Recommendations: Great Examples of Friendship in Recent Children’s Books and YA

I thought it might be good to recommend a few books that model good friendships. This seems especially useful in YA, where the relationship focus is so often on romance rather than friendship, although the reality in teen life is that a lot of emotional energy and time is devoted to friends.

Remix, Non Pratt

YA Contemporary about a ‘best friend’ relationship and all the complexities that entails. It takes place over the weekend of a music festival and deals with fandom, loyalty and the ways friendships change as teenagers get older and start to have sexual relationships. Dual narration by the two protags, with convincing voices. Authentic and engaging for KS5 and 4.

Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo

YA Fantasy heist novel about a group of outsiders who are effectively forced by circumstances to work together. Their relationship (as they negotiate it) is what makes this brilliant story work so well. The representations in this book are also fab with a truly diverse cast including in terms of disability and sexuality. Multiple narration, so you get to know each character’s outlook. First in a duology. Good for KS5 and 4

Mind the Gap, Phil Earle

YA Contemporary about a boy who’s falling apart since his Dad died, so his best mate helps him recover something of his Dad to help him cope. A really touching story which, unusually, covers male friendship. This is a Barrington Stoke book, so it’s dyslexia friendly – printed in a special font on yellowish, non-glare paper and using a controlled vocabulary. (If you’re unfamiliar with Barrington Stoke’s brilliant work on ‘super-readable books’, do check out their website.) Good for KS3-4

Murder Most Unladylike, Robin Stevens

MG Mystery featuring a fantastic friendship at the heart between Daisy, a classic 1920s boarding-school girl and Hazel, from Hong Kong, who doesn’t always quite know the social norms of the UK. Relationships with other girls at the school also feature and become increasingly important in this hugely popular murder mystery series, narrated by Hazel who plays a ‘Watson’-type role in the girls’ Detective Society. Great for KS3

Perijee and Me, Ross Montgomery

MG Fantasy focusing on Perijee who is an alien being who appears on the beach one day and is at first kept secret but then must be protected from the world of adults. Perijee arrives just when Caitlin is feeling really lonely as her parents are very busy with important work and school is hard for her, but Perijee grows to an enormous and impossible-to-hide size and then the story becomes a mad chase. This is an unpredictable, zany story with a lovely emotional heart. Great for KS3.

Reading Recommendation Slide 2: Comedic Reads

Here’s a new slide for this week. I just leave these up while I take the register and allow students to read the info and decide whether they want to find any of these books. It’s another of my attempts to widen their reading and help them find books they might enjoy as there are certainly plenty of those out there, and the curriculum doesn’t always make it easy for us to present students with a pleasurable reading experience.

This week’s theme is comedy.

Download the slide here:

Comedy

Last week’s was books for fans of Lemony Snicket. Some links will be thematic, some topical, some more English-y. Please do let me know if you have ideas/suggestions/requests for future possible links.

Introducing Reading Recommendations as a Register/Settling Task: Slide no. 1: for Fans of Lemony Snicket

I’m going to be sharing a slide here every Sunday. These are slides I use at the beginning of lessons while I’m taking the register – I simply display them for students to look at and take note of anything they fancy reading. I’ll occasionally comment on/discuss the titles or the reason I’ve chosen this week’s topics, but over time students get used to the idea and I found last year that some started asking me for particular genres or topics. Some of these will be grouped by topic and may be topical (e.g. for Black History Month or International Women’s Day), while others will be clustered around more English-focused ideas (such as multiple narrators). Note that I’ve been using these with KS4 and 5 (I haven’t taught KS3 for a while until this year, but I do intend to show them to KS3 classes too).

This week’s selection is for students who have enjoyed A Series of Unfortunate Events, whether that’s the book series, or the recent brilliant Netflix show. They are all therefore somewhat dark and quirky.

For fans of Lemony Snicket – download the file here

I hope these slides will be of use to some of you.

Writing Funny Books for Children by M L Peel

Today at the Hearthfire, we are privileged to be visited by the fabulous M L Peel, author of The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, out now from Walker Books and a great fun summer read. Here is a brilliant authorly meditation on laughter and humour in children’s books.

