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What’s Hot in Children’s/YA Historical Novels

September 5, 2017


As UK Children’s/YA Book Reviews editor of the Historical Novels Review, I’m often struck by how different periods go in and out of fashion as the setting for a novel. In 2014, inevitably, the First World War was a popular background. Then there was a run on the Tudors: Jane Seymour, Lady Jane Grey, Shakespeare’s Globe (several), the Tower of London, and young boy spies working for Walsingham, etc.

At the moment, the Classical world is in. A couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled when award-winning Tanya Landman’s new book, Beyond the Wall arrived. Her heroine, Cassia, is a slave girl in Roman Britain – and she’s on the run. Her only hope of safety is to get beyond Hadrian’s Wall, but with dogs on her trail and a bounty on her head, can she make it?

Then other Roman books fell onto my doormat, for example, Revolt against the Romans by Tony Bradman, ‘I’ve fought every kind of barbarian but the Britons are by far the worst’, says Marcus’s stern father. But is he right? Perhaps Marcus should talk to Tanya Landman’s Cassia and see what she has to say!



I love the Greenbergs’ historical Discover series; The Ancient Greeks is a lively, intelligent comic strip history of Ancient Greece. It is clear, witty, and there is an excellent timeline and a map at the end. It’s not exactly fiction but, as editor, I can include what I like! I felt that this book deserved a place because it illuminates Greek culture brilliantly which, in turn, enhances the reader’s enjoyment of novels set in Ancient Greece.

Anglo-Saxon times is another popular period for novels just now. Tony Bradman’s Anglo-Saxon Boy is set around the Battle of Hastings, seen through the eyes of Magnus, one of King Harold’s sons. Magnus really existed, though little is known about him, which, from a writer’s point of view, makes him an excellent candidate as a hero. You can do what you like with him, so long as it’s plausible.



Books by Terry Deary are always popular for younger children. He has just published four Saxon Tales. The King who Threw Away his Throne is set in 5th century Britain and is about King Vortigern – who may or may not have existed. The Dictionary of National Biography names him as the king who invited the Germanic chieftains, Hengist and Horsa, to Britain to help fight the Scots and the Saxons –and found himself double-crossed. However, in spite of the story being in Bede’s History and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, modern scholarship suggests that all three of them are more mythic than real.

What I find interesting is that Victorian children would have known about Vortigern. The Anglo-Saxons fell out of favour as part of our National Story in the 1950s, so I’m pleased to see that it’s now back on the National Curriculum.

These are just a selection of books the HNR has reviewed recently. Doubtless, the November 2017 issue will be different again.


HNR August 2017



Monkey reaching for the moon

August 21, 2017


monkeyreaching for the moon

Last October I had the pleasure of assisting the American author, Anne Mazer, deliver a creative writing workshop in Johnson Art Gallery at Cornell University in upstate New York.

As I wandered around the gallery this woodblock by Japanese artist Shosan Koson (1877-1945) kept drawing me back to take another look. I couldn’t stop gazing at the monkey reaching for the moon.

I was drawn by the intensity of the monkey’s expression as he hung on fragile branch of a tree and reached out a long arm to the reach the moon.

Has the shiny reflection beguiled him? Has the bright light lured him with a false promise?

Did he know it was only a reflection of the full moon? A trick of the light.

What will happen to him next? Will he shake off this moon madness or will he dive into the water?

Has he been distracted, as we all are from time to time, by shimmery shiny things? Or is his determination to ask for the moon to be admired?

A line from Shakespeare’s play, Othello springs to mind,

‘It is the very error of the moon; She comes more nearer earth than she was wont, and makes men mad.’

Is this the end or the beginning of the story? Or perhaps it is the tricky mid- point of a story. You decide.


SCBWI Picture Book Retreat

July 19, 2017


For the fifth year running, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) British Isles held a wonderful Picture Book Retreat in July at Holland House in Worcestershire, and this time I was lucky enough to be there.

It is a weekend of focus on the making of children’s picture books, with equal numbers of children’s writers and illustrators participating, along with some very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guest speakers. This year we were fortunate to be joined by illustrator/authors David Lucas and Adam Stower, Art Director Zoe Tucker and commissioning Editor Peter Marley.

