Category Archives: Mg

Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild

Utterly Dark has a special connection to the sea. But it is tested more than ever before, this autumn on the island of Summertide. Accompanying her uncle as he explores mysterious Summertide, Utterly is witness to strange happenings in the woods. Deep, old magic abounds, and threatens to steal those she loves most. Utterly must face truths about what lies beneath the land, and in her own past, if she is to save anyone. And she must make a sacrifice to the sea . . . An enchanting story of nature, magic and friendship, from the renowned author of Mortal Engines.

David Fickling Books
Cover art by Paddy Donnelly

This is the sequel to the equally brilliant UTTERLY DARK AND THE FACE OF THE DEEP, from one of my very favourite authors, Philip Reeve. I was thrilled to be given the chance to ask him a few questions!

Utterly lives in a magical but realistic historical period, how much research did you do to make it historically accurate?

Not very much, because Wildsea, where most of Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep is set, is an imaginary island. I always knew it was somewhere you’d get to on a sailing ship rather than a car ferry, so I set the story in a sort of vaguely olden-days 18th or early 19th Century period, and gradually as I wrote I worked out it was happening in 1810.

So that means that Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild is happening in 1811, and a lot of it happens on a different island called Summertide, which is a bit bigger and a bit more developed, so I did have to do a bit more research about how grand country houses ran in those days, etc – but of course, if I get something wrong, or want to change something, I can always say, ah, well, they did things a bit differently on Summertide…. 

And a lot of the research I do doesn’t end up in the actual book. One of the characters in Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild is an ex-soldier called Figgy Dan, so I spent some time working out when he did his soldiering and what battles he had fought in, but actually that’s not important for the story, you just need to know he’s been a soldier. So the research is important in helping me understand the characters and get a sense of their world, but I try not to let too much of it clutter up the finished book.

Writing for younger readers with Sarah McIntyre must be very different, has working as part of a duo changed the way you approach your solo novels?

It’s not that different, because it’s still about inventing a story and putting it into words, but it’s much more fun, because we get to share ideas and make each other giggle a lot. But I do find ideas seep across from one to the other – I think Utterly Dark and her home in the Autumn Isles has developed out of the same ideas that we used in our first book, Oliver and the Seawigs. And Sarah now gets to read all my solo books while I’m writing them, and we talk about them together, so she’s a big influence on them all. 

All of your solo series are set in such different landscapes with unique characters, do they evolve together or do you spend time worldbuilding before setting to writing story?

I tend to think the best way to do world-building is to just start writing. A lot of people think that if you’re writing about an imaginary world you start off by making a map and then work out its history and language and then set a story there, but I’m not interested in doing that. With the Utterly books I started with a name – ‘Sundown Watch’ – which I knew was the name of a house. And obviously the people who lived in it were watching for something, so I put it on a cliff top, and then I decided the cliff top was on an island, and I drew a tiny little sketch map, but there were no other names on it. Then as I wrote I gradually filled in the map, and changed it a bit to suit the story, and worked out this island had neighbouring islands, so a whole world gradually arranged itself around the characters.

What is your favourite thing or person from any of your stories?

That’s a tricky one – I’m very fond of Utterly herself, and also of Wildsea, and Sundown Watch – I’d like to live there!

Without spoilers, how far ahead have you planned in Utterly’s story? Will it be a trilogy?

I’m not very good at planning! But I think there will be at least three books about Utterly, and I think I could tell many more stories set in the Autumn Isles, either about her and her friends, or with different characters, in different periods of history.

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

I’m reading Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett. I bought it because I found a second hand edition with lovely woodcut illustrations, but it turns out to be a really good read. It’s one of those rambling, boisterous, 18th Century novels where a young man goes off into the world and has all sorts of adventures. I’m not sure I’d recommend it unless that’s your sort of thing – I guess the language is quite difficult, but you get your head round it after a few pages. And it’s good research for the Utterly books in a way, because there are lots of little details about life in the Eighteenth Century – a bit before Utterly’s time, but people in Wildsea are old-fashioned so they’d probably still talk the same way. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a third Utterly Dark book, and a new series with Sarah McIntyre, Adventuremice. And I’ve also decided to make a short film, just as a kind of hobby. It’s an Arthurian fantasy so my writing room is filling up with costumes and bits of armour and I spend all my spare time doodling storyboards and making props – it’s makes a nice change from just writing!

