Skip to content

On Being A SCBWI BI Conference Volunteer

February 7, 2018


John O’Leary has already talked about his experience of attending last November’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) British Isles region annual conference at Winchester to run a workshop – an event I helped to organize, and will be doing so again in 2018. This will be my fourth year helping to organize the conference as an illustrator committee volunteer!

Planning for the conference in November early in the year with a Conference Committee meeting, which is a great opportunity to meet fellow SCBWI Conference volunteers from all over the country, and be able to “put faces to the names” that you will be working with all year. A huge amount of planning goes into making the Conference happen: it is great to be part of the talented team of 20 + volunteers who do the work.

Fairly obviously, the Conference takes up a lot of time in the couple of weeks preceding it as the final details are put in place – and the last minute glitches of suddenly unavailable speakers are dealt with. (Life happens!)

There is also intermittently a lot to do much earlier in the year, lining up potential speakers, sorting out dietary requirements, the programming of the event, work shop equipment, book lists, and so on. Luckily, I enjoy this kind of detailed work, and modern technology helps us all as a team to keep on the same page.

Then at the Conference it’s different type of work: welcoming our speakers, making sure everything is set up for them, and guiding them to the right place at the right time. Plus generally helping out with anything else that may need doing!

Experience has shown that it is important for me to map out my conference, too, and make sure I get to do the workshops and fringe events I especially want to do. (The Friday Sketch Crawl being my favourite.)

To sum up, being a SCBWI Conference volunteer is both a lot of hard work throughout the year, and a lot of fun. An extra bonus for me is that having a job to do helps me to overcome my slight shyness in crowds.


Multitasking and Collaborating.

December 3, 2017

I was asked to deliver a session on multitasking to a group of illustrators at the SCBWI conference in Winchester last week-end. Jack-of- all-Trades: How to Have Multiple Careers as an Illustrator looked at choosing the right activities to complement and benefit your core practice as an illustrator of children’s picture books, getting the balance right and recognizing the boundaries? I also ran a hands-on activity where illustrators flexed their creative muscles in a mini workshop combining pop-up design and illustration.

I think multitasking is inevitable when you’re a self-employed creative, especially when dealing with the day-to-day running of your business. However, is it a good idea to diversify creatively, to expand your activities in different directions or even to add to your skill set? It does encourage thinking outside the box, leads to cross pollination of ideas over different disciplines and helps create new income streams. However, does diversifying stretch you too thin and can the problems outweigh the benefits?

For me, what started out as a plan to be an illustrator, turned into an ambition to illustrate and write books. This was followed by the desire to add paper engineering to the mix as well author visits and family workshops.

Something that was quite simple to begin with, turned into a practice that has encompassed schools visits, talks and workshops on how to create your own pop-up books, editorial illustration, card design, pop-up picture books, public art trails and other collaborations with artists, not to mention co-creating a number of children’s theatre productions. This is further complicated by the fact that it’s all done as a joint business with an artist wife with a great deal of crossover between both practices.

I think problems arise when one strand takes over and dominates to the detriment of everything else. It can be very easy to lose sight of your initial goals and to forget what’s really important. It’s also possible to become so immersed in a project that you fail to measure what you’re actually getting out of it – it’s not always a good thing to let your passion get the better of you.

I think it’s always helpful to have an idea of what you hope achieve from your activities and what proportion of your time you want to spend on each thing. If one area becomes neglected, it’s time to address that. Always place your projects in order of priority and importance. With each one, you need to balance the equation: does the time, work and money spent equal the income received plus other benefits. Think about soft benefits – recognition, exposure, does it lead to other opportunities, are you gaining valuable experience?

With collaborations, sometimes you need to tread carefully. Before you start illustrating (or writing) your best friend’s story, think about whether a publisher is likely to accept the whole package. If not, would you be happy with that and is it worth losing a friendship over? With any collaboration, be clear what it is you want from it and what should happen in any given scenario – then get it all down in writing and signed by all concerned.

In my opinion most long-term collaborations have a finite lifespan; the key is to know when it’s time to stop. The ones that continue past their sell-by-date risk creating negativity and spoiling any residual benefit that continued contact and friendship generate.

Dream collaborations do happen – those rare situations where two or more people speak more highly of each other than they do of themselves in an atmosphere of mutual respect, loyalty and transparency. Egos and glory-hunting take a back seat in an arrangement where no one’s bigger that the whole picture. These are the ones you should definitely embrace.

Examples from the mini hands-on workshop combining illustration and pop-up design. The workshop recreated something I do in schools and hopefully shows that by adding something extra, you tick more boxes and increase your appeal. Pop ups by Dave Gray and Rita Lazaro


Golden Toast

November 11, 2017


Food is important to me. When I am reading a book and there is no food or eating described then I am strangely dissatisfied. I love reading Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books for the sugar rush. When I’m dreaming up a story I often visualise my characters eating. More often than not food equals comfort to me. A symbol of warmth, friendship and celebration. Food triggers powerful memories.