The first time my daughter really laughed, she was around five months old. We were in the bathroom blowing bubbles. Pop. Pop. Pop. I burst them with my finger, and each time I burst one, she gave a little giggle. But then, I failed to blow one. Bubble-less, I was left fat cheeked, puffing into the air. My daughter stared in confusion, and then, from deep within her belly, there erupted a gurgling torrent of laughter.

When we had stopped laughing along with her, my husband and I stared at each other in amazement. Our baby could not yet feed herself or even sit up unaided, and yet she had just displayed a fully-fledged sense of humour: she had laughed at the incompetence of her bubble blowing mother.

I finished writing my first comic novel for children ‘The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair’ a year before my daughter was born, but it is only since observing her instinctive sense of humour, that I have really stopped to consider just how important laughter is to children’s emotional development, as important in its own way as food and water, touch and movement.

Laughter is bonding. It unites a family. Funny books make reading together a shared joyful experience. When reading together is a pleasure, parents will be inspired to do it more often, and children will concentrate for longer. Funny books foster a love of reading in general, a love that will last well into adulthood and be passed down into the next generation.

Even base bodily humour can be educational when it helps to keep children turning the pages. When I wrote my book The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair, I was aware that the concept of ‘phartling’ would be off putting for some adults. Many agents rejected the manuscript with a cursory glance at the synopsis. One agent wrote to tell me that “whilst the odd whizz popper may be amusing, a whole book about them will not be.” One posh London primary school cancelled my school visit over fears that parents would feel they had put “unsuitable material into the hands of children.” (My favourite rejection letter ever…)

In one sense, the agent who wrote to tell me that a “whole book about whizzpoppers” would not be amusing was right. But had she read the book, I hope she would have discovered that whilst it’s full of whizzpoppers it’s not really about them. Whizz-poppers are the pretext that let me talk about our society’s obsession with instant fame, without, I hope, ever sounding worthy or pompous. The farcical nature of ‘phartling’ allows me to discuss (amongst many other things…) both Mozart’s work for opera and stranger-danger, two topics which, in their different ways, would indeed be ‘unsuitable material for children’ if presented in a more serious context. When I talk to children on school visits, after the initial sniggers, it is rarely the ‘phartling’ they dwell on: instead they enthuse to me about the parrot disguised as an owl; or the Duke of Phartesia’s moustache done up in curlers; or Agent Frogmarch shouting at the spoilt celebrity parents….

As well as being bonding, laughter is sometimes punitive. Anyone who has been a child knows, laughter can be cruel as well as joyful. One thing I have been mindful of when writing is to avoid poking fun at ‘easy targets’. I have tried to make the rich and the powerful the butt of my jokes (excuse the pun, I just can’t help it…), rather than the weak or vulnerable.

Since my daughter has been born, I have become even more conscious of the way in which girls and female characters are portrayed in children’s fiction. My characters are deliberately larger than life and so can sometimes sail close to stereotypes, but I have tried to make sure that I tease men, women and children equally. A few friends have asked if I could put their children into a book, or name a character after them, but since my characters are rarely one hundred percent pleasant, this is a request I have had to decline!

Above all, I try to remember the weird and wonderful things that made me laugh as a child, and to use those memories as my inspiration, (so for instance, the origami loo paper is a standing joke in my family). I also try to make myself laugh as an adult and to include a few jokes especially for the parents reading aloud to their children. Sometimes, I have to sit down to write when I am not feeling particularly funny, but if I haven’t cheered up by the end of my writing session, I know I’ll probably end up going back and deleting most of what I’ve written later. If I’m not laughing, why should anybody else be…

What a fascinating post! Thank you so much. 
 
If this has whetted your appetite for a funny summer read, The Fabulous Phartlehorn Affair is available now.

Interview with Michelle Lovric, author of The Fate in the Box

Today I’m really excited to welcome Michelle Lovric to the Hearthfire to tell us about her love of Italy (and Venice in particular) and her latest book, The Fate in the Box which I recently read and loved.

Firstly, how did you come to be interested in all things Italian? My introduction toItaly was somewhat coincidental: my A-Level French teacher was an Italian (Lorenzo Chiarotti), who offered Italian GCSE in a year as an optional extra to those of us in his French class. I probably wouldn’t have become aware of the language and culture in the same way if it hadn’t been for him. Funny how life can be a series of fortunate coincidences! 

