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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






A robot with great humanity

February 20, 2017


PB template BCThere are billions of great stories. But when I find one that stirs me, that sings in my heart, that reminds me of all that is good about life and humanity, it’s like finding a stretch of rare orchids on a walk in the countryside while holding the hand of my child.

I found David Lucas’s extraordinarily beautiful and poetic book, ‘The Robot and the Bluebird’ at a robotics exhibition while in Chicago in the summer of 2015. My son (three years old at the time) and I immediately fell in love with Lucas’s story and it remains one of our favourite picture books.

‘The Robot and the Bluebird’ tells the tale of a robot who, because his heart is broken and cannot be mended, is dismissed to a rubbish tip and left to rust. One bitterly cold day, a migrating bluebird lands on his shoulder. The robot tells the bluebird: “… you don’t want to stay here. I’m rubbish”. But then, the robot makes a nest of wires for the exhausted bird in the place where his heart used to be, and the robot immediately feels as though he has a “living, beating heart”.

Then comes the most exquisite passage of the book. In the morning, the robot opens the door to his heart and the bird sings on his metal chest.

“My old heart only ever said ticktock,” said the Robot, “but now my heart is singing.” And the bluebird flew a little way up into the air, and the Robot felt like his heart was flying.

The care of others and selflessness are ultimately what brings us humans joy. Without giving and showing love and kindness, we are empty and alone. It is not a depressing, bleak viewpoint but a universal truth that the younger we understand, the better human being we can try to become.


Meet the publishers: SCBWI

February 3, 2017


Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre in association with the SCBWI holds a panel discussion on children’s writing with industry insiders

If you are aspiring to be a writer then this was a valuable event to attend at Goldsmiths University in London. Entitled; Meet the publishers: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, it consisted of a panel of leading contributors. Polly Nolan, a literary agent from the Greenhouse Literary Agency, Sam Smith from the fiction publisher, Scholastic, Felicity Trew, literary agent from the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency, Liz Banks, editor at Egmont Publishing and Sara Grant, Goldsmith’s lecturer and founder of SCWBI’s undiscovered voices.

The discussion focused on issues and opportunities in the children/teen publishing industry. The contributors were passionate about what they call The Voice in writing. It has to be authentic. It has to be original said Sam. It is the one thing I look for, she went on to say, when I receive manuscripts. As I’m reading I ask myself, are the voice and characters shining through. Polly gave an example. Take Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, she said. Give them the same song to sing and you will find they sing it differently, they sing it in their own unique style. The same is true for writing. Think about what makes your work a piece of writing, your writing. Liz said even if you create a different world, a world of fantasy, a historical world, even then your voice must shine through. It must feel like you’ve lived in that world.

Next they talked about the common pitfalls writers make when they approach agents. Felicity said if you are writing for children then please write for children. Think about who you are writing for. Is it a picture book? Is it a for a young adult or is it for teens. Make sure your voice is not patronising. Know that a jarring phrase can break the spell for agents and your manuscript does not get a further look. Liz added if you are writing comedy, write what makes you laugh. It has to have authenticity. Never sacrifice yourself for the publishing industry and be confident about your writing. Polly stressed that writers should not send their scripts before they are ready. Revise it as often as you can. Put it away for six months, go back to revise more. Revise, revise, revise. And once you are ready, put it aside for another two weeks, revise one final time and then send it off with a query letter and synopsis and allow yourself to work on them. Sam talked about feedback and critiques. Publishing, she said was a collaborative process. Think about the advice you are given but don’t follow it slavishly.

And finally the contributors touched on what they described as print reading and e-reading.. Liz pointed out that agents, editors and publishers still think it’s important to hold books in your hand and read them. She said, however there’s been a huge shift towards the digital market in adult reading..

and a link has been put up for further reading if you’re interested:

The contributors then chatted about a writer’s profile on social media. They all agreed the old idea of an author sitting alone in a shed writing away is gone. With technology increasingly taking over our lives, readers want to see more and learn more about an author’s life. So It is important to have a social media profile if you are serious you want to be a writer.

They ended with a quick look at e-publishing. They said it had opened up the publishing market and presented writers with a huge opportunity. They said embrace the opportunity to get your book published.

I hope this is helpful. It was well worth attending and gives you an insight into what agents, publishers and editors are thinking.

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