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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


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.


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