The fun began with each of us talking about a favourite picture book – here I am talking about Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág.

(Thanks to the lovely Candy Gourlay for the video! It is worth watching all of the videos Candy made of other participants talking about their favourite books, too).

A great start to a weekend of fun and focus, and insights into my own work, critique, learning, and some very unexpected discoveries in such a beautiful setting with great company. Everyone involved was very generous and willing to share.

I’m already hoping to go along again next year!

Aussie News and Views – Children’s Laureates

July 3, 2017


There has been a Children’s Laureate in Australia since 2008. The position is currently held by the illustrator and author, Leigh Hobbs. The first ever UK children’s laureate was Quentin Blake, in 1999. The UK and Australia have strong historical and linguistic connections, so it’s not surprising that Leigh Hobbs often spends time travelling and working in the UK.

As I have a cross-global love of both Australia and the UK as well, I thought it would be interesting for the UK blogosphere to read about Leigh and the Aussie Children’s Laureate program. Leigh has many bestselling picture books, based on strong characters that are incredibly popular with children and adults. There is Mr Chicken and his travels, naughty Old Tom, Mr Badger, who was inspired after a trip to the UK and Horrible Harriet, just to name a few of his humorous and subversive characters.

Watch this You-tube clip to see first hand the way he works, and how he creates his memorable and hard-hitting characters. I especially like ‘Mr Chicken lands on London’!

Leigh Hobbs and the outgoing UK Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell are both passionate about libraries and librarians. The UK and Australia have both experienced cuts in government funding to libraries and closures. So the work they do in raising awareness, supporting libraries and reading is important in keeping functioning libraries open and available to all.

At the Hay Festival in May 2017, Chris and Leigh had a joint event entitled “Ottoline and Mr Chicken” where they discussed and demonstrated their work. I think collaborative events like this are important as they are inspiring and entertaining.

International events like the Bologna Book Fair are also a great opportunity for Laureates from around the world to compare ideas and inspire one another.

From left, PJ Lynch (Ireland); Maria Baranda (Mexico); Leigh Hobbs (Australia); Chris Riddell (UK); Anne-Marie Körling (Sweden) and Jan Paul Schutten (Netherlands).

The high-profile work of a Laureate, whether in Australia or the UK, is vital in promoting and maintaining libraries, children’s literacy and a vibrant publishing industry. In modern society where technology, media, high-pressure schooling all compete for children’s time in busy lives, engagement with reading, and the enjoyment of a great story can only be a good thing !

Check this website for a look at a previous Australian Children’s Laureate, Boori Monty Pryor. The oral storytelling tradition is very strong among Australian Indigenous communities and I think this is a tradition from which we could all learn more.

“The future of Australia lies in imagination. To have a creative economy we need curious children and to have curious children we need children who are not only able to read, but children who WANT to read. To build a culture of reading, we need a nation of story-tellers.” –
Boori Monty Pryor, Australia’s Inaugural Laureate, 2008.


June 7, 2017



The Word Festival is an innovative programme of activities, events and workshops focusing on and exploring the pleasure of reading, writing and freedom of expression in Islington. Launched in 2012, and delivered annually since then, the Word Festival Programme is a partnership initiative between Islington Council’s Library and Heritage Services, Arts Service, All Change and Free Word.

This year artist Irma Irsara and I are proud to co-produce an event with Word17 at Finsbury Park Trust on Saturday 17th June (full details below). We’ll be running two workshops in pop-up design, illustration and wordplay for small children and their families. Make your very own pop-up creations by using basic mechanisms to create more complex designs, all in easy-to-follow steps.

It’s also an opportunity to develop spatial awareness and explore ideas of transformation while practicing construction and craft-making skills. At the same time, we will be exploring descriptive wordplay in a fun and accessible way.

The starting point is the idea of someone special to you and how you would describe them using individual words and phrases. We are also interested in the idea of different languages. The event is targeted at younger children who are beginning to connect words and construct sentences.

The workshops are free and all materials are supplied – you just bring the creativity.

Suitable for children age 5 and upwards along with parents and carers.

Saturday 17th June 2017, 11am – 1pm & 2 – 4pm

Finsbury Park Trust, 225-229 Seven Sisters Road, London N4 2DF

No booking required – arrive early to avoid disappointment.