How lucky that an Italian teacher came into your life at such a formative age. But you must have had some inclination in that direction to have chosen to do his optional extra? Or was he just as incredibly dashing as ‘Lorenzo Chiarotti’ sounds?
I loved languages and was good at them. I’d have opted for any language that was offered, I think!
My background is Serbian Irish Australian. I was never given a chance to study Italian at school, though I loved Latin. I was like Byron in that Italy, and particularly Venice, was ‘the greenest island in my imagination’ even before seeing the place. (In no other way am I like Byron, however. In fact, I intensely dislike his poetry, though his letters are fun – if you like cruelty and exaggeration). When I was able to travel, Venicewas the first place I went, and I immediately signed an invisible contract for life.
I learned Italian ‘per la strada’, as they say. I did start to have private lessons with Ornella Tarantola from the Italian Bookshop in London, but after six weeks I had enough vocabulary to chat about life, Venice, men, clothes and food. The lessons promptly stopped and we became close friends instead. We still are. I began to read in Italian, and to speak it regularly. I learned a great deal more Italian dealing with plumbers, librarians and books in the Marciana library. Then I had to give a couple of lectures in Italian when I was trying to save the column of infamy of Bajamonte Tiepolo, the villain of my first two children’s novels, from the dusty room in the Palazzo Ducale where it still lies … sadly. And when The Undrowned Child was published in Italian, I had to present it to a conference of booksellers. I’m still learning all the time, and speaking it every day.
I really enjoyed reading The Fate in the Box (as did my eldest daughter – 14 – who fancied it after seeing me with it!). One of the things I found most intriguing was all the automata. I love the idea that automating everything made people lazy and unable to do things for themselves any more – a great form of social control! But I really wanted to ask where that initial spark of an idea came from. Were you consciously thinking of a way to mirror our computerised world without using computers as such? Was it a steampunky thing? 

I am so glad you enjoyed The Fate and thank you for the lovely review.
I’m a little unsure about Steampunk, and had to get my god-daughter to explain it to me, at least in fashion terms. As far as I understand it, I am proto-Steampunking in the book.
So it was not a race to join a genre that inspired The Fate. I was thinking about how little we use our bodies these days, except in order to beautify and display them, and about how idleness has become prized as something in which the spoilt and rich can indulge. Some people pamper themselves in passive ways – massages, facials, spas. Most of all, the rich have the luxury of time, as well as financial wealth.
But all that idleness always costs someone … whether it is a child working in a dangerous factory in Pakistanto create a designer spa dressing gown or a subsistence farmer in Moroccogrinding Argan nuts for oil. And somehow all the pleasure seems to accumulate at the top of the pyramid, with very little down below, where the work is done.
I wanted to remind young readers that luxury always costs more than money and frequently costs human misery. So I personified that issue in my child characters: Amneris, Tockle and Biri are respectively poor, very poor and starving. Meanwhile Latenia and her brother Maffeo are rich. Yet all their privileges and treats only partially hide the fact that their father does not care about them except as pawns in his ambitious games. Meanwhile Latenia and Maffeo are indulged with revolving cake stands and mechanical toys.
The automata of The Fate in the Box are meant to be both a little menacing and a little ridiculous. The need to wind them up creates a slave race of Winder Uppers. And my young characters soon realize that they must liberate the slaves in order to make Venice a decent place again.
I’ve read and enjoyed others of your books (must read your adult novels!) and always appreciate the historical notes you include in the children’s books. I think they add a lot to our enjoyment of the book, and it’s natural to be curious about the reality behind the story after reading. But which comes first for you: the history you want to include, or the plot?  

I am so glad you like the historical notes. I do them in all my novels and I’ve only ever had one person sneer about it in a review; mostly people are happy and interested. I know that schools make use of them too.
History is a starting point for me, but more of a springboard than anything as I write historical fantasy. I usually find an idea that intrigues me, and it always comes from real history. Just now, for example, I have discovered that there several eminent and talented parrots living on the Grand Canal in the late nineteenth century, and I do see the beginnings of a possible story in that. The children’s book I am currently writing was partly inspired by the Treasures of Heaven exhibition of saintly relics at the BritishMuseuma few years ago.
But an idea is not enough. Then I have to hear a voice in my head. A little personality starts reaching into the historical setting, burrowing around and finding a place for itself. Then it finds a problem – for without problems there would be no drama and without drama, nothing more than pageantry. And that personality that acquires accoutrements that mean it belongs to the only person who can possibly disentangle the knotted network of catastrophe I have carefully constructed to entrap all the characters.
Place is also hugely important in my writing. Venice is always a character in my books. Veniceis special for me. Well, she’s special for everyone, but my whole writing life is invested in her. I always write about her, and my entire lifetime will be too short to explore all the stories she offers me. And of course I have spent many years restoring a gothic building there, so I am invested in all sorts of other ways too.  I’ve always had a thing about living in a house with a name rather than a number, and Venice offers lots of joy in that department too. My forthcoming adult novel is set in a palazzo that rejoices in the name Ca’ Coccina Tiepolo Papadopoli. When I went there to write it, it was the week before the builders moved in. Two years later, it has now been restored as a luxury hotel, with my character’s bedroom heavily featured on the website, which feels odd.
Rather horribly, I tend to judge people by their sensitivity to Venice. There are people who truly are Venice-blind, who don’t see anything special in the place, who say that she isn’t very different to Manchester. Or they complain that the Venetians are not very friendly, or that their city has a strange smell. If you were part of a population of 59000 and shrinking, and you were invaded by 22 million tourists annually, some of them bellowing at you in their language – might you not be a little withdrawn? And of course Venice smells. She is an urban seaside, an antique port. She smells of the past, of salt, of seaweed, of crabs, of wet stone. She smells delicious!
As my blog readers may know, I write educational textbooks and teaching resources as well as working on some fiction projects. So for me, it’s quite obvious how my career as a teacher has led me into writing (or at least publishing – writing’s always there). What about you? How do the various pieces of your career(s) slot together? I know you worked in publishing before (I loved your blog post on window displays for your books), but what led you to pool all your interests and specialisms into writing? 

Yes, I know several teachers who have found their way into writing and publishing. The urge to share information is common to writers and teachers, and when one speaks of children, then there must also be the urge infuse joy and fun into that process.
It is only in the last three years that I have learned that I like teaching! At least I love teaching one-to-one. I have been teaching writing skills to art history students at the Courtauld, as one of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows. Until then, I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much.
From childhood, I was always in a hurry to write, edit, arrange and generally deal with the written word. I wrote and illustrated my first picture book at twelve.
I first trained as a journalist. Then I worked in publishing. I have done just about everything in publishing except sell an actual book: editorial, design, production, foreign rights. Finally, I became a packager, which means coming up with ideas for books, selling them to publishers and then researching, writing, designing and producing them. But all along I wanted to write fiction. I wrote poetry, and made endless notes for the novel I would one day find the time to write. My packaging business was a seven day a week commitment, with many late nights too, so the novel never seemed about to happen. But finally one of my packaged books became a New York Times bestseller. I was in New York, doing publicity for Love Letters an Anthology of Passion, when my publisher dropped the newspaper in my lap. As soon as I saw my listing, I knew my life could change, and I decided that it would change in the way in which I wanted … so I took two months off work and wrote my first novel, Carnevale. I’m now writing my tenth novel, another one for children …
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions. 

Thank you so much for asking me!

Guest Blog: Maudie Smith on Rules! Rules! Rules!

Yes! It’s Opal Moonbaby time again! Maudie Smith’s fabulous debut impressed me last year and now the sequel is out. 

About Zooming Time, Opal Moonbaby is out now (published 7th Feb) from Orion Children’s Books.

I can’t wait to see how Opal fares in her new life with Martha. We’re very fortunate to have Maudie stopping here at the Hearthfire on her blog tour to give us a bit more insight into her (and Opal’s) world.

