Category Archives: Mg

The Humiliations of Welton Blake

Welton Blake has done it – he’s asked out Carmella McKenzie, the best-looking girl in school, and she’s only gone and said yes!

But just as he thinks his luck, and life, is starting to change, Welton’s phone breaks, kickstarting a series of unfortunate and humiliating events. With bullies to avoid, girls ready to knock him out and all the drama with his mum and dad, life for Welton is about to go very, very wrong …

Barrington Stoke
The Humiliations of Welton Blake – Cover artwork by Ali Ardington

I really enjoyed this new Barrington Stoke novella by Alex Wheatle. For those of you who don’t know, they publish books with dyslexic readers in mind – short, engaging, and set out carefully to be as readable as possible – written by loads of the best authors of the moment. Alex already had one under his belt, Kerb Stain Boys, a YA story set on his Crongton Estate, but this is for a younger teen audience. Those just starting to think about asking a girl to go to the cinema with them, or worrying about having the latest phone and trainers. Welton, our protagonist, is a great voice, he’d be one of the students that is always in trouble at school but secretly a teacher’s favourite. I asked Alex Wheatle some questions before publication:

How different is the process, writing a book for Barrington Stoke versus a longer novel?

The writing process for a shorter novel remains the same but before I write the first paragraph, I spend more time in my head on the plot and in the writing I try to be more concise.

After writing for adults then young adults and older teens, this is your youngest protagonist. Did that change your approach?

Writing about a young protagonist didn’t really change my approach.  I still invested the same care and attention as I would do for any other character I have created.

What is special about Crongton Estate?

The North Crongton and South Crongton estates are really references to the many council estates I have visited throughout the UK and beyond. What’s special about Crongton is that it is a fictional place. I’m not tied to Brixton, South London or anywhere else so I can freely create my characters and geography how I see fit. I can also populate Crongton the way I want to.

Cane Warriors (which is spectacular btw) is very different to anything else you’ve published for children and teens, what prompted you to write it, and might you write something from that era for Barrington Stoke?

Cane Warriors was a labour of love. Since I read CLR James’ Black Jacobins in the early 1980s, I’ve always wanted to write Jamaican historical narratives. My mother, who grew up very close to the plantation sites where the 1760 slave revolt occurred, heard her elders occasionally mention Tacky’s War. I felt as I was really documenting my ancestors’ history.

Have you done many virtual events? How does it compare to in-person?

I always prefer to do in-person events and I struggled a bit at first to do virtual events. Hopefully, I’m improving but I yearn to get in front of audiences again and do my thing!

What are you reading and who would you recommend it to?

At the moment, I am enjoying A.M Dassu’s Boy, Everywhere and I recommend it to anyone at any age.

What was the most exciting thing for you to come out of 2020?

The most exciting thing for me to come out in 2020 was the Black Lives Matter marches around the world and the different shades who all walked together.

What’s next?

I really enjoyed myself writing my The Humiliations of Welton Blake, so I hope I can produce more of the same for middle-grade readers.

You can read the first chapter on the Barrington Stoke website, and if you want more: the book is out now!

Huge thanks to Barrington Stoke for a proof copy to review, and to Alex Wheatle for answering my questions.

Fighting Fantasy

PART STORY, PART GAME – PURE ADVENTURE!

Youthe hero of this story, are a member of the Sky Watch keeping the floating archipelago of Pangaria safe. When the Nimbus isle suddenly crashes out of the sky into the Ocean of Tempests below, you must explore the remaining islands, and battle both storms and sea beasts in your mission to raise Nimbus from the deep. The brand new book in the FIGHTING FANTASY series – by the first ever female guest author!

Scholastic

I read a few Fighting Fantasy books when I was younger and am really pleased that some are being reissued as well as new stories being published. Scholastic very kindly sent me a copy of Crystal of Storms, the first in the franchise to be written by a female guest author: Rhianna Pratchett no less! I had a go and it was just as exciting as I remember – and I was as unlucky as I remember – hard to put down once you begin (unless you die…but then you try again)! They also gave me the opportunity to ask her, and the mind behind the original series, Ian Livingstone, a few questions.

Rhianna Pratchett

Did you read the original Fighting Fantasy books as a child?

Yes, I read a few when I was about 8 or 9 years old and really enjoyed them. I even got into trouble with my local library for holding onto them for so long.
 
How did you get involved in the reboot?

Ian Livingstone and I had known each other for many years and had also done press together as part of the Tomb Raider 2013 reboot. One day he just emailed me out of the blue and asked whether I’d be interested in giving it a go. I’d never done anything like it before, and it seemed a bit scary, so it
was clearly something I needed to do!
 
I imagine you’ve faced some opposition in the game industry, as a female creator. What advice would you give girls that are interested in working in the field?

I’ve been quite lucky that I’ve never faced too much discrimination for being a woman in games. In fact, I’ve had more problems working within narrative, because it’s an area of games development which is sometimes undervalued and not always well supported.
 
How different is writing a book to writing a game?

With a book you’re in complete control of the narrative and everything around it. Aside from a couple of editors, it’s usually just you and the blank page. With games, particular AAA games (the blockbusters of the game world) you are working with hundreds of people across multiple
departments. They will all have their own battles to fight and views on narrative, so you will need to be very flexible, accommodating, and thick skinned!
 
What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I’m reading Margaret Attwood’s The Testaments; which fans of The Handmaid’s Tale will definitely love. I’m particularly enjoying the fleshing out of Aunt Lydia, who is such a terrifying and complex character. I’m also reading Flora Curiosa, which is a collection of classic short stories in the rather niche genre of ‘Botany Gothic’. I’ve become obsessed with building out my plant collection during lockdown, so I’ve become fascinated with all things botanical.
 
What’s next from you?

I’m bringing some of the skills I developed whilst working on Crystal of Storms, to Bardsung (Steamforged Games) a tabletop cooperative dungeon explorer. I’ll be writing and narratively designing the project, which is a fantastic challenge. I’ve also working on a few film, TV and game projects, which are sadly still in the Vault of Secrecy at the moment.

