t have a strong dark strain to it.

You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that you have planned three volumes of Archibald Lox at least… any more news on that?!

Yes, there will be three Volumes in total. My plan is to release the final Volume (again, made up of three books) in 2022, and I’m looking good to hit that target. Touch wood!

Are you working on anything else besides this Archibald Lox series?

Bizarrely enough, I’m currently trying my hand at a few picture books! I have two young children, so I’ve been reading a lot of picture books over the last several years, and I started having ideas for some of my own. I don’t know if those ideas will ultimately lead to anything, but watch this space…

Have you missed being able to do live events over this past 18 months? Do you miss touring?

I’d actually stepped back from touring since I finished my Zom-B series. After many years on the road, I wanted to spend more time at home, especially since Mrs Shan and I had decided to go into the baby-making business! So I wouldn’t have been out on the road regardless of the lockdowns. That said, I have started to miss that side of things now — I’ve always enjoyed a close relationship with my fans, and I love meeting them at events, chatting with them and signing their books. Hopefully, over the next few years, I’ll be able to get back out on tour.

Were you a keen reader throughout your teen years, or did your interest wane at all? Were you drawn to fantasy worlds as a young reader?

I actually read more in my teens than I’ve read at any other time of my life. I was a voracious reader, ploughing through a couple of books a week in my prime, as well as reading loads of comics and graphic novels. And yes, I was always a big fan of fantasy, horror and sci-fi. I read all sorts of other genres too, but those were my favourites as a child and teenager.

Did you have a library and/or school librarian at Secondary School? If so, did it/they influence your reading habits at all?

Sadly, no. But I’ve visited loads of schools and libraries on tour, and been amazed by the knowledge and enthusiasm of the librarians I’ve met. I thought I knew a lot about books until I started talking to those guys and gals — then I quickly came to realise I was an amateur! I think a good librarian is a real treasure, especially in a library that is either part of a school or closely linked with schools. I got really angry when I was on tour with Zom-B, because it was during the time when the Conservatives in the UK were shutting a lot of libraries, and telling full-time librarians in those that survived the cull that they were going to be replaced with well-meaning part-timers, as basically anyone could run a library, right? Their ignorance of what a librarian does, and how important they can be – especially where children are involved – astonished and disgusted me. And still does.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently working my way through a book called Harbour, by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the guy who wrote a brilliant vampire book called Let The Right One In.

As you conjure such vivid and original worlds in your books, I wondered if you have vivid dreams in strange worlds?! Do you ever dream that you’re inhabiting one of your own worlds or characters?

Short answer — nope! My ideas tend to be fairly mundane affairs. I guess I spend so much time in weird worlds in my waking hours, that my brain enjoys some boring down time when I sleep!

The three books comprising Volume 2 of the Archibald Lox series will be released this summer, in ebook and paperback:

Book 4: Archibald Lox and the Forgotten Crypt – 1st July 2021

Book 5: Archibald Lox and the Slides of Bon Repell – 3rd August 2021

Book 6: Archibald Lox and the Rubicon Dictate – 1st September 2021

For more information visit www.darrenshan.com

Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines

Transform and recycle household objects into your very own home-made toys and machines!

Learn about the centre of gravity by making a balancing bird, create a toroidal vortex with a smoke-ring machine, and turn a spoon into an electromagnet. Chances are you won’t need to buy the materials required for these machines because they’re all in your house right now. Every child can be an engineer with the help of Mr Shaha and his marvellous machines.

Written by a science teacher and dad, Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines is the highly anticipated sequel to Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder. This book gives clear, step-by-step instructions for over 15 projects. Whether you’re a master engineer or a total beginner, it will spark inspiration for fun activities to engage young people in the marvels of machinery.

Scribe Publications
Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines, illustrated by Emily Robertson

I follow Alom Shaha on twitter and really appreciate how keen he is for families to play together to develop a passion for science and technology. Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder is a great book so, when I saw that he had a new title coming, I asked him a few questions:

Do you have a favourite project in the book?

My favourite project in the book is probably the Rubber-band Racer. I think it was the first activity I knew I would include in the book because it just met all my criteria for a “marvellous machine” – it’s made of stuff most people will have lying around the house, is relatively straightforward to build, illustrates some sort of scientific principle, and, above all, elicits a sense of utter joy when you’ve successfully got it working.

This is your second published book, after Mr Shaha’s Recipes for Wonder. Why do you think it is so important that families engage with science and technology, learning at home?

This is actually the third book of mine to be published! My first was “The Young Atheist’s Handbook” which was published in the UK, Australia, and in a Turkish translation. There was even a successful campaign by Humanists UK to raise money to send it to every secondary school library in the UK. But to answer your question, I think it’s important for families to engage with STEM learning at home because I believe strongly that science can enrich our lives as much as literature, art, or music can, when we approach it in a way that is appropriate to our own needs and wants. There’s also research that suggests strongly that parental attitudes towards science plays a key role in children’s success, or lack of it, in science at school. I don’t think parents should leave their children’s first encounters with science education to schools – I want to encourage parents to become their children’s first science teachers. Parents are usually the ones who introduce their children to reading, numbers, painting and drawing, playing music and so on, and I wanted to give them the confidence and tools to do the same with science. 

As a science teacher, what is your favourite part of the curriculum?

Oh, that’s a tough one. I’d have to say that I love teaching all the ideas that generate a sense of awe and wonder in my students, from the counterintuitive nature of Newton’s First Law to the mindboggling fact that we can know, with a high degree of confidence, what stars are made of, and how they work.

In an ideal world, what kind of events would you want to do with children, and what age groups?

I love doing family workshops with primary aged children. I ran many when promoting “Recipes for Wonder”, and plan to do the same with “Marvellous Machines”. It’s really satisfying to watch parents and their children work together to do the activities in my books. 

Library staff will appreciate your desire to get the book into the hands of those who can’t afford to buy it. Other than libraries stocking it, what would you like to see people do to promote its use?

I’m going to release videos of the activities from the book on my YouTube Channel, “Mr Shaha’s Books” (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcv9_0EdBq0Xi4n_wJe4NCA), so that the message and ideas from the book are freely available. I’d love to see people sharing these videos, and perhaps their own videos of the activities, through their social media and other networks.

Alom sent me a picture of the introduction, which is a wonderful explanation for why the book exists, and shows some more of the wonderful illustrations by Emily Robertson that really bring it all to life:

The text can be read more clearly on his blog here

Mr Shaha’s Marvellous Machines is published on 8th July, it is aimed at 5-12year olds and their families, so Bea and I are looking forward to having a go at making some contraptions!

Alom Shaha, photo credit: Ed Prosser