Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Review: Joul Foul Play by Robin Stevens

The fantastic new mystery from the author of Murder Most Unladylike. Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong have returned to Deepdean for a new school term, but nothing is the same. 

There's a new Head Girl, Elizabeth Hurst, and a team of Prefects - and these bullying Big Girls are certainly not good eggs. 

Then, after the fireworks display on Bonfire Night, Elizabeth is found - murdered.

Many girls at Deepdean had reason to hate Elizabeth, but who might have committed such foul play? Could the murder be linked to the secrets and scandals, scribbled on scraps of paper, that are suddenly appearing around the school? And with their own friendship falling to pieces, how will Daisy and Hazel solve this mystery?

My thoughts
It is no secret that I am a huge fan of this series. They appeal to my inner child who read all the Enid Blyton and boarding school stories she could get her hands on.

This latest instalment was just as brilliant as I had hoped it would be and I am already excited about the next one in the series. The book is set back at Hazel and Daisy's boarding school and latest victim is The Headgirl. Cue Daisy, Hazel and their gang of friends to the rescue as they try to solve a murder which has been dismissed by the staff as an accident.

As with previous books the story keeps you guessing throughout as you work with the girls to solve the murder as they collect their evidence. I really enjoyed doing this with them as it just adds to fun of the reading.

A book I really enjoyed from a series I adore. Looking forward to the next one already.

Monday, 14 March 2016

#CoverKidsBooks – Teachers

Teachers have a vital interest in children's literature, and strong views about its lack of coverage in mainstream media.  The numbers are enormous: there are over 400,000 teachers and 8,000,000 pupils in UK schools. 

So #CoverKidsBooks talked to some senior teachers: Louise Johns-Shepherd, chief executive of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE); Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI secondary school; Sue Cowley, a teacher trainer who has written more than 25 books for teachers; Sue McGonigle, lecturer in primary education at the Institute Of Education and co-creator of; and Jo Bowers, lecturer in primary education at Cardiff School of Education and Welsh rep for the UK Literacy Association (UKLA).

Why are children's books important to teachers? 

Geoff Barton: Children's books matter.  They don't have the instant gratification of a screen-based game.  They tantalise and tease.  They repay patience and resilience.  These are all characteristics of learning that young people need, plus the ability to look beyond the inky words on a page and explore other worlds and other people.

Louise Johns-Shepherd: Children's books are life-changing.  If children read for pleasure at age 10, it has more of an impact on their future than any other factor.  At CLPE, we help teachers to teach all aspects of literacy in the most creative but also the most effective way possible.  And we don't think children learn to read and write effectively unless they have access to quality children's literature.  A breadth of literature – fiction, non-fiction, picture books, poetry, all those things – is incredibly important to the work we do. 

Sue Cowley: Teachers are key users and consumers of children's literature.  Every single primary teacher will have a class reader on the go, and all schools will (I sincerely hope) have a library.  For some children, school will be the place where access to lots of books is given to them, and the idea of reading for pleasure is introduced.

Jo Bowers: When I was a primary classroom teacher, children's books were central to my teaching.  They would often be my stimulus and starting point for many lessons. There were also times when as a class we stopped and relaxed by choosing a story.  Some of my most memorable moments as a teacher have involved talking about and sharing books.
Sue McGonigle: Obviously children need to learn to read, and reading material needs to be provided, so children's books are important in that respect.  Teachers need to know about books in terms of the links they can make across the curriculum as well.  But reading is just so fantastic!  It's the way you have access to other worlds and other kinds of experiences; it's the way you see your own experiences reflected; and through children's literature, children can grow as individuals.
"Children's books are life-changing"

Why is children's books coverage important to teachers?  Why does it matter that they're reviewed?

SC: It confers status on them – it signifies that the act of children reading is important enough for us to identify the books that we think children would do well to read.  In recent years there has been a bit of a resurgence of a kind of sniffy attitude to children's literature.  I find this attitude really surprising, because to me it seems like we are going through a golden age of writing for children

GB: We rely on reviews: we need to be kept informed of what's new, what's worth reading and what's not.  I still feel a thrill at the announcement of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Book Prize.  I like The Times's weekly Children's Book of the Week slot.  I like the books sections of newspapers, even though I suspect I'm part of a diminishing demographic.  I want to be reminded that books matter and that there are other people like me who feel the same way.   