Ian Livingstone

What do you think has prompted a renewed interest in Fighting Fantasy?

Being interactive, Fighting Fantasy books naturally resonate with today’s children. Part book, part game, the readers decide where the story goes which is empowering and more engaging than a traditional book. Set in worlds of monsters and magic adds a further layer of excitement to stimulate children’s imaginations. In parallel, there has also been a huge revival in Dungeons & Dragons, and Warhammer has never been more popular. 

Which is your favourite of the adventures?

That’s a bit like asking me who is my favourite child when I have four! So, I’m going to narrow it down to my favourite four books. They are The Warlock of Firetop Mountain because it was the first one, Forest of Doom, City of Thieves and Deathtrap Dungeon.

How much direction do you give guest authors contributing to the franchise?

We ask that guest authors stick within the Fighting Fantasy canon to maintain the look and feel of the world and characters we have created. We also require them to adhere to the game system we created using dice for combat and SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK attributes. But as far as story and plot goes, we give them pretty much free rein.

What kind of feedback do you get from readers?

Readers are pretty quick to let us know on social media what they think about new titles. There are fans of the books all over the world and a large community has built up around Fighting Fantasy over the years with dedicated Facebook groups. There are also suggestions and comments sent to us via fightingfantasy.com. All communications are gratefully received!

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

I’m currently re-reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the film Blade Runner was based. It’s a classic by my favourite science fiction author Philip K Dick. I’d recommend it to anybody who has a thing about post-apocalyptic worlds and rogue androids!

Huge thanks to both the authors and Scholastic for the interview.

Lots of Fighting Fantasy books are available to buy now!

A Thousand Questions blog tour

Set against the backdrop of Karachi, Pakistan, Saadia Faruqi’s tender and honest middle grade novel tells the story of two girls navigating a summer of change and family upheaval with kind hearts, big dreams, and all the right questions.

Mimi is not thrilled to be spending her summer in Karachi, Pakistan, with grandparents she’s never met. Secretly, she wishes to find her long-absent father, and plans to write to him in her beautiful new journal.

The cook’s daughter, Sakina, still hasn’t told her parents that she’ll be accepted to school only if she can improve her English test score—but then, how could her family possibly afford to lose the money she earns working with her Abba in a rich family’s kitchen?

Although the girls seem totally incompatible at first, as the summer goes on, Sakina and Mimi realize that they have plenty in common—and that they each need the other to get what they want most.

This relatable and empathetic story about two friends coming to understand each other will resonate with readers who loved Other Words for Home and Front Desk.

HarperCollins

A THOUSAND QUESTIONS is a brilliant new middle grade novel by Saadia Faruqi. I really enjoyed reading from the two perspectives, as they realise that the differences in their upbringings don’t change the things that are really important. Saadia’s love of Karachi shines through in her portrayal of the city and its landmarks, at the same time though, she doesn’t shy away from showing the disparities between rich and poor and it could lead to some really interesting conversations if you’re reading it as a class novel or with a reading group (or with your own child).

For the blog tour I was pleased to have the opportunity to ask Saadia a few questions!

I believe your writing began in a local newspaper, followed by the Yasmin books for beginning readers, and now longer middle grade like your new book A THOUSAND QUESTIONS. Which audience do you prefer writing for?

Wow those newspaper columns were such a long time ago, I hardly remember them! Yes, that’s right, and I also wrote a nonfiction academic-style book, plus a short story collection for adults. However, it was only when I started writing for children that I found my true passion. Children’s
books are so fun to write, and even when the message is serious, the act of writing them isn’t. I enjoy crafting stories that give hope and entertain my readers, showing them the world in a way that’s authentic but also full of positive aspects. Whether I’m writing early readers like Yasmin or middle grade novels like A Thousand Questions, I approach them the same way. I’d be hard- pressed to chose which I enjoy more.

Why do you think it is so important to have Muslim characters starring in children’s stories?

It’s very important to have stories that center Muslim characters, families and countries. The fact is that a growing number of our young readers are Muslim, and they deserve to see their stories reflected in the books they read. This means positive stories, ones that show realistic people and situations rather than caricatures and stereotypes. It also means everyday stories about experiences all children face at school, at home and in their neighborhoods. Finally, it means making Muslim children the heroes of our fantasy, sci-fi and mystery books, the ones who solve the crime or save the day. All this is important because storytelling is part of community, and
readers from Muslim backgrounds should know that they’re an essential part of our communities. Readers from other backgrounds should also realize that their friends and neighbors, their classmates in school, can be the heroes of the books they read.

Your author note says you were inspired by your children’s reactions to visiting Karachi, where you grew up. What do you think is the biggest difference between your childhood and theirs (aside from technology!)?

It’s a world of a difference, specifically for immigrant families like mine. I grew up in Pakistan with one type of culture, traditions, lifestyle, and everything else. My children are growing up in the U.S. with another type of culture. As a parent, I try very hard to keep Muslim and South Asian traditions alive in my house, but when they step outside it’s a very different world for my children. I believe that the physical differences aren’t as vast, but the emotional and mental differences are huge. My children feel “other” in a way that I never did. They feel the stress of living in a country that’s their own, but not their parents’. They experience life with each of their
feet on a different continent. I can’t even imagine what they go through every day, not completely fitting in because of their skin color or their background. I never had anyone ask me “where are you from?” growing up, and that’s probably the biggest, most insurmountable difference.

In A THOUSAND QUESTIONS, Mimi and Sakina do a lot of sightseeing. Which of the spots that the girls visit is your favourite?

Hmmm that’s an interesting question because I put all my favorite spots in the book! I really wanted to showcase all the best places to visit in Karachi, so that even if you never travel there physically you can understand what a beautiful, complicated, incredible place it is! If I had to choose a favourite, I’d say the beach. I’ve loved the ocean since I was a child, and still do. Clifton Beach, where Mimi and Sakina visit in the book, is also very fun because of the swarm of people, the camels, the food, and everything else.

The divide between wealthy and poor is highlighted brilliantly by the girls’ friendship. How hard was it to strike a balance between harsh reality and a fun story?

