Author Archives: thebookactivist

About thebookactivist

Celebrating children & young people’s reading through all sorts of book-ish activities.

WINNER ANNOUCNED – 2021 Branford Boase Award

I’m delighted to share the news that Struan Murray and his editor Ben Horslen of Puffin have won the 2021 BRANFORD BOASE AWARD for the author and editor of an outstanding debut novel for children.

Last year I was honoured to participate on the judging panel for the Branford Boase Award so I can well imagine the challenge faced by the 2021 judges as they read through the impressive shortlist to pick a winner!

Founded in 2000, the Branford Boase Award was set up in memory of award-winning author Henrietta Branford and her editor Wendy Boase of Walker Books, who both died in 1999, and is unique in honouring editor as well as author. It has long been my favourite award for children’s books and is regarded as one of the most important, with an impressive record in picking out star authors at the start of their careers. Previous winners include Meg Rosoff, Mal Peet, Siobhan Dowd, Marcus Sedgwick, M.G. Leonard and Frances Hardinge. Winning editors include J K Rowling’s editor Barry Cunningham, Philip Pullman’s editor David Fickling and Fiona Kennedy, publisher of Michelle Paver, Marcus Sedgwick and Sally Gardner.

Struan Murray is the winner of the 2021 Branford Boase Award for the year’s outstanding debut novel for children for his ambitious, beautifully written fantasy adventure Orphans of the Tide, illustrated by Manuel Sumberac. Set in the last city of a drowned world, the book opens with a dead whale washing in with the tide, only for a living boy to climb out. The City’s religious authorities believe his body to house The Enemy, the god they hold responsible for putting the world in its watery grave but Ellie, a young inventor, is convinced he’s innocent. The award is shared with Murray’s editor, Ben Horslen, of Puffin.

The 2021 shortlist was particularly strong. Described as ‘a showcase for all that children’s literature can be’ it featured powerful contemporary stories, a wildly energetic comedy adventure, an ‘own voices’ novel starring a young girl with autism, a dark story of witches and witchcraft in the 17th century, and the first verse novel to feature in the award’s history. 

Orphans of the Tide was the only fantasy adventure on the list and impressed all the judges with its originality, Murray’s control of the story and the beauty of his writing. Judge Liz Hyder, author of Bearmouth and winner of the 2020 Branford Boase Award winner says of Orphans of the Tide, ‘This book utterly stole my heart. Exquisitely written, it’s a phenomenal page-turner with characters that leap off the page and straight into your imagination. Orphans of the Tide explores lots of big themes – environmental issues, friendship and xenophobia to name but a few – all wrapped up in an utterly compelling tale told by a master storyteller. Struan is an exceptional talent and I can’t wait to read everything else he ever writes.’

Struan Murray says, ‘I am so honoured and thrilled to have won. This award is extremely special as it celebrates not only the author but the editor too, and understands and recognises that writing is a collaborative process that wouldn’t be possible without the commitment, imagination and skill of the editor. Working with Ben has stretched me as a writer and his insight contributed so much to the world of Orphans of the Tide that I couldn’t imagine it without him.’

Ben Horslen said: ‘… The author-editor relationship lies at the very heart of our industry, and to have an award that celebrates and showcases that relationship is a very special thing indeed. To be nominated is a career highlight that every editor hopes for. To win is simply a dream come true.’

Children’s literature expert and chair of the judges Julia Eccleshare says, ‘The Branford Boase Award has always celebrated the special role new writers play in expanding the scope of what children read. New voices telling new stories add to the already rich seam of children’s books: in the hands of skillful storytellers they are vital in giving a fictional commentary on current emotional, social and political issues. This year’s shortlist includes books that show just how exciting, diverse and fresh storytelling for all ages of children can be. The level of talent among the new writers is extraordinary as is their determination to ensure all children can find themselves in a story. Congratulations to Struan and Ben and to all the authors and editors on the shortlist.’