JB: I think children's literature is as valuable as adult literature.  More, even, as it is what starts us all off on our own personal literary journey.  Reviewing them gives more of a platform; gives more places for us to access ideas of what to read next; and for teachers of reading, it's a great way to develop their own repertoires to share in their classrooms.
SM: From the research I've done, many teachers rely, in the books they use in the classroom, on their own childhood favourites.  So 50% of teachers might have cited Roald Dahl as a favourite author when they were children; and then 50% of those would be actually reading a Roald Dahl book aloud in the classroom at the time.  Which is fine – Roald Dahl is fantastic, and it's great for children to have a good knowledge of his books – but there are so many more books as well!  It leads to rather a limited experience for children if teachers are not aware of more recent fiction, or different fiction; other authors and books they can introduce the children to. 

"I still feel a thrill at the announcement of the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Book Prize"

Can you think of specific examples of how media coverage can make an impact?

SM: I recently read The Astounding Broccoli Boy because I read a review of it.  So now I'm recommending that to student teachers as something they might want to read aloud to the children. 

LJS: We run the CLiPPA Poetry Award; the point of it is to raise the profile of children's poetry.  This year, the winning book, Joe Coehlo's Werewolf Club Rules, was featured on BBC Front Row after it won, and was then made Sunday Times Book Of The Week, which is really unusual for a poetry book.  From having had those bits of media, Joe's got to the point where a school is doing an entire half term's work on one of his poems.  Now, that's enormous for him, but also enormous for those children.  I don't kid myself that sales of Werewolf Club Rules rose because of the CLiPPA prize; they rose because of the coverage.  It's about people going into a bookshop and going, "Oh, I've heard him!" or "I saw that book!" 

Our research shows that children's books typically get 3% of newspaper review space, despite accounting for over 30% of sales.  How do you feel about this under-representation? 

SM: It's completely wrong.  It shows how undervalued children's books are.  I think it's a real shame. 

GB: This strikes me as baffling – a sign of a confusion over readership.  It may well be that young people themselves don't read newspapers in the way that we veterans do.  But the reviews are there for us – parents, aunties, granddads, people who buy books as gifts, teachers and others who read them, librarians who add them to libraries.  The absence of reviews is a missed opportunity for all those of us who know that we want young people to read but aren't sure what to recommend. Newspapers would get us buying and reading them; booksellers would see us buying more books.

SC: It does seem very strange that there is so little coverage of children's books in the media.  I suppose it might be that reviews are seen as something for adults and about adults, and therefore children's books are seen as only 'deserving' of coverage when it is Christmas or holiday time. What I find fascinating is that the children's and young adult books I read are often better written than the adult ones, and would typically appeal to older readers as well as younger ones.

LJS: Lots of teachers are media consumers, and I think more coverage would help.  Newspapers and mainstream stations are still the portals.  You've got something like Buzzfeed coming up, but it's not the same as getting coverage in the Guardian newspaper.  And people might access it online, but they're accessing it because it was in the newspaper, aren't they?  They still have a kudos and a weight that is important.

"The children's and YA books I read are often better written than the adult ones"

What would you like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks?

GB: I think everyone needs to recognise that this is a golden age of writing for children.  Clearly there's an appetite for such texts – hence the sales.  Newspapers should be mirroring this interest, reflecting what people are reading, helping to shape what we might read next, and reinforcing the reality that reading isn't a solitary, isolated act.  It's what people do – immersing ourselves in stories that we are then bursting to share, discuss and debate with fellow readers.  Newspaper and magazines could be part of this great mission to create active, vibrant learning communities.

JB: More reviews of the latest children's books.  More about book awards and shortlists and interviews with authors.

SM: Hearing authors talk about their work is fabulous for teachers.  And book trailers can be totally captivating.  Of course, if you've got a newspaper, you've got an online version, so you can put that sort of thing there, can't you?  And things like top 10 lists work well, so a publication could have something like that.  There's so much happening within the children's book world – awards, story centres, festivals – drawing it all together for teachers could be really useful.

SC: What might be useful is for them to create more pull-out booklet-type features with lots of different suggestions for great children's books. You tend to see these at holiday times (summer holiday reading / Christmas gifts), but it seems an odd assumption that children only read at these two times of year!  I find age-specific recommendations very useful, because I am forever running out of books for my kids.  I would also welcome more coverage of non-fiction books, as these seem to get even less coverage than fiction.