I love writing about juxtapositions. It’s what I do best, bringing to life characters who are diametrically opposed to each other, so my readers can understand that we can find something in common with everyone we meet, even if they’re very different. Imagine how peaceful the world would be if we all found something in common with each other and focused on that
commonality? In the book, Mimi seems well off, and Sakina seems poor. But when they get to know each other, they realize that they are both rich in some ways, and poor in others. Life in Pakistan (and other poor nations) is often reduced to poverty, like it’s something horrible and insurmountable. It was really important for me to change that narrative and write about complex, beautiful life for all people, including those that are poor. It wasn’t hard to do once I had those goals in mind.

Have you done virtual events with children about your books?

Absolutely! I do a ton of virtual events with schools and libraries around the world. Since the pandemic started, I’ve actually increased this aspect of my author-life significantly, because it’s the only way I can reach my readers and give them an encouraging word. I schedule 3-5 virtual visits every day, and most of them are free of charge because of the budget difficulties everyone is going through at the moment. I love meeting readers, answering their questions and inspiring them to be writers. Anyone who wants to schedule a short virtual visit can visit my website and
contact me there.

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

I’ve been reading the Planet Omar series by Zanib Mian with my daughter and really enjoying it. I think it’s great for children in elementary school, but can also be used as a read aloud for younger children. However, I enjoyed it as an adult, so my recommendation would be for everyone to read this series!

What are you working on at the moment?

I have several books in the pipeline, some of which are still secret. Ah, the joys of publishing! Four new Yasmin books are releasing in 2021, as well as a couple of picture books and a new middle grade novel featuring a boy main character, white supremacists, and a twenty-year old journal. I’m really excited about all my upcoming projects, but more than that I’m excited about the future of children’s books with all the fantastic BAME authors putting out great books for young readers. I’m proud to be a part of this new wave of books!

Saadia Faruqi (photo credit: QZB Photography)

A THOUSAND QUESTIONS is out now!

Thank you to HarperCollins UK for sending me a review pdf and involving me in the blog tour, and thank you to Saadia for answering my questions so thoughtfully (and I love the Planet Omar series too)!

When Secrets Set Sail

Usha is devastated when her grandmother Kali Ma passes away. Then straight-talking Imtiaz arrives – her new adoptive sister – and the two girls clash instantly. They both feel lost. That is until Kali Ma’s ghost appears…with a task for them.

Immy’s and Usha’s home is full of history and secrets. Many years ago it was The House of the Ayahs – for those nannies who couldn’t return to their Indian homeland – and Kali Ma made a promise she couldn’t keep. She can’t pass on to the other side until the girls fulfil it.

Today, Usha and Immy’s over-worked parents run the house as a home for refugees, but eviction threatens. The precious documents that could save them are lost. As the house slowly fills up with ghosts, that only Usha and Imtiaz can see, the girls realise they have more to save than just one grandmother’s ghost.

With help from their new friend Cosmo, Usha and Immy must set off on a quest through London, accompanied by two bickering ghosts, working together to find a series of objects that shine a magical light on their family’s past and hold the clues to securing their future.

If they can set the secrets of generations free, will they be in time to save their home?

Endorsed by Amnesty International

Hachette

Sita Brahmachari seems to be one of the hardest working children’s authors in the UK, and one of my favourites. I had the great pleasure of asking her some questions about her latest book WHEN SECRETS SET SAIL, and her answers are fabulous.

Your books always have “issues” at the heart of them and provoke the reader to discover a piece of history they might not know about, or consider impacts or viewpoints they might not have recognised before. How difficult is it to ensure that they are always exciting stories and not just didactic tomes?

First and foremost I’m fascinated by people’s lives and how the events in their lives, their actions or the things that happen to them impact on the world. I don’t think when people become refugees or are affected by climate change, face mental health challenges, are newly adopted, experience a death in the family or face homelessness or racism or child hunger that they experience these moments in life as ‘issues.’ I don’t shy away from some of the great challenges young people face today but as a writer I’m interested in nuance and getting beyond ‘issues’ to a multi-layered story. I feel that stories are superpower empathy portholes…and in these reactionary times that feels like a vital porthole to be able to open.

When I set out to write a story I might think I know what’s at the core of it, but my synopsis often bears little relation to the final book! The process of storytelling is an adventure for me. I always get taken by the characters into unexpected realms and it’s a real joy when these discoveries and unravellings are experienced and enjoyed by the reader.

It’s always finding characters, symbols and landscapes that really take me into the dreaming space of stories. The artichoke charm from my first story ‘ Artichoke Hearts’ is a guiding symbol for me; I’m constantly unpeeling the layers of characters and wanting to explore their sensibilities; their hopes, fears and dreams. This is what sparks my imagination and takes me into the heart of the story.  Often, as I write, it’s the characters I had thought were on the periphery that take centre stage because, as in life, it is fascinating to get to know people even when, or perhaps especially when, they may seem to be polar opposites to ourselves.

This is how I discovered characters like Themba and Luca in ‘Where the River Runs Gold’ and Imtiaz and Cosmo in ‘When Secrets Set Sail’. Originally ‘When Secrets Set Sail’ was written only from Usha’s point of view then Imtiaz made me see the error of my ways! And I’ve found that Imtiaz not done with me yet, she and Cosmo wanted their own adventure so they appear again in my World Book Day story next year ‘The River Whale.’

The subjects you include in your stories can be very upsetting, do you sometimes find it difficult to do the research?

I hope that my stories contain the gamut of human experience and although I’m not afraid to tackle the most complex of emotions, I always want my stories to scatter hope-seeds. They are inter-generational stories and one thing I’ve realised that no matter what dire situations the characters face there is always someone there to hold them.

I tend to do hands on research. My preference is to work with people. My work with refugee people since I began work in community theatre has informed my characters in many stories and plays. In art as in life once you take people to heart you don’t want to turn your back on them. So If I write about a difficult subject like someone I know or have worked with has faced then my main concern is to find the truth in that experience and to convey the empathy I feel for the characters that grow out of my research and engagements in community. I think engagement is everything and when you engage with people you are naturally moved by their stories, laughing as well as crying with them.