See the full Word programme here: Word Festival Brochure 2017

Below are images from our Word events in 2014 with Islington Museum.


Pop-up Easter Card

April 16, 2017


For those who missed my workshop at the Geffrye Museum last week, fear not, here’s the tutorial. Learn two mechanisms and create a chick that flies out of an egg, before coming up with some designs of your own.
The workshop was organized by Hackney Arts as part of their Kids Who Can – Easter Arts Club. Check out some of the creations from the day at the bottom of the post, including a few alternative designs.

Favourite Childhood Books

March 10, 2017


Most of us, I’m sure, will have a favourite childhood book, one that we read to again and again, and mine was The Armourer’s House (1951) by Rosemary Sutcliff. I first read it when I was eight, the same age as its heroine, Tamsyn Caunter, and, not only did it speak to me, I also loved C. Walter Hodges’ evocative illustrations.

The author, Jacqueline Wilson, once wrote: ‘People don’t like to think that children have deep emotions and fears, but they do. For me, being a child was a startlingly intense time.’ And this, I think, is what Rosemary Sutcliff was supremely gifted in portraying.

The cover of ‘The Armourer’s House’. you can see how carefully I have looked after the book.

The Armourer’s House is set in the 1530s, when Henry VIII was king. This was the Age of Discovery, and the orphaned Tamsyn’s much-loved uncle, Martin Caunter, a Merchant Venturer in Bideford, Devon, builds ships and trades with the New World. But Tamsyn can never sail with him as she longs to do; she is only a girl. The story opens when her grandmother dies and Tamsyn has to leave all she loves to live with her unknown cousins in London.

Rosemary Sutcliff herself had a difficult life. Born in 1920, she contracted Still’s disease when very young and became seriously disabled. Her childhood was a lonely one at home with her dominating and possessive mother, while her father was at sea. She spent much of her childhood in hospital and her constantly interrupted schooling ended when she was fourteen.

‘Billingsgate Quay’. Aunt Deborah (with hat), Tamsyn and Beatrix go shopping. Note the ship’s crane in the background.

The Armourer’s House is Rosemary Sutcliff’s third book. Later, she called her early children’s books ‘too cosy and too sweet,’ a comment echoed by later critics. If that is true, then why did various episodes always make me cry? ‘Cosy and sweet’ was not what my eight-year-old self thought.

There are a number of episodes of almost unbearable poignancy; as when Tamsyn says goodbye to her childhood home and Sibbly the Cook, ‘now crying in the back kitchen with her apron over her head.’ I really felt for Tamsyn as she ‘managed not to cling to Uncle Martin when he stopped hugging her and lifted her up to the pillion saddle’ of the horse belonging to her unknown Uncle Gideon, the armourer, who will take her back with him to London.

I just loved the tall Tudor building with the upper floors sticking out over the lover ones. Note the helmet over the door to indicate that this house was where armour was made.

Rosemary Sutcliff gets across the trauma of Tamsyn’s heart-break, her homesickness, her bravery and her utter loneliness. By the time they get to London, ‘she was so stiff and cold and tired and unhappy that she hardly knew where she was.’ This, for me, has the ring of absolute truth; Rosemary Sutcliff, had been there, she knew what she was talking about. It still makes me cry.

And what Tamsyn thinks of her new home, with her four new cousins, and nowhere she can be private, also rings true. ‘She wasn’t used to living with a family at all and there were a lot of things about that she hated.’ Like having to share a bed with Beatrix, who’s three years older; like not being able to be alone; and she can’t even cry herself to sleep because Beatrix would know about it. ‘Cosy’ it isn’t.

Tamsyn and Piers have a make-believe adventure fighting a Spanish galleon

Walter Hodges’ illustrations, too, are an absolute delight. I loved the meticulous details of life in Tudor London – later, I realized that he’d been studying Wenceslas Hollar’s engravings of London before the Great Fire of 1666. They complemented the book perfectly and they, too, became part of my inner landscape.

The Armourer’s House helped to foster my love of history and of art, and was a huge support to me, emotionally. I have much to thank Rosemary Sutcliff for.

Do you have a favourite book?

Illustrations from The Armourer’s House’ by C Walter Hodges






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