LJS: Does it even have to be separate?  When you're doing a non-fiction review, and you're doing four books, why can't two of them be children's non-fiction, as opposed to always being an autobiography of Alex Ferguson or whatever?  There's a lot of great children's non-fiction out there.  So it doesn't have to be separated, does it?

#CoverKidsBooks invites you to join in a public conversation about children's books.  Leave a comment, write a blog of your own, or tweet about it using the hashtag.  Tell us why children's books matter to you, and what you'd like to see the media do to #CoverKidsBooks!

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Imogen's Book of the Week: Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden, published by Puffin (April)

My book of the week this Sunday is a chilling, transporting fantasy of inherited power, its duties, responsibilities, and its fearsome Cost – an impressive and accomplished debut by Irish author Dave Rudden.

Denizen Hardwick has grown up in Crosscaper, a draughty, bleak orphanage on the coast, close only to his best friend, Simon. As his thirteenth birthday draws near, however, a mysterious visitor called Grey invites him on a drive, telling Denizen an unknown aunt wants to meet him. But en route to her home, a terrible creature attacks them, and Grey uses an unearthly power – a sung, scorching light – to put paid to it.

When Denizen arrives at Seraphim Row, he learns more about the shadow-creatures called the Tenebrous, and about the Knights of the Borrowed Dark, who fight them, his aunt among them. But every time a Knight wields the power of the Cants, they must pay the heavy, irreversible Cost of doing so. And now the Tenebrous are rising, enraged by a theft they blame on the Knights. How can Denizen help, when his aunt seems determined never to talk to him? Who are the terrifying Clockwork Three? What has been stolen from the Endless King - and how can it be retrieved and returned?

The classic themes and tropes of this fast-moving fantasy – apparently Manichean darkness versus light, inherited powers wielded only at great cost, an orphaned childhood and a secret organisation offering new family, identity, hope – are forged fire-new by Rudden’s white-hot, precisely compelling prose.  Descriptions of place, person, sung sun, shadow-monster, fearsome footstep, clockwork breath are all conveyed in an elegant minimum of words, leaving the reader at once longing and terrified to explore further, much like Denizen himself. Look out for this one, and for those to follow in the series.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Interview with Chris Callaghan

'The Great Chocoplot' by Chris Callaghan is a hilarious adventure about Jelly and her family in the middle of a CHOCOPOCALYPSE (the end of chocolate!). It’s full of laugh-out-loud moments and features a cast of brilliant characters. I loved it. It's really a very impressive début and I hope it receives the attention it deserves. My review here.

Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed 'The Great Chocoplot'. It's a great premise. Where did the idea come from?
Thanks Kieran, I'm glad to hear you enjoyed it. It's a very scary premise and it is based on something that REALLY happened!
When I was about ten or eleven, a brand new bar of chocolate appeared in the shops. It was different and wonderfully tasty, and all the kids immediately fell in love with it. But after a while, the shops started to sell out and it became harder to find. If we heard of a shop that still sold it, we would all go there (sometimes on a bus!) and buy as many as we could. Eventually, it completely sold out and we could not get it anywhere. It was a disaster!
What we didn't know at the time (there was no internet to google anything), was that this had only been a 'trial' and the chocolate bar had only been released in a small area to see if people liked it. Luckily, people had liked it and about a year later it returned back in the shops throughout the whole country - and has been available ever since. But the memory of it disappearing from the shops stayed with me.
What was the chocolate bar called? I hear you ask! Well, I'm not sure if I can advertise it here, but I could maybe whisper it to you (hint, hint!!).

I think I know which bar you're talking about. Wasn't it discontinued in 2003 and relaunched in 2007? An interesting story in itself! Much like your own route to publishing. Can you tell us a little about this?
I didn't know about the chocolate bar being discontinued again. There must be mini-chocopocalypses happening all the time!

Yes, my route into publishing is quite unusual. I suppose you could say I stumbled into it.
I've alway written stories, but purely for my own pleasure - and to keep me sane (the voices in my head keep me awake at night until I write them down!). Since my daughter was born, ten years ago, I've written more and more stories for her and with her. Then I had an idea about a great 'Chocopocalypse' - where chocolate became extinct and decided to write it as a full length story for my daughter's Christmas present. She really liked it and just after Christmas I saw an advert asking for unpublished writers to send in children's stories to Chicken House Publishers - they called it their 'Open Coop'. Encouraged by my wife and daughter, I sent it off - not really expecting anything. Six months later, I signed a book deal.
It was crazy!