Philip Reeve (photo credit: Sarah Reeve)

Utterly Dark and the Heart of the Wild by Philip Reeve | David Fickling Books | 1st September | £7.99 | Paperback

Philip Reeve grew up in Brighton. He has been writing stories since he was five years old, but the first one to be published was Mortal Engines which won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and Blue Peter Book Award. Philip has also provided cartoons and jokes for many books, including Horrible Histories, and co-created young fiction with illustrator Sarah McIntyre.

www.philipreeve.com | Twitter: @philipreeve1 | Instagram: thesolitarybee | #UtterlyDark

David Fickling Books | Twitter / Instagram: @DFB_Storyhouse | davidficklingbooks.com

If You Read This

When Brie was younger, her mama used to surprise her with treasure hunts around their island town. After she died three years ago, these became Brie’s most cherished memories.

Now, on her twelfth birthday, her mama has another surprise: a series of letters leading Brie on one last treasure hunt.

The first letter guides Brie to a special place.

The next urges her to unlock a secret.

And the last letter will change her life forever.

Pushkin Press

WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU MANGOES was one of my favourite books of last year, so I jumped at the chance to read IF YOU READ THIS. Always a worry, reading the follow-up to something brilliant, but I wasn’t disappointed and was very pleased to ask the author, Kereen Getten, a few questions!

What part of ‘If You Read This’ came to you first – the letters or the character of Brie?

I really liked the idea of a treasure hunt, and the character going on a journey of self discovery. The idea was very vague and so I started to think about Brie, who she was and why she would go on a treasure hunt so although the idea of the letters came first, Brie had to be developed before the letters were explored.

I love the Caribbean settings of both your novels, really evocative, are any of the scenes based on particular locations you know well?

When I was eleven years old, we returned to Jamaica for eighteen months. We moved into a gated community called Silver Sands and that’s where I loosely based where Brie lived. Also, Brim’s town is also loosely based on a small seaside town, on the western tip of Jamaica. The rugged, twisty road to Brim’s house is based on the actual road that leads into a rocky landscape overlooking the sea.

Have you thought about writing a story set in the UK?

I have! I actually wrote a short story for Happy Here anthology set in the UK it was called HOME. My historical novel Two Sisters is based in Jamaica and the UK and I’m definitely looking to do more UK based stories in the future. [CF: Oh, of course, I read and loved TWO SISTERS, a brilliant historical novel in the Scholastic VOICES series]

What kind of events do you like to do with readers?

As a pandemic author, I really am just beginning to do in person events, but I have enjoyed many virtual events where I have spoken to multiple schools at the same time. Nothing beats meeting readers face to face though, and some of my favourite moments are talking to readers about my books.

Have you had much feedback from young readers?

Yes! Sometimes I get social media messages from them or their parents after they’ve read my book, or after an event. With Mangoes there were a lot of conversations around the twist! Which I loved.

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

I’ve just finished Leila and the Blue Fox by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. A wonderful book about a young girl’s journey to mending her relationship with her mother while chasing a fox’s journey across the arctic.  I would recommend it to readers who love visual descriptions, stories about relationships, immigration and nature

What are you working on now?

I am currently editing a short fantasy book out next year titled Ada Rue and the Banished about a young girl who moves to a town where magical people are banished from society. I am also editing a detective series where a group of friends in the Caribbean form a detective agency to solve mysteries but they’re terrible at it!

Kereen Getten (photo credit Amy Spinks)

Thank you to Kereen for answering my questions, and Pushkin Press for sending me a review copy and organising the q&a. IF YOU READ THIS is out on 1st September 2022!

Zo and the Forest of Secrets

When Zo decides to run away from home, she isn’t scared; after all, she knows the island like the back of her hand. But, as she journeys through the once-familiar forest, terrifying creatures and warped visions begin to emerge. With a beast on her heels and a lost boy thrown into her path, could a mysterious abandoned facility hold answers? Zo must unravel the secrets of the forest before she is lost in them forever…

Knights Of

ZO AND THE FOREST OF SECRETS is a brilliantly pacey, thrilling middle grade adventure from children’s debut Alake Pilgrim (already an international award winner for her other writing). She is based in Trinidad and Tobago and Trinidad is the setting for this story, brilliantly brought to life as Zo loses herself in what she thought was familiar forest. I loved the mixture of tech and legends, imagination and realism, friendships and not knowing who to trust…plus the chatty spiders are some of my favourite side characters in a novel, ever.

