Thursday, 16 February 2017

Guest Post: Ally Kennen on what she loves about writing for children

We are big fans of Ally Kennen's here and can't wait to read The Everything Machine! We're excited to have her talking about what she loves about writing for children.

Do I love writing for children? Well, sometimes yes and sometimes absolutely not. On the ‘yes’ days the writing flows, the words tumble, I laugh at my genius jokes and amusing quips. Maybe it will distract some little soul somewhere. Maybe it will encourage a horde of naughty lads to go and read something richer afterwards, and then something else and then something else. Perhaps my wisdom and wit will entertain, guide, enlighten.. who knows?

On some of the ‘yes’ days I get to go visit schools and meet Actual Children. This is always humbling and makes me want to up my game. These kids are being exposed to my ramblings. I must sharpen up, make it for them, crack on with the story, don’t leave anyone out!

On other ‘Yes’ days I get to try out drafts of books on my own children. I have four of them. They’ve all had to endure first drafts and I am rewarded with their brutal X-Factor panel style judgements. But my eldest son is 9 and a half and DOES NOT WANT ME TO READ TO HIM ANYMORE (emojj’s of horror/terror etc) so I am sneakily writing a football book. He loves football and cannot resist a football story, so now I get to read to him again. AND I get to write a book with a guaranteed audience. (currently of one, but you never know)

Then there are the No days. When I’d rather scrub out the dustbin or clean the toilet than write another word. But I think this would be the case if I was writing for children or adults. Sometimes my brain doesn’t fire up, or it is clogged with too many distractions, or I am simply not inspired.

I don’t hold with the notion that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. There are plenty of glorious children’s books that are far richer and more elegant than any amount of books for adults. (and plenty that aren’t.. ha ha) We children’s authors also have to compete against a myriad of more immediate entertainments. How can we possibly make our stories more alluring than the latest must-have game, with all its addictive ploys and tricks? Maybe the children’s book is DYING! like stamp collecting and dissecting tadpoles for fun. (though book sales data seems to suggest otherwise, that lots of children still read hurrah hurrah)

And so my latest book (this is a Yes day now) is all about some kids who are utterly addicted to a computer game, MAZZO. But something arrives at their house which is even more compelling and fun.

It’s Russell, a state of the art, cutting edge, globally created, sentient 3D printer. It is The Everything Machine!

The Everything Machine by
Ally Kennen

Three kids let loose with a top-secret magical machine with a mind of it's own . . . What could possibly go wrong?

Olly, Stevie and Bird have just had a very special delivery. It's a machine that has a name, can speak and is able to print ANYTHING they want it to. How about a never-ending supply of sweets and a cool swimming pool in the shed, for starters?

But is getting everything you've ever wished for all it's cracked up to be?

Information about the Book

Title: The Everything Machine
Author: Ally Kennen
Release Date: 2nd February 2017
Genre: MG
Publisher: Scholastic UK
Format: Paperback

Author Information

Ally Kennen has been an archaeologist, museum guard and singer-songwriter. Her dark and thrilling teen novels have been nominated for over eleven literary awards. She lives in Somerset with her husband and four children.

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Sunday 19th February

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Gareth P Jones On The Idea For Pet Defenders

Great to talk to a favourite author of ours, Gareth P Jones, on how he came up with the idea for the Pet Defenders series! Book 1, Attack of the Alien Dung - illustrated by Steve May - comes out on Thursday 9th February, published by Stripes.

Pet Defenders – The Idea

2017 sees the publication of my fourth book series. Following on from The Dragon Detective Agency, Ninja Meerkats and Adventures of the Steampunk Pirates comes Pet Defenders. You might think it would get easier. It doesn’t.

I first came up with this idea in 2011 for an experimental weekly online project. I wrote a synopsis then we filmed an introduction with comedian Marcus Brigstocke in a video produced by animation director Andy Walker (a very clever chap who does the animation for Tracey Beaker). I believe you can still find the end product lurking somewhere in a forgotten corner of the Internet.

It was an ambitious idea and never came to anything so my story fell back into my file of old ideas. All authors have these files. These are the stories that sit quietly gathering dust, biding their time, waiting for their moment.

In 2016, that moment came. I was looking for an idea for a new series. I came up with two new ones then selected Pet Defenders as the third. My wife, Lisa read all three. She liked Pet Defenders best. My editor, Ruth agreed.