The intensity of the editing process came as quite a shock to me. How was it for you?
Absolutely! As I said, my previous experience of writing was for pure pleasure - I had very little experience of editing. It came as a shock to me too! I loved the parts where I was able to discuss different options and ideas with the incredibly talented people at Chicken House. We explored lots of silly and fun ways of developing the story. But I was not ready for the shear brutality of the later edits. I found it quite upsetting to lose scenes or characters I'd become very fond of. Now that I have the finished version, I see how necessary that was. It is a much better story as a result. I'm very lucky to have had an editor with such patience with me. I didn't understand it at the time, but I understand it now!

Indeed! It's not until you go through it that you understand the true meaning of 'killing your darlings'. Your book has a lovely cover and illustrations. Did you have a role in this process, and what were your reactions to the finished pieces of artwork?
One of the best parts of this process has been seeing the illustrations. They have been done by a fantastic illustrator called Lalalimola ( and I love them. They really bring the characters and the book to life - my only complaint is that there isn't enough of them!
I also adore the cover. The arty people at Chicken House and Steve Wells (, with Lalalimola's artwork at the centre have made the most delicious book I have ever seen. I wasn't involved in this process at all - which is probably why it is so good!

One of my favourite things about your book is Jelly's family. I particularly liked her dad. Having met you, I'm guessing there's a bit of you in him? Would this be true? And if so, how many of your other characters are based on people you know?
Oh dear - I could get myself in a lot of trouble if I told the truth! But I'm delighted you like Jelly's family, those were my favourite scenes to write and I have a huge fondness for them all too. I see Jelly's dad as the brother I never had. He's a simple guy, who tries his best - so I hope there's a little of him in me (and I do love cheese & onion crisps!). I have a fantastic daughter and a wife that works very hard, so I suppose there are similarities. I didn't plan it that way. I wanted the scenes to be familiar, but not direct copies. As for the next-door neighbour - I'm not saying anything!

What did you like to read growing up? And what sort of books do you like to read now?
I didn't read much at all, growing up. Which is terrible to admit - but true. I enjoyed watching Jackanory, but that was the closest I got to a book outside of school. In fact, it was probably school that put me off reading. We used to have to read a book in a week or so (and I'm still a very slow reader) and write a review. I remember it being quite stressful and certainly not enjoyable. I did read 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' after seeing the series on TV - it's still my favourite book. But it wasn't until I became a dad that I discovered how fantastic children's stories are - and not just for children, they are for everyone. There's part of me that regrets not reading more when I was younger, but there's a bigger part of me that has loved sharing books like 'Matilda' for the first time with my little girl. I wouldn't change that for anything.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
I'm probably not the best person to give out advice. I've just made it all up as I've gone along. But maybe that is good advice for writers: make it up as you go along, and enjoy!

What's next for Chris Callaghan?
I'm going to visit as many book shops and libraries as I can and take cheesy selfies with any copy of 'The Great Chocoplot' I find.
After that? Who knows? Like I said, I'm making this up as I go along!

And finally, but most importantly, Mr Chris Chocopocalypse, how do you eat your Creme Egg?
Very quickly - because there's a Chocopocalypse coming (to all good shops for a very reasonable price, wink, wink!)

Thanks a million, Chris, for visiting us here on Middle Grade Strikes Back. Go forth and write more funny books. The world needs them.
Thanks Kieran, it's been a pleasure.

Find out more about Chris here.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Happy Book Birthday: March Edition

Some really brilliant MG books coming out around now! A huge thanks to Laura Ellen Anderson, Phil Earle, Abi Elphinstone, Mark Huckerby, Ross Montgomery, Nick Ostler, Sibeal Pounder, Tania Unsworth, Harriet Whitehorn and Katherine Woodfine for taking part this month.

If your main character was going to a party to celebrate their book birthday, what would they wear?

Harriet: Poor Violet would want to wear a pair of scruffy jeans and an old t-shirt, but her mother Camille would probably make her wear something smarter, and if her formidable French grandmother, Grand-mere, had her way, Violet would be wearing an old fashioned  smocked party dress with a bow in her hair.