I often place a space in time between research and writing to allow the thoughts and feelings to distil and settle and to find the freedom to move from fact into fiction.

If I was to set out to write a novel at the stage that the research is on top of me I think there would be a real danger that the work would become didactic, something I would hate for my stories to be. An example of this is the experience of helping an elderly homeless woman bathe her feet in a refuge led me to create the character of Elder in ‘Red Leaves’ who is part bark-skinned homeless woman , part tree and ancient spirit of the ancient caring wood!

When children like Pari in ‘Tender Earth’ or Shifa and Themba in ‘Where The River Runs Gold’ are going hungry and needing to use food banks, as so many children are today, children and young people are feeling the discomfort of that sometimes in their own hunger pains, but when I write I think about creative narrative that both recognise the realities of that and offers hope seeds for transformation.

I think a lot about where children place these feelings that the real world ignites in them.  For me stories are magical empathy portholes… they allow us to dream of coming together to change the things that disempower us and to overcome what might seem insurmountable.

In writing fiction I need to know my story is grounded in truths I have discovered from research but then I need to immerse myself in the storytelling adventure and step into dream time.

Perhaps because of late the world, in Wordsworth words has been ‘too much with us’ in my recent novels I have wanted to explore the potential of magical transformations in relation to the realities the children in my stories face.

The idea of unheard stories and oral histories not being forgotten is huge and important, and  the author’s note at the end of WHEN SECRETS SET SAIL tells us the fascinating inspirations for the Ayahs’ story, but where did Imtiaz and Usha, and the idea of them becoming sisters, come from?

 In unravelling the story of the Ayahs – one of abandonment and care- I was looking for contemporary characters who in one way or another would deeply understand why the Ayah ghost ‘Lucky’ would need to set her spirit free by having her story told.

What moved me about the story of the Ayah nursemaids was the dual abandonment. Ayahs found themselves far from home and abandoned but the children they had cared for must have suffered so deeply too from being torn away from each other. That idea is what led me to grow the characters of Imtiaz and Usha.

I don’t think I realised when I set out how the story is as much about Imtiaz and Usha’s contemporary herstory as it is about the Ayahs… the waves of the colonial story from the Ayah’s time is literally in the bricks and mortar of the home they set aside their differences to save. As I wrote I realised that for contemporary readers the journey of these two very different girls to becoming loving sisters had to be central to their discovery of the history of their home.

I often write about family, friendship, belonging and community and have presented many different kinds of families in my stories. With Imtiaz my idea was to see how a looked after child with the most difficult of starts in the world, given the opportunity to feel secure and loved, might grow.

Usha doesn’t have to make an effort to belong but Imtiaz does. It seemed to me that in microcosm that is a theme that also links to the untold stories of the ayahs … if you know that your story is told you have assurance and ease of your place in it… if like the Ayahs and Imtiaz’s your story is hidden or ‘blocked’ (in the ear of the conch)… then there is effort involved to strive to be heard.

This tension between the girls gave me a lot. Here are two girls with shared migrant identities, but very different starts in life who can’t see each other’s ghosts or empathise with each other- but need to believe in each other if they are to stay sisters and save their home. They were, in many ways, the key to me releasing the Ayah’s story into the world.  I have often said stories are an act of communal making and I have to thank my insightful editor Tig Wallace for keeping the historical quest in this story grounded in the ups and downs of Imtiaz and Usha’s relationship!

I also found in their different early lives an interesting contrast. Between them they share wide diaspora birth families, crossing class, cultures, religions and oceans but who they identify with most strongly are those who care for them and love them. Their deep understanding of this gives them keen instincts to uncover the Ayah story.

I love that you found out about the campaign for a Blue Plaque for the Ayahs’ Home as you were finishing writing the book, the videos on the Hachette schools page are great, and I like the idea of encouraging children to make nominations for a blue plaque, have you thought of any yourself, and has it inspired more story ideas?

It was incredible to press send on my story and then discover this event. Some of the adult characters like Valini in ‘When Secrets Set Sail’ talk about ‘fate’ and ‘things being meant!’ but this really did feel like serendipity at its superpower best!

At this brilliant event at Hackney Libraries I met Rozina Visram whose research was central to discovering the Ayah story and I also met Farhanah Mamoojee a wonderful young historian and activist who has been campaigning for a Blue Plaque to recognise the Ayahs Home. Watch this space!

Sita Brahmachari with Farhanah Mamoojee, outside the Ayahs Home

It’s been a real joy to work together with Farhanah @ayahshome to sit on the steps of the real life houses where the Ayahs lived together and to share in the launch of this story into the world… in many ways I feel as if I have met a grown up Imtiaz!

If I could nominate a Blue Plaque to anyone it would be to

Elyse Dodgson (1945- 2018)

Adopted Londoner!

Visionary educator, international new writing director and enabler of young people’s talent the world over.  Some of her fierce equality seeking spirit and a little of her name has found its way into the character of Delyse in my story. Her first play created with students in her Vauxhall School ‘Motherland’ has been a lifelong inspiration to me.

Elyse gave my first job as a young person leaving university at The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre… as community theatre worker. She told me that my work first and foremost was to listen to the communities and ‘welcome them to storytelling’ so that they find their voice. I’ve never forgotten that.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/nov/02/elyse-dodgson-obituary

(I’m breaking the Blue Plaque rules that someone needs to be deceased for twenty years and I encourage young readers who want to take part in the project to do the same! If they want to nominate a quiet hero or heroine whose alive for this imaginary project – why not!)

Have you done any virtual events this year?

I’ve done quite a few virtual events in different formats this year. In the build up to publication it was wonderful to be invited to be part of the South Asian Literature Festival and to have such positive responses to that from people joining from around the world – a sort of virtual globe window – that’s a real positive.

The virtual launch with The Children’s Book Shop in Muswell Hill was perhaps my favourite because it was in a wonderful real life bookshop! I felt connected with the community.

Jane Ray and I have been continuing our work with refugee people running our art and writing class by gathering around what we’ve now named out ‘Virtual Hearth’ – no matter how hard it is – the connection is so worthwhile.

At this time teachers and librarians have been amazing in their resilience. In the face of so many day to day challenges they have kept the reading for pleasure banner flying high. Like so many authors I’ve been busy adapting and learning new zooming skills and doing virtual events… Dominic Kingston and Felicity Highett at Hachette has been a real support in helping me with this and also Pop Up Festival has offered excellent training… BUT… We’ve all discovered things about ourselves during this time and one of the things I realise is how much I love being in a reality-room/ hall with readers! Over the years I have visited many schools and it is here, in the direct and indirect engagements with readers that I have understood so much about writing. Very often, as I’m talking I will notice there is a child at the periphery of the room who is perhaps doodling and not obviously engaging. I’ll catch their eye and know that something I have written and am talking about has impacted them… I have a treasure hoard of letters and art from these children that often inspire me to write the next book.  

Your recent post for the YLG blog about Library Hearths was brilliant, such tremendous support for libraries and librarians. You talk about imagining pinpointing for your characters “who planted the seeds that make them grow into who they will become”, can you share any of your own influences?

Here are just three of my writer-potential-seed-planters….there are many!

I’ll start at home… with my dad who I believe taught me what a storytelling voice was all about. My little memory in ‘The Book of Hopes,’ envisioned by the wonderful Katherine Rundell during Lockdown, is dedicated to him. Jane Ray gifted this beautiful illustration to accompany my little vignette but readers of my work will have spied dad’s brave, adventurous, caring and good humoured spirit before in Granddad Bimal and in the man in the hat in my co-theatre adaptation of Shaun Tan’s sublime graphic novel ‘The Arrival’. 

Dad by Jane Ray

I had an English and Drama teacher who also acted as librarian who always told me I should be a writer and when I wrote ‘Artichoke Hearts’ and returned to my school Mrs Smith, then quite elderly, queued up for a signed copy. ‘You made me wait but told you so!’ she said! In truth this teacher was also an inspiration to Pat Print – the writing tutor in that story and she knew it!

Elyse Dodgson (whom I nominated a Blue Plaque for above) who took a punt on me… and even though I had little experience employed me as community theatre worker for The Royal Court Young People’s Theatre as my first job as a student straight out of university.

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

I’m reading a lot of new writing manuscripts for ‘The First Chapter Awards’ for the Scottish Book Trust at the moment so as contrast I’m dipping in and out of David Almond’s short stories ‘Counting Stars’ (2016 Hodder Children’s Books). For me voice is such an important aspect of being a writer and I love Almond’s storytelling voice. In these stories about David’s childhood in Tyneside I find so much connection, joy and awe at the natural world. I’m loving them because I have been exploring the universal in the global in my own work and I feel a deep connection to this idea especially now when so many people may feel isolated – These stories are a wonderful reminder that in the drift of a cloud or a river’s flow we are so deeply interconnected and I hear in them a heartening song to the power of children’s imaginations. I would recommend it to anyone who is or who has ever been a child!

What are you working on next?

I’ve been putting the finishing touches to my World Book Day story for next year ‘The River Whale’ illustrated by the wonderful Poonam Mistry in which readers will meet Immy again free-diving in prose and verse! I’ve loved writing it and discovering what a year of having access to fulfilling her dreams has brought her and the world!

On another track I’m working on an illustrated YA story (title not quite set yet!) that I began writing in 2008. It will be published in late 2020 by Stripes. In it my older teen characters are walking a high stakes tight rope between myth, dream and reality.

Thank you so much for your wonderful answers Sita! WHEN SECRETS SET SAIL is out now!

The Story of the Windrush

The story before the scandal. A book to celebrate the inspiring legacy of the Windrush pioneers.

In June 1948, hundreds of Caribbean men, women and children arrived in London on a ship called the HMT Empire Windrush. Although there were already Black people living in Britain at the time, this event marks the beginning of modern Black Britain. Combining historical fact with voices from the Windrush Generation, this book sensitively tells the inspiring story of the Windrush Generation pioneers for younger readers

Scholastic
THE STORY OF THE WINDRUSH

I have had a copy of this book on the shelves of my school library for some time now having bought the self-published version, but this month Scholastic are republishing it with some small changes, and have excitingly commissioned more from the author, Kandace Chimbiri! I asked her some questions to celebrate:

Your previous books for children, through Golden Destiny, were about more distant periods of history, what prompted you to write about the Windrush generation?
Although my previous books for children focused on ancient African history and this one is modern Black British history, they are all motivated by the same desire. I want to share those missing stories and neglected narratives. The arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 is such an important event in modern British history and yet when I looked for a nice book for children about it, I couldn’t find one! I had heard Sam King speak about his life at a few events and I was really inspired by him. I also knew something of my parents’ experiences of coming to Britain in the 1960s. I just felt that children growing up today in Britain (and in the Caribbean too) should be able to read about the Windrush generation pioneers. 

How did you begin your research, and choose which of the hundreds of voices from the ship to highlight?
I was fortunate to have a DVD called Windrush Pioneers so I sat down and listened to it again for the first time in about 10 years. It had interesting interviews with Sam King, Allan Wilmot, Peter Dielhenn and several others. I read Allan Wilmott’s biography (I had also heard Allan Wilmott speak a couple of times at events). I asked my parents a few questions, things that I had never asked them before! I just chose the voices which appealed to me.  There was no real thought to it! I loved how Alford Gardner described his journey with people from other Caribbean islands meeting each other.

Have you done much work with children around the book? Since lockdown have you done any virtual events?
I have done a few virtual events during lockdown. For more than ten years I have been giving talks and museum tours around Black history. I’m used to speaking face to face and enjoying in person interaction. I never thought I would get used to virtual doing virtual events but now I love it! I do a 30-min ‘Meet the Author’ session for children aged 8 to 12. I give a short overview about the book, why and how I wrote it, why it’s important followed by time for the children to ask questions.

Did Scholastic suggest any changes to the book before republishing it? How different is it working on a new book with a big publisher?
Scholastic have been brilliant and I am really happy with the way they’ve improved the book.  It’s a completely different experience working with a big publisher and so far I am loving it. As you know I originally self published The Story of the Windrush. That’s hard because you have to make all the decisions yourself about artists, layout, style, everything! And, I’m really pleased with the new edition of the book. Scholastic have kept the same overall look but there are better captions on the illustrations (both the drawings and the photos). They have also tidied up some of the wording to make it even clearer for readers. And I am especially happy with the tweaks to the map of the British Empire. That’s important for educators.

Have you thought about writing historical fiction?
Not really. I just don’t think I’d be very good at writing historical fiction. I’d love the research side of it but I don’t think I’m that good at making up interesting characters and compelling plots. There are lots of children that love factual books and I’m quite happy writing for them.

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?
A Member of the RAF of Indeterminate Race. It’s about Cy Grant’s experience during the Second World War when he was shot down over Nazi Germany. He was from Guyana (or British Guiana as it was called then). It’s interesting but also educational.

What can we expect from you next?
My next book is going to be a sort of a prequel to The Story of the Windrush. I’m working on it now and it’s slowly starting to take shape. I still have more research to do though so it could all change of course….and probably will!

Huge thanks to Kandace for answering my questions!

THE STORY OF THE WINDRUSH is published in the UK on 15th October 2020 by Scholastic

Thank You Joseph Coelho

Tatenda says thank you every day, wherever he can. Thank you to Mom and Dad for making breakfast, thank you to the post lady for delivering his favorite comic, thank you to his teacher for marking his work and thank you to the shop worker stacking shelves. But lately, it seems no one can hear his thank yous: their heads are too foggy with worry. So Tatenda decides to say his biggest “Thank you” ever. He stands on tiptoe, brings his arms down like a huge rainbow . . . and this time, his thank you helps the whole community feel better!

Frances Lincoln Books
Thank You, with words by Joseph Coelho and pictures by Sam Usher

THANK YOU is a beautiful book. Joseph was inspired by the Clap for Carers during lockdown and royalties from the book are being donated to Groundwork UK, a federation of charities nationwide “mobilising practical community action on poverty and the environment”. Sam Usher’s illustrations are full of movement and so joyful, really bringing the words to life.

I’ve long loved Joseph Coelho, as a performer and writer, and when Frances Lincoln offered the chance to interview him about THANK YOU I jumped at the chance, while cheekily asking him about other recent titles with other publishers as well – he really is unstoppable at the moment!

The last few years have seen you publish poetry collections, novels, and picture books (as well as plays) for all ages of children and young people! When you have an idea, do you immediately know what you want to do with it or does the form come as you start writing?
What a super question. I don’t know immediately it’s a bit of trial and error, I have found however that if a story is deep enough it can often work for several mediums. Such as my poem If All The World Were Paper which was first published in Werewolf Club Rules but became a starting point for my picture book with Allison Colpoys If All The World Were...

THANK YOU is full of movement. Did you have an idea of how it should be illustrated or did you hand the text to Sam Usher to run with?
All picture books are really a collaboration between writer, illustrator, designer and editor so it’s hugely important that there is space for everyone to express themselves through the book. I am now in the habit of not thinking too much about the visuals, I focus on making sure the text works by itself, that the story is clear with or without illustrations so that the illustrator has scope to really put their mark on the book.

THE GIRL WHO BECAME A TREE, Otter Barry Books, is strikingly illustrated by Kate Milner

What is it about Daphne’s story that inspired you to write THE GIRL WHO BECAME A TREE?
I’ve always been interested in physical transformations as metaphor for internal change. It’s poetry made manifest. So when I came across the greek myth of Daphne it felt like the ideal subject for a story I’d been working on about a girl dealing with the death of her father. As with all the myths there are so many layers and ways to interpret that it felt like  a gift to explore through poetry.

ZOMBIERELLA is deliciously different, first of a 3 part series, but are there other fairy tales you would like to retell?
There are!  Book 2 is based on Rumplestiltskin and is called Frankenstiltskin. I have many ideas in development for many of the other tales some of which get a mention by the Librarian at the start of Zombierella who has discovered a section of the library full of fairytales that have gone bad, so I have a library to fill!

ZOMBIERELLA, Walker Books, is brilliantly illustrated by Freya Hartas

What is your favourite kind of event to do with/for children? How have you found digital events?
I love doing festival events with large audiences, you get a real sense of togetherness and occasion. I thrive off of getting large audiences to interact with each other.  I love the joy that can be generated as students hear their peers from different schools coming up with poetic lines or add to a group poem with people they’ve only just met.
Making everything digital has been interesting, it’s definitely far more time consuming than expected with even a five minute video taking the best part of a day but it is wonderful that we have this technology available to get us through these difficult periods.

Librarians across the country are so grateful for your enormous support, what drives that passion?
Libraries have always featured heavily in my life, from living on estates where I had a library next door, to my first Saturday job, to working at the British library whilst studying at UCL, to touring theatre shows designed to be performed in libraries. I’m immensely grateful to libraries and the services they provide for turning me into a reader and by association a writer. I also sincerely believe that library provision it key to helping communities thrive so it really is an honour to be in a position where I can celebrate these wonderful spaces.

One of my favourite pages from THANK YOU

What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?
I’m a serial dipper and always have several books on the go at present I’m reading Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, a book that everyone should read. I’m also reading an anthology of short stories on the theme of the sea published by the British Library called From The Depths and Other Strange Tales Of The Sea Edited by Mike Ashley – Recommended for anyone who likes a shot of creepy adventure. I’m also a big book listener and am currently listening to Children Of Time By Adrian Tchaikovsky for all sci-fi fans who aren’t scared of spiders!

What can we expect from you next?
I have a busy year ahead with book 2 of Fairytales Gone Bad and some more picture books coming out. I’m also working on a brand new middle grade adventure series which is yet to be read by anyone! Eeeek! But I love this period because at the moment it’s just me telling a story to myself or rather hearing characters tell me their story.