The 2021 winners of the Branford Boase Award were announced by Liz Hyder on this evening as part of a public event presented by the LoveReading LitFest. The event featured contributions from all the shortlisted authors plus previous winners and culminated in a discussion with Struan Murray and his editor Ben Horslen.  Struan Murray receives a cheque for £1,000 and Struan and Ben both receive engraved trophies. Find out more at www.branfordboaseaward.org.uk.

BLOG TOUR: Bad Panda by Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey

It’s DAY FIVE of the Bad Panda blog tour – and I’m afraid you just can’t help falling in love with super-fluffly Lin and her partner-in-crime, Fu – no doubt much to Lin’s disgust! Bad Panda is the first in a fantastically funny new series from the duo who created Dave Pigeon, author Swapna Haddow and illustrator, Sheena Dempsey. Lin is the ‘bad’ panda in the story but she’s so super fluffy and cute everyone loves her, no matter how badly she behaves, as she tries to escape the zoo and get home to her favourite person – her bad brother, Face-Like-A-Bag-Of-Potatoes. Combining hilarious narrative, with lively illustrations that perfectly capture the humour, Bad Panda is the ideal tonic if you need cheering up or if you just enjoy laughing-out-loud!

Today I’m sharing an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how Swapna got to know pandas and gain real insight by working as a panda-keeper for a day!

Behind the Scenes of Bad Panda – with Swapna Haddow and Sheena Dempsey

“You are in for a treat. Swapna and Sheena are sharing behind-the-scenes pictures and secrets of their new book Bad Panda.

The Bad Panda story was originally inspired by a trip Swapna took to China with her in-laws in 2017. Her mother in law arranged for the family to be panda keepers for a day at the Chengdu Panda Base and Swapna describes this as the absolute highlight of the trip.

She and her family arrived at the panda base where they heard about the rescued pandas Most had lost their homes due to deforestation and some were orphaned. And right now there are only about 2000 pandas in the wild, which makes them vulnerable of extinction so these centres do vital work in protecting pandas.

Swapna spent the day cleaning up the panda paddocks, sweeping up their poos, smashing up bamboo stems ready for meal times and making steamed panda cake which is a treat of corn, soybean, rice and egg.

And of course, she spent many hours watching the gentle giants go about their day.

When she got home she had heaps of ideas for a new panda story and both she and Sheena co-created Bad Panda.

Sheena says designing characters is one of her favourite aspects of illustration and before she started making the rough drawings for Bad Panda, she wanted to create some model sheets that she could refer to easily for each of the main characters – these model sheets were inspired by those the Disney animators make where they draw their characters from different angles and with different expressions.

Lin was the trickiest character to get right. Sheena struggled to make her cute and appealing, while also making her look like the rotter of a grotter of a panda she truly is. She worked with her art director Emma Eldridge on getting the fluff around her head just right, as well as making her proportions very toddler-like with a big head on a small body.

Fu was a much easier bamboo to crack than Lin. Sheena describes his body shape as ‘kind of like an egg on legs, with a flyaway quiff on the top of his head’.

Sheena wanted to make the antagonist King Cobra pretty vicious-looking and she didn’t hold back. He looks every bit the deadly cobra he is.

Bad Panda is partly told in graphic novel format, with 37 pages of its pages told with panels and speech bubbles. This was a really exciting way to tell Lin’s story through pictures. Sheena did a lot of research into the mechanics of making comics as she had never drawn any before and she even started her own webcomic called Penguin Chronicles for practice.”

With thanks to Faber for sending me this book to review and inviting me to participate in this blog tour. Find out more at www.faber.co.uk and don’t forget to follow the rest of the tour:

GUEST POST: Writing sequels by Jennifer Killick, author of Crater Lake: Evolution and more!

Jennifer Killick has fast become one of my favourite children’s authors in recent years with the Alex Sparrow series and Mo, Lottie and the Junkers high on my list of must-have reads on the book shelf. Great stories, lots of humour, believable characters and heart-warming friendships are at the heart of her books.