Phil: If Mouse from Superhero Street was going to a party, he’d definitely be wearing his full superhero costume. For too long Mouse hid his cape beneath his school uniform (and tucked it into his pants).
So for a book birthday party he’d be wearing his beach towel as a cape, plus his trunks and goggles. After all, he’s Mouse the Mighty!

Ross: The main character of Perijee & Me is 10-year old Caitlin, and she would wear what she always wears, whatever the weather - a blue woolly bobble hat and yellow wellies. I'm not sure what else she'd wear to a party - although knowing her she'd probably paint her face to look like Spider-Man and steal her mum's wedding dress, as its a special occasion.

Laura: I'm choosing Fran the Fabulous Fairy, because she is SUPER fun to draw thanks to Sibeal's fantastic characterisation! Fran would definitely wear something big, bold, shiny and sparkly. It would be super tacky, and since the colour is seeping back in to Ritzy City, I think it would be BRIGHT.

What three things would they most want to find in their party bag?

Abi: My main character, Moll, is super punchy. If she opened her party bag and found a piece of cake she would probably chuck it in your face. But if she reached inside her party bag and found a catapult, an arrow fletched with buzzard feathers and an amulet (that last item would save her A LOT of effort) she would be absolutely delighted.

Laura: 1. GLITTER. Always glitter.

2. Books about Fran and how fabulous she is.

3. More glitter.

What would be the main character’s ideal birthday cake?

Katherine: Whether they are going undercover at a high society tea-party, or enjoying a day out with the Sinclair’s staff, Sophie and Lil can never resist a good cake - so I think they would be especially excited about this!

For Sophie, I’d choose a classic Victoria sponge cake, topped with strawberries and filled with cream and jam, just like the birthday cake she remembers nostalgically at the beginning of The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth. As for Lil, she's definitely a chocolate girl - so for her, the bigger, squashier and chocolatier, the better!

Either way it would have to be a large cake so there is plenty to share with Billy and Joe, as well as the many new friends they make during this adventure.

Ross: Caitlin has actually got a birthday cake recipe! I attach it here.

You will need:
- one cake
- one packet of haribo
- one jar of jam, or brown sauce

1. Scoop middle out of cake. Eat delicious middle.
2. Fill middle with haribo.
3. Cover whole cake in delicious jam, or delicious brown sauce (whichever is more delicious). It should now resemble a smouldering red of brown volcano.
4. Put in a hot oven for ten hours, or something.
5. Enjoy! Try not to get any of it on your mum's wedding dress.

Sibeal: Fran would no doubt want a marzipan sculpture of her face. Tiga... hmm... probably something filled with jam, or just any cake as long as it didn't taste of Miss Heks' infamous cheese water.

What party game would they be most confident in winning at?

Mark and Nick: That kind of depends whether we’re talking about plain old Alfie, the hapless young King, or his alter-ego, superhero the Defender. Because the Defender would be able to win most party games with ease. He could use his ‘Scout Orb’ to beam pictures of ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ straight to his mind and show him where to place the pin. And if it was Musical Chairs he could use his Command power to move the chair towards him at lightning speed (assuming the chair is made in the UK!). Mind you, the Defender isn’t a cheat, so maybe he wouldn’t use his powers at all. And if it was plain old Alfie, he’d probably trip up way before he got close to winning any games!

Harriet: Violet is particularly good at poker, but perhaps it’s not that kind of party! I think she has the combination of physical dexterity and ruthlessness when needed, to win musical chairs. 

What was the most memorable birthday party you had, or went to, when you were a child?

Tania: I didn’t go to school until I was six. I remember walking into the classroom that first day, feeling bewildered. I didn’t know what maths was, or why I had to wait until break to go to the loo. More importantly, I didn’t know how to make friends. I didn’t even know I was supposed to make friends. I only realized it just before my seventh birthday when my mum told me to invite some kids from my class to a party.

I knew I shouldn’t invite any boys (girls and boys were mysteriously separate from each other) but apart from that, I was at a loss. In the end I chose five girls – the ones with the nicest hair – and put the invitations on their desks when they weren’t looking. On the day of the party, my mum made a cake and I put on a pretty dress and waited.