Sometimes growing up can seem to be all about rules. Rules are everywhere: at the table, in the bathroom, in the street, at grandma’s house, in the cinema, on the bus. Do this, do that, watch out for those, don’t run here, don’t walk there, mind your language, mind the gap and while you’re about it, pull your socks up! It’s exhausting. Talk about multi-tasking. When we send our children out into the world there are just so many different ways they can get it wrong. We might as well be sending them out onto an ice-covered minefield with a basket of eggs to juggle – actually  I think I may just have inadvertently described what it’s like to write a book, but I digress.
In order to learn children do have to get it wrong. It’s all about trial and error and this can lead to painful, awkward and embarrassing situations.
Opal Moonbaby gets it wrong. Super wrong. All the time. That’s because she’s an alien. She thinks you can swallow carrots whole and she tries to eat popcorn kernels before they’ve been popped. Yuk! She doesn’t know much about human etiquette. How would she know who it’s OK to pick your nose in front of? For all she knows, humans might sniff each other’s bottoms. After all, humans’ pet dogs do that. Opal Moonbaby makes a lot of social blunders but the great thing about Opal is that she doesn’t really notice or care. This is clearest of all when Opal joins Martha at her school, Archwell Park Primary.
At school, children learn a whole new set of rules. Some of them are simple ‘dos and don’ts’ and may appear in the official school rules, but others are more subtle and learned over time, almost through osmosis. For example, children don’t talk to teachers in the same way that they talk to people their own age and that’s because somewhere along the line they have learned to be respectful, or at least to be circumspect. Martha has learned how to keep a low profile in the classroom which the strict and sarcastic Mrs Underedge controls with a rod of iron.
But the words ‘low’ and ‘profile’ aren’t in Opal’s vocabulary. She pays very little attention to either circumstances or consequences. She hasn’t practised the art of conversing with adults, does not know not to answer back. She doesn’t understand sarcasm either so, not surprisingly, she and the teacher, whom she hugs enthusiastically at their first meeting, get off on completely the wrong foot.
Children are so busy being trained all the time I think – I hope – it will be a relief for them to read about someone as free and untrained as Opal Moonbaby. Opal might not be an ideal role model for children to follow, but she’ll definitely give them an entertaining break from the serious business of becoming ‘socialised’.
Opal seems pretty quiet and demure in this illustration but just look at Martha. She knows what’s coming!
‘I think that I am going to absolutely love being in Merry

Class and I’ll bet you’re a zooming fantastic teacher,

Mrs On-the-edge.’
What a great post! As a teacher, I’m very glad that children have characters like Opal to misbehave vicariously through 🙂 Thank you so much for visiting today – and for sharing Opal with us! Here’s what the blurb tells us:

The second in this sparkling series about the alien who came to stay!

And this time, she’s going to school…

Opal Moonbaby is spending a year on Earth. A whole year! Martha can’t wait to take her to school, to introduce her to her friends and to recreate all the fun they had during the summer.

But things don’t turn out quite as expected and before Martha knows it, Opal is off making new friends, doing new things and throwing herself into life on Earth – and Martha can’t keep up.

When Opal’s Uncle Bixie warns them that the nasty Mercurials, enemies from their home planet of Carnelia, are on their way to Earth, planning mischief, Martha begins to worry. But Opal is far too busy making friends to be bothering about those stupid Mercurials. Besides, her eyes would z-ray them immediately and she’d dazzle-kick them all the way back to Carnelia.

Wouldn’t she?

North of Nowhere Blog Tour: A Place of Inspiration

Today is a very exciting day here at the Hearthfire: Liz Kessler is here to talk about her setting for North of Nowhere (which by the way is a fabulous story of families, mystery, magic and the sea – my review’s here). So, without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Liz.

About seven years ago, I went on holiday in the Scottish highlands. Whilst there, I visited various tiny towns and attractions along the coast. One of these was a small town called Pennan, the setting for one of my favourite films, Local Hero. But just a little way along the coast from this town that has now become a tourist attraction, there was another, smaller village. Little more than a row of houses standing silently, yards from the water’s edge, this one is not on most people’s tourist destination maps. And yet it was the one that stayed with me.

Crovie (pronounced ‘crivvy’) was once a busy fishing town. A storm in 1953, however, put an end to that. The storm washed away many of the houses and forced the residents to flee. Today, the houses that remain are mostly holiday lets – I guess, for those who really want to get away from it all. There is certainly not a lot to do here.

Crovie
But as I walked along the tiny ridge between the houses and the sea, what struck me was the intensity of the silence, the feeling of history trapped here, the creepy atmosphere that seemed to fill every inch of the place. It was the atmosphere that got inside me, and I knew instantly that I wanted to write a book that featured this place or somewhere like it – and most certainly this atmosphere.

It was about five years later that I began to write the story.