With the success of Jennifer’s more recent series, Crater Lake, published by Firefly Press and centred on the sinister, sci-fi adventures surrounding a group of school friends, it’s clear to see her books becoming a staple for many middle-grade readers (and lots of grown ups too!). The Crater Lake stories have all the hallmarks of Jennifer’s previous titles – great friendships, engaging characters, fantastic dialogue and the added element of being super-creepy! Today, Jennifer shares her thoughts on writing the Crater Lake sequel, Crater Lake: Evolution.

Welcome to the blog Jennifer!

“Here’s the sequel situation: Your book did well: hooray! Your publisher has commissioned a sequel: double hooray! A sequel is an opportunity to continue a story you love, full of characters you already know and are incredibly attached to. All you have to do is pick up where you left off – that’s easy, right? RIGHT?

I wrote Crater Lake as a stand-alone book. I wanted it to be a compact, neatly-tied parcel of satisfaction. There was no way I was going to ruin it by writing a sequel. But people were keen for a second book, and an excellent little idea just plopped itself down in front of me. So I agreed, and then I panicked.

One of the things that worked best in Crater Lake was the setting – keeping everything confined to one activity centre for the duration of a residential trip. It was simple and recognisable,  but something that I felt would become predictable and unbelievable if I used it again. A new setting was needed.

The characters in Crater Lake were the perfect group – a mix of personalities and experiences all coming together to form a tight-knit team. But in a second story they would need to continue to learn and grow. I had to rethink the characters.

The alien threat in Crater Lake was full of menace – turning the characters’ best friends and teachers into the enemy made their actions far more sinister and disturbing. How could I raise the threat level even higher? I needed something new.

After much stressing and crying and knowing that there was no way I was going to pull off a second book, I decided that the best way to approach my sequel was to almost forget it was a sequel. I wrote Crater Lake as if it would be my last book, as if it existed on its own in solitary completeness. I wrote Evolution in the same way. I took those characters that I loved so well, and thought about how they would naturally change in their transition to secondary school. I thought about the things in their lives that I hadn’t explored: their homes and their families. I imagined how an intelligent alien enemy might learn and grow after its failed attempt at destroying the human race. I played out scenes in my mind in the middle of the night – so creepy that I couldn’t get back to sleep. And then I sat down and wrote that story like it would be my last.”

Find out more about Jennifer and her books at https://www.jenniferkillick.com/. With thanks to Jennifer and Firefly Press for sharing this guest post.

BLOG TOUR: Dino Knights: Panterra in Peril by Jeff Norton illustrated by Jeff Crosby

Hold onto your hats! It’s Day One of the blog tour for a rollicking adventure with the Dino Knights, the first in a new series by Jeff Norton, illustrated by Jeff Crosby published by Scallywag Press. I’m delighted to be sharing a guest post from the author focused on writing for reluctant readers.

In a medieval land where dinosaurs still roam, lowly stable boy Henry Fairchild joins the brave Dino Knights and rides into adventure on the back of a T-Rex. A fast paced action-adventure series about bravery, friendship, and being your best self.

Dinosaurs, daring deeds and dastardly danger – what more could you want! There are going to be young readers up and down the land wanting to join the Dino Knights as they discover the Kingdom of Panterra and the Knights who bravely protect their beloved land. Such a brilliant concept and totally engaging, the story is fast-paced, full of fun and just the right amount of peril. Henry makes a heart-felt hero and is supported by a brilliant cast of characters brought to life in detailed illustrations. Readers will love the handy character guide at the start of the book and no doubt be choosing who their favourite is – and then at the end, a dinosaur guide adds even more detail to the different dinos featured in the tale. All in all, a great start to what is sure to be a hit! Bring on the next battle!

Welcome to the blog Jeff!

Writing for reluctant readers

“The truth is, I didn’t really like reading very much when I was young. I found it hard to concentrate on a book and for a long time I didn’t find anything that captured my imagination as much as the incredible films and television on offer. I was a child of Star Wars and Transformers, definitely a visual thinker, but never found the equivalent joy in books that I did on the screen.