And so, five years after I came up with the idea, I started work on a series of books about a secret organization of pets dedicated to keeping the earth safe from alien attacks.

What I had forgotten was how much I struggle with space stuff. The last time I tried it was with an MG science fiction book called Space Crime Conspiracy (Bloomsbury, 2010). I was pleased with how the book turned out but had obviously buried the memory of how painful it was to write.

The problem for me is one of believability. It’s easy enough to write “The Flot-holed Grubulling from Zingadinga One opened the large purple eye set in the middle of its belly?” but how do you make it believable? Writing is about creating worlds but when that world is an entire universe there are soooo many possibilities. For this reason, each book in the series has gone through countless redrafts (often complete rewrites) as even a minor tweak can cause an avalanche of ideas that leaves me sifting through the rubble to find the correct building blocks to complete the story.

Thankfully, with my ever-patient editor’s help and guidance I am delighted to say I have now completed three Pet Defenders books. I start work on the fourth soon. It’s been quite a journey so I very much hope readers enjoy the result.

Pet Defenders: Attack of the Alien Dung is published 9th of February. The second book in the series, Beards from Outer Space comes out in May, with the third (Escape from Planet Bogey) being published in September. The fourth will come out in 2018 once it has been written, rewritten, redrafted, rewritten again and redrafted etc.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Sam Hearn On What He Loves About Writing/Illustrating Children's Books

Great to have Sam Hearn, author of the Baker Street Academy series, talking about what he loves about writing/illustrating children's books - we're excited to read Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Diamond soon!

So, what do I love about writing children's books, you ask?  Hmm… Let me think… I should probably squeeze in a little mention about illustrating them too, seeing as I also do that bit!

I suppose the first thing I need to point out is that the whole writing part of the job really does still feel completely new to me. I know I have written an entire young fiction novel now - and even a few younger children's board book type texts as well, but it still doesn't quite register that it's actually what I do as part of my job just yet. I’ve been doing the drawing bit for around 16 years now and that definitely feels like a job! (a hard one too) In fact, when I first got a sniff of doing this Sherlock work I don’t think I was entirely aware of the fact that I’d have to write everything as well as draw it… Its almost like they made a mistake. Shh! Don’t tell anybody! However it happened, I definitely do love it though. It’s very satisfying when you get to put the final full stop at the end of a document - no matter how difficult it has been to get there - and I don’t think I’ll ever get over what a strange sensation it is to read your own words in a book. It’s as if it was all done by somebody else!

With writing, I think you get an opportunity to really bring all your ideas to life in a way that just drawing the pictures can never afford you - usually that's simply because you are illustrating somebody else's words and somebody else's ideas. If you are lucky, with the pictures - you get a good amount of input into the visual elements, but it can never compare to being the one who comes up with the ideas in the first place. Mostly, I love the fact that I can finally make some use of the random and strange thoughts that often come into my head! And I know that as long as I remember to write them down somewhere, they might just be the right bit of spark to set a bigger idea or story alight.

Another good thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere! In your bed or on the train - You don't really need anything other than a pen and a notebook ( if you're still into writing on paper, that is… ) Let’s face it, you don’t even need to get dressed. Yep, you can sit around in your pants and still get stuff done!   ( Please let it be known that I actually do get dressed before writing though. I also leave the house. )

I’m being a bit silly, I know. But for me, that’s probably the best bit about writing children’s books and the bit that I love the most. I can now legitimately have conversations with myself all day, usually in all sorts of voices - either out loud or in my head. I don’t know how other writers do it, but this is how the ideas come to me. Even though I have been just an illustrator for most of my career, I always did have ideas and write in some way or another. The problem I had though was that I hadn't learned how to think about exactly when to make a note of the ideas properly. It doesn't help that they often come to you in the most awkward or unexpected moments, like when you're in the middle of having a shower, or just about to drift off to sleep! 