I have my mother to thank for this. She created a magical warmth around food. There was very little money to spare so Mum used her imagination to make meals exciting. Every morning as a child before I went to school she would wake me up, give me ten minutes rousing time and then make me ‘golden toast.’ Golden toast was two slices of white bread toasted on one side only with butter. The two slices were put together toasted sides facing outward making the toast both soft and crunchy.

A ‘cowboy dinner’ was a mountain of mash with baked beans on top. An ‘Indian’s dinner’ (this was the 1970’s)  was a mountain of mash with mince on top. A’ Fruit Tea’ was an apple, orange, banana and a small packet of iced gems. When I was ill I was given ‘an egg chopped up in a cup’ to make me feel better.

My favourite dish of all time is ‘Swear Pie’ – homemade whimberry pie. A flavour which I often crave and the rare sighting of a punnet of whimberries can drive me to distraction.


Girl Chopping Onions

Girl Chopping Onions by Gerrit Dou 1646

Pop-up Roman Kitchen

October 21, 2017


I’ll be back at the Verulamium Museum (The Museum of Everyday Life in Roman Britain) in St Albans this October for another day of family workshops. If your interested in Roman Britain and making your own pop-ups, then grab your kids (or borrow some) and come along – full details below.

Back by popular demand, another opportunity to work with illustrator and paper engineer John O’Leary to create wonderful Roman themed masterpieces!  In this session, participants will learn how to use paper to create a piece of pop-up art to take away. Suitable for 8 – 13 year olds.

Wednesday 25th October, 10.30am – 12.30pm

For more details and to book a place:

In this drop-in session, help to co-create a giant work of three dimensional art! Suitable for ages 5 and over. Please note that at busy times our drop-in activities can be extremely popular and there may be a wait to take part. All children need to be accompanied by an adult at all times.

Wednesday 25th October, 1.30pm – 4.00pm (last entry 3.40pm)

Further details:

Creative writing: The Haunted Dolls’ House

October 11, 2017


Close up image of the M R James short story ‘The Haunted Dolls’ House’ from the library in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, Windsor Castle Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

There are a few spaces available for this event. It is a wonderful opportunity to have a detailed look at Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, hear MR James’s chilling tale and create your own atmospheric dolls’ house setting for a story.

The Haunted Dolls’ House was specially written by M.R. James for the library of miniature books in Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House. Draw inspiration from this captivating story, together with a torchlight tour of the Dolls’ House itself, and take part in a creative writing workshop with author Lynda Waterhouse to tell ghostly tales of your own.

Windsor Castle

Monday, 30 Oct 2017

18:30 – 20:00

£20.00 full price, £18.00 concessions


More details and book tickets

Writer’s Block – Condition or Excuse?

September 28, 2017


We’ve all heard of writer’s block. Some of us have experienced it. I believe I have. But as I wait for the muse to descend yet again, I wonder whether I am suffering from writer’s block or something much more banal, that could properly be called ‘laziness?

Writer’s Block, intones Wikipedia, is a condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown. The condition ranges in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a work for years.

Not everyone agrees with this definition.

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block,” writes Terry Pratchett dismissively. “It was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

Ouch, my tortured writer’s soul protests. Has he no understanding? Pratchett is not alone. 

Philip Pullman is also less than sympathetic.

“Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?”

Much against my will, I have to admit there is a certain logic to what he says.

But to agree with Pullman and Pratchett is to go against the vast army of psychologists, writers, researchers, analysts and critics, who are involved in researching and explaining the condition and helping writers to overcome it, not to mention the writers themselves who believe they are suffering from it.

There are many explanations put forward. Fear of rejection and failure and lack of self confidence and self belief are among the most common, but by no means the only ones.

The American writer, Henry Roth, for example, had a glittering start to his career and then produced nothing for many years. According to the critic, Jonathan Rosen, his ‘monumental ‘ block was caused by many factors, which included, but were not limited to,  ‘Communism, Jewish self-loathing, incest and depression.’

I don’t think communism or incest are my particular bugbears but there are plenty of other reasons I can draw on, without having to think very hard and which all involve a certain amount of self-flagellation and negativity.

Perhaps that’s why I like Harper Lee’s explanation. She never repeated the success, she enjoyed with To Kill A Mocking Bird, and barely wrote again publicly for the rest of her life. Psychologists might claim otherwise but Harper Lee puts the blame, fairly and squarely, on everyone else.

“I’ve found I can’t write,” she says. “I have about 300 personal friends who keep dropping in for a cup of coffee. I’ve tried getting up at six, but then all the six o’clock risers congregate.”

Maybe there’s another reason, that’s neither laziness, nor fear of rejection but simply an unwillingness to write.

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


%d bloggers like this: