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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


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!

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