There are some truly skin-crawlingly terrifying moments in this book, as unimaginable creatures hunt for Zo and her companion, but also some moments of reflection about family and honesty, as well as some pretty funny lines. Zo makes a lot of discoveries about herself as well as the mysterious zoo and Adri, the boy she saves from drowning, but we leave the forest with even more unanswered questions than we went in with, with twists upon turns leaving the reader (me) desperate for book 2!

Alake Pilgrim

Zo and the Forest of Secrets, published by Knights Of is out now, priced £7.99

Check out the rest of the blog tour!

Thank you to ED PR for getting me a review copy and including me on the blog tour.

Fight Back!

Aaliyah is an ordinary thirteen-year-old living in the Midlands. She’s into books, shoes and her favourite K-pop boy band. She has always felt at home where she lives … until a terrorist attack at a concert in her area changes everything. As racial tension increases, Aaliyah is bullied, but instead of hiding who she is, she decides to speak up and wear a hijab. She’s proud of her identity, and wants to challenge people’s misconceptions. But when her right to wear a hijab at school is questioned and she is attacked and intimidated, she feels isolated. Aaliyah discovers she’s not alone and that other young people from different backgrounds are also discriminated against because of their identity, and feel scared and judged. Should she try to blend in – or can she find allies to help her fight back? Channelling all of her bravery, Aaliyah decides to speak out. Together, can Aaliyah and her friends halt the tide of hatred rippling through their community?

An essential read to encourage empathy, challenge stereotypes, explore prejudice, racism, Islamophobia and inspire positive action.

A story of hope, speaking up and the power of coming together in the face of hatred.

#FightBack #FindYourVoice #OurVoicesAreStrongerTogether

A. M. Dassu

Boy, Everywhere, was such an astonishingly good debut that I have to admit I was quite worried about how Az might follow it up. I had the absolute pleasure of reading an early version of Fight Back! and was totally blown away by how good it is, and now that it has been polished it is even better. I’m very proud to have my quote in there:

I asked a few questions of our esteemed author:

Your 2 novels (+1 short chapter book) have very different protagonists! Does the character come to you first or the plot? Yes, they are so different! I think the plot always comes first. Although Sami definitely came to me with a loose plot for him in mind. And Aaliyah formed in my head because this time I wanted an upbeat, feisty character who you’d connect to but also hopefully make you laugh through the way she observed things. But with both books, my characters had something they had to say and that needed to be more widely discussed.

I’m so impressed with how you’re able to include so many “issues”, helping young* (*& old…frankly everyone needs to read your books to bolster their empathy) readers to understand at the same time as keeping them engaged with a brilliant story. Is there anything you’ve really struggled with making accessible? Thank you! I thought Boy, Everywhere would be the hardest book I’d write, but actually I found writing Fight Back so hard because the themes are challenging and painful. Adults tend to think that young people don’t think about what’s happening in the news, but sadly the ripple effects of events in the news can be far reaching and when writing, I kept in mind that there are children all over the world experiencing the same prejudice Aaliyah does. And that was simultaneously a struggle but also motivating.

What advice would you give to a girl considering beginning to wear the hijab to school? Ooh! Hold your head high. Be proud to be different, be your best self and take each day as it comes.

You’ve written non-fiction as well, how different is your research and writing process? What do you prefer to write? Interestingly, the process is so similar. Of course writing fiction is much more fun but also in some ways more stressful as you don’t want to make things up about a character from a particular background that might stereotype them or harm them. It’s about finding a fine balance of a plot that is gripping that is still based on fact. I do a lot of research! With non-fiction I can check facts via books or websites and I can trust that references are sound, but with fiction I go beyond this and ask people for their views and experiences – it feels like a bigger responsibility and always lies heavy on my heart. And even though Fight Back is own voices, I still had to do the same amount of research as I did for Boy, Everywhere, which surprised me. Again, I wanted to ensure the story was nuanced, where readers would feel seen and also perhaps discover something and so my editing process meant I double checked my research and cried a lot (writing and editing makes writers cry, part of the job).

I know you’ve done a number of virtual school visits with ‘Boy, Everywhere’, have you thought about what you’d like to do with students in person for ‘Fight Back’? I have already planned them! In the Fight Back workshops I’ll ask students to engage in an activity exploring identity, and we will discuss how you can help someone being bullied/discriminated against because of their identity or because they’re different. We will explore what it means to be an ally and the importance of coming together in the face of discrimination and ways to support those that are being bullied/discriminated against. We might even look at the United Nations  Convention on the Rights of a Child  to express themselves.

As well as your own writing, you’re also a director of Inclusive Minds, how did you get involved with them? Inclusive Minds is a unique organisation for people who are passionate about inclusion, diversity, equality, and accessibility in children’s literature. We have a big network of Inclusion Ambassadors from across the country with diverse lived experiences of race, ethnicities, disability, neurodivergence, LGBTQIA+ etc. I connected with the founders a few years ago at a conference and soon became an ambassador. Then in 2019 they asked if I’d be interested in taking over from them and despite me just having signed my first book deal, I couldn’t say no. It was a brilliant opportunity to help amplify our ambassador’s voices at events, ensure they get paid and give them the chance to work with publishers to check if books being published are authentic and accurate.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to? Oh my goodness, I picked up my proof of The Midnighters by Hana Tooke the other night and I am hooked. I’m only five chapters in but it is so sumptuously written I must finish it. I think it’ll be a classic! It’s perfect for middle grade and adults too (of course).

Are you working on anything that you can tell us about? I have some extremely exciting news that I can’t talk about but let’s just say you’ll all meet Sami and Ali again. The Boy, Everywhere spin off is going to happen in a number of ways!
I am also plotting my next standalone novel and this time it will be a dual narrative – two characters who couldn’t be more different, a girl and a boy. It’s nothing like anything I’ve written before and I am so excited to write it! Please just send me some time!

A. M. DASSU is the internationally acclaimed author of Boy, Everywhere, which has been listed for 25 awards, including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, nominated for the Carnegie Medal, is the 2021 winner of The Little Rebels Award for Radical Fiction and is also an American Library Association Notable Book. A. M. Dassu writes books that challenge stereotypes, humanise the “other” and are full of empathy, hope and heart. Her latest novel, Fight Back has just been published by Scholastic and A. M. Dassu is currently touring the country signing as many copies in as many bookshops as she can!

Fight Back! is published in the UK this week by Scholastic

Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms

Percy Jackson meets Black Panther – this blockbuster middle-grade adventure is perfect for fans of Amari and the Night Brothers.

Cameron Battle grew up reading The Book of Chidani, cherishing stories about the fabled kingdom that cut itself off from the world to save the Igbo people from danger. Passed down over generations, the Book is Cameron’s only connection to his parents, who disappeared one fateful night two years ago.

Ever since, his grandmother has kept the Book locked away, but it calls to Cameron. When he and his best friends, Zion and Aliyah, decide to open it again, they are magically transported to Chidani. Instead of a land of beauty and wonder, they find a kingdom in extreme danger, as the queen’s sister seeks to destroy the barrier between worlds. The people of Chidani have been waiting for the last Descendant to return and save them … Is Cameron ready to be the hero they need?

Inspired by West African and Igbo history and mythology, this adventure-filled fantasy introduces readers to Cameron Battle as he begins his journey to greatness.

Bloomsbury

CAMERON BATTLE AND THE HIDDEN KINGDOMS is a classic, exciting, fantasy adventure, with a beautiful friendship at its heart. The reflections on slavery are thoughtful, as Cameron learns the history of his family and their relationship to The Book and the kingdom of Chidani, magically hidden from the world, when he and his two best friends get pulled into Chidani and find themselves on a dangerous quest! My very favourite thing about the book is the relationship between Cameron and Zion: I just loved reading about life-long friends who defend one another to the hilt, support each other when they’re scared, and clearly show how much they love one another through words and actions – with all of that you’d think Aliyah might seem like a third wheel but she plays an important role in the trio and I couldn’t imagine the book without her.

You lucky people can read an extract of the first two chapters here:

If you need to know what happens next you’re in luck, as it is published today, the day the UK celebrates World Book Day! I always say that any book published on such an auspicious day has to be brilliant…

Cameron Battle and the Hidden Kingdoms

Empathy Day 2022

EMPATHY DEFICIT FOR LOCKDOWN GENERATION COUNTERACTED BY POWER OF READING

EmpathyLab launches its 2022 Read for Empathy book collection at a time when empathy has never been needed more. An expert judging panel has selected 60 books for 4-16 year-olds, each chosen to empower an empathy-educated generation.

The primary collection features 35 books for 4-11 year olds; the secondary collection has 25 books for 12-16 year olds. 43% of the collection are by authors of colours, and there are seven illustrators of colour. Many of the books help readers understand the lives of those experiencing tough situations, from becoming homeless, or a refugee. Others help children build their understanding of emotions or inspire positive action towards the climate or animals or people in their community.

Primary list
Secondary list

Free guides for parents & educators here: https://www.empathylab.uk/2022-book-collections-and-guides

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!

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 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