Nobody came. They didn’t even call to say they weren’t coming. My mum finally phoned a friend and got her to bring her kid over so I could have someone to play with. It was a boy from my school. The one who always got in trouble for fighting in the playground. We sat and stared at each other and ate cake. He broke one of my birthday presents - half on purpose - and then we ran around aimlessly for a bit. It was a terrible party, although by the end of the day it didn’t matter.

I’d discovered something: I really, really liked that boy.

Nick: For several years my birthday treat used to be taking a few friends to the cinema. But that meant it had to be whatever film we were old enough to see that happened to be on at our small local cinema when my birthday rolled round. So it was usually something pretty lame – the low point was a film about a dog called Benji who got stranded in the woods. But then when I turned ten years old we lucked out with Rocky IV – Dolph Lungren as Russian man-mountain Drago, the Cold War played out in a boxing ring to a James Brown soundtrack! That film really helped me claw back some credibility with my mates.

If money was no object, what kind of party would you throw to celebrate publication?

Abi: I would invite all my guests to a party in a forest. At midnight. There would be fairy lights hanging from the trees, I would swing from a vine into the clearing to deliver my speech, there would be fireworks that spelt MOLL in the night sky and we would all boogie on top of Romany gypsy wagons until the sun came up.

Phil: If money was no object, I’d still hold exactly the same sort of celebration party. For the last three years we’ve taken over my favourite bookshop, The Bookseller Crow On The Hill and filled it with as many friends as possible. It’s always a busy, funny and slightly drunken evening, but that’s exactly how I like it to be honest.

Tania: The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn is set in a huge, beautiful stately home, where animals can talk and figures in old paintings come to life. If I was a zillionaire, I’d rent Holkham Hall in Norfolk for my book launch party. We’d have some kind of insane treasure hunt through all the old rooms and secret corridors. Everyone who said nice things about my book would get a puppy to take home. Or a lifetime supply of champagne. Their choice.

Katherine: I think it would be amazing to recreate the grand Edwardian fancy-dress ball that takes place in The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth. Everyone could come dressed up in beautiful 1900s-style fancy-dress costumes, glamorous gowns and bejewelled masks; we’d drink champagne; dance waltzes and polkas; and of course, eat lots of delicious Edwardian-inspired treats!

This isn't particularly elaborate, just not at all witchy and thus completely random, but I'd love to do that new Crystal Maze experience with everyone. Come celebrate the launch of Witch Watch at the Crystal Maze Experience! Maybe we could all wear witchy hats and it would be less weird? No? No.

Abi Elphinstone grew up in Scotland where she spent most of her childhood building dens, hiding in tree houses and running wild across highland glens. After being coaxed out of her tree house, she studied English at Bristol University and then worked as a teacher. The Dreamsnatcher was her debut novel for 8-12 years and has recently been longlisted for the Brandford Boase Award. The Shadow Keeper is her second book and when she's not writing, Abi volunteers for Beanstalk, teaches creative writing workshops in schools and travels the world looking for her next story. Her latest adventure involved living with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia and you can read about that here.

Twitter: @moontrug
Instagram: @moontrugger

Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler are Emmy and BAFTA-nominated screenwriters best known for writing popular TV shows such as Danger Mouse and Thunderbirds Are Go!

Mark and Nick’s website is as follows:

And their twitter handles are @Huckywucky and @Nickostler.

Harriet Whitehorn grew up in London, where she still lives with her husband and three daugh­ters. She has studied at Reading University, the Architectural Association and The Victoria and Albert Museum and has always worked in building conservation. She currently works for English Heritage. Violet and the Pearl of the Orient was her first novel, followed by its sequels, Violet and the Hidden Treasure and Violet and the Smugglers. All of them are illustrated by Becka Moor. Follow her on Twitter @deedeederota2.


Katherine Woodfine was born in Lancashire. She studied English at Bristol University and in 2005 she was highly commended in Vogue magazine’s annual Talent Competition for young writers. She writes an award-winning blog at and her work has been published by Flax Books in the anthology Mostly Truthful. The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow was her first novel and has just been followed by sequel The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth. She is also leading the anthology Mystery & Mayhem by Egmont Books.
Check out her website at and follow her on Twitter at @followtheyellow.

Phil Earle is a former bookseller who works in publishing in addition to writing his books. Superhero Street is a companion novel to his first MG, Demolition Dad, with both books being illustrated by the brilliant Sara Ogilvie.

Visit his website at and follow him on Twitter at @philearle.


Tania's debut YA novel, The One Safe Place, was published in 2015. She has also published two novels for adults with Viking/Fig Tree - The Seahorse and Before We Began. She lives in Boston, USA, with her husband, two sons, a dog called Plum, and a pair of cats.

Visit her author website and follow her on Twitter @TaniaUnsworth1

As a former researcher and writer for the Financial Times, Sibéal Pounder has interviewed everyone from designer Vivienne Westwood to director Sam Taylor-Wood. Now she writes about fabulous witches and feisty fairies in her debut series, Witch Wars. She also tutors children who want to get into the media industry, helping them to develop articles and documentary shorts and teaching them how to put together magazines. Sibéal has a degree in History, a masters in Publishing and recently completed the Faber Academy's Writing for Children course. Sibéal's first book, Witch Wars, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize 2016. 

Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @sibealpounder.

Laura Ellen Anderson has been working as a children's book illustrator since graduating from University College Falmouth in 2010. 

Visit her website at and find her on Twitter at @Lillustrator.

Ross Montgomery started writing stories as a teenager, when he really should have been doing homework, and continued doing so at university. After graduating, he experimented with working as a pig farmer and a postman before deciding to channel these skills into teaching at a primary school.

Visit his website at and find him on Twitter at @mossmontmomery.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Supermoons, Sheepdogs and Custard Pies: a Q&A with Ross Montgomery

By Miriam Craig

Cover design by David Litchfield.

I have a soft spot for cute aliens – I love E.T. (who doesn’t?) and I desperately hoped that J.Lo, the hilariously-named alien in The True Meaning of Smekday, was real. But now I’ve fallen in love with another vulnerable-and-amusing-creature-from-outer-space: Perijee. His skin glows, he tries to eat books and he moulds himself into the shape of a human being, bobble hat and all. What is it about these cute alien characters that I love? Possibly the way they make you look at life on Earth with wonder and amazement.

The book is Perijee & Me by Ross Montgomery it’s about Caitlin, who hasn’t been doing too well since she moved to remote Middle Island; her Dad’s always away, she’s horribly lonely and she’s hiding the fact that she can hardly read. Then a massive storm blows in this mysterious being, and Caitlin is overjoyed to have found a friend, even if it is an alien. But just when she thinks this strange, fun creature might help bring her Dad back home, Perijee is discovered by the rest of the world. He’s taken away from her and grows into a terrifying monster. Only Caitlin knows he’s good, and must travel across the country to save him.

It’s a funny, magical story that’s full of heart, and I was ruddy jubilant to be able to ask Ross more about the book and his author-y life.

What are you up to today?
About a thousand different things! I'm currently finishing off some draft chapters of a new book for my publisher to look at, which is very exciting, but I'm also preparing a talk to some trainee teachers about creative writing for a Just Imagine talk tomorrow and organising a guest list for my book launch next week. Plus I'm a primary school teacher, so I'm also writing 300 reports! It's not always this manic but sometimes that just happens. I'm planning to unwind later by setting fire to my house.

How would you describe your style? Where do you fit in to the constellation of genres in children’s books at the moment?
I would say my books are aimed at the top end of the ‘middle grade’ age range – for children who want more challenging books, but aren't quite ready for the more mature themes you get in YA. They're equal parts comedy, fantasy and adventure with big themes running through them, set in worlds that are very much like ours but with one or two bizarre differences. They're funny and sad with a lot of heart, and aren't afraid to end a raw emotional scene with a big custard pie to the face.

How did the idea for Perijee & Me come to you?
I was walking through a park thinking, ‘I need an idea for a book or my publisher will kill me,’ and suddenly I saw a man beside the path. He was a businessman in a smart suit with a briefcase, but he was lying face down with his arms by his side like a plank. It was like he was an alien that had fallen to earth and was trying to be a human, but wasn't really getting it right. And I thought, ‘Aha!’ At first it was a really simple short story in my head, but then it changed hugely over the next year – it was almost unrecognisable before I started the first draft. You'd be hard pushed to find any face-down businessmen in the finished book.