Joe Coelho Portraits Hay Festival 2018

Joseph Coelho is an award winning poet and performer from London, although he now lives by the sea. In 2019 he won the Independent Bookshop Week Picture Book Award for If All the World Were. He has been long-listed for The Carnegie Children’s Award with his poetry collection ‘Overheard In A Tower Block’, which was also shortlisted for the CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award and Longlisted for the UKLA Book Awards. He won the 2015 CLPE CLiPPA Poetry Award with his debut poetry collection Werewolf Club Rules. His debut Picture Book, Luna Loves Library Day was voted one of the nations favourite picture books by a survey led by World Book Day. His other poetry books include How To Write Poems and A Year Of Nature Poems

Moonchild: Voyage of the Lost and Found

Twelve year old Amira has only ever known a life at sea with her sea-witch mothers. So when their ship is wrecked in a great storm, Amira is delighted to have an opportunity to explore land – accompanied by her best friend Namur – a jinn in cat form. Amira soon finds a boy who has a jinn like her, and learns that their spirit companions are connected to the mysterious storm that gets stronger each day.

When Namur goes missing Amira discovers she has to visit a magical place; a place where lost things can be found. But will Amira also discover her own destiny, and find out what it truly means to be a Moonchild?

The Sahar Peninsula is a place that lies just beyond the horizon. If you’ve ever tried to reach the horizon, you’ll realize it isn’t the easiest to get to. No maps will take you there, nor can it be charted by gazing up at the stars, or down at a compass.

If you’re wondering who I am, and why I’m telling you this story, you’ll have to wait for quite some time to find out. It’s a secret, you understand. And I need to know that you’re the right person to keep it.

Are you?

I’m not so sure just yet.

Now that we’ve introduced ourselves, shall we begin?

MOONCHILD
MOONCHILD: VOYAGE OF THE LOST AND FOUND, illustration by Rachael Dean


Illustrated by Rachael Dean

MOONCHILD: VOYAGE OF THE LOST AND FOUND is Aisha Bushby’s second book, and I had high hopes after A POCKETFUL OF STARS was such a uniquely brilliant read (watch her read some of APOS here). It is completely different, but just as satisfying! It is about adventure and science and magic and family and relationships, with a narrator occasionally bringing you out of the action to remind you that every adventure is a story, but that ‘stories never start at the beginning and they never ever finish at the end’. And, my new favourite piece of advice, from Jamila (one of Amira’s mothers), is:

All great adventures begin with a nap.

Amira is well cared for, by her two mothers, who encourage her magic (she can smell emotions) but know that it wouldn’t be looked upon kindly by others. As they spend most of their time at sea it isn’t a problem and Amira is very sheltered, but on visiting a souk while they’re docked for repairs after a storm, she starts to uncover some secrets and mysteries related to where she came from…she also makes a friend, and the developing relationship really builds the characters. The occasional gorgeous black and white illustration (and two stunning double page spreads) highlights the personality of the characters and builds up the tension in the nerve-wracking parts (there are some *very* nerve-wracking parts). The young friends problem solve together and I’m so excited that there are more adventures to come.

After having interviewed Aisha around the launch of her debut, I jumped at the chance to read this new novel and ask her another round of questions!

Before writing these questions I read a Netgalley eProof rather than a physical copy. I prefer to read hardcopy because, unless I really concentrate, I accidentally skim read a screen & miss things! Which prompts me to ask whether you have a format preference when you’re reading?

Both! I like to read on a screen before bed (so I can lie down and have the light off), and a book during the day.

A POCKETFUL OF STARS was a fantasy grounded in reality, whereas this is a completely new world. Did you find that gave you more freedom to tell the story or did it make it trickier to structure it?

A bit of both! On the one hand, in MOONCHILD I was able to bend/rewrite my own rules to solve plot holes, which I couldn’t do so much with STARS. On the other hand, I had to spend a lot more time creating a world (including the rules I had planned to bend) from scratch. But I really enjoyed the challenge!

I love the mix of science & magic, was Leo a scientist as soon as he came to you or did it evolve as you thought about the rules of magic?

My stories change dramatically from draft to draft, so it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment I made that choice. but I knew I wanted science to frame my magical rules, to keep them in check.

The Stormbird and its influence is based on the second law of ecology: everything must go somewhere. Once I figured this out, it helped the rest of the plot unfold, and inspired a few other details.

Leo was the natural choice for the role of scientist in the group, because Amira’s skills lie in seafaring, and I needed him to bring something to the table, too. I also see the certainty of science as a comfort to him, given his background.

Last time I interviewed you I asked about your planned school visits. Did talking to school children about A POCKETFUL OF STARS alter your approach to your second novel?

I was really nervous when A POCKETFUL OF STARS was released. It’s not exactly a light-hearted read, but speaking to children, and seeing how they related to the book and how deeply they think about things was inspiring.

It gave me the confidence to write about subjects like emotions and mental health for that audience, (albeit from a more adventure-driven perspective) knowing that they’re receptive to it.

Have you done any remote events in recent months or are you crossing your fingers for in-person events again ASAP?

I’ve done a few, and I really enjoy them! As much as I miss in-person events, I don’t plan on attending them unless I know it’s going to be completely safe. But I think we have the opportunity to explore more remote options that provide a greater level of accessibility for everyone involved.

I will always ask: What are you reading at the moment and who would you recommend it to?

I am very lucky to be reading My Life As A Cat by Carlie Sorosiak, which I would recommend to everyone, but especially people who (like me) love cats. Her writing is sublime.

I didn’t know there was more to come, was that your intention when you started to write or did you realise that your characters had more stories to tell as you were writing?

Because the structure is loosely inspired by The Arabian Nights, with short stories and a narrator, it allowed me to explore each character and their desires fully.

I wrote the first book with the intention that it could work as a standalone, but I also imagined other books told from different character perspectives.

Do you know how long a series it will be? Is it taking up all your writing time or have you got other projects you’re thinking about too?