 
Many of my books are inspired by a place and, if possible, I always try to go to the place itself in the early stages writing the book. As I had now moved to Cornwall, the prospect of a visit to the Scottish highlands – and the fifteen-hour drive that this would involve – was, I confess, not the most enticing thought in the world.

So I began to look at other possibilities. Were there any other similar towns a
little nearer? That was when I discovered Hallsands.

Hallsands has a similar history to Crovie – only worse. A small but thriving fishing town in Devon, the village was all but destroyed in a storm about 100 years ago. Almost every house was destroyed. Miraculously, there were no casualties from the storm – but every inhabitant had to start a new life elsewhere.

It didn’t take me long to pack a bag and book a trip to Hallsands.

Hallsands

A few nights in a nearby apartment; a few conversations with the right people to allow us over the fence and through the gate that blocked off the land as it is now too unstable to allow public access; a few pages of scribbled notes as I wandered around soaking up the atmosphere of this incredible place; a few hundred photos…All of this led to a head buzzing with ideas and inspiration.

For me, there is nothing quite like going to the place that has inspired a book.

It’s not just about what you can read in a book or on the internet. It’s about standing in the place itself and feeling its history – almost hearing and seeing the events that took place where you are standing – this is what gets my creative juices flowing. This is what really excites and inspires me.

And so, seven years on from the original moment of inspiration, North of Nowhere is written and out in the shops, and this feels like a very exciting point of an amazing journey.

I hope that I have managed to do justice to the places and the people that inspired this book. And I hope that, if you happen to read it, you will feel at least an inkling of the atmosphere and drama that I have tried to convey.

Thank you for having me as a guest on this blog, and for giving me the opportunity to relive the feeling of inspiration that I had when this book began to form in my mind.

The path down to Hallsands
Thank you, Liz – what a fab post! The sea is such a great place for stories. Where I grew up, on the East Anglian coast, Dunwich is the focus of ‘washed into the sea’ stories, having been diminishing for centuries – at least half a dozen churches and monastery buildings, for example, are ‘out there’ in the sea somewhere, the tower of the last having fallen in 1922.

NORTH OF NOWHERE by Liz Kessler was published by Orion Children’s Books on 24 January in hardback at £9.99.

Guest Post: How I (Don’t) Write for Children by Caroline Lawrence

Today at the Hearthfire, we’ve got a visit from Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries, The Roman Mystery Scrolls and The P. K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Her latest western mystery starring P. K. Pinkerton is fabulous. Anyway, without further ado, here’s what Caroline has to say:

I was at the Edinburgh Literature Festival last summer and met an old Arvon pupil for tea. She had been working on several projects over the past five years, but had been finding it a struggle. ‘How do you write for children?’ she said at one point.

I stared, uncomprehending for a few moments, the realised what she meant.

She meant how do you get into a kid’s mentality and consciously make your story suitable for them.

My answer was: ‘I don’t write for children; I write for myself!’

I think each of us has an inner child.

The Age of Wonder

For some of us our inner child is a toddler. We are still amazed by the world and especially animals. We also love poo, fart jokes, pirates and fairies.

The Age of Adventure

For some of us, our inner child is aged 8 to 11 or 12. We feel grown up and ready for anything but aren’t yet obsessed with the opposite sex. We love adventures, puzzles, working out how the world works.

The Age of Awakening

Some of us have an inner adolescent or teen. The YA category from 13 – 18, is when mortality, sex, and relationships become of paramount importance. We are happy to explore these concepts via the metaphor of vampires and werewolves.

My inner child is an 11-year-old.

I love adventures and truth-seeking quests and mysteries. I prefer a ‘concrete’ story full of objects, tastes, smells and sounds to an ‘abstract’ book full of ideas. I also write to teach myself. That’s probably why there are so many facts peppering my books. I’m slightly geeky, so relationships and all that mushy stuff do not figure as highly with me as facts and finding the truth. (It turns out my books are popular among boys on the Asperger’s spectrum. I’m guessing I’m somewhere on the spectrum myself; or at least my inner 11 year old is.) Being a bit of a geek, I write about what fascinates me, whether it’s trendy or not.

When I was agonizing about a plot complication last week one of my friends said, ‘Don’t sweat it. After all, it’s only a kids’ book.’ ONLY A KIDS’ BOOK? I put as much time, care and research into my kids’ books as if they were for adults.