Is there any particular reason you chose ‘Perijee’ from the term ‘perigee’ referring to the moon’s distance from the Earth, as the alien’s name?
I wish I could say that it was always intentional but it would be a big lie! In the very first draft he was actually called Parsec, which is a measurement of light speed, but my editor duly informed me that this was totally rubbish and everyone in the sales meeting had laughed at it so I had to fix it. I went through A LOT of astrophysics dictionaries to find suitable replacements (sorry Jansky, Quark, Peeble and Planemo – it wasn't to be) and then found Perijee. It was perfect – the perigee is the shortest distance the moon can get to earth as it orbits, which is when you get a supermoon, and the whole story is about the idea of something incredible and unthinkable becoming magically closer. Caitlin is so lonely at the beginning, then everything is changed by her ‘close encounter’ with Perijee: the friendship and trust and affection she receives from this otherworldly being changes her life for the better.

What should people expect from this book if they’ve read your first two? Is it similar, or a departure?
In theory it's aimed at the exact same audience, but I know things never work out like that! It certainly follows much of the same formula, in that it's a manic race-against-time adventure. Perhaps the biggest difference is the narrative voice – Caitlin is quite a different protagonist for me. She's friendly and excitable and unreliable and impossibly optimistic. She's also very dyslexic, which while never mentioned outright in the book is a really important theme throughout. The language is much simpler than in my other books as a result – I loved the idea of something as inconceivable as communicating with an alien being described in plain words with no frills.

Do you plot your story beforehand? What’s the process – do you have a routine, a special writing onesie, a mantra that keeps you going?
I'm still working on this! I do always plan out in quite specific chapter-by-chapter detail, which is useful but of course bogs you down and you have to jettison 75% of it at the end anyway. I'm not very good at middles – they’re the ones that always need the most work, and I never really have them worked out in my head. My approach with Perijee & Me was to keep things swift and simple – I read that Stephen King said you should never take longer than three months to write a first draft, so I wrote the first draft in three months and sent it off and it was utterly awful. I think the actual tip should be, ‘Write your first draft in three months, sure, but make sure you make lots of really good instinctive decisions while you do it.’

How do you manage writing with your day job?
I've been working as a primary school teacher in east London for the last six years now. I've been doing it part-time for the last two years, which is fantastic – juggling the workload can be hard work, but it means that I have two full days off a week to do nothing but write. It's a bit of a dream, to be honest!

What do you wish you’d known when you started writing?
That my biggest problem is overwriting. The first draft of my second book, The Tornado Chasers, was 78,000 words – we ended up getting it down to nearly 50,000. The sheer amount of time I wasted writing unnecessarily complicated scenes makes my mind boggle. I'm getting better at it with every book, but it's my ‘go-to’ mistake.

What inspires you?
Films, more than anything. I think that books were my first love, but I spent all my teens and twenties just obsessed with films. At uni I even did English Lit and Film Studies. I think that my writing ends up being quite filmic as a result – there's a lot of bouncing dialogue, and a lot of ideas that could be instantly conveyed in a second of film but require a lot of explanation when written down. For example, the Forbidden Land in Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door is an enormous perfect circle of land – very easy and effective to show on film, not very easy or effective as a written description!

How do you want people to feel when they finish reading Perijee & Me?
I would love them to feel a sense of wonder and excitement at the world around them – there is so much we don't understand about the universe we live in, and that can be completely overwhelming, but we should never stop being amazed at the stuff that we see every day. The other day I was on a train going through the countryside and saw a sheepdog, and suddenly the absolute incredible achievement of that knocked me off my feet. I was like, WE HAVE MANAGED TO MAKE DOGS UNDERSTAND THAT WE NEED SHEEP MOVED FROM ONE BIT OF A FIELD TO ANOTHER, AND WORKED OUT A WAY TO TELL THEM WHAT TO DO BY WHISTLING, AND THEY DO IT – REALLY WELL. It happens every single day and we're so used to it we've forgotten how miraculous and amazing and completely bizarre that is. It totally floored me. I had to have a cup of tea.

Ross Montgomery. Photo taken by Helen Nianias.

So here we are, back with a sense of wonder at life here on Earth. It’s true, sheepdogs ARE amazing. I’m also in awe of rats that can do obstacle courses and cats that can DJ. And all the fantastic books, of course.

For more information about Ross, visit his website.

Miriam Craig
Twitter: @miriamhcraig
Instagram: @miriamhcraig