We didn’t have the term “reluctant reader” when I was young, but I was aware that I was a much slower reader than most of the kids in my class and certainly far behind the girls. This can be a downward spiral because when you’re not good at something, you tend not to want to pursue it. And then you don’t practice, so you don’t improve. It’s a phenomenon common to any pursuit (be it sport, music, or indeed, reading) and when I talk to teachers and librarians, it is something that plagues many emerging readers, especially boys. So, how to break the cycle?

There isn’t one easy fix, but I can share my own personal experience, one that’s resonated with students I’ve met in school visits and with teachers. For me, it starts with finding a book that’s both interesting and compelling. For me, that book was the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ interactive novels. These were hugely popular in the 1980s (and I later went on to produce the animated movie based on the series, but that’s a story for another day) and they were essentially structured as branching narratives that the reader could direct. They were written in the second person where “You” were the hero of the story and your choices (turn to page 125 to go the jungle, turn to page 140 to climb the mountain) dictated how the story unfolded. Many choices would lead to a gruesome demise!

They were probably written at a level below where I should have been reading, but because I was likely about 18 months behind my peers, they were perfect for me. Easy enough to get into, but filled with excitement and cliff-hangers to hold my attention. I started with one and kept going. The benefit of a series is that once you find one, you can read more and more. It’s comforting to a young reader to read something similar but a little bit different. I think this helps to explain the success of Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest. I’ve written Dino Knights to be a series and hopefully it will be the kind of book that a young reader starts with and wants to stay with through many books.

For me, reading the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ novels was practice. I was practicing at reading. It became habitual and the more I read, the better reader I became. After a while, I was able to make the leap to a new set of books as I was a confident enough reader that I could truly call it “reading for pleasure.” And that’s the inflection point to find for an emerging reading. We’ve got to find the book or book series that gives the reader the confidence and capability to get to a reading level where they can start enjoying the book instead of slogging through the prose.

Now, the key is that the book will be different for every child. And that’s why I believe so strongly that every school needs a dedicated librarian. The role of the librarian isn’t just to be the keeper of the books, but to be the key that can help unlock the reader. A good librarian will be able to work with a child and find the book that reverses the downward spiral and set the inflection point towards a virtuous circle of reading one book then another and then another; with the child growing in confidence and ability with each successive read.

When I visit schools, I tell the children that I’m still a very slow reader and have to concentrate very hard to enjoy a book. I find it gives them comfort to know that even an author still struggles with reading and that it’s not something that’s instantly easy. Just like mastering an instrument, or learning fancy football moves, it’s something that takes time and practice. If we work with children who are reluctant readers, and find them the on-ramp for reading through the right book, then I think we can raise a generation of confident readers that find books just as compelling as the best of films, tv, and video games.

As an author, it’s my goal to have my books become part of that unlocking; hopefully Dino Knights will compel some young readers to discover their joy of reading….on the back of a dinosaur!”

DINO KNIGHTS by Jeff Norton, illustrated by Jeff Crosby is out now in paperback (£6.99, Scallywag Press)

Follow Jeff Norton and Jeff Crosby: Twitter @thejeffnorton @jeffmcrosby Instagram @thejeffnorton @jeffmcrosby. With thanks to Scallywag Press for sending me this book to review and inviting me to participate in the blog tour.

Follow the rest of the tour:

BLOG TOUR: Bug Belly Froggy Rescue by Paul Morton

It’s time for another Bug Belly adventure on the final day of the blog tour for Paul Morton’s second book in the Bug Belly series, Froggy Rescue published by Five Quills. Featuring the fabulous frog Bug Belly, this time on a rescue mission to save a froglet from a magpie’s nest! Read on for a bookchat Q & A with author illustrator Paul Morton

Uncle Bug Belly says frogs can FLY. But CAN they REALLY? Bug Belly and the froglets are about to find our in this dangerous rescue adventure.