Having to write for a published project ( with a looming deadline and all the associated pressure ) made me much more aware of how to catch an idea when I have it and put it down somewhere safe. It doesn’t mean that it will be any good of course - but just for a little while, I can be anybody I want to be or say anything I want to say and have a cast of characters running around in my own personal film in my head. The very best bit of all is when I can make myself laugh. I hope I can always do that! Obviously there's no guarantee that someone else will find the same thing funny, but it's always a good feeling.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Barry Hutchison's Worst Ever School Visit Moments

We are super-excited to be taking part in a joint blog tour today! Stripes are running a fabulous tour to promote TWO school stories they're releasing in January - Karen McCombie's St Grizzle's School For Girls, Goats and Random Boys (illustrated by Becka Moor), and Barry Hutchison's Beaky Malone: Worst Ever School Trip (illustrated by Katie Abey). Both of these look like hilarious reads with great illustrations! We're excited to have Barry talking about his worst ever school visit moments in this post.

2017 marks my tenth year as a full-time children’s author (I think, although I’m not very good at maths, so don’t quote me on that). As well as writing books lots of books in that time, I’ve also visited hundreds of schools, speaking to tens of thousands of children about what a jolly jape this whole writing lark is, and how books are all great an’ that.

Thankfully, the vast majority of those visits went brilliantly, with lots of enthusiastic students, teachers and librarians helping to make every event a success. Or, almost every event. Sometimes, things don’t go quite as smoothly as they could do. Take the incidents below, for example, which I present in no particular order.

1. Back in my second year of being an author, I was invited by a head teacher to visit her school. She was very friendly, full of great ideas, and we made plans for a whole day of workshops and author talks. The day arrived, and I got up at 5am to drive the 130 miles to the school, only to find out the head teacher was off sick that day, and hadn’t told another living soul at the school that I was coming. They were unable to get her on the phone, and so, unsure about this strange, six-foot-four unshaven man standing at the front door, they decided they couldn’t let me in, and I had to drive 130 miles back home.

2. I was invited to a boys-only boarding school to talk about my Invisible Fiends horror series back in 2012 or so. The plan was for me to do a talk in the evening, after the pupils had eaten dinner. What I didn’t realise was that, prior to my event, the younger boys – aged 8-10 or so – would be sent to shower and get ready for bed, and so I ended up talking about some deeply disturbing horror novels to 100+ kids, half of which were wearing pyjamas, dressing gowns and slippers, and clutching teddy bears. I was then asked to pose for a photograph with them after the event – a photo I hope never surfaces on the web…

3. Questions! One of the parts of an event I love and dread in equal measures is the Q&A session at the end. Questions generally range from the repetitive (“Where do you get your ideas?” “How much do you earn?”) to the probing (“Your female characters are always more impressive than your male characters – discuss.”)

Sometimes, though, there are some really memorable questions thrown my way. My favourites include:
“Do you know the queen?”
“You know you said Mr Mumbles tries to kill the hero? Have you ever killed anyone?”
“What’s the best noise you’ve ever heard?”

One question that really sticks out in my mind, though, came at the end of a talk to a group of completely impassive Year 9s, who had spent the previous 50 minutes glaring silently at me, and wishing me dead. When I asked if anyone had any questions, I was delighted to see a boy near the back put up his hand. “Yes?” I said. “What’s your question?”

To which he replied: “Can we go now?”

4. Or how about the time when I turned up twenty minutes early at Elgin Academy in the North of Scotland, and got increasingly annoyed as I was left waiting for half an hour in reception for a member of staff to come and take me to the library…

…and then discovered I was supposed to be at Elgin High School at the opposite end of the town, instead, where everyone was already waiting patiently.

And let’s not even mention the event where the 14 year old tried to punch me in the face!

By and large, though, school visits are great fun, and from my initial nervous ramblings have quickly become one of my favourite bits about the job.

Most of the time, anyway.

Beaky Malone: Worst Ever School Trip (written by Barry Hutchison and illustrated by Katie Abey) is published today, 12th January, by Stripes Publishing.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Cover Reveal: Just Call Me Spaghetti-Hoop Boy by Lara Williamson

It is with the greatest of pleasure that today we reveal the fabulous cover and awesome trailer of Lara Williamson's new book, Just Call Me Spaghetti-Hoop Boy (great title!!). This is Lara's third book, and if it is as good as A Boy Called Hope and The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair then it should be high up in your "must-read in 2017" list. Now over to Lara and her fabulous new book cover:

A BIG thank you to Middle Grade Strikes Back for hosting the cover reveal for my third book, JUST CALL ME SPAGHETTI-HOOP BOY. Here is some info about the book; the Cheeky inspiration behind it and a dynamic cover to be proud of.