Of course, once you’ve written the thing, you have to make sure it is kid-friendly:

  1. Suitable content
  2. Vocabulary appropriate
  3. Clear, fast-moving plot

And that is often where the real challenge lies.

I used to teach 8 – 12 year olds – the age group I enjoy most – and I would often read a chapter or two of my Work in Progress. After a while just getting up in front of them immediately made me see what would work and what wouldn’t. Find a willing class of kids in your target age group and read to them. Even if your idea sprang from telling stories out loud, don’t use your own children, grandchildren or friends’ children. They will either be too nice or too ruthless.

By reading to an impartial target audience, you’ll know when they get bored or confused. What is suitable and what’s not.

You’ll also benefit from showing it to librarians, teachers and editors at some point. But that can be further down the line.

Here are my five easy steps for determining what age group you are best suited to write for:

  1. Write (or map out) a story that interests you.
  2. Use your instinct to guess which age group would like it best.
  3. Does that age group match the protagonist you had in mind?
  4. Read or show it to an impartial target audience, getting feedback.
  5. Modify as necessary.
Now if you will excuse me, I must go find an impartial audience of 8 – 12 year-olds and put my own advice into practice!
Caroline Lawrence’s latest book, The Case of the Good-looking Corpse, is set in the Wild West in 1862, when a 12-year-old misfit detective called P.K. Pinkerton must solve the mystery of who killed a ‘hurdy girl’ in the lively mining town of Virginia City.

Guest Post: Right to Roam by Linda Newbery

For this week’s Words on Wednesday, we’ve got a real treat. Linda Newbery, author of many children’s books (for many different kinds of children), is here to talk about writing for a range of ages. I’m reading her latest book, The Treasure House, at the moment and it’s a gorgeous adventure with a truly classic feel (full review – and a giveaway of a copy – coming up on Monday). Without further ado, over to Linda…

One of the things I love about writing for young people is that there’s such freedom, or can be if you choose to take it. My first novels were for teenagers, but soon, wanting to diversify, I wrote a few first readers, short, illustrated books for children of about five or six, before moving into the core 9-12ish age group. My first book for Orion, At the Firefly Gate, was followed by five more, most recently The Treasure House; meanwhile I continued to write young adult fiction for David Fickling Books, along with Lob, for about 7+ (though I prefer to think of it as a book for everyone except teenagers) and have just completed an adult novel, to be published later this year. Oh yes, and there’s one picture-book, Posy, illustrated by the wonderful Catherine Rayner. So now I have books in every age-slot apart from board books for babies.

There are drawbacks to this from the marketing point of view. My books aren’t all shelved in one place; they come from different publishers and don’t share a “look”, so I’m not particularly known for any one thing. But I wouldn’t want to limit myself to one age-group or genre. After finishing a long and challenging older novel, it’s refreshing to turn to something shorter and lighter, such as a rhyming picture-book text or a little story about a dog and a narrowboat. And it gives a lovely variety to my school and library visits: I might be reading to five-year-olds one week, talking to year nine or sixth-form the next.

People sometimes ask about the practicalities of writing for different age-groups. Is it difficult? Confusing? Does it require a major switch of focus, or a preparatory period of immersion in picture-books or adult fiction? I’m not really aware of any great difference in approach. Writing is writing, and once I have an idea, it’s the story itself and the characters whose heads I’m inhabiting that determine how the story will develop, the pace, the language, the length. What I can’t do, though, is have two or three projects on the go at the same time. It’s essential to feel that I’m living in whatever story it is, so that my mind works away at it while I’m doing other things, like swimming or gardening, or even sleeping..

What next? Well, I do have something in mind – something I haven’t tried before … which brings me to another question I’ve often been asked. “Does it get easier now that you’ve written so many books?” No. It doesn’t and shouldn’t. Each book presents it own challenges, and if I ever start thinking it’s easy I’ll have to be very strict with myself and find a way of making it harder.