I’m currently editing the second MOONCHILD book… And that’s all I’ll say for now. 😀

I’m always thinking of other projects, but it’s good to have a few sit there and see which end up sticking. That’s actually how MOONCHILD came about – it was a book I wasn’t supposed to write, but one that wouldn’t go away.

Aisha Bushby, the author of MOONCHILD: VOYAGE OF THE LOST AND FOUND

Thank you to Egmont for inviting me to be part of the tour, and to Aisha for answering my questions. This first books is on sale from 6th August 2020, and I’m really looking forward to reading their further adventures soon!

Dream Team

Meet the Dream Team! They turn nightmares into incredible adventures in this fast-paced first book in the series written and illustrated by the award-winning Tom Percival.
Erika’s had a bad day and struggles with her emotions, especially her temper. But going to sleep upset means bad dreams. She finds herself stranded in the Dreamscape along with a mob of hungry Heebie Jeebies – and to make matters worse, she’s being hunted by a terrifying Angermare! Only the Dream Team can help save Erika now and help her overcome her worries and get home, or will she be trapped forever?Attack of the Heebie Jeebies is the launch title in this fun and engaging two-colour illustrated series, exploring anxiety in in children through action and adventure. With echoes of Dreamworks’s Inside Out and The Incredibles Dream Team is a great way to introduce children to managing their anger, especially if they have a bad case of the heebie-jeebies!

Attack of the Heebie Jeebies

The second book in the fun and adventure-packed Dream Team series, Erika returns to tackle some more nightmares in the dreamscape, in this case the jitters!
Erika’s friend Kris is HILARIOUS. She thinks he should perform in their
school’s talent show, but he’s far too nervous.
And when Erika gets a call from the Dream Team to help on a mission, she meets another girl who is struggling with confidence. Chanda’s dream is being attacked by the jitters and nothing seems to be going right.
Try as they might, the team can’t get control of her dream – until Erika realizes that there is a connection between Chanda and Kris. Can she help Chanda to find some confidence before the jitters take over completely?
The perfect book for children to learn how to overcome anxiety and nervousness in a digestible and entertaining way.

A Case of the Jitters

Tom Percival’s Big Bright Feelings picturebooks for Bloomsbury are brilliant introductions to emotions for younger children, and in his new series for Macmillan Children’s he tackles the big subject of anxiety and related emotions (starting the series with with bad tempers and self confidence) but in short, highly illustrated chapter books for a middle grade audience (age 5+). Some dark stuff happens in bad dreams (just wait until you meet the Bone Cobble in A Case of the Jitters!) but I just love the humour in these books that balances it out nicely. There is properly witty banter between the characters, pitched perfectly for the younger reader but also funny to an older child (and any grownups reading with them), and the characters are great fun. His dreamscapes are really inventive but I also like that Erika’s real-world relationships are developed. I think these books would be great to read with a child to see what conversations they spark around feelings and worries, but they are also just great fun reads…and make sure you read the acknowledgements, heehee!

TEACHERS/SCHOOL LIBRARIANS: They would be wonderful to read with a class, and here are some lesson plans (with links to audio of the first two chapters) to whet your appetite!

Thank you to Macmillan Kids for inviting me to be part of the tour, and sending review copies of these two wonderful titles! I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens next in the series.

The Diverse Book Awards

This morning the longlists for The Diverse Book Awards were announced, created by The Author School to showcase the talent of marginalised voices, and the books started arriving at my house to read!

I’m really please that two of my fellow judges are actual teenagers, reading the children’s and YA lists, and the awards also teamed up with blogger and photographer Tenelle Ottley-Matthew, to help spread the love, so do keep your eye on her blog, insta and twitter!

The Children’s Longlist:

The YA Longlist:

The Adult Longlist:

To be eligible, the author has to be UK based and the book had to be published in the UK in 2019. I’ve already read all the YA and most of the children’s lists, all brilliant titles that I’m looking forward to rereading with the criteria in mind, to help choose the shortlist and eventual winner! I’ve read one of the grownup books so far…

When Stars are Scattered

Omar and his brother Hassan, two Somali boys, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Separated from their mother, they are looked after by a friendly stranger. Life in the camp isn’t always easy and the hunger is constant . . . but Omar devotes everything to taking care of his young brother and pursuing his education.

Faber

This is set to be one of my favourite graphic novels of all time. You will laugh, cry, rage, and cheer many times over the course of the book, a study in empathy, as Omar and Hassan experience the ups and downs of life in a refugee camp with the dream of resettling in America hanging over their heads. It is based on Omar Mohamed’s account of real experiences of growing up, so obviously the relationships are real, but they are brought off the page so beautifully and in so few words, through the skillful work of Victoria Jamieson (brilliantly coloured by Iman Geddy).

Narrated by Omar, we see his perspective of the environment and people, and how it changes when he was feeling hopeful or down. Bad things do happen to them, as well as good things, and Omar talks them through and shares his feelings with the reader. One panel that really struck me was after Omar had been talking to a friend who’s family had been chosen to be resettled, he tries so hard to be positive all the time but can’t help but think “It’s not fair”. He tells us:

…Of course, thinking like this doesn’t do you any good. Somalis even have a word for it. BUFIS. It means the intense longing to be resettled. It’s almost like your mind is already living somewhere else, while your body is stuck in a refugee camp…

We first meet Omar and his brother Hassan once they have already been living in the camp for a long time (have a read of the first chapter in the extract) and the way their journey to the camp is told to us, as it recounted in Omar’s UN interview for potential resettlement, is really powerful. We follow them for years, until Omar is 18, and I was particularly moved by the relationship with Fatuma, how they came to be together, and how Omar realised more and more with age how lucky they all were to have one another.

Enjoy this exclusive extract of WHEN THE STARS ARE SCATTERED

It does have a happy and hopeful ending for Omar and Hassan, but doesn’t let you forget the thousands more people still stuck in the limbo of refugee camps. I think this is essential reading for, well, everyone aged 8+ frankly.

Huge thanks to Faber for sending me a copy for review and inviting me to join the blog tour. WHEN STARS ARE SCATTERD is out in the UK now!