Watch out world, Adam Butters has a story to tell. And it’s going to be ACE

JUST CALL ME SPAGHETTI-HOOP BOY is a story about Adam who was adopted as a child. And although it’s not a secret, when his teacher suggests making a family tree for a school project, he wants to find out more about his real mother. Problem: where do you get information about your real
mother and how does that work when you’ve got an adoptive mother already? Well, for starters there’s a special hidden envelope that Adam discovers saying he was really called Ace.

KAPOW! That’s a superhero name, right? Being a superhero will make the world perfect, right? This is Adam’s DESTINY! He’ll save a life, help animals and old people and make everyone happy, especially his adoptive mum, who has a face like a melted welly at the moment. But things start to go horribly wrong when Adam overhears a conversation about someone new coming to live with his family; someone who is going to take Adam’s place for ever. Now is the time for Adam to step up, be ACE and unlock the secrets of his past so he can blast his way to a new future …

As a child I loved comics and I think they inspired JUST CALL ME SPAGHETTI-HOOP BOY. Like most kids my age I had my favourites and ordered them from the newsagent and as soon as they’d come in I’d rush to the newsagent and get the comic and devour it as soon as I got home and then I’d have to wait another week. Sometimes those seven days felt like for ever. I particularly loved a comic
called Cheeky (published by IPC) and he was a big-toothed hero in a stripy jumper (once they gave away a free knitting pattern for the jumper. You’ve got to love that. Someone please knit me the jumper now and I’ll wear it). Eventually Cheeky merged into Whoopee, then Whizzer and Chips. I must add that my love of comics didn’t end as I got older and I eventually ended up working for magazines – howzat for a link? Plus, I’ve never forgotten how much I loved Cheeky and perhaps he inspired more parts of my books than I ever realized. (I’ve just remembered that Cheeky had an unnamed pet snail that occupied the back page of the comic called Snail of the Century. Um… Right
now I’m wondering if that little snail secretly inspired Brian in The Boy Who Sailed the Ocean in an Armchair. Go snails <at a snail’s pace obvs>!)

I am beyond happy with the dynamic finished cover of Just Call Me Spaghetti-Hoop Boy. The incredible illustrations by Carlos Aon and Katharine Millichope’s fabulous design really bring Adam to life. This is how he sees himself, standing tall with his cape fluttering in the wind. Inside his head he’s probably shouting ‘KAZOO!’ which is his superhero motto! There’s a tiny twinkle in Adam’s eye and it’s important because he’s got a sense of mischief. If you look really carefully you’ll see a little spaghetti hoop on Adam’s chest and it’s that attention to detail that takes a cover to a whole new superhero level. Why is the spaghetti hoop so important? Well, that’s the thing – you’ve got to read the story to find out. In my opinion, a good cover throws up lots of delicious little secrets and invites you to discover the story between the pages – Carlos and Katharine have achieved this. From now on I’m going to declare them both cover design superheroes. Finally, it’s been amazing working with the illustrations to create this animated book trailer. Hope you love it as much as I do!

Watch out world, this is Adam’s journey to becoming a superhero, and you’re all invited along. Just Call Me Spaghetti-Hoop Boy by Lara Williamson is out in the UK on March 1st 2017. You can follow Lara on Twitter @LaraWilliamson or on Instagram @larawilliamsonauthor or check out

Hey! Stop right there! Where are you going? You haven't seen the trailer yet? Grab a mug of your favourite hot beverage and sit back and enjoy:

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Review of THE EYE OF THE NORTH by Sinéad O' Hart

When Emmeline’s parents (zoologists who specialise in unusual creatures) are kidnapped, she is put on a ship, bound for a safe-house in Paris. On board, she meets a boy called Thing (a scruffy stowaway orphan); and an unlikely friendship forms between them. But the criminals who kidnapped Emmeline’s parents soon catch up with her and whisk her off to the frozen north to be used as bargaining chip by the deranged Dr. Bauer who wants Emmeline’s parents to awaken a mysterious creature, asleep beneath the ice.

Determined to save his friend, Thing seeks help from a secret organisation called the The Order of the White Flower. Together, they set off on Emmeline’s trail, but when they are attacked, Thing must continue the journey alone.