Thank you, Linda, for that insight into your work. I agree that Lob has the potential for a wide audience (I certainly enjoyed it!), and would certainly recommend The Treasure House. In fact, I’m off to read a bit more now…

Words on Wednesday: Guest Post by Katie Dale

Someone Else’s Life, Katie Dale’s fabulous YA debut, came out this month. I loved this emotional read encompassing family secrets and the trauma of living under the shadow of Huntington’s Disease. Naturally I was thrilled that Katie agreed to visit the Hearthfire as part of her blog tour. So, it’s over to Katie:

My Top Ten Childrens/YA Authors in the History of Time!

As my first books hit the shelves it’s got me thinking about the authors who inspired me, and the stories that stick with me even today.

Here are my Top Ten!

JM Barrie The story of the boy who never grew up has stuck firmly in my heart since I was a child, waiting by my bedroom window for Peter to take me flying off to Neverland! My all-time favourite.

Enid Blyton Blyton has to be the most prolific children’s author ever. As a child I couldn’t get enough of her series, from the childhood magic and mischief of Noddy, Naughty Amelia Jane and The Magic Faraway Tree, through the midnight feasts and escapades of St Clares and Mallory Towers, right to the mystery and adventures of The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and the Adventureseries, Enid Blyton was wonderful company throughout my childhood, and every book I opened was a wonderful adventure.


Jacqueline Wilson – Hot on Blyton’s heels, Wilson has earned her place as the tween girl’s favourite, writing two books a year – and what books! Taking serious and gritty issues and handling them with humour and vitality she creates vibrant, memorable, feisty characters who make us laugh and make us cry. My faves are The Story of Tracy Beaker and The Suitcase Kid.


Morris Gleitzman – Like Jacqueline Wilson, Gleitzman takes tricky/tragic situations and makes them both poignant and hysterical with his sparse, witty, sparkling books, particularly Blabber Mouth, about feisty fun-loving Rowena Batts – who just happens to be mute – and more recently Once and Then, about Jewish children trying to escape the Nazis during the Second World War.


Michael Morpurgo – Michael Morpurgo is the author of some of the most beautiful children’s books around today. The Dancing Bear, Why The Whales Came, The Butterfly Lion and War Horse simply sing with their lyrical prose, and deep emotional heart beating strongly behind every page.



JK Rowling – Rowling is unquestionably one of the defining literary talents of modern times. The vast, detailed and magical world she created around Harry Potter, the scope of her vision across all seven books, her use of allegory and themes, and her skill in weaving it all together into an adventure that kept children and adults alike gripped, nose-deep in her books right till the very end, will undoubtedly be enjoyed by generations to come.


Jane Austen – the original chick-lit author! Austen’s romantic novels describing a time of balls and manners are as well-loved today as ever. Absolutely timeless. But my favourite is not the beloved Pride and Prejudice, but the even more heart-wrenching Sense and Sensibility. Like the Bennet sisters, Marianne and Eleanor are dependent upon a good marriage for a viable future, but the fairytale ending doesn’t come quite so easily, and hard lessons must be learned first.


Bronte sisters Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, but I couldn’t choose between these talented sisters whose vibrant imaginations transported them from their restrictive parsonage upbringing into romance, danger, and adventure with two of the most classic love stories of all time, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights – with two of the most rugged literary heroes ever.

Caroline B. Cooney – I first encountered Caroline B. Cooney through one of her “Point Horror” books –The Train, which gave me several sleepless nights and had to be abandoned halfway through after a character got nailed into a coffin – alive. It took me a while to pick up another, but when I started reading Among Friends I was so thankful that I had. Cooney has such a knack for describing the trauma and triumphs of the teen experience, and Among Friends and her incredible Face on The Milk Carton series, in which a teenage girl discovers she was kidnapped as a toddler, are two of my favourite ever YA books.


Sharon Creech – I discovered Sharon Creech like a hidden jewel when I picked up Walk Two Moons. I’d never heard of her before, but became so captivated by the story of Salamanca – a girl on a road trip with her Gram to visit the mother who recently left her and her father –  that I have sought out all her other titles. Part coming-of-age, part family mystery, completely charming and moving and heart-breaking, Walk Two Moonsis a treasure I will keep forever.


So those are my top ten – what are yours?

Chosen by Katie Dale

Published by Simon & Schuster February 2012

Twitter: @katiedaleuk


Wow, thanks Katie – so many great memories and recommendations there. Thank you so much for visiting and sharing your Top Ten with us. Caroline B Cooney is new to me. What about you?