Another lively, fun-filled adventure by talented author illustrated, Paul Morton, Bug Belly Froggy Rescue brings the inventive froggy and friends leaping to life! Once again Bug Belly’s rumbling tummy gets him into trouble and he fails to save one of his froglets from being snatched by a magpie. However, being the brilliantly inventive frog that he is, Bug Belly soon comes up with a daring rescue plan which involves an intrepid trek across the forest. On the way, Bug Belly and the froglets have to face all manner of dangers including not becoming fancy froggy fritters to owls and snakes! As ever Bug Belly finds ingenious ways to save them all – think rabbit poo amongst other things.

Bug Belly Froggy Rescue is as entertaining and exciting as the first adventure and young readers are sure to enjoy the story and the lively illustrations! I’m delighted to welcome Paul Morton to the blog for a bookchat Q & A.

What’s your typical working day like?  This is going to sound really lazy, especially when I have friends and colleagues producing books whilst they have full time teaching jobs for example. If I have any illustration commissioned work booked in I will spend maybe 3 or 4 hours on the Mac in my studio at home. I might mountain bike in the afternoon. Do some writing in the garden summerhouse (it used to be in cafes) and I like staying up late to work if the muse takes me. I work best in a quiet house at anything up to 2.30am.

How have the last 15 months been? As an author, have you found ways to connect with readers? I managed one single school visit the week before the first lockdown. Since then I have joined the Book Pen Pals scheme, where authors are paired up with schools, and they swap recommendations and craft ideas and stories. I have absolutely loved this. My 3 schools at the moment, in Darlington, Derby and Bradford have all been enthusiastic with their replies, completing Bug Belly crafts and recommending new books to me that they have been reading in class. I’ve have virtually visited a couple of them on Zoom and that was really fun too. I’m hoping to get out and about to more schools, bookshops and libraries as soon as it’s practical and safe to do so.

How did it feel to see Bug Belly included in the Summer Reading Challenge last year? Initially a great surprise and then I felt so proud that my first published book was chosen amongst some other great titles. It was a pity the scheme wasn’t able to run to its full potential due to the pandemic, but still a great feeling.

Are you working on other book projects at the moment? In addition to working on 2 or 3 further Bug Belly storylines I have two picture books at various stages of development. I’m looking forward to bringing those to submission. They are very different from Bug Belly, though both of them happen to feature a frog in the storyline!

Were you a keen reader as a child? If so, what kind of books did you enjoy? I must say that I don’t remember that many reading books from my childhood. The ones I can recall are all from school time. The Borrowers, Water Babies and a favourite was Stig of the Dump. At home and in holidays it was always comics, and as a treat I would buy 3 or 4 Batman comics with my pocket money.

And now? what do you like to read as an adult? Lots of ‘How to” books on creating children’s stories. Favourite books at the moment are still Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. David Almond. John Fowles. Unless we are on holiday I don’t seem to find the time or patience to read a longer adult novel so it’s picture books and early readers that I devour at home.

Which other authors and/or illustrators do you admire? I’m currently in the middle of writing a piece for the SCBWI Words and Pictures magazine about Brian Wildsmith. I’ve always loved the vibrancy and immediacy of his colours and images. I knew he was also from South Yorkshire but in my research I discovered that not only did he move to the same small village just outside Barnsley but we actually lived on the same road. Me at no. 89, the Wildsmiths at no. 22. Amazing! We were 27 years part though, so it’s not like I could have bumped into him. Currently I love the books of Benji Davies, Jim Field, Oliver Jeffers, Mo O’Hara and all the King Coo titles by Adam Stower.

Finally, what do you hope readers will take from your books?  A sense of fun and enjoyment from having been on a mini exciting adventure and left with a hunger to read about more Bug Belly antics. I have plenty more planned, so I hope so.

Bug Belly: Froggy Rescue by Paul Morton is published by Five Quills, £6.99 paperback – out now. Find out more at www.fivequills.co.uk / www.bugbelly.com. With thanks to Five Quills and Catherine Ward for sending me this book to review and inviting me to participate in the blog tour. Check out the rest of the tour for more Bug Belly fun!