What follows is a white-knuckled race towards a glacier in Greenland, with the perspective constantly shifting between Emmeline and Thing. Along the way, they meet many weird and wonderful characters, including magical creatures, some friendly and some not. The plot is perfectly paced, building in momentum with every turn of the page until the reader is hurtled into an edge-of-the-seat climax.

The absence of modern paraphernalia gives O’ Hart’s steampunk world a classic and timeless feel. The scope of her imagination and inventiveness is breath-taking, as indeed is the writing. I loved the character of Emmeline – a bookish, brave but nervous, particular (with a touch of OCD!) girl; or in the words of Dr. Bauer – ‘a singular little creature.’ The more rough-around-the-edges Thing is an ideal foil to her – he’s spontaneous, upbeat and funny, with a dark backstory.

This book is pure middle-grade gold, pitched perfectly in tone at its audience. It is sure to be lapped up by boys and girls alike. This impressive debut is my first 5 star read of 2017. I hope it’s a huge hit. It certainly deserves to be!

Now, in the words of Thing himself: ‘Let the adventurin’ begin’.

Click here for an interview with the author.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Our Favourite Books

My favourite series of books are the Artemis Foul books by Eoin Colfer. There are breath-taking bits and massive sighs of relief bits. It`s about a boy called Artemis. He has found out about an armed and dangerous (not to mention high-tech) race of fairies. He was their No. 1 enemy but now he and the fairies are friends. He has agreed to help whenever help is needed. Allied by Captain Holly Short (she is a fairy) Artemis Foul goes on dangerous journeys through time and all around the world.  

By Lucas W

My favourite book is Historopedia. It was written by John Burke and illustrated by Fatti Burke. This is the second book they made together. I liked it because it has a lot of facts and activities. Some facts I never knew about!!! It tells stories from all around Ireland dating back to 5000 years ago. I would rate this book ten out of ten!!!!

By Luke H, aged nine.

My favourite book ever is written by Roald Dahl. The book is called The Witches. It is illustrated by Quentin Blake. I really like the picture of the witches taking their wigs off. It’s really funny when the witches were turned into mice. After the witches are turned into mice the cats eat them. Grandmamma and her grandson went back to Norway. I like when the grandson puts the mouse-maker into the soup. It happens when grandmamma and her grandson heard the witches ask for soup. Then the grandson gets the idea of putting the mouse-maker into the soup.  

By Martin W

My favourite book is Are We There Yet. It is by Enid Blyton. There are three children, a mother and a father. The family live with their grandmother. The children disturb their grandmother so much they move into a caravan in a field. One day the farmer came to the caravan and said you have to move to a different field. They have a very strong bull that has broken all of the fences. The family went to their auntie and uncle’s house on a farm. The children learn how to milk cows and make butter. They go to school and have a great time.

Harriet H

My favourite book is called My Magical Pony - Silver Mist. It was written by Jenny Oldfield. It was about this girl called Krista and she has a very special pony called Shining Star. Krista and Shining Star became best friends. There was this guy named Joe. Joe got a helper to mind the ponies and horses. The helper’s name is Rob. This husband and wife told Rob that they had to steal the ponies and horses. They said that Rob had to do it with them. Then Rob did it.
 Krista and Shining Star saved the day as always. And that's why I thought that this book was BRILLIANT

My favourite book is called George’s Marvellous Medicine. The  author is called Roald  Dahl. If he was still alive he would be a hundred years old, two month ago. His birthday is on September the 13th. I like this book because it is fun to read. The book is about a little boy called George. George’s mammy goes to work and his granny minds him. His mammy tells him to give his granny  medicine. George decides  to make his own medicine for granny.

BY      ELLEN   age   8

My favourite book is Dairy of a  Wimpy Kid because it’s funny and I can’t sleep sometimes because it’s that funny  and if you want to know who the author is, it’s Jeff Kinney.   I like him a lot because he’s funny and I love funny people because  I am a funny person.

By Elizabeth

My favourite book is Harry Potter and The Prisoner Of Azkaban. The author of this series is called J.K. Rowling. This author is full of mystery and cleverness, and that’s why I love the series. My most preferred creature in the books are the Dementors. They give you that eerie feeling!